Finished reading on: 6/9/17
I read parts of this epic poem for my world literature course in college. Ever since then I have planned to go back and read the whole damn thing and reading it after the Iliad just felt like the appropriate thing to do.
Everyone says that the first half of the Aeneid is so much better than the second half, that the second half kind of sputters and peters out. In fact in my college course we read most of books I-VI and of books VII-XII we only read the part where Aeneas gets his kick-ass shield forged in the fires of Vulcan and the final battle scene between Aeneas and Turnus. However, after reading the whole thing I much prefer the second half of the book and if I were going to make a film out of the Aeneid, personally I would focus on books VII-XII and make books I-VI into some short flashbacks. Of course there are some wonderfully ghastly and moving moments in book II as Aeneas describes the fall of Troy. And Aeneas’s dalliance with Dido, Queen of Carthage is full of intrigue, heart break and rage. He falls in love with the wrong woman and he must tear himself away while in the very grip of passion. But personally, the plot doesn’t actually get interesting until Aeneas and his ragtag band of Trojan refugees land on the shores of Italy. It is here that we see Aeneas come into his own as a true leader of his people and such a badass warrior you wonder what happened the Aeneas from the Iliad who was a poor and pouty understudy for glorious Hector. Aeneas is the personality holding together this remnant of a persecuted people by his sheer willpower and his faith in his destiny. The war between the Trojans and the Latins is pretty thrilling. Three moments I found especially suspenseful were when Turnus breaks into the Trojan’s walled fortress and does considerable damage before escaping, when Pallas goes up against Turnus, and when Aeneas is shot with an arrow as the Latin army closes in on the Trojans. Obviously the final battle between Aeneas and his rival, Turnus, is the stuff of legend especially as it mirrors in many ways the show down between Achilles and Hector even to the running around in circles chasing each other.
In any case there is a clear divide between the first half and the second half of this epic poem and the two portions have been described in many ways. The first half resembles The Odyssey and the second half resembles The Iliad. The first half is focused on the past and the second half the future. In the first half Aeneas struggles to accept his fate, in the second half he has surrendered to it. In the first half Aeneas is more human, relatable and emotional, in the second half he becomes grim and removed. People have also debated the true nature and purpose of the poem. Is it really about a man or is it the origin story of Rome? Is it heralding the utopian promise of the empire or subtly questioning the empire’s character? Despite the ambiguities (which many scholars are now seeing as its merits) the poem has been a cultural and artistic standard in the Western world for a long time and it is a shame that it less well known today.
There is little I could add to the reams and reams of material already written on such a classic Western masterpiece but I will take some time to comment on some of the themes which were especially poignant to me.
The nature of leadership. Ancient heroes are always also leaders but this poem seems to have even more to say about leadership than the other epics. This maybe because it was in many ways written as a propaganda piece for Caesar Augustus. Especially in the Dido episode we see the effects of poor leadership. While the two leaders are carousing in bed, the building of the city slacks off and all together stops, the government becomes nonexistent. Self-indulgence makes for a bad leader because it shows lack of devotion to duty, honor, family and nation, Roman virtues. When Aeneas finally snaps out of it, the takes up the mantle of true leadership by putting aside his personal desires and doing what’s best for his people. He says to Dido twice that he leaves her not of his freewill. This is the case with leadership, they are bound by a will greater than their own. Clearly Aeneas struggles to meet these expectations at first. The poet says, “Burdened and sick at heart, he feigned hope in his look and inwardly contained his anguish.” (1.284-86). Aeneas doesn’t have the luxury of indulging his feelings. After Dido though, he easily puts himself aside and does all that is expected of him. Such is the call of public life. In the second half of the book, we get a contrast in leadership styles with Aeneas and the Latin King, Latinus, who is a weak king. He follows the whims of his people even when it leads them into civil war. He doesn’t make a stand even when he knows what is best for his kingdom. He often capitulates to Turnus even when he knows Turnus is making the wrong choices.
The nature of love and passion. This theme mostly occurs in the Dido episode. Dido is placed under Cupid’s spell and falls madly in love with the amazing manliness and manhood of Aeneas. We can’t really fault Dido though because who would be able to resist such a piece of work? It may be true though the for the rest of Dido’s shortened life, she isn’t really herself anymore. Love makes us do crazy things, turns the wisest into utter fools. “Unconscionable Love, to what extremes will you not drive our hearts!” (4.571) Here is where the story gets a bit ambiguous. For the Roman plot, Dido is an irritating distraction from Aeneas’s duty and destiny. However, it isn’t written that way. The whole incident is deeply respectful of love and of the power of love. That’s why it has become throughout Western history and literature such a popular love story. Her love is her destruction because although Aeneas’s and Dido’s relationship was their own personal and private affair, their public roles could not allow them to be together. It was the public life that destroyed their love. So this theme is set up in opposition to the theme of leadership. Aeneas is praised for this “wise” choice but the poet makes us very, very aware of the devastating consequences of sacrificing love to duty. The poet also shows us an incident where the power of love moves us to brave sacrifices. Nisus who had made it to safety through the Latin camp, turns around to save his love who was caught by the enemy. Here Nisus sacrifices his duty (he was supposed to get through the siege to get a message to Aeneas) for love and far more moving and powerful than Aeneas choice to abandon his love.
