Thoughts on Vergil’s Aeneid (2018), by Sean Gabb

I am presently teaching some revision courses in A Level Latin and Classical Civilisation. Part of my job is to teach my young gentlemen how to write 40-mark essays on the set texts. I spent the morning going through strategies in the abstract. I then put this together as an exemplar. It is taken from one of the past papers. The general point I made was that a plodding answer that takes the question for granted will get a high C at best. What the examiners will reward is something that shows a full knowledge of the text, but stands out from the crowd. You can do this by attacking the premise of the question. Indeed, if you read the question, you will see that this is that the examiners are asking for.

I could easily have written at greater length. However, I needed to produce an answer that could be written in the time available.

If you would like to learn Latin or Greek or both, please visit my Centre for Ancient Studies website. Otherwise, please tell your friends about it. Always competent, I am frequently an enthusiastic and even inspired teacher.

‘The role of fate in the Aeneid reduces suspense and excitement.’
To what extent would Virgil’s audience
have agreed with this opinion?
Explain your views and support them with details from
the books of the Aeneid which you have read.

Fate is the main actor in The Aeneid. Its supreme importance is stated in the opening lines. Aeneas is fato profugus – driven by Fate from Troy to the shores of Italy. It is Fate that requires him to go there and to found a new nation that will evolve into the Rome that Vergil knew. It is reminders of his fate that pull him away from the arms of Queen Dido in Book IV. Fate is the excuse he gives her in Book VI for leaving her. The promptings of Fate are a running theme throughout the poem.

The Gods themselves are less powerful than Fate. It is plain that those who are against Aeneas cannot stop him from getting to Italy. The most that Juno and her human agents can do is to delay him, or to make the pre-ordained turn out in unexpected ways.

But does this reduce the suspense and excitement of the poem? Would it have done so for the Vergil’s audience? There are two grounds of answer to these questions.

First, let us take Vergil’s audience as the several hundred senatorial aristocrats whom he knew personally. These would have taken it almost for granted that Fate ruled the world. They had at best a weak belief in the existence of the Pagan Gods, and they lacked our own scientific understanding that lets us explain the world. Fate was their default explanation. Like Tiberius, many would have relied on astrology to reveal the future workings of Fate. Excitement and suspense were not what they expected of a poet like Vergil.

Second, The Aeneid is not a detective novel that excites us and keeps us in suspense until we discover the it was the butler who killed Lord Cricklewood, and then is thrown aside. It is an epic poem. It is meant to be read and reread, and perhaps committed to memory. It is too long and complex a text to give up all its meanings on first reading. Whether he is sent by Fate or decides for himself that it might be a nice place to settle, everyone has known since 19 BC that Aeneas goes to Italy. Excitement and suspense, as we normally define them, do not come into it.

There are other excellencies that make the poem of compelling interest, and have made it an unapproachable classic for the past two thousand years.

First, there is Vergil’s technical skill and his command of language. For several hundred years, Roman poets had been trying to adapt the Greek hexameter to their own language. The earlier surviving examples – Ennius, Lucretius, Cicero, Catullus – are more than interesting experiments, but seldom match their Greek models. Vergil’s hexameters, on the other hand, are a triumphant success. Take this example, from Book VI:

o tandem magnis pelagi defuncte periclis
(sed terrae graviora manent), in regna Lavini
Dardanidae venient (mitte hanc de pectore curam)
sed non et venisse volent. bella horrida bella
et Thybrim multo spumantem sanguine cerno.

What we have here is a perfect matching of form and content. The hexameters flow with mournful grandeur. Going over the flow again and again is exciting,  though not in the sense that we normally understand.

Second, an associated excellence is the perfect matching of language and true or memorable propositions. In Book VI, we have the long passage that begins

hinc via Tartarei quae fert Acherontis ad undas

And ends

multa putans sortemque animo miseratus iniquam

It is hard to think of any statement more terrifying or sad on the futility of our individual existence.

Or there is the burst of eloquence later in that Book that culminates in the statement of Rome’s mission in the world as

parcere subiectis et debellare superbos

Or there is the long roll call of the as yet unborn – but predetermined – line of heroes that Aeneas will beget to bring about the universal Empire of Rome.

From the point of view given above, the question is irrelevant. If The Aeneid lacks the excitement and suspense of a detective novel, this is because it was never intended to have them. It is a poem that defines what it was to be Roman, and it is an enduring classic of the Western mind. This is not to say that those senatorial aristocrats who first read it had no interest in excitement and suspense. But rather than look for these in an epic poem, they would have gone to the chariot races, or the gladiatorial combats, or a public execution. Mutatis Mutandis, it has been the same for everyone else.

© 2018, seangabb.

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