Our Winter of the Aeneid: Self-Narration & Serpents in Book 2

Detail from “The Procession of the Trojan Horse in Troy” by Domenico Tiepolo (1773)

Welcome back to the readalong of Virgil’s Aeneid.   Since it’s a holiday weekend, I’ll write briefly about Book 2 today and try to get to 3 later this week.  (The schedule is printed at the bottom of this post: Book 3 is “optional”in our readalong.)


At the end of Book I, Dido urged Aeneas to tell the story of the fall of Troy.   And, by the way, the heroine Dido is based on Cleopatra, the powerful Egyptian queen.  More about this later.

In Book 2, Aeneas relates the story of the fall from his personal point-of-view.  And it is the poignancy of  his “self-narration” that makes Book 2 unique.   Homeric heroes like Odysseus may express pain and grief in order to manipulate others’ emotions, but Aeneas is a “counter-epical hero” who reveals his very real desolation, doubts, loss, and regrets.

And yet Aeneas is the cultured hero of a lost Trojan civilization, and the story is shaped for reception at a banquet.   Of course he is  trying to win her compassion.

Here is the first line of Aeneas’s speech, in Latin and three translations.

The Latin:

Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem

Allan Mandelbaum’s translation:

“O Queen—too terrible for tongues the pain/you ask me to renew”-

Robert Fagles’ translation:

“….Sorrow, unspeakable sorrow,/ my queen, you ask me to bring to life once more”

My literal translation:  “Queen, you bid me to renew pain.”

The arrangement of the Latin words is very  clever, and not quite translatable:  I have color-coded two Latin words  in blue, infandum (unspeakable, unutterable, shocking), the first word in the line, and dolorem (pain), the last word in the line. These two words belong together:   Infandum… dolorem (unspeakable pain). The arrangement emphasizes the unspeakable pain that surrounds  Aeneas and Dido:  the queen (regina), the command/question (iubet) and the renewal (renovare) are encircled by the phrase “unspeakable pain.”

Laocoon and his sons.

And then Aeneas tells the story of the fall of Troy. The great Bernard Knox, in his essay, “The Serpent and the Flame:  The Imagery of the Second Book of the Aeneid,”  analyzes the imagery  that dominates Book 2.  The priest Laocoon, who  says the famous words, “Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis” (“I fear Greeks even bearing gifts”), warns the Trojans not to bring the strange gigantic wooden horse left by the Greeks  into the city. Then two huge serpents glide across the sea from Tenedos, and stangle Laocoon and his two sons.

And a Greek trickster, Sinon, whose name means “destruction,” claims the Greeks have sailed away due to an oracle and built the Trojan horse to appease the gods.  He  insinuates himself in their midst.  His name recalls the Latin words sinuo (wind, curve) and sinus (fold, curve).  The words serpentes (serpents, snakes) and serpere (creeps) recur.  A new fear insinuat (winds) into their hearts after Laocoon and his sons died, but they take the horse into Troy anyway. The flames also take on snakey shapes.  At one point they are described as serpentes (winding).


I do feel Aeneas’s unspeakable pain (infandum dolorem)  as  I read Book 2. I am especially moved by the loss of his wife Creusa. Do let me know what interests you in Book 2:  particular scenes, poetic details, any effects characters.  There are many, many interpretations of this poem, so all comments are welcome.

N.B. I promised to write about Sarah Ruden’s translation today, but, alas, I have misplaced the book.  I organized my classics books–all except this one apparently.


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.

14 thoughts on “Our Winter of the Aeneid: Self-Narration & Serpents in Book 2

  1. I missed the blog on Book 1. Dido became a central figure for women to identify with and write about themselves from medieval times on. Not before, which is telling.

    One day when Jim came home from work, he so tired and weary and I asked him what had happened at work and he said: Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem.

    He really did. He was half-wry in tone – he spent much of his years at public school doing Latin, and I still have his old interlineal copy of the Aeneid. You have a line of the Aeneid and under it a line of its Latin rearranged to resemble English. And under that a line in English translating that re-arrangement. When Laura took Latin, and in her second year her class read a simplified Books 2 & 4 & 6, and so she took the book to high school with her, and became instantly enormously popular. She never let it out of her sight. If someone wanted to copy things out, they had to sit next to her and leave the book within her hand’s reach.

