Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Virgil, The Aeneid, Books VII-XII

The Aeneid, by Virgil. A New Prose Translation, by David West (Originally composed approximately 29-19 BCE). Penguin Classics Edition (1991). 332 pages, excluding appendices. Bought for $1.00, Half Price Books.
As a whole, The Aeneid has been one of my favorite readings so far. Such fantastic narrative, such emotion and heroic descriptions of men and women "the earth [does not] now produce" on every page!

But what did the ending mean? There is so much build up, and then things abruptly end when Aeneas brutally kills Turnus. Turnus is pleading to Aeneas, and it seems that Aeneas would show mercy -- perhaps this would've shown a compassionate side to this supposed ancestor of Augustus -- but after some quick rethinking, Aeneas impales and kills Turnus; and then it's over. Some 10 years of writing, just like that. What does it mean?

On one hand, Aeneas has acted exactly as he had done until then -- fulfilling his duty (justice for Pallas). On the other hand, it seems that Aeneas has 'carried his hatred further': this is not like that fight between Hector and Achilles, Virgil seems to imply, when Priam begs for Hector's body and Achilles is finally moved.

The full ending:

...Aeneas came swiftly on leading his dark army over the open plain. Just as when a cloud blots out the sun and begins to move from mid-ocean towards the land; long-suffering farmers see it in the far distance and shudder to the heart, knowing what it will bring, the ruin of trees, the slaughter of their crops and destruction everywhere; the flying winds come first, and their sound is first to reach the shore -- just so the Trojan leader from Rhoeteum drove his army forward against the enemy in wedge formation, each man shoulder to shoulder with his neighbor... The shouting rose to the sky and now it was the Rutulians who turned and fled over the hills, raising the dust on their backs. Aeneas did not think fit to cut down men who had turned away from him, nor did he go after those who stood to meet him in equal combat or carried spears. He was looking for Turnus, and only Turnus, tracking him through the thick murk. Turnus was the only man he asked to fight...

...He lowered his eyes and stretched out his right hand as a suppliant. 'I have brought this upon myself,' he said, 'and for myself I ask nothing. Make use of what Fortune has given you, but if any thought of my unhappy father can touch you, I beg of you... take pity on the old age of Daunus, and give me back to my people, or if you prefer it, give them back my dead body. You have defeated me, and the men of Ausonia have seen me defeated and stretching out my hands to you. Lavinia is yours. Do not carry your hatred any further.'

There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal baldric of the boy Pallas high on Turnus' shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had defeated and wounded him and then killed him, an now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on the sight of this spoil, this reminder of his own wild grief, then, burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried: 'Are you to escape me now, wearing the spoils stripped from the body of those I loved? By this would which I now give, it is Pallas who makes sacrifice of you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood.' Blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy's breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades.'

I'm reading a book titled, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, and in it the authors bring up an interesting point about how the ancients felt meaning because they attribute all their actions - both successes and failures - to the gods: an external agency (and they go on to talk about the problems created when there is a vacuum of this agency, as in the modern secular world). To an extent, this applies to even the Roman Aeneas. In fact, there was so much external agency in Aeneas's life that he barely had a choice in anything he did ; there were merely things that he should do. His life was like a succession of forked roads where, at each fork, there isn't any real decision necessary; the signs are already there. It was not like that more modern conception where he is on a boat in the middle of a foggy lake, with a whole range of possible paths and consequences before him -- paths to be discovered and dealt with, and improvised to, by himself. He had to leave Dido and continue to found a new city. He had to find the golden bough to pass safely though the underworld. He had to find his father. He had to wage war against Turnus. And he had to avenge Pallas, in the end, and kill Turnus.

And so, Aeneas was actually not a self-made hero, as we would like to see our characters be; he is a pre-made vessel of the gods' wills. And perhaps the ending is both a justification and condemnation of the Roman Empire at the same time: they are both blessed and brutal, and they cannot help it.

Anyway, I am moved by this world where everything has its place, where the gods are alive and everywhere, and the events of life connect so intimately with Their unfathomable wills.

It is you who are favoured of the Fates for your years and your descent. You are the man the gods are asking for. Go then, O bravest leader of all the men of Troy and Italy...

...the goddess
Venus, bringing her gifts, was at hand, shining among the clouds of heaven... 'Here now are the gifts I promised you, perfected by my husband's skill. When the time comes you need not hesitate, my son, to face the proud Laurentines or challenge fierce Turnus to battle...'

Aeneas rejoiced at these gifts from the goddess... He turned them over in his hands, in his arms, admiring the terrible, crested, fire-spurting helmet, the death-dealing sword... the spear and the fabric of the shield beyond all words to describe. There the God of Fire, with his knowledge of the prophets and of time that was to be, had laid out the story of Italy and the triumph of the Romans, and there in order were all the generations that would spring from Ascanius and all the wars they would fight.

He had made, too, a mother wolf stretched out in the green cave of Mars with twin boys playing round her udders, hanging there unafraid and sucking at her as she bend her supple neck back to lick each of the them in turn and mould their bodies into shape with her tongue.

...In the middle were the bronze-armoured fleets a the battle of Actium. There before your eyes the battle was drawn up with the whole of the headland of Leucas seething and all the waves gleaming in gold. On one side was Augustus Caesar, leading the men of Italy into battle alongside the Senate and the People of Rome, its gods of home and its great gods. High he stood on the poop of his ship while from his radiant forehead there streamed a double flame and his father's star shone above his head...

Such were the scenes spread over the shield that Vulcan made and Venus gave to her son. Marvelling at it, and rejoicing at the things pictured on it without knowing what they were, Aeneas lifted on his shoulder the fame and the fate of his descendents.


Book VIII