Friday, April 13, 2012

Vergil's The Aeneid

Consulting Editorial Director, George Stade, of Barnes & Noble Classics and Barnes & Noble Books of New York, authorizes the release of the company’s edition of Vergil’s The Aeneid.  Originally created between the years 26 to 19 B.C., and translated by Christopher Pearse Cranch in 1872 A.D., this edition comes out in 2007 A.D. with an introduction and notes by Sarah Spence.  The Aeneid narrates the travels of Aeneas.  Right after the Greeks come out of the wooden horse and burn Troy to the ground, Aeneas leads a small group of Trojans and conveys their household gods to a new home in Italy, or Hesperia.  Their longed-for destination is not just some random strip of land for refugees, but a promised land foretold by Aeneas’ dead wife, Creüsa, and the slighted prophetess, Cassandra.  The voyage of Aeneas and his followers mirrors the epic stories of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; it also includes famous figures, popular venues, and poetic mimesis.  Vergil, a veritable rival of Homer, has Aeneas sail through the Mediterranean, sojourn with Dido at Carthage, and war with Latin tribes before becoming a worthy ancestor of the Roman ruling bloodline.  Supposedly, the emperors of Rome during Vergil’s time could trace their lineage back to this mythical hero.  Following this line of belief, the modern Italians could claim him as their mythical ancestor, too.

Epic poetry has the ability to intertwine the drama associated with politics and war with eloquence and beauty.  Normally, I do not enjoy war stories, but Homer and Vergil describe the action in such a way that I feel the thrill of the conflict that no modern movie can contrive.  (It helps that the text does not graphically bombard my senses with gore and blood like an action-packed movie does.)  The story also becomes entertaining when the poets include other-worldly venues and supernatural characters.  Not only do mortals contend for dominance and glory, but gods jump into the fray and alter the fates of men.  The lower realm of the mortals reflects the animosity of the gods in the higher realm.  As these parallel dominions collide, the poetic voice asks, “Is there such anger in celestial minds?” (1:15).  Apparently so, because Aeneas and his followers have their fair share of struggle and contention that comes about through divine interference.

While reading this epic poem, I have taken a special notice between the individual contributions of male and female characters.  Naturally, any male figure takes the lion’s share of the action, but the female figure also has an influence.  Whether or not these attributes are equitable is yet to be definitively decided, but one thing is for sure: Women cannot be dismissed completely nor can men take all the credit.  Each uses the power that he or she is given to alter the destiny of the community.  Whatever gender we may be, “We all endure / Our ghostly retribution” (6:927-28).  In this review, I want to discuss the gender differences in three areas: prophecy, power plays, and mortal combat.


In Vergil’s Aeneid, the men who prophesy seem to carry more credibility than the women, even though the Trojans fail to heed them when the moments count.  On the other hand, the prophecies of women tend to leave a more lasting impression on certain characters, probably because of their proclivity to intuit unseen forces more readily.  Male prophets naturally dwell foremost in the minds of the public, while female prophets lie on the fringes of leadership and sanity.  The women who have this talent, with the exception of Cassandra, show their visions to individuals rather than to the public at large.  Men inhabit the public sphere and profess their visions through dreams, observable events, social positions, and logical arguments.  Women practice privately in one-on-one interactions as oracles, usually in a secluded cave or chamber filled with intoxicating smoke.  In Cassandra’s circumstances, she intrudes into the male prophetic sphere by blabbering in the public square (even though the fault of unbelief belongs to the public).  The discrepancy between prophet and prophetess indicates a dichotomy of revelation in which the female prophet inherits a strong disadvantage, even if the community refuses to heed the warnings of either gender.

The Trojan public cannot get past the messenger; their focus on the person makes them miss the message that can save them.  We see this in the second book when Laocoön appears to warn his people of the foreboding danger when Troy receives the wooden horse from the Greeks.  While small groups of people congregate and discuss what to do with the gift, Laocoön, thronged by his entourage, immediately approaches to dissuade them from fruitless deliberation.  Laocoön’s prophecy does not come about by a divine gift per se, but through a strong sense of logical incredulity.  Using a philosophical approach to what he sees as a threat, he uses experience of past events and reason to persuade them to take action.  Outside the city’s rampart, Laocoön reacts in this way:

