Reading the real classics: ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil

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I have a confession to make.  Even though I’m happy to talk about my love of ‘classic’ literature, I’ve never actually read ‘Classic’ literature.  That’s not to say that such books haven’t always been on my reading list or that I don’t enjoy films like ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou,’ just that I’ve never quite got round to reading the originals.

Naturally, the reason I’m making this confession online is that it’s no longer true.  I have now read ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil (trans. by David West).   It has been entertaining and engaging but it has also made me question how I approach pre-modern literature.

The real reason I’ve always wanted to read these classic books is that there are few things better than the recognition moment you get when you read the original of an idea or phrase that has been copied a million times.  It happens all the time in Shakespeare; I especially remember first reading Hamlet, suddenly seeing so many well-known phrases in their original context.  A part of the joy of reading these older texts is that so many authors have also read them and then used them in their own works.  I loved reading’Brave New World’ after ‘The Tempest,’ ‘Vanity Fair’ after ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’ and, more recently, ‘The Adventures of the Busts of Eva Peron‘ after ‘Don Quixote’.  Given that the vast majority of male authors pretty much until WW1 (if not later) had been educated in the Classics to the exclusion of nearly all other branches of learning, I had very high hopes for lightbulb recognition moments in ‘The Aeneid.’

The book started well, with Aeneas, having survived the sack of Troy, meeting Queen Dido of Carthage.  He is on a mission to settle in Italy, following an ancient prophesy.  The plaything of various goddesses however, his journey is going to take an extremely long time, and be filled with a far above average number of detours, hinderances and curses.  As a modern reader, it’s tempting to pity these surviving veterans of and refugees from the destroyed Troy.  Their families and friend have been brutally killed before their eyes; their entire civilisation is close to being utterly lost.  Sadly, as Classical heroes they appear to lack any subconscious urges or traumas, and there was very little for such a psychological reading to hold on to.   I enjoyed the poetry and drama of the story, but I did feel like I would have to take a less modern approach to the book if I was to get the most out of it.

In fact, the overall impression of my introduction to Classical literature was that it was not what I expected.  The characters were powerful, but psychologically opaque.  The morals and ethics were extremely hard to comprehend, and my attempts at understanding were not at all aided by the interventions of unhelpful immortals.  Lastly, aside from the iconic opening: ‘I sing of arms and of the man, fated to be an exile, who long since left the land of Troy and came to Italy to the shores of Lavinium…’ there didn’t seem to be much in the way of phrases or characters that I recognised from later fiction.  I realise this could be a point about translation or my own reading, but I think it’s more a result of my misunderstanding of traditional English education.  When I really thought about it, I realised that the authors who learned so much Greek and Latin at school were mostly studying grammar.  To expect them to apply this learning to their fiction is probably like expecting them to rely heavily on their maths lessons when writing novels.  I know that some authors have absolutely drawn on Classic stories in their works (take Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Atwood’s ‘The Penelopiad’) but these are direct and conscious evocations; they’re not making a statement about the saturation of specific literary works into the modern lexicon or mindset.

Really what I’m saying is that I need to remember books like ‘The Aeneid’ are myths, not novels.  They are great to read and think about, but they do need to be approached on their own terms.  At any rate, that’s my impression after my first real introduction to them.  In the future, I hope to refine my theories through ‘The Iliad’, ‘The Odyssey’ and, of course, anything by Ovid I can get my hands on.

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12 Responses to Reading the real classics: ‘The Aeneid’ by Virgil

  1. BookerTalk says:

    your comment about the pyscologically opaque characters struck a chord – I remember reading a few of the ancient greek plays and being perplexed by their motives. But then had to remind myself i was reading material that originated in a world so vastly different from my own where people believed in the gods ruling their lives

  2. I studied Classics at uni and have read the Aeneid; I would disagree that it wasn’t used by later authors (the generations who had to study Greek and Latin at school would absolutely have read the Aeneid, along with the Iliad and Odyssey) but the issues of translation mean it’s often not obvious. And I do think authors tend to draw on the Odyssey/Iliad rather than the Aeneid.

