The Bold and the Beautiful

The Aeneid by Virgil

Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Vintage, 464 pp., 1990, US$11.

July 2001




Teeming with character and incident, the Aeneid is a Latin epic poem of high craft and seductive energy. Set in the aftermath of the Trojan war of Homer's Iliad, it relates the fall of Troy and the subsequent journey of a band of Trojan survivors led by Aeneas, from the smoldering ruins of their city to their settling in Italy. In Virgil's Rome, Aeneas-son of Venus by the mortal Anchises-was already regarded as the founder of the Roman race. Virgil wrote his nation-building saga at the behest of Augustus and it served to endorse and embellish the Roman imperium.

In it we encounter the scheming Danaans, the Trojan horse, the plunder of Troy by the Greeks, Aeneas' remorse at losing his home and wife, his adventures at sea, the despairing, suicidal Dido, the spiteful Juno, the brutal slaying of Turnus, king of the Rutuli. Aeneas' underworld trip later inspired Dante and Eliot. In the postscript to his fine translation, Fitzgerald finds 'at the core of [the Aeneid] a respect for the human effort to build, to sustain a generous polity-against heavy odds. Mordantly and sadly it suggests what the effort may cost, how the effort may fail. But as a poem it is carried onward victoriously by its own music.'

This assessment has flourish and humanistic allure, but in art, as in life, we are variously drawn to both truth and beauty. The first two books of the Aeneid, on the Greek ruse and the sack of Troy, are riveting and poignant, but the rest basically narrate how a bunch of Trojans get to Italy and conquer the cities of others: manifest destiny is the argument; Italy is the Promised Land. The Aeneid showcases unthinking loyalty and courage, gory violence, and feeble inner lives, with little moral conflict or philosophical doubt or wonder. The story attempts to gain innocence by shifting the personal responsibility of human acts to fickle gods. And all this from a close contemporary of the venerable Cicero!

So there is yet another viewpoint: at the core of the Aeneid is an admiration for the bold and the beautiful, who live unreflectively by the received heroic code and see little need as individuals to attain self-knowledge and to live the examined life. But if a classic is defined by its ability to survive over time, this may be precisely what makes the Aeneid a classic-it mirrors something quite primal in the human spirit, which, in turn, helps it survive.

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