Against the Aeneid

nescio quid maius nascitur Iliade.

“Something greater than the Iliad is being born…”


This line of Propertius, hinting at the composition of the Aeneid, has always struck me as violently sarcastic – how could it be otherwise?

Vergil possesses only two virtues: he is a sensitive interpreter of Homer, and he is on occasion capable of delivering a line of eloquence well freighted with pathos. Examples of this latter tendency include everyone’s favorite tags:

en sunt lacrimae rerum
forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit
quae iam terra nostri non plena laboris
facilis descensus Averno
etc. etc.

This places Vergil well in the tradition of Ennius. Donatus records that, when a friend saw Vergil reading Ennius, he asked him what he was doing and Vergil responded, “Looking for pieces of gold in a heap of shit.” Samuel Johnson once suggested of Shakespeare that for all of his fine qualities as a writer, one would be hard pressed to find more than four consecutive lines of good poetry in his plays. Much the same is true of Vergil, which is in part why he serves as such a fruitful source for the isolated quotation and overblown tag; it is also why he is such a painful chore to read.

Over the years, I have been both shocked and appalled to hear a number of my fellow Latin teachers cite Vergil’s Aeneid as their favorite work of Latin literature. What strikes me in particular about their claim to love the Aeneid is the fact that most of them also admit to having never read through the entire poem in Latin. While I am not generally a fan of altitudinal equestrianism I’m afraid that I must place a reluctant foot into the critical stirrup and make the daring suggestion that one cannot properly evaluate a work of art that was designed as an organic unity and survives complete (though unfinished) without having read through the whole of it. As this steed begins to canter along, I will note that I have read the whole poem through twice (and the AP selections several times over) and I can only conclude that Vergil served as Dante’s guide not because of his Christian qualities, not for his foray into subterranean cosmography, but because reading the Aeneid in its entirety offers one a grim foretaste of eternity. Even the most interesting of long form narrative fictions will occasionally get bogged down in longeurs, but an entire half of the poem (Books 7 – 12) is regularly neglected because of its tedium, and even people who make the case for the historical interest of Homer’s Catalogue of Ships would be stumped in their search for reasons to read Book 5 of the Aeneid.

I recently heard it suggested that Aeneas is an interesting and complex character. No one in the history of literature could be less complex than Aeneas. Indeed, he isn’t really even a character so much as an idea. The only figure given less of a personality in the Aeneid is Lavinia. I suggest, rather, that Aeneas is the biggest chump in all of ancient literature. His chief function in the Iliad is simply to almost get himself killed by better heroes (Diomedes, Achilles) in the same way that Paris was rescued in his duel with Menelaus. (It is perhaps not without reason that Iarbas in Book 4 describes Aeneas as ille Paris.) Throughout the Aeneid, all of his important actions are prompted by three things: dreams, prophecies, and direct admonition of the gods. When Hermes comes to tell Aeneas to leave Carthage, he presents the hero with the first thing resembling a real choice: it is implied that he can remain with Dido and grant Ascanius the glory of reaching Italy. Here he does make the choice to abandon Dido and pettily ensure that he, not his son, receives the honor of reconstituting a Hesperian Troy, but instead of fully acknowledging it as a decision, he tells Dido:

“Stop working both of us up with your complaints –
I am not pursuing Italy by choice.”

desine meque tuis incendere teque querelis;
Italiam non sponte sequor.’ [Aeneid 4.360-1]

Complexity? Depth? Hardly. One could see figures like Odysseus and Achilles, for all of their unsavory traits, as proto-existentialist heroes who occasionally transgressed the boundaries of the human, while Aeneas is nothing more than a bland but perfect paragon of Bad Faith.

