Jenell's Reviews > The Aeneid

The Aeneid by Virgil
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Sep 16, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: roman-studies
Read in September, 2008

** spoiler alert ** First there was the Trojan War, as chronicled by Homer in 750 B.C. As a reader, you want to hate the Trojans, because Prince Paris steals Greek Helen from her husband. However, you meet likeable (and equally fallible) people on both sides of the battle lines. To make it even more complicated, the gods are involved, and it becomes a “might makes right” situation; the god with the most influence and power wins. And, of course, we readers want to be aligned on the side of right, right?

More than 700 years later, Virgil continues the story of the Trojans in his epic poem, The Aeneid. A group of Trojans, led by Aeneas, flee Troy in search of a new homeland. It is prophesied that Aeneas will lead his people to a specific part of Italy and build the foundations for a great empire. Despite moments of genealogical cataloguing, Virgil artfully enlivens the main characters. The reader can intimately identify with their motivations and longings. As in the Iliad and the Odyssey, that identification extends to the battlefield, the battlefield of the humans, as well as the gods. I found myself feeling for both sides. In war, how can one side be considered murderous and the other exempt—if not for the will of the gods?

Upon his deathbed, Virgil had not completed The Aeneid and ordered it destroyed. Fortunately for us, that didn’t happen. But I wonder, was it merely the artist wanting to polish his work, or was it something else? What was Virgil’s aim in writing The Aeneid? Could it be solely a poem tying the rise of Rome to the will of the gods? In his postscript, translator Robert Fitzgerald states:
More than literary interest surely moved the first Roman readers of these books of The Aeneid, for war, the Roman specialty, had within their memories gone fratricidal and got out of hand. If Virgil intended, as he almost certainly did, an analogy between the task of Aeneas and that of Augustus, the hardest and hugest part for both was waging war to end war, to work out settlements so magnanimous as to challenge no more strife but to promote concordia and the arts of peace.

I cannot be so bold as to surmise what Virgil intended, but it does make one think. What did he want to convey? Because it ends with Aeneas killing Turnus and thus fulfilling his destiny, it doesn’t seem to me to be about waging war to end war. If it was written with that aim in mind, Virgil would have gone on to describe how Aeneas realized the prophesy and how he began to build an empire. It seems Virgil would have described Aeneas’ values and rule.

Was The Aeneid a framework for a bigger philosophical idea? In my mind, the saga takes a turn in the beginning of chapter ten. Jupiter calls a council of the Olympians wherein his wife Juno and daughter Venus continue to call for his favor of their chosen sides. Having had enough of their meddling, he forbids the gods and goddesses to interfere with the destiny of men. He says:
….The effort each man makes
Will bring him luck or trouble. To them all
King Jupiter is the same king. And the Fates
Will find their way.
This makes me wonder: what did the Romans believe in 29 B.C.? Did they believe in the many gods and goddesses or was there a movement, as in many cultures, for a unified religion? Was this a call for monotheism?

And then, in chapter twelve, just prior to Aeneas’ victory, he councils his son Julus:
Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son,
Ache of true toil. Good fortune learn from others.
My sword arm now will be your shield in battle
And introduce you to the boons of war.
When, before long, you come to man’s estate,
Be sure that you recall this. Harking back
For models in your family, let your father,
Aeneas, and uncle, Hector, stir your heart.
Is Virgil here, however faintly, alluding to free will, claiming personal responsibility in one’s destiny?

The Aeneid was a rip-roaring good adventure story. While it did not outright pose big philosophical questions, it seemed to lead to them. The founding of Rome was so influential on our modern western culture that it seems that we should take a closer look at the motivations of the ancient Romans as fictionalized by Virgil. Perhaps it will speak to us and council us, reviving long-dormant questions. Perhaps Jupiter, having led us to free will, and Concordia, Roman goddess of harmony, will help us find residing peace. What will the gods ask of you?
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05/04 marked as: read

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message 1: by Kristoffer (last edited Sep 19, 2008 05:41AM) (new)

Kristoffer Now this is a real review! Good job Jenell! But how do you even understand those "classics" they're really hard books to read! It makes my nose bleed! Hahahaha, maybe its just me. This book was assigned to us once in hist 100 class and reading your review really inspires me to go for real reading rather than using the ever popular cliff notes. Keep the up the good work!


Jenell Hee-hee, that's funny, Kristoffer. I think I know what you mean. Some books tie my brain in knots or paralyze it! But the classics... In my last job I worked in a kindergarten, and the woman I worked with said that I'm too sympathetic. I think she thought that I was too merged with the kids and not firm enough on my own two feet or my ego. Although I disagree with her, I do have a tendency to really "be" with kids, animals, nature, or a good story. I do lose myself a bit. That's how it has always been with me and the classics and epic stories. I read Beowolf in 7th or 8th grade and LOVED it. Everyone's got that THING or is looking for that THING that lights them up. I like the big adventures...even if they are just in books. ;)


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