The Aeneid consists of twelve books. In the first book, Virgil tells us that Aeneas was leading a fleet of ships to Italy to found a new home for the Trojans after the fall of Troy. Juno hated the Trojans, so she persuaded Aeolus to release the winds entrusted to him. The Trojan ships were battered by the resultant storm and made their way to the coast of Africa to repair the damages. Here they were hospitably received by Dido, the queen of Carthage.
He attended a feast in the palace of Dido. At the request of the queen, he told the assembled guests about the sufferings that he and his men had experienced before reaching Africa. The second and third books of the Aeneid are devoted to this narrative. The second book relates the experiences of Aeneas during the destruction of his Trojan homeland. The third book shows what happened after Aeneas and his followers had lost their home.
In two separate articles, I presented summaries of the first two books. In this article, I shall summarize the third book.
After taking auguries, the Trojans realized that the gods wanted them to leave Asia and establish a home elsewhere. So they built a fleet and sailed to the coast of nearby Thrace. Among the exiles were Anchises and Ascanius, the father and son of Aeneas, respectively.
The gods had not yet told the Trojans where they were supposed to settle. Aeneas thought that Thrace might be a suitable place, since the local king had been a friend of the Trojans. He planned to build a city called Aeneadae.
Such an undertaking required sacrifices, so Aeneas had to build altars. To cover these altars, he went to a nearby mound on which a “thicket of cornel trees and myrtle bristling with dense spears” grew. (All translations from the Latin are my own.)
However, when he tore up a young shoot, a horrifying portent occurred. Black blood flowed from the place where the tree was broken off from its root, and it sullied the ground. He broke off a second shoot with the same result. When he was about to tear up a third shoot, a groan and a voice startled him. Polydorus, a son of Priam, was buried in the mound. He complained that Aeneas was harming him by breaking off the shoots. The blood did not come from the tree. It was the blood of Polydorus that was flowing.
Of course, Aeneas knew who Polydorus was. When the Greeks besieged Troy, Priam had sent Polydorus to Thrace, thinking that its friendly king would keep him safe. However, when the fortunes of war turned against Troy, the Thracian king switched sides and appropriated the gold that Polydorus had brought from Troy. Polydorus himself was pierced with a host of lances. It was for this reason that lance-like plants grew from the mound in which he was buried.
This portent made it seem as if Thrace was not such a good place to build a city. In fact, Polydorus advised Aeneas to flee from these cruel, covetous lands. So he consulted with his father Anchises and with other leaders. They unanimously agreed that they should leave the wicked land. So they performed funeral rites for Polydorus and sailed away.
They headed for Delos. In times past, this island had floated freely, but Apollo tied it firmly to the islands of Myconos and Gyaros. After that, it remained immobile. Anius, who was the king and a priest of Apollo, ran to meet them. He recognized his friend Anchises and welcomed the Trojan leaders into his home.
Aeneas still did not know where the Trojans were supposed to settle, so he went to the sanctuary to consult Apollo. The god told him that the Trojans should return to the land where their race was born. There Aeneas and his descendents would exercise hegemony.
The Trojans received this oracle with a mixture of joy and confusion. They did not understand its meaning.
Anchises suggested that Apollo was sending them to the island of Crete. He considered Crete the cradle of the Trojan race, since Teucer, a prominent ancestor of the Trojans, had lived in Crete before he sailed to the region where Troy was later built. The Trojans were also encouraged by the fact that their enemy Idomeneus had been banished from Crete.
So the Trojans sailed to Crete and began to build a city. They were already occupied with plowing and other activities when suddenly a plague devastated the settlement. Many Trojans died, while others became seriously sick. Moreover, there was a drought and a resultant crop failure, so the settlers did not have much to eat.
The Trojans began to suspect that they had settled in the wrong place. Anchises suggested that they return to Delos and consult the oracle of Apollo once more. However, they did not have to travel to Delos because Virgil received the necessary information in a dream, or more accurately, in a nocturnal vision.
The Trojan household gods appeared to Aeneas. They were Apollo’s messengers. They told Aeneas that the Trojans were not supposed to settle in Crete. Their destined home was a land that the Greeks called Hesperia and its Oenotrian inhabitants called Italy. Iasius and Dardanus, two ancestors of the Trojan race, originally came from there.
