Into the Aeneid

Iapyx removing an arrowhead from the leg of AeneasI’m not a classicist by any stretch, but I decided to delve into the mysterious world of ancient literature after a conversation with an acquaintance. It’s an epic poem, originally written in lengthy lolloping hexameters.

If you asked me to tell you what actually happens during the course of this 12 chapter tome you would be met with a puzzled expression. ‘Er, well… erm. Battles – lots of ’em. Gods intervening in the affairs of mortals. Latins hacking Greeks to bits… stuff like that. You know… Like Jason and the Argonauts.’

Not, perhaps, the most articulate rendering of Virgil’s timeless epic, but then again I found it confusing. For one thing tackling such an extended story is quite daunting and I didn’t know how to approach it. I felt that Virgil’s narrative was somehow sacrificed to description..

My copy was in the ‘Oxford World’s Classics’ series. A good translation I believe. I should explain that The Aeneid is around 2,000 years old, and despite the difficulties I had grappling with the text I found it beautiful, terrifying, tedious and moving in equal measure.

That the human imagination could possibly produce some of the descriptions I found there beggars belief. Imagine a video game where a goddess descends from the sky, bleeding all the colours of the rainbow from her wings as clouds part and whirl in her wake. Then imagine that video games don’t exist, and you have to capture such a vision in words alone. That’s what I found in The Aeneid – a poem which has the power to reach through 2,000 years of time and make you see through someone else’s long dead eyes.

But it’s also disturbing. The descriptions of bloody battles are long and graphic, like Tarrantino on acid. This is partly a technique of epic writing: to describe things (weapons, people, landscapes) in great detail. The reader (originally a listener as poetry has its roots in oral traditions) feels as if she is present. One can ‘see’ a sword thrust through a throat, or a javelin piercing a shield. We hear the noise of battle or see a god in our mind’s eye.

I would be more critical about the violence described in The Aeneid, but I’m a modern liberal European, not a Roman used to seeing gladiators die in the arena. Life was cheap in the ancient world. You put your trust in Jove and tried not to piss off the emperor.

A thought kept occurring as I read The Aeneid: ideas put forward by Virgil and Homer were carried through to the public schools of England. Virgil glorified war, echoing Horace’s sentiment that it was sweet to die in battle for one’s country. All very well for a poet to write that when his audience consisted of Patricians who delighted in buying and selling other people. It’s easy to write about bravery when no-one is pointing a javelin at your neck. Perhaps, if Virgil had kept quiet, World War I might not have happened, because the mythology of glorious battle would have died with him. But no – someone would no doubt have filled the void and put forward similar ideas in his place.

One last point. I cannot quote the relevant section, but assuming my translation is correct the ‘unconscious mind’ is mentioned somewhere towards the end of Virgil’s epic. I thought this concept was unknown in the ancient world, and that we owe its discovery to the likes of Freud, Jung and Adler. Perhaps not!

If you read The Aeneid, be prepared for a long trip, expect to find some jewels among the mud and blood of battle and realise that after 2,000 years, western culture may have changed, but our feelings and concerns are much the same.

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