Our Winter of the Aeneid: Aeneas as Modern Hero & Temple Art

Robert Fagles’ translation

Welcome to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid. I will post about this gorgeous epic poem once a week, and do hope that you will comment and share your own reactions.  There is no single interpretation, and every reading or rereading is different.  Whether you read a translation or the Latin, you will travel to the same place.  All the translations are excellent.  From time to time I will say a few words about the Latin.

This week we are discussing Book I.  The schedule is at the bottom of this post.

Today I wrote briefly about Aeneas as a modern hero, and the paintings at Juno’s temple.


If you have to be a hero, why complain about it?

That is how I responded to Virgil’s Aeneid the first time I read it as a very young woman.

Virgil’s complex characterization of Aeneas as a depressed, reluctant, tragic leader was innovative in epic.  Based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, poems inspired by the Trojan War, the Aeneid has a different Roman slant on the heroic life.  Aeneas is a stretched to his limits by war and exile.  He does not have the perfect confidence of Homer’s heroes, nor the luxury to sulk in his tent, as Achilles did in the Iliad.   Fated to ensure the survival of the Trojan people, Aeneas must sacrifice his personal life to lead the refugees of the Trojan War to Italy, where they will found Rome. Virgil describes him as fessus (tired).   And Aeneas can’t give the job to someone else.

You must understand the Roman concept of pietas to appreciate the AeneidPietas is not quite the same as piousness: it  means duty to the gods, one’s country, and one’s family.  Aeneas is repeatedly called pius Aeneas: such epithets are characteristic of epic, but this one reminds us of why Aeneas does what he must do.

As Virgil explores the conflict between the longings of the personal man and the stoicism of the public figure, he creates a new kind of poem.  Our culture has no comparable concept to pietas, and we have no epic like the Aeneid.

We first meet Aeneas in a shipwreck, when he is very much the personal man, wishing himself dead. He says (and I have given both the Latin and the English):

The Latin:

…’O terque quaterque beati,
quis ante ora patrum Troiae sub moenibus altis
contigit oppetere!

A literal English translation:

“O three and four times blessed, those who happened to meet death before the altars of their fathers under the high walls of Troy!”

Aeneas is tired.  The Trojans are tired.  The ships are described as tired.

But when Aeneas  and only seven of his 20 ships reach the shores of Libya, he must be strong and says (Fagles’s translation):  “My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now, we have all weathered worse.”

And he delivers one of the most famous lines in the poem:

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.

“Perhaps one day it will be a joy even to remember these things.”

He has lost his wife, friends, and many relatives in the war.  Does he believe what he says?  He knows how to say it.

And doesn’t this remind us all of sadness and disasters we have overcome?

And now on to


David Ferry’s translation

One of the most fascinating features of epic is ecphrasis, a term used to describe the meaning of works of art. When Aeneas stumbles upon a temple to Juno (a goddess who hates him, by the way), he has strong reactions to the paintings on the walls. The paintings depict episodes in the Trojan War. Even he is depicted in one of them, in combat with the Greeks. And so he believes Queen Dido, who is building the city of Carthage, will be friendly to him and his followers.

But what do the pictures really mean? Virgil tells us that Aeneas” feeds his spirit” and cries over pictura inani, which means an “empty picture,” an “idle picture,” or a “worthless picture.”

But Aeneas is so moved by the lasting fame of the Trojan heroes in art that he says the following (another famous line):

Here is the Latin:

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.

Literally it means, “These are the tears of things and human woes touch the mind.”

The poet Robert Fagles translates it:

even here, the world is a world of tears and
the burdens of mortality touch the heart.

And Robert Fitgerald translates it: “…they weep here
for how the world goes, and our life that passes
Touches their hearts.”

Many critics question Aeneas’s interpretation that the paintings  show sympathy for the Trojans. Both Greeks and Trojans are portrayed:  often the Trojans are routed by the Greeks.  And the frieze is at the temple of Juno, who  favors the Greeks,.

I  do not have a firm grasp on this: in other words, sometimes it means one thing to me, sometimes another. Dido and Aeneas become friends, which supports Aeneas’s theory, but Juno and Venus (Aeneas’ mother) did some ground work to make this happen.

It’s complicated!

Let me know what interests you about Book I. There is so much here.


Jan. 8-14:  Book I

Jan. 15-21:  Books II and III (the “short version” is Book II)

Jan. 22-28:  Book IV

Jan. 29-Feb. 4:  Books V and VI (the “short version” is Book VI)

The schedule for February, including the “short version,”  will be announced later.

20 thoughts on “Our Winter of the Aeneid: Aeneas as Modern Hero & Temple Art

  1. The poem is indeed beautiful; this is my first time reading it. (Aged 64!) I have a minor comment that may be too insignificant for further comment. When we first see Aeneas and his men washed up on shore, Virgil describes Achates building a fire, detailing the steps that anyone hearing or reading the poem in 19 BCE certainly thoroughly knew. (“Striking flints together to get a spark to make a flame of leaves,” etc.) I wonder why the detail here? About 20 lines later, he could have described the precise steps Aeneas took to take an arrow from the quiver, nock it, draw the bow, aim, and release it, in order to shoot the stags, but he instead simply says he brought them down. The detail jumped out to me.