Vergil has, of course, had his distinguished defenders. Dante, Tennyson, T.S. Eliot. Perhaps, as poets, they can sense something in the Aeneid that I miss, in much the same way that dogs apparently find a particular olfactory pleasure in shit that we humans, being less nasally developed, cannot appreciate. Or perhaps their creative faculties came at the cost of their judgment. For an illustrative example of T.S. Eliot’s painful defects as a literary critic, consider these remarks on Aeneas and Dido in the underworld:

But I have always thought the meeting of Aeneas with the shade of Dido, in Book VI, not only one of the most poignant, but one of the most civilized passages in poetry. It is complex in meaning and economical in expression, for it not only tells us about the attitude of Dido – still more important is what it tells us about the attitude of Aeneas. Dido’s behaviour appears almost as a projection of Aeneas’ own conscience: this, we feel, is the way in which Aeneas’ conscience would expect Dido to behave to him. The point, it seems to me, is not that Dido is unforgiving – though it is important that, instead of railing at him, she merely snubs him – perhaps the most telling snub in all poetry: what matters most is, that Aeneas does not forgive himself – and this, significantly, in spite of the fact of which he is well aware, that all that he has done has been in compliance with destiny, or in consequence of the machinations of the gods who are themselves, we feel, only instruments of a greater inscrutable power. [T.S. Eliot, What is a Classic?]

By contrast, note how Samuel Johnson, who apparently remembers his Homer better than Eliot did, handles the same scene:

The warmest Admirers of the great Mantuan Poet can extol him for little more than the Skill with which he has, by making his Hero both a Traveller and a Warrior, united the Beauties of the Iliad and Odyssey in one Composition; yet his Judgment was perhaps sometimes overborn by his Avarice of the Homeric Treasures, and for fear of suffering a sparkling Ornament to be lost, has inserted it where it cannot shine with its original Splendor. When Ulysses visited the infernal Regions, he found among the Heroes who died at Troy, his Competitor Ajax, who, when the Arms of Achilles were adjudged to Ulysses, died by his own Hand in the Madness of Disappointment. He still appeared to resent, as on Earth, his Loss and Disgrace. Ulysses endeavoured to pacify him with Praises and Submission; but Ajax walked away without Reply. This Passage has always been considered as eminently beautiful, because Ajax the haughty Chief, the unlettered Soldier, of unshaken Courage, of immoveable Constancy, but without the Power of recommending his own Virtues by Eloquence, or enforcing his Assertions by any other Argument than the Sword, had no way of making his Resentment known but by gloomy Sullenness and dumb Ferocity. He therefore naturally showed his Hatred of a Man whom he conceived to have defeated him only by Volubility of Tongue, by Silence more contemptuous and affecting than any Words that so rude an Orator could have found, and which gave his Enemy no Opportunity of exerting the only Power in which he was superior. When Aeneas is sent by Virgil into the Regions below, he meets with Dido the Queen of Carthage, whom his Perfidy had hurried to the Grave; he accosts her with Tenderness and Excuses, but the Lady turns away like Ajax in mute Anger. She turns away like Ajax, but she resembles him in none of those Qualities which give either Dignity or Propriety to Silence. She might, without any Departure from the Tenour of her Conduct, have burst out like other injured Ladies into Clamour, Reproach, and Denunciation; but Virgil had his Imagination full of Ajax, and therefore could not prevail on himself to teach Dido any other Mode of Resentment. [Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 121]

Indeed, I find it hard to believe that anyone with more than passing familiarity with Homer could enjoy the Aeneid except in those occasional moments when Vergil manages to provide some special illumination that shows how deeply he himself had drawn from the Homeric well.

I regret to say that I take the shameless hipster line on Vergil: while the Georgics leave me cold for the most part, I am a tremendous admirer of the Eclogues. Indeed, I think that the Eclogues might even outdo their Greek original, Theocritus’ Idylls. This is all to say that I liked Vergil “before he sold out” – before he became a paid pen for the regime. Among the Augustan poets, one gets the sense that Tibullus was content to cultivate his narrow garden; that Horace could toe the line but still carved out some space for genuine feeling and rich humor in much of his poetry; that both Propertius and (especially) Ovid had an anarchic streak that kept them from too deeply internalizing the blandness of the early Principate. These last three are notable for their playfulness (especially Ovid), but with Vergil, poetry is always a grim affair. Indeed, Homer shows signs of real humor in the Iliad and the Odyssey, but once they were passed through the Augustan grinder, they yielded nothing at all that could be considered funny in the Aeneid.

