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10 july 2013

The Aeneid is one great work of world literature that would be greatly improved by being reduced by half. That sounds like an undergraduate complaint, and indeed I felt that way when I was an undergraduate, too.

The first half of the 12-book poem is relentlessly beautiful. Aeneas and his band of Trojans are tossed across the Mediterranean à la Ulysses, but initially we have much more sympathy for them; they're losers and underdogs. Virgil does his level best to erode that sympathy later on, but at first he evokes great pathos. When the Trojans fetch up in Tunisia, the local queen Dido insists that they tell their story; the fall of Troy, in Book Two, is hauntingly done, full of regrets for a past forever severed from any future. Aeneas tells of his later wanderings in Book Three, which again rivals the Odyssey; in Book Four we get the love and separation of Dido and Aeneas, justly the source of opera and adulation.

For one thing, Dido is a deeply sympathetic woman scorned. She is a businesswoman and nation-builder; she's just arrived at Carthage herself after some dysfunctional-family issues back in Phoenicia. She's looking to build an empire, but she also wants to be loved. What's wrong with that? The problem is that she chooses one of the most uncommunicative, anti-erotic romantic heroes in the history of epic. "Pious Aeneas," as his friends call him, presumably behind his back, wouldn't show signs of interest if Alyssa Milano gave him a lap dance. The gods have to contrive to trap Dido and Aeneas in the same cave during a hurricane just to get them to go on their first date, and to say that Aeneas lacks affect during the ensuing relationship is to give him too much credit. And then it's like, did I say I'd marry you? Sorry, Roman empire to build.

Book Five is taken up with a sort of Junior Olympics, but Book Six is another of the crowning achievements of Western literature. Various supernatural types persuade Aeneas to go to Hell, so that his father can tell him things he didn't get around to telling him while they were both alive. The journey is noble, sorrowful, packed with incident, allusive, and points to larger issues of cosmology and human destiny; in terms of literary history, it may be most notable as an intermediary between the Odyssey and Dante's Inferno, but it's in some ways greater than either.

And then Aeneas and the Sibyl leave the underworld by the gate of ivory, and readers' attentions have been lapsing for the past 2,000 years.

In Book Seven, the Trojans are tromping around the campagna when Iülus, son of Aeneas, mindlessly shoots somebody's pet deer. This brings the locals out with their weapons, and more people get shot, and pretty soon there's a regular catalog along the lines of "Tell O Muse what assorted idiots got involved in the Big Pet Deer War of Umpteen BC." To fit him out for the festivities, Aeneas's mom orders a special shield from his stepfather Vulcan. The geegaw is supposed to recall a similar shield made by Hephaestus for Achilles in the Iliad, of course. But where Achilles' shield is a masterpiece of enigmatic decoration and oblique storytelling, Aeneas' is just Greatest Hits of the Roman Empire, stupidly mashed together on a big old History Channel billboard.

Not only is the war in the Aeneid stupid and unmotivated, it's uninteresting. Time and again somebody gets killed by somebody else – also the stock in trade of the Iliad, naturally, but though the imitation is precise, it falls annoyingly flat here. The problem is not merely that characters get introduced just in time to be killed. That's true of the Iliad too. The problem is that we are also supposed to care portentously about them, and Virgil can't get us to care.

In the Iliad, a character will be killed in battle, and Homer will let us know in a word or two that the character has a backstory: he came to Troy for thus-and-so reason, he has some feature or peculiarity that hints at a fully-lived life that has just come to an awfully immediate end. And then we never hear about the victim again. All the while, interesting characters that we know will outlive at least this chapter of the story are running around, intent on killing other barely-evoked men. The effect is strange, but evocative; it seems at some level to encapsulate not just warfare but life itself, with its brief meetings and eternal sunderings.

In the Aeneid, some hapless Trojan or Italian buys the farm. Aeneas has wandered the Mediterranean almost as long as Ulysses, and we've barely learned about anybody in his company except his immediate family, his doomed helmsman Palinurus, and his walking byword, fidus Achates. But now, one of these Trojans dies, and everybody gets strung out about it as if we had any idea who he was. Worse yet, the narrator shares in the hyperbole. In Book Ten, a character named Lausus that we've just met – frankly, it's hard to remember even what side these characters fight on, though he's in fact a Latin enemy – is just about to be killed by Aeneas, when the narrator breaks in with a solemn aside:

(Neither your death,
Nor your heroic deeds—if antiquity
Can confer belief in prowess so great—
Nor you yourself, noble young man,
So worthy of memory, will I leave in silence.) (Book 10, lines 943-947, p.271)
That's nice, but who were we talking about, again? And why?

One suspects a lot of local-history stuff going on in the last six books of the Aeneid, and in fact Latinists delight in them for their mentions of peoples, places, and customs of Italian antiquity. Virgil, writing as the imperial period was beginning its long run, may have been recording distant echoes of local tradition, where he wasn't simply making stuff up. The historical value of the poem should not be derided; I'd love to know more about ancient Italy myself. But as art, it is severely lacking.

The one interesting detail in the boring wars that take up the last few books of the Aeneid, to me, is the intervention of a minor goddess named Juturna in Book Twelve. The war so far has been an alternating series of dull duels and pious reflections on how the whole thing is fated to go Aeneas's way anyhow. After great bloodshed, the two leaders, Aeneas and Turnus, decide on one of those truces where they'll duke it out man-to-man. Juturna, who is actually Turnus's sister transformed into a river by Jupiter, and is doing the mischievous bidding of Juno, assumes the form of "Camers— / a man of noble birth" (lines 269-70, p. 315) and berates the Latins for trading a huge advantage in manpower for this idiotic duel idea: have they been slaughtered by the thousands just so that Aeneas can win in overtime on a technicality? Her/his words are heard, and mass conflict breaks out again. The moment leads nowhere but to more of the same, but it's a nice bit of irrational psychology that shows how people throw good lives after bad in the course of a conflict that's gotten out of hand. Virgil was a great poet, when he could overcome his ideologies.

Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Stanley Lombardo. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.