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.
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.
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.)
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:
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
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?
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