Fate and the will of the gods in human affairs. Just as in The Iliad and The Odyssey, it is the gods (and ultimately Jupiter) who get to decide the outcomes. The gods are constantly meddling and manipulating human affairs. Ultimately your battle strategy and prowess may not matter at all if the gods are against you. All your work to make a peace can be easily flipped into war when the gods get their hands messy. When Jupiter gives you fate, such as Aeneas fate to found the Roman people, it makes him unstoppable. Aeneas’s fate is both his greatest boon and his greatest doom. When he tries to avoid his fate, i.e. his time in Carthage, he just makes a mess of things. Fate is the driving force in this plot and Aeneas appeals to his fate on a constant basis. It’s pretty clear that your only choice is to resign yourself as many characters ultimately learn. Though the outcomes are predetermined how you reach these outcomes is up to you. This is where free will comes into play. You’d better respect the gods though or they’ll make your life a living hell before they send you there.
The collective memory and myth of Rome and Rome’s special destiny. This theme goes hand in hand with fate. Repeatedly throughout the narrative, the poet brings to the reader’s attention specific characters and events from the history of Rome. When Aeneas sees his descendants in Elysium, when he walks through the forest’s glades which will become the city of Rome, and when he receives his shield from his mother are all moments of “prophecy.” From the narrative perspective, it is foretelling the future but because the poem is set much earlier than when it was written, these episodes are actually relating the history of Rome. The people of Rome saw themselves as special people called by the gods to conquer and civilize the known world (in much the same way that the Western world would believe their duty to civilize the savage nations in the age of exploration and empire). The Roman people had a fate and duty to bring their culture to the world. This poem serves as their original story, showing how all of their history has lead up to the current moment: Caesar Augustus’s empire.
The virtues of duty and devotion to one’s family and nation. Aeneas is repeated called pious Aeneas. Pious here doesn’t just mean religious, it’s more like taking seriously one’s duty. Aeneas has many duties from caring for his aging father, to caring for his people, to fulfilling his fate. He literally shoulders, takes up the burden of his duties. “No help or hope of help existed. So I resigned myself, pick up my father, and turned my face toward the mountain range” (2.1043-46). He says this to his son: “Learn fortitude and toil from me, my son, ache of true toil. Good fortune learn from others” (12.595-96). Aeneas has no illusions about how difficult duty is, he has experienced the self-denial first hand. Devotion to family and country were essential virtues for the Romans. The Romans believed in their nation and so they did great things. Dying on the battlefield for one’s country is often seen as being a glorious ending, even beautiful. “Men dealt out death by cold steel as they fought and strove by wounds to win the beauty of courageous death” (11.878-80). To be courageous, to toil, to suffer for an idea larger than yourself is beautiful. It makes sense that their mythical hero would embody these qualities even if it means his character loses some of its luster for later readers.
The parent-child relationship. Going along with the above theme is a reoccurring emphasis on parents and children. We see Aeneas fulfilling both roles of dutiful son and loving father. His is not the only parent-child relationship of importance. The tragic death of Evander’s son Pallas in the Italian civil war also plays an important role. Another sad death is Euryalus who leaves behind him a grieving mother. Throughout we see how important it is take care of your family, to sacrifice yourself for them, and we see how painful it is when one is taken from the other, especially when the child dies before the parent.
The self-defeating nature of warfare. This theme sets itself up in opposition to the theme of Rome’s destiny. It’s another element of ambiguity in the narrative. Everyone knows Aeneas’s destiny to found a city in Italy and yet, the Latins still stir each other up to make war, Turnus in particular. After many people on both sides have dies simply because some leaders can’t accept the inevitable outcome, nothing has changed. Aeneas is still alive and is still founding a city and is still marrying Lavinia. All they did was make a bunch of trouble and get a bunch of people killed. Even when the most common sense thing to do is to surrender, Turnus won’t accept it and keeps fighting on despite everyone’s wishes to capitulate. The poet shows us that war for the sake of war isn’t worth it.
And finally I will note two interesting elements in the story.
The first is the poet’s obvious sympathy with the opposing side, which goes right along with the theme of warfare. This element was also present in the Iliad and it catches many modern readers off guard because we come from the age of action and adventure stories where the villains are often very clearly designated and very clearly defeated. The closest we get to a true villain in the Aeneid is Mezentius and even he has a sympathetic moment when his son dies defending him and he turns back into the battle, though wounded and dies fighting. The reader is often given insight and perspective into the opponents of the hero. We can often relate to them just as much or even more so than we can with the main character. They don’t strike us as evil. They simply ended up on the wrong side of fate, the wrong end of Jupiter’s scales.
The second is the female warrior Camilla. She is way out of the norm for gender roles in ancient culture. In fact she shames the men she fights. It seems that in mythology there was a place for the blurring of traditional roles. I highly doubt that Camilla was held as an example of what women should be. Was Virgil early feminist? Somehow I doubt that too. It’s more like that her character serves a purpose in the narrative. Every line written about her is highly praiseworthy yet she is on the opposing side. For her moments on the battlefield, she outshines everyone. Perhaps it says something about Turnus, that he resorts to women warriors to support his cause. It shows that his cause is lost and that he is desperate. Then her bright light was extinguished in the collateral damage of this pointless civil war.
I did read the translation by Robert Fitzgerald as my book cover image suggests. As with most ancient epics deliberation as to which translation to use can be quite daunting. I spent several hours on the web trying to nail down which I would use. Of the quality translations there are positives and negatives to every one but it became apparent that the Fitzgerald’s version is held in high regard by everyone regardless of individual preference. Fagles’ translation was also a top choice.
Aeneas is about as b.a. as they come. He’s a hero of Troy and the founder of Rome. He’s the heart-throb of the ladies and the doom of his enemies. He’s Achilles, Odysseus, Luke Skywalker and Aragorn rolled into one. And his story is legendary.
“To hoist sail to the winds of destiny”
“for who deceives a woman in love?”
“Unconscionable Love, to what extremes will you not drive our hearts!”
“To die – is that so miserable? Heaven has grown cold.”
“Let me be mad enough for this mad act, I pray before I die.”