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Virgil begins by announcing his theme. He is going to be telling the story of how Aeneas made his way from Troy to Italy and founded the precursor to the modern city of Rome. (That's modern from Virgil's perspective – i.e., the first century B.C.)
Virgil also reveals that Aeneas is going to have a really, really crummy time of it. This, he explains, is because the goddess Juno is mad at him.
Juno – the Roman name for the Greek goddess Hera (check out this comparative chart if you aren't familiar with this sort of stuff) – is mad at Aeneas for two reasons.
The first reason is because Aeneas is a Trojan. Juno hates the Trojans because Paris, a Trojan prince, once picked Venus (a.k.a. Aphrodite) over her and Minerva (a.k.a. Athene) in a beauty contest. This made the two Olympian Idol losers take the Greeks' side during the Trojan War. (For more info about the Trojan War, check out this handy-dandy website.)
The second reason Juno hates Aeneas is because she loves Carthage, a Phoenician city in Northern Africa (in modern-day Tunisia, to be precise).
Juno knows that, many years later, Rome and Carthage are destined to fight a series of three major wars. These wars, known as the Punic Wars (you can read about them here), resulted in the complete destruction of Carthage. Because Aeneas is on his way to found Rome – well, you get the picture.
Juno first catches sight of Aeneas and his fleet as they are sailing past Sicily. Juno doesn't like this one bit, and decides to give him a hard time, whether the Fates like it or not.
The first thing she does is go find Aeolus, the king of the winds (he was appointed by Jupiter).
Juno tells Aeolus to stir up the sea against the Trojans; she says she'll give him one of her nymphs to marry, in return for his trouble.
Aeolus tells Juno that her wish is his command – after all, she has given him a lot of sweet stuff already. (It is unclear whether Aeolus accepts the nymph or not, though it seems like he doesn't.)
He takes his spear and pounds on the mountain where the winds are locked up. Out come the East Wind and the South Wind. They speed down to where the Trojans are sailing and stir up a storm against them.
As the storm starts to pick up, Aeneas exclaims how he wishes he had died back home in Troy. That would have been a lot better than the death that is about to befall them.
Sure enough, things start to look bad: three ships crash and three get stuck on sandbars.
Just then, though, Neptune, the god of the sea, hears the commotion going on above him. He pokes his eyes out of the water, and isn't pleased with what he sees.
Neptune immediately tells off the winds for stirring up the ocean without his permission. Before he's even done talking, the storm ends.
After that close call, Aeneas and his remaining ships decide to head for the nearest land. This happens to be Libya.
Once they have pulled into a convenient natural harbor, Aeneas and his men disembark. They make a fire and eat grain by the seashore.
In the meantime, Aeneas and his comrade Achates climb a nearby hill to scan the sea for any sign of the lost ships. He doesn't see them.
Instead, he finds a troop of wild deer. Aeneas chases after them and shoots seven – one for each of his ships.
Then he takes them down to the shore, and gives his men a speech reminding them of how much they have suffered already. He tells them to look on the bright side – one day they might even look back nostalgically on these hardships.
We are told that Aeneas is putting on a brave face for his men – inside, he feels more grief for their lost companions than anyone else. Meanwhile, the Trojans feast on the deer and get their strength back.
That evening, Jupiter, the king of the gods, is looking down at the world.
Just then, up comes Venus, the goddess of love, who also happens to be Aeneas's mom. Venus complains to Jupiter about how Aeneas and his men have to suffer so much, when other Trojans, like a guy called Antenor, have already been able to settle in various parts of Italy.
Jupiter says, "Chill. I'm still going to let Aeneas make it to Italy." He then explains how Aeneas, when he gets to Italy, is going to have to fight a war against the local tribe of the Rutulians. After that, he will reign for only three years – but then his son, Ascanius, will rule for another thirty years in the new capital of Alba Longa (don't worry if you haven't heard of it).
Alba Longa will be the headquarters of the Trojans in Italy for three centuries, until the queen and priestess Ilia gets pregnant by Mars, the god of war, and gives birth to Romulus and Remus. (Are things starting to sound a bit more familiar?)
Romulus will found Rome (aha!). Jupiter says he will give the Romans unlimited power. This power will reach its summit during the reign of Caesar (that is, the Emperor Augustus), which will bring about a great era of peace.
Then Jupiter sends down the god Hermes to make the Carthaginians welcome Aeneas and the other Trojans.
