The Aeneid opens with Virgil's famous words, "I sing of arms and of a man." The narrator describes the impetus behind Aeneas's many struggles: Juno, Queen of the gods, was angered when a Trojan man, Paris, did not choose her as the fairest of the goddesses. She became even more determined to do whatever she could to destroy the Trojans when she learned that the ancestors of these men were fated to bring the downfall of Carthage, the city of which she was patron. Although the Trojans were destined to land at Latium and build a great city that would one day become Rome, Juno spends the entirety of the Aeneid doing all that she can to steer them off course.
Readers first encounter Aeneas and his men while they are at sea, having just left the coast of Italy, and are about to suffer Juno's rage. Juno tells Aeolus, god of the winds, that if he will send a storm to stir up the seas, she will give him a lovely nymph in marriage. Aeolus complies and creates a storm so terrible that Aeneas cries out in dismay, asking the gods what he has done to deserve such hardship.
Aeneas is given respite when Neptune, god of the sea, notices the storm on the surface. Angered that another god has infringed on his territory, he quickly calms the waters. Aeneas and his men then turn their ships toward the coast of Libya. They dock their vessels and happily stretch out on the beach. Aeneas leaves his men to rest and climbs atop a hill looking for other ships, but all he sees are some stags. He slays seven of them and brings the meat back to his comrades for a feast, telling them not to despair, and that the gods will put an end to their trials. He refers to their destiny, saying that the gods have decreed that the Trojans will rise again.
Although Aeneas offers his men words of hope, he is still fearful about what is to come. Venus, Aeneas's mother, asks Jupiter, king of the gods and her father, why he persists in causing such hardships to befall the Trojans. Jupiter, smiling kindly, answers that her son's fate is firm, and that she should not fear what will become of him. He describes the future of the race and the birth of Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome), and says that there will be no limit to the fortunes of the Romans: "I give them empire without end" (390). After this speech, Jupiter sends word that the gates of Carthage should be opened wide and that its ruler, Dido, should offer the men her hospitality.
The next morning, Aeneas sets out with Achates to explore the land. In the woods, his mother, in the guise of a young huntress, reveals herself to him. Aeneas, recognizing that she is a goddess - but not realizing that the being is his mother - asks her to help him and his men. Venus tells him to seek out Dido, and she relates Dido's story: Dido was once married to Sychaeus, a wealthy Phoenician. Her brother, Pygmalion, slew Sychaeus out of desire for his gold. When Sychaeus revealed Pygmalion's treachery to Dido in a dream, she fled the land with her companions and Pygmalion's ill-gotten wealth, and started a new city, Carthage. Finally, Venus reveals her true self to her son, who cries out to her, asking why she mocks him with disguises.
Venus cloaks Aeneas and Achates in a dark fog so that no one can halt them on their journey. They climb a hill and look down on the wondrous city, even mingling unseen with the Tyrians (because they remain hidden in the mist). They come across a shrine that Dido is building for Juno, and they marvel at the city's riches. The art on the walls depicts the fall of Troy, and Aeneas wonders if there is anywhere in the world that does not know of the sorrows of the Trojans.
While Aeneas gazes on the stories, paying particular attention to the story of Troilus and Achilles, Dido approaches the temple and sits down to mete out judgments to her subjects. Aeneas, still hidden in the mist, sees his companions approach to ask for refuge. Dido assures them that she has heard of the greatness of the Trojans and that she will come to their aid. Aeneas and Achates are stirred by her words, and the cloud surrounding them breaks apart. Aeneas is revealed in all his glory, having been invested with a remarkable handsomeness by his mother's hand.
Dido welcomes Aeneas and his comrades into her palace, and Aeneas sends Achates to bring back gifts for her from his ships. Venus, fearing Dido's capricious nature, sends for her son, Cupid, and tells him to inflame Dido with love for Aeneas so that she will not be swayed by Juno's malice. The god of love obeys his mother: he takes on the guise of Ascanius, Aeneas's son, and when Dido draws the young boy close, Cupid uses his breath to fill her with passion for her handsome guest. Dido is so overcome by love for Aeneas that she draws out the night's feasting, asking him to relate his sad tale so that he may stay at her side a few hours longer.
Book I of the Aeneid is particularly interesting not only because it introduces several main characters (including Aeneas, Venus, Juno, Jupiter, and Dido), but also because it introduces a number of themes that are found throughout the poem. First and foremost, we are introduced to the gods, and we become familiar with their tendency to meddle in mortal lives. The gods each have specific personalities, with their own attachments, and they often use mortals to further their own ends. Juno is the driving force behind the Aeneid: her passionate hatred for the Trojans drives the plot of the novel, as she steers them into one treacherous situation after another. Venus, Aeneas's mother, acts as her son's protector, entreating several other gods (including Jupiter and Cupid) to help her combat Juno's wrath.
Juno is particularly noteworthy; as David Denby writes, she appears to be literally the embodiment of Virgil's apparent fear of feminine power. Strikingly few female characters in the poem are fleshed out. The only mortal females with any real power are Dido and Camilla; women such as Creusa and Lavinia are left floundering on the periphery of the epic. Juno, by contrast, is a wildly ferocious being, with the sole apparent motive of destroying Aeneas's life and turning him away from his destiny. She is so single-minded in her determination to harm Aeneas that her desire to settle an old score seems hardly enough of a reason; perhaps Virgil intended her activity as an example of the dangers of women with too much power. Women do not seem suited for leadership roles in Virgil's tale: witness Dido's inability to dampen her passion in order to properly rule her citizens in Book IV.
Another important element of the Aeneid first introduced in Book I is the idea of the Trojans' fate. Although the gods can help or harm mortals on the path towards their destinies, they are ultimately unable to dictate the course of fate. Jupiter, it seems, is the only one who can truly alter fate, and he is decidedly unwilling to do so. Throughout the epic, he looks on with an almost amused air as the other gods and goddesses rush about causing problems in the mortal world, and he only interferes when he thinks that one of them has gone too far (such as in Book XII, when a goddess wounds a mortal - something he takes as quite inappropriate). When Venus approaches Jupiter and asks him for assistance with the Trojans, he assures her that the fate of her son is set, and that nothing can sway the Trojans from their destiny to land in Lautium and become an empire greater than all others: "It is decreed/ that there the realm of Troy will rise again" (287-288).
A third important element that is first found in Book I is the idea of Rome's greatness. Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil refers repeatedly to Aeneas's destiny to found a remarkable empire filled with the children of the gods. Since Virgil was a patron of Emperor Augustus and would have been playing to Roman audiences, this was clearly a technique intended to lend appeal to his tale. What Roman would not have enjoyed a story offering such a romantic interpretation of his ancestry?
If there is any thesis behind Virgil's work, it is that destiny must be fulfilled at all costs, but that such fulfillment will inevitably necessitate enormous sacrifice. At the end of each book of the Aeneid, there is a death. Virgil's great poem offers sadness and despair almost beyond comprehension, but it also suggests an inevitability found in few other comparable works. Virgil does not dwell in the misery, however; he offers a vision of action and destiny marching on unimpeded even as the body count steadily grows higher. Sacrifices must be made, but they are made in the course of fulfilling one's fate, and there is no alternative.