The Aeneid

12 May

The Aeneid– Virgil

I’ve wanted to write an entry like this for months, and I am very proud to finally present you with a BIG FAT AENEID POST (that is probably tl;dr.) YAY.

Taking Latin V AP this year was something of an adventure. The AP curriculum requires you to be able to translate something like 2000 lines of Latin and also have a working knowledge of the rest of the Aeneid. This meant that from September through the end of March, I had about 30 lines of Latin to translate every night (including weekends and vacations). It started to become part of my routine, something that I might not have been always consciously thinking about but that, every day, was present. My Latin teacher also happens to be fantastic (the only really good teachers I’ve had throughout school so far have been Latin teachers, weirdly). We could spend a day mining a four-line passage for stuff to analyze and think about, which is something that I think I could quite happily spend the rest of my life doing. So even though having 30 lines of Latin to translate a night could be really arduous, it was one of only a few constants this year–and, more importantly, a positive one.

The Aeneid was written by Virgil (who is amazing) from 29 to 19 BC, during the reign of Augustus. It was supposedly written as propaganda for Augustus’ regime, and many scholars have read the epic as being essentially a nationalist tract. However (in my opinion/my teacher’s opinion/seemingly the opinion of more modern scholars), the epic is far too complex and nuanced and Aeneas is far too much of a questionable character for it to be just a straight-up allegory. (A good article on this is Adam Parry’s “The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid”– which says that the epic contains “a public voice of triumph and a private voice of regret”.) The epic is split up into twelve books. The first six detail the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan hero who flees from Troy with hundreds of Trojan men and women after the Greeks have sacked the city. Aeneas knows that he is fated to found a new race that will eventually create a “new Troy”–i.e. Rome–and at the end of the fifth book he finally reaches Italy. (This destiny hangs over Aeneas for the entire epic, and is as important a player as Aeneas himself.) These first six books resemble the Odyssey and plays with its theme of homecoming, while the latter six, which detail Aeneas’s war with the native Rutulians, resemble the Iliad and plays with its themes of rage, fury, etc. Lots of stuff happens in between, but Aeneas’s journey to Italy and the establishment of what would become the Roman race is essentially what the plot is about.

I read the Odyssey in my freshman English class, and it was a diametrically different experience from reading theAeneid in Latin. Part of this is due to the intensity of the course, but it was also because having access to the Latin allowed me to appreciate certain things that otherwise would’ve been totally lost. Here are some things that you get as a reward for reading the Aeneid in the Latin:

-It’s an epic poem, so it’s written in dactylic hexameter and is meant to be read out loud. There’s a definite musicality to the lines, and it’s hard to maintain that in translation while still keeping it readable, I think. Virgil uses a lot of sound effects–like when he’s describing a snake there are a hot of hissing sounds, when someone’s angry there are a lot of spitting sounds, etc.

-Latin syntax is largely based on word endings, not order- which means that there are some really, really cool things you can do with word placement. There are tons and tons of word pictures everywhere (things like Dido being literally trapped between the goddesses who are manipulating her, to the image of the blood of one of Priam’s murdered sons literally spilling out of the end of the line). It’s also used for dramatic effect– at one point during the speech Dido makes when she is pleading Aeneas to stay with her in Carthage, she suspends the verb “oro”–I beg– for something like five lines, which creates this incredibly effective crescendo and climax.

-For some reason, reading/translating the Latin made the Aeneid easier for me to analyze. If I could, I’d read every book twice– first for plot/pure enjoyment, and then again for analyzing purposes. With the Aeneid, I was effectively reading it for plot while I was translating it–I needed to focus my attention solely on what was actually going on or else I’d have been totally lost–so when it came time to analyze I felt a lot more comfortable delving in and picking everything apart. (That may just be me, but it definitely felt like something that was a result of the Latin itself.)

But what really makes the Aeneid so cool is the incredible amount of ideas it manages to discuss, as well as the universality of those ideas. The epic’s real central focus is the idea of the inescapability (is that even a word?) of fate and the ramifications fate can have on a person. Aeneas is a character driven by his mission–he’s called “a man outstanding in piety”  (“insignem pietate virum”) in the tenth line of the Aeneid, and it’s an epithet that follows Aeneas throughout the rest of the epic, sometimes sarcastically. However, he is torn between being this pawn of fate and being an actual human being with real relationships and desires. Interestingly, Aeneas is not entirely mortal– his mother is Venus, goddess of love, and his father, Anchises, was a mortal. This means that Aeneas is part of both worlds, carrying the burdens that come with each. This is an idea that’s discussed over and over again in various incarnations.

