The Aeneid

The Aeneid Summary and Analysis of Book III

At the opening of Book III, Troy has fallen and now lies in smoking ruins. Aeneas and his men build a fleet of ships that they hope will carry them to the land - as yet unknown - where they are destined to settle and build a great new city. Weeping, Aeneas watches as the shores of his homeland recede in the distance.

The Trojans first dock in the city of Aeneadae, where they offer the sacrifice of a white bull to Venus and the other gods. Shortly thereafter, though, they see a terrible omen: when Aeneas tries to tear a branch from a tree for the altar, the tree moans and drips black blood. Twice more he tries to rip away a branch, and is met with the same result. Finally, he hears a voice coming from the earth: it is Polydorous, a Trojan who was slain by the king of Thrace. He begs Aeneas to take him out of the cursed land and give him a real funeral, and Aeneas complies.

Setting out once again upon the ocean, they find Dardanus, a sacred island blessed by Apollo. They are greeted by Anchises's old friend, King Anius, and offer homage to the gods. They are met by another omen when Apollo's voice tells them to seek out the land of their ancestors, for it is there that "Aeneas' house will rule all coasts,/ as will his sons' sons and those born of them" (129-130). The men confer about where this ancestral land could be, and Anchises suggests that they head for Crete.

Upon the fleet's arrival in Crete, Aeneas founds a city, which he calls Pergamum. They live there for only a short time, however, before a plague strikes the residents and the crops fall into waste. One night, the Phrygian household gods that Anchises carried out of Troy come to Aeneas in a dream, telling him that his destiny lies elsewhere, in a land called "Italy," where the founders of the Dardan race were born. Aeneas tells Anchises of his vision, and Anchises realizes that he has made an error.

After Aeneas and his men have once again set out upon the waters in search of their home, the seas are thrown into turmoil, and they lose their way in the darkness. After four days, they dock on an island in the Ionian Sea, home of the Harpies, who are terrible monsters with the faces of beautiful virgins and the dripping, gruesome bodies of birds. The men make a great feast for themselves from the herds of cattle they find in the fields, but just as they are about to sit down to eat the Harpies descend on the tables and make off with the food. This happens once again, but on the third try the Trojans are ready: they attack the birds as they swoop in for the third time. Celaeno, the leader of the Harpies, curses the Trojans, saying that they will not land in their promised city until they have been gripped by a terrible hunger.

The Trojans are terrified by the curse, and Anchises calls on the gods to save them. They flee the island and dock in Leucata, where they offer sacrifices to Apollo and engage in a series of games. The Trojans next land in the city of Buthrotum, governed by Helenus, brother of Hector, with Hector's widow Andromache, now married to Helenus. When Andromache lays eyes on the familiar Trojans she is stunned. She tells them the story of how she and her companions escaped from Pyrrhus's rule after the fall of Troy. Finally Helenus approaches and welcomes his friends with a feast.

After several days, Aeneas asks the prophet Helenus what course he should take. Helenus answers that the land they seek is far off, and that they should build their city where they see a sign: a huge white sow with a litter of thirty sucklings. He warns them of the multitude of dangers that they may face along their journey, including the fearful sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. He offers them guidance on how to avoid these dangers, and he reminds them to be sure to offer homage to Juno. Helenus also tells Aeneas that he should seek out the sibyl of Cumae, who will offer him further advice.

Finally, Aeneas and his men must take leave of Butrothum, much to Andromache's dismay. As advised by Helenus, they take the shortest path across the waves and at last see the low coastline of Italy. Aeneas sees four white horses grazing on a plain, and Anchises cries out that the vision is an omen both of war and of peace. The men offer sacrifices to Juno and return to the waters. They hear the frightful Scylla and Charybdis in the distance but avoid their terrors thanks to Helenus's guidance.

The weary voyagers settle for the night on the island of the Cyclops. The next morning, they are approached by a haggard stranger, a Greek named Achaemenides who tells them that he was left behind by his companions in the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus. Although his companions had blinded the monster, they were chased to their boats by a hundred more Cyclops, deserting Achaemenides on the shore. The Trojans take pity on the Greek and allow him to join them. They escape to the boats just in time, with the Cyclops close on their heels.

Aeneas and his men skirt a number of small islands, stopping at several to offer sacrifices to the gods, and arrive at last on the coast of Drepanum. It is there that Anchises dies, and this is where Aeneas finishes his tale. The final verse returns us to Dido's palace, where Aeneas has fallen silent at last.


One of the more challenging aspects of reading the Aeneid is getting a sense of the time frame during which the action takes place. Book III, for example, covers many years of wandering, although the time appears to pass by in little more than a few weeks. The intensity of long years aboard a ship may be difficult for modern readers to appreciate, but Virgil draws attention to the laboriousness of the travel and the harshness of the conditions by frequently having Aeneas cry out to the gods, asking them to put an end to his struggle.

In Book III, Aeneas and his men have an extraordinary number of adventures, none of which is given detailed attention. They encounter (or very nearly miss) a number of monsters - the Harpies, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis - but none of these episodes appears particularly "important"; they are accorded not very many lines. In this manner, Virgil separates himself from Homer's descriptions of battles against otherworldly creatures. Virgil's story is about humanity and about the very human challenges of love, sacrifice, and loss, elements he finds far more interesting than battles against imaginary beasts.

A particularly interesting episode in Book III occurs when Aeneas and his men take in the wretched Achaemenides, a Greek warrior whom they find wandering on the island of the Cyclops. In light of Sinon's betrayal, the decision to allow a Greek to join them may seem questionable at best and naïve at worst, but their kindness pays off, and Achaemenides becomes part of their crew. The Trojans, it appears, are men of such remarkable virtue that they will not punish one man for the sins of another - they are willing to give those in need the benefit of the doubt.

Book III offers audiences a great deal of foreshadowing in the form of guidance. As a prophet Helenus, for example, outlines in detail many of the challenges that Aeneas and his men will face, and Helenus even warns them against taking certain routes on the way to their destination. Throughout the story, Aeneas and his men often meet prophets and gods who tell them where to go and how to get there, reinforcing the idea that they are in the hands of fate and will be given any divine help necessary to ensure that they fulfill their destiny.

A perplexing aspect of Book III is the manner in which Anchises's death is treated. It occurs extremely abruptly and receives only a few short lines: "It is here that - after all/ the tempests of the sea - I lose my father,/ Anchises, stay in every care or crisis." Audiences are left to assume that Aeneas's father died of old age, but given the importance of their relationship, it seems strange that no description is given of his death or burial. One possible explanation for this is that Virgil is attempting to convey that Aeneas is so deeply stricken by the death that he can only speak of it in the briefest of terms.