    I also do think it can be very hard to get anything out of these books if you go in blind – it’s not really something that’s easy to read as a story, and the classical epic style is something you have to teach yourself to appreciate! I read the Aeneid in class with a great teacher and lots of class discussion, but I may well have hated it if I read it just on my own. Have you read any literary criticism of the Aeneid, especially focusing on the propaganda aspects of it? (It was written while Virgil was under official imperial patronage, and it shows.) Knowing the context can make it a more interesting read.

    I hope you enjoy Ovid – I love him, but I’ve only read his works in Latin so I’m not sure how it’ll read in English translation!

    • Thank you for suggesting that I may have been right in my original idea that authors would have been inspired by the classics. You’re right, translation could be to blame for my inability to pick up on the references.
      I didn’t hate the Aeneid though! I really enjoyed it, but in a much more ‘culture shock’ way than I expected. I’d thought the elusive references would soften this for me, and felt a bit bereft without them. I did know about the propaganda element of the Aeneid as giving divine/historical legitimacy to Augustus’s imperial power-grab, but I was just expecting Virgil to give him more attractive and less selfishly macho ancestors so then culture shock kicked in again.
      As for Ovid, I have a copy of Ted Hugh’s translation of some of his tales from the ‘Metamorphosis’ which I am greatly looking forward to, hopefully his poetry chops will make it a good 2nd best to reading in Latin.

      • The Aeneid is one of these books that really gets lost in translation. I know a lot of people who initially hated it but loved it in Latin – I don’t know what it is but Virgil really losrs something in another language! And yeah, Roman culture was very militaristic so the machoness is expected (though there is a credible theory that Virgil, despite writing popaganda, put in some subtle criticisms of Augustus and the imperial regime). Good luck with Ovid!

  3. Melissa Beck says:

    I teach Latin to high school students and we translate The Aeneid in their final year of Latin. I commend you for tackling such an epic and sticking with it. It is really tough to go in completely blind like you did without any cultural or historical guides. I also think that the translation you choose makes a big difference. The Fagles one is quite good. As far as famous lines, there are a few from the Aeneid that you might not have recognized because of the translation: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, Such a burden it was to found the Roman race, Is anger really so great for heavenly minds. (Just a few off the top of my head.)

    I also translate Ovid with my students, specifically the Metamorphoses. They find that much more accessible than Vergil. What are your favorites of his?

    • Thanks to my obsession with the wonderful History of Rome podcast, I felt at the time that I was going in with some cultural background – the comments here are showing me that I may have been a bit over-optimistic on that front though!
      I don’t have any Ovid favourites yet- but I’ll be keeping you updated as I read them 😉 Are there any stories you’d especially recommend or lines to look out for?

  4. Jonathan says:

    I’ve been meaning to read The Aeneid for quite a while now but haven’t got round to it. I had no trouble reading The Odyssey or The Iliad (in translation of course). I thought The Iliad was going to be more problematic than it was. I find that if it all starts to get a bit confusing or I’m not really understanding it then I turn to some commentary or synopsis for help. In the end it is interesting reading these works that are over 2000 years old.

    • The sense of history is pretty overwhelming! Thank you for sharing your experiences with the Odyssey and Iliad though. I realise I may be a little out of chronological order by starting with the Aeneid, but it came very highly recommended!

  5. I suspect that where a classical education might infiltrate literature is in a certain precision and elegance in how language itself is used, sentence structure and the like

    • A fair point, though your description (‘precision and elegance’) did make me think of Jane Austen’s prose and I don’t think she spend much time learning Greek and Latin. At the end of the day, my monolingualism will probably mean I’ll never get all the classical references in canonical English literature. I suppose the consolation is that I won’t know what I’m missing 🙂

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