Last spring I began to blog, intermittently at best, on some of the passages we were reading in my AP Vergil class; it was meant both as an outlet for my ideas and to spur my students to greater thought about the passages than we had time for in class. I have finally begun again this year, and to the extent that I am able to stick with it (I'd like to post two or three times a week), I will be cross-posting on eClassics. I would love to read any comments that people have, either here or on the blog itself, at http://apvergil.blogspot.com. So, without further ado...
"We had a focus question a few days ago asking why Vergil chose to begin the action of the Aeneid with the storm scene. Among many good observations was one particularly interesting point - that it provides an opportunity for Vergil to introduce several different gods very early on in the epic. In these lines, we are introduced to Neptune, a fascinating choice for several reasons. First of all, Neptune is traditionally opposed to the Trojans - he supports the Greeks in the Trojan War - yet here he is saving them from the storm. It is worth noting that Neptune does save Aeneas from Achilles in the Iliad, stating that he is guiltless (Apollo egged Aeneas on to fight Achilles), pious in his sacrifices (sound familiar?), and destined to carry on the Trojan race. Secondly, this is Neptune's one significant appearance in all of the Aeneid. Why does Vergil give him this important scene at the very beginning of the story, then never return to him?
I would suggest that Vergil's purpose here is to lay the foundation for the behavioral code of the gods throughout the epic. Neptune is an apt choice because he is an important god yet does not have a stake in the outcome, and thus he can be representative of the gods as a whole, regardless of whether they are for or against Aeneas and the Trojans. Furthermore, Neptune is compared to a respected man calming a crowd - it is essentially an image that parallels Roman society, whether the gravis pietate et meritis represents an important Senator of the Republican period or Augustus, who would later claim in the Res Gestae that he wielded power through the reverential respect others gave him. As we progress through the rest of the story, we will see the council of the gods patterned closely on the Roman Senate, and Neptune's appearance here may be presaging that depiction.
There is more to the way that the gods behave than this similarity to the Roman Senate, though. If we examine the passage closely, Neptune does not seem to be acting because the Trojans are in trouble; rather, he is acting because his traditional area of power has been infringed upon. When he becomes aware of the storm and rises up to survey the situation, he does see Aeneas' plight and understand its source, but his words to the winds do not address Aeneas' situation at all; rather, he chastises the winds for disturbing his realm and instructs them to tell Aeolus to boast in his own halls and stay out of Neptune's business. Even as he pulls Aeneas' ships off the rocks, he is merely restoring the sea to its pre-storm situation; he never says a word to Aeneas and he is gliding away in his chariot as soon as things are back to normal. When we take these actions in concert with Juno's complaints a few lines earlier that no one will worship her if she is unable to destroy the Trojans, we find that the gods are supremely concerned with protecting their particular province and, along with it, their reputation. In the do ut des world of ancient Greek and Roman religion, such an attitude is natural on the part of the gods - if they do not project an image of strength, control, and power for their prospective worshippers, they will lose those worshippers.
Finally, a small note that perhaps also fits in with this idea. I have always been amused at the particular winds that Neptune abuses - Eurus and Zephyrus. Eurus, of course, we have seen before; along with Notus and Africus, he has been merrily destroying everything in his path. Zephyrus, on the other hand, we encounter for the first time - we have not seen him destroying anything; this is for good reason, as Zephyrus, the west wind, is traditionally the gentlest of the winds, and is also known as the messenger of spring. Is he just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, or does Neptune perhaps know full well that Zephyrus is essentially innocent, but Neptune believes that the harsher he appears, the more respect he will also gain?
In any case, those were my (very long-winded) thoughts about this particular passage. Responses, either to these particular ideas or to the passage in general, are always welcome."