                                        “First, in front of all,
Attended by a numerous throng of men,
Laocoön from the citadel runs down,
Impetuously, and from a distance cries:
‘O wretched men!  What madness, citizens,
Is this?  Do you believe then that our foes are gone?
Do you suppose that any Grecian gifts
Are lacking in deceit?  Or is it thus
Ulysses has been known?  Either the Greeks
Within this wooden fabric are concealed,
Or it is framed to bear against our walls,
And overlook our houses, and descend
Upon our city; or some other guile
Is lurking.  Trojans, do not trust this horse.
Whatever it may be, I fear the Greeks,
Even when they bring us gifts.’” (2:54-69)

Laocoön then throws a spear at the structure to show how the Trojans should treat their gift from the Greeks.  Unfortunately, his dramatic rant does not move the Trojans to act like he wishes; they think Laocoön is profaning a sacred icon of Troy and, above all, a tribute to a goddess.  Further, Laocoön’s death by two snakes from Tenedos foretells the Trojans’ fates, but the Trojans misinterpret the omen saying, “Laocoön paid the penalty deserved / […] when he had hurled his spear / Against the horse” (2:318, 320-21).

Another concerned party, Cassandra, has the ability to prophesy, but Apollo’s ironic curse upon her prevents her to hold the credibility or authority she necessarily needs in order to warn her people.  She goes unheeded, but for a very different reason.  Probably by the very simple fact that she is a woman, the crowd does not even give her the least amount of consideration or courtesy like they do Laocoön.  In a manner reflecting Derrida’s phallogocentrism, Laocoön’s spear gets more consideration than Cassandra’s lips.  In fact, Cassandra’s lips hardly get any, even after the Trojans hear the sound of weapons from within the wooden structure:

“Four times, even at the threshold of the gate,
It stopped: four times we heard the noise of arms
Ring from the depths within.  Yet on we press,
Thoughtless of omens, blind with furious zeal,
And in the sacred citadel we lodge
The fatal monster.  And now Cassandra parts
Her lips—that by the deity’s command
Should never be believed by Trojan ears—
And prophesies to us our future fates.
We, miserable, for whom this day
Was doomed to be our last, hang on our shrines,
Throughout the city, wreaths of festive leaves” (2:335-46).

Like the deaf Trojans, Vergil does not take the time to give a voice for Cassandra.  She just “parts her lips” while the Trojans ignorantly celebrate their upcoming destruction.  That night, the Greeks steal into the city from the cavity of the betraying horse, ransack Troy, and all hell breaks loose.  The time for the Trojans to prevent their fall has passed.

Hundreds of lines later, we read the story of Aeneas and of his attempt to save his family from the burning city.  Aeneas loses his wife, but he saves his father, Anchises, and his son, Ascanius.  They embark upon the sea and visit possible settlements with other Trojan survivors and exiles, and in a moment of somber reflection, Anchises tells Aeneas the following:

“‘My son,’ he said, ‘by Trojan fates still held!
Cassandra alone foretold such things to me.
Now I remember how she prophesied
This destiny for us; and often she spoke
About Hesperia and the Italian realms.
But who believed the Trojans ever should come
To the Hesperian shores? or who did ever
To prophetess Cassandra give belief?
To Phœbus let us yield, and, warned by him,
Seek better fortune.’  Thus he spoke; we all
Obey with joy.  This place we also quit,
Leaving a few behind; and setting sail
In our hollow boats we skim along the sea.” (3:238-50)

Only in hindsight can Cassandra’s prophecies be appreciated, and even then the patriarch esteems Phoebus, a male prophet, for future consideration and guidance.  Why such hesitancy to rely on a female prophet had there been one in the group?  Because for Trojans, “A woman is a fickle, changeful thing!” (4:753).  They give deference to a man, because “He rules their minds with words, and calms their breasts” (1:194).  For Trojans, men automatically occupy the role of leader and protector; women are looked upon as bizarre anomalies, like Cassandra, in a precedent that is almost impossible to break.

