Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2019-20: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time
2019

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2020

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Unit VI: Augustan Rome 44 B.C to A.D. 14

Week 17: P. Vergilius Maro, ca. 70 - 19 B.C.

Vergil surrounded by the muses of history and tragedy
An ancient mosaic depicting Vergil with a passage of his poetry, surrounded by the Muses of History and Tragedy. Image courtesy VRoma

By class this week, please have read:

Vergil’s books are somewhat longer than Homer’s, but there are fewer of them, so there is less reading overall. Please get to it early in the week, however: it is denser than Homer’s writing — if you put it off to the last minute, you may find it overwhelming. Even in an easy-to-read prose version, this is a fair chunk: it represents about 4500 lines of poetry.

As you read Vergil, please remember that your translation is a prose translation of Latin poetry. There are certain things about Vergil that will fall through the cracks if you cannot read him in the original Latin. Those who are diligent in Latin may be able to have a shot at Vergil’s magnificent Latin verse — it’s an eye-opener. I chose this translation because even a poetic translation cannot capture what makes Vergil really click, but it will inevitably be a lot harder to read. But it’s always a tradeoff.

Portrait bust of Augustus
A portrait bust of Vergil’s indirect patron
C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (later called Augustus).
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Photograph © Copyright 2000, Bruce McMenomy

Please bear in mind when Vergil is writing. He is writing very shortly after the end of the Roman republic, which may be thought as having come to an end with the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. After that, his nephew and heir Octavian became more or less undisputed master of the Roman world, and — despite his protestations of putting everything back the way it had been — changed the form of government in the Roman world forever. He received the title “Augustus” from the senate, and was still ruling, some years after Vergil’s death, when Jesus was born.

Renaissance-era depiction of the fall of Troy.
Maître de L’Énéide, Limoges, ca. 1530 (enamel on copper).
The Fall of Troy. Paris, Musée du Louvre.
Photograph, © Copyright 2010, Bruce McMenomy.

This may help put it into context you already know. It should also help you remember that this was a very long time after Homer and some of the other things we have read in this course so far. It is perhaps 800 years since Homer; 400 years since the tragedy we have studied was written in the fifth century B.C. at Athens. Vergil is responding to Homer, in a sense — but at a distance.

What he is looking at is what makes a hero, and how duty and honor are to be related to one another. Many have read the Aeneid as primarily a propaganda tract for Augtustus, and there may be some truth to that (though I will in class suggest some different approaches). Still, there are some significant questions that emerge from the comparisons between Aeneas and Achilles.

Particularly consider for our discussion this week:

  1. What is the hero’s motivation here? Is it like that of Achilles? Odysseus? Is it in line with what you know of Roman norms?
  2. Why is Vergil concerned with this? What set of cultural norms does Vergil’s work address?
  3. Is there anything in this poem that might lead you to believe that Vergil is not a gung-ho supporter of the Augustan regime?
  4. Do you recognize any techniques you have encountered before? Specifically, does Vergil use:
    • ecphrasis?
    • epithets?
    • formulaic composition?
    • extended metaphors?

We’ll address these and other issues in class. Enjoy the book — it brings together some of the great themes and methods of the classical literary tradition, and is widely regarded as the single greatest literary product of the Roman world.