A review of The Aeneid, by Virgil, translated by Robert Fagles
Virgil's Gaze: Nation and Poetry in the Aeneid, by J.D. Reed


Imagine an epic whose hero is deeply devoted to the particular and humble duties of life; to the household gods standing upon the hearth, presiding over a life lived in commemoration of fathers and grandfathers that have gone before. Imagine that this man, "famous for his devotion," must leave behind the greatest loves of his life in submission to a high calling whose fulfillment he knows he will never see. His humanity is not suppressed by these duties but deepened and enlarged through the terrible suffering they entail. Imagine that this hero is drawn by an artist of the most delicate craftsmanship; one who loves his country well enough to see its shame and its glory together, and who attempts, perhaps in vain, to combine a vision of piety for father and fatherland, for the household gods and the great gods, with the poet-philosopher's belief in a natural law that makes the world kin.

That is Virgil's Aeneid, a poem that requires of its readers something like the largeness of heart shown by its author and its hero. It has found a most worthy translator in Robert Fagles. And were we not in an age that rewards the academic for divorcing himself from the humble foundation of common sense, the poem might have found a worthy critic in the learned and meticulous J.D. Reed.

The greatest merit of Fagles's translations of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Homer, and now Virgil is the American's deep and powerful humanity, muscling its way through the impedimenta of an ancient language and a buried civilization. Fagles's intense focus on the heart of the poet and his characters is well served by his choice of meter. Whereas other translators of the Aeneid have used the stately march of blank verse to render the Latin hexameter roll, as variable and yet as constant as waves of the sea, Fagles prefers instead a generally unmetered line. Sometimes, to cap a passage, he squeezes a nervous long line back down to blank verse, as in the climax of jilted Dido's curse:

Come rising up from my bones, you avenger still unknown,

to stalk those Trojan settlers, hunt with fire and iron,

now or in time to come, whenever the power is yours.

Shore clash with shore, sea against sea and sword

against sword-this is my curse-war between all

our peoples, all their children, endless war!

And sometimes, for rhetorical power, he will deliberately cut a line short. This is the case near the end of the first movement of Sinon's lie, the speech calculated to persuade the merciful Priam and his Trojans to roll the wooden horse through the gates of the city. Virgil's line and a half are compressed and incantatory:

miserere laborum

tantorum, miserere animi non digna ferentis.

(Literally, "Have pity on such great labors, have pity on a soul suffering what it does not deserve.")

Fagles sees that a literal rendering cannot capture the power of Sinon's plea, so he breaks up the meaning of laborum, translating it twice; once as "torments" and once as the more generalized and spiritual "pain," using the latter in a short line of summative force and isolating Sinon's unctuous self-justification for the final sentence:

…pity a man whose torment knows no bounds.

Pity me in my pain.

I know in my soul I don't deserve to suffer.

Most often, though, Fagles uses the long line (and many of them, too; his English lines outnumber the Latin by 10 to 25%, depending on the book) to crowd into the translation every nuance he can. The result is not as swift, perhaps, as the strong blank verse of Robert Fitzgerald, or the more mellifluent verse of Allen Mandelbaum. But its plenitude, its sheer energy, makes the rugged expanse worth the journey. Here is the Sibyl suddenly possessed by the power of Apollo, in the splendid Fitzgerald translation:

But the prophetess

Whom the bestriding god had not yet broken

Stormed about the cavern, trying to shake

His influence from her breast, while all the more

He tired her mad jaws, quelled her savage heart,

And tamed her by his pressure.

The image, violent and sexual, is of a dominator breaking a bucking horse. "Bestriding" here is excellent. Though absent from the Latin, it is suggested by the implied metaphor controlling the scene. It is hard to outdo such grand verse, but Fagles's lines rave with the raving of the Sibyl:

But the Sibyl, still not broken in by Apollo, storms

with a wild fury though her cave. And the more she tries

to pitch the great god off her breast, the more his bridle

exhausts her raving lips, overwhelming her untamed heart,

bending her to his will.

Fagles crushes out every drop of juice in the grape: his wild fury picks up the orgiastic and feminine intimations of the Latin bacchatur; the bridle, absent in the Latin, is suggested by the image of wringing and wearying the mouth of an untamed beast. Best of all, to my ear, is the startlingly physical pitch the great god off her breast, rendering the Latinexcussisse deum-more alarming, and more humanly accurate, more sensitive to the plight of the prophetess, than is Fitzgerald's tamer influence.

