Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: The Aeneid by Virgil

I cannot begin to express how much more I am getting out of reading these days, now that our book club has begun to focus on the ancient Greek and Roman classics. I find that many of the beliefs I have held about some of the ancient classics are simply untrue - due in part to my lack of experience in addition to inaccuracies portrayed in movies and the world at large.  The more I read within this time period, the more I seem to understand the context of the situations presented by many of the characters.  Of course, each author adds their own flare to the characters, but I do get a sense of fragmented continuity.  This sounds like an oxymoron, but let me explain.  Many of the facts between stories are disjointed or simply contradictory, but the general disposition of the characters seems to be largely in tact.  There are definitely biases based on author's background or purpose in writing (I mention in specific to reference Virgil whom was possibly writing to suck up to Emperor Augustus), but the character of the subjects seems to be largely the same between Virgil and Homer.  Hera/Juno is portrayed by both to be an emotional spitfire, who has a hard time avoiding a heavy-handed direct intervention with humanity.  There are definitely some exceptions to this. Homer portrays Zeus in a more flawed manner than Virgil does - in the Aeneid, Jove/Jupiter/Zeus seems to be a more level headed diplomat. 
In addition to breaking down the inaccuracies that exist in my mind, I'm finding it exceedingly interesting in how little we have changed over the last 2500 years as a species.  Emotions of love, jealousy, lust and rage are ever present.  Many of these emotions are identified as coming from the Gods, but the people still struggle and they are often found praying in times of crisis or hope.  Grief and rage from abandoned lovers seems to re-occur.  The abandoned experience loneliness and many seek a 'rebound' relationship to keep them going, with the other contingent refusing to re-marry or committing suicide to end their tormented grief.  Within the Aeneid, the story of Queen Dido of Carthage is a very powerful example of the fury of a woman scorned. 

As I get further into the ancient mythology canon, I really feel like each work builds upon the last.  Allusions in later works are easier for me to pick-up, and I find I really appreciate the cross-pollination across generations, genres and subjects.  From what I've read, Dante's 'The Divine Comedy' was heavily influenced by Virgil and when the book club gets to Dante in a few months, we'll be able to judge the validity of this sentiment.

In short, I'm really enjoying this experience with the classics.  A fellow book clubber pointed out to me the other day that up until about 100 years ago, the concept of an educated person was not based on subjects such as mathematics, science, psychology, business, politics, etc, but a strong foundation in classical literature.  I'm not suggesting that any type of education is more important than another, but simply that I feel like this experience is dissolving some of my own ignorance and replacing it with a foundation that can only help me in life, and as a solid basis for a further understanding of literature.

A quick note about translators before I jump into The Aeneid.

As with any foreign work, choosing a translator is an important decision. It's even more important when choosing an older, epic work. My book buying, like many others in the blogging community, is out of control. In many ways, this is detrimental (especially to the bank account), but when choosing a translator after the fact, it's nice to be able to choose from multiple copies of a book by reading snippets of each translator to compare. I began by reading the John Dryden translation, which was completed in the late 17th century. I didn't get very far... and I can't quite tell you why, but I found myself longing for a Robert Fitzgerald translation due to my experiences with The Iliad and The Odyssey. As it turned out, I had a copy sitting on my shelf from said translator and decided to switch over. I lost the privilege of illustrations with this switch, but I think it more than paid off due to my enjoyment of the poetry.

And now, on to the review. 

Like many others, I always thought that the story about the Trojan Horse was in The Iliad, but as I turned to the last page of the work, I knew this was a fallacy.  After doing some research, I learned that the story of the Trojan Horse was in The Aeneid.  Therefore, I assumed that The Aeneid was purely the story of the Iliad, written from a Roman perspective by Virgil, about the Trojan War and specifically the story of the horse.  Not so.  Another theory shattered.


The story is all about the Trojan, Aeneas, who flees Troy as the city is being burned to the ground.  He fights off as many as he can before hope is lost (I believe a God tells him to move on), and he flees with his father (Anchises), his wife (Creusa) and his son (Ascanius/Iulus).  As they run, he realizes his wife is nowhere to be found... she has been killed by the Trojans.  Her ghost then tells him about his destiny to found Rome.

Aeneas then embarks on a journey of his own, not dissimilar to that of Odysseus in The Odyssey.  He sails away only to be thrust further out to see by Charybdis, a sea monster.  After a brief landing outside the layer of the Cyclops (no fighting ensues), he ends up at Carthage.  Juno/Hera sends Venus (Venus' son is Cupid/Amor) to make Aeneas get distracted from his journey by falling in love with the Queen of Carthage, Dido.  They spend a night (or nights) together in love making and Dido assumes that they have fulfilled a marriage pact.  Jupiter/Jove/Zeus sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his destiny and when he leaves, Dido goes a little batshit crazy with grief and kills herself.  The hate of Aeneas here is very disturbing and sticks with you.