Also, Aeneas will not get to see the fruits of his success. He will get the Trojans to Italy and will defeat the Rutulian tribe, but he will not found a city–his son, Ascanius, will do that. This idea isn’t a new one–in some ways, it’s a lot like how Moses doesn’t get to see the Promised Land. They’re both agents of a higher power and aren’t allowed to be fully realized as individual people. To quote Adam Parry again, Aeneas “is successively denied all the attributes of a hero, even of a man… he cannot be himself, because he is wired to sound for all the centuries to come…” Aeneas ultimately succeeds in his task; however, he is fated to do so, so there isn’t really a sense of real heroism or accomplishment that’s inherent there. What Aeneas never does, though, is fully realize himself. He goes from being frighteningly passive and incompetent–the first time we see Aeneas is in the middle of a horrible storm that’s been set upon him by Juno and Aeolus, praying to the gods as a suppliant– to a certain level of independence that is limited to him understanding what he is meant to do without being directly spoken to by the gods, and then to something close to a rage-filled monster. Every time Aeneas finds some level of personal happiness–his marriage to Dido, for example, or when he and his men settle in another city for a year–he is beckoned away from it by the gods. When this happens, he immediately becomes the dutiful leader again, which is always at the expense of the immediate happiness of himself or others. This is his role and his tragedy.

It’s tough to choose my favorite parts of the Aeneid, but two of the passages that have stuck with me the most have a lot to do with this idea of being under the absolute control of fate, so I’ll talk about those here. The first of these passages is a simile where Aeneas is being compared to an oak tree. I drew this broadside about it:

These extremes aren’t able to be achieved by mere mortals–no one can reach their arms to heaven or extend their legs so that they stand in hell. But the balancing of these two extremes is human. I think, though, that in some ways this is something that a lot of people do. People need to maintain homoeostasis within themselves, and sometimes, in that person’s mind, that might mean committing acts that cause pain for others in order to maintain that balance. This is what the roots of hell represent.

The epitome of this idea, though, comes in Aeneas’s retrieval of the golden bough. Upon landing in Italy, Aeneas is told by the Sybil that he needs to find the golden bough in order to gain passage into the underworld. This golden bough, a dead metallic thing that is sorely out of place on a living tree, will allow Aeneas to enter the underworld, thus becoming sorely out of place himself. The bough belongs to Proserpina, queen of the dead, so in a way Aeneas is bringing the bough home, thus mirroring his own journey home to Italy. There’s a whole lot that I could go into about the golden bough, but since this post is already disgustingly long, I’m going to just talk about the word “cunctantem”– “having hesitated”. This word appears in a few places in the Aeneid. One of them is when Aeneas tries to pluck the bough off the tree– the bough “hesitates”. Another is in the final scene of Aeneid, when Aeneas is battling his archenemy Turnus. Aeneas is standing over Turnus and going to spare him, when he hesitates because he sees that Turnus is wearing the girdle of Pallas, a young warrior who Aeneas had promised to take care of. This so angers Aeneas that he stabs Turnus with his sword, killing him. The word “cunctantem”, I think, represents in both cases a last struggle against fate, an attempt to find a way to have free will. Aeneas is weary of his journey, full of tasks that should be impossible, and the bough is quite possibly weary of the impossible journey to the underworld, even though it will result in its homecoming. (This analysis needs some work, but.) The rest of the golden bough passage is full of this type of stuff.
Reading the Aeneid this year made me ridiculously happy. I got to look at analyses that made my mind feel like it was ballooning outwards in order to hold all of the new stuff I needed to think about, and I had an excuse to really, really think about passages in depth. I came away from it with a sense of pride and a sense of relief–that yes, I’m able to do this type of thing, think about this type of thing, and love it. (I could probably have made this post twice as long as it is now.) It was exactly what I needed to get through the year, and I want to keep going back and thinking about it for a very long time.

2 Responses to “The Aeneid”

  1. Nicole May 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Hey Phoebsterz! Just wanted to tell you that you’re brilliant and this post is absolutely stupendous. LOVE IT…. and youuu!:)

    • Phoebe May 20, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

      Why thank you, ma’am! <333333

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