Burning cities, myth making and empire: Virgil’s Aeneid

At last my new book has gone to the printer and I have some time to blog again. I started thinking about this post on Virgil’s Aeneid in early August as London burned and looting broke out across England. At the same time, debt crises threatened Europe and the US, and the international financial markets were in turmoil. Old worlds were crumbling, new ones yet to emerge. Which was all strangely apt, because Virgil’s epic poem begins in the burning, looted city of Troy as the Trojan prince Aeneas and his family flee its chaos. The ancient civilisation of Troy lies in ruins. But a new civilisation is about to be born, founded by Aeneas: the Roman Empire.

Before he can fulfil his destiny, Aeneas must traverse the Mediterranean from his homeland near today’s Gallipoli, visit Carthage in northern Africa, reach Italy and defeat its local ruler, Turnus.

The legend of Rome’s Trojan origins had existed long before Virgil wrote about it in the 20s BC. It had become popular in the 3rd century BC when the Romans battled Greek powers in the east and began to identify themselves with the Trojans, the ancient foes of Greece from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

As with Homer, finding the right translation of the Aeneid is essential to enjoying it. After his bestselling success with the Iliad and the Odyssey, Robert Fagles released his verse translation of the Aeneid in 2006. Although I enjoyed Fagles’ translation, I prefer the 1956 verse translation by the poet Cecil Day-Lewis, actor Daniel Day-Lewis’s father. But the classic translation of the Aeneid into English was made by the poet John Dryden in 1697. In his introduction Dryden drew on the parallels between the Roman empire under Augustus after years of civil war and England’s moral and political confusion following civil war and the revolution of 1688.

Born in 70 BC, Virgil was a shy country boy who grew up on a farm and went to Rome aged 16 to study rhetoric and philosophy. He lived through civil war and the transformation of republican Rome into the Roman Empire, a process begun by Julius Caesar and completed by his grand-nephew and adopted son Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar in 27 BC and brought peace to the mediterranean after a century of violent upheaval. The Aeneid celebrates the new age of Augustus and recalls Rome’s mythical origins in Troy.

This history of war and peace informs the Aeneid, to which Virgil devoted the last eleven years of his life. Following the publication of his first two works, the Eclogues (37 BC) and the Georgics (30 BC), Virgil’s growing fame brought him into contact with some of the most powerful men in Rome, including the patron Maecenas and Augustus himself. At Augustus’s suggestion – inspired by his own love of Rome and sense of its destiny as a ruler of nations – Virgil spent his last years working on this patriotic poem. He died in 19 BC before the poem was finished and left instructions for it to be destroyed. Ignoring his wishes, Augustus ordered it to be published – and it immediately attracted a cult following.

In C Day Lewis’s translation, the Aeneid opens: ‘Arms, and the man I sing, who forc’d by fate, / And haughty Juno’s unrelenting hate, / Expell’d and exil’d, left the Trojan shore. / Long labours, both by sea and land he bore.’

This is the essence of Aeneas’s story, and these long labours lead him to his fated founding of Rome. Following the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, Venus tells her son Aeneas to flee his native land with the surviving Trojans in order to fulfil his great destiny: to found a city in Italy greater than Troy. As with Odysseus’s journey from Troy to Ithaca, Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Italy is prolonged by the intervention of gods and he has many adventures along the way.

And as in Homer’s epics, in the Aeneid a battle rages on Olympus, between Juno (the Roman Hera and wife of Jupiter, the Roman Zeus) and Venus, mother of Aeneas and patroness of the Trojans. Juno is the protector of Dido, the queen of Carthage, and tricks Aeneas into marrying her so he will stay in Africa and build the glorious empire that has been foretold for him in Carthage with Dido.

Dido and Aeneas

Venus is determined that her son will fulfil his noble destiny in Italy not in Carthage, and undermines Juno’s plot. The tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas is told in the famous fourth book of the Aeneid, in which Aeneas and his fleet of ships are swept to northern Africa by his enemy, Juno. In Carthage, Aeneas and Dido fall passionately in love but Aeneas is forced to deny her. Urged by his mother, Aeneas abandons Dido for an apparently greater duty and sails to Italy where his fated destiny lies. Mad with grief, Dido commits suicide.

Like Odysseus, Aeneas must visit the underworld before he can complete his journey. Here he meets his father, Anchises, who foretells the future of Rome up to the age of Julius Caesar and Augustus, thereby allowing Virgil to celebrate the reign of Augustus. Once on Italian soil, Aeneas has to fight the mighty Italian warrior Turnus for the local princess Lavinia. Despite the omens and prophecies that have foretold the coming of the Trojans and the marriage of the Trojan leader to a local Italian princess, the noble Turnus refuses to give in to the invading newcomers and a bloody battle ensues.

Virgil’s rural upbringing is evident in the poem’s metaphors, taken from nature. When he describes the decapitation of a young Trojan, Virgil likens him to a flower: ‘the blood ran down / His beautiful limbs, and his neck drooped feebly onto one shoulder. / So, when its stalk is cut by the ploughshare, a shining flower / Grows limp and dies, or poppies droop down their heads upon / The languid stems when the weight of the shower is too much for them.’

The delicacy of Virgil’s imagery conveys a tenderness and sorrow that is rarely present in Homer. This is perhaps one reason that Virgil was so revered by many later Christian writers. Virgil’s influence on Christian Europe was most famously expressed by Dante, who chose Virgil as his guide through the inferno, and the Aeneid as the model for his own epic poem, the Divine Comedy.

The Aeneid became a standard textbook for Roman schools and later for medieval schools. It was regarded with such reverence as a source of wisdom that it was even used as a prophetic tool. The Roman emperor Hadrian divined the future using the Aeneid and it has been used for this purpose to this day. The random consultation of the Aeneid for answers to a stated question – known as Sortes Vergilianae or the ‘lots of Virgil’ – became a popular method of divination for both pagans and Christians, in much the same way as yarrow sticks are thrown to consult the I Ching. Even Bernard Knox, the classics scholar who wrote the introduction to Fagles’ translation, tells a story of using the Aeneid to foretell the future when he was in the US army fighting in Italy during the Second World War.

Aeneas and Turnus

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7 Responses to Burning cities, myth making and empire: Virgil’s Aeneid

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    I also have the Lewis version, which I loved when I read it at university, and I used to browse through it on and off in the evenings when I was less busy than I am now.
    I recently bought the Fagles version too, for re-reading, because I’m sure I missed a lot, as undergraduates do. I like the associations you have brought to this great classic, I’ll read it with fresh eyes:)

  2. Thanks Lisa. Very interested to hear you also have the Lewis version, especially as I only happened on it by chance. Was that the version set on your undergrad course? What was the course?
    Also intrigued to hear that you’ve recently bought the Fagles version. Does that mean you REALLY love the poem? I ask because I’ve always loved Homer more. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of Fagles’ ‘Aeneid’.

  3. Ah, the origins of Western culture; charging about invading other peoples because ‘god’ told you to.

  4. Totally! Plus ca change and all. But perhaps we’re living through its demise. I’ve spent fathers’ day morning brewing up a post for this week called ‘The Stella, pub feminism and Greek goddesses’ which might be more your thing.

  5. Pingback: Knights errant and the madness of a book addict: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes | bookish girl

  6. Wonderful article! We will be linking to this great
    content on our site. Keep up the good writing.

  7. Pingback: ‘You can’t take the experiences out of your head / You can’t take the damages out of your heart’: Ben Quilty’s After Afghanistan – and Homer, Virgil and Nadeem Aslam | bookish girl

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