    • That is a fascinating observation: it can be an advantage to read the Aeneid as a mature reader! I love the details in these two short scenes, and in Homer’s epics, too, heroes are forever starting fire, forever hunting, in their wanderings. They are set pieces. A I consulted R.D. Williams’s commentary on the Latin text, and pretty much struck out. He writes, “The episode of the shooting of the stags is based on Odyssey 10.158 ff. …where Odysseus shoots a stag and takes it back to his comrades in the ship. The passage is presented in accordance with the heroic tradition, but is not one of Virgil’s most successful adaptations of Homer.” (Well, I like it better than Homer’s!)

      I’m not sure this helps too much. But thank you for bringing this up, because the details do matter so much.


      • O snap. Thanks for the reminder about the structural mirroring that goes on between V. and Homer (and Dante!). I think that bears some comment at some point further down the line – maybe Book VI?


        • You are absolutely right. Throughout the poem Virgil alludes to Homer, and reworks whole episodes, from a Roman viewpoint. In Book VI it is especially apparent. And Dante, whom I should really get back to, and who uses Virgil as a guide.


    • Hey Ms Ellen,

      I think V. is being deliberate in his choice of details and of when to offer detail and when not. I bet we see “flint” again.

      I have a holiday tradition of re-reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” each year in the week between Christmas and New Year’s. While we don’t really know squat about the “Gawain” poet or “Pearl” poet as he is called we can tell from his work that he is in many ways an heir or the heroic tradition – and his poem explicitly roots itself in Rome and the Trojan diaspora.

      Flint shows up several times in “Sir Gawain” – usually horses and striking sparks from cobblestones with their horseshoes as they bear someone quickly and honorably out to meet some fate or foe. Then there is the battle thing where weapons clash and strike sparks from each other like steel on flint. An finally, there are the wilderness scenes where we see some poor pilgrim trying to build a fire in darkness, snow and/or rain. The image is one of the knight striking the flint to “release the fire” hidden inside the stone.

      With all this recently in mind I read V.’s mention of A. and flint as a sign that A. would be struck repeatedly with short sharp blows that would reveal his character, his “fire hidden within”.

      But maybe I’m reading too much into this.

      Shall we keep an eye and ear out for flint as we go along and see if and when and to what purpose it shows up – if at all?


      – Dawg


      • An excellent interpretation of flint! Fire is so important, and I do like your idea that it will reveal the fire within. In epic they are constantly starting over again, searching for food, building fires, going on journeys. Fascinating about the use of this metaphor in “Sir Gawain.”


  2. I’ve got Mandelbaum’s translation from college. A isn’t heroic but I love Dido. She’s like Myrna Loy! or barb Stanwyck. Cool and gracious.
    The critics are full of s___t. The pictures show sympathy. Glad you’re not pushing critics on us.


    • Jen, I would never push criticism on you! I’m inclined to think you’re right. Aeneas and Dido are instantly sympathetic. I would love to cast Dido and Aeneas for movies. I’m thinking Ryan Gosling for Aeneas, Carey Mulligan for Dido.

      Mandelbaum won an award for his translation and it is very good.


  3. I am enjoying this. We read snippets in high school Latin class. I thought there were only six books! I’m fascinated by the mythology, but don’t remember some of these gods. I do love Juno and Venus. What witches! Thank you for this.


    • It is such an entertaining classic, and I agree that Juno and Venus are witches. With them on your side, who needs enemies? I am glad you’re enjoying it.


  4. Hi Kat, I always enjoy your posts. Have you read the 2009 translation by Sarah Ruden? I have not read it, but found interesting the recent discussions of how a woman (Emily Wilson) had finally translated the Odyssey and how her translation differed from those done by men. I wonder how Ruden’s differs from Fagles’s or Mandelbaum’s?


    • I got a copy of Sarah Ruden’s translation recently, and am very impressed. I can’t imagine why Emily Wilson got the attention but Sarah Ruden didn’t. Is it the difference between Virgil, who is always underestimated, and Homer, who is better known these days? Or is it the difference between connections in publishing? I will never know. Ruden is very economical with language, as is Virgil, and does something no one else manages to do: she manages to match her translation almost exactly with the Latin lines. Usually one Latin line takes two, or four, or more lines in English translation. The languages are just so different. I will quote from her translation next week and try to clarify this.


      • Dear Bill and Kat,

        By chance I am reading the Ruden translation for this project and I am loving it. I bought it when it came out a few years ago but it has just sat on my shelf until all the recent talk about Ms Wilson and then this read-along (And thanks again for hosting this. It’s my first day and I am already having so much freaking fun.) caused me to pull it down.

        What I hadn’t realized about Ruden’s A. before starting to read last night was her commitment to using the same number of lines as V. (which is not the same thing as a line-to-line correspondence so be careful there) – which is the defining characteristic of Wilson’s translation of H. that is getting such acclaim. (Asked for it for Christmas; didn’t get it.)

