My current journey into the classics was in many ways sparked by one book. In the course of my education, I had never read the Aeneid, nor did I even know the main plot of Virgil's story.
When my 12yo homeschooled son begin to read the Homeric epics, I felt no compunction to read either of them with him. I more or less knew what he was getting into. Back when I was eighteen, I read the Odyssey on my own and enjoyed it thoroughly. Although I had chosen to refrain from reading the military adventures of the Iliad, I knew its basic plot.
But when my son picked up the story of Aeneas and his quest to found Rome, I realized I didn't have a clue. I decided I should read the book alongside my son. And eventually, it inspired me to take my own journey--one through the classics of literature with an emphasis on all those ancient Western texts I never learned.
I read the Lombardo translation of the Aeneid while my son read the Fagles translation. Both are beautifully done. Often I compared the two writers' translations of particular passages--and more or less alternated which I thought was most beautiful or most readable. Either translation would be a fine way for a young person or adult to approach the epic for the first time, although the supporting references seem slightly stronger in the Fagles. And don't miss the fine audio version of the Fagles translation read by Simon Callow. If you are sharing this story with a young person, try the beautifully illustrated youth version by Penelope Lively.
When I opened the book for the first time, I found myself struggling to follow some of what Virgil was saying. I generally think of text as a transparent door into another world. But barriers in the Aeneid keep that door a bit shaded. References to Roman names kept me turning to the glossary, especially as the book started--and also in book six (the underworld scene).
After just one afternoon of reading, I was stunned to realize how many stories and names and phrases in our culture come from Virgil's Aeneid. From the Aeneid comes everything from the idea of rumors "flying" to specific phrases like "Greeks bearing gifts." (The story of the Trojan horse, not mentioned in the Iliad, is told fully here.)
I was also surprised to realize how incredibly poetic the book is. I did know that Virgil used the Homeric rhythm of dactylic hexameter to write his epic, but the more I thought about the idea of borrowing a meter developed for the Greek language to write a long work in Latin, the more I realized how conscious of the rigors of language Virgil must have been. What I did not expect was the beauty of similes, the depth of images, and the deep emotions expressed.
What struck me the most was the degree that Virgil's Aeneid seemed so intensely modern at times. Yes--like Homer, Virgil assumes that the drama acted out by the central human characters is often because the script is constructed by the gods. But the range of emotions played out by the characters--especially Aeneas and Dido--is stunningly immediate.
"Wars and a man I sing" begins the Fagles's translation of the Aeneid. With this phrase, Virgil announces his homage to Homer: the Aeneid is a book that echos the both Homeric epics: the Iliad ("wars") and the Odyssey ("and a man"). In contrast to Homer, however, we here have not the Greek side but the Trojan.
By connecting his nationalistic myth to the Homeric epics, Virgil gives a sense of inevitability to the founding of Rome. He places the Aeneid into the long flow of time--both literally and literarily. Rome starts feeling like a grand culmination of the great history that came before.
The first six books track the story line of the Odyssey. Aeneid recounts the story of the end of the Trojan war as well as his travels afterwards. While Odysseus winds his weary way home, Aeneas travels into the unknown, fated to found a new homeland. The last six books in the Aeneid track the Iliad, with Aeneas slaughtering the native people of Italy in order to found the Roman Empire. (Manifest Destiny, anyone?).
In my next post, I'll share my thoughts about the first section.