Yet women who prophesy need not hold a public office, a religious position, or break precedent in order to be effective changers.  They go to the person who has the most need for their secrets and hints.  Aeneas becomes the receptacle for these revelations because the female revelators have a familial interest in him.  Venus comes to him, calms his wrath, and directs his thoughts to his immediate family.  She even adds a commandment should Aeneas’ nature becomes reluctant to listen to a woman.  She says:

“See: I will break the cloud which, now overdrawn,
Obscures your mortal vision with dark mists.
Do not fear to obey your parent’s will,
Nor slight her precepts.” (2:818-21)

Aeneas gets his act together and figures out how he and his family can escape the burning city.  Unfortunately for Creüsa, whether by ill luck or divine destiny, she dies before Aeneas can return to her and retrieve her.  Despite the grief Aeneas feels at the moment he realizes that he sees her specter, she tells him his destiny:

                                          “Long exile
Must be your lot, the vast expanse of sea
Be ploughed; and you shall see the Hesperian land,
Where Lydian Tiber flows with gentle course
Between the fertile fields where heroes dwell.” (2:1049-53)

Both Venus and Creüsa love and are fond of Aeneas.  Unlike the previous oracles above, they do not warn, but hint.  They give him an edge over others and guarantee the propagation of the Trojan line.  They keep to the background and let the man they love do the hard work and gain the glory, because they do not seek this vainglorious reward.  Their salient aims seek continuous existence rather than short-lived fame.


In the second part of the story, Aeneas and his people reach the Italian realms and procure land for a settlement through peaceful means.  The plan has a promising start, because Latinus welcomes the Trojans and says to the ambassador, “Part of our peaceful league will be to have touched / Your king’s right hand” (7:332-33).  Latinus and Aeneas negotiate over Latinus’ daughter, Lavinia, who was first betrothed to Turnus, King of the Rutuli.  Turnus gracefully concedes.  The alliance is set and the work to build a neighboring city commences.

However, Vergil has Juno continue her grudge against the Trojans like she did in Homer’s Iliad as Hera.  She tries to persuade the other gods not to allow this alliance to come into existence, but they decline.  Having her toes stepped upon, she schemes and says to herself this justification:

                   “But if my power’s not enough,
I shall not pause to seek what aid I may.
And if I cannot bend the gods above,
Then Acheron I’ll move.” (7:388-91)

She goes to another female conspirator, the Fury Allecto.  This minion goes to Turnus’ kingdom and impersonates an old priestess.  Allecto harangues Turnus and impels him to gather the forces.  However, Turnus keeps cool and tells off the crone in this way:

“With scornful smile the youth made answer thus:—
‘Think not the tidings have escaped my ears,
That to the Tiber’s waves a fleet has come;
Nor feign such terrors: Juno forgets us not.
But you, good mother, dulled by mold of years,
Worn out in mind and body, your old age
Broods to no purpose over groundless cares,
Amid the warlike armaments of kings
Mocks your prophetic vision with false fears.
It is to you to tend the images and fanes:
Let men, whose province it is, make peace and war.’” (7:549-59)

This dismissive answer enrages the Fury.  She changes back to her original form and casts venomous spells of “war and death” into Turnus’ heart (7:573, 576).  Then Turnus calls men to arms and gathers the forces to fight against the Trojans.  Turnus gets jealous and begins a war with Aeneas, thus repeating the same conflict that has occurred in the Iliad.  (In a side note, I wonder, “Is Turnus to blame for starting this war when Allecto ‘made him’ do it?”)

It is interesting to note that the men try to negotiate peace and forego war, while the women succeed in spreading discord, fear, and bloodshed.  (Usually, it is the other way around.)  Nevertheless, Juno’s actions indicate her resentment towards the universal patriarchal order that she is under.  She gets her way using soft power to hinder Aeneas’ plans and destiny.  She wants war and she gets it.

Many other power plays happen in the course of this book, but they are too numerous to expound upon at this time.  I do mention, in passing, Dido’s curse upon Aeneas, because a whole series of power plays in that episode takes place between them.


In one of the battles, we see a token or rare glimpse of a female warrior pulling her weight in the heat of fighting.  Vergil takes a few pages to set the background story of Camilla.  She becomes skilled in the use of the spear and makes an impressive show on the battlefield.  Her plucky attitude even makes her scoff at Ornytus:

       “And did you, Tuscan, think that in the woods
You were hunting beasts?  The day has come
That by a woman’s arm refutes your boast.
Yet to the shades of your fathers this,
No trifling honor, you shall bear away:
That by Camilla’s weapon you did fall.” (11:889-94)

Unfortunately, Camilla gets struck down by Aruns, a Trojan ally, whose name looks similar to the word “runs.”  (Aruns cowardly runs away after killing Camilla, but Opis sees to it that Camilla’s death does not go unavenged by running an arrow through his heart.)  It may be that Aruns hates the thought of a woman besting any man.  So, to rectify the situation, he takes it upon himself to rid the male world of this virgin, making sure to pray to Apollo to help him complete his task.  Apollo sanctions the wish, although only partly (11:1019-25).

