Book Review – The Aeneid by Virgil

Summary

Fleeing the ashes of Troy, Aeneas, Achilles’s mighty foe in the Iliad, begins an incredible journey to fulfill his destiny. His voyage will take him through stormy seas, entangle him in a tragic love affair, and lure him into the world of the dead itself – all the way tormented by the vengeful Juno, Queen of the Gods. Ultimately, he reaches the promised land of Italy where, after bloody battles and with high hopes, he founds the Roman people. An unsparing portrait of a man caught between love, duty, and fate, the Aeneid redefines passion, nobility, and courage for our times.

TheAeneid

It always feels a bit awkward when I decide to review something like Virgil’s Aeneid, considered a master work of literature millennia before I was born. This isn’t just a review of an epic poem from the dawn of the Roman Empire, however, but one of a specific modern translation as well. As with the copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey I’ve read over the past few years, this edition was translated by Robert Fagles with a lengthy introduction written by Bernard Knox. That all being said, I’ve realized that the work’s age does not invalidate my personal experience reading it, nor does my assessment put a dent in what is deservedly a celebrated piece of literature.

As anticipated, Knox’s introduction does a great job of giving context for the story. He begins by providing a lot of background on the history of Rome as it relates to this piece, before going into Virgil and his other works prior to writing the Aeneid. From there he breaks down information about the epic poem itself, outlining the entire narrative in a detailed summary. He zeroes in on specific aspects of the story in their own sections too, which grant further insight, especially on the impact the poem had on the future. If, for whatever reason, you want to go into this work blind I wouldn’t recommend reading this first, as it does tell you a highly summarized version of all important events in the story. I see reading this as important for more than just its story, however, and frankly I would have had much greater trouble comprehending or appreciating some parts of it without this primer.

Having read other ancient works translated by other people before, I’ve always found Fagles’s translations a lot more accessible to read. Still, it’s quite something to dive headfirst into an epic poem after being so used to reading novels and comic books. There’s no denying how much denser a work like this is. There is a rhythm and flow to the way the story is told that is exceptionally different from standard prose. I often found myself zoning out, reading the words but retaining nothing. I couldn’t come at the text the same way I usually read. To combat this, I found that reading each word in my head with emphasis — as if reciting internally — helped with retaining things significantly. This did require a lot more focus while reading, however, making picking up the book more of a chore than I’d have liked.

The Aeneid, by design, carries on the tradition of Homer, and for myself stood as the third book in a trilogy of important epic poems to read, following the Iliad and the Odyssey. Aeneas himself was a character in the Iliad, his future importance hinted at in that text. The Aeneid resonates with aspects of Homer’s epics in a compelling way while standing decently well on its own. Aeneas has an odyssey for the first half as he tries to make his way to Italy, meeting storms, monsters, and peril along the way. Once he’s there it’s not long before he’s faced with yet another all-out war before he can properly settle the Trojans in their destined home. I found it to be an interesting reverse order of Homer’s works. Something I wasn’t a huge fan of was the parallels Virgil attempts to draw between Helen and Lavinia. The former was at the very least complacent with being taken to Troy. Lavinia on the other hand appeared to have no agency whatsoever, yet there are lines that blame her for the war between the Trojans and the Latins. It may have only meant that marriage with her was the fixation of their conflict, but it sounded dodgy to me.

There’s much talk of future glory for the Trojans for founding the Roman people, as the poem stresses, but I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for our fiercely dutiful hero Aeneas. He seems entrapped by Fate, a slave to what it wants from him. At numerous points he tries to settle his people elsewhere, but is forced to move on, lest he (presumably) face divine retribution. Even if these plans do save him and his people from the wrath of Juno by means of destiny, it still feels like he’s nothing more than a pawn. As part of a narrative he isn’t even given much of a chance to be a character either. His leadership, dedication, and strength are so emphasized that there isn’t much personality to him when compared to the likes of Achilles or Odysseus. I’m sure this had a lot to do with the propagandistic aspects of the poem, as his establishment of order is meant to reflect upon Emperor Augustus, but it makes for a flat character.

I’m happy I read the Aeneid. While it is my least favourite of this trio of epics set around the fall of Troy, but it’s a lasting piece of literature for a reason. Though challenging, the language is beautiful and evocative, and it’s always a little sublime to read a tale that the eyes of innumerable people in different places and times have as well. If you’re wanting to read classic literature like this, I highly recommend the team of Fagles and Knox, the former’s translations being immensely enjoyable and readable, while the latter’s introductions provide a wealth of information to help you on your way. These deluxe editions also include pronunciation guides in the back, a glossary of characters for quick reference, as well as notes on the translation that can help clarify things further.

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