Summary and Analysis
As the Trojan fleet leaves Carthage behind, Aeneas sees flames lighting the city, and although he is unaware that the fire is from Dido's funeral pyre, he fears for his former lover because he knows that thwarted love has made her desperate. Soon thereafter, an immense storm threatens the ships, and Aeneas follows his pilot Palinurus's advice and sails for Sicily, taking refuge at Drepanum. From there, a year earlier, the Trojans had set out for Italy, only to be swept off course to Carthage. Once again, King Acestës receives them hospitably.
The next morning, Aeneas summons his people and announces that he is going to celebrate funeral rites in memory of his father, Anchises, who died on their previous visit to Drepanum and was buried here. Additionally, Aeneas will hold various athletic games in Anchises's honor. He then makes ceremonial sacrifices at his father's tomb, in the course of which a giant serpent appears. The serpent's puzzling presence seems harmless.
There follows a lengthy description of the athletic games: a hectic rowing contest, in which four ships of the fleet compete strenuously with one another; a foot race, in which Nisus, who falls and loses his own chance of winning, unscrupulously trips another competitor in order to ensure that his beloved friend, Euryalus, will win; a bloody prizefight between two muscular boxers, the Trojan Darës and Entellus, a subject of Acestës; and a display of archery skills made memorable by the flight of an arrow, shot by Acestës, which portentously bursts into flame and disappears from sight. The contests are followed by a cavalry display by the young men, including Ascanius, who will become the forefather of the Romans.
At this point, the happy occasion is spoiled by Juno: She sends the goddess Iris to stir up discontent among the Trojan women, who are tired of traveling and would like to settle permanently in Drepanum. Disguised as one of the women, Iris incites them to set fire to the Trojan ships. Fortunately, Aeneas is notified in time to address prayers for help to Jupiter, who sends a rainstorm that douses the fire, sparing all but four of the ships from destruction.
Aeneas, after wondering if it might be best to forgo his destiny and settle on Sicily, decides to permit the dissenters who want to remain on Sicily to do so. He is encouraged in this plan by Nautës, a Trojan elder, and by Anchises, who appears to him at night in a vision and informs him that shortly they will meet in the underworld after Aeneas has landed in Italy. With the warm approval of Acestës, Sicilian land for a settlement is divided among the Trojans who wish to stay.
After nine days of feasting and sacrificing to honor the site of the new Trojan city, Aeneas and his remaining companions set sail in their refurbished ships for Italy. All appears to be going well, but Venus, concerned as ever for the security of her son and his people, asks Neptune to guarantee a safe journey for the Trojans. Neptune promises to do as Venus asks, but he tells her that one Trojan must be sacrificed in return for the safety of the rest.
That night, Somnus, the god of sleep, causes Palinurus, who keeps watch in the lead ship, to drowse and fall into the sea — he is the sacrifice that Neptune demanded for calm seas. Aeneas, aware that the ship is out of control, takes over the steering, lamenting the loss of his faithful pilot. Book V ends with landfall near.
Book V, like Book III, is less dramatic than those surrounding it. The book that precedes it, which deals with the tragic love of Dido, might be described as a narrative apex whose emotional intensity is enhanced by its being in marked contrast to the generally more placid mood of Books III and V. Book V offers not only a relaxation — in this instance, an easing of tension following the account of Dido's passion and suicide — but a more or less down-to-earth story that heightens, by way of contrast, the otherworldly atmosphere of the book that follows it, in which Aeneas will descend into the land of the dead.
While the emotional pitch of Book V is lower than that of its adjacent episodes, it has moments of excitement and contains downright harrowing incidents. The happy and festive funeral games are followed by the raging fire that, but for Jupiter's intervention, would have destroyed Aeneas's fleet, and by the loss of Aeneas's beloved pilot, Palinurus, who disappears in the sea just before the Trojans reach Italy.