The most impressive interplay of the genders happens in the final combat.  In the last chapter of the book, Turnus’ obstinacy keeps rearing its ugly head.  He prepares for the final showdown:

                                       “Such fury drives him on;
Sparks flashing from his glowing face, and fire
Fierce gleaming from his eyes.  As when a bull,
Bellowing with dreadful voice, prepares to fight,
And whets his wrath in goring against a tree,
With angry horns; in prelude to the fray
He butts the winds, and tosses up the sand.” (12:134-40)

He inspires the rest of his army to resist the Trojans one last time.  The battle ensues, but it winds down to two players and their divine guardians.  On the Trojan side, Aeneas comes out from a flank and is guarded unknowingly by his mother, Venus.  On the Latian side, Turnus slowly enervates even with the help of his immortal sister, Juturna, “a goddess who presides / Over pools and murmuring streams” (12:179-80).

Juturna helps her brother by assuming the form of his friend, Metiscus.  She also takes the reins of the chariot so Turnus can focus on slaying Trojans.  Venus intervenes with dittany to staunch the blood in Aeneas’ wound.

Then comes the time when Turnus and Aeneas have trouble retrieving their weapons when they are the only two fighters left on the battlefield.  During a round of fighting, Turnus thinks he wields his own sword, but in fact, he wields his friend’s sword.  The sword breaks under Aeneas’ strength.  Turnus then seeks his true sword: “So Turnus flies, and as he flies, he chides / The Rutuli; each one by name he calls, / Demanding eagerly his well-known sword” (12:960-62).  Aeneas also has trouble with his spear, having already thrown it into a trunk of a tree while chasing Turnus around in circles.

“It chanced a wild olive with bitter leaves,
Here stood Æneas’ spear; his arm had driven
The weapon hither, where in the impassive roots
It stuck.  The Dardan hero stooped and tried
To wrench the steel away, and so pursue
The foe he could not overtake by speed.
Æneas could not with his utmost strength
Relax the wood’s firm grip.” (12:971, 979-83, 991-92)

Here, we have two men wanting nothing more than a weapon to kill off each other.  The guardian goddesses intervene.  It is here, in my opinion, the most dramatic events happen.  First, we see Juturna aiding Turnus:

                                                “While striving still,
The Daunian nymph assumes Metiscus’ form
Once more, and runs, and gives back to her brother
His sword.” (12:992-95)

This is not such an ostentatious show of help, considering the fact Vergil does not indicate how Juturna found Turnus’ sword so quickly.  Yet when Venus sees this, she has no scruples coming to her son’s aid: “Venus, indignant to behold / The daring of the nymph, approaches now, / And tears the weapon from the root” (12:995-97).  As I imagine this scene, Aeneas is trying to take out his spear from the roots of the tree, gripping it as hard as he can, but to no avail.  Venus, presumably invisible to everyone except to Juturna, glares at her, comes up besides her son, takes the spear by the staff, and rips it out of the roots with splinters and dirt flying into the air from the sheer force.  On one level, she bolsters Aeneas’ intimidation to the remaining crowd and, on another, sends a message to Juturna that she, Aeneas’ mother, has seniority.  Aeneas and Turnus continue fighting until the end, but I’ll leave it to you to find out what happens.

As we have seen in this book review, the male and female characters struggle with each other in revealing future events to the public, gaining the upper hand in political and military warfare, and acting out personal grudges on the battlefield.  Each gender performs a function that alters or sustains the ultimate destinies of entire communities.  Vergil does a wonderful job of not just imitating the Greek bards, but also creating a story of redemption of a people who lost their homeland and formed another.  In conjunction with the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid completes this Greco-Roman trilogy in a superb and entertaining manner.  Anyone who takes the time to read this book will gain a precious experience in understanding epic poetry.


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