Study Guide

The Aeneid Love

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Book 1

And more than anyone, the Phoenician queen,
Luckless, already given over to ruin,
Marveled and could not have enough: she burned
With pleasure in the boy and in the gifts. […]
And she with all her eyes and heart embraced him,
Fondling him at times upon her breast,
Oblivious of how great a god sat there
To her undoing. (1.971-974, 978-981)

This is only one of many passages in the Aeneid that suggest love should come with a warning label – CAUTION: CONTENTS ARE EXPLOSIVE. Why do you think Virgil chose to portray love in this way? On another note, does it strike you as strange that Dido is so charmed by what she thinks is Aeneas's son (but is actually the god of love). What is the psychology behind Virgil's making her fall in love through this intermediary?


And Dido, fated queen, drew out the night
With talk of various matters, while she drank
Long draughts of love. Often she asked of Priam,
Often of Hector; now of the armor Memnon,
The son of Dawn, had worn; now of the team
Diomedes drove; now of the huge Achilles. (1.1021-1026)

Do you think Dido really cares about all this stuff? Or do you think she really just wants an excuse to listen to Aeneas talk? If you think the second option is the better one, how do you think this passage relates to the Aeneid's depiction of love more generally? To get the ball rolling, consider this: if love is powerful enough to unite people who have different interests, couldn't it also make people forget their own interests (such as, say, sailing to Italy and founding a new home for the Trojan people)? Hmm…

Book 4

The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,
And the internal wound bleeds on in silence. (4.93-94)

Echoes of these lines recur frequently in the Aeneid. They point out that love isn't a bowl of roses. Sometimes, it's more like all the thorns from those roses stabbing you all at once. It is important to note the emphasis these lines place on the fact that the pain of love is "inward" and "internal." How do you think this private aspect of love might play out in a poem that is so overwhelmingly concerned with the outward virtues of political and military action?

Now to the self-same cave
Came Dido and the captain of the Trojans.
Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno
Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed,
High Heaven became witness to the marriage,
And nymphs cried out the hymns from a mountain top. (4.227-232)

From these lines, it is clear that Dido totally got played. Not by Aeneas, initially (he seems pretty sincere about the thing to begin with) but by the gods. When the elemental powers themselves, plus the goddess of marriage – not to mention that chorus of nymphs – are setting the scene, you're probably not going to be thinking much about the consequences.


That day was the first cause of death, and first
Of sorrow. Dido had no further qualms
As to impressions given and set abroad;
She thought no longer of a secret love
But called it marriage. Thus, under that name,
She hid her fault. (4.233-238)

Now wait a second: what do you mean Dido "hid her fault" by "calling it marriage"? Was all that fancy-talk about the "Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno" just a product of Dido's imagination? (If so, it would be an instance of "focalization," whereby the narration is briefly skewed through the perspective, or "focus," of one of the characters; see the fifth quotation on Fate and Free Will.) But no, that can't be right: the main narrator has already clearly shown us Juno and Venus conspiring to set the scene for Dido and Aeneas's union. Clearly, love is unfair, and so are the gods. Beyond that, though, it is interesting to note how love distracts Dido from thinking about what is politically useful to her – in this case, not letting rumors of her affair get around to her enemies.

Book 5

From all sides
They came up, Teucrians with Sicilians mixed,
Nisus and Euryalus in the lead—
Euryalus exceptional for beauty
And bloom of youth, whom Nisus dearly loved. (5.376-380)

Virgil's depiction of the affection between the warriors Nisus and Euryalus is one of the Aeneid's most positive depictions of romantic love. In terms of general reflections on this human emotion, Virgil's emphasis on Euryalus's good looks calls to mind the view articulated by Yeats in his poem, "A Drinking Song": "Wine comes in at the mouth / And love comes in at the eye." And yet, it is important to note that Virgil doesn't explicitly say that Nisus's love for Euryalus "comes in at the eye" only. To see other reasons for this affection, look at the quotation from Book 9, below.

Book 8

The goddess spoke and wrapped her snowy arms
This way and that about him as he lingered,
Cherishing him in her swansdown embrace.
And instantly he felt the flame of love
Invading him as ever; into his marrow
Ran the fire he knew, and through his bones,
As when sometimes, ripped by a thunder peal,
A fiery flash goes jagged through the clouds.
His wife, contented with her blandishment,
Sure of her loveliness, perceived it all.
Lord Vulcan, captive to immortal passion,
Answered her (8.516-527)

In this scene, the goddess Venus is using her charms to get Vulcan, her husband, to make a suit of armor for her (but not Vulcan's) son Aeneas. The irony, of course, is that Vulcan is the god of fire – and hence of metal-working – but the fire of love is of another order entirely, and he is powerless to resist it. This passage incorporates motifs found in many other depictions of love elsewhere in the book. Can you see any connections between it and the other quotations in this section?

Book 9

"No, me! Me! Here I am! I did it! Take
Your swords to me, Rutulians. All the trickery
Was mine. He had not dared to do anything,
He could not. Heaven's my witness, and the stars
That look down on us, all he did was care
Too much for a luckless friend." (9.605-610)

With these words, Nisus seals his fate – calling attention to himself in a desperate (but failed) attempt to prevent his young lover, Euryalus, from being killed. Nisus's closing words here – in which he refers to Euryalus's loyalty in coming along with him on the night expedition – show that their relationship was based on more than just Euryalus's good looks. The same conclusion can be drawn from Nisus's spirit of sacrifice.

Book 10

Cunerus, never could I pass you by, […]
Nor you with your scant following, Cupavo,
Plumage of swan upon your crest: a sign
Reproaching Amor and his goddess mother
With your own father's change of form.
Cycnus, they say, when mourning Phaëthon […]
Among the new leaves, quieting with song
His woe for love lost, dressed himself
In softest plumage as in snowy age
And left the earth and chanting sought the stars. (10.255, 257-261, 263-266)

The "I" in these lines is Virgil, who is singling out individual warriors for praise. "Amor," of course, is the personification of love. Two things are noteworthy in this passage. The first is the little flashback of Cycnus (whose name means "swan") turning into a swan out of grief for his dead friend Phaëthon, a pretty striking allegory of the power of this emotion. The second is Cupavo himself, whose reaction to all this is to "reproach" the god and goddess of love. Do you think this reproach might be why Virgil singles him out for special praise?

Book 12

As when one puts a stain of crimson dye
On ivory of India, or when
White lilies blush, infused with crimson roses,
So rich the contrast in her coloring seemed.
Desire stung the young man as he gazed,
Rapt, at the girl. He burned yet more for battle (12.92-101)

These lines, like those introducing Nisus and Euryalus, show the undeniable influence appearances have on love (OK, maybe this is a bit closer to plain old lust than love). They also continue the typical Aeneid motif in which being in love makes you act like a complete fool – as, in this case. It makes Turnus eager for battle with Aeneas, which winds up getting him killed.

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