The Aeneid

by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles
Viking Adult, 496 pages, $40

We do not read Virgil much anymore. In part, because we no longer learn Latin and so do not seek out its writers, however famous and central to our culture they were once thought to be.

But there is another, more serious set of obstacles. The Renaissance and Enlightenment myth holds that our civilization began in Greece, and everything Greek is superior to the merely practical Latins. Most high school students are introduced to Homer these days, but I am unsure how much they benefit from it: Homer is beyond question great but seems a puzzle for us, because his world-in both its sacred and profane dimensions-is so different from ours. Virgil, by an almost inexplicable quality all his own among the ancients, is much more immediately accessible to us.

One reason may be that Virgil’s powerful poetic intuition led him to see Roman history as bearing universal significance. C.S. Lewis formulates the difference from Homer forcefully: “There is no pretence, indeed no possibility of pretending, that the world, or even Greece, would have been much altered if Odysseus had never got home at all. The poem is an adventure story.” Indeed, “the phenomena of growth, the slow process by which some great thing has taken its present shape, does not seem to have interested the Greeks. Their heart’s desire was the timeless, the unchangeable, and they saw time as mere flux.” The Aeneid, Lewis thought, was the first poem to echo the “abysm of time” and to see a temporal occurrence as an embodiment of a vocation-in every sense of the term. After the Aeneid, ancient poetry, including Homer, looks like boys’ verse to which we cannot return: “No man who has once read it with full perception remains an adolescent.”

This is considerable praise from a modern Christian-particularly if you also notice, as Lewis does, that the poem shows Aeneas is in search of an “abiding city” (mansuram urbem) here on earth. To be a Christian is to know that we have here no abiding city. This was St. Augustine’s complaint about the Virgilian view of Rome: It is dangerous because it sets up an imperfect and arrogant and necessarily impermanent human enterprise as a divine thing. Nor was the problem only that Rome’s real virtues, which Augustine conceded, had been put in the service of libido dominandi. As he says in a letter, “God has demonstrated in the most powerful and excellent empire of the Romans how important the civic virtues are even without true religion, so that we may understand that when true religion is added, men become citizens of that other city.” The more far-reaching error was that Roman claims of “empire without end,” as Virgil makes Jupiter promise in the Aeneid, is the expression of a different revelation, one that might claim to reach what Jews and Christians still had not: an everlasting kingdom.

Still, Virgil understood that telling the tale of Rome’s founding not only gave expression to the old Roman ethos but might also offer a kind of inspiration for the future. Some modern critics have dismissed Virgil’s celebration of Roman virtue as toadying to the emperor Augustus-a man ruthless in pursuit of power but rather benign once he had it. Other scholars, however, have pointed out the many signs of Virgil’s ambiguity about the founding of even so great a human thing as Rome. We can see that pius Aeneas-his piety here including not only religious devotion but also all the responsibilities of father, warrior, leader, founder-expresses a Roman sense of duty that is not unaware of the lacrimae rerum, the deep sorrows of all human affairs.

W.H. Auden, usually a reliable critic of poetry, claims that in Virgil one hears “the weeping of a Muse betrayed” in the political compromises of the Aeneid. Auden argued that “Not even the first of the Romans can learn / His Roman history in the future tense . . . . / Hindsight as foresight makes no sense.” But Virgil was not out to teach history, which any number of Roman historians had already done quite well. He was writing a poem contemporary with a new Roman order that looked back to what had made Rome great even as it had to do something a bit different. Past as hopeful prologue in those conditions makes a great deal of sense.

And there is yet a further turn to be observed here. We Americans tend to think that the notion of an American empire entered our minds after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of the United States as the lone superpower. Prior to that, we prided ourselves on being “a commercial republic.” But this is not exactly true. At one of the impasses during the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin observed, “If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [God’s] notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” Jefferson, often thought one of the least pious of Founders, argued that foreign diplomats would shame a nation that had slave markets in this “empire of liberty.” It would be easy to multiply similar quotations that, beyond the mere use of a word, gave some of the shrewdest thinkers in modern political affairs a sense that the nation they were building would grow to justly large proportions and influence, whatever republican sentiments they professed. Perhaps that is why an adaptation of one of Virgil’s lines-novus ordo seclorum-appears in the great seal of the United States and on every dollar bill.

