Posted by: Nathan | June 2, 2006

Virgil’s Epic Combo: The Aeneid

I recently polished off Virgil‘s epic The Aeneid, and it was quite enjoyable. Structurally, Virgil’s work is a half-and-half combo of Homer’s two biggies:The Odyssey (1st half), and The Iliad (2nd half). So, 2000 years before Ezra Pound, Virgil was making it new. Good for you, Virgie. There’s a lot to like about The Aeneid: action, travels, gods, crazy creatures, trip to Hades, meeting famous characters, and it reads a lot like modern prose (dap to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation).

Virgil wrote his epic about 25 years before Christ and 700ish years after Homer, but Virgil jumps right in where Homer leaves off. The purpose of The Aeneid is to tell the story of how Aeneas founds the Roman civilization after the fall of Troy, and the author does it quite well. The gods don’t play as big of a role in this one as they do in The Iliad except for Juno (Hera) and Venus (Aphrodite). Juno continues on her random hatred against Troy, which I enjoyed in The Iliad but which got annoying in this one. I mean, c’mon Juno, Troy’s already burned down to the ground! Do you have to follow the refugees around and rain more hate on ’em? Geez. Venus is Aeneas’ mom, so naturally she helps him out.

The first half (Odyssey-esque) I liked a lot. The reader sails around the Mediterranean with Aeneas and co., meeting a lot of the some things that Odysseus encounters: scylla and charybdis, cyclops, Circe, etc. Perhaps my favorite part of the epic is books 2-4 when Aeneas lands at recently-founded Carthage and hangs out with Dido. Dido is the queen of Carthage who has conveniently (for the gods) lost her husband. Book 2 consists entirely of Aeneas telling the story of how Troy fell, and finally (FINALLY!) I heard the story of the Trojan horse. Great stuff. Of course, Aeneas and Dido have a fling, but Aeneas’ destiny is to found Rome not populate Carthage, so he takes off and Dido, now losing her second male companion, loses her mind also. She vows vengeance against Rome (Punic Wars, anyone?) and kills herself. That section is beautiful and tragic. The first half also contains Aeneas’ little daytrip to Hades so he can chat with his dad about what he should do. It’s a very interesting look at how death was perceived in Roman/Greek culture. Plus, it’s just cool–Cerburus, the River Styx, and all that.

The second half (Iliad-esque) I didn’t like as well, but it still read better than Homer’s Trojan war epic. The Trojans land in Italy and send a messenger to the King of thereabouts who’s been having visions of marrying his daughter Lavinia to some super cool foreign king (psst: Aeneas!). But Juno (again) doesn’t want anything to be easy for the Trojans, so she stirs up a Fury (this part was cool) to incite everyone to war. Turnus, a native of the area and would-be fiancé to Lavinia, is the leader of the Latins. Thus, war breaks out. The rest of the book talks about the ebb and flow of war, and includes Camilla the Amazon warriorgirl, who was pretty cool, and the Latins breaking oaths not to fight anymore not once but twice. Naturally, Aeneas wins in the end. Hope I didn’t ruin the ending for any of you, but it’s kind of obvious from the beginning that this happens.

The strength of the epic is in its narration; it’s almost a page-turner. Unlike The Iliad, which had more interesting characters and god-interactions in it, The Aeneid focuses on plot. I enjoyed this for the most part, but a few more characters would’ve made the book all the more enjoyable. Turnus, Dido, Camilla, and the goddesses Juno and Venus are the only characters besides Aeneas who play important roles (one could argue Aeneas’ dad and son also do). Virgil seizes the epic moment a lot better than Homer at times, really describing a scene so the reader is there (again, it could also be Fitzgerald’s translation).

It was an fun read (really, it was!). If you choose to read it, it worked out really well for me to have just finished The Iliad; I’d advise you to do read them back-to-back if you can stomach it. Of the three Homeric and Virgilian epics, I liked The Odyssey the best, then The Aeneid, then The Iliad. I’ll give The Aeneid an 8.7/10 and a strong A-. I would read it again without much hesistation.


  1. Sounds like a great read. Congrats on completing the Epic trilogy. Someday I’m sure I’ll venture into those waters.

  2. […] For those who don’t know, The Divine Comedy is the story of Dante (he’s the main character in his own book) taking a trip through hell, purgatory and heaven in that order. While in the hades and purgatory, Dante’s guide is Virgil. That’s right: the same guy who wrote The Aeneid; once again, I was blessed that I read the epics in sequential order, though it was somewhat accidental. Virgil represents reason, and reason will take you all the way through purgatory (which Virgil does) but reason alone can’t get you to heaven; thus, at the top of Mt. Purgatory, Virgil heads back to hell and Beatrice (representing Divine revelation)takes up guide duties. Beatrice is Dante’s real-life wife who died young. Since the book is structured in three parts, my post will follow suit. […]

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