Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Aeneid part III- The End of an Era

Aeneid II.3-17

infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai, quaeque ipse miserrima vidi
et quorum pars magna fui. quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,

quamquam animus meminisse horret luctuque refugit,
incipiam. fracti bello fatisque repulsi
ductores Danaum tot iam labentibus annis
instar montis equum divina Palladis arte
aedificant, sectaque intexunt abiete costas;
votum pro reditu simulant; ea fama vagatur.
“Unspeakable, O Queen, is the grief you order me to renew, how the Greeks destroyed the wealth of Troy and that mournful kingdom- I myself saw these most wretched things, and was a large part of them. Which soldier of the Myrmidons or the Dolopians or of cruel Ulysses would refrain from tears in the telling of such things? And now the dewy night rushes from the sky, and the falling stars urge sleep. But if you have such a great desire to learn of our misfortunes, and to hear briefly of the final suffering of Troy- although my mind shudders and recoils from the grief- I shall begin. Broken by war, and driven back by the fates, the leaders of the Greeks, with so many years now slipping away, build with the divine skill of Minerva, a horse the size of a mountain, and weave its ribs from planks of fir-wood; they pretend it is an offering to the gods for their safe return; this is the rumour which spreads.”

Having been shipwrecked on the coast of Africa, Aeneas and his men end up in Carthage, where Queen Dido welcomes them kindly. She has heard of the fame and sufferings of the Trojans and over a lavish banquet held in their honour (during which she begins to fall for Aeneas) she asks him to tell the story of the treachery of the Greeks, the sufferings of his people, and his own journey since leaving Troy. Aeneas obliges, and books II and III of the Aeneid are Aeneas’ recounting of the fall of Troy (book II) and his wanderings around the Mediterranean in search of a new homeland for his people (book III).

Aeneas’ narration of the destruction of Troy is an emotionally intense tale, full of pathos and drawing from elements of Greek tragedy. But it is more than that. As we have seen before, the progression from Troy to Rome is an important theme for Virgil, especially in the character of Aeneas. Aeneas’ journey from Troy can be seen as his journey away from the old model of heroism, towards a new and better ideal, characterised by pietas. Thus the city of Troy itself stands for the out-dated values of the heroic age, and its destruction is an important moment; the passing of the old is necessary so that something greater- Rome- may arise. Significantly the destruction of Troy in the second book of the first half of Virgil’s poem is balanced by Aeneas' visit to the future site of Rome in the second book of the second half of the poem (book VIII). Where book II laments the passing of the old world, book VIII celebrates the coming of the new.

In book III, on his journey round the Mediterranean, Aeneas meets Helenus, a son of Priam and survivor of the destruction of Troy, who does not seem to understand this principle. Helenus is living in the past, and has tried to recreate the city of Troy with “a citadel modelled on great Pergamum and a dried up river they called the Xanthus”. Helenus does not seem to understand that the destruction of Troy is in fact its judgement too. For Virgil, Troy was destroyed not simply because the Greeks were too clever, but because its time had passed and something new was necessary. Aeneas' task is not to resurrect a new Troy in Italy (as Helenus has tried to do) but to establish a new city, based on new ideals. As Juno says in book XII “Troy has fallen. Let it lie…

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