Aeneas' father dies due to natural causes and he goes into the underworld to speak with him in Elysium.  I always thought that Elysium was heaven, but apparently it is a warrior's paradise in Tartarus, at a door adjacent to another that leads to the depths of hell.  At this point, the story gets more interesting.  On his way to Elysium, he bumps into Dido and is overcome by emotion.  Dido does not even answer him, and instead looks away and goes off with her previous husband into the abyss.  I kind of figured there would be some talking with Aeneas' deceased wife, Creusa, but I guess this is the furthest thing from his mind.  He does talk to a soldier or two instead... but quickly moves on.

At last, he makes it to Elysium where he has a nice little chat with his father who tells him about the cycle of souls and the founding and history of Rome.  He goes through Aeneas' lineage and takes us all the way through some of the current/recent Roman emperors from the time.  I'm sure Emperor Augustus loved hearing his own made up history... that he was a descendant of Aeneas who came from the Gods themselves (Aeneas' mother was Venus/Aphrodite/Cytherea).  Virgil actually used to read the Aeneid to Augustus while he wrote it in serial.

Anyway, they eventually land near Latium (in central Italy, close to Rome), ruled by Latinus.  Latinus has been told by the Gods to let his daughter Lavinia get married to a foreigner and he believes that Aeneas is the chosen one (he is, of course).  Latinus promises Aeneas the hand of his daughter and his wife goes a bit off the deep end (due to Hera/Juno's meddling) and brings on war by stirring up Turnus - who is a great warrior who loves Lavinia.  War breaks out before Aeneas is even back... and the second half of the book is primarily about this war with a few side stories.  In the end, Aeneas finally fights Turnus in hand to hand combat.  He wounds him with a spear and then goes into a blind rage when he sees the Turnus wearing his deceased ally's (Pallas') gear, and he kills him with his sword.  The story abruptly ends right then and there and nothing further is said about the integration of people of Latium with the Trojans (where they inevitably build Rome to redeem the Italians for the loss of Troy).


I must start off by saying that Virgil is no Homer.  I'm glad that I read the same translator (Robert Fitzgerald) of all these works, because you can eliminate bias' based on translator when comparing the works of these two men, specifically in regards to poetry.  Homer definitely has a more poetic inclination.  Virgil is no slouch, but Homer has a grace about him that cannot be matched.

In addition, I found that I felt a lot more when reading Homer.  The story of Achilles really had a profound effect on me.  I could relate to his pain and agony, his stubbornness and his quest for life meaning.  Even Odysseus in the Odyssey experienced an extreme struggle in returning home before he found for control over his own household.  Aeneas didn't seem to struggle - things came easy to him after the Trojan war despite the obstacles.  He came across as very level headed, but it was evident at the final scene with Turnus that he had some of the Achilles rage... though with none of the struggle. 

The characters didn't leap off the page as they did with Homer.  Homer's characters had more personality which created investment with the reader - I was invested in how they performed, even if I though Odysseus was a bit of an idiot.  I wasn't all that invested with Aeneas and most of the other characters in the book were not built up to differentiate them with others being slaughtered in war.  He tried this with the amazon, but with limited execution.  In contrast, other characters like Homer's Aias (Ajax) were exciting to read about.  They had distinct desires, actions and personalities that stuck with you.  This isn't to say that Virgil didn't have it in him to create compelling characters.  Dido was a great example of such a skill, and I'd like to believe that if Virgil didn't die before the publishing of this work... he would have refined some of his character development.  It makes sense to me that you would start with a skeleton outline of what happened and only afterwards add further depth.

All in all, I learned so much from reading this book and I'm glad I got through the struggle of the first 5 books or so (up to Dido).  At that point, the book flowed better with the exception of ceremonial games to commemorate Anchises' death (which always seems thrown in to me) and was more enjoyable.  I do believe this is a must read for anyone with interest in mythology and in truth, any serious classics reader who wants a deeper understanding of the many references which will stem from this book and its characters.

I'll leave off with one of my favourite quotes about love... with a little twist at the end showing a bit of a conniving female Goddess.  Venus is trying to get her husband, Vulcan (Hephaestus in Greek), to make some armour/weapons for Aeneas:

"The goddess spoke and wrapped her snowy arms
This way and that about him as he lingered,
Cherishing him in her swansdown embrace.
And instantly he felt the flame of love
Invading him as ever; into his marrow
Ran the fire he knew, and through his bones,
As when sometimes, ripped by a thunder peal,
A fiery flash goes jagged through the clouds.
His wife, contented with her blandishment,
Sure of her loveliness, perceived it all." VIII, 516-525


o said...

Just found your review on Goodreads: I am starting this tonight (so I skipped your spoilers!). Frankly, I'm nervous. I'm very hit and miss with the ancients, and not at all well read. Going to read first book tonight then go to bed. That's the plan, anyway :)

Eclectic Indulgence said...

Enjoy it... will open up many doors and make Dante's 'the Divine Comedy' more enjoyable, as well.