by Eric Stull
“Arms and a man, I sing.”
Are the two objects of which the poet sings given in order of priority?
What kind of world did the Romans make – or dare one say, take?
Why did they need a founding story to inform themselves of where and whom they ostensibly came from, after they had made that world?
How could a world-conquering people have come from the remnant of a defeated city — glittering, unforgettable, doomed – that had been erased from the life of the world after a decade-long war concluding in an apocalyptic cataclysm of violence?
What does it mean for that world-conquering people to have grown from a single city formed by that remnant?
How does a culture, embodied by its beleaguered survivors toting their household gods and melancholy memories, take root in new soil?
What kind of fruit can grow out of such seeds in such soil? How can adefeated hero in one epic become the eponymous hero of another?
Why would the poet of the Romans take for his model the incomparable twin epics of the Troy-destroying Greeks, whose gifts, his hero says, are not to be trusted, and try to tell the Roman story of overcoming that destruction by collapsing the tales of War and Homecoming into a single epic that includes both, yet in reverse order and with different people whose fates go beyond what happens in Homer?
Could any poet deliver all this, while also managing to tuck into his tale a mini-epic, first-person account of the destruction of the hero’s ancestral city, which if it had ever formed part of the Homeric epics in their antecedent oral form, apparently had never appeared, except in allusive bits and pieces still to be found in The Iliad and The Odyssey, during the seven or eight centuries of their written existence prior to Vergil’s own tumultuous lifetime at the stupefying end of the Roman republic?
What is a city-begotten empire for, and are its costs too high, or is no price too high to pay for a well-ordered city and the world it can make possible? Would any willingly pay such a price?
What becomes of love and the yearnings of the human soul in the struggle to establish a city in which for the soul to yearn?
In the wrenching conflict between desire and duty, must a founding hero, so anguished at our first encounter with him as to wish he had died in the land of his fathers, give up some of his human parts in order to establish a human city? But how human can such a city be?
If the epic poet who precedes Vergil is incomparable, that same Roman whose epic succeeds those of Homer is almost unsurpassed in his invention. It’s not strange that in the centuries following the fall of Rome in the West Vergil was regarded by many as semi-divine, his book the tool of the bibliomancer’s art. Nor is it surprising that the greatest English poet drew on him in perhaps his greatest tragedy, when Hamlet finds himself wondering at the spell cast by the specter of Hecuba. What is Aeneas to us that we should weep for him? Or should we not weep for him, but rather for Creusa, Dido, Anchises, Palinurus, Nisus, Euryalus, Camilla, Pallas – yes, even for Amata and Turnus, to whose world he brought an end? What to us is The Aeneid, which may only upon the dread countermand of Augustus have survived the poet himself? Here’s one sort of thing he gives us that Homer does not:
To crown the men, Camilla from the Volscians,
a warrior queen. She leads a female cavalry
like blooms in bronze. Not for her a woman’s tasks,
Minerva’s spindle or a basket of wool skeins.
She’s steeled for battle and outruns the winds on foot.
She’d fly above the topmost tips of uncut stalks
and not hurt the tender ears when she did,
or run across the sea, skimming the high swells,
and not splash her quick feet with the water.
All the young men and a crowd of mothers
flood from homes and fields in wonder as she goes,
gaping in amazement at the royal purple
cloaking her smooth shoulders, the brooch clasping
her hair with gold, the Lycian quiver that she carries,
and the shepherd’s staff of iron-tipped myrtle.
Vergil, The Aeneid, trans. Shadi Bartsch, 7.803-817
As beautiful as Homer sometimes makes the Trojans, do the enemies of the Greeks ever appear as the Latin enemies of Aeneas do here? Who could resist such a poet? Who would want to? With twenty-four weeks to read slowly the twelve books of his poem, we may come to an answer.