The Aeneid by Virgil [A Review]

The Roman poet Virgil lived in turbulent times. His life work became an attempt to reconcile the revolution he lived through, to praise the new world order and spread a message of hope for the future. Not easy to dismiss as a work of Roman propaganda, The Aeneid contains themes that have resonated through the centuries and shows its influence in Milton’s Paradise Lost and Dante’s Inferno.

Cover image of The Aeneid by Virgil

The Aeneid is an epic poem written by the Roman poet Virgil between 29 and 19 BCE. Written in the style of Homer, it tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan and survivor of the sack of Ilium after the long siege by the Greeks as told in Homer’s The Iliad. Virgil tells the story of Aeneas’ journey and adventures westwards towards Italy with deliberate similarity to Homer’s telling of Odysseus’ adventures in The Odyssey.

I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium; and a great pounding he took by land and sea at the hands of the heavenly gods because of the fierce and unforgetting anger of Juno. Great too where his sufferings in war before he could found his city and carry his gods into Latium. This was the beginning of the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the high walls of Rome. Tell me, Muse, the causes of her anger. How did he violate the will of the Queen of the Gods? What was his offence? Why did she drive a man famous for his piety to such endless hardship and such suffering? Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?

In the course of Aeneas’ journey, and the peoples and rulers he encounters, Virgil lays down the origins of many of the conflicts and political dynamics of his contemporary Roman world. Born in 70 BCE, Virgil’s life spanned the rise in power of Julius Caesar, the Civil War that ended the Roman Republic and the establishment of Empire under the first Emperor Augustus. Virgil makes no secret of the fact that the aim of his epic is to pay tribute to Augustus by creating a heroic origin story for the Julians through a legendary ancestor, Aeneas. In this Virgil must have succeeded for, despite leaving instructions that his unfinished epic should be destroyed on his death, Augustus ordered it to be preserved and it became in effect a national epic for the Roman Empire.

The Aeneid begins with Aeneas landing in Libya with his seven ships. He and his men have already suffered much and are short of hope.

Then, as they mourned, he comforted them, saying: ‘My friends, this is not the first trouble we have known. We have suffered worse before, and this too will pass. God will see to it. You have been to Scylla’s cave and heard the mad dogs howling in the depths of it. You have even survived rocks thrown by the Cyclops. So summon up your courage once again. This is no time for gloom or fear. The day will come, perhaps, when it will give you pleasure to remember even this. Whatever chance may bring, however many hardships we suffer, we are making for Latium, where the Fates show us our place of rest. There it is the will of God that the Kingdom of Troy shall rise again. Your task is to endure and save yourself for better days.’ These were his words, but he was sick with all his cares. He showed them the face of hope and kept his misery deep in his heart.

Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, assures him he is not hated by all the gods. Venus has already questioned Jupiter, who is her father in this telling, about the harsh treatment the Trojans have received. Jupiter’s answer is to prophesise a great future initiated by Aeneas. In Italy, Aeneas will found the Latin race, will reign in Latium and his son will have a kingdom in Lavinium. From there will follow the rule of the race of Hector, the birth of Romulus, the Romans, Julius Caesar and the race that wears the toga will be rulers of the world in an empire bound only by the ocean.

In Libya, Aeneas witnesses the construction of Carthage and dines with Queen Dido and tells his tale so far. Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy and his daring escape; the storms he and his men have endured, some of which were sent by Jupiter’s wife Juno; stopovers in Crete and Sicily; escape from Harpies and Cyclops’; their fate confused by the prophesies, visions and curses that have come their way. Dido, influenced by Venus and Juno, finds herself falling in love in Aeneas. Frustrated, Jupiter sends Mercury with a message to Aeneas to not forget his great destiny.

Aeneas tells his men to prepare their ships for departure but to do so without arousing suspicion. But he can’t hide his intentions from Dido who, burning with passionate love, confronts Aeneas.

You are a traitor. You are not the son of a goddess and Dardanus was not the first founder of your family. It was the Caucasus that fathered you on its hard rocks and Hyrcanian tigers offered you their udders. Why should I keep up a pretence? Why should I hold myself in check in order to endure greater suffering in the future? He did not sigh when he saw me weep. He did not even turn to look at me. Was he overcome and brought to tears? Had he any pity for the woman who loves him? Where can I begin when there is so much to say? Now, after all this, can mighty Juno and the son of Saturn, the father of all, can they now look at this with the eyes of justice? Is there nothing we can trust in this life? He was thrown helpless on my shores and I took him in and like a fool settled him as partner in my Kingdom. He had lost his fleet and I found it and brought his companions back from the dead. It drives me to madness to think of it. And now we hear about the augur Apollo and lots cast in Lycia and now to crown all the messenger of the gods is bringing terrifying commands down through the winds from Jupiter himself, as though that is work for the gods in heaven, as though that is an anxiety that disturbs their tranquilly. I do not hold you or bandy words with you. Away you go. Keep on searching for your Italy with the winds to help you. Look for your Kingdom over the waves. But my hope is that if the just gods have any power, you will drain a bitter cup among the ocean rocks, calling the name of Dido again and again, and I shall follow you not in the flesh but in the black fires of death and when its cold hand takes the breath from my body, my shade shall be with you wherever you may be. You will receive the punishment you deserve, and the news of it will reach me deep among the dead.

