The Aeneid by Virgil (trans. Robert Fagles)

(I originally read this book and wrote this post on May 19th 2009)

When I think of epics I think of larger-than-life characters playing out tragic roles and desires against a world-wide backdrop. I think of Tragic Queen Dido committing suicide over being spurned by her lover, patriotic Turnus rousing a country to arms against an enemy invader, spirited warrior-princess Camilla showing that Italian women can hold their own in a fight with men, pious Aeneas obeying the will of fate at the expense of his own desires, wise Anchises foreseeing the future, angry and jealous Juno antagonizing the remnants of the Trojans. These are the characters that populate Rome’s national epic written during the transition of Rome from republic to empire. In a literal act of cultural imperialism, the work appropriates from its Greek predecessors, especially Homer, for the purpose of ideological and literary justification of Roman dominance over the world.

In the epic, Aeneas survives the destruction of Troy in order to found a city that will eventually become Rome. Juno, still angry with Troy and foreseeing that Rome will someday become an enemy of her beloved Carthage, bribes the keeper of the winds to blow Aeneas off course. When Poseidon takes control of the seas, Aeneas finds himself in Carthage, the African city founded by a Phoenician exile from Tyre, Queen Dido. In Dido’s courtroom, Aeneas recounts the last days of Troy and his journeys up to this point, which causes Dido to fall madly in love with him. The honeymoon is short-lived as Jove sends Mercury down to remind Aeneas about his fated mission to Italy. Dido berates her new lover’s unfaithfulness, then commits suicide, but only after promising eternal enmity between their two peoples, which is a literary explanation for the actual historical conflict between Rome and Carthage. When Aeneas arrives in Italy he must first travel to the underworld where his dead father, Anchises, reveals to him all of Rome’s future history. Then Aeneas returns to the world of the living and draws up a peace pact with a Latin King to marry his daughter, Lavinia. Juno with the help of a monstrous fury convinces Turnus, a Latin suitor who was originally supposed to marry Lavinia, to gather an army and expel the invading Trojans. An all-out war ensues, which only ends with a one-on-one fight between Aeneas and Turnus.

Virgil borrows from both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The first half of the epic is modeled on the Odyssey, even down to a scene where Aeneas finds a man left behind by Odysseus on the island of the Cyclops. The purpose of this scene is to give the impression that Aeneas is following in the trail of Odysseus (just as Virgil’s own epic is literally following in the trail of Homer’s work), while emphasizing the cruelty and untrustworthy nature of the Greeks. The second half of the epic is based on the Iliad, with characters like Turnus believing themselves to be the equal of Achilles and preparing to destroy the Trojans once and for all. Like the Iliad, which didn’t capture my interest much, I struggled with the second half of the Aeneid, full of endless descriptions of battle and random tertiary characters, while I really enjoyed the first half. Another detriment to my enjoyment of the second half of the Roman epic was the fact that we know Aeneas cannot lose; he is destined to win.

The epic functions primarily as a founding myth for Rome. Prophecies appear throughout the work foreshadowing some Rome’s most famous historical figures. Aeneas’ shield features imagery of great scenes from Roman history that is yet to unfold. We even learn about the origins of the conflicts that will afflict the future Rome to be, such as its fight with Carthage for world dominance, which is explained via the episode with the jilted Dido. The reason Rome needed a stronger founding mythology and epic can be explained by the fact that it was a young civilization conquering many civilizations far older than itself.

In no uncertain terms the work justifies imperialism. Virgil appropriates Homer’s ancient war as an apologia for Roman imperialism. By claiming that Romans are the descendants of the survivors of Troy it provides an ancient lineage that puts Rome on par with the other ancient civilizations it had conquered and defends Roman imperialism of the Hellenistic world as an act of revenge for the ancient destruction of Troy by the Greeks. You destroyed and conquered our city, now our descendants are repaying the favor.

