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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!


I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Virgil, Aeneid Book VI. This is the book of the Aeneid where Aeneas descends to the underworld in the company of the Sibyl of Cumae. It is probably the most famous book of the whole poem. I have read it before — four times in Latin, as well as three complete readings of the poem in English (once Jackson Knight, twice Fagles) plus C. S. Lewis’ Lost Aeneid. I have also read most of the Aeneid in Latin.

There is a special pleasure that comes of re-reading the Aeneid, whether in the translation of a masterful poet such as Heaney, or in the original masterful poet’s very own words. The discovery of something new, perhaps. Or surprising yourself by being immersed in Virgil’s verse yet again. Like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, you can taste Virgil again for the very first time. The beauty of the poetry will always entrance me. The pathos of Dido. The citadel of dread Proserpina. The catalogue of Romans.

Worth reading. Every time.

I re-read some things for work. I do not know how many times I have read certain of Leo’s letters. I may have surveyed over 240 manuscripts, but that does not mean I have actually read the entirety of them all! I would never have finished my Ph.D. Many things I re-read for work are also pleasure, of course. Academics do not choose disciplines we hate. So I’ve read Augustine’s Confessions three times (Pine Coffin once, Chadwick twice), likewise Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. I’ve read Homer’s Odyssey in its entirety three times (Fagles, Rieu, Shewring) although I have made some good headway in the original Greek. The Iliad I have read three times as well (Verity, Rieu, Lattimore), besides a teenage start on Fagles and a good chunk in Greek. Ovid’s Metamorphoses I’ve read in English twice (Melville both times) and various portions in Latin.

Circling back to Virgil, I have read all the Eclogues twice in Latin, once in English (whoever did the Loeb), and various of them multiple times in Latin.

I continue to re-read beyond work, for the pleasures are similar, even if the goals of reading differ. Right now, I am between The Two Towers and The Return of the King in my fourth reading of The Lord of the Rings; I have read The Hobbit five times. Narnia — who knows? All of them at least twice! I have read Beowulf three times. Many others I think have read only twice, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated ManThe Nibelungenlied, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight.

Then there are short works that resonate. I have inscribed John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three Person’d God’ in the back of a notebook. Who knows how many re-reads that has had?

And, of course, those I want to re-read. Asimov’s Foundation novels, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451The Way of a Pilgrim.

Re-readings make reading a richer experience, catching what you missed, remembering what you’d forgotten, remembering what you loved, being drawn back into something again. And again.

I know someone who reads books three times. Once to see if they are worth reading. If they are, he reads them again to enjoy them more. And a third time to see what he missed the other times. He has read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov nine times. Well, that was in 2004 or 2005 — so maybe he’s surpassed that by now!

It’s a worthy approach to literature.

Excuse me, I have some Virgil to read.

Cimmeria (Conan & the Classics)

Your typical Conan cover

As you know, I recently re-watched 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, and mused on some of its Classical connections on this blog. This inspired me to read a little Conan; thus far, I’ve read the poem ‘Cimmeria’, Howard’s pseudo-historical essay ‘The Hyborian Age’, and ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on Conan’s homeland, Cimmeria. First, Howard’s poem (source, allpoetry.com):

I remember
The dark woods, masking slopes of sombre hills;
The grey clouds’ leaden everlasting arch;
The dusky streams that flowed without a sound,
And the lone winds that whispered down the passes.

Vista upon vista marching, hills on hills,
Slope beyond slope, each dark with sullen trees,
Our gaunt land lay. So when a man climbed up
A rugged peak and gazed, his shaded eye
Saw but the endless vista–hill on hill,
Slope beyond slope, each hooded like its brothers.

It was a gloomy land that seemed to hold
All winds and clouds and dreams that shun the sun,
With bare boughs rattling in the lonesome winds,
And the dark woodlands brooding over all,
Not even lightened by the rare dim sun
Which made squat shadows out of men; they called it
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and deep Night.

It was so long ago and far away
I have forgotten the very name men called me.
The axe and flint-tipped spear are like a dream,
And hunts and wars are like shadows. I recall
Only the stillness of that sombre land;
The clouds that piled forever on the hills,
The dimness of the everlasting woods.
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

Oh, soul of mine, born out of shadowed hills,
To clouds and winds and ghosts that shun the sun,
How many deaths shall serve to break at last
This heritage which wraps me in the grey
Apparel of ghosts?  I search my heart and find
Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night.

This poem, like ‘Conan and the Frost Giant’s Daughter’ draws forward Howard’s ‘Northernism’ much more clearly than the 1982 film. Nonetheless, there is at least one Classical resonance here, in the final line of the final stanzas, ‘Cimmeria, land of Darkness and the Night’.