When Aeneas told his father about his vision, Anchises realized that he had been mistaken. He had focused on the wrong Trojan ancestor. Now he remembered that while Troy still stood, Cassandra had often mentioned Italy in her prophecies, but no one believed her at the time.
Most of the Trojans heeded this prophecy and sailed away from Crete. When they reached the open sea, a storm arose, and for three days it was so dark that even Palinurus, the pilot of Aeneas, could not tell where they were.
On the fourth day, the Trojans saw land. It proved to be the Strophades, islands west of the Greek Peloponnesus in the Ionian Sea. Celaeno and other Harpies lived in these islands. They had the heads of maidens, but otherwise they were filthy birds with claws. They had come to the Strophades after the Argonauts had driven them from the home of Phineus.
When the Trojans landed, they saw many goats and cows. No one was guarding the cows, so they prepared a feast. However, the Harpies came and spoiled their meal. They seized some off the food and fouled up the rest.
The Trojans prepared another feast, this time in a more protected spot. However, the Harpies polluted the food a second time.
Aeneas decided to fight the Harpies. The Trojans hid their swords and shields, planning to surprise the Harpies when they approached. To lure the Harpies, they prepared a third feast.
However, the well-planned ambushed failed. The wings and backs of the Harpies were invulnerable. The Trojan swords did not penetrate the Harpies’ bodies, no matter how powerfully the blows were delivered. After the Harpies spoiled the meal, they flew away.
Celaeno flew to an extremely high cliff and scolded the Trojans for waging war against the harmless Harpies and trying to drive them from their paternal kingdom. Then she uttered a prophecy which Jupiter had revealed to Apollo and Apollo had revealed to her. She acknowledged that the Trojans would reach Italy. However, because of their assault on the Harpies, they would suffer such extreme hunger that they would eat their tables.
The Trojans decided to leave the Strophades. They sailed northward past Zacynthus, Dulichium, and Same (now known as Kefallinia). They hurried past Ithaca, since it was the land that nourished the hated Ulysses. After stopping at Actium, they sailed along the coast of Epirus and entered the harbor of Chaonia, near the city of Buthrotum.
To the surprise of the Trojans, Helenus, the son of Priam, ruled the countryside. It came about in the following manner. Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, had married Andromache, the widow of the Trojan Hector. He took her to Epirus, where he reigned as king. Later, Pyrrhus wanted to marry Hermione, the daughter of Leda. So he gave Andromache to Helenus, who was a slave at the time. However, Orestes killed Pyrrhus, and Helenus subsequently ruled over part of the kingdom of Pyrrhus. Helenus decided to call his kingdom Chaonia.
Aeneas left his fleet and walked toward the city, accompanied by some of his followers. He happened to see Andromache in a grove outside of the city. She was performing some rites at a burial mound that she had erected in honor of Hector.
When Andromache saw Aeneas, she wondered whether or not he was alive. If he came from the land of the dead, she wondered whether he could give her any news about Hector.
Aeneas assured her that he was a living person. Andromache then told him about all that she had experienced since the time that she was taken from her fatherland.
While they were talking, Helenus came out of the city with some companions. He recognized the Trojans and joyfully welcomed them into his residence. Helenus had built the capital city in which he resided. Aeneas noted that it resembled Troy, except that it was smaller.
Aeneas and other Trojans enjoyed the hospitality of Helenus for a few days. Before the Trojans sailed onward, Helenus, who was a prophet as well as a king, gave Aeneas a few helpful tips on how to reach his destination safely. He told Aeneas that he would have to travel farther than he thought. He was not supposed to settle on the nearby eastern side of Italy, but he had to sail to the other side before he could disembark and found his city.
Helenus then gave Aeneas a sign. When he saw a sow with a litter of thirty new-born pigs lying under a holm oak beside a river, he should build his city in that spot. Both the sow and the thirty pigs would be white.