That night, Aeneas is lying awake thinking. He decides to go exploring the next day.
And that's just what he does – once again with his buddy Achates. While they are walking in the woods, Aeneas and Achates run into Venus, who is disguised as a young huntress.
Aeneas knows something is up, and asks the huntress what goddess she is. (This would probably be a good opener even if she wasn't a goddess.) But Venus keeps up her disguise, saying that she's just an ordinary girl from that neck of the woods.
Venus then fills Aeneas in on what's been going on.
She explains how Dido, the local queen, was once married to Sychaeus, the richest man of the city of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon). Her brother, Pygmalion, was the king of Tyre.
Unfortunately, Pygmalion was very greedy, and ended up killing Sychaeus for his money. He managed to keep what he had done from Dido for a little while – but then Sychaeus appeared to her in a dream and explained what had happened. (Sometimes dead men do tell tales.)
Sychaeus told Dido to flee the city immediately, and also told her where some treasure was buried, to finance her trip. (Sweet.)
Dido gathered up some other men from Tyre and sailed over to North Africa, where they are now, and where she is building the city of Carthage.
Then, having wound up her story, Venus asks Aeneas who he is. Aeneas replies by saying his name, his quest, and his favorite color – wait, scratch that last bit. He ends by saying how he got slammed by the storm and lost a bunch of his companions.
Venus says, "Don't worry about them." To illustrate her point, she shows him where twelve swans are flapping around in peace, even though a little while ago they were being chased by an eagle. Venus interprets this as a sign that everyone's OK.
Then the goddess turns to go, and, as she does, Aeneas recognizes her. "Hey, mom!" he calls out,
"What's with the disguises? I just want to spend some quality time with you!"
But Venus doesn't answer. Instead, she wraps Aeneas and Achates in a cloud of mist, making them invisible. This allows them to walk into the heart of Carthage. All around them, people are busy as bees building the new city. Aeneas is jealous.
In the middle of the city, the Trojans are building a temple to Juno. (Insert ominous music here.)
Aeneas goes up to the temple. On its gates, he sees depicted various scenes from the Trojan War. (Most of these are from the Iliad, though some come from the later tradition known as The Epic Cycle.)
Then, Queen Dido comes in with a bunch of attendants. She takes her seat in front of Juno's shrine.
At this point, in come representatives from all of the ships that Aeneas thought he had lost – safe and sound, just as Juno predicted.
The Trojans explain to Dido who they are and where they're going. They complain about the rough treatment they've gotten from the locals, and say that the gods are on their side.
They ask for permission to stay in the area for long enough to repair their ships; then they'll either sail for Latium as planned (if they reconnect with Aeneas, that is), or head to Sicily instead, where another Trojan, Acestes, has set himself up as king.
In response, Dido apologizes for any trouble they have encountered; she explains that she has had to ramp up security while their city gets on its feet.
Then she tells them that she has heard of Aeneas. She says that the Trojans can go wherever they want, with a Carthaginian escort. Or, if they want, they can stay in Carthage as equal citizens. She says that she wishes Aeneas were there, and promises to send out scouts to search the coastline for him.
Just then, the cloud vanishes from Achates and Aeneas. At the same time, Venus makes Aeneas look super-impressive and handsome.
Aeneas thanks Dido for her hospitality. Dido is impressed with Aeneas and tells him so, explaining how she is an exile too, from Tyre.
She leads Aeneas into her palace and declares it a feast day.
Aeneas thinks about his son Ascanius and sends Achates back to the camp to bring him to the feast. He also tells him to bring some gifts for Dido. (Specifically, he asks him to bring some of the things that Helen brought with her to Troy when she ran off with Paris, as you can read about here.)
The goddess Venus decides to make Amor – the god of love – take Ascanius's form so he can infect Dido with love. She tells Amor that she will hide the real Ascanius away in one of her shrines so that no one will be the wiser.
This is exactly what happens.
When Amor arrives with the gifts, he first goes up to Aeneas and says "Hi dad." Then he goes and sits on Dido's lap.
Amor inflames Dido with love for Aeneas, and slowly takes away her memory of her dead husband, Sychaeus.
At the end of the feast, Dido fills a huge bowl with wine, drinks from it, and starts passing it around. At the same time, the poet Iopas sings a song about the cosmos and the natural world.
Dido, who is growing more enthralled by the minute, asks Aeneas question after question about the Trojan War. Finally, she asks him how Troy was captured, and how he came to North Africa.