Stylistically, Book V's ending is balanced by its beginning, when Virgil introduces Palinurus as Aeneas's able-bodied, pragmatic helmsman. Palinurus's death, which recalls Anchises's at the end of Book III, exemplifies how Virgil interweaves the dark and bright strands of human existence to achieve a subtly balanced and nuanced vision of reality. His commitment to his theme, the glory of Rome, does not blind him to an awareness of the sorrow that accompanies even the most fortunate lives.
While Aeneas by now has been given good reason to believe that his mission is destined to succeed, he is occasionally tried to the point of doubting or forgetting that fate is on his side. For example, after the Trojan women set fire to his fleet of ships, he asks whether or not he should forgo his destiny and make his home on Sicily. Fortunately, he listens to Nautës and his father's ghost, both of whom urge him onward to Italy. That Aeneas respects Nautës's opinion exemplifies what a good ruler he has become. He will hear advice from any who offer it, although the final decision, of course, is his entirely. His parceling land to those Trojans who are tired of traveling and wish to remain on Sicily recalls his similar actions in Book III, after the wanderers reached Crete.
Twice in Book V, Aeneas demonstrates his savvy as a leader who knows what speech to give at the appropriate time. After the foot race in which Nisus trips Salius so that Euryalus will win, many spectators balk at Euryalus's proclaiming victory. However, Aeneas decisively settles the matter by declaring Euryalus as the winner. Magnanimously, he gives a gift to Salius and even to Nisus. What is most noticeable is that after Aeneas passes judgment, no one questions his decision: The crowd acquiesces to his ruling. And later, when the boxer Darës loses his match to Entellus, Aeneas shifts the blame for Darës's loss from the boxer's lack of athletic prowess to that which the boxer cannot control: "Don't you feel / A force now more than mortal is against you / And heaven's will has changed? We'll bow to that!" By using the plural "we," Aeneas consoles Darës: If the great Aeneas cannot battle the will of the gods, why does Darës think he can? Aeneas's tactic works well, and Darës is placated.
Another familiar role of Aeneas's, that of the good son, is highlighted by his fulfilling the vow he made to Anchises to celebrate the anniversary of his death. Still deeply respectful of his father, Aeneas's resolve to honor him is noble: "Were I today exiled in Libyan sands / Or caught at sea off Argos, or detained / in walled Mycenae, still I should carry out / My anniversary vows and ceremonies, / Heaping the altars, as I should, with offerings." Aeneas sacrifices to the gods out of respect for Anchises and honors him with celebratory athletic games.
The detailed funeral rites for Anchises would have been familiar to Virgil's contemporary readers. The exemplary piety of Aeneas as he performs the rites is another example of Virgil's infusing the Trojans with virtues that he considered uniquely Roman. He habitually imparts prestige to Roman practices, institutions, and ways of feeling and behaving by tracing their origins to these much-admired people of legend.
Likewise, the athletic games that follow the funeral rites have Roman associations with the Actian games, which Augustus inaugurated in 28 B.C., and which were held every four years thereafter to celebrate the emperor's decisive victory over Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. Augustus was particularly fond of the "lusus Troiae," or "game of Troy," the display of horsemanship with which Virgil concludes the contests in Book V, thus attributing to it a prestigious Trojan origin. As Virgil notes, "Great Rome took up this glory of the founder." This ceremonial equine procession was customarily performed by noble Roman youths, some of whose families claimed descent from the Trojans, among them Ascanius, who was the reputed ancestor of Julius Caesar, the father by adoption of Augustus. Very neatly, Virgil ties all of the genealogical strings together, linking his real Roman present with the legendary Trojan past. His appealing to the past for legitimacy, exceptionally forceful at this point in the Aeneid, anticipates the revelation of Rome's future glory, which awaits Aeneas in the next book.
profaned desecrated, debased, or defiled.
abeam at right angles to a ship's length or keel.
northing Naut. the distance due north covered by a vessel traveling on any northerly course.
interred put into a grave or tomb; buried.
propitious that favors or furthers; advantageous.
affrighted [Archaic] frightened; terrified.