    Its magnificent poetry. She too knows unspeakable pain. I like the scene with her sister. I know it’s not the first scene between women in the ancient classics, but it’s one of the deeply moving ones.


    • Yes, Dido is the one we identify with. It has taken me years to understand Aeneas. They are parallel: both refugees. In Book IV Dido is Cleopatra and Aeneas is Antony.

      There were five or six people who participated in the discussion of Book 1, so perhaps they’ll show up eventually.


  2. I’m the newb reading the Ferry translation, so I’ll toss in his take on the phrase you both noted:

    Unspeakable is the story of woe I must,
    By your command, bring back by telling it…

    More wordy, eh?

    I am finding the Aeneid absolutely beautiful; the language so lush and transporting! An easy example: the two huge serpents racing to Troy:

    We can hear, as they come, the sound of the foaming water
    Their bodies displace; we see how with bloodshot fiery
    Eyes, they gaze at the shores as they approach,
    Licking their hissing mouths with their quivering tongues.
    The blood drains from our faces at the sight,
    As we shrink back.

    Terrifying! And the pages devoted to the burning of Troy describe the horrific experiences of every person who has had to flee their burning city or village with the enemy closing in. It got me to thinking that vast numbers of the human family from the beginnings of our species have probably lived with PTSD, so that our genetic codes must be awash with it.

    Now for a mundane question: Why do you omit certain books to create a short version?


    • Ellen, the Ferry is absolutely beautiful! Thank you for quoting from it. In a way I like the wordy translation, because the Latin words have so many meanings that it is hard to express them in English.

      Perhaps it takes four English words for one Latin word if we want to capture the spirit? Something like that. And do keep quoting him, because I gave my copy to a friend.

      You are absolutely right. The Trojans have PTSD. Ongoing! I think this is a brilliant record of what war does. I’d never thought of our genetic codes, but you are absolutely right.

      The short version? Well, my idea was that more people would participate if they didn’t have read the whole Aeneid, but obviously it doesn’t matter since it is such a small group. So do read as much as you want. I look forward to the last 6 books, because they also look at war from the perspective of the shocked Trojans, who have to fight a civil war to stay in Italy. Plus we see the point of view of the Italian women: they do not want outsiders! Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a novel, Lavinia, about the princess Aeneas is fated to marry.

      Thank you so much for your lovely comments!


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

  4. I’m still running a bit late, sorry. I love book 2, it makes me cry every time. Aeneas’s story reminds me of Odysseus telling part of his story at the court of Alcinous, but there it is the bard Demodocus who first tells the story of the fall of Troy, from the victorious side of course. So there are parallels,with Dido and Nausicca who are both heartbroken, Dido and Alcinous who both invite the story telling,this is Virgil drawing on the Odyssey, the return home, with Odysseus wanting to return to Ithica but being hindered by the gods, and Aeneas wanting to stop travelling but being pushed onward also by the gods.
    Reading on about the destruction of Troy and the death of Priam, the Greek heroes of the Iliad are not heroes here. Pyrrhus gets plenty of snake allusions too and Helen is not the beauty who ran off with Paris here, but “skulking,a thing of loathing cowering” (Fagles, L711), this is the story from the side of the losers. It’s a relief when Creusa’s ghost tells him he must go, and here he shows the pietas expected of him and leads the survivors away,carrying his father, son and the household gods.
    I’ll read bk 3 tomorrow, it’s 9.30 pm here, getting late


    • Linda, you are so right about the parallels between the Odyseey and the Aeneid. Virgil deliberately does this, making Homer whom all Romans read and studied in school, a Roman homage. The snake and flame imagery goes through the book. So brilliant! So sad! I’m always a bit miffed that Creusa dies, but she is needed to tell him to go on.

      I’ll try to put up a few paragraphs about Book 3. I’m pooped, as you can imagine!


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