Tag Archives: elaine fantham

Why read the Aeneid of Virgil?

Arms and the man I sing

I recently finished my fourth English reading of Virgil’s Aeneid, this time in the translation of Frederick Ahl with an excellent introduction by the late Elaine Fantham (Fantham taught me Latin verse in my MA at Toronto, and I have enormous esteem for her work and great affection for her person).

As with the Iliad, there are good extrinsic reasons to read Virgil’s great epic — all post-Virgilian Latin verse, especially epic, for one thing. Even Ovid’s Amores — a magnificent series of elegiac love poetry — are haunted by Virgil, beginning with the word arma. Also, Dante (whom I also love) and Milton (Milton also has some Lucan in him — and Lucan is, in many ways, the anti-Virgil). Or if, like me, you’re a Bernini fan:

Someone somewhere once called the Aeneid the epic poem of Europe. We are all, for good or ill, wrapped up in the great European cultural project, from Homer to Star Trek. The Aeneid permeates much of this, and not only poetry, but philosophy at least as early as Seneca, theology in Augustine, and the visual arts. Oh, and Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas. As I said about The Iliad:

not reading [it] means you are missing out on an integral part of your own cultural heritage and thus not leading a full life

Other reasons? So many. Here are three.

First, duty. This is perhaps a reason to read the Aeneid today. Over and over and over again in the Aeneid, the titular hero is ‘pius Aeneas’ — falsely rendered ‘pious’. Ahl goes for ‘righteous’, Heaney for ‘filled with devotion’. Aeneas, for all his faults (we’ll get to those), is a man who knows what his destiny is (okay, most of us don’t have gods and ghosts helping us out in that regard), and he does what is necessary to that end. He single-mindedly seeks to do his duty to his fate.

He is also a devoted son, father, husband — he seeks to do his duty to Anchises, his father, whom he carries away from Troy in spite of Anchises’ protestations. He also brings his son Iulus/Ascanius. He wishes to bring his wife Creusa, but she is slain in the god-rendered destruction of Troy.

Aeneas fulfils his duty to the gods. He brings with him his household gods from Troy to give them a new home. He performs sacrifices to the gods. He fulfils vows to the gods. He also fulfis his duty to the dead by giving them proper burial when possible.

In an age where we shirk duty when possible and do whatever we please, perhaps we could learn from Aeneas?

But — well, then there’s the second reason. Ambiguity. Is pius Aeneas always pious? Think of his own aristeia, the needless slaughter of so many Latins. The killing of his great foe. His manipulation and abandonment of Dido. Aeneas can be a violent, dangerous man. Not all of the killing in this poem is just, and some of the unjust killing is on the part of Aeneas, pius or not.

This is part of why I love this poem. Maybe we need to think about duty. But Virgil doesn’t avoid the muck. Death. War. Violence. Betrayal. These are the stuff of the crooked ways of humans. And his great, beautiful, heart-wrenching poetry draws you and pulls you. It’s an amazing poem — people like me want to find ‘morals’ to the story: Devoted Aeneas! But Virgil says, ‘Oh, but — violent Aeneas, angry Aeneas, shameless Aeneas, woman-abandoning Aeneas…’

Both Aeneases are real. That’s part of the beauty of the poem.

And so the third: The Aeneid is beautiful in Latin, beautiful in a good English translation. If you are Latin-less, get Fagles (Penguin) or Ahl (Oxford). Read it in verse — Dryden, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve not read C. Day Lewis’s. Death can be beautiful when narrated by the greatest poet of the Latin language. Storms at sea can grip you. Even catalogues of Romans take on something beyond expected glory when rendered in dactylic hexameter.

There is power in Virgil’s verse. I find this hard to put into words, which probably makes me a bad critic. But maybe beauty isn’t quite right as the third reason. This is a magnificent, complex poem, referring backwards and forwards to itself. The action and the set descriptions are carefully paced to keep your interest. The relationship to Homer is there at first sight, and suddenly more complex at fourth read. Read the Aeneid because it is … wondrous.