She threatens to kill herself, knowing no suitor will want her after Aeneas has rejected her and that she can’t leave her throne and come with him. Then, finding the Trojans gone, Dido curses Aeneas and his descendants prophesising war between their people and, finding a sword of Aeneas’, throws herself on it and kills herself.

Virgil has thus laid the foundation for the future Punic Wars. But Aeneas, his adventures and his troubles are just beginning.  

I clearly have a strong need to read ancient and medieval epics, epic poetry, tales and story collections. So far, I have read Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Shahnameh, [a selection of] The Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales among others. And I will continue to read them including The Divine Comedy, The Decameron, The Kalevala and as many Greek plays as I can. What is difficult to defend is that I will seek them out and read them even though I don’t enjoy them!

It is difficult for me to explain why. Perhaps it is a sign of some inner snobbery that compels me, telling me I ought to read them and making me feel guilty for not having done so. Maybe it is an awareness of ignorance that urges me to explore known unknowns. Perhaps it is the knowledge that these works have been enjoyed for centuries and, even if it is a struggle for modern readers to find them engaging or entertaining, they have shaped the narratives we have loved ever since. Like Shakespeare or Bob Dylan part of the respect owed to them is how they distilled all that came before and influenced so much that came after.

That being said, it is fair to say that I enjoyed The Aeneid more than others I have read. This is especially true of the more adventurous first half of the epic and its dialogue such as the quote of Dido I shared above. What probably helped the most was this very readable prose translation by David West who also wrote the introduction and notes to the Penguin Classics edition. Individual discussions of each of the twelve books was welcome as well.

Though I don’t think Virgil and The Aeneid can take full credit for it, since he is not inventing mythology but using it, there is much in The Aeneid that readers will find familiar. An example is the Greco-Roman mythology and perspective that persisted through being adopted through the Christian era. This felt especially true as Aeneas journeyed through the underworld. Here he sees the Orcus, Chimaera, Acheron, Tartarus and Charon. It feels appropriate that the other context from which we know Virgil is his fictionalised self used by Dante as his guide in The Divine Comedy.  

Aeneas, though, is a problematic choice of hero and Virgil has to repeatedly explain him and his actions. How could Aeneas’ escape from Troy without being a coward or lacking judgement? How can Augustus call easterners ‘barbarians’ when he is descended from one? How can Aeneas be the founder of the Romans if Juno hates him so? How to massage the fact that Aeneas goes to war with the Italians – the future base of the Romans? Virgil has to tackle these issues and more if he is to succeed in creating a founding myth for the Roman Empire.

So the scene is set. Aeneas has an ancestor who came from Italy; he has a guest-friend and relative in Evander to justify his presence in Italy; he has allies in Etruria who have just cause to go to war and need a leader. Aeneas’ presence and position in Italy are therefore legitimated. This has implications for the whole Julian family, and in particular for its contemporary representative who rules Italy and the whole known world from his house on the hill which had been Pallanteum.

From the Introduction

West argues that Virgil is using Aeneas to showcase ideal Roman leadership qualities through his various trials, that the work is full of apt observations of human behaviour and that his Aeneas’ flaws serve to humanise him. He also argues against dismissing The Aeneid as a work of propaganda. He instead suggests it is a work of praise rather that flattery and ought to be understood in the context of its time – coming after years of constant war and hopeful of the dawn of a new golden age. He may be right, but like Virgil explanations of Aeneas’ I can’t help but note a tone of defensiveness.

Would I recommend reading The Aeneid? It is difficult to say. It is true that I enjoyed it more in parts than other ancient epics and I liked the prose translation of this edition. But like all ancient works it can be dull and difficult much of the time too. The main reasons I can give for reading it, other than to say you have read it, are for historical and literary interest. Historical because it remains a key document for showing what the Romans thought of themselves in the best light. Reading it also helps place into context the literature that came after that was influenced by it such as Milton’s Paradise Lost.

And, while it may have been designed praise his new Emperor and cast shade on the values of the old Republic, the Aeneid has themes that transcend its time and place. Its message is of the importance of honour and responsibility, the inevitability of fate and the hope for peace after the horrors of war. The question for modern readers is whether Virgil’s hope is a false one. The offer of peace and prosperity in exchange for absolute power to a people exhausted by conflict is a devil’s bargain many a tyrant has made and many a people have accepted to their regret.

The Aeneid is still read and still resonates because it is a great poem. Part of its relevance to us is that it is the story of a human being who knew defeat and dispossession, love and the loss of love, whose life was ruled by his sense of duty to his gods, his people and his family, particularly to his beloved son Ascanius. But it was a hard duty and he sometimes wearied of it. He knew about war and hated the waste and ugliness of it, but fought, when he had to fight, with hatred and passion. After three millennia, the world is still full of such people. While we are of them and feel for them we shall find something in the Aeneid. The gods have changed, but for human beings there is not much difference.

From the Introduction

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