Virgil begins with "Wars and a man I sing…" and says that he will tell the story of Aeneas, who has fled from Troy and is fated to eventually reach Latium in Italy, where he will found the race that will one day build Rome. But Aeneas's journey is made difficult by the gods, and in particular by Juno, the queen of the gods. Virgil wonders why Juno hates Aeneas, who is famous for his piety. He asks the muse, the goddess of the arts, to tell him about the source of her anger.
Virgil's beginning echoes the beginnings of the Iliad and the Odyssey, making it clear that Virgil intends to write an epic for Rome on par with those great Greek works. But unlike Homer's first lines, Virgil says he'll sing both of a man and of arms—this is a story about a hero who faces war.
Virgil gives some background about Carthage, Juno's favorite city, a rich and old Phoenician settlement located in North Africa (modern-day Tunisia). Juno wants Carthage to one day rule the world, but she has heard that a race of men descended from Trojans are fated to destroy it.
Right from the start, Virgil presents Juno as Aeneas's major antagonist. Despite what she knows about fate, she can't accept it, preferring to take out her anger on a famously pious man.
Juno fears the potential Trojan destruction of Carthage. In addition, Paris, a Trojan prince, was once asked to judge who was the most beautiful goddess, and chose Venus over Juno and Minerva. Finally, Juno remembers that her husband, Jupiter, once ran off with a Trojan shepherd name Ganymede. All of this has made Juno so despise the Trojans that she's made it impossible for many years for them to reach Latium.
Juno's anger towards Aeneas seems almost childish. It has more to do with her own personality, jealous and hot-headed, than it has to do with him. Despite her stature as the wife of the king of the gods, she cares a lot about human affairs.
Now the Trojans are sailing near Sicily. Juno angrily recalls a time when Minerva burned Greek ships. Juno, prideful about her power, wonders why she shouldn't do the same.
Juno's concerns about her own strength motivate many of her actions. In a very human way, she lacks self-confidence and takes it out on others!
Juno goes to Aeolus, the wind god, who keeps the winds in his dungeon. She asks Aeolus to send winds to sink the Trojan ships, and in return promises him a beautiful nymph for a wife. Aeolus immediately agrees, since Juno is the most powerful goddess, and unleashes the East, West and South-West winds against the Trojans.
This passage shows that Juno's fears about her own power are unfounded. She's good at negotiating, and Aeolus respects her. This makes her persecution of Aeneas seem even more unjust.
The winds blast the Trojan ships, and Aeneas prays to the gods. He then wishes that he could have died at Troy, killed by Achilles just as Hector was. Aeneas thinks that the Trojans who died defending Troy were many times more blessed than he is, who survived only to have no home. Meanwhile, his men's ships (eleven are mentioned) crash in the shallows or begin to sink.
In our first view of Aeneas, he hardly seems a great hero. He wishes he could escape his fate. Yet he also does not try to escape his fate. He prays to the gods rather than curse or rebel against them, demonstrating his piety.
The situation is desperate, but then Neptune, the god of the ocean, notices the storm and recognizes it as his sister Juno's work. He angrily commands the winds to return to Aeolus, and proclaims that he, Neptune, is the lord of the ocean. Neptune then calms the sea, just as a politician might calm an angry crowd, and the sun comes out.
The metaphor of the politician references Rome. A politician's leadership is a good thing, as it can nonviolently transform a population. Neptune is like Augustus Caesar, using his power for good.
The exhausted Trojans land their remaining seven ships at a cove in Libya, and Achates, a friend of Aeneas's, starts a fire. Aeneas hikes up a mountain to try to see if any other of his men's ships are out on the water. Instead, he spots a herd of deer. He shoots seven of them.
In a change from his previous despair, Aeneas shows he's a true leader. Despite his fatigue, he doesn't give up hope of finding his lost men, and provides for the survivors.
Returning with the deer to feed his men, Aeneas gives a stirring pep talk. He recalls their difficulties with Scylla and the Cyclops, but says that someday, they'll enjoy looking back on these events. "A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this," says Aeneas. He says that the Fates have determined that they will manage to reach Italy, so they should cheer up. Though Aeneas privately worries and grieves, he fakes a positive attitude to support his men. They eat and miss their drowned friends.
