The Aeneid – Virgil
Obviously my plan to do regular updates as I read the Aeneid didn’t happen, I’ve not had much time with which to blog recently, and trying to motivate myself to write about a book which frankly I found a little boring was even harder than it sounded. Instead, I’m just going to revert to my original aim of writing a post to cover the whole book, much as I did last year.
So yes, I didn’t like the Aeneid. There are a number of reasons for this, most of which I’ll cover here, but on a personal level, the thing that bother me most was that the story was basically an entire work of propaganda. Of course, I acknowledged this before, but I wasn’t prepared to the extent to which Virgil’s story would be so overtly politicised. The most obvious aspect is the condemnations of Carthage to justify the Punic wars, as well as various other events to explain geo-political phenomena of the 1st century BCE. Then there’s a ‘racialised’ (if such a term is appropriate) re-interpretation of the Roman populace and more specifically the ruling Julio-Claudian dynasty, which is about as believable as the Geoffrey of Monmouth’s claim for the Britons being descended from Troy, or Charlemagne’s genealogical descent from Solomon. However, more subtly, and with this in mind, the way that Virgil presents Aeneas is far less flawed than Homer’s portrayal of almost any of this heroes (including Aeneas himself!). Yes, the Trojan makes mistakes, most notable with Dido, but he rarely displays the arrogance of Agamemnon, the anger of Achilleus, Odysseus’ deceit, Hektor’s insistence on his duty, Diomedes’ blasphemy, or Paris’ cowardice. Nor does Virgil’s Aeneas, unlike Homer’s, display the vulnerability and physical weaknesses that caused him to be almost killed twice in the Iliad (though the text does at least make reference to these events). Thus, by posing Aeneas as ancestor of the ruling Roman Emperor, Virgil has made him an indomitable and invincible hero whose story is, as a result, lacking the tension of the Greek inspiration. And considering the end of the Odyssey is a foregone conclusion right from the opening book, that’s saying something.
If you ignore all that, the biggest flaw with the Aeneid as a piece of epic literature is that if you have a passing knowledge of the Odyssey, then the first half of the poem comes off as what we would, today recognise as fan fiction. Virgil constructs for Aeneas and the Trojans an almost identical journey to Odysseus and the Greeks, both geographically and thematically. Of the major stops that Aeneas makes on his journey from Troy to Latium, the island of Aeolus, the island of the Cyclopes, the passage of Scylla and Charybdis, and the underworld, can all be found on Odysseus’ itinerary, while Aeneas’ prolonged stay in Carthage and marriage to Dido can be seen as analogous to Odysseus’ stay with Calypso and almost-marriage to Nausicaä respectively. Even Juno’s vendetta against Aeneas reflects Poseidon’s opposition to Odysseus, though the carnage she causes is far less effective compared to her aquatic brother’s. There are exceptions; the Trojan’s stopping off in Sicily to hold funeral games for Aeneas’ father have no parallel in the Odyssey, though while they are some of the more engaging episodes, they are also few and far between.
That said, the first half of the story is by far the more interesting. The second half, which focuses on Aeneas’ attempt to consolidate a homeland for the Trojans in Italy, is overly long and confusing. As I’m already a little way into the Iliad, it’s obvious that Virgil was again aping Homer’s technique of giving a little biography of every man to die in battle and the back and forth arguments and raids between the leaders of the opposing factions, but it just comes off as tedious. Maybe it would work when read allowed; assuming the orality of it would transfer from Ancient Greek to English, but maybe not. It doesn’t help that the actual basis for the plot, a disputed marriage pact, comes off to modern sensibilities as a little offensive and difficult to sanction, nor that the main players are so arrogantly stupid with little effective characterisation. However noble their intentions, it all gets lost in their hubris. Though I will admit, the final book, which shows the ultimate victory of Aeneas against his rival king, Turnus, is pretty awe-inspiring, it’s a long, hard slog to get to that point.
On a more meta-textual level, I mentioned in my last post about the book that I had some concerns about the translation. When the goal is to preserve metre and structure, there is a vastly increased potential for awkward phrasing. Most of the time, this is ignorable, however there are occasional instances that really stand out, two of the most jarring being someone brandishing a shillelagh, and a man dying in battle after being stabbed with “the business end” of a spear. Modern day phrasing or anachronistic and geographically incorrect weapons do detract from the reading experience, even in a small way.
As a whole, I can’t help but feel as though I missed something. The first few books, the sequence that focus on Aeneas and Dido are provide the foundation for tone of the most celebrated tragic love stories of Western literature, but for some reason they just didn’t speak to me at all. I don’t know whether this was because of the format of the translation (which I found hard to engage with) or because of where I was reading it (mostly on my lunch break or on the bus), but I didn’t come away from the sequence with any emotional connection to either Aeneas or Dido.
Ultimately, I think Aeneid is interesting more for what it says about the mind-set of Augustan Rome than it is for the actual story, so unless you’re particularly interested in Ancient Rome, I honestly can’t bring myself to recommend reading the text. Stick to the Odyssey, which though flawed, is a far better story, both in plot and storytelling terms.
Nearly two months into the year, I’ve finally posted my first review of a mythology. As I mentioned, I’m already into the Iliad, so will be posting that review more promptly after finishing. Hopefully I’ll be able to get back into updating more frequently in general as I get my act together.