Discussion Post: The Aeneid
Hey, Challengers! It’s time for our first Summer 2010 Classics Challenge Discussion Post! You can participate here or at your own blog, but just remember that all participants will be entered to win a completely beautiful Penguin Clothbound Classic.
Just an administrative note: we will no longer be tackling Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress later in the summer due to its unexpected heft! Instead, we will be reading and comparing Colette’s Gigi and My Mother’s House for July 22 and 29. Feel free to join us for one or both, but it should be some good reading either way!
That said, next week we’ll be launching into Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho as promised, but for now, to Rome! My questions are just starters, so if there are things you want to discuss about the Aeneid that I didn’t bring up, head to the comments and share your thoughts. At the very least, let me know your favorite and/or most hated parts; I’d love to commiserate!
First of all, let’s look at the style of the Aeneid. In modern translations, it comes in both prose and poetry form. Which did you choose and do you think the format had any effect on your reaction to the content?
I actually started with the poetry version, was totally put off, tried the prose, was even more unhappy, and switched back to the poetry, which had suddenly become more interesting in the intervening chapters. It was definitely a weird transition. I expected to like the prose version more, but the translation was so boring that it made the book unreadable. The poetry translation was much more lively so I got over my initial poetry qualms and came to enjoy it more than the prose. So I guess mine was more an issue of translation (as usual) than prose vs. poetry.
Looking at the Aeneid as a primary source, how seriously can be take it as historic truth? Virgil was pretty obviously creating a mythology for Rome and we know he was heavily influenced by Roman politics of the day (did you catch the million and one references to Aeneas’ son being called “Iulus,” aka the founder of the Emperor Augustus’ familial house?). Do these factors mean we should discount his work’s merit as a historical document or do they just mean the Aeneid may just tell us more about Rome in the 1st century BCE than ancient Italy?
The latter! I was particularly struck by this in the section in Book XI where the Latins are debating whether or not to continue the war with the invading Trojans (Lines 340-625). Their debate reminded me strongly of the Roman Senate and, since we know that Virgil did some extensive traveling to make the story as realistic as possible in terms of place, I think it’s likely that he was inspired by the Senate when he wrote this section. Looking at the Aeneid that way, I think we can definitely use some parts of the book to look at Virgil’s Mediterranean rather than Aeneas’. (Notably, his descriptions of physical surroundings are also probably accurate to the first century BCE as are his notions of religion.)
Let’s definitely talk connections to Homer while we’re at it! It’s very tempting to view the Aeneid as a sequel to Homer’s Illiad—do you think that’s what Virgil intended? Was he legitimizing Rome’s own history by incorporating Greece’s?
Considering that Rome’s main cultural plan was to steal everything from Greece, change the name, and call it their own, I think it’s safe to say that Virgil was definitely trying to build up Rome’s history by tying it so closely to Greece’s great epic poems. In short, he was creating a Roman mythology and history from scratch. To do so, he wisely decided to build upon the highly respected history that was already available: the Greeks’! The fact that he mirrors Odysseus’ journeys in the first half of the Aeneid by relating Aeneas’ own travels around the Mediterranean and also scatters references to Odysseus passing by at some previous point in his own poem confirm to me that his goal was to raise Aeneas (and Rome) up to the level of Greek, heroic glory. (I also liked the part where Virgil rewrote the Trojan war and claimed Aeneas was more impressive than Hector because of “his piety.” Oy.)
What did you think about Dido? And how did her character/role in the story change your perception of Aeneas?
I got so angry at the gods for this whole section! I think Dido pretty much kicked butt and then the gods’ interference killed her, eventually literally. And when Aeneas listened to the gods telling him to leave without a word to her rather than either saying a proper goodbye or inviting her along, I really got fed up with Aeneas and the gods’ meddling in his life (and the lives of those around him). What I liked about her part in the story, though, was later when Aeneas visited the underworld and tried to apologize to her. Rather than listen, Dido ran off to her first husband who comforted her and glared at Aeneas. Because Aeneas is a big jerk incapable of independent thought (see below).
Lastly, let’s take a look at the supernatural elements that run rampant in this story, particularly the role of the gods, various visions, ghosts, and nymphs. So much of what occurs in the story happens because of the politics of the gods (for just one example, see Book V, Lines 1050-1060) rather than because of free will. How did this affect your opinion of the mortal and immortal characters in the story? And do you think it minimized the accomplishments of Aeneas or illustrated how important he was to be so often helped and hampered by the divine?
Personally, I think the near-constant interference of various supernatural beings (gods included) in this story reflected pretty poorly on Aeneas. To me, the modern reader, it indicated that he was incapable of doing anything by himself and he seemingly could not make any decisions of his own volition, neither of which made him a particularly impressive protagonist. Surprisingly, I think Turnus summed it up most aptly at the very end when Aeneas is mocking him (as usual) and Turnus bites back saying, “Fierce man, I am not afraid of your violent words—it is the gods I fear, and my enemy Jove” (Book XII, Lines 1072-75). He had it right: Aeneas is not fearsome, it’s the gods who are running the show and making Aeneas more or less powerful based on their whims.
I can only assume that ancient readers would see this differently and perhaps view Aeneas as more impressive because the gods cared enough to interfere so constantly in his life. Judging by how much they are floating around in this story, it makes sense that Virgil considered their interference a good thing.
Favorite Part: Definitely the first three books. I loved how Virgil opens with the Trojans landing at Carthage when you have no idea who any of them are and then backtracks and fills in the last seven years of wandering and all their backstories in a great flashback.
Least Favorite Part: The last half wherein we are treated to an endless account of who killed who and when and who their parents where. Every time I thought it was over, it just kept on!
Share your thoughts below! Next week we’re on Gothic literature of the 19th century for a bit of a switch. And I’ll try to keep the questions shorter next time, too. ;)