The Aeneid - Virgil (Translated by David West)

The Aeneid
Translated by Mark West
Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0140449329 (Amazon link)

For my taste, The Iliad has a much more powerful storyline than The Odyssey, but I enjoyed reading The Odyssey more. I attribute this difference to reading Rieu's prose translation of The Odyssey while Lattimore's Iliad remains much closer to verse, and I just couldn't adapt to reading it. Aware now that the translation can obviously make a big difference, I plumped for Mark West's prose translation of The Aeneid. The phrasing is very natural and the narrative flows well, without any sign of strained wording resulting from the original verse structure, but retains a slight formality which elevates key passages and reminded me that I was reading what was originally a poem. However, what really decided me on this version is the introduction; the translator summarises each book and picks out the key passages of interest in a very simple, lucid style. He doesn't obscure Virgil's themes behind overly-ambitious analysis, merely draws the reader's attention to certain events, with a short note of background explanation where appropriate. I'll admit I've read very few essays on the classics, but I've ploughed through a lot of factual writing and I recognise how difficult a summary essay like that can be. I particularly appreciated the practical book-by-book breakdown, and re-reading the appropriate introduction section did enhance my appreciation of the story without making me feel like I was doing homework.

I'm a lot more familiar with Roman history than I was with early Greek history, or particularly early Greek mythology, and thanks to reading Homer's works I now have a better understanding of the Epic Cycle myths. Perhaps because of this deeper appreciation of the world in which Virgil was writing, I enjoyed Virgil's obvious re-write of Homer more than Homer's originals. This is probably a sign that I'm an ignorant, uncultured peasant, but I think that in part it's also due to my finding the central figure of Aeneas more sympathetic than Homer's heroes. I know the traditional view is that Aeneas is a colder, more detached character than, say, raging Achilles, but to me his portrayal as an idealised pragmatic Roman archetype balanced the more obviously dramatic moments of blood rage and god fomented passions. I particularly enjoyed the way his level headed nature is repeatedly compared to the rash and destructive nature of those opposing him. Okay, so sometimes it's not subtle, but then The Aeneid isn't supported to be too subtle; it's a blatant work of propaganda, designed to give Augustus, Virgil's patron, and Augustus' Rome a mythic history to rival that of Greece. That the poet's patron happens to descend from the gods and founder of Rome is of course required by the story, and not merely brown-noising of the highest order. Incidentally, Allan Massie's Augustus has a wonderful storyline about the writing of The Aeneid, well worth reading.

Obviously the story-line of The Aeneid is very familiar, - if not try a few minutes with Google - but what I found startling was just how similar certain sections are to Homer. We start by dove-tailing into the familiar narrative of the fall of Troy, we have sea voyages to rival 'Ulixes', with some of the same monsters encountered, we have battle-field rages worth of Achilles, we have trips to the Underworld to talk to the dead, and we have the familiar divine machinations driving all the key players. Co-opting familiar and much loved mythologies clearly served Roman imperial expansion, but it's interestingly how subtle and simply readable much of Virgil's historical re-write is. However, much more interesting to me were the original sections centred on Aeneas, which break down into Love In Africa and War in Italy. As noted above, I've a better historical appreciation for early Roman history, and being ignorant of the Punic Wars would clearly strip the relationship with Dido of much of its resonance.

I found the War in Italy to be less readable. I appreciate the political need served by these books in co-opting the Latins and drawing them into the Roman fold, but here Virgil's narrative often became too Homeric for this modern reader, with long litanies of family trees and regional loyalties. Even the prose style seems to revert, adopting the long digressive metaphors that so characterise The Iliad. The climax of the novel centres strongly around Aeneas and Turnus, with obvious parallels to Achilles and Hecktor. What struck me repeatedly was how different the characters were, despite the similarity in their actions, and how successful Virgil had been in promoting his Roman virtues in the figure of Aeneas. Despite this however, Turnus never achieves the heroic stature of Hektor, and I didn't feel as moved by the final showdown between the two men or by the, rather sudden, reconciliation by the gods - until the very last paragraph, which closes this epic with a suitably dramatic and visceral finish. Excellent ending.

While reading The Aeneid, I repeatedly noticed how clear the story is for a casual reader. There's not much need for detailed knowledge of the gods or a background in ancient Mediterranean geo-politics. Virgil serves up his tale complete with graceful info-dumps, and in a simple, direct, rather modern style. Or so I thought. However, going back and re-reading key sections on their own, I'm struck by the fact that the prose is actually very colourful and full of rich incident. The tale of the baby strapped to a spear and thrown across a river stands out as a more startling moment, but I think this is my favourite:

"[...] Of all the ills there are, Rumour is the swiftest. She thrives on movement and gathers strength as she goes. From small and timorous beginnings she soon lifts herself up into the air, her feet still on the ground and her head hidden in the clouds. They say she is the last daughter of Mother Earth who bore her in rage against the gods, a sister for Coeus and Enceladus. Rumour is quick of foot and swift on the wing, a huge and horrible monster, and under every feather of her body, strange to tell, there lies an eye that never sleeps, a mouth and a tongue that are never silent and an ear always pricked. By night she flies between earth and sky, squawking through the darkness, and never lowers her eyelids in deep sleep. By day she keeps watch perched on the tops of gables or on high towers and causes fear in great cities, holding fast to her lies and distortions as often as she tells the truth."

I know this hardly needs said, but The Aeneid is famous for a simple reason; it's a damn good read, as the above quote hopefully shows, and certainly one of the most accessible ancient classics.

Posted: Sat - June 5, 2004 at 11:53 PM