Sunday, December 20, 2015

Aeneid by Virgil

A dispossessed man, harried (and helped) by the gods, founds a great race

Great warrior Aeneas must flee burning Troy with his father on his back and his little son by the hand. Reluctantly, he leads a band of warrior refugees, who trust in the prophecy that Aeneas will bring them to a new home. After some false starts, Aeneas and his followers land in Carthage, where the happy citizens are building a well ordered city under the active leadership of their wise compassionate queen Dido. Cupid, god of love, tricks Dido into falling in love with Aeneas, assisted by Aeneas’s evocative telling of the fall of Troy. Their first tryst is a humdinger, complete with divinely provided lightning bolts and a heavenly chorus of nymphs. But soon Aeneas is brought to his senses by winged Mercury, who brings him a message from big guy Jupiter – get back into those ships. After a quick visit to Hades, Aeneas travels to Italy, where he woos the daughter of the king of Latium. Her fiancĂ© isn’t too happy about that and the last half of the book tells the story of war madness and furious battles.

I enjoyed this poem, a work dense with imagery and metaphor. Every lively stanza provides a glimpse into human nature, which seems not to have changed that much in two thousand years.  I loved all the stories and storylets, such as Venus and Vulcan in their bedroom as she talks him into making Aeneas’s armor. Maybe this is a story about storytelling. Also notable is the depiction of woman. There was an emotional equality between the sexes. As well as Camilla, warrior princess.

There are two parts – the first, quite memorable with amazing imagery, recounting the fall of Troy, the screwed up affair with sympathetic Dido, the trip into Hades to see his father. The second part is a series of boilerplate, if very cinematic, battles – it’s like a sword and sandals epic. Aeneas is presented as gentle, uxorious, not naturally bloodthirsty, though in the final stanza, he is a heartless killing machine. He is always torn between what he wants to do and what he must do to help his people. He must turn into a monster in order to found a great race. Maybe it’s like a Godfather II from the first century BC.

I wish I knew Latin and Greek so I could really appreciate the allusions and the echoes with the Iliad and the Odyssey. I also found it interesting that this was a state sponsored epic.

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