Jove and Venus watch the scene from the heavens. Venus asks Jove when there will be an end to Aeneas's suffering. Jove tells her not to worry, and foretells more of Aeneas's fate. Aeneas will reach Italy and found Lavinium, but he will have to battle the Italian locals first. Aeneas will then rule for three years, and after his death his son Ascanius will rule for thirty years. After three hundred years, Romulus and Remus, sons of a mortal priestess and Mars, will be born, and Romulus will found Rome, which will endure indefinitely. Even Juno will change her mind and love Rome. Eventually, Julius Caesar will bring peace—he will close the gates of war and bind Discord with a hundred knots.
This passage reveals the tension inherent in the concept of fate. If this is all going to happen, why should we worry about the characters? But just because something is fated to occur, doesn't mean it will occur smoothly or easily. Characters lose track of the fated future, either because they hate what will happen (like Juno) or because they're focused about the tragedies that happen along the way (like Aeneas). It's not the destination. It's the journey.
Jove then sends the god Mercury to make Dido, the queen of Carthage, and her people be friendly and hospitable to the Trojans.
Dido's sad story begins with the gods manipulating her. This creates a question: who's really to blame for her tragedy, her or the gods?
Aeneas and Achates go into the woods, where they come upon a virgin warrior, who is actually Venus in disguise. Venus tells them about Dido's past, how her greedy brother Pygmalion, king of Tyre, killed Dido's husband Sychaeus for his wealth. When she learned what had happened from the ghost of her dead husband, Dido led her friends to escape, and founded the city of Carthage: "A woman leads them all." Aeneas then recounts his difficult journey and laments his drowned men, but Venus stops him and tells him the lost ships have arrived safely at the harbor of Carthage. Venus reveals herself, and then makes Aeneas and Achates invisible by covering them in a dense mist so that they can travel safely into Carthage.
Dido's history shows her to be a loyal and brave leader, and an equal to Aeneas. Like Aeneas, she lost her spouse and fled her homeland with her people. Like Aeneas will do in the future, she founded a city. In this passage, however, Aeneas seems like the weaker leader, as he complains about his trip to his mother and focuses so much on the past that she interrupts him.
As he walks through Carthage, Aeneas envies the productive and happy town with its workers building up the city like busy bees. On the walls of a temple to Juno, Aeneas sees a depiction of the Trojan War of a large temple of Juno, including images of Priam, Achilles, and Hector, and is amazed and comforted that the ordeals of his people are known throughout the world. "Even here, the world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart."
This is one of the Aeneid's most famous passages, but its precise Latin meaning is controversial. Maybe Aeneas ponders generally how the same concerns touch all of humanity, or maybe he's moved more specifically that even here in a foreign land, people sympathize with his story. Most likely, the true meaning is a combination.
Dido then arrives at the temple, and is not only beautiful but shows herself to be a capable leader. Aeneas (still invisible) is astonished to see friends whom he thought had drowned standing next to Dido. He listens as one of the Trojans describes their past struggles and Aeneas's bravery, declares their peaceful intentions, and asks if they can rebuild their ships at Dido's city.
Dido's thoughtful and just leadership contrasts greatly with what she becomes. It seems that even without further divine intervention, she and the Trojans might have become great friends.
Dido generously offers them land and help in finding Aeneas. Just then, the mist of invisibility breaks away, revealing them, and Venus uses her powers to make Aeneas look extra-handsome. Aeneas praises Dido, and she welcomes him and calls for a grand feast. Achates leaves to retrieve gifts for Dido of beautiful clothing and jewels.
In all of Book I, Aeneas has been a rather passive hero, pushed around by Juno's storms or helped and guided by his mother's actions. Dido's all-important first impression of him is not his real form, but an extra-fancy Venus-enhanced version.
Venus, still concerned about Juno's wrath and mistrustful of Carthaginian hospitality, sends Cupid, disguised as Aeneas's son Ascanius, to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. Cupid brings the gifts to the feast, sits in Dido's lap and enchants her, making her forget her beloved Sychaeus as she falls in love with Aeneas. The narrator describes love as poison and fire, and says that Dido is "doomed." The Trojans and their hosts drink and make merry together and listen to music. Dido asks Aeneas to tell the whole story of his seven years of wandering.
Venus sets in motion the Aeneid's most personal and ambiguous tragedy. It's unclear if Dido is really to blame for her disastrous spiral into love. On the one hand, Venus forces Dido to feel this way. On the other hand, Venus may be more of a symbol of emotion than a character on whom we can place the blame.