Past, Present, and Future: The Aeneid’s Journey through Time

The Aeneid is the story of the long journey taken by Aeneas and the great pains he went through to found the Roman bloodline. For these verses to reach us today, the Aeneid itself needed to go through a long journey, across space and time, from the realm of mythology to the records of history, and from one language to another. Over two thousand years ago, a Roman poet called Vergil composed his grand epic, celebrating a new age of Roman identity and dealing with the complex issues of war and the cost of empire. Vergil died before the final revision of his work, and in his will, he ordered his friends to destroy the Aeneid, as it did not meet his own high standard of perfection.

Fortunately, the new emperor Augustus saw that the Aeneid was too powerful and useful a piece of literature to destroy, and so, he countermanded Vergil’s orders, for the Aeneid, in certain ways, was the perfect expression of Augustan ideology. Aeneas was the exact sort of dutiful son and pious hero that Romans should strive to emulate. The grand vision of Rome’s prosperous empire in the Aeneid seemed to match the image of Roman identity that Augustus wished to create. The epic was therefore too valuable for the emperor not to keep. The Aeneid survived its first test. For the rest of the Roman age, it stood as one of the greatest and most popular works of literature.

Even as it entered into the Christian era and then the medieval era, the Aeneid remained as popular as ever, despite dealing with the pagan gods and heroes of the old Roman religion. It was reinterpreted into a Christian perspective because it was simply too wonderful a piece of literature to ignore. Aeneas, even though following an old pagan religion, represented heroic ideals of morality, piety, and duty that could still resonate with a Christian audience. Vergil himself, a man who lived and died before the birth of Jesus, became essentially a Christian poet: the fourth entry in Vergil’s Eclogues (one of his earlier works) was interpreted as predicting the coming of Christ.

In the 1300’s, the Italian poet Dante created the Divine Comedy, his great Christian work about the path from sin to redemption. For his journey through Inferno, in which he would observe sinners suffering horrific punishments, Dante chose Vergil to be his guide, for the author of the Aeneid had become a literary model of morality for the western Christian tradition.

Many more hundreds of years go by before the Aeneid reaches us today. From Europe to the Americas, the words of Vergil are still studied as an essential part of the western tradition by students and scholars. Even today, as the Latin language declines in educational importance, high school students who learn Latin still read the Aeneid in its original language. There are even those few university students like me who are dedicated (and crazy) enough to study Greek and Latin in an effort to get closer to the ancient verses of Homer and Vergil.

Now we get to Frederick Ahl, the translator of the Aeneid volume I have decided to read.  I imagine that he needed to sit down and consider for quite some time how best to convey Vergil’s Latin in modern English. He likely needed to ask himself, “What sort of meter should I use? How can I maintain the flow, style, and meaning of the original Latin in English, a language with its own unique idiosyncrasies?” He probably needed to spend several years putting himself inside Vergil’s mind, trying to figure out what that poet was trying to tell us two thousand years ago and then attempting to reconfigure those ancient words for a modern, English-speaking audience. After this long and arduous hurdle in the Aeneid‘s journey, and after the long editing and review process that all modern books go through, this book at last arrives on my doorstep, sealed in a nice Amazon.com package.

As I open up the book, my mind prepares itself to travel back to the age of Vergil. I try to place myself into the ancient world, into the world of the Romans. I try to position myself at the correct moment in time: those pivotal years of change, in which Augustus began to create the new imperial system, in which Vergil wrote these verses that seem to epitomize the Roman spirit. And I wonder why, two thousand years later, the Aeneid still seems to resonate with us today.

As I actually begin to read, the epic sends me off through time again, for Vergil speaks of Carthage, the old city that once existed, a “menace to Italy,” and the Roman audience we identify with thinks of the wars from over a hundred years, the Punic Wars, in which Rome fought her great enemy, Carthage, for control of the western Mediterranean. Rome crushed and destroyed Carthage, but not before suffering through deadly war against the likes of Hannibal, who famously crossed the Alps (with elephants!) to attack Italy. From these historical records, we plunge even deeper into the mythological era, as we learn of the goddess Juno’s love of Carthage, of the rumor she has heard: that her favorite city is fated to one day fall to the Roman descendants of the Trojan, Aeneas. From her mythological perspective, we look forward through time to a historical event that has already occurred. She also looks further back into the mythological past, at all the insults the Trojans have thrown at her, especially the Judgment of Paris, in which the Trojan prince chose Venus’ beauty over hers.

The sources of Juno’s rage stem from historical records and mythological events, separated by almost a thousand years. She has access to information in the distant future, but as a long-lived goddess who is fated to remain and witness it all, she is able to react emotionally to these events in an immense and endless way that mortals cannot. Events that occur a thousand years in the future are almost meaningless to a human, who cannot live to see it anyway, but are intensely personal to these petty and powerful immortals like Juno.

As we enter into the plot events of the Aeneid, another time jump occurs: Vergil starts not at the beginning of Aeneas’ journey, but in medias res or “in the middle of things”. This technique, also used in Homer’s Odyssey, often places the readers into a moment of great excitement in order to draw them in and convince them that this is a story worth reading. Even as we are trying to orient ourselves in history and chronology so that we can understand the story, the Aeneid throws us straight into the middle, during a moment of action, destruction, and chaos: Juno bribes the lord of winds Aeolus with a beautiful wife, and in return, he releases the winds “like legions marshalled for battle” to destroy the fleet of Aeneas as he attempts to sail to Italy. A great storm is unleashed, tossing and battering Aeneas’ ships, and as he is faced with greater sufferings, our protagonist laments his fate and wishes that he instead had been blessed with a fortunate death beneath the walls of Troy.

I intended to cover the rest of book one here, but the post would simply become too lengthy if I were to do so. Instead, I can only promise that next time we will talk more about the actual events of book one.

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