September 23, 2008
Unlike Homer, to whom I can lose long nights bound by his captivating cadence, Virgil’s Aeneid took me a full season–nearly six months–to finish. The tricks of the trade that were novel when I saw them in Homer lost some of their luster in Virgil’s derived forms, though there were some passages and stories here that provide almost universal archetypes to the lineage of western literature.
The first remarkable thing is how little has changed in Mediterranean cultures’ sense of heroicism in the many hundreds of years that elapsed between the Homeric epics and Virgil’s lifetime in the first century CE. Without an academic familiarity with Imperial Roman culture, it’s hard to determine how much of the poem’s epic content is supposed to reflect ideals that are still relevant to its contemporary audience versus how much–and knowing Romans’ captivation with the-good-old-days-had-real-heroes, we-are-only-sad-imitations, I sense that this might be closer to the mark–the glories of the past and the founding of Rome are a legacy of god-like men and endeavors that cannot or even should not be emulated.
If one were to prune out the portions of the poem that are weak echoes of Homer’s mastery, those pieces that are hackneyed homages to Caesar Augustus, and perhaps pare down some of the martial descriptiveness, one would have something very close to perfect. When Virgil allows himself to be narrative–maybe at slight expense to the propagandist tack–wonderful things happen.
Pious, predictable Aeneas is no crafty Odysseus, and besides performing the prescribed role of establishing Roman history, seems to be less dimensional than some of the epic’s other notable characters. Where Homer’s women are mostly reduced to submissive pale sketches unless deities (Athena, for example, is always inspirational no matter who writes about her), Virgil gives us a couple of plausible inspirations. Dido pulls of tragic without simpering, and even in the underworld refuses to be a doormat. Camilla is nothing short of fantastic.
But in the end, there is a lot of poring over gory and repetitive battle scenes. Important to the epic genre and the symbolic completeness of the story? Likey. But to the modern reader or at least one disinterested in military history, not terrifically relevant.
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Book #56 of 2008
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