Monday, May 22, 2006

The Aeneid, translated by Robert Fitzgerald



When it comes to epic poetry, there's no question that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are two of the best known in the entire world. It's no wonder, really, when you stop and consider that those are a couple of the true literary masterpieces in the Western canon. In fact, the basic stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey have inspired, and continue to inspire, countless writers over the centuries. One of those was Publius Vergilius Maro, otherwise known as Vergil.

Vergil's epic poem The Aeneid, borrows heavily from both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and yet is clearly a classic in its own right. Vergil wrote the poem at the behest of his emperor, Caesar Augustus, who wanted a "national poem" written specifically to celebrate the glory of Rome and its citizens. Vergil was one of the foremost poets of his day, so the commission for the national poem naturally fell to him. Vergil labored for years on this task, and The Aeneid was born as a result of his efforts. According to most accounts, Vergil was supremely dissatisfied with The Aeneid, and didn't consider it a finished product. In fact, he wanted nothing more than to burn the masterpiece, and is said to have made a deathbed request for his friends to do just that. However, they didn't obey his final wishes, and The Aeneid was eventually published.

It was received enthusiastically at the time of publication, and was felt to be a supreme account of the founding of Rome. Over the centuries, support for The Aeneid as one of the finest poems ever written has waxed and waned. Some critics feel that Vergil's work is on par with Homer's, while other critics maintain that The Aeneid is just a very poor substitute that borrows much too heavily from Homer's works. The debate continues even to this day, and you can still find people in the academic world that have very strong feelings about this particular subject.

The Aeneid is comprised of 12 books, with the first part bearing many similarities to The Odyssey, and the second part being more like The Iliad. In the first half of the entire work, we are introduced to the main character, Aeneas, who is a Trojan prince. We discover that he is "born of a goddess," and true to Homeric form, Vergil uses this epithet quite often when talking about Aeneas. Aeneas' mother is Venus (or Aphrodite), and she plays an important role throughout all the events of the story, much like Achilles' mother Thetis does in The Iliad, and much like Pallas Athena does with her favorite warrior Odysseus in The Odyssey.

When the action opens in The Aeneid, the city of Troy has already been sacked at the hands of the Greeks. Most of the Trojan heroes have been slain, but Aeneas managed to escape with his son Ascanius and his father Anchises. This is how it was meant to be, because the gods have already decreed that Aeneas' duty is to seek Italy and find a new home for his displaced people. An important theme that is revisited throughout the work is that practically everything Aeneas does is in accordance with his fate and destiny. Aeneas is often described as "pious," a word that reflects the knowledge he has of his duty. There are many instances where Aeneas would clearly do something other than what the gods want, but he always gives in and does the "right" thing because of his profound sense of duty.

Nevertheless, just because it has been decreed that Aeneas should settle in Italy and father a race of people that will become the ancestors of the great Romans, that doesn't mean his task will be easy. This is due in large part to the goddess Juno, who has a long-standing grudge against Aeneas' mother Venus thanks to the event known as the Judgment of Paris. Ever since Venus was deemed the most beautiful goddess, Juno has had it out for her, and will stop at nothing to try to thwart Aeneas and his crew. Towards this end, Juno first sends storms and high winds in the way of the Trojans so that their ships are buffeted off course and into potential hazards.

Fortunately for Aeneas, his mother is always looking out for him and seems to be able to get an idea of what Juno's plans are just in time to either remove Aeneas from the situation, or at least make things more bearable for him.

This can clearly be seen when Juno sends the Trojans to Carthage, home to very aggressive warriors led by a queen named Dido. Ordinarily, landing in Carthage would have been a pretty dangerous thing for the small Trojan crew led by Aeneas, as the Carthaginian army could have easily overpowered them. But Venus intervenes and takes a few steps to ensure that her son receives a warm welcome.

Once in Carthage, Aeneas is asked by Dido to retell of the sacking of Troy. He does so in pretty good detail, and is understandably overcome with emotion when he remembers all of his fallen comrades. Dido's request is a device that Vergil uses in order to get the story of the Trojan War out there. Although brief, Aeneas' account of the war is an important part of The Aeneid, and is one of the most famous passages in the whole poem. In fact, there are many famous scenes in the first half of The Aeneid (more so than the second half, certainly), so I won't have time to recount them all here. Suffice it to say that if you are pressed for time, I recommend reading the first half of The Aeneid if you want to familiarize yourself with the work without having to make a long-term commitment to reading the whole thing.

As I mentioned above, the second half of The Aeneid resembles Homer's Iliad. In this part of the poem, we get numerous battle scenes between Aeneas and various leaders from the new places he goes to. Among these battle scenes is the showdown between Aeneas and Turnus, which is pretty much the climax of the poem, and parallels the final battle between Achilles and Hector in The Iliad.

Overall, I have to say that The Aeneid is indeed worthy of being read alongside the two classics by Homer. Of course, I may be a bit biased since I studied Latin for several years while in school and have fond memories of laboring over long translations from the poem. But even disregarding my personal history with the poem, I still believe that it is worth reading in modern times. It gives us insight into the characteristics that the ancient Romans viewed as worthy and honorable. We see Aeneas as the semi-fictional embodiment of the perfect Roman leader, and from this we are able to learn a lot about the once great civilization.

In addition, I believe that this particular translation by Robert Fitzgerald is one of the best English language versions of The Aeneid around. Fitzgerald does a wonderful job of rendering Vergil's words into fantastic approximations that capture the poet's literary intent in phrases that won't seem awkward or archaic to modern readers. When reading a work that was originally written in a foreign language, the translator obviously plays an important role, and very often makes all the difference between liking the original or hating it. When modern readers take up Fitzgerald's interpretation of The Aeneid, I am confident that a majority of them will fall into the former category.

If you are interested in reading epic poetry from ancient authors, or if you have to read The Aeneid in Enlgish as part of a class assignment, then I highly recommend the Robert Fitzgerald translation. In my opinion, it's one of the best out there!

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