Published after Virgil’s death in 19 BCE, the Aeneid is a poem of paradox: a foundation epic which never directly describes the foundation of Rome; a divinely inspired song in the mould of the Iliad and Odyssey that is self-consciously, densely literate; a paean to empire and a lament for empire’s victims. Said to have been commissioned by the emperor Augustus (although it’s debatable quite what that ‘commission’ entailed), the poem was written in the aftermath of a series of devastating civil wars. It represents a reaction to – and, perhaps, an attempt to shape – the newly emergent political structures of rule by emperor, when the skeletons of the old republican system persisted as much in deference to nostalgia as out of any spirit of compromise and reconciliation.
Many of the poem’s themes, concerns, delights and conundrums are as readily accessible in an English version as in the Latin; other aspects are harder to retain in translation. Some of this is a result of Virgil’s genius for exploiting complexities in the meanings of Latin words. Infelix, for example, is broadly equivalent to the English ‘unlucky’, describing either the victim or the bringer of bad luck. In addition (and probably in origin), however, the Latin also has connotations of infertility. There are many uses of infelix in the Aeneid, but the word clusters around Dido, the Carthaginian queen who is loved and then abandoned by Aeneas; the flames from her suicide pyre light his way across the sea towards Sicily. On a sympathetic reading, it is easy to see infelix as the queen’s stock epithet, first anticipating and then accompanying her slide into tragic despair: ‘unlucky Dido’, or ‘unhappy Dido’. Yet Virgil’s decision to stretch the traditional chronologies to allow Aeneas his doomed love affair with a woman who strictly belongs centuries in his future is – in part – a mechanism for explaining the hostility between Carthage and Rome, which led to the Punic Wars of the third and second centuries BCE. It is quite possible, then, to see Dido’s epithet as marking her out as a bringer of bad luck, ‘accursed’ Dido – and, indeed, she does literally curse the Trojans, predicting the rise of Hannibal as her avenger. Yet the residual connection of infelix with ‘infertility’ also haunts Dido, a woman who never has children, and who declares (in Shadi Bartsch’s translation):
If at least I’d made
a child with you, if a small Aeneas played
inside my home, who looked like you despite it all,
I wouldn’t feel so lonely and betrayed.
The triple meaning captures both the sympathy and the cruelty of Virgil’s portrait.
Close focus on a single word gets to the heart of what is always challenging about translation, especially in the case of a poet whose every word (and I mean that almost literally) is freighted with meaning. A translator has to make choices; any word they choose will carry its own nuance, a particular set of interpretations, implications and associations. Shadi Bartsch is alive to such difficulties. Her introduction notes the need to render the same Latin word differently in different contexts. She also highlights the interpretational difficulty that attaches to certain words which are central to the Aeneid and need to be rendered consistently in English: readers should note their reappearances.
Of these, the most prominent – and in some ways most troublesome – are pietas and pius, generally (and imperfectly) translated as ‘piety’ and ‘pious’. The abstract noun is used to introduce Aeneas in the poem’s opening lines as ‘insignem pietate virum’ (‘a man famous for piety’). Its nuances encompass something equivalent to our narrower English use of ‘piety’ to mean religious devotion, although the Latin lacks the pejorative sense of the English ‘pious’ – preachy and self-righteous. But pietas also relates to one’s duty to both family and the state. For the Romans, lines between religion, state and home were blurred but not wholly indistinguishable, and the conflicts that could arise between different forms of pietas were well-rehearsed. The description of Aeneas aligns him with Augustus, who (following his chequered – not to say bloodstained – youth) rebranded himself as a ‘man famous for piety’. Aeneas’ claim to piety also requires turning a blind eye to some unflattering pre-Virgilian versions of his myth in which he is a traitor to Troy rather than its most notable survivor, and even to some of his actions in Virgil’s poem. As Bartsch points out, Aeneas’ order that human sacrifices be made over the pyre of his dead comrade Pallas in Book XI is both a fall from the standards of pietas and an echo of the mass executions that Augustus was alleged to have carried out, back when he was still known as Octavian.
In an earlier episode, Aeneas himself appears to forget and then remember the importance – for his inner self as much as his outer image – of his reputation for pietas. During the war in Italy, he has wounded his enemy Mezentius, a violent and god-despising man whose one redeeming feature is his son Lausus, who ‘deserves more than his father’s/orders, and a father not Mezentius’. As Mezentius retreats, Lausus steps forward to shield him and draws Aeneas’ taunts:
So, lashed by spears all
around, Aeneas waited out the thunderhead-of war, shouting rebukes and threats at Lausus:
‘Why this hurry to meet death, to dare what’s past
your strength? Your piety lures you to be rash.’
To see another son performing his duty to his father with selfless bravery elicits scorn from Aeneas; the scorn is replaced by pity only when the boy is dying:
But when Anchises’ son looked at his dying face,
that ashen otherworldly face, he groaned deeply,
pitying the boy, and stretched his hand to him.
His own paternal piety came to his mind.
‘Poor boy, what can pious Aeneas give you
worthy of your bravery and noble nature?
Bartsch’s retention of the patronymic (‘Anchises’ son’, Anchisiades) is particularly valuable here. First, it reminds readers of Aeneas’ reputation for exceptional devotion to his own father; the realisation then hits Aeneas himself: the boy he has just killed exemplifies the aspect of his own identity of which he is most proud. He even reasserts his status as ‘pious Aeneas’ as he addresses Lausus, promising to return his corpse, together with his armour, to his people, and offering the (dubious) consolation that he has had the honour of being killed by ‘great Aeneas’. For all that pietas is a recurring word in the Aeneid, the clustering within these few lines of two instances of ‘piety’ and another of ‘pious’ is marked; our response to Aeneas’ actions and reactions is insistently framed by the word, the ideals it evokes, the way it may be mocked or exploited, and the question of whether virtue resides in character or is only realised through what someone does or doesn’t do.
