Booklog: The Aeneid

March 6, 2007

The Aeneid
Virgil (translated by Robert Fagles)
Read: 3.3.07
Rating: Extraordinary

“Wars and a man I sing” — in his poem’s first words Virgil makes clear his intention to forge a Roman epic that is a combination of the Iliad (wars) and the Odyssey (a man). As you know, Virgil succeeded wildly. Just as with Don Quixote, typical critical conceptions are out of order, and what will follow is a celebration of some of my favorite parts.

The Aeneid is split evenly into two halves: in books 1-6 Aeneas takes an Odyssean journey in his search for new land that is been promised to him by Fate now that Troy has fallen. In book 7, he lands in Italy, and the tale turns to one of war, as Juno and the Furies wreak havoc on all in sight. The turning point of the story is the magnificent book 6, in which Aeneas visits the kingdom of the dead.

Virgil’s depiction of the afterlife is a marvelous midway point between Odysseus’s trip to Hades and Dante’s realization of this narrative-arch in the Divine Comedy. Reading this passage for the first time, I was surprised by how many Dantean themes are present in Virgil’s text. The afterlife depicted in the Aeneid is occupied by three types of shades: the damned, the righteous, and — most interestingly — those who are being purged before returning to earth. Virgil also has a concept of the body as a prison, not a terribly surprising construct, being that this is post-Plato, but fascinating in its spiritual aspects:

The seeds of life–
fiery is their force, divine their birth, but they
are weighed down by the bodies’ ills or dulled
by earthy limbs and flesh that’s born for death.
That is the source of all men’s fears and longings,
joys and sorrows, nor can they see the heaven’s light,
shut up in the body’s tomb, a prison dark and deep.

Thus, even upon death, many shades are not “wholly freed of all the body’s plagues” and must be “drilled in punishments, they must pay for their old offenses.” These souls drink from the river Lethe for a thousand years, forgetting their old memories:

great armies of souls, their memories blank so that
they may revisit the overarching world once more
and begin to long to return to bodies yet again.

Lovely stuff, metempsychosis.

After Aeneas emerges from the kingdom of the dead and lands in Italy, the battles begin. Virgil begins this section by calling on the Muse Erato (an interesting choice, but this is a tale about one hero stealing another’s finance):

And you, goddess, inspire your singer, come!
I will tell of horrendous wars, tell of battle lines
and princes fired with courage, driven to their deaths,
Etruscan battalions, all Hesperia called to arms.
A greater tide of events springs up before me now,
I launch a greater labor.

Of the various tales that make up Virgil’s “greater labor,” the two that most intrigue me are the role that Juno plays in the tide of events and the power and dynamism of Turnus, the captain who leads the anti-Trojan forces.

Juno hates Aeneas, as she hates all the Trojans, and she’s not pleased that he’s escaped from Troy and founding a new and glorious civilization. Of course, she knows that Fate has decreed that Aeneas will become the father of the Roman race, and that he is destined to marry Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus, the Italian ruler. Lavinia’s mother is hoping that her daughter will marry Turnus, who is an excellent candidate — except for the fact that it’s not destined to be the one; her father knows this, engaging her to Aeneas as soon as it becomes clear that this is the right thing to do. Juno can’t change the conclusion, but she can make everyone’s life miserable in the meantime. After declaring “if I cannot sway the heavens, I’ll wake the powers of hell!” she explains her plan for Aeneas and his bride-to-be:

It’s not for me to deny him his Latin throne? So be it.
Let Lavina be his bride. An iron fact of Fate.
But I can drag things out, delay the whole affair:
that I can do, and destroy them root and branch,
the people of either king. What a price they’ll pay
for the father and son-in-law’s alliance here! Yes,
Latin and Trojan blood will be your dowry, princess–
Bellona, Goddess of War, your maid-of-honor.

This is absolutely ruthless. Accordingly, Juno flies down to earth and unleashes Allecto, one of the Furies, telling her to spread dissension and hatred among the Latins so that they will reject the newly formed pact of peace and instead opt for fury and war.

This situation suits Turnus perfectly. He the Aeneid‘s Achilles, a superhuman warrior who destroys piles of enemy captains. When the description of his feats begin in book nine, Virgil asks the Muses to “inspire me as I sing / what carnage and death the sword of Turnus spread that day […] Come, / help me unroll the massive scroll of war!” Turnus is a fascinating mix of stoicism, especially towards the gods and his fate, and wild-eyed confidence in his own strength and honor. Like Achilles, he is able to rest on his own force, for it is considerable.

I found that in Virgil, compared to Homer, there is less correlation between the will of the gods, with Fate holding an even higher authority, and the sense of justice expressed by Virgil’s poetic voice. The poet often sounds distressed as he describes the unnecessary deaths caused by Juno’s wrath and the fury of the warriors who are only too glad to kill each other. Partially, this is because there are no true enemies in the Aeneid: the Italians and the Trojans will merge to become the Romans, and the fact that so many great men have to die to make this happen is what gives the Aeneid a deep tragedy that the Homeric epics do not have.

In this excellent “Translator’s Postscript,” Robert Fagles (oh, and to say this quickly: the translation is effortless and gorgeous, just the sort of thing I’ve come to expect from his texts) forwards the claim that Virgil is a poet of two voices: one voice is “the public, ‘official’ voice of imperial triumph,” while “the other voice is the muted, intimate voice of loss and suffering, the personal voice that bravely confronts, and unforgettably laments, ‘the burdens of mortality [that] touch the heart’ (1.559).” This double-voiced quality is my single favorite quality of the Aeneid: amidst the journeys and the battles, the poet’s deep sense of sadness and longing for justice — and not the kind of justice dispensed by gods and Fates — is constantly present.

Now what god can unfold for me so many terrors?
Who can make a song of slaughter in all its forms–
the deaths of captains down the entire field,
dealt now by Turnus, now by Aeneas, kill for kill?
Did it please you so, great Jove, to see the world at war,
the people’s clash that would later live in everlasting peace?



  1. I’d like to read this one day (wasn’t this one at the top of that list on what people want to read?) — thanks for the post!

  2. Nice to know the Fagles translation is a good one. After I am done with my ancient Greece reading I am on to Rome. I am greatly looking forward to Virgil, especially after your review.

  3. Indeed, reading the Aeneid after Homer was very revealing — I’m glad I waited. I also think that it will help tremendously as I enter Dante.

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