Book Review: Virgil’s Aeneid

I find myself frequently have read one book and coming to the realisation that I need to read another.  For example, my trudging through St. Thomas Aquinas’s Disputed Questions on Truth and Summa Theologiae convinced me that I needed to read the Bible through from cover to cover, which I forthwith did (and have repeated that journey, for those who are waiting to pounce on me.)  Going through works like the Divine Comedy and even The City of God finally have pushed me into a work which I would have digested had I stuck with Latin studies long enough: Virgil’s Aeneid.  So with the happiest conjunction of events in place (time and a good price on the book) I ploughed into this, the work which became the epic poem of Rome and of Italy itself.

That status in itself deserves an explanation.  Most people think of an epic poem as the product of primitive storytellers repeating things generation after generation until something gets written down.  That line of thinking is a consistent undertow in “critical Biblical studies” and it isn’t always helpful.  Epics, however, can be literary compositions done in civilised settings.  The best example that is widely known today is, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien wrote it, in part, to fill what he saw as a lacuna in the folklore of the Anglophone world, and the result has been a resounding success.

The Aeneid was written by Publius Vergilius Maro (70-15 BC) to provide an epic narrative of the founding of Rome.  It was written at the instance of the Emperor Augustus to commemorate his victory at the naval Battle of Actium in 31 BC, which sealed his control of the Roman world.  Picking up more or less where the Greeks left off (a good Roman practice,) Virgil’s poem narrates the escape from collapsing Troy of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus, and his subsequent voyage with his of Trojans through the Mediterranean to Rome, where they defeated the local Latins and founded the city that became first a republic and then an empire.  Virgil didn’t quite finish the poem before his death. His idea was that the manuscript be destroyed at his death, but his patron Augustus ignored his wishes, and our civilisation is the better for it.

The outline of the Aeneid is well known and commented on.  In this review I want to concentrate on some impressions of my own, especially as it relates to Christianity.  This work needs to go on the reading lists of Christians for a long list of reasons, some of which I will touch on.

The first impression is that the work has made a deep impact on Western literature, deeper than most Americans at least are probably aware.  Dante just about picks up his epic of the underworld and afterlife where Virgil leaves off, with Virgil himself as the guide through most of it.  Connecting the Aeneid with the Lord of the Rings isn’t as silly an enterprise as it looks: Tolkien is certainly familiar with Virgil and it’s interesting to see both the similarities and the differences between the two.  It’s tempting to see the roots of Tolkien’s work solely in the folklore of Northern Europe, but there’s inspiration from the Aeneid too, especially as it relates to the serious obligations of duty and the single-minded pursuit of it by the heroes.  Both the hobbits and Aeneas pursue their quest because it is their duty.

That leads to the second observation: it’s amazing to modern and post-modern minds how much the Romans accomplished with such a low level of self-actualisation, or to put it more plainly the lack of the permanent emotional high that seems to be the necessary prerequisite for anyone doing anything anymore, from getting out of bed onward.  Virgil sees Aeneas’ mission as the first Roman imperial conquest, but it’s done in a backdrop of the gore of war (which gets full press in the epic) and tragic misunderstandings with the results that go with them (like Carthaginian Queen Dido’s abortive love of Aeneas and his leaving her behind to pursue the quest.)  Virgil understands that war and conquest are not pretty businesses, and it’s interesting that his patron Augustus wanted Virgil’s expression of this to be preserved.

The third point concerns the religious background of the epic.  Although its mythological setting was evident to its readers both then and now, it does represent an expression of the nature of pagan Roman religion in the years immediately preceding the proclamation of the Gospel to the gentiles.  The best way of describing that expression is “creeping monotheism.”  Although the gods and goddesses are many and active, the decisions taken by Jupiter (Jove) have a finality that the rest (especially his own wife Juno) cannot reverse, no matter how hard they try.  That finality is expressed as fate.  It is Aeneas’ fate to found Rome, which is tied to his duty to carry that fate out.  The “heavy hand of fate” that is a leitmotif of the epic is an interesting backdrop both for Paul’s statements regarding predestination, Augustine’s elaboration of same, and the simple fact that, for many in the Roman world, decreed fate from on high was part of the landscape of life, and thus its proclamation from Christian pulpits wasn’t an alien concept (unlike the resurrection.)  On the other hand it puts Cicero’s objection to theism as stifling of free will (to which Augustine responds at length in The City of God) in a pagan context.

Finally, the Aeneid should put to rest any idea that, before Christianity, the ancients’ idea of the afterlife was undifferentiated depending upon the result of this one.  Aeneas is presented with an underworld that literally had a fork in the road, one fork to punishment and the other to happiness in the Elysian Fields.  Dante literally picked up where Virgil left off on this, but the connection between pagan and Christian views of the afterlife are yet another parallel between the old religion and the new.

If the Aeneid is a magnificent work, the translation (John Jackson’s) I picked left a lot to be desired of.   Prose translations of poetry are always controversial, but the truth is that it is the rare translator who can force the rhyme and rhythm of one language into another and make it work.  In Jackson’s case, he squanders whatever advantage he has in using prose by larding it with many antique terms that were going out of currency in his era (just before World War I) and are now completely incomprehensible to all but the enthusiast.  For the Latinless, I would recommend a translation, prose or verse, whose terminology at least makes a stab (making stabs is a big deal in the Aeneid) at communicating with living readers.

The Aeneid is a magnificent work that deserves a place in the canon of Western literature—and the book lists of Christians as well.  Reading it changes the way one looks at many works that have come after it, and that’s not such a bad thing after all.

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