My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is the first time I returned to Virgil’s Aeneid since the late 1980s. I’d read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation in a college classics course. In high school, I’d read Homer’s Odyssey and absolutely adored it. In college, just before the Aeneid, I re-read the Odyssey and read Homer’s Iliad for the first time. I didn’t like the Iliad as much, but in recent years, and with different translations, I’ve grown to like it more. But, I detested the Aeneid. I thought it was a cheap rip-off of Homer, trying to compress both of his works into the single Aeneid, and doing a poor job of it. If Goodreads existed back then, I’d have given the book one star and moved on.
However, after much time and reengagement with Greek and Latin classical works, I decided to try the Aeneid again. This time, I chose John Conington’s mid-19th century translation. I really enjoyed his verse. In the great preface, he praises John Dryden’s translation, a copy of which I picked up for a few dollars not long ago. Conington notes that from time to time, new translations are a good idea to bring modern language in to reignite interest in a story and also to bring new insights into the text that have been learned since the last major translations (p. viii). While I was reading this edition, I kept by my side Seamus Heaney’s 2016 posthumous translation of Book VI, as well as Dryden’s 17th century version and a copy of the Aeneid in Latin. It got to be a bit unwieldy at times, but it was a lot of geeky fun!
Books I-VI are laid out a bit like the Odyssey and Books VII through XII are similar to the Iliad. For Virgil, the Odyssey is that of Aeneas, a son of a god (Venus) and a Trojan prince (Anchises). He leaves Troy after the fall, and eventually makes his way to the shores of Italy. In the second half, he works to establish what will eventually grow into Rome and the Roman Empire. As Virgil tells his story, we do learn more about the Trojan war (including how it ended) and even hear about one of Odysseus’s crew left behind after Odysseus blinded Polyphemus, the Cyclops.
Virgil’s work, on one level, is a political one. His patron was Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome. From notes I read elsewhere, the Aeneid can be read as both subversive of the new Emperor and reaffirming his place as a great leader. Virgil also works in other political issues, such as giving history to the struggle between Carthage and Rome (set in play by Aeneas sneaking away and Dido’s suicide, Book V). On a more Greek vs Roman level, I felt there were direct comparisons made between Aeneas and Homer’s Odysseus and Achilles, wherein Virgil always seems to show Aeneas in a better light.
I thought the translation was worth 5 stars, the “Odyssey” part of the Aeneid worth 4 and the “Iliad” part worth 3, so I thought I’d go with 4 stars for the experience as a whole.