* * *

Similar felicities abound throughout the work: moments of power, of tenderness, of wonder, of sadness. The glory of theAeneid is not that it shows that Rome and her virtues were the most important things in the world, but that it suggests a Rome both below and beyond the propaganda of the empire of Augustus Caesar. Virgil laments the terrible loss upon which the nation was built; Fagles calls this his "private voice." It is a profoundly religious voice that does not sweep aside the suffering of ally or enemy, and that dares to dwell upon the strange corners of light and darkness within one human heart. Such is the case when the old Arcadian king, the simply-named Evander (in Greek, "good man"), meets the cortege bringing the body of his only son, Pallas, back home, after he had died bravely fighting on behalf of Aeneas and his men. Virgil not only imagines the grief of the father, but knows too how the father might look upon his son and imagine what hesaw, feel what he felt. Evander "throws himself on Pallas, clinging for dear life," then chokes out his lament:

A far cry from the pledge you made your father, Pallas,

that you would do nothing rash the day you trusted

yourself to the savage God of War! How well

I knew the thrill of a boy's first glory in arms,

the heady sweetness of one's first fame in battle….

Aeneas too has beheld Pallas on the bier, addressing him as miserande puer-brilliantly rendered by Fagles as "child of heartbreak." In a few lines of manly reticence, gratitude, and love, he takes leave of him as a Roman, centuries before there would ever be a Rome:

nos alias hinc ad lacrimas eadem horrida belli

fata vocant: salue aeternum mihi, maxime Palla,

aeternumque vale.

The same dark fate of battle commands me back

to other tears. Hail forever, our great Pallas!

Hail forever and farewell!

The death of Pallas is but one of the many losses bound to Aeneas's fate. We meet him in the midst of a storm at sea, envying the fortune of his old comrades "lucky to die beneath the soaring walls of Troy," to be buried by the hands of loved ones in the soil of home. In that storm he watches one of his ships go down to the bottom, smashed to bits, all hands lost. Having found landfall near a new city, Carthage, he is welcomed by the queen, Dido, who begs him to tell of his suffering, beginning with the fall of Troy. That tale is perhaps the most magnificent and terrible extended passage of poetry in all of Western literature. The Trojans are deceived by their very piety, upon which the Greeks count as they fashion their deception. Then come the rape of Cassandra, the death of her unrequited lover Coroebus, the slaughter of the youth Polites in the penetralia of his father Priam's house, at the sacred hearth, before the eyes of his parents-and the pathetic death of old Priam, slain by the contemptuous son of Achilles:

Well then,

down you go, a messenger to my father, Peleus' son!

Tell him about my vicious work, how Neoptolemus

degrades his father's name-don't you forget.


* * *

So it continues, loss upon loss, death upon death. Most of those who die are young and innocent: Aeneas's wife Creusa, lost as they try to escape the burning city; pious Dido, made frantic by love, dead by her own hand after Aeneas leaves her against his will; the faithful helmsman Palinurus, pitched overboard by the malignant gods; the lads Nisus, Euryalus, Pallas, and Lausus, whom Reed calls "Adonis figures," "beautiful, loved, and slain"; the virgin warrior Camilla; and last, Aeneas's final foe in the poem, the noble young Turnus, whom he battles for the hand of the Italian princess Lavinia and thus for eventual lordship over central Italy.

Who or what can justify such losses? With what authority does Aeneas proceed? It is to Virgil's credit that he does not answer with a facile definition of Romanness or even an appeal to the Roman gods. The goodness and wisdom of these latter are always in doubt. Cries Priam, witnessing the desecrating death of his son: "If any power on high recoils at such an outrage"-and the if is by no means merely rhetorical. "Hope no more," says the Sibyl to the murdered Palinurus, who in the underworld begs Aeneas to give him a proper burial, "[that] the gods' decrees can be brushed aside by prayer."

With Romanness we are on somewhat surer ground, though even here Virgil does not make things easy. When Aeneas meets his father Anchises in the underworld, the son learns of the valor of his descendants, and, in lines that distinguish the Romans from the artists, philosophers, rhetors, and astronomers of Greece and Persia, he learns that to be Roman is to rule, but to rule in piety:

Others, I have no doubt,

will forge the bronze to breathe with suppler lines,

draw from the block of marble features quick with life,

plead their cases better, chart with their rods the stars

that climb the sky and foretell the times they rise.

But you, Roman, remember, rule with all your power

the peoples of the earth-these will be your arts:

to put your stamp on the works and ways of peace,

to spare the defeated, break the proud in war.

A noble ideal—but for all of Rome's relative generosity, she will reduce Carthage to a plain sowed with salt and leave Jerusalem in ruins.

Fagles understands these notes of tragedy, this search for a way to justify human suffering, including that portion of it that seems to have been the mortar for building Rome. J.D. Reed, an assistant professor of Greek and Latin at the University of Michigan, understands this too. He sees that to write about an empire like Rome must always involve contradiction. That is because empires by nature cut their moorings to the homeland. Rome's dominion becomes too big for Rome, and her very virtues undo her. Long before Virgil wrote, Roman conservatives had already claimed that the defeated Greeks had had their revenge on the conquerors: Roman fathers hired Greek slaves to teach their sons, and wealthy Romans adopted Greek ways, including a fashionable taste for pederasty. "I fear the Greeks, especially bearing gifts," says the Trojan priest Laocoön. These words describe the ambivalence of Virgil himself, who wrote an epic that revised Homer's originals, reacting against the egoistic glory of Achilles and the cunning of Odysseus; but an epic that could not have existed had the Roman not been sent to school by Homer.

