The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

Immigration vs. invasion

It was tough not to think about some current events here–the Trojans land in Italy knowing they’ve been promised the land as their divine inheritance, but they approach the native residents as friends, looking to coexist in peace. It even looks like that will work out, until the gods inflame the Italians and lead them to war.

I sometimes looked at this as an analogy for the conquest of Canaan in the biblical book of Joshua, but there’s no parallel here: the Italians aren’t evil and aren’t being punished. As with The Iliad, the competing armies don’t represent good and evil, just conflicting interests, though one of the Italians’noble leaders instigates the fighting and breaks treaties. His hot-headed nationalism leads to disaster.  I recently wrote about Donald Trump being Napoleon in War and Peace, but perhaps he’s Turnus in The Aeneid, too.

Still, the question remains: can different people live together in peace, or will there inevitably be conflict resolved in dominance? The text could argue either way, but Aeneas, for his part, is a model of diplomacy and respect.

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Book 12, lines 208-228

The strength of confidence

Besides the major issues and themes, this epic, like others I’ve enjoyed, is written with an aggressive confidence that modern writing simply lacks.

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Book 2, lines 442-451

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Book 10, lines 313-331

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Book 12, lines 366-372

I mean, how can you not love something that includes lines like this?

“Let me rage before I die!” 12.790

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