Aeneid 1.1-33 essay

By Meghan Reedy

As you will swiftly notice, the Aeneid is not a tale of suspense. In fact the first seven lines of the poem reveal the outlines of the plot and its significance. And so we know immediately that this is a story about war, arma, and that it will have one main character, virumque; we know that the author is going to have a presence, because he says cano, “I (will) sing”; we know the man in the beginning left Trojan shores, Troiae … ab oris, and that he’ll arrive in Italy, Italiam … venit; we know right away he is compelled by destiny to make this journey, fato profugus; he has a hard time getting there by sea and on land, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto; he’ll fight a war, multa quoque et bello passus; but we also know he’ll succeed, dum conderet urbem, and that from his city will come to Rome, alta moenia Romae. And we also know that the move from Troy to Rome will be difficult (travel, war) because divine powers, and in particular Juno, make it so, vi superum, saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram.

Clearly if we are to keep reading it is not because we are keen to find out how it all turns out in the end. With the beginning and the end of the story already firmly fixed and named (the beginning is Troy, Troiae … oris; the end is given several names, Italia, Lavinia litora, Latium, gentem Latinum, Albani patres, Roma), we are invited to wonder about the events between: about this man’s time thrown around by the gods because of Juno’s anger, and pushed into a war.

Well might we wonder why this man was tossed about, what might pit a goddess against a man this way—then Virgil asks the muse to remind him or tell him the answer to this very question: why did this goddess make it so hard for this man? What caused the memor ira of saeva Iuno? In Homer’s Odyssey the answer to the question of why Poseidon made it so hard for Odysseus to get home is a funny story—how he and his men visited Poseidon’s one-eyed son, the gigantic Cyclops Polyphemus, who ate some of them, and escaped by blinding him. Poseidon harassed Odysseus because Odysseus blinded his son. And so one can be forgiven for thinking that an answer to this question “why does Juno harass Aeneas?” might be a story, perhaps even a long story.

But even the way Vergil asks his question confounds this expectation: mihi causas memora, he says, quo numine laeso quidve dolens regina deum tot volvere casus insignem pietate virum, tot adire labores impulerit. The question is leading insofar as it tells us that the source of Juno’s anger is pain—a wound of some kind (laeso), or ongoing grief or suffering (dolens)—but it upends our expectations when it also tells us that her pain-fueled anger leads her to persecute an innocent man whose own behavior is exemplary, insignem pietate virum.

The question itself thwarts our expectation that Juno’s anger will spring from some interaction between herself and the vir (as we might expect based on the Odyssey). Similarly, it is implied that the answer to the questions “why was Juno angry” will not generate a story that is part of the main narrative. Vergil’s question to the muse in 8–11 is asked in a way that forecloses the notion that Juno’s reason for being angry is part of the main narrative. Yet the incredulity and urgency of the capping question in line 11, Tantaene animis caelestibus irae?, suggests that Juno’s reasons are in fact necessary backstory. If we don’t know what made her angry enough to hassle this upstanding man so mercilessly, the narrative would run the risk of being undermined by disbelief.

Many discussions of the opening of the Aeneid end their exploration here at line 11. The questions in 8–11 have, rightly, been understood as articulating a theme that resonates throughout the epic, and so treated as essentially open, even as unanswerable questions. But stopping here risks implying that the answers, which are supplied in 12–33, are either extraneous to the setup of 1–11, or part of the “story proper,” or somehow obvious, or unimportant or uninteresting—but this is not the case.

Juno is angry, we are told, for several reasons—none of which are to do with anything that Aeneas himself has done. The most significant, the most salient, the most immediately relevant is detailed first and most elaborately, in over ten lines (12–22). Juno’s love for Carthage is heavily emphasized (15–18)—as is its opposition to Italy in space and in attitude (contra, 13). She keeps her armor and chariot there (hic illius arma, hic currus fuit, 15–16), and she is already nurturing it (iam tum tenditque fovetque, 18). But she had heard that a people were being drawn out from Trojan blood, and that they would bring destruction to her Tyrian citadels in Libya (19–22); she had heard the Fates unrolled this. And Juno fears this fated future, id metuens (23); and her fear for the future is coupled with her memory of the past: she fought for her dear Greeks at Troy, and hasn’t let that anger at Troy go, necdum etiam causae irarum saevique dolores exciderant animo; how the judgement of Paris, when he chose Venus and not her, is still lodged in her mind, manet alta mente repostum; how Jupiter has made the Trojan youth Ganymede into his cupbearer and preferred him publicly to Juno. Thus together her fear of what will happen and her inability to let go of what has already happened infuriate her now. Burned by these things, his accensa, she chases the remnants of the Trojans around for years.

The end of the answer draws it all together: Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem (33).

Wait. Draws what all together?

Such an effort it was to establish the Roman people. What was the effort again? And an effort for whom? For both of our two incommensurable, unmatched protagonists, Juno and Aeneas, who are caught as though by coincidence in the same moment and pushed along and hemmed in by the same fate, the same Rome-to-be—Juno lashes out against it, and Aeneas tries to keep his eye on it. They are inextricable for the duration of this narrative.

Further Reading

Anderson, W.S. 2005. The Art of the Aeneid 2nd ed., 1–23. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazi-Carducci.

Braund, S. 2004. “Making Virgil Strange.” Proceedings of the Virgil Society 25: 135–46.

deGrummond, W.W. 1981. “Saevus Dolor: The Opening and Closing of the Aeneid.” Vergilius 27: 48–52.

Feeney, D. 1991. The Gods in Epic: Poets and Critics of the Classical Tradition, 120–137. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fredricksmeyer, E. A. 1984. “On the opening scenes of the Aeneid.” Vergilius 30: 1–19.

Harrison, E.L. 1992. “Aeneas at Carthage: The Opening Scenes of the Aeneid.” In The Two World of the Poet: New Perspectives on Vergil, edited by R. Wilhelm et al., 109–28. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Horsfall, N. 1973–4. “Dido in the Light of History.” Proceedings of the Virgil Society 13: 1–13. Reprinted in Oxford Readings in Virgil’s Aeneid, ed. S.J. Harrison (Oxford, 1990), pp. 127–44.

James, S. 1995. “Establishing Rome with the Sword: Condere in the Aeneid.” American Journal of Philology 116: 623–37.

Williams, R. D. 1965–6. “The Opening Scenes of the Aeneid.” Proceedings of the Virgil Society 5: 14–23.


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