My last post about the Aeneid mentioned that I found it both familiar and strange: episodes like the attack of the Harpies or the tour of the Underworld that I already knew from other sources, finally here in the original. I was also reading some material from the Iliad and the Odyssey from a fresh perspective, or events that hadn’t happened yet but could have been predicted, like poor King Priam’s death (the echoing, repeated phrase “all for nothing” in that scene is haunting.)
That combination of the dislocation of the familiar continues in the second half of the Aeneid. Aeneas and his men have arrived in Italy at last, and the king there has welcomed them warmly and offered his own daughter to Aeneas in marriage. (Does anyone remember Dido at this point?… I suppose that’s just me, then.) But just one guess who comes in to spoil the party: yes, that’s right! Juno! Again! She Who Hates Troy For Totally Petty Reasons! I flashed back to episode after episode of the Iliad and the Odyssey in which Juno (Hera) cruelly prolonged the war and gave the Argives the advantage in any way she could think of. This time, she creates hatred for the Trojans among the Italians, especially with Turnus, and disrupts the plans for peaceful marriage.
The rest of the book is war. Venus, Aeneas’s mother, asks her husband Vulcan to make a shield for Aeneas (recalling the armor made for Achilles in the Iliad.) The Trojan soldiers are put under siege again, a different kind of warfare than in the open field, and Virgil describes each blow, whether noble (Nisus and Euryalus, best friends off to fight and die at each other’s sides) or not (Mezentius, so brutal that his own troops turn on him.) There is the Volscian leader Camilla, Diana’s favorite, courageous and tough, her last words an order to her second-in-command.
(I should mention that the women in this poem are some of the strongest to be found in anything I read this summer: Camilla, Dido, and Juturna are all fascinating characters.)
The final confrontation between Turnus and Aeneas seemed to me to be both marvellous — dramatic and exciting, reminiscent of Achilles’s battle with Hector, but without the enormous burden of revenge and shame — and also not enough. Aeneas puts Turnus to death, and now he is the acknowledged heir of King Latinus. He will marry Lavinia, and he will become the father of Rome. But none of that happens in the book. None of that shaping and changing of Aeneas as a character happens before our eyes, the way it does with Achilles or even Odysseus. Aeneas has to become a leader — he has to shift from being a Trojan to being an Italian — but I found that process oddly incomplete. So much of it, in the closing lines, remains still to be done.
I am very glad I read the Aeneid, but it wasn’t my favorite of the classics I read this summer. That award would probably go to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for the sheer joy of the wordplay and the images and the storytelling. Still, all of these books are now lodged in my head, not just as background but as realities. It was like finding that part of the paneling in the wall was actually a door, and that it opened up into another world, far away from your own. Try it and see.