This moral uncertainty extends into Virgil’s handling of some of the foundational tales of Roman history. When Aeneas is offered a vision of Rome’s future during his visit to the Underworld in Book VI, among the gallery of ghosts-to-be appears the tyrannicide Brutus, leader of the rebellion against the corrupt king Tarquin the Proud, and founder of the Roman republic:
Do you wish
to see the Tarquin kings, and the proud soul
of Brutus the avenger, who won back the fasces?
He’ll be the first to hold a consul’s power and
the cruel axes. For lovely liberty, he’ll kill
his own sons when they stir up revolution,
unhappy man, however later ages tell it.
His love of country won – and his great greed for glory.
It may not have been wise, under Augustus, to praise too highly the first Brutus, namesake and ancestor of the most notable of Julius Caesar’s assassins; yet Virgil’s potted version of the republic’s emergence is so fretted with ambiguity and contradiction that it is hard not to see in it a far broader attempt to wrestle with the heroes and monsters created by the desire ‘for lovely liberty’ (‘pulchra pro libertate’). Here we have a ‘proud’ Brutus who borrows the nickname of the last tyrannical Tarquin (superbus), while taking the mantle of ‘avenger’ that was worn by Augustus’ younger self as he waged war against the killers of his adoptive father – themselves self-proclaimed preservers of the republic. Brutus has the honour of being the first of Rome’s consuls, an office of shared and transitory republican power, in contrast to the monarchy that went before. Yet the axes that symbolise it are ‘cruel’. When Brutus’ sons join a counter-insurgency aiming to restore Tarquin to the throne, he orders the execution of his own children in the name of freedom: is this a supreme act of self-sacrifice to bring about the triumph of a collective good, or merely an ambitious man massaging his reputation as champion of the fatherland, even at the expense of his sons’ lives? He is, in Virgil’s final reckoning, ‘unhappy’ – that slippery word infelix again – ‘however later ages tell it’. The poet’s self-consciousness about his own reshaping of tales and reputations may underlie this reflection; the notion that some kernel of truth will always remain, ‘however later ages tell it’, is both confirmed and disputed by the ambiguous moral truth of Brutus’ character: he is forever infelix, but in which sense of the word?
Earlier in Book VI, approaching Charon, who is to give him a grudging lift across the Styx, Aeneas sees a group of newly dead souls waiting to make the crossing:
All the crowd came streaming to this shore:
mothers, men, the lifeless bodies of brave
heroes, boys and unwed girls, sons placed
on the pyre before their parents’ eyes –
as many as the forest leaves that fall
in autumn’s early chill, as many as
the birds who flock to land from sea when winter
drives them south to sunny lands. There
they stood, pleading to be first to cross,
stretching longing hands towards the further bank.
The thronging ghosts are compared to fallen leaves and birds massing before migration. Both similes evoke the analogy, at least as old as Homer, between the human lifespan and the annual cycle of the seasons, but strip it of the attendant idea of new generations budding in the spring. The emphasis on the youth of so many of the dead – beyond the pointedly nondescript ‘mothers, men’ – is a reminder of the prominence of premature death in the Aeneid as a whole, and marks death as something that always comes too soon. And yet, what the souls long for is not a return to life, but to leave the featureless marshes of death’s hinterland, to become fully dead. Aeneas soon learns that not everyone in the crowd will be allowed to cross immediately: only the duly buried can be promptly admitted to the halls of Dis; the unburied are doomed to haunt the riverbank for a hundred years before they earn their passage. The narrative confirms the Roman – and near universal – concern with the due observance of funerary rituals, while moving beyond this to reflect on the cruelty of such punishment when burial is not possible. The general becomes personal for Aeneas when he meets the marooned shade of his drowned helmsman Palinurus, doomed to wait out his century unless his bones are recovered and buried.
The Aeneid is not all about male virtues and egos. The overall plot depends on the wrath of the goddess Juno, and room is also made for the quieter voices of aged fathers, local rustic deities and Italian landscapes. In recent years, female writers and translators from Greek and Latin have come to increased prominence: Alice Oswald, Emily Wilson and Natalie Haynes have been among those offering new perspectives on Homer. Shadi Bartsch explicitly places her translation of Virgil in the context of her own peripatetic childhood and her subsequent experience building a career in a male-dominated field of study. She doesn’t offer, however, a blunt reimagining or a ‘feminist take’ on the Aeneid; her aim, rather, is to allow the polyphony that is woven through the text to be heard or – to use her own metaphor – ‘to help the first-time reader of the Aeneid see the muted threads in its tapestry’. Dido’s impassioned speeches may not be the most obscure of those threads, but one section of them offers a good illustration of what Bartsch’s approach can offer. Although heroism is implicitly debated and reassessed throughout the Aeneid, the hero is rarely challenged directly with his failures to demonstrate his own trademark virtue of pietas. Characteristically, though, Aeneas’ jilted lover (or abandoned wife) doesn’t pull her punches:
Poor Dido, do his impious actions touch you now?
Better then, when you shared your rule. So much
for his pledges, the man they say carried his gods
and hauled his father, weak with age, upon his back!
Bartsch doesn’t pull her punches either. The ‘impious actions’ in Latin come without a possessive adjective – ‘infelix Dido, nunc te facta impia tangunt?’ – and could, as she acknowledges, be not Aeneas’ but Dido’s: the breaking of her vow to her dead husband never to remarry. The Latin is ambiguous; in English, it’s harder not to take a side. Bartsch’s translation may tweak the volume and allow us to hear one voice more clearly, but it does no violence to Virgil in the process.