Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Aeneid by Virgil

Audiocourse:  The Aeneid of Virgil by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver
Great Course link

I LOVE her lectures.  She has a way of making ancient epic poems such as Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey and Virgil's The Aeneid  accessible to someone like myself, who has absolutely no background in ancient history or literature.

I checked this out from my local library for a recent business trip to Virginia Beach.  The 4-hour drive flew by as I listened to Professor Vandiver's overview of Roman history before and during the time that Virgil was writing this epic.  She also explains the reason for The Aeneid; it gave the Romans their own mythology and explanation of the founding of Rome and the Roman people, which Virgil ties to the ancient Greek story of the Trojan War, of which they were very familiar.

Interestingly, this masterpiece was almost lost.  On this deathbed, Virgil asked for his almost complete epic to be burned.   Fortuitously, Augustus forbade it.  Vandiver says she gets "a chill up her spine" every time she thinks of how close we came to never having The Aeneid, one of the most influential pieces of literature in all of Western civilization.

I have just started Robert Fitzgerald's translation of The Aeneid and am hooked. In particular, the account of the sack of Troy in Book II, told from Aeneas' point of view, is haunting.

The Aeneid by Virgil - translated by Robert Fitzgerald
Published: 19 BC
Rating: 5

Reading The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer and The Aeneid by Virgil has been a fascinating education in ancient Greek and Roman culture and mythology.

Virgil was commissioned by Augustus to write a historical mythology describing the founding of the Roman people.  He does so by taking a secondary character in The Iliad, Aeneas, whose opaque destiny is within these short lines:
His fate is to escape to ensure that the great line of Dardanus may not unseeded perish from the world.  Zeus has turned against the family of Priam.  Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over the Trojans born hereafter (The Iliad, Book XX).
At the end of Book VIII of The Aeneid, Aeneas receives armor crafted by Vulcan (Hephaestus), who did the same for Achilles in The Iliad. . His shield depicts the future history of Rome: twin boys with a mother wolf (Romulus and Remus, descendants of Aeneas who founded the city of Rome) and the Battle of Actium, the site where Augustus Caesar defeats Antony and Cleopatra, to name a few.
All these images on Vulcan's shield,
His mother's gift, were wonders to Aeneas.
Knowing nothing of the events themselves,
He felt joy in their pictures, taking up
Upon his shoulder all the destined acts
And fame of his descendants. 
I love this image of Aeneas hoisting up his magnificent shield and in doing so, literally taking Rome's fate, future and fame on his shoulders.  The definition of a true hero!

The Aeneid is divided into twelve books: the first six are like The Odyssey; the story of Aeneas' wanderings and adventures after the sack of Troy and the second six are like The Iliad; an accounting of the war between the Aeneas and Trojans against the Latins of Italy.

 In Book II, Aeneas tells of the Greek's successful ruse to enter the city (infamous Trojan horse) and the subsequent sack of his beloved city.   
Grief everywhere,
Everywhere terror, and all shapes of death....
For the first time that night, inhuman shuddering
Took me, head to foot.
Just like Homer, the war scenes from Virgil are graphic and gory:
Turnus spoke and rose to full height, sword in air,
Then cleft the man's brow square between the temples
Cutting his head in two - a dreadful gash
Between the cheeks all beardless.  Earth resounded
Quivering at the great shock of his weight
As he went tumbling down in all his armor,
Drenched with blood and brains, in equal halves
His head hung this and that way from his shoulders (Book IX).
Virgil's use of simile is also reminiscent of Homer.  This is one of my favorites:
...As a wild bull at bay
will give a fearsome bellow and whet his horn
To fury on a tree-trunk, striking blows
Against the wind, kicking up spurts of sand
In prelude to the fight.  Likewise, meanwhile,
Aeneas, fierce in his maternal armor,
Whetted his edge for war....(Book XII).
My understanding of the three major epics by Homer and Virgil has been greatly enhanced by listening to Professor Vandiver's audiocourses produced by the Teaching Company.  I would highly recommend them.

I would like to know more about Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen whose relationships with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony changed history so have started Stacy Schiff's biography.  I also plan to read Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. 


  1. I've read the Iliad and The Odyssey and have been wanting to read this one for years. It sounds beautiful. I'll have to check out Professor Vandiver's audiocourses. They sound like a great resource.

  2. I've just finished it - loved it!