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Sunday, February 1, 2015

What I’m Reading: The Aeneid


The Aeneid by the Roman poet, Virgil, is another of those books – “the classics” – that for a long
time intimidated me.  Their reputation and their antiquity caused me to hesitate whenever I thought about perhaps reading them.  But no more.  This year I have been reading those classics of western civilization.  I started with Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and now I have finished The Aeneid.

Of the three Virgil’s been my favorite so far.  Mostly because his language is so energetic, so vibrant.

I read The Iliad as translated by Stephen Mitchel and The Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles.  I noted then that the translation of The Odyssey by Fagles seemed less lively, less vigorous than The Iliad as translated by Mitchell, but I also think it was a matter of the story telling itself. The Iliad was very immediate, in the gory visceral present while in The Odyssey much of the action is recounted for us second hand.  We don’t get to experience the siren’s song, or the strange lethargy of the Lotus eaters.  We don’t see Scylla or Charybdis.  Homer has Odysseus tells us about them – and briefly at that.  It breaks the first rule of storytelling: show – don’t tell.

Having read Fagles’ translation of The Aeneid I’m more convinced of that opinion.  Fagles is able to make clear distinction between the poetic stylings of Homer and Virgil.  And Virgil’s poetry is not at all dull or stodgy. Though the story is told as something happening in the distant past, much of the epic poem is written in the present tense: 
“…But all of a sudden, watch,
with a ghastly swoop from the hills the Harpies swarm us -
ruffling, clattering wingbeats – ripping our food to bits,
polluting it all with their foul, corrupting claws,
their obscene shrieks, bursting from the stench.”  (3. 271 -275)
It is immediate.  Visceral.  Effective.

Virgil (at least Virgil as translated by Fagles) also alternates between long complex phrases and short bullet like sentence fragments.  Rhythmic.  Like a heartbeat, racing at times, and calm at others.

Structurally, The Aeneid is the reverse of Homer’s two volumes.  In the Iliad we read about the war for a great city – a war begun because a Trojan (Paris) stole a Greek king’s wife (Helen).  In The Odyssey we read of Ulysses long circuitous journey to get back home after the end of the Trojan War.  Virgil holds up a Roman mirror to Greek Homer’s story.  In the first part of Virgil’s work Aeneus wanders across the Mediterranean Sea (repeatedly blown off course by the vengeful goddess, Juno.)  In the second, we read of a war for a newly founded great city – a war begun because a Trojan (Aeneus) is given a wife (Lavinia) that was assumed to be promised to another. 

There are other similarities as well.  Both Ulysses and Aeneus make a dangerous journey down into the Underworld. And Aeneus, like Achilles, is given a shield made by the god Hephaestus / Vulcan.

There are differences as well; Virgil was no mere imitator of Homer.  One major difference in theme is notable.  In Homer’s work, the Greek heroes are motivated by honor – and by honor besmirched.  Agamemnon launches a thousand ships against Troy when his honor is insulted by Paris (his wife leaving him seems almost secondary…) Achilles sulks in his tent while his compatriots die on the battlefield when his honor is offended.  Ulysses deals harshly with the men who were attempting to woo his wife during his long absence because they did not treat her or his son with the appropriate respect and honor.  But in the Roman Virgil’s epic, it is not honor that motivates his hero.  It is duty. 

Aeneus is described repeatedly as a pious man – which Bernard Knox notes in his introductory comments to this particular volume refers “to devotion and duty to the Divine… but the words pius and pietas have in Latin a wider meaning.  Perhaps the best English equivalent is something like ‘dutiful,’ ‘mindful of one’s duty’ – not only to the gods but also to one’s family and to one’s country. (13)”

This is especially important during Aeneus’ affair with Queen Dido in the city of Carthage.  The two have a passionate relationship, but when he is reminded of his obligations, Aeneus chooses duty over love.


The Aeneid was composed by Virgil (but never fully finished; he died before feeling that it was polished to his satisfaction, and left instructions that it should be destroyed upon his death.  Fortunately for us, this instruction was ignored) as a bit of propaganda.  In the epic poem he describes the legendary journey of Aeneus – who escaped from Troy, wandered across the Mediterranean having strange and dangerous encounters, before settling in Italy and becoming the ancestors of all great Romans.  And Virgil links heroic Aeneus to his patron Caesar Octavius Augustus – the grandnephew and adopted son (and heir) of Julius Caesar.

Virgil seemed quite enamored of Augustus.  During Aeneus’ journey into Hades, he is given a glimpse into the future of Rome.  Virgil writes of his patron:
“Here is the man, he’s here! Time and again
you’ve heard his coming promised – Caesar Augustus!
Son of a god, he will bring back the Age of Gold
to the Latian fields where Saturn once held sway,
expand his empire pas the Garamants and the Indians
to a land beyond the stars, beyond the wheel of the year,
the course of the sun itself, where Atlas bears the skies
and turns on his shoulder the heavens studded with flaming stars.” (6. 913 – 920) 

Was this just flattery for the emperor who was keeping Virgil in work, or was it a sincere expectation of nearly Messianic greatness from Augustus

During this same parade of the future (to Aeneus) greats of Rome, Virgil writes about Julius Caesar as well:
“But you see that pair of spirits? Gleaming in equal armor,
equals now at peace, while darkness pins them down,
but if they should reach the light of life, what war
they’ll rouse between them! Battles, massacres - Caesar,
the bride’s father, marching down from his Alpine ramparts,
Fortress Monaco, Pompey her husband set to oppose him
with the armies of the East.
                                  “No, my sons, never inure
yourselves to civil war, never turn your sturdy power
against your country’s heart.  You, Caesar, you
be first in mercy – you trace your line from Olympus -
born of my blood, throw down your weapons now!” (6.951 – 961)

This refers to the bloody civil war between Julius Caesar and his son-in-law, and friend, General Pompey - which is the subject of the next book I’ll be reading – Pharsalia by Lucan (also sometimes known as Civil War).  You can expect a number of posts on that one; my friend, Joel Watts, and I are going to be collaborating on it for a while.  Joel believes that an appreciation of Lucan will give one a better understanding of the Gospel of Mark.  

It may seem intimidating.  It may appear daunting, but I would encourage you to read the Aeneid.  It is powerful work with action, and adventure, and monsters, and epic battles, and love and loss and tragedy, and hope… With all that, it’s a bit surprising that that Hollywood hasn’t tried to ruin it yet.

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