Monday, September 25, 2006

Aeneid part I- A New Kind of Epic

My year 11 class are doing an introduction to the Aeneid at the moment. We'll be translating ten short passages from the Aeneid, and looking at what they tell us about its story and themes. As we go through each passage I'll post it here, along with a translation and a short discussion of what makes it an important passage. Here's the first instalment.

Aeneid I.1-7

arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae.

I sing of battles, and of the man who first came from the shores of Troy, an exile of fate, to Italy and the shores of Lavinia, greatly harassed on land and sea by the power of the gods, for the sake of the unforgetting anger of Juno; many things he suffered too in war, before he could at last establish a city, and bring his gods to Latium, from whence comes the Latin race, the Alban fathers and the walls of lofty Rome.

Virgil’s Aeneid is essentially the story of a man (virum)- Aeneas, a Trojan prince who leads a band of survivors from the ruined city of Troy to a new homeland in Italy. This was a story that was well known to the Romans and had been told before by the Roman poets Naevius and Ennius. The story of the Trojan War had of course also been told by Homer from the Greek perspective in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In fact, Virgil in his first two words deliberately refers to Homer’s poems. Broadly speaking the Iliad is a poem about battle, and the Odyssey about a man- Odysseus. In fact the first word of the Odyssey is 'ανερ' (aner, man), echoed in sound by arma, and in meaning by virum. Virgil’s point is that his poem is in the same tradition of epic poetry as Homer, dealing with the same themes (wars, gods, heroes). Indeed much of the material in the Aeneid is based on Homer’s poetry, and the Aeneid is often broken into two halves; the story of Aeneas' journey in books I-VI (Virgil’s Odyssey) and the story of the battles he must fight when he reaches Italy in books VII-XII (Virgil’s Iliad). But in this passage Virgil also introduces a new element, something that sets his poem apart from those of Homer: Romae- left til the end of the sentence for emphasis and dramatic effect. Virgil’s poem is not only the story of war and heroes, it is also about Roman identity, morality and destiny. The Aeneid is in a sense Roman propaganda- written in a time when Rome was just emerging from decades of civil war it is a reflection on what made Rome great, and a vision of what Virgil hopes she (and her ruler, Augustus) may become.


Matthaeus said...

Too busy with my Lucretius and Cicero to start this one at the moment, but I have to say that reading these verses is a pure joy. :-)

Anonymous said...

Aha! This way...I know what's going on in class...vaguely. Not that that means anything...considering I don't actually DO Latin. I think I'll try and do it in uni...