“Arma virumque cano” — “I sing of warfare and a man….” So begins Virgil, self-consciously placing his epic in the tradition of Homer’s works. The “warfare” should remind one of the Iliad and the “man” the Odyssey. Linguistically, Latin relies on word endings to determine grammatical function, so there’s a wide latitude for placement of the words without obscuring the meaning. Virgil takes advantage of this linguistic feature to take us from “Troiae,” the fourth word in the sentence, all the way to “Roma,” the last word in a long first sentence which therefore mirrors Aeneas’ journey.
Virgil adheres to epic conventions in calling on the Muse (1.13f), stating his theme, and beginning in medias res. (We’ll backtrack in Book II to fill in the blanks.) A slight variation registers in that he asks the Muse not to tell the story but to explain the reasons the divine powers allow suffering (Aeneas’ in this case).
The existence of Carthage is an anachronism in this epic, not founded for several centuries until after these events, but Carthage was Rome’s rival for Mediterranean supremacy, so its function in the tale is politically symbolic.
Some questions for now and eventually:
- Why does Juno (formerly Hera) want to undermine Aeneas’ potential success?
- Between the Greek ideals expressed in Homer’s Iliad and the Roman ideals expressed in Virgil’s Aeneid, what do we gain and what do we lose?
- Compared to Virgil, Homer seems not to take sides in the Trojan War. Virgil is promoting Roman glory, and tracing it back to Troy. So what happens in an epic when the poet takes sides? Does this backfire in some ways? And what was Homer’s purpose instead?