Vergil’s Aeneid: Preliminaries

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This booklog is the formal inauguration of the all-new and much-promised Rockford Institute website found again at  Please check out the old features—earlier discussions of the classical tradition and teaching methods—as well as the booklist and additional columns and resources that will be added on a regular basis.  Between now and Christmas, I am going to conduct a very leisurely discussion of one of the greatest works of literature, Vergil’s Aeneid.  I may well undertake other, much briefer booklogs, but this will be a primary occupation as part of my preparation for The Rockford Institute Winter School in Rome.  We have about seven months and thus should be able to go at a rate of one book every two weeks.  If you are reading carefully in English, this is a matter of an hour or so.  If you are reading the Latin, 30 minutes a day should allow you to keep up. (Students and young teachers should begin thinking about applying for scholarships, if they wish to attend the Winter School.)

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A few rules.  I am happy to take up any subject under the sun, so long as it is inspired by the text on which it might somehow shed some light, but, while I am willing to look backwards to earlier books, I absolutely do not want to race through to future books.  I also would rather not get bogged down in what this or that recent literary critic has had to say about the poem, though I am willing to talk about major commentators, scholars, and critics, so long as I have read them.  I once took a graduate seminar on Vergil’s Georgics with Brooks Otis, a major interpreter of Vergil. Though I did not find his approach congenial, I admired Otis’s immense erudition on many subjects.  Anthony Camps’ more traditional class on the Aeneid, emphasizing history and philology, was more to my taste, and his book for students, An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid (now, alas, out of print) is an excellent introduction to Vergilian interpretation.  For the ambitious, John Conington’s great commentary is still be most fundamental work, and it is available free on Google Books.  I shall mine Conington shamelessly, as all teachers have since it appeared.

Without pretending to be any kind of expert, I know the text of Vergil reasonably well, but if any Vergilian scholars wish to take part, I hope they will forgive the presumption of a Hellenist in this incursion into the territory of the Latins.  In my defense, I can only say that I have taught more Latin than Greek and have taught Vergil several times.

This discussion will be the first to appear on the newly revived website.  I shall post initial installments here on though eventually booklogs will appear exclusively on the site, which I hope you will visit, for to take part in discussions of humane learning and gain information about our programs.

Then let us begin with a few preliminary details.  Dryden’s verse translation is not very literal, but it is a masterpiece of English verse, available on Google Books.

It can also be purchased in the Penguin edition from Amazon.  Other translations are available, some fairly good (Fitzgerald) and some not very good (Fagles).  A decent prose version from a scholar is Jackson Knight’s, also in Penguin.  If you are ordering a translation, please do not postpone your reading, since there are so many options available online.  Today or tomorrow, I shall be adding some introductory remarks here.

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Historical Introduction

Publius Vergilius Maro was born near Mantua (modern Mantova), a town in the Po Valley in 70 B.C.  These were troubled times, in the death-throes of the old republic.  Carthage had been defeated in the three Punic Wars and the kingdoms established by Alexander’s successors had been either conquered or reduced to impotence, but, as the empire grew, other enemies rose up:  Barbarian tribes–Teutons and Cimbri–invaded Italy, and Mithradates of Pontus (a Greco-Iranian kingdom) had championed the rights of the subjugated Greeks and challenged Roman supremacy in the East.  But the far more serious threats were internal: Rome had conflicts with the very Latin allies whose soldiers had helped to win wars; among Romans, the conflict between rich (senators and knights)  and the destitute (soldiers and farmers)  led to civil war; slave revolts terrified the countryside, and in the Roman leadership, the rivalries of Marius and Sulla and their successors inspired proscriptions, bloodbaths, and massive reprisals.

Sulla had ruthlessly restored the old order, but no one could have expected his restoration to survive the ambitions of his young protégés—Pompey, who insisted upon being called Magnus, the great, and the rich gangster-banker Crassus.  Pompey and Crassus were rivals in every way, but, although neither met the criteria for high office, in 70—the year of our poet’s birth–they agreed to sink their disagreements and stand together for the consulship.  The senate naturally balked.  Jettisoning any residual loyalty to the Sullan conservative order, Pompey and Crassus pandered to the populares (the turbulent masses and their leaders) for their support, promising to overturn Sulla’s restoration.  Faced with such opposition, the Senate relented, and henceforth Sulla’s constitution was a dead letter.

For the next 25 years Roman politics was plagued by the rivalries and coalitions, first of Pompey and Crassus who were later joined by a  patrician political gangster, Julius Caesar.  The Civil War between Caesar and the Senate, whose armies were commanded by Pompey, left Caesar the last man standing and dictator for life.   When Caesar was assassinated in 44, chaos ensued.  His lieutenant Marcus Antonius, after feuding with Caesar’s heir and grand nephew Octavius (soon to be Octavianus and eventually Augustus), joined forces with his young rival, and together they defeated the party of the assassins.  Antony went East, where he and Cleopatra (the Greco-Macedonian queen of Egypt) dreamed of establishing a Hellenistic empire on the model created by Alexander the Great.  The defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in the naval battle of Actium in 31 left Octavian undisputed master of the world.

Italy presented the ruler with grave problems.  In the dynastic civil wars, farms were routinely confiscated and given to land-hungry veterans.  Near Mantua up north in the Po Valley, local estates were given to Antony’s soldiers; one of them belonged to family of young poet Vergil who like Horace was attracting attention of the politically connected—both of Asinius Pollio and, in a few years, of Maecenas and Octavian himself.  Vergil took up the rural crisis created by the civil wars in two books, first the Eclogues–charming pastoral poems in the vein of Theocritus, then in the Georgics.  In his first Eclogue, Vergil writes of his gratitude to the divine young man who–almost in defiance of the soldiers–gave justice to the farmers.

At Rome, Vergil made friends with the poet Horace, who celebrates him in a major ode and in his amusing epistle describing a diplomatic trip to Brundisium, where Antony and Octavian met to patch up their alliance.  Vergil went to work on his second important book, the Georgics (29 BC), which is superficially a treatise on farming but contains deeper meditation the restoration of Roman agriculture and political life.  This was a major concern for many thoughtful Romans of the day.  Augustus was so impressed with the poet that on the way back from Actium, he asked Vergil to read the Georgics to him, which he did in the space of four days.

Vergil was so modest and chaste in his conduct and speech that he was nicknamed (in Greek) the virgin, and this moral sobriety fitted the Princeps’ plan for not only a political restoration but a moral revival.

As Augustus heard rumors of the epic narrative poem Vergil was working on over twelve years, he began asking to see passages.  Vergil was reluctant: he worked carefully, first sketching out passages in prose then writing them in a not so perfect poetry which he then, as he said, licked into shape as a she-bear did her cubs.  After 12 years, there were still unfinished passages with half-lines and he asked his executors to burn the ms.  They refused and published the Aeneid.

Vergil did agree to read several books to the Princeps.  When he read book VI, describing Aeneas’ descent to the land of the dead where he meets the ghost of the young prince Marcellus, son of Octavia, Augustus’s sister broke down.  It is in book VI, in fact, where we can see most clearly Vergil’s patriotic purpose as Aeneas is shown “the long glories of ancient Rome” in a parade of heroes.

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