No one today would favor an American empire in the way that, say, Dante read Virgil as an inspiration toward a universal Holy Roman Empire; however, we face some things that challenge our easy rejection of the idea. Last year, Eve Adler published a groundbreaking study of the Aeneid that argued that Virgil, who seems to have begun his life as an Epicurean philosopher, came to realize that a rationalist destruction of belief in the gods and a withdrawal from public life into Epicurean conclaves would not lead to the good life. Most people, in her reading of the poet, freed of religious and political constraints, will indulge themselves in lust and fury. Religion and politics of a substantial sort, then, serve an important function, even if they do not, as some readers claim, justify a pure drive toward empire.

Anyone seeking to translate Virgil now, more than two thousand years and many translations after his death, and in the wake of all these considerations, shoulders a heavy burden. Robert Fagles, the gifted translator of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other major Greek literary works (including Aeschylus and Sophocles), certainly brings to the task the right kind of learning and spirit. He’s willing to take chances, even tampering with the first and famous line:

Wars and a man I sing-an exile driven on by Fate,

he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,

destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil,

yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above -

thanks to cruel Juno’s relentless rage-and many losses

he bore in battle too, before he could found a city,

bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race,

the Alban lords, and the high walls of Rome.I am not convinced that the opening words of Fagles’ translation are an improvement over the usual “Arms and the man.” The standard rendering preserves Virgil’s metaphor (arma) and makes clear that Aeneas, the hero of the Aeneid, is not just “a” man. But Fagles gets a lot of narrative energy going at many points, and in an epic poem meant to describe a world-historical event, the founding and rise of Rome, that broad current compensates for any number of local blemishes.

Blemishes and worse are inevitable in translating a poet like Virgil. One thing no translation can convey is the sheer virtuosity of his meter coupled with a persistent verbal magic. Virgil uses the same hexameter as Homer, but the Roman reproduces the meter as no one before him in Latin and also manages linguistic felicities and surprises in great profusion. And all this is brilliantly subordinated to telling an epic story in both its heroic and tragic notes. Older translators, such as Dryden, get some of the ?regularity and suggestiveness, but a modern translation has to navigate between a language too elevated that might put off a reader and a language too col?loquial that loses the necessary grandeur of epic.

Fagles negotiates these difficulties with much success. For instance, in Book VII, where the various Italian tribes come together to oppose the invading Trojans, Virgil describes them along with images that reflect his love for the Italian countryside. Fagles renders this:

Under his command

came huge divisions from Amiternum, from Quirites,

all the ranks from Eretu, ?Mutusca green with olives, all

who live in the Nomentum city, the Rosean fields by lake ?Velinus,

all on Tetrica’s shaggy spurs and grim-set Mount Severus,

all in Casperia, Foruli, on the Himella banks,

men who drink the Tiber and Fabaris, men dispatched

from icy Nursia, musters from Orta, the Latin tribes,

men that the Allia-ominous name-divides as it flows on.

Men as many as breakers rolling in from the Libyan sea . . . .This strikes exactly the right tone while keeping the catalogue of combatants moving along briskly. In Homer, such catalogues emphasize warlike qualities. In Virgil, individual warriors are often identified with gentle or sublime natural elements much in evidence both in the Eclogues and in the Georgics. He is an artist who takes on big themes, even the subject of Roman imperialism, but whose loyalties are to land, trees, plants, animals, and the people integrated with them. Fagles succeeds in conveying this.

Bernard Knox has provided a brief but illuminating forward to the translation. He and Michael Putnam, another of America’s foremost Virgilians, worked with Fagles on notes, maps, and a glossary. If there is any complaint to be made about this material it is that there is not more of it. The publishers and collaborators seem to have wanted to keep the volume from looking overly complicated, but even a reader who is familiar with the Aeneid will probably wish that there were more explanatory notes unobtrusively tucked away. If you have the taste for epic tales and want to understand a crucial text in our cultural history, Fagles provides a pleasant point of entry.

But keep your eyes open to allegory, one of the main categories of Virgilian interpretation for both pagans and Christians over the centuries. In some carom shot of divine Providence, the Aeneid is a bridge between classical and Christian culture for that reason. A clever contemporary reader may turn to Virgil and be moved by that anima naturaliter christiana that fascinated figures as diverse as Tertullian and the young Augustine. As Ronald Knox says in his autobiography, A Spiritual Aeneid, a treasure trove of this sort of reading, we can all begin with “the key to a somewhat obvious set of symbols. Troy is undisturbed and in a sense unreflective religion; in most lives it is overthrown, either to be rebuilt or replaced. The Greeks are the doubts which overthrow it. The ?miniature Troy’ of Helenus is the effort to reconstruct that religion exactly as it was. Carthage is any false goal that, for a time, seems to claim finality. And Rome is Rome.”

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.