Harvard Classics Volume 13: The Aeneid

Virgil’s Aeneid is billed as the great work of Latin literature. Composed during the reign of Augustus, the Aeneid tells the story of refugees from Troy, fleeing the city and led by Aeneas, Trojan prince and son of Venus, and their journey to carve out a new homeland on the banks of the Tiber. This is an incredibly powerful narrative of a people on the verge of destruction battling the elements, their weariness and enemy armies in their quest to make it to their new homeland.

The translation, like Plutarch’s Lives in the last volume, was translated by famed English poet John Dryden. His translation shows his own genius for poetry in the English language, and he maintains the verse and uses a simple rhyming scheme throughout. This keeps the feeling of the epic poem alive, even if it means the translation is not precisely literal.

There are a couple of things that run into a bit of trouble for a modern audience. The first is that, since translations are so widely available, the Aeneid loses one of its main advantages over the Illiad and the Odyssey. Reading Homer, before translations became ubiquitous, required being able to read Homeric Greek, which was distinct from Attic and Koinon Greek, which other Ancient Greek works, including the New Testament, were written in. The Latin of Virgil on the other hand, is in the right dialect to understand not just the biggest works of Ancient Rome, but also academic work for centuries to come. An educated person, prior to the 18th century, would find Virgil more approachable and enjoyable. However, now that the great trio of Trojan War epics are available in numerous English translations, the modern reader can read The Illiad just as well as they can read The Aeneid. That makes a direct comparison between Homer and Virgil easier, and Virgil doesn’t fare so well in the comparison.

In contrast to Homer’s heroes, the hero of the Aeneid  is just a little too perfect. The scenes and the plot often seem to go a little bit farther than mere homage to the older Greek works, and cross into copying.

The other thing that hurts the Aeneid a bit is the blatant propaganda throughout. As beautiful as the poetic depiction of the Battle of Actium is, it feels more than a little out of place about the formation of a new people in Italy. Much of the Aeneid is justification for Augustus’ rule.

None of this criticism should deflect from the amazing poetry and powerful story of the Aeneid. The imagery, the scale and the focus of the story is truly an achievement. The first four books, which cover the destruction of Troy through the death of Dido, are some of the best literature I’ve read.

With the Aeneid completed, the last of the classical Roman works  in the Harvard Classics have been finished, but there are a few more works with Greeks remaining. In the remaining 36 volumes, the only full volume dedicated to classical antiquity is The Odyssey. Otherwise, Aesop’s Fables will be a part of the volume of fables and fairy tales, and the volume of medicine includes the Hippocratic Oath. The rest of the pre-Renaissance sources include part of the Bible as well as Arabic, Persian, Germanic, Chinese, Buddhist and Hindu works.

Finishing The Aeneid is also a big point for me, personally. It was by far the most glaring omission from my study of the classics, and at this point, like the Harvard Classics, I feel like it is time to depart from them for awhile and move towards more modern works.

Next up on the agenda is Don Quixote, followed by Bunyan & Walton and Modern English Drama.

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