Well, it’s the end of August, and the Aeneid is the last entry in My Big Fat Greek and Roman Summer. (That sounded better in my head. Wet Hot Greek and Roman Summer? 500 Days of Greek and Roman Summer? Okay, I may be slightly delirious.) Arma virumque cano, says Virgil, and we’re off.
The Aeneid, of course, is the story of what happened after the Iliad, from the Trojans’ perspective. Aeneas rescues his father and his son (but not, alas, his wife) from the destruction of Troy. He and his men must obey the oracles and find a new place to live: the shores of Italy. There they will found a new city — a new empire — that will live forever. Nothing worth while, of course, is easy.
The first thing I noticed about this work is that it’s all about nation-building. This is an occasional element in Homer (such as the roll call of the city-states in the gathering of the armies), but in general, the fate of Greece does not depend upon whether Odysseus makes it home. Not so here. Virgil makes it clear that Aeneas and his son Ascanius are the foundation upon which the future of Rome will rest. No obstacle — not love, not war — must stand between the evolution Aeneas must make: son of Troy to father of Rome.
The second thing I noticed is that the Aeneid, like Hamlet, is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together. Arms and a man I sing! Hearts of oak! The Trojan Horse! Beware of Greeks bearing gifts! The Harpies, which of course are to be found in Gaudy Night! A retelling of Circe’s island, Scylla and Charybdis, and the Cyclops! A tour through the underworld! “Call me Achaemenides”! Okay, maybe that last one is not so immediately familiar. But my point is that on beginning this work, I had no idea what it was about. Yet as I read, I was genuinely startled to find one familiar scene after another, from the pages of poets and novelists I’ve read all my life. Virgil has apparently led more authors than Dante by the hand.
I also noticed that Virgil was himself led by the hand. I am totally unqualified to talk about this, except as someone who read the Iliad and the Odyssey this summer, but I noticed many references to Homer in these pages. The first two books concern the fall of Troy, with many of the same characters we know from the Iliad, and the third book recounts Aeneas’s voyage by sea, in essentially the same path that Odysseus (Ulysses) took toward home. In book five, Aeneas orders funeral games for his father, Anchises, and they strongly recall the funeral games that Achilles ordered for his friend, Patroclus.
Still, none of this feels like a retread. Everything is from a different perspective, told from Trojan eyes, not Greek. Virgil’s writing is vivid and visual. There are some wonderfully creepy moments, such as when they sail off from the island of the Cyclops, and all the monsters come down to the shore, silently:
Down from the woods and the high hills they lumber in alarm,
the tribe of Cyclops, down to the harbor, crowding the shore,
the brotherhood of Etna! We see them standing there, powerless,
each with his one glaring eye, their heads towering up,
an horrendous muster looming into the vaulting sky
like mountain oaks or cypress heavy with cones
in Jupiter’s soaring woods or Diana’s sacred grove.
I can just see them, huge and terrifying, just out of reach. Poor Dido, too, caught in the torments of love, and dying for it. Her spells and her suicide are among the most vivid scenes.
One of the things that caught me off guard — and my only excuse is that, honestly, I had no expectations of this piece going into it — was Aeneas’s voyage to the House of the Dead in Book 6. Several of my heroes this summer have gone down to the dead at one point or another (Orpheus and Odysseus are notable examples, as well as the Norse gods) and so this didn’t at first seem to be anything too out of the way. But then Aeneas begins looking around him. Here are the ghosts of infants. Here are those condemned to die on a false charge. The suicides. Those tormented by love (Dido is there, her wound still fresh.) Parricides, adulterers, regicides… wait. Of course. Dante chose Virgil to lead him through Hell in the Inferno because Virgil had already been there. This was an epiphany of epic (ha!) proportions for me, and I thoroughly enjoyed my tour, not only of the underworld, but of Elysium. (It does seem natural that Dante would choose another tour guide for Purgatory, since it wasn’t invented until considerably later.)
So far, the Aeneid was both familiar and strange. If I’d gone in expecting it to be more Homer, I had those expectations both met and completely not met; if I’d gone in expecting epic narrative, I was pleased and not pleased. Next: how the gods mess up our plans (again!); war; the unbearable incompleteness of Aeneas’s transformation.