Virgil, Aeneid Books III & IV

Book III‑‑

1)  What does the story of Polydorus do for the political message  of this poem? 

2)  When Aeneas founds Pergamea, what does he exclaim and how does that relate to the events described in Book II?  Some thematic issues become apparent at about this time.

3)  Why is Crete the wrong place for the Trojans to settle and  how does that fit a thematic structure in this text?  (Hint: Who  ruled Crete, and what happened to him?  A comparison with Agamemnon's behavior at Aulis is possible‑‑check Hamilton or  Graves.)  How does Aeneas learn of this?

4)  What Odyssey theme might be connected to the encounter with Celaeno and the Harpies, and how does this event compare with Odysseus' behavior with similar creatures?  Why?

5)  Numerous critics have commented on the "apocalyptic" structure of The Aeneid.  See, for instance, Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending (N.Y.: Oxford UP, 1967), a reading of the epic that sees its action as everywhere determined by its inevitable conclusion, a position that has influenced later writers such as Anne Rehill in The Apocalypse Is Everywhere: A Popular History of America's Favorite Nightmare (N.Y.: Greenwood, 2009) 73.  (See also Michael Putnam's nuanced reply to Kermode in  Virgil's Aeneid: Interpretation and Influence [Charlotte, NC.: U North Carolina P, 1995] 25.)  That is, Virgil salts the text with predictions (supposedly made in the deep past) about things to come, things which (by the time Virgil is writing) already have come to pass.  Another apocalyptic device is allusion by means of a significant place reference to important events which later will happen there ("and Marsha forgave John at the little colonial hamlet of Appomatox").  At Leucate, Aeneas erects a shield and an inscription that has extraordinary significance when viewed from the perspective of Caesar Augustus (Octavian).  What will happen at Leucate in the years before the The Aeneid is written and how was Octavian involved?   See the Greek-Roman timeline for help--especially "The Battle of Actium" (2 September, 31 BCE).

6)  Note the meeting of Aeneas and Andromache, when she wonders  if he is a spirit.  What has she been doing just before he arrives, and how might this situate our hero?  How many times and on what sorts of occasions  do characters in The Aeneid meet entities who are not really  there?  What effect does Virgil attain by this thematic  technique?

7)  How do the predictions of Helenus differ from the implied prophecy in #5 above re: Leucate?  How do both work in The Aeneid's "apocalyptic" structure?

8)  What is the function of Achaemenides' story and upon what  model has Virgil constructed it? 

9)  What happens at Drepanum, and why does Virgil devote so little time to something which (believe me) is of such enormous consequence?

        Readers of Books IV and V find themselves deep within Virgil's absorption, transformation, translation, and transmission of the Homeric epic into a vehicle for Aeneas' and Rome's immortalization.  The project is similar to Ovid's, and a comparison might be fruitful, but for not, let us stick with Publius Vergilius Maro and let Publius Ovius Naso rest.  (What's with the three names?  See this site explaining the Roman custom of giving a praenomen (given name), nomen (family name), and cognomen (nickname).  Vergil's name is usually spelled "Virgil" by English writers--who can fathom English orthography--but his nickname, "Maro," has not been traced to mean anything I can discover, though it's an anagram of "Roma" and "Amor."  Ovid's nickname, as you probably guessed, was "Nose" [maybe a big honker?])  Now where was I?  Yes, Virgil's process.