With that in mind, it is not surprising we see a very distinct portrait painted of the Greeks, especially in the extremely moving book II where Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy, which happens to be one of the best scenes in all of literature for its potent portrayal of impotency, death, and destruction of a civilization. Virgil depicts the Greeks as cunning, clever, dishonest, and skilled rhetoricians. We see in this depiction how the Romans viewed and stereotyped the Greeks. The lying manipulative Odysseus epitomizes the Greeks, a man who as the reworking of the Cyclops scene from the Odyssey demonstrates, would leave a fellow Greek behind to save his own skin. Meanwhile, the Trojans are always portrayed as honest, genuine, straightforward, risking life and limb for a man, even as their society crumbles around them. The Latins are shown as rustic hearty people of the land, tough and masculine. The combination of the Trojans and Latins reveals how the Romans thought of themselves.

The epic, however, is not solely ideological. It has contributed immensely to general literary aesthetics. The most obvious contribution is during the underworld scenes when Aeneas visits Anchises and its influence on Dante. Reading the descriptions in this scene, you would almost swear that Dante had written the book as opposed to Virgil. Likewise, Aeneas’s struggles with duty and individuality is not only a Roman social problem, but an issue that I imagine many individuals struggle with today. There are many times when we must struggle to find a balance between our own desires and our responsibilities to others. If arête (moral virtue or excellence) is the main idea guiding Homeric epic, then pietas (loosely translated as “duty,” but a much broader concept) is the main idea guiding Roman Epic. Aeneas must obey the will of the gods and his destiny even at the expense of his own desires. This is why he has no choice but to abandon Dido. This robotic piety is the reason many dislike Aeneas as a character. He follows his orders without asking many questions.

Another major theme is that of loss. If the story is always looking towards the future empire to come, it also always bemoans the fading past. The past is always in retreat in the story. In practically every book another old friend from Troy dies, another link to the past fades with the cruel passing of time. Aeneas founds a great dynasty that shall rule the world, but it comes at a hefty price. It comes at the price of his culture, his traditions—of those very things that connect us to the past itself. Juno agrees to give up her fury against the Trojans only if the Latins get to keep their age-old name and culture; the Trojans contributions to this new civilization will be strictly genetic. Jove accepts this compromise.

“I grant your wish . . .
Latium’s sons will retain their fathers’ words and ways.
Their name till now is the name that shall endure.
Mingling in stock alone, the Trojans will subside.”

Troy will not be rebuilt. Aeneas and his people will endure only through genetic contributions, but Trojan customs, culture, and language will be lost forever. Maybe this explains why Aeneas wanders through the narrative as a kind of automaton, never bothering to marry Dido, or indulge in his own passions. When Dido confronts him about his preparations to leave and abandon her, Aeneas states quite explicitly what his own will would be:

“If the fates had left me free to live my life,
to arrange my own affairs of my own free will,
Troy is the city, first of all, that I’d safeguard,
Troy and all that’s left of my people whom I cherish.
The grand palace of Priam would stand once more,
with my own hands I would fortify a second Troy
to house my Trojans in defeat.”

This is obviously not the best response to soothe an angry lover. Basically he is saying, if I had my way I never would’ve sailed to Carthage or be going off to Italy because Troy never would have fallen in the first place and I would still be married to my first wife. It poses an interesting situation in its own right. This is one of the few times we hear Aeneas bluntly state his own desire. Aeneas’ narrative is about him learning to accept that Troy is dead, the past cannot be restored, and his society is gone. So Jove’s promise to the Trojans that they will found an empire is a kind of double-edged sword.

(Dido’s Lament by Henry Purcell from Dido and Aeneas. It is an opera based on the Dido episode in the Aeneid and unlike most operas it is in English.)


2 thoughts on “The Aeneid by Virgil (trans. Robert Fagles)

  1. I read this a few years ago but it was right after I’d read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, so I think I was too burnt out to really enjoy it as I should. The nobility of these epics really draw me ……… that people will fight for/value something other than themselves. In our present materialistic, self-centered society, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Thanks for sharing your review!

    • I think the burn-out factor can sometimes be an issue with ancient texts. The worldview is extremely different than our own. I like how you say, “it’s like a breath of fresh air.” I think we often take for granted that the world needs to be a certain way when in many instances in the past it was a very different place with very different values.

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