Against the Aeneid II: Revenge of ‘Against the Aeneid’

In setting out to articulate what I had intended not as an assault on the Aeneid tout court, but rather, on its primacy of place in the Latin classroom canon, I did not realize how many readers would raise their weary, pro-Maronian dukes to defend the poem. Indeed, in light of general trends in both culture and criticism, I was surprised to see that antiquity’s most full-throttle defense of both monarchy and empire should have such staunch partisans rushing to its aid.

Perhaps I ought to begin this refinement of my critical stance with a little bit of what we do here on the blog – that is, with a little bit of quoting from antiquity. Indeed, I will start by citing the earliest assault on the poem, launched by none other than Vergil himself:

He arranged it with Varius, before departing from Italy, that if anything happened to him, Varius would burn the Aeneid; but Varius said that he wouldn’t do it. Therefore, when Vergil had begun to despair of his health, he ceaselessly demanded the manuscripts, intending to burn them himself.

Egerat cum Vario, priusquam Italia decederet, ut siquid sibi accidisset, Aeneida combureret; at is facturum se pernegarat; igitur in extrema valetudine assidue scrinia desideravit, crematurus ipse. [Donatus, Vita Vergiliana]

Say what you will about the pettiness of my complaints – they amount to little more than critical carping in reaction the excessive praised heaped upon the Aeneid in comparatively recent years. But Vergil wanted it effaced from the earth entirely.

The Aeneid had the supreme good fortune to become immediately canonical, assigned in schools as the equivalent of a “modern classic” in those early imperial days. Well, what else were kids going to study? Livius Andronicus? Ennius? Cicero’s de Consulatu suo? The Aeneid is a marked aesthetic improvement over all of these, but one must also bear in mind that Augustus’ imprimatur must have counted for something. One would not be surprised to find that any monarch’s pet poetic project had received substantial attention, especially when free and outspoken critical judgment became a dangerous luxury. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the Aeneid’s ringing endorsement of Roman empire and the (prophetically foreshadowed) personal lineage/divine right of the Julio-Claudians had something to do with its inclusion in the school curriculum at such an early date.

Why do we have all of Vergil but just a few insignificant scraps of Cornelius Gallus? Their relations to power may have some small part in this. Naturally, they objection arises: what about Ovid? Was he not on the outs? I’d venture to suggest that his survival in the face not only of imperial hostility but also of his manifest unsuitability to Christian sentiment is a testament to his tremendous aesthetic and literary merits.

Outside of Vergil’s instructions to burn the poem, there was indeed a tradition of criticism of the Aeneid in antiquity. In my previous post, I relied on citation of my own students’ testimony, but Servius cites the existence of a “Vergiliomastix” (Scourge of Vergil), and Donatus mentions that a certain Carvilius Pictor wrote an “Aeneidomastix” (Scourge of the Aeneid), adding that “Vergil was never lacking in haters” (obtrectatores Vergilio numquam defuerunt). Of course, it’s also true that Augustine thought that he had wasted his time being compelled to learn the Aeneid.

When we reflect on Dante’s worship of Vergil, we ought to consider how much (or rather, how little) of ancient literature was entirely unknown to him. The rediscovery of Lucretius had to wait more than another century; one manuscript of Catullus was languishing away in Verona; anything he knew of Greek literature was solely in translation. Though we think of him as steeped in the classics, there was simply less available to Dante than there is now to anyone interested in it. Petrarch was a better classicist than Dante, and regretted that he was never able to read Homer in the original – how might their assessment of the Aeneid changed if they had been more familiar with its source material? (One might also note that Petrarch staked his poetic fame on his Africa, modeled heavily on the Aeneid – but this is almost entirely unread today because, from Lucan and Statius onward, imitation of the Aeneid was an aesthetic dead end. His Canzoniere is the text to read because it has far more liveliness than stale historical epic. This was just as true in the 1st century.)

All periods have their literary fashions. The Middle Ages loved Ovid, the 18th century loved Horace, etc. etc. I will re-emphasize this point: I regard Vergil’s treatment of Polyphemus in Book III of the Aeneid as one of the most affecting scenes in all of ancient literature. But one does not hype an album up as their “favorite album ever” on the basis of one good song, or even a few stellar tracks. I grant the aesthetic excellence of parts of the Aeneid, but I deny its excellence as a whole.