        This commitment to V.’s lineation forces a concision on Ruden that gives a power and propulsion to her poetry. (I’m reminded of what I once heard a conductor say about the pace of a Bach concerto – not fast and not slow but proceeding…) And she is a poet.

        Her solution to the concision challenge is the use of compact poetic language that resonates in the ear and the mind to slowly expand upon reflection and over time. Ruden compares her technique to one of those foam pellets that when dropped in a glass of water expand into much larger figures.

        I am sorry that I don’t know Latin and can’t quote the original and therefore cannot really make a meaningful comparison. Also, I am just getting started – A. has just landed in Libya. But for right now my favorite example of one of Ruden’s poetic foam pellets is in her description of just why Juno hates A. so damn much.

        In his opening lines V. asks the muse to explain just why it is that June has it in for A. V. even goes so far as to ask: “Can divine hearts know such anger?” In answer, about line 36, V. writes: “But Juno with her deep, unhealing heart-wound…”

        “Deep, unhealing heart-wound”. Now that’s an image I will sit with for awhile. I makes me wonder how many of us – including myself – do the things we do because we have a “deep, unhealing heart-wound”?


        – Dawg


        • I so much appreciate your writing about Ruden’s translation. I do read the Latin–I have taught Virgil many times, first as a T.A., then as a high school teacher, and most recently as an adult ed teacher–but I confess the last time I read a translation of the Aeneid was the Fagles for a class I taught. Now I am reading other translations as well as Latin, because of this “project,” and because they are fascinating.
          I only got the Ruden translation recently. I love the lines you quote: she is a poet, and tries to do capture the Latin. I have only dipped into it so far, and now will race ahead.
          Like you, I was fascinated by the attention the Emily Wilson translation of the Odyssey got. And I did remember that Ruden had translated the Aeneid, and wondered why she had not been profiled in the New York Times magazine, too.
          I plan to read Book II in Ruden’s translation (along with the Latin). The quotes are beautiful. And, yes, thank you for correcting me about the line corresponce. What is amazing is that she can match the number of lines. For instance, the Latin text of Book I has 756 lines; Fagle’s Book I is 908 lines.


  5. Two other comments on first impressions after getting half way through Book I.

    I think I begin to see what folks are getting at about A. as modern hero. there is this crack between A.’s public and private self that must be painful and hard to maintain. I suspect we will see more of this.

    In Ruden’s translation:
    “Sick with colossal burdens, he shammed hope
    On his face and buried grief deep in his heart.”
    (lines 208-9)

    And then a few lines later at the end of that section:
    “Loyal Aeneas, most of all, was groaning
    Softly for keen Orontes, Amycus, Lycus,
    For Gyas and Cloanthus – brave men, hard deaths.”
    (lines 221-3)

    Which leads me to point/question #2. It’s been a long times since I’ve read the A., The last time was when Fagles’s translation came out. But this litany of woe begins to stir my memory that V. kills off a lot of folks that H. allowed to survive the Trojan War itself. I remember getting pretty pissed off about some of the people – heroes – that V. kills. He’s kind of ruthless in an R.K. Rowling kind of way. I’m wondering if any of you all are familiar enough with these characters from H. to have thoughts about V. appropriating and then murdering H.’s heroes?

    OK, off to finish Book I.


    – Dawg


  6. Yes, Aeneas is tragic. His countrymen are dead, and he is compelled to lead. In the second line of Book !, Virgil calls him “fato profugus,”a fugitive by fate. His doubts and unhappiness are revealed in a way that is very modern, unlike the simpler psychology of Homer’s heroes. Odysseus just gets on with it but Aeneas is a real person, with emotions and regrets.

    The war scenes are problematic for many. After Book VI, when Aeneas visits the Underworld, he finally accepts his fate a leader. The war in Italy is not his choice: he seeks peace and is offered the hand of a king’s daughter, Lavinia, in marriage. A civil war breaks out over the question of who will marry her. Many of the scenes are mirrored in the Iliad; many young men are killed, and Aeneas finally goes berserk over the brutal killing of a young man entrusted to his care. But the loss of control, the final rage, may mean more than it seems. Is Virgil’s tribute to Rome uncritical? Or does he question the Pax Romana and the consequences of so much war?

    I so much appreciate your brilliant comments and am so grateful you joined the discussion.


  7. Hi from the other side of the world. I’m running a bit behind, we are having the hottest summer I can remember, too hot even to read. I am halfway through book one, and am completely carried away. I felt like I was on one of those ships in the storm. The gods are the same as in the Iliad, controlling things for their own ends, both funny and tragic. I have just landed on the shores of North Africa. I promise to catch up today, Linda


    • Oh, Linda, I’m thrilled that you’re enjoying it. I, too, always get carried away. The gods are great characters, so out of control. And I do love the parts in Carthage: Dido is building the city Aeneas wants.


  8. Pingback: Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV – mirabile dictu

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