Struggling through the Aeneid

I should be honest about it, I am not enjoying the Aeneid as much as I thought. But thankfully the edition I selected is interesting enough (and of course the text itself significant enough) so that I’m not willing to let it go without a fight. And it teaches me quite a lot.

Why doesn’t it appeal to me as much as, for example, the Illiad I’d so much loved?

This is rather obvious I’m afraid: it’s not Greek, and it’s not a tragedy.

I found out that I’d loved the pathetic in tragedy very much and that while I was clutching my hankie and holding back my tears, it had kept my mind off a very inconvenient truth: that antique civilization is quite foreign to us modern readers and that it’s not that easy to empathize with their world view.

This problem is more glaring in the Aeneid: the very purpose of the text (commissioned by emperor August to Virgil) is to glorify Rome’s origins and its war triumphs. This made me uncomfortable from the start, because I’d rather put myself in the shoes of the other guys, probably linked to our Christian culture.

Because, let’s be a bit blunt, why oh why does Trojan Aeneas assume that he should get a new kingdom somewhere? (hint: because the Gods said so). Especially at the expense of other people? But if you just take the Gods with a pinch of salt (after all, they don’t seem to agree all on the matter up there), here’s a guy who miraculously escapes being killed by an army of Greeks and with a bunch of friends and family flees on boats. Why isn’t he content to lay low somewhere? The first land they reach was friendly enough, they could have settled down there among cousins.

But no, Aeneas has to listen to dreams and prophecies, and for years he roams until he reaches the shore the Gods pointed him. Even when his own people get tired, he forges forward with his plans. What he ends up doing is actually robbing perfectly peaceful people of their land and customs. Everywhere he landed, he has been welcomed, but who would want such a guest? Like the guy who not only sleeps on your couch, but ends up flirting with your own girlfriend? Do you wonder that his plans are met with some resistance?

The other point I couldn’t just swallow was the treatment of women throughout the Aeneid. Perhaps today is not the best day to speak about poor Dido and all the others. So I’ll keep it for another time.


2 thoughts on “Struggling through the Aeneid

  1. I’m with you: I prefer the Greeks (although I haven’t glanced at the Aeneid since my college days, and probably should). I also remember reading somewhere (when I was supposed to be doing research for a completely different subject and came across a far more fascinating book while browsing the library shelves) that the ancient Greeks were far better to their women than the ancient Romans were.

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