The Aeneid by Virgil 16 BCE (translated by Robert Fagles, 2006)

I first read The Aeneid in 1962 as a junior in high school.  I took four years of Latin at Oak Park-River Forest High School with Miss Violet Zielke, a very small, spinsterish, serious woman of unclear age who brooked no nonsense and who gave me an A in every one of those eight semesters.  I read this book again as an homage to Ms. Zielke, her patience, her commitment, and her contributions to my GPA.

‘The Aeneid’ written by Publius Virgilius Maro (b. 70 BCE, d.19 BCE) is along with the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’, the great epic poems of the ancient world.   Its 9896 lines of Latin hexameter are dedicated to Rome’s first emperor Augustus, telling the story of the heroic, pious, and dutiful Aeneas, son of Venus and defender of Troy, who along with his father on his back and his young son flees the burning city lost to the Greeks after ten years of battle and seeks his fate foreordained to be the founding of Rome.

In twelve books filled with obscure names and lineages, gory battle scenes (“Turnus finishing up with a stroke between the helmet’s base and the breastplate’s upper rim, hacked off his head and left his trunk in the sand.“), struggles with the sea, a blistering love affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage, Virgil tells how Aeneas and his Trojans finally came to the shore of Latinium at the River Tiber and established their city after much bloodshed and war.  The ancients’ emphasis on Fate, the role that is played by the gods favoring their children and warring endlessly against their children’s enemies (think Juno who even after beating the shit out of Aeneas in Troy and all across the Mediterranean, still refuses to allow him to peacefully settle in Latinium), and the heroism in battle are the main topics for Virgil.

Having read the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ in recent years, I’d have to give the nod to Homer over poor Virgil.  Aeneas doesn’t have the same complex character as Odysseus nor do the battle scenes in the Aeneid have the same intensity and blood-curdling detail of the Iliad.  Nonetheless, because the poem is filled with so many of the Greek and Roman myths (think Daedalus, the Minotaur, the Sirens, etc.), this is a book worth returning to, and if you missed the Miss Zielke equivalent in your high school education, it’s worth reading for the first time.  Or at least worth skimming.

This is an opinion shared in a 2018 review of a new translation of ‘The Aeneid’ by one of my favorite literary critics, the classicist Daniel Mendelson in a New Yorker article which I had torn out and stuck into my copy of the book.( Mendesohn makes the point that modern readers are ambivalent about Virgil’s message.  Is it the ‘optimistic interpretation’ that vindicates empire and the order it brings to the world, or is it the ‘pessimistic interpretation’ about the toll that empire inevitably takes especially on the colonized.  In reading Mendelsohn’s scholarly critique a connection with last month’s reading about Israel emerged.  Mendelsohn writes “What is ‘The Aeneid’ about?  It is about a tiny band of outcasts, the survivors of terrible persecution.  It is about how these survivors—clinging to a divine assurance that an unknown land wil become their new home—arduously cross the seas, determined to refashion themselves as a new people, a nation of victors rather than victims.  It is about how when they finally get there, they find their new homeland inhabited by locals who have no intention of making way for them.  It is about how this geopolitical tragedy generates new wars, wars that will, in turn trigger further conflicts.  I is about how such conflicts leave those involved in them morally unrecognizable, even to themselves.” Has there ever been a better description of the moral conflict that Israel faces today in the embattled Middle East?  Once again, Virgil has proven to be not just a great poet of the past but an anticipator of the future.