In any event, why all of this harping on about the Aeneid’s defects? Because, as a Latin teacher, I have come to think that we are entirely undermining our mission by forcing this slop upon students every year. The Aeneid is barely worth reading except among true dedicatees of Latin epic – the sort who might also enjoy the Pharsalia or the Thebaid. Naturally, I found it encouraging that the AP Latin syllabus would be revised for next year, dropping Caesar in the process – Caesar, the only popular Latin author more boring than Vergil. Indeed, whatever interest students may have had in the Aeneid in all of the years that I have taught the AP syllabus, it has come primarily from the fact that he affords some relief from the drudgery of Caesar, in much the same way that being kicked in the ass might afford some relief from being repeatedly punched in the face.

I began studying Latin for its literature – for its humor, its wit, its humanity. When I began bashing the books pretty seriously and grinding out those declension tables, I would have given up if I thought that the incentive at the end of it was simply to read the Aeneid. Almost none of my students express an interest in exploring Latin literature after being hammered by Vergil and Caesar because it suggests that what they always suspected of Latin is indeed true: that it is stodgy, narrow, and boring. I grant that Latin programs are struggling for a number of complicated reasons, but students talk to each other and relay these messages down the line to younger kids – most of them have already heard how boring the AP Latin syllabus is before they even arrive in Latin I.

Maybe, to save Latin, we ought to abandon our commitment to dreary horseshit and embrace some literature with real life and vitality in it. The move to Pliny away from Caesar is a good start, but how about a wholesale makeover, a shift entirely away from narrow classicism? The Late Republic and Early Empire are all interesting in their way, but what of the fact that this literature constitutes an infinitesimal portion of our extant Latin literature? Whatever happened to Plautus and Terence? Why do we affect such disdain for Medieval Latin, some of which is simultaneously easy for students to read with a sense of fluency and has real human interest?

At any rate, I submit that students will never be excited about our programs as long as they terminate with a capstone course in such a miserable piece of third-tier art and will never be excited about Latin when all they see in it is the tedious droning of Augustan sentiment.

3 thoughts on “Against the Aeneid

  1. Very well put. I had to study latin in the lare 60’s. i was bored to death by Cesar’s De bello gallico and the ramblings of Vergil and Cicero.
    I dropped out of the classes as soon as i could. Now i regret i did not go on, for i realized how interesting and even funny it can be once you get into less conventional authors.

  2. Well said, Erik. I read your post to my wife Vickie, who cheered. She has bitter memories of foot-slogging through Caesar’s Gallic Wars when she was twelve.

  3. You have me in two minds. It seems obvious that young experience of Latin shouldn’t be dominated by the Aeneid (or by Caesar), and to see some engagement with (say, picking one of your suggestions) the wit and beauty of the best of post-classical Latin at this level would be a delight. And probably good for the field.

    And yet… I was introduced to the Aeneid as a teenager by a teacher who loved it, but also spoke eloquently about its aesthetic foibles and the aspects that today we (rightly, I think) tend to take as moral failings. Actually, for me, the Aeneid *was* part of the process of learning to love Latin. So: yes to dialling its role in the classroom at this stage right back, no to the idea that it’s merely ‘third-tier art’.

    Really, you give the game away when you pick Eliot—indeed, not a strong critic, a straw critic even—as a proponent. Clearly Aeneas isn’t a complex character: he’s not a character in a novelistic sense. But asking an epic to behave novelistically makes no sense in the first place. Substantively defeat Dante’s Vergilianism, rather than Eliot’s, and perhaps we can downrate the Aeneid taken as art (rather than as a teaching tool). Until then, well, I’m reminded of something from another critic of Eliot’s era: Empson’s remark that if one can’t understand how a poem succeeds, one should find another poem one *does* like, and talk about that poem instead.

Leave a Reply