Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV

Robert Fagles’s superb translation (the best, in my opinion).

Welcome back to the Virgil readalong.  All translations of the Aeneid are brilliant in different ways, and all are welcome to comment on their responses and interpretations. I am reading the Latin, and will occasionally guide you through a translation, or compare a translation to the original.

(Note: Our reading schedule is posted at the end of this blog entry. We have already discussed Book I here and Book II here. )

Today we’re reading Book IV, the story of the love affair of Dido and Aeneas.  It is the most famous, and perhaps the most widely-discussed book in the Aeneid.   It has inspired numerous works of literature and art, among them Dido’s letter to Aeneas in Ovid’s Heroides, Chaucer’s The Legend of Good Women, Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and Charles Martin’s modern poem, “Dido and Aeneas.” Shakespeare’s plays are rich with allusions to Book IV. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.

When I first read the Aeneid as an undergraduate and Second Wave feminist,  Dido was my favorite character.  We were modern women; we empathized with Dido.   Our male classics professors didn’t pay much attention to the female perspective.  But  certainly writers through the ages have preferred Dido to Aeneas.  Later, as a graduate student in classics, I did much research and taught a Virgil class. And I began to view the details of Book IV with different eyes.  I discerned the tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty).  I saw the perspectives of Dido, Aeneas, and perhaps Virgil.   And when I taught Latin at prep schools and in adult education classes, I tried to share these perspectives.

Some of you are reading Sarah Ruden’s translation.  It is my least favorite, but I will talk about it in a later post.

There is a historical context for Book IV.   No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:

Carthage (Dido’s city), one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War. Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Carthage was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”) was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.

But more immediate would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east. Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, more gorily, with a sword. But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and she is traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas. Aeneas’ views of duty are craven in comparison, or so we think nowadays. Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome. But Virgil may be questioning empire as Aeneas gives up all personal life in despair. (You can find evidence for both sides.)

Christopher Marlowe’s “Dido, Queen of Carthage,” performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company 2017.

Book IV portrays the  tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty). If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas (duty to his gods, country, and family)  When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation) to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared earlier to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.

But is furor or pietas more sympathetic? Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is weak (certainly pietas is not much regarded nowadays).  And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here.  His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response. But we know from Virgil that Aeneas is heartbroken.  He writes (Book IV, vv. 279-80):

The Latin is:

At vero Aeneas aspectu obmutuit amens,
arrectaeque horrore comae et vox faucibus haesit.

My literal translation:

And truly Aeneas was astounded, frenzied at the sight,
and his hair stood on end with horror, and his voice stuck to his throat.

Robert Fagles’s superb translation:

Then Aeneas
was truly overwhelmed by the vision, stunned,
his hackles bristle with fear, his voice chokes in his throat.

What does Virgil mean by this description of madness? Aeneas is as mad (amens, literally “away from his mind) as Dido, who also is described as amens (pronounced ah-mense).  Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty?  Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, now doomed, despite his eventual win?

Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic. There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ Medea and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion (little epic). In Euripides’s tragedy, Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for Jason’s deserting her for a younger women. Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power. Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path. Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.

Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:

exposition (the set-up)

agon (struggle, conflict)

catastrophe (change of fortune)

peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)

hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)

Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.

anagorisis: a discovery [hinges on surprise)

suffering occasioned by discovery

lamentation (kommos)

catharsis (for audience)

Do let me know what you think about Book IV.  There is so much to discuss.  Books have been written on it.  And what translation are you reading?  I think Robert Fagles’ translation is the richest and the best, the closest in spirit to the Latin.  But I know that others of you are reading Ferry’s and Ruden’s.  Do you like the one you are reading, whatever it may be?

SCHEDULE:

Jan. 22-28: Book IV

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

Feb. 5-11, Book VII (Book VIII optional)

Feb. 12-18, Books IX

Feb. 19-25, Books X and XI

Feb. 26-March 4, Book X

5 thoughts on “Our Winter of the Aeneid: Madness and Duty in Book IV

  1. He does construction. Dido thinks he’ll stay. She’s out of her mind He has to go. He’s out of his mind. Where’s our Latin quote?
    I cant respect A.

    • Yes, a very good point! He builds Dido’s city–not his. I do wish he’d stayed with Dido. Perhaps Virgil needed to revise more to make him sympathetic. Virgil wanted the manuscript burned when he was dying. Thank goodness it was not!

  2. I will get my Mandelbam translation out tonight and reread these comments and then reply. I have the Latin text but my Latin is very poor. Virgil has remained for me a painful jigsaw puzzle. This is like taking a wonderful course in Virgil’s Aeneid.

    Due to these blogs I wrote a blog myself about my memories of reading Latin and how Latin and Virgil functioned in my life. Although the blog claims it is about Jane Austen, and was partly prompted by a thread on Janeites, it was far more the result of my reading Dryden’s translation of Virgil. I know how far Dryden is from Virgil; nonetheless I enjoy it. “My” Virgil is Allen Mandelbaum’s text.

    Here are my musings about Latin in our culture for women from the Renaissance on and in our culture today in US schools:

    https://reveriesunderthesignofausten.wordpress.com/2018/01/21/jane-austen-closet-classicistalittlelatinlessgreekthennow/

    I seem to remember there were interesting incidents in Book 3. You could remind us of what we should know about Book 3 to understand the whole epic.

    Thank you for this project.

    • Thank you, Ellen! I love Virgil and will rush to your blog. I did read it a few days ago, but I am so tired I haven’t commented.

      All the books are important, but because it is so much work I won’t comment on all the books. I will try to put something short up on Book 3 if I have time. Another woman has also expressed interest in Book 3. Officially we ARE reading Book 3 and Book 4 this week, but I haven’t had enough commenters to knock myself out over every book.:)

      But I will look forward to your comments. So good to have you, and Mandelbaum is so good.

  3. HI, all. Linda sent me some very good comments on Book 3, and since I don’t have time to post on Book 3, I will add them here.

    Linda writes:
    I am nearly finished book 3, and what a grim scene of the wanderers
    discovering Polydorus in Thrace. Nightmare! But then as they wander
    onwards to Crete and then the Strophades I am thinking
    they are colonists, with no thought of the indigenous population, I
    know its the way of the world, and the Romans would become the best at
    empire-building, but I do always sympathise with the conquered.
    It’s not really a minor book, it gives us a sense of what Aeneas and
    his companions suffered to get to their ultimate destination, it
    should never be easy.

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