Having been introduced to Conan before Homer, let me tell you how excited I was as a 17-year-old to discover, in the inestimable Odyssey (on which I blogged here), this reference to Cimmeria:

She came to deep-flowing Oceanus, that bounds the earth, where is the land and city of the Cimmerians, wrapped in mist and cloud. Never does the bright sun look down on them with his rays either when he mounts the starry heaven or when he turns again to earth from heaven, but instead horrid night is spread over wretched mortals. There we came and beached our ship, and took out the sheep, and ourselves went along beside the stream of Oceanus until we came to the place of which Circe had told us. (Odyssey, Book 11, lines 13-22, trans. A. T. Murray, revised by George E. Dimock, Loeb Classical Library)

The context, for those who don’t think in terms of, ‘Oh, yes, Odyssey Book 11,’ is that of Odysseus and his comrades having departed Circe’s island (narrowly, of course), heading for the Underworld out across Ocean’s Stream, where Odysseus is to consult the blind seer Teiresias as to how to get home. Teiresias, FYI, is the guy who prophesied bad stuff to Oedipus over the whole murder-incest thing in Thebes (see Sophocles, Oedipus).

This is the first reference to Cimmeria in Greek literature. It is somewhere to the West of Italy (Circe’s isle is imagined by later geographers [and Vergil] as being in the Tyrrhenian Sea) very close to the Underworld. As characterised by Robert E Howard and Homer, it is a land of perpetual darkness.

I do not think it is in Italy near Lake Avernus, as asserted in the notes to Strabo’s Geography by H. C. Hamilton and W. Falconer. Even if someone wishes to make Circe’s island into one of the isles of the Tyrrhenian Sea, it is clear that Odysseus has left the realm of human geography when he has left Circe. He is in a new realm, a realm that does not correspond with historical Mediterranean geography; I imagine that Cimmeria and Campania are asserted to be the same place so that Odyssey Book 11 and Aeneid Book 6 (Aeneas descent into the Underworld) occur in the same place.

My searches in the Perseus Database find no other references to this legendary Cimmeria; and searching Oxford Reference Online got me only Conan and no Homer! The other references to Cimmeria associate it with Scythia, with the Crimea to be precise, much to the East of Homer’s Cimmerian land of darkness. As this map from Wikipedia demonstrates, Scythia is, like Conan’s Cimmeria, a northern land:

Scythians are archetypical barbarians, in case you were wondering. Herodotus is the most famous ethnographer of the Scythians, as you can read here. He links Scythians with Cimmerians thus:

Scythia still retains traces of the Cimmerians; there are Cimmerian castles, and a Cimmerian ferry, also a tract called Cimmeria, and a Cimmerian Bosphorus. It appears likewise that the Cimmerians, when they fled into Asia to escape the Scyths, made a settlement in the peninsula where the Greek city of Sinope was afterwards built. The Scyths, it is plain, pursued them, and missing their road, poured into Media. For the Cimmerians kept the line which led along the sea-shore, but the Scyths in their pursuit held the Caucasus upon their right, thus proceeding inland, and falling upon Media. This account is one which is common both to Greeks and barbarians. (The History of Herodotus, George Rawlinson, ed. and tr., vol. 3, Book 4, Chapter 12)

Scythians do things like drink unwatered wine, perform human sacrifice, and drink from the gilt skulls of their enemies. North of them are another of Howard’s ancient peoples, the Hyperboreans.

I have no doubt further investigation could find more traces. Nonetheless, here we see a convergence of Howard’s ‘Northernism’ and the Classical tradition of Homer and Herodotus to produce a barbarian race who live in a land of darkness. What better race to produce the greatest barbarian of them all?

Epic Retellings: Warlord’s “Achilles’ Revenge”

I have a habit of keeping my eyes out for epic retellings, if you recall my post about Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze. My friend Tom recently posted a video on Facebook of Warlord playing “Achilles’ Revenge”.

There is something appropriate about a heavy metal song singing of Achilles and Troy, a song inspired by the Iliad.This genre of music is, as you can guess from its name, heavy. The song has some pretty good electric guitar work going on, including a guitar solo. It is fast, and it is powerful:

The Iliad, if you read it, is primarily composed of line after line of dactylic hexameters about people dying/killing in various ways between the Achaean ships and the walls of Troy. The action itself may slow down everyone once in a while, but usually through an extended simile or speeches by warriors. The actual fighting, the violence, the aristeiai of the warrior-heroes rarely stops, except maybe to sleep (and even then we have the night raid of Odysseus and Diomedes in Bk 10).

I’m no heavy metal expert, but my friend Sebastien once gave me a CD of Power Metal. Power Metal is the epic, mythical sub-genre, to be held in distinction from Death Metal and other sub-genres. Power Metal is so epic that the singers often cast themselves as heroes and warriors riding forth together to engage in some sort of great quest. They sing songs about dragons and wizards and other such things. I understand that it is a largely Scandinavian phenomenon. (If I’m wrong, please correct me.)

As much as I like, say, Les Troyens by Berlioz or The Return of Ulysses by Monteverdi, I think Achilles and his mates would have been more attracted to heavy metal than opera. Opera is beautiful and complex, but heavy metal is also complex and has its own, different beauty.

Heavy metal also has the force and power of an epic warrior driving it along. Opera takes too long to say anything. Achilles will have converse with you, briefly, then plunge his sword through your throat, casting your shade to Hades as you fall face forward and bite the dust.

The Iliad is the poem of force, as Simone Weil demonstrates. Heavy metal is the music of force. This union of the two just makes sense.