The Aeneid

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I told my mom I was reading this and she quickly texted back the first line in Latin, Arma virumque cano, still stuck in her brain after all these years. Being the lazy book sloth that I am, I’m reading the English translation by Robert Fagles. But then again, I can’t be that lazy, since when I told a friend I was reading this, she said, “The whole thing?! We just read the best parts that the professor gave us.”

Bernard Knox summarizes the work in its context through the Introduction. Pious Aeneas is explained as being dutiful beyond religion, to his country and family as well, dispelling the yarn that Yeats perpetuates: “Ach, a hero, him a hero? Bigob, I t’ought he waz a priest” (as related in Ezra Pound’s ABC of Reading). The intro ends with a helpful map so you can chart Aeneas’s progress around the Mediterranean as he blows from Troy to Carthage before making it to Italy, his destiny and destination.

Virgil, writing this over 2,000 years ago, deliberately took Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as his guide, blending them together into a book that contains both war and endless wandering, an effort to seal the history of Rome in mythic majesty that mimicked the Greeks. It’s an incredibly bloody story that makes you wonder about the T-levels of the ancients; were they awash in testosterone more than we are? Honestly, I found little satisfaction in the endless and monotonous battle scenes, only delighting in the storytelling and other dialogue that happens sporadically. Perhaps the best use of this book is for the Sortes Virgilianae, or the Virgilian lottery where you open the book at random and whatever passage you land on is your future.

Women in The Aeneid

One lens I used when reading this was to try and pick out the very few references to women; most of the actions of the female form are from the gods: Venus (mother of Aeneas) and Juno (perpetual hater of Aeneas and the Trojans). Dido, of course, is a major character (queen of Carthage), but she’s destined to kill herself in a love-struck fury after Aeneas sneaks away, sailing forth in the dead of night. Camilla gets a book of her own in book 11 (Camilla’s Finest Hour, as dubbed by Fagles), although she is introduced to us in book 7: “This warrior girl, with her young hands untrained for Minerva’s spools and baskets filled with wool, a virgin seasoned to bear the rough work of battle, swift to outrace the winds with her lightning pace.” We also have a sprinkle of other warrior women with Penthesilea, “a girl, a warrior queen who dares to battle men.”

Anna is Dido’s sister, the one who persuades her to go for it with Aeneas and who ends up unknowingly building Dido’s funeral pyre. In the early part of the story, Cassandra is mentioned (during the retelling of the fall of Troy), along with Aeneas’ wife Creusa who was killed but who Aeneas lost track of in the fleeing: “I never looked back, she never crossed my mind.” In book 2, there’s a disputed section questionably attributed to Virgil where Troy is falling all around Aeneas and he spots Helen, the supposed source of the entire war, and his rage flares up wanting to kill her but Venus stays his hand.

The wretched women of Troy who are along for the journey are bewitched into burning their own boats; later, “they cringe from the daylight, shrink from what they’ve done.”

Besides this, there are various attitudes brought forth about women: Mercury claims “Woman’s a thing that’s always changing, shifting like the wind.” (Varium et mutabile seper femina.) In Fagles’ notes on the translation, he says that Dryden, in his dedication to the book in 1697, called this “the sharpest satire, in the fewest words, that ever was made on womankind; for both the adjectives are neuter, and animal must be understood, to make them grammar.”

A tiny glimpse of what the hard, drudgery-packed, day-to-day life of women might have been like is revealed in book 8: “And then, when the first deep rest had driven sleep away and the chariot of Night had wheeled past mid-career, that hour a housewife rises, faced with scratching out a living with loom and Minerva’s homespun rafts, and rakes the ashes first to awake the sleeping fires, adding night to her working hours, and sets her women toiling on at the long day’s chores by torchlight—and all to keep the bed of her husband chaste and rear her little boys—so early, briskly, in such good time the fire-god rises up from his downy bed to labor at his forge.”

Other surprises

Book 3.490’s reference to plate tectonics: “These lands, they say, were once an immense unbroken mass but long ago—such is the power of time to work great change as the ages pass—some vast convulsion sprang them apart, a surge of the sea burst in between them, cleaving Sicily clear of Hesperia’s flanks, dividing lands and towns into two coasts, rushing between them down a narrow tiderip.”

Recap by Book

Book One gives the background of the warring gods who determine the fates of men below, blowing Aeneas’s ships into the port of Carthage where Queen Dido has established a stronghold after escaping her bloodthirsty brother who killed her husband. The gods conspire to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas.

Book Two is Aeneas’s recounting of the final battle for Troy, detailed depiction of the Trojan horse filled with armed Greeks that is pulled into the city walls after a Greek captive claims that to do so will seal the doom of the fleeing Greeks. Creusa, Aeneas’s wife dies, “I never looked back, she never crossed my mind” as they were fleeing. He also spares some time to rage at Helen, wanting to kill her for her role in supposedly starting the war.

Book Three, they’ve built their ships and start traveling, running into issues with the Cyclops and Harpies, all sorts of madness before ending up in Carthage.

Book Four is Dido’s book, her “marriage” consummated with Aeneas and hopelessly in love, but a god comes down to command Aeneas to move on, and like a coward he starts to prepare secretly to leave, supposedly waiting for the right moment to tell Dido. Instead, she gets wind of the plot and is furious. He sails away in the middle of the night and she plunges a sword into her chest atop a pyre built to burn all his things.

Book Five: After Aeneas sneaks away to Sicily, he has funeral games to celebrate the one year anniversary of his father Anchises’s death: boat race, foot race, boxing match, and archery competition. Trojan women burn the ships, but not too badly.

Book Six: Aeneas’ descent into the underworld, the basis of Dante’s Inferno written fourteen centuries later. Dido disses him by walking away without a word when Aeneas encounters her shade.

Book Seven: they make it to mainland Italy finally, send gifts to King Latinus who has received omens that his daughter Lavinia must marry a foreigner, and so Latinus offers her over. Juno gets pissed, sets a Fury on the humans who then hide the daughter and enrages Turnus into marching against Aeneas. Thus begins many boring pages of war.

Book Eight: War, and Aeneas gets a shield from Vulcan and his mom that depicts the glories of Rome to come.

Book Nine: War.

Book Ten: War.

Book Eleven: War, and Camilla’s raging romp-around.

Book Twelve: You guessed it, war. Plus the surprise (?) ending that Aeneas kills Turnus when he sees him wearing the spoils of war wrenched from Pallas whom Turnus killed.