I have a friend who hates the term ‘instant classic’. Nothing, she says, is an instant classic. Well, Virgil was. He was taught in schools almost as soon as he existed. Already, his contemporaries had to find new things to do. This poem could not be ignored by Ovid. Lucan, in his choice of the grotesque horror of civil war, had to do something completely different, composing verse in the shadow the great Virgil.

The Aeneid is a rich, powerful, complex, beautiful poem about destiny, about duty, and about the ambiguities of life as lived by mortals who are trying to do their duty and fulfil their destinies. Read it. Then read it again.


Also: check out my post about The Odyssey!


The Letters of Seneca

As part of the grandeur of my PhD, I’m reading a vast swath of Latin letters, as this post and this other post on Cicero’s letters attest, not to mention this brief discussion of a passage from Pliny’s letters. My adventures have taken me as late as St Boniface (d. 754), as far from Rome as Severus of Antioch (who wrote in Greek, not Latin, and is only preserved in Syriac, mind you), and as Carthaginian as St Cyprian. Today, I polished off Selected Letters by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, selected and translated with introduction and notes by the intrepid Elaine Fantham.

My fondness for Professor Fantham stretches back five years when she, in discussing U of T’s Classics department’s new locale, told my MA Latin Poetry class that one could observe the stained glass of bare-breasted women ‘with an Edwardian sensibility.’ Also, one day while discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she sagely said, ‘There is nothing better than reading the ancient texts themselves.’ This was my first encounter with her scholarship outside the classroom, and I am impressed.

Fantham’s selection is lucidly and intelligibly translated in a modern yet philosophical idiom. This, combined with the fact that here we have the largest selection of Seneca’s letters yet translated into English, is reason alone to purchase this particular volume. Nevertheless, Prof. Fantham gives the reader a brief introduction to each letter, usually a couple of sentences or a small paragraph that outlines the contents, making the structure clear and thus the text easier to follow. When helpful, these introductions to individual letters give references to secondary literature for those interested in pursuing a matter further, whether a question of philosophy or philology.

Mind you, I was already very pleased with the scholarship by reading the main introduction to the volume. Some scholarly introductions are boring. Others, while helpful and interesting, can be excessively long, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ 67-page introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And sometimes introductions to popular-level translations are not scholarly at all and leave the reader wanting more. Fantham’s is a good length, covers all the necessary bases of history, philosophy, and philology, and is readable. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Seneca and his world, look no further. Elaine Fantham proves herself well-versed in early imperial Roman history, the Latin literature of that period, and the ins and outs of Stoic philosophy and its milieu.

If you were planning on reading Seneca’s letters anyway, this is the translation I would recommend.

But why read Seneca’s letters?

I have to admit that sometimes L Annaeus Seneca talks about death too much. There is really only so much on the subject of the Stoic despisal (is that a word?) of death that a person can stand to read. Nonetheless, this repetition of the theme is part of the collection as a whole. The letters to Lucilius have chosen moral philosophy and personal growth in virtue as their theme. I, personally, believe they represent one end of a real correspondence; yet even if they represent a fictive correspondence in which Lucilius was never a real participant, the form and genre of the letter collection is present.

What this means is that the reader takes the place of Lucilius in receiving Seneca’s epistles, epistles that were (alleged to have been) sent over a period of years, as Lucilius grew in his strength of virtue and knowledge of the Stoic way of life. It is, at a certain level, a programme of training in moral philosophy. And repetition is a key element in the instilling of ideas in the mind, for it helps forge pathways in the brain. This is the background behind the Greek philosophical concept of the maxim, wherein one simply repeats a short, memorable phrase often and in certain situations and that transforms one’s thinking in the direction one wishes.

So Seneca talks about death a lot. This is because the noble death is an important aspect of Stoicism — this is a philosophy that approves of suicide when necessary. Yet it is selfless enough that Stoics will put off their own deaths when they see that dying would put undue strain upon their loved ones. However, when the time comes, Seneca is willing to die at the command of Nero.

