Arms and the Man: Thoughts on the Aeneid’s Opening Lines

The opening lines of the Aeneid are absolutely essential to its understanding. In the genre of epic poetry, the very first words tell us what the story is going to be about and what we should expect from it. The poet, invoking the power of the Muse, defines the major topics of his story. So, before saying anything else about the Aeneid, let us just dive right into the opening verses:

“Arms and the man I sing of Troy, who first from its seashores,
Italy-bound, fate’s refugee, arrived at Lavinia’s
Coastlands. How he was battered about over land, over high deep
Seas by the powers above! Savage Juno’s anger remembered
Him, and he suffered profoundly in war to establish a city,
Settle his gods into Latium, making this land of the Latins
Future home to the Elders of Alba and Rome’s mighty ramparts.
Muse, let the memories spill through me. What divine will was wounded,
What deep hurt made the queen of the gods thrust a famously righteous
Man into so many spirals of chance to face so many labours?
Anger so great: can it really reside in the spirits of heaven?”

—Aeneid I.1-11

With these words, the Roman poet Vergil begins his Aeneid, one of the greatest works of literature in the western world. In the Latin language, he recalls the towering giants of Greek epic poetry, the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. The Iliad is a story of war, about the powerful and destructive rage of Achilles. The Odyssey is a story of long journeys, about the man of twists and turns, Odysseus. Vergil shows his intent to outdo Homer. He essentially hopes to capture the literary essence of both the Odyssey and the Iliad and recreate them in a Roman context. He sings of arms and the man.

The first words of the Aeneid in Latin are “Arma virumque cano”. If we translate the words literally and maintain the original word order, this literally says, “Arms man and I sing.” What do you notice here? Latin does not use an article, definite or indefinite. In English, we must say either “a man” or “the man”. In Latin, there is no such distinction. Anyone who attempts to translate the Aeneid must decide whether to make the hero of poem, Aeneas, “the man” or “a man”. Does it make very much difference which one we use?

In English, calling someone “the man” implies that this is a very specific man, an individual with certain qualities that mark him out as being different and unique. One who is just “a man” is simply a man like any other. He is a man among equals, no longer the greatest among men. The translation I read, by Frederick Ahl, uses “the man” to describe Aeneas, and I think, in this case, that Ahl is probably correct to do so. Aeneas is, after all, the hero of the epic. He is not meant to be just like any other man. He is meant to exemplify the greatest of heroic values, and so, I think he should be “the man”. The popular Fagles translation of the Odyssey uses “the man” to describe Odysseus and Ahl follows the same principle. He builds on the idea that the heroes of these epics are unique individuals and not just any ordinary men.

Let’s move on. Vergil devotes here a significant amount of time describing the consequences of Juno’s anger, how it caused such great suffering to Aeneas as he tried to found the Roman bloodline. In a similar fashion, the Iliad begins with a description of Achilles’ rage and how it brought many sufferings to the Greek soldiers at Troy. In the Aeneid, the primary conflict is driven by the endless rage of an immortal goddess, while the main sequence of events in the Iliad stems from the anger of a mere mortal, Achilles.

Perhaps I should not call Achilles a “mere” mortal. His mother, Thetis, was a goddess of the sea: he is half-divine, and so, he treads the line between man and god. The sheer extent of his rage reaches beyond ordinary proportions into the realm of divine beings. He is, though, still mortal, like any other man. His rage cannot be limitless. Priam, the king of Troy and father of Hector, comes to Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s body. Achilles is reminded of his own father and at that moment, when he recognizes the shared fate of humanity, his anger ceases. He now sees past the haze of war to share a meal with Priam, before offering to return Hector’s body.

So, as I read this description of Juno’s rage, I wondered what the difference is between divine rage and the anger of a man. Perhaps immortality allows a god’s wrath to flow unceasingly, while a man’s limited time in this world prevents such a thing from occurring.

Vergil asks if it is truly possible for such anger to exist in the spirits of heaven. Maybe the answer is yes, that gods do feel rage, that the Romans need to respect these spiteful, vengeful beings or be destroyed. The answer might be no, that nobody can really carry such rage within, that the gods worshipped by the Romans ought to be benevolent beings instead. Vergil, for now, leaves the question unanswered.

From a Christian perspective, the second option is more desirable, for God is a benevolent and forgiving being. But Vergil lived in a different age, where the Roman gods—borrowed from the Greeks—reigned supreme. In this world, people sacrificed to the gods to earn their blessings and to avoid destruction. In the tradition of Greek literature, relied heavily upon by Vergil, the gods are almost human-like in their pettiness, their grudges, and their self-interested desires. It remains to be seen how Juno’s anger is portrayed and what sort of opinion Vergil has (or does not have) regarding the rage of divine beings.

So, that’s it, for now. Join me next time as I continue to read through the first book of the Aeneid. We’ll move past the opening lines and into the plot of the story itself.

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2 thoughts on “Arms and the Man: Thoughts on the Aeneid’s Opening Lines

  1. Great breakdown of the opening lines! I’ve recently translated them myself and I was considering plodding along through Book I as well. I’d be interested to follow your thoughts as I work on my translation 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comment! I am very grateful that you took the time to leave a reply on this newly-published blog of mine. I will definitely take a look at your translation as soon as I have a chance. I have not yet learned much Latin, so I can’t comment on accuracy, but I’ll let you know what my thoughts are regarding readability, flow, and so on.

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