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.