Aeneas and his fleet are at sea, and looking back they see the flames of Dido's funeral pyre. They don't know what causes the flames, but knowing what a woman driven mad by passion is capable of, they imagine the worst.
Then a storm comes up, and the pilot Palinurus says that it's hopeless to reach Italy with these winds. They are near the last port they landed in before Carthage, a city in Sicily ruled by a friend named Acestes, and Aeneas happily gives in to the storm and lands where his father's bones are buried. In fact, they have arrived just a year after Anchises's death, and Aeneas is glad to be able to pay the reverence to his father due on this day, and to pay it here where he lies buried. They will hold "funeral games," athletic contests in honor of the dead, as is the custom. First come the rituals at the grave, then the contests.
Four ships race, and a footrace and a bloody boxing match are held. All are closely fought contests, in which the participants are even willing to risk their lives in their eagerness for glory, and to sabotage others that their friends may win. Aeneas presides like a kind father, giving generous prizes even to those who lose when they seem to deserve them. Then the young Trojans take part in a mock battle on horseback, of the kind, Virgil tells us, still performed by young Romans today.
All has gone well, but now disaster strikes-Juno is at work again. The Trojan women are down on the beach near the ships performing their duty of weeping for Anchises, when Iris, messenger of the gods, is sent by Juno to impersonate one of them and stir the women up to burn the ships, so that they can stay where they are and no longer have to chase this Italy that seems to keep fleeing from them. The women are roused to frenzy, and the ships blaze up. Aeneas and his men try vainly to put out the flames, until Aeneas prays to Jupiter for help, and Jupiter sends drenching rain, saving all but four of the ships. Aeneas, close to despair, is tempted to give up his quest, "forgetful of his fate," and settle in Sicily, as the women hoped he would when they burned the ships, but an older companion consoles him-they must follow their destiny and win it by enduring whatever comes. Let him leave with Acestes all those who are weary of the sea and fearful of war; they can build a city there.
Aeneas is still divided as to what to do, but that night the image of his father comes to him and tells him to obey the advice of his companion and sail with only the best of his young men to Italy, to face the wars there. But first he is to come down into the Underworld to meet Anchises and learn all about the future of his people. After Anchises speaks, he melts into the air like smoke, and Aeneas cries out-why can he not embrace his father?
Aeneas follows his father's commands, laying out a city for those who, not desiring fame, are to remain behind. After nine days of feasting and the appropriate sacrifices, the Trojans sail; those who are being left behind feel such grief that now they are ready to go on. Aeneas comforts them, and, weeping himself, leaves them in the care of Acestes.
As the Trojans sail on, Venus complains to Neptune about all Juno has done, and begs that now they may reach the shores of the Tiber in safety. Neptune reassures her-he has saved Aeneas before, and he will now. Only one man will have to die. Aeneas sails on joyfully in fair weather, with his faithful pilot Palinurus setting the course in the first ship. That night the god of sleep overcomes Palinurus as he steers, and he falls into the sea. Feeling the ship adrift without Palinurus at the helm, Aeneas takes the helm himself, weeping, shaken by the loss of his friend.
The eagerness for glory of those who compete in the funeral games foreshadows what is to come in the war to be fought in Italy. Otherwise, the games seem chiefly a blessed respite, one that shows Aeneas in that most respected of Roman roles, that of a father to his men. When Juno, the embodiment of all those forces in the universe that seem to work against the fulfillment of destiny and the happiness of humanity, strikes again, in the burning of the ships, Aeneas is once more in despair, and it seems appropriate that he should be called down to the Underworld for a meeting with his own father.
In stories of heroes, the Underworld is often a place of contact with a source of power and subsequent transformation, as Joseph Campbell has pointed out in his book, Hero with a Thousand Faces.
As so often in the Aeneid, a time of respite, of hope for relief, is followed by trouble, and that pattern is repeated again at the end of the book-joyful sailing in fair weather followed by the loss of Aeneas's friend and pilot. Always there is the price to be paid for following one's destiny.