To return to the theme of empire: readings which suggest that Vergil meant to criticize Augustus or imperialism are little more than idle fantasies spun out of our own modern distaste for empire and our reading of a long tradition of subversive work which post-dates the Aeneid. This is just a secular/political version of what Augustine and Dante did in attempting to read Vergil as a proto-Christian allegorist. It constitutes a refusal to take Vergil on his own terms.

Is it really to be believed that this work, which Augustus eagerly oversaw the progress of, contained even veiled criticism of his political program and philosophical sensibilities? Donatus notes that Augustus sent Vergil letters begging for some updates or selections as the poem was being written. Perhaps Augustus, Maecenas, the rest of the inner circle had attained PhD level capacity in missing the point? Maybe a highly literate audience, which was entirely steeped in the poetic traditions which Vergil drew upon and which was on familiar terms with the poet himself missed this subliminal messaging which went unnoticed until readers 2,000 years later gleaned what they hadn’t? I submit that all anti-imperialist readings of the Aeneid stem from a refusal to read the poem on its own terms, within its own context, for what it is: a piece of work that was paid for by a political machine. One can suppose that Augustus was so eager to read new selections because he really enjoyed the poetry, or one can admit that hearing one’s own lineage and achievements placed within a divine and historically ordained teleology might have been eminently gratifying. If you want irony and subversion, cast your eye to Ovid; Vergil no more criticized the Augustan establishment than he predicted the birth of Christ.

Despite the title of these posts, I did not mean to become the modern Aeneidomastix. For the past eight years, I have taught the Aeneid as half of the AP Latin curriculum and I have seen the effect it has on me and my class. Perhaps I was insufficiently clear in my last post: I do NOT mean to suggest that the Aeneid is not worth reading, but I think that it has been undeservedly canonized by its primacy of place in the last few iterations of the AP syllabus, and I am convinced that it is a terrible text for high school Latin students. By way of an English parallel: I love Dickens, but I regard it as a crime against literature that a high school student is most likely to be forced (yes, forced) to read either Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, or Great Expectations. It’s no wonder that they hate reading. When we select a text for teaching, we ought to pick something that really crackles – something endowed with real literary merit that will still afford the student genuine aesthetic pleasure.

Perhaps these criticisms have met with such resistance because so many members of the profession entered Latin literature by passing through the Vergilian antechamber; a kind of natural selection was at work, whereby everyone who hated the Aeneid simply dropped out of the game. (This is certainly what happened with a number of my own students.) I am against the Aeneid mandate, against its lofty canonization, but not against the poem itself; one ought not to be pressed to read it until they are already fully sold on the idea of Latin literature. Vergil may have served as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, but he couldn’t accompany him to Paradise.

Cezanne, Aeneas Meeting Dido (1875)

2 thoughts on “Against the Aeneid II: Revenge of ‘Against the Aeneid’

  1. Well, Eric, I am loath to argue with you. There are few creatures in all of God’s creation as set in their views as a Classics teacher. I will point out two things, however:

    1. You’ve missed the first critic of Vergil, who to my mind is in many ways the most interesting. That is Agrippa, who (in the Suetonius/Donatus Life) refers to V. as a suppositious child of Maecenas and a “novae cacozeliae repertor” through hidden meaning in ordinary language. Agrippa, of course, must have been acquainted with V. and heard him recite/perform his work. And he is in agreement with Augustus’ own views on language usage as discussed by Suetonius in his Life of Augustus (c.86). Suffice it to say that enthusiasm for Vergil’s work among Augustus’ circle was not universal.

    2. You posit without argument that political propaganda is inimical to great art. I submit to you that this is a prejudice of people raised in modern democracies and it is mistaken. However horrifying one finds “Triumph of the Will”, it is foolish and ultimately dangerous to deny that it is effective cinema and ultimately great art. I would say the same for Eisenstein’s “Alexander Nevsky” and especially Prokofiev’s score, which may well be the best film score ever written. The fact that Vladimir Putin’s regime uses the myth of Nevsky and Prokofiev’s music as recruiting tools makes my point.

    Finally your rejection of the anti-regime readings of the Aeneid is superficial and circular; basically you assert that it is foolish because it doesn’t chime with the reading of the poem that is uppermost in your own mind. I have a lot more sympathy with Michael Putnam, Ralph Johnson and the others who have described the counter-melody to the Brave New World Aeneas toils toward. Ultimately great art is a mirror we look into and see aspects of ourselves in reflection. That is, if we look carefully and accept polyphony, rather than a folk tune.

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