Book Review: The Aeneid by Virgil

After my dismal failure to get to grips with a particularly arcane translation of The Iliad, I decided to resume my catch-up of classics which I probably ought to have read when I was a lot younger than I am now. Mercifully, this translation is far easier to read for my simpleton tastes, especially as it is not convoluted so as to make every pair of lines a rhyming couplet.

What I didn’t realise before picking it up is that Virgil has written this as a kind of sequel to The Iliad. In some respects, it could be considered a very early piece of fan fiction. The main character, Aeneas, is plucked from the end of The Iliad and sets off in search for what to do next, now that Troy has been sacked.

The story then tracks Aeneas as he sets off to found a new city in Italy. His journey is not exactly straightforward, though, and he gets shipwrecked in Carthage. Book 2 contains the basis for one of the most famous stories of classical mythology, that of the Trojan horse. The rest of the first half of the book traces his activities as he journeys around the Mediterranean, searching for a location to establish the remnant of Troy. This part echoes the style of The Odyssey, with an epic journey involving some fantastical creatures but not as many as in Homer’s world. The Aeneid reaches its highlight in book 6 in a scene that readers familiar with Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will be familiar with. I was not aware when I read those latter books that it was strongly influenced (some might say plagiarised) from Virgil’s work. Here, his hero descends into the underworld, crossing the river Styx to converse with the dead.

The second half of The Aeneid takes its stylisation from the Iliad. Aeneas and his Trojan warriors have now made their way to Italy but encounter fierce resistance in the form of Turnus and his armies. What follows is then an account of bloodshed. Vastly inferior to the first half of the book, there is battle after battle with gory death after gory death, but all builds up to the final encounter between Aeneas and Turnus.

Comparisons with Homer cannot be avoided. In my opinion, it is not quite as good as The Odyssey but is far better than The Iliad. The translation is excellent, as is the introduction and synopsis of this particular edition.

2 responses to “Book Review: The Aeneid by Virgil

  1. The Lattimore translation of The Iliad has been a standard for years. I liked it very well, in any case.

  2. Pingback: 2012 in books | The Alethiophile