* * *

In short, the poem raises a central question, one with deep implications for the modern West: "Is it possible for a nation to retain its identity in empire?" Closely related to that question is another, less theoretical, but more human and urgent: "What exactly is my duty to my homeland? With what love should I cherish the land of my household gods?" It is to Reed's credit that he sees how often in the Aeneid Rome must reach for scraps of self-definition here and there, principally by defining itself as not-Greece, not-Troy, not-Egypt, not-Carthage, and, most problematically, not-effeminate. "There is an emptiness at the geographic heart of identity," he says, assuming what in fact he intends to prove, that Aeneas and the poem resist "the idea of a definitive Roman."

It is meet and just to note that the devoted Aeneas himself will lapse into fury in battle after the death of Pallas, uncomfortably resembling both the hated Greek Achilles and the raving and lovelorn Dido. Virgil compels us to see that all men and women are prey to dira cupido, dreadful desire. Reed goes much further, however. Seeing that Roman, Greek, and Carthaginian are but human, he denies all meaning to "Roman" and deconstructs Roman identity accordingly.

How can one win against a deconstructing critic, learned and cold to the end? If one expands Roman pietas to include mercy broadly conceived, a duty to the alien based upon our common and fragile humanity, then the critic will claim that the word "Roman" falls apart. If, on the other hand, one rejects all other cultures as having nothing to do with one's own, then, along with being a third-rate poet and thinker and man, one must hear that one's culture so doggedly served is really nothing but an inverted reflection of those others: the football player is a drag queen in disguise. If one notices, with a manly and paternal tenderness, the beauty of the youth dead on the battlefield-the smooth flesh, the down on the chin-then one must hear the strains of homoeroticism. If one does not notice such things, then one is heartless and inhuman-or is secretly homoerotic anyway.

Reed is an excellent interweaver of citations. He seems to have photographic recall of every metaphor ever penned in Hellenistic literature. His elucidation of the tangled ethnographies of peoples and cities of the ancient world is admirably precise. And he is correct to note the ironies that Virgil has built into his foundational epic-especially that the Romans seem to depart from the characteristics of the perfumed, long-haired Trojans they are supposed to be. Certainly, too, he is right to point out the strange openness or flexibity of Aeneas, who can adopt the point of view of anyone he meets, including, in the end, his enemy Turnus. Reed emphasizes that the imperial gaze (and by extension "Virgil's gaze") "is in fact receptive," concealing "a perpetual give-and-take between commander and commanded."

But consider, for example, the poem's terrible climax. Aeneas has defeated Turnus in single combat; and Turnus is but a lad, a heroic young man who represents, in part, the greatness of the peoples who will unite with the Trojans, whose customs indeed will triumph over the Trojans, as together they form the Roman race. He lies wounded before the conqueror, and now, like the Trojan Hector long before him, he makes a plea. Turnus asks, not that his body be returned to his father, but that, as a hope against hope, he be returned alive, having surrendered in full sight of the Trojans and his own Rutulians. Here the poet has led his hero to an impasse. That anima naturaliter christiana, that naturally Christian soul, as Tertullian called Virgil, is now calling upon a merely natural virtue, pietas, to do what it cannot. It can sometimes, not always, battle impiety and emerge unstained. But how can piety battle piety?

Why should the young man die? Into the mind of Aeneas surge thoughts of Priam and the slain Hector, of his own father Anchises, the human being to whom his heart was closest; of other suppliants he has spared; and of the young men he has seen die too soon. He wants to spare Turnus; but that is a dangerous prospect for the Trojans. Then he sees upon Turnus the belt of Pallas, whom Turnus had slain. He remembers his love for the youth, and his promise to that other old man, the father Evander. Piety here pulls him in both directions, and Aeneas, in a rage, fulfills his final horrible duty:

Decked in the spoils

you stripped from one I loved-escape my clutches? Never-

Pallas strikes this blow, Pallas sacrifices you now,

makes you pay the price with your own guilty blood!"

In the same breath, blazing with wrath he plants

his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy's heart.

Turnus' limbs went limp in the chill of death.

His life breath fled with a groan of outrage

down to the shades below.

Is this climax the melding, finally, of Aeneas's private feelings and his public responsibility, as Fagles in his essay suggests? Or is it the failure, honestly revealed by the poet, of a virtue that is true and holy but ultimately incomplete-the best that the pagan Roman world had to offer, but unable to deliver its promise of peace? Reed, busy comparing Turnus with Adonis, princess Lavinia, and Aphrodite, busy bending genders and scoffing at the patriotic, does not even bother to ask. In a better world he would have, and might have done it well. Like many these days who study the humanities, he's interested in irony – not humanity, and certainly not divinity.