Virgil, Aeneid (Book IV)



This programme has five main aims:

  1. to extend your ability to read, understand and translate accurately into idiomatic English Vergil’s Aeneid, Book IV;
  2. to gain an appreciation of the literary qualities of Aeneid IV;
  3. to develop through a study of this book a knowledge of some of the main features of Roman epic, including language, style, and metre;
  4. to gain an insight into the Roman concepts of amor and pietas, particularly as revealed in the relationship between Dido and Aeneas;
  5. more generally, to gain an understanding of the themes, general background, and significant allusions of Aeneid IV.


The Aeneid is above all a national epic, both in the breadth of its conception, and in its lofty idealism. Partly for this reason Book IV, the story of Dido’s tragic love for Aeneas, stands in marked contrast to the rest of the work. Indeed it is, more than any of the other eleven books, an almost complete artistic unit within itself.

From the broad epic panorama we pass, temporarily, into a much smaller and more intimate setting - a setting in which our concern is not with the destruction of cities, not with supernatural occurrences, but with the intensely human relationship between two people, and the tragedy to which this leads. Vergil ‘tells of the most real of human experiences, without romanticising it, or in any way hiding its painful wounds. His Dido and his Aeneas are a woman and a man in love; and long after the tragic tale has run its course, the pity of it echoes through all Aeneas’ life and actions, so that it is never possible to think of him as any other but the man whom Dido had loved, and who, despite himself and despite his destiny, had loved Dido.’ (R.G. Austin)

Let us remind ourselves of what has happened in the first three Books of the Aeneid. In Book I Vergil told how Aeneas and his followers were carried by a storm to the coast of North Africa, where they were hospitably received by Dido, Queen of Carthage, who fell in love with Aeneas more or less at first sight. In Books II and III Aeneas has, at Dido’s request, described how the Greeks had captured and burned Troy, and how for the next seven years he and a tiny band of other refugees from Troy had wandered far and wide seeking the promised land of Hesperia, ‘the Land of the Evening Star’, in which, according to prophecy, he was destined to found a great new empire.

The first two words of Book IV - at regina - focus our attention immediately on the tragic figure of Dido, the central figure of this portion of the epic.

A tripartite structure is clearly discernible in this book. ‘Lines 1-295 recount the beginning of the affair; lines 296-503 the alienation; lines 504-705 the end of the affair - Aeneas’ departure and Dido’s suicide. Indeed we can hardly doubt that Vergil consciously intended this division, for each of the three sections has its own clearly marked internal unity, each begins with the entry of the queen and the phrase at regina, and each time the word following that phrase (graui, dolus, pigra) strikes the keynote of the ensuing action.’ (K. Quinn)

We know from Book I that Dido is already deeply in love with Aeneas. And so in Book IV a brief statement of this fact (lines 1-2) is all that is necessary before we begin to follow the progress and consequences of this love.

Note the language used by Vergil in his description of Dido’s passion. In this respect the Latin poet uses more extravagant terms than we are accustomed to use in English. Metaphorical language in such a context is particularly common. The effect of an all-consuming love is likened to that of an all-consuming fire (e.g. caeco carpitur igni) or to that of a weapon which has pierced the flesh of its hapless victim (e.g. graui saucia cura; and again haerent infixi pectore uultus uerbaque). Such metaphors are very appropriate in this context, because of the disastrous consequences of the love affair. They communicate to the reader a sense of impending doom, so helping to establish a tragic atmosphere at the very outset.

The notes

The notes which follow cover all of the aspects listed in the Aims above and should in themselves provide sufficient supportive material for a comprehensive study of Aeneid IV. A number of quotations from editions of the text by various scholars have been included in the notes where the comments they make seem particularly apt. The notes also provide literal translations of a number of passages. These translations are intended to assist you in analysing and interpreting sentences or phrases which may cause you some difficulty. Occasionally the notes provide a freer or more idiomatic translation of a passage as well as a literal one. But generally it will be left to you to compose a final translation, which should of course be expressed in good, idiomatic English.

Literary appreciation

Emphasis will be placed on the various literary qualities of the Aeneid IV. They cover a wide field, and include such things as structure, a number of poetic and aesthetic qualities, and a wide range of dramatic elements. Your appreciation of the literary qualities will be greatly enhanced by an understanding of the metre in which the Aeneid is written. This is the hexameter, the standard metre of epic verse from the time of Homer onwards. Each line of verse consists of six feet, a combination of spondees (two long syllables) and dactyls (a long followed by two short syllables). Guidance on the scansion of hexameter is provided, for example, by C.G. Cooper’s Introduction to the Latin Hexameter.

Technical aspects of style

It is important to realise not only that the language of poetry is different from that of prose, but also in what ways precisely this difference exists. The notes contain a brief examination of some of the basic differences in idiom and construction between Latin prose and verse. Occasional references on grammatical points are made to two books on Latin grammar. The first has the very cumbersome title Mountford’s Revision of Bradley’s Arnold Latin Prose Composition (Longmans Green & Co.) designated by the abbreviation MBA. It has the status of one of the venerable traditional works on Latin grammar. The second, referred to as Reading Latin, is one of the currently widely used publications in the JACT (Joint Association of Classical Teachers) series. Neither should be regarded as compulsory reading, but rather as providing some additional backup material to that contained in the notes. There are of course a range of other grammar reference works which you may prefer to use instead.


This will involve a study of themes, general background, and significant allusions. You should be able to explain all important allusions, and show clearly their relevance and significance within their special context.

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