But death is not the only Stoic subject at hand. Seneca discusses the liberal arts and literary style, he discusses contentment and luxury and food and sport and exercise and fear and endurance and duty and leisure (otium) and friendship and so forth. Part of what the epistolary form allows Seneca to do is provide shorter discourses on these subjects that a larger treatise does not — although Seneca’s moral essays tend also to be short.

What the letter also allows Seneca to do is shift between subjects at will. Any thought or occasion is opportunity to go off on a philosophical tangent. The tight structure of the essay or logical framing of the dialogue does not as easily allow for this, although Plato’s Symposium makes the different interlocutors opportunities for different subjects — but even they stay on theme to an extent. Seneca can discuss morality and style in the same breath.

Finally, the epistolary genre allows Seneca to begin conversationally and easily weave into the discourse incidental matters and anecdotes. ‘Just the other day I was visiting my old villa …’ and then he goes on to give a philosophical discussion of old age.

Today’s era may not be overfond of moralising, but Seneca does it well. Sometimes the text can be heavy reading, but I did not find myself kicking back against the Stoic too hard for the moralising, although I had a constant, lively engagement with him in my mind. This ‘moralising’ is better termed exhortation, and so I shall close this post with Professor Fantham’s words from the close of her introduction:

We have lost the art of exhortation and, worse, the willingness to learn from exhortation. But at least these letters represent encouragement to good behaviour without the bribe of either human or divine approval; if their power consists in denying the reader easy comfort, they are also fascinating in the variety of their topics and illustrations, and often brilliant in their compelling and immediate personal voice. (p. xxxiv)

PS: This post here is also about Seneca’s letters.

Sometimes the philosophers are talking straight to me

Having trouble gettings files of my wife on the blog; here’s Seneca instead. Not nearly as much of a looker.

My greatest of the temporal consolations (let’s leave the Divine out of the equation for now) is not a lovely garden or a good book or a warm cup of tea or a Slurpee or playing ‘guess the Emperor’. The greatest consolation I have in this life, that I can touch, hold, and see, is my lovely wife.

I left her in a train station in Stuttgart this morning. She is safely in Edinburgh now. We had a fantastic ten days together — reading together, walking around Tübingen together, visiting Heidelberg together, then seeing my cousin in Mosbach together, eating together, eating ice cream together, eating cake together, eating Schnitzel together, being together. After almost two months part, it was really wonderful to be together.

And I’m happier now than I was ten or so days ago, because the effect she has on me is more long-lasting than simply when she’s just around.

Yet I am, nevertheless, back in my undergrad accommodation in Tübingen. Things are eerily quiet right now; I should probably get to bed in a bit to exploit the fact! Anyway, you know the situation from earlier posts, and especially if we’re friends on Facebook. Not my favourite.

After leaving the lovely Jennifer at the train, I visited the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart and read some Seneca. And here’s where the title gets relevant.

Letter 28 (Book III.7) of Seneca’s correspondence to Lucilius is about the fact that Lucilius will never shake off his sadness and depression and learn contentment by changing his location. The problem, says Seneca, is not where you are but, in essence, who you are.

The seeds and material for contentment are available to everyone everywhere. Certainly, quiet, rest, and leisure, retirement from the world, come highly recommended by this Stoic. But the truly wise man can be content anywhere, for that is a matter of inner circumstances.

He writes:

Whatever you do, you are acting against your interests and harming yourself with the movement, since you are jolting a sick man. But when you have eliminated this evil, every change of scene will be agreeable; you may be driven to the remotest lands and set down in some random corner of a barbarian region, but that place, whatever it is like, will be welcoming to you. … Can anything be as crowded as the forum? Yet you can live calmly there too if you need to. (28.5, 6, trans. Elaine Fantham for Oxford World’s Classics)

I can find contentment in less-than-suitable accommodation. I can find rest for my soul even here. Even with all-night parties. Even with people smoking in my kitchen. Even with my greatest consolation off in Edinburgh.

I will try.