        Book I was the poet's full-court press, charging the reader with a nearly continuous flow of Homeric allusion that increasingly alters the Greek values of independent, agonic kleos-seeking to Roman values of collective, empathic, empire-buiding.  In Books II-III, Odysseus' successes become Ulysses'  failures by a process of selective re-evaluation of Homeric events using Aeneas' point of view, and creative reinvention of Homeric episode or character types to develop the Greek critique and the poem's emerging doctrine of Rome's destiny embodied in Aeneas' behavior.  Especially look for thematic repetitions that contrast Ulysses, a hero aided by the hard, masculine, virgin, warrior-goddess, Athena, with Aeneas, a hero aided by the soft, hyper-feminine, many-times-bedded mother of two, love goddess, Venus.  In this poetic re-evaluation of the Pantheon the Romans inherited from the Greeks, Virgil strikes at the very core of Roman dependency upon the Greeks for their religious and poetic values, and begins to retake those values for Roman readers.  Books IV-V take advantage of the readers' presumed engagement in Virgil's process by giving them some new poetic and political significance.  In Book IV, love's power overturns not only the Carthagenian warrior-queen, Dido, but also Juno's plan to attempt to finesse fate by joining Roman and Carthagenian destinies in a forbidden marriage (like Helen's to Paris?).  Score 1 for Venus.  In Book V, Virgil takes a formulaic element of the Homeric epic, "funeral games," and makes of them a stunning demonstration of his poetic power by foretelling the war destinies of many players in ironic allusions to their fates, and in establishing a "metapoetic" dramatization of his combat with the Homeric Greek poetic inheritance.  The second sort of poetic innovation, which we saw in Ovid's prologue and epilogue boasts, is embedded in the iconography of the boxing match between Dares and Entellus, and like Ovid's narrative weaving, Virgil's metapoesis challenges all later poets to rise to the heights of his poetic "brand": an epic that that teaches the arts of peace and the unforgetably terrible losses of war.  In doing this, Virgil makes possible Dante, Chaucer, Milton, and Wordsworth, who I believe read and understood Entellus' challenge when they encountered Virgil as the Master Poet who reigned at the core of their classical Anglo-European education.

         Having accomplished those three stages of reader-re-education, Virgil is finally ready for Book VI, which takes on the "journey to the Underworld," formerly Odysseus' distinguishing achievement.  No character goes to the Iliad's Underworld and returns.  After Virgil, at least until Wordsworth, the "journey to the Underworld" episode becomes a mandatory feat any great writer must achieve in order to compete with the Master. 

Book IV‑‑

1)  How does Anna convince Dido to love Aeneas?  What possibility  does this speech raise, and how might it have seemed to the  Imperial Roman reader?  (Also see the goddesses' debate.)

2)  What are Virgil's metaphors for love, and why are they  appropriate to this narrative?  How do they locate Dido in the  symbolic universe of Aeneas' quest?  [Note: a metaphor is an implied comparison between an intangible abstraction and an familiar (usually visual) phenomenon or event.  Like allegory, metaphor depends on making an analogy between the form or function of the abstraction, and the physical circumstances of the phenomenon or event.]

3)  Virgil tells us twice how Aeneas and Dido will be brought to  make love.  Compare the portrayals of Dido's love in each?

4)  Virgil comments directly on the propriety of Dido's behavior:  neque enim specie famane / movetur nec iam furtivum Dido /  mediatur amorem; coniugium / vocat: hoc praetexit nomine culpam  [no more does she dream of secret love; she calls it marriage and  with that name veils her sin: Loeb].  What does Virgil mean?

5)  What kind of monster is Rumor, and how is it appropriate for  an imperial poet?  (Compare with Scylla, etc. from the Odyssey.)

6)  How does Virgil explain Aeneas' decision to leave Dido?  How  might a Homeric bard have done it, and how would those two  versions have differed?  (Hint: How does Aeneas represent  his dream to Dido, vs. the way Virgil represents it to us?)

7)  Why does Virgil not claim to know with what emotion Dido  watched Aeneas' fleet preparing to leave, asking her rhetorically  to tell him?  Did he really not know?  If not, why say it? 

8)  What use does Virgil make of an extended simile to describe  Aeneas' response to Dido's plea, and where else have we seen it?  Bogart's "Hill of Beans" speech in Casablanca (1942)--what Aeneas should have said to Dido.  Bacall's "you know how to whistle don't you, Steve?" speech in To Have and to Have Not--what Dido should have said to Aeneas

9)  When Dido stands at the altar beside her funeral pyre, why is  one of her sandals loosened, and why is her robe unfastened?

10)  One of the passages from The Aeneid that passed into common  proverbial usage in medieval Europe was Mercury's advice to  Aeneas in the second dream: "Woman's a thing / Forever fitful and  forever changing."  (p. 116‑‑variam et mutabile semper femina,  [varying and mutable is woman always]) IV, 569‑70)  How true was  it and what else might have been said?  To hear Luciano Pavarotti singing "La donna e mobile" from Verdi's Rigoletto, click here--same sentiment, different dude--but a "reading" of Aeneas from a C19 Romantic composer's perspective.  Click here (  to read a short plot summary of the opera, in which the title character is stunned to discover that his enemy and his daughter's seducer, "the Duke," has escaped assassination because he's still singing this signature aria.  The Duke is not a nice man.

11)  What is the practical, political consequence of Dido's curse and who is the "avenger"?  [See the Roman history handout.]