Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Trojan Diaspora & the Trojan Women Rebel in Books 3 & 5

Aeneas, Polydorus, and Leaving Crete

Yes, I’m late with our Aeneid readalong post this week!

People have written notes to say they’re behind in the reading, so I kicked back this week.  Today I’m writing about Books 3 and 5 together, because they are the neglected books of the Odyssean first half of  the Aeneid.

The language is less rich in Book 3, but the plot is fast-paced and spellbinding, and Virgil heightens our emotions by his descriptions of the Trojan diaspora.  I found myself grieving and increasingly distressed as Aeneas and his people attempted to find a new home in foreign countries, only to be routed again and again.

In Thrace Aeneas prepares to sacrifice to the gods–ironiically pious–when dark blood drips from a tree as he tries to cut greenery for a roof for an altar.  Virgil says,  horrendum et dictu video mirablile monstrum  (and horrendous to say I see a fearful monster [omen] ).

Virgil continues:

nam quae prima solo ruptis radicibus arbos
vellitur, huic atro liquuntur sanguine guttae
et terram tabo maculant.

“When the first stalk came torn/out of the earth, and the root network burst/Dark blood dripped down to soak and foul the soil.”  (Fitzgerald translation, p. 66)

It is Polydorus, a Trojan betrayed and killed by a king who took gold then buried Polydorus under a hedge of spears which took root.  Obviously the omen is bad and the Trojans cannot remain.

The C. Day Lewis translation

After holding a funeral for Polydorus, they sail to Delos and consult the oracle.  Aeneas, still unwilling to assume leadership, refers the portent to his father Anchises.  They must go their ancestors came.  Anchises says they should go to Crete (but they are fated to go to Italy).   So in Crete they begin to build a city, Pergamum (Little Troy), and are content and secure when the plague strikes.

It’s too much.  I kept picturing them fleeing from the smoke and fire of Troy, losing people in the flames, Aeneas losing his wife Creusa, having to build a fleet, then not knowing where to go, and there were so few of them that they did not dare go to populated areas where there might be war, and then to have to leave Thrace and Crete…

Their wanderings in Book III continue, and Anchises dies in Sicily.  Then in Book V, after leaving Dido in Carthage, they return to Sicily (the gods send the ships in that direction), where their friend Acestes (a Trojan) welcomes them.  It is a year since Anchises died, and Aeneas celebrates with games.

But while the men are participating in ship races, foot races, and archery contests, the Trojan women rebel, stirred up by Juno, who sends Iris to persuade them to burn the fleet. (Juno later also agitates the women in Italy , through Amata, the mother of the Italian woman whom Aeneas is fated to marry.)

Iris flies down from heaven and appears as Beroe, an old woman of noble birth.  She makes a long speech, and says to them (my rough and fast literal translation of part of it, so I don’t have to copy another translation):

“O wretched women, whom the Achaeans did not drag to death under the walls of our country! O unhappy people, for what death is Fortune keeping you?  Already it is the seventh year after the destruction of Troy, having traversed waters, lands, wild rocks and stars (weather) through the great sea  in the pursuit of  Italy, fleeing:  we  have been rolled (tumbled)  in the waves.  Here is the country of Eryx, Aeneas’ half-brother, and the host Acestes.  Who keeps us from building walls and giving our citizens a city?”

And Virgil seems slightly sympathetic,  as I am, though I know it’s the wrong side.  Yes, Aeneas is fated to go to Italy–and fight another war–and the women, incited by Iris, don’t want to go.  They wildly decide to burn the ships :   it makes no sense to keep sailing.   They are working against Aeneas’s heroic morale-building games.  Peace.  Home.

Aeneas and his men save the ships.  But staying is not a foolish idea.   Aeneas learns from Anchises’ ghost that it would be best to allow some to stay and go on with those who want to travel.

So Virgil has some sympathy for the women.  Aeneas leaves with a smaller number of mainly young men who want to fight.

Oh, poor, poor Aeneas.  But everything will become clear in Book VI when he meets his father in the underworld.

9 thoughts on “Our Winter of the Aeneid: The Trojan Diaspora & the Trojan Women Rebel in Books 3 & 5

  1. The games were wonderful!

    I have a question about what the women cry out while standing on the beach, dreading the thought of having to sail on:

    “Alas! What waters there are,
    And what empty seas for those who are so weary.” — Ferry translation

    There is something awkward about this phrasing. What do they cry out in your translations, and in your own personal translation?


    • Ellen, I love the games, too.
      As for Ferry’s translation, those lines are not as inspired as usual! He usually is a beautiful writer. But it is not awkward in Latin. For instance, Virgil uses two different words (actually a word and a phrase) for seas, vada and tantum maris. Very different.

      Here is my literal translation:

      Alas, so many waters and so many seas (“so much of sea”) remain for the weary, all said with one voice. (And even more literally: “one voice for all,” with ellipsis of the verb).

      And here is Fagles, who turns it into beautiful English, but adds a bit to it:

      “How many reefs, how many sea-miles/ more that we must cross! How heart-weary we are!”
      They cried with one voice.

      And Sarah Ruden interprets something we call an “exclamatory infinite” as an indirect statement, going back to the word “lamented” or “deplored):

      …and all deplored how many seas/
      were yet to cross–how it exhausted them!

      The translators work in a tradition, all building on former translations as well as the Latin. It is fascinating!


  2. You convey wonderfully the book’s sense of weary travail. Polydorus’ death is famous and has inspired other great works: one by the man who wrote Enemies of Promise. Mandelbaum is graphic on Andromache’s speech and grief. The women also grieve for the loss of their men. For them war is never over as its aftermath never goes away. It is so wrong to see this as a little Odyssey. Have you come across the comparisons of parts of the Aeneid with Homer’s two poems. The depth of feeling here distinguishes it. They long for home and the games are supposed to be a release. For me it was just more of the same behavior that caused the war. Aeneas does recuse himself so to speak. Not an easy character to make admirable to today’s readers.


    • Yes, the relationships between Virgil and Homer have long been studied. The Aeneid is parlty a homage to the Odyssey (moslly in the first six books) and the Iliad (the second six)). It is written in literary Latin, though, not in the oral tradition of Homer’s Greek, so has more depth–and is much more difficult for people to understand. Yes, the war-like behavior is constant: the Trojans are very, very tired, and clearly Aeneas wants to throw in the towel, but they all break down at different times in the book.


  3. I adore book 5, it’s an oasis between two intense and emotional books, but there is still plenty of action. The games were so exciting, who thought a boat race could have me turning the pages so fast. This book is really all about Anchises, his presence is everywhere. The serpent in the shrine must be a sign from him, and the 7 coils could mean the 7 hills of Rome.
    He seems to be reassuring the Trojans that they are on the right path. The stirring up of the Trojan women by Iris was a scary piece of writing,Beroe reminded me of Laocoon, able to see the truth and not being listened to in time. I have started on book 6, thank you Kat, for hosting this readalong.


  4. LInda, thank you for your thoughtful comments. I do agree with you: the games honor Anchises, and the descriptions of the games are vivid. Aeneas was unwilling to take control before Anchises’s death, and that’s where some of the extra travel time came in, alas. Aeneas is really in a weak position during these first books, though he does his duty. Now he has to lead, and it is still difficult for him. But this changes in Book VI.

    And stay tuned for another revolt of women!


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