Shannon (Giraffe Days)'s Reviews > The Aeneid

The Aeneid by Virgil
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Sep 26, 2011

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bookshelves: 2012, book-club, classics
Read in March, 2012 — I own a copy

This was one of the three main texts for Ancient Civs in first year uni (1998), but I didn't actually finish any of them (the other two were The Odyssey and The Iliad, of course). This one I got farther with, but at uni you really have to juggle your extensive reading lists and with so many books to cover for English, History, Philosophy and Ancient Civs (that's my entire first year, right there), it was more prudent to stick with the short plays of Euripides, for instance, than these big epics. But I do remember enjoying what I read of this one, and dropping it in the bath. That, and Aeneas' love affair with Dido are the only things I remembered about this book. So I started reading this for the Classics book club pretty much from scratch.

To give you some context, Virgil was Italy, or Rome's, Homer, and The Aeneid is basically, on one level anyway, his version of Homer's Iliad. But in fact this story is much more than that, and since I haven't read The Iliad I can't compare them (but if you have, it would give you an interesting context for reading this one). Here is a basic summary, which gives you most of the salient points of the story (personally I find spoilers don't apply to texts as old as this, but if you do you can skip the summary).

It begins after the Battle of Troy, with the survivors of that doomed and destroyed city are in their ships, looking for a new home. But nothing happens without the gods meddling, and Juno seeks to prevent the Trojans from establishing a new Troy, as she has foreseen that it would eclipse her own favourite city, Cathage (in Tunisia), which she intended to one day rule the world. And so she sets the weather against the Trojans, aiming to destroy them for good, but Neptune intervenes and brings them safely to - wait for it - Carthage.

Here reigns Queen Dido (the Greek name for Queen Elissa, the founder of Carthage), and thanks to Aeneas's immortal mother, Venus, Cupid makes her fall in love with Aeneas, the captain and leader of the surviving Trojans (I never really understood why). Aeneas tells Dido the story of the fall of Troy from the Trojan perspective, and what their plans are - but after he and Dido get busy in a cave one day, he seems to abandon the goal of establishing a new Troy.

Enter Jove - or Jupiter or Zeus, king of the gods and both husband and brother to Juno - who sends a messenger to Aeneas to remind him of his mission, a god-ordained mission. Dido freaks out when Aeneas tells her he is leaving her, and both kills herself and destroys her city. Aeneas blithely sails on and eventually finds his way to Italy, where he arrives peacefully in Latium and is offered the king's daughter in marriage - but a rival for fair Lavinia, Turnus, incites war to oust the invaders, in which the gods - despite Jupiter's injunction to stop meddling - continue to play a hand in.

There's a lot going on in this deceptively straight-forward epic, but I feel a bit Vergil'd out and lacking the motivation to really go into it all. Also, it's been about three weeks since I finished it. Let me start with a bit about this particular edition/translation.

Robert Fagles is well known for his translations of the Greek and Roman epics, as a translator who makes these works accessible (readable) for modern audiences. At uni we were always told we had to read the Richard Latimore translations, as they're more "academic", but I was recently bitten by the "academic" translation of The Tale of Genji so I was determined to get Fagles this time, knowing I probably wouldn't be able to finish it in time for the book club meeting otherwise. And it certainly is readable. I think a comparison would be in order, though, because I want to say that there're some really beautiful lines in this book but I don't know if that's Vergil or Fagles, especially since in his Translator's Postscript Fagles talks about his own voice, and his work, which took me by surprise. He's not being completely presumptuous - in fact he sounds quite humbled by Virgil, as you read on - but there is as always this looming question of whether you're getting a true sense of the original. (I know, you'd have to read the original to get that, but what I mean is that every translator has their own style, and every translator makes decisions on how to translate a line, a word, a phrase, so that they become inseparable.)

I didn't end up reading much of the Introduction. I usually like to read it before the actual text, for these kinds of books, because they can help you understand what you're reading. But in this case I didn't find the Intro to be terribly useful. It does provide some good historical context, though. More useful is the map, which shows Aeneas' voyage and all the places he made landfall, and the extensive glossary at the back - particularly as several characters have more than one name.

Going back to the language, it really is quite lovely at times.


On they went, those dim travelers under the lonely night,
through gloom and the empty halls of Death's ghostly realm,
like those who walk through woods by a grudging moon's
deceptive light when Jove has plunged the sky in dark
and the black night drains all color from the world.
[...]
There in the midst, a giant shadowy elm tree spreads
her ancient branching arms, home, they say, to swarms
of false dreams, one clinging tight under each leaf. [p.191]


While I never really did get comfortable with the cadence of the lines - the punctuation and broken-up sentences - I still found it very poetic and quite lovely. Yet, you'd be surprised at the violence in the novel, the blood and gore and brutality. Well, I was surprised, not so much that there was violence as the stark quality to it, the lack of mercy - the big war that takes up the second half of the story sees many farmers pitted against soldiers, and when anyone surrenders they're brutally killed.