Helenus warned Aeneas to flee from the east coast of Italy, since Greek enemies lived there. The Trojans had to stop briefly on the east coast for religious rites. Helenus advised them to cover their hair with a purple covering during their worship. This would discourage hostile interruptions. Helenus suggested that the descendants of the Trojans adopt this as a regular custom.
Moreover, when they came to Sicily, they should not pass through the dangerous strait between Italy and Sicily, because Scylla and Charybdis posed a threat to any ship that tried to pass through this strait. Instead, they should sail around the island of Sicily. Charybdis was a formidable whirlpool, and Scylla was a deadly creature who stuck her head out of a cave on the right side of the strait and dragged ships toward dangerous rocks with her mouth.
Helenus considered it especially important that Aeneas win the favor of Juno. He advised Aeneas to honor her with prayers, vows, and gifts.
Finally, Helenus advised Aeneas to stop at Cumae to see a prophetess who could give him some important information. He told Aeneas to wait patiently, even though considerable time elapsed before he received the desired information.
After offering this prophetic advice, Helenus gave the Trojans some costly gifts, and Andromache gave some fine clothing to Ascanius. After the hosts and their guests spoke some parting words to one another, the Trojans sailed away.
At night, the Trojans rested on the shore near the hills of Ceraunia in Epirus. The night was still young when favorable winds arose. The Trojans boarded their ships and sailed across to Italy. They reached Italy by dawn. Achates was the first to announce that Italy was in sight.
The Trojans noticed a temple of Minerva near a good harbor. So they went ashore to perform the requisite religious rites. As Helenus had advised, they covered their heads while performing these rites, and they paid special honor to Juno. Then they sped away from the east coast of Italy. After passing Tarentum and other places, they could see Mount Etna in the distance.
They were coming uncomfortably close to Charybdis. Palinurus steered the ship to the left, and the Trojans rowed vigorously. They had a harrowing experience. Because of the action of Charybdis, they rose up high and sank down low three times. Then night set in, and the tired Trojans reached the land of the Cyclops, not far from Mt. Etna on the island of Sicily.
Mount Etna did not behave itself that night, and Virgil graphically describes its volcanic action. “Now and then it flings a black cloud out to the upper air – a smoking whirl of pitch and white-hot ashes. It raises balls of flame and licks the stars. It occasionally belches rocks, tearing apart and expelling the viscera of the mountain. From the lowest depths, molten rock boils up and noisily gathers together in the world above.”
Virgil then goes on to explain that Enceladus is supposed to be buried under Mount Etna. The volcanic action of the mountain is supposed to be the result of restless movements of his partly burned body.
The Trojans spent this dark, noisy night in a sheltering forest. When the day dawned, the sky became clear.
An emaciated Greek suppliant approached the Trojans. He had been a companion of Ulysses. The suppliant’s name was Achaemenides. He admitted that he had been a companion of Ulysses and had taken part in the siege of Troy. He realized that the Trojans might want to kill him, but he preferred to die by human hands rather than falling pray to the monsters that inhabited the land.
Achaemenides explained that Polyphemus, a one-eyed Cyclops, had trapped Ulysses and his companions in his lair. The giant had eaten some of them, but the captive Greeks managed to blind Polyphemus. The Greeks then escaped, but the suppliant had been left behind. About three months had elapsed since his companions had sailed away. Since then, he had been hiding from Polyphemus and his fellow Cyclopes.
Achaemenides urged the Trojans to flee, since there were many monstrous Cyclopes in the area. At that moment, the blind Polyphemus emerged into view. He was leading his flocks to the sea.
Taking Achaemenides with them, the Trojans quickly sailed away. Polyphemus heard them as they rowed away, but they managed to escape without injury.
The Trojans remembered the advice of Helenus. Instead of passing through the strait between Italy and Sicily They headed southward to circumnavigate Sicily. As they sailed around the island, they suffered no misfortunes till they stopped at Drepanum. Here Anchises died.
As the spellbound Carthaginians listened, Aeneas concluded his narrative by explaining that after leaving the harbor of Drepanum, a storm blew his ships to the coast of Africa.
The Latin Library: P. Vergilius Maro (70-19 B.C.)
“The Aeneid of Virgil”; translated by Allen Mandelbaum