But while he begged the sword goes plunging clean through Euryalus' ribs,
cleaving open his white chest. He writhes in death
as blood flows over his shapely limbs, his neck droops,
sinking over a shoulder, limp as a crimson flower
cut off by a passing plow, that droops as it dies
or frail as poppies, their necks wearing, bending
their heads when a sudden shower weighs them down. [p.280]


(Euryalus was a Trojan and in love with another soldier, Nisus - they are both killed when they go out on a secret mission at night against the entrenched enemy.)
There is a great deal of gruesome killing on both sides, and I usually had no idea which army the characters were from.

But Halaesus hot for combat
charges against them now, compressing all his force
behind his weapons. Ladon he butchers, Pheres, Demodocus -
a flash of his sword and he slices off Strymonius' hand
just as it clutched his throat. He smashes Thoas full
in the face with a rock and crushes out his skull
in a spray of brains and blood. [p.307]


Virgil was clearly fond of metaphors and similes, and often goes into poetic tangents where he describes things in terms of animals or flowers - like the poppy metaphor above. Alongside the mythology that runs throughout the story (the gods, the seers, the cyclops', the trip down to hell), the consistent references and anchoring of characters and events to the natural world presents a culture that is so different from our own, and yet, in many ways, the foundation of our culture. I couldn't help but admire their close connection with so many earthly and otherworldly elements.

I did have a moment of clarity while reading this, that I hadn't had at any other time of reading or studying ancient Greece or Rome. For the Greeks and Romans, with their many gods who live out a soap opera-like life, many heroes - historical or otherwise - were born of the gods. Aeneas' mother is Venus, or Aphrodite. Lots of characters have an immortal parent, and some - like Turnus' sister - were changed into immortals (often after being seduced by a god). In the context of this melding between the gods and mortals, it really isn't odd to think that a group of men sat at conference, deciding Jesus' level of immortality: he joins Odysseus and Hercules and many, many more. (Yes it's different, but I'm referring to the context - you would never get people today, outside of the Vatican, having a meeting to decide that your neighbour, say, was practically a god. We're in a different mental headspace.)

What I mean to say is, that it was quite easy and not at all unusual to take extraordinary people and decide, posthumously, that they were the offspring of gods. I'm sure someone somewhere's done a study or two on that.

The other thing I always notice when I read ancient texts like these, or the bible, is how they're essentially Fantasy fiction. Or let me turn that around: our love of these kinds of stories, of magic and gods and foretelling, one-eyed giants, magic, witches etc, of heroic quests and tragic love stories, has never died. I would say even that Fantasy is the oldest genre - it's the modern version of mythology, after all. When you read a novel by Tolkien, Shinn, Holdstock, Sanderson et al, they're not writing stories that were invented relatively recently. So going back to writers like Homer and Virgil isn't far out of our comfort zone, and it's one reason why they continue to be read and loved today.

The story surprised me in several ways, and wasn't entirely predictable: I didn't anticipate that about half the story would be a war, for instance. But it is truly fascinating, even if all the names start to run together and I sometimes struggled to tell Anchises, Ascanius and Acestes apart (their names are too similar for me!). As I mentioned, I haven't read the Iliad, but apparently they have similar plot points, though many scholars and other readers consider Virgil's version to be better than Homer's.

They are different stories written for different purposes. The Aeneid was written as a history of Italy and to show how the Roman Emperors were direct descendants of Aeneas, who was descended of the gods and Troy. Since the emperors were claimed to be the sons of gods (or they claimed to be), this was an important piece of propaganda. I was talking to a friend who also studied ancient civilisations at uni, and she mentioned that many academics debate whether Virgil was 100% patriotic, or if he had subliminal messages in the Aeneid. Whether he was a simple brown-nose or was not entirely approving of the Roman emperors. It's fun to keep that in mind while reading it, because you can read into it quite a bit.

Virgil never finished his epic to his satisfaction (which would also explain the oddly abrupt ending) and wanted it destroyed when he died, but the Emperor Augustus refused. Clearly he found it to be favourable propaganda. I found it to be an interesting story, sometimes gripping, sometimes infuriating, sometimes a bit slow, but as with most classics, the more education you have about a certain period, the more you'll get out of it. Mine is pretty hazy now and two years isn't great, but it gave me a bit of a leg-up. Still, there's clearly a lot going on here that I don't have the background to fully understand. Regardless, it's worth reading.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Shannon (Giraffe Days) Moonbutterfly wrote: "Being a Ancient Roman history buff, I wanted to read the Aeneid, but then had to add the Iliad and Odyssey for the same reasons you mentioned. It's going to take forever. hehe.

Nice Review."


That is a big endeavour! I still want to read The Odyssey one day. One day... :)


message 2: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie I love your remark about how this is essentially fantasy fiction and that fantasy is the oldest genre, the modern version of mythology. Your review is very informative, thank you!


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