“Why should I read the Aeneid?” my teenaged daughter asked me, turning back to the umpteenth episode of Law & Order. “I started it, and it’s just like the Odyssey.” In fact, we derive much of our pleasure in reading the classics the same way we do from watching familiar television shows—not from absolute novelty, but from variation within frames. Familiarity with Homer enhances our appreciation of Vergil, and comparison of various translations of a single classical text puts the icing on the cake, but they are neither necessary to our pleasure nor are they impediments. In truth, outside the conventions of the medium, Vergil’s work is no more like Homer’s than Law & Order is like Dragnet. But too often the Aeneid is read as a reflection of the Odyssey and the Iliad, when it really does shine with its own Roman light.
The first question a translator of the Aeneid needs to ask is: who gets sung when arma virumque cano? John Dryden began modern English-language convention by singing “Arms, and the man.” But late twentieth-century translations of the Aeneid, Robert Fitzgerald’s, Robert Fagles’ and now Sarah Ruden’s, put our hero in his place by starting off “ . . . a man I sing.”The absence of a grammatical article in the Latin makes this interpretation perfectly legitimate—and the English indefinite signals a particular way we read the role of the founder of the Roman state. Aeneas is reduced in the scheme of things. From the very beginning, as the next ninety lines make clear, he is nothing more than a toy soldier of the gods. It is neither his half-mortal birth nor his dynastic destiny, but Juno’s singling him out as the object of her divine wrath, that makes him the man he becomes in the epic narrative. The very first words Aeneas speaks are a lament that the dead are far better off than he is:
Three and four times blessed
Are those who perished in their fathers’ sight
Beneath Troy’s walls. (I, 94–96)
These lines also introduce a theme of heredity and the relationship of fathers and sons that will carry through to the final desperate, unavailing plea of Turnus at the end of Book Twelve for his own life to be spared for the sake of “an anguished parent / (As Anchises was, who gave you life).” (XII, 932–3) No man is an island. No single hero is the man. He is one persona of a gens, the embodiment of a line.
And speaking of lines, other translators, including Fitzgerald, as Ruden notes in her introduction, have used iambic pentameter, tightly or loosely, but with different strategies from hers, which is to maintain a line-for-line equivalent with the original Latin. Dryden made the couplet his unit, which gave him a lot more room to work in. One of the most resonant sentences of the poem—forsan et hæc olim meminisse iuvabit (I, 203)—Dryden renders in two lines:
An hour will come, with pleasure to relate
Your sorrows past, as benefits of Fate.
Ruden, however, keeps it to one:
Sometime you may recall today with pleasure.
Even a flexible English iambic pentameter line is a problematic equivalent for the Latin dactylic hexameter, and, striving to keep pace, Ruden sometimes bursts through her own constraints, as in “Saving the blameless Trojans from those grim spells” (quæ ne monstra pii paterentur talia Troes,” VII, 21), here concluding, as she does fairly frequently, with a spondee. In fact, the whole line in English feels more like a truncated hexameter than an elongated pentameter.
One salutary effect of Ruden’s metrical choice, though, is that her Vergilian voice sounds nothing at all like Homer’s. This is a good thing. If there’s any other writer called to mind by Ruden’s rendering of the calls to battle, for instance, it’s the muscular verse of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. The last lines of Book Eight show Ruden at her most heroic. Vergil has described the sweep of Roman history on Aeneas’ shield. And then,
Talia per clipeum Volcani, dona parentis,
miratur rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet
attolens umero famamque et fata nepotum.
Fagles expands these three lines to more than five,
the God of Fire forged across the shield
that Venus gives her son. He fills with wonder—
he knows nothing of these events but takes delight
in their likeness, lifting onto his shoulders now
the fame and fates of all his children’s children. (VIII, 854–859)
keeping the echo of “fame and fates,” among other sound effects. Ruden is, by contrast, lapidary, but manages to use the mighty line of blank verse to convey the full weight Aeneas carries:
Aeneas loved these scenes on Vulcan’s shield,
His mother’s gift—but didn’t know their stories.
He shouldered his descendants’ glorious fate. (VIII, 729–731)
Occasionally, her strategy fails her completely. A sentence like “Let those your favor win” (X, 43—vincant, quos vincere mavis) sounds archaic and needs decoding, a sorting out of subject from object that stops a reader cold. There are lines of impeachable diction—“It’s quite a story, I’ll just tell the main parts,” Venus tells her son (I, 341–2, longa est iniuria, longæ /ambages; sed summa sequar fastigia rerum)—while others turn a silk purse into a sow’s ear, as when the exquisite non ignara mali miseris succurrere disco becomes “My own experience has taught compassion.” (I, 630)
Some words are touchstones in the Aeneid, of which probably the most loaded is pius, an epithet applied exclusively to Aeneas. The Latin conveys not the simplicity of the derivative “pious,” but a sense of obligation to tradition, patriotism, religious obligation—and also compassion, devotion, or affection. For its three occurrences in Book One, Ruden chooses three different words, “loyal” (220), “steadfast” (305), and “devout” (378). At a key moment (IV, 393) Ruden calls pius Aeneas “right-thinking,” which may be a sardonic stab at conveying the ethical irony of the event: our hero is sneaking away from Dido in order to fulfill his ordained mission to found Rome. In this instance, various meanings of pius conflict with one another. We know which meaning prevails, but it should not obliterate all others; Aeneas comes off badly enough in this scene without denying him a complex humanity.
The humanity of the Aeneid is what is best brought out by Ruden’s brisk pace, and underlined even by her lapses of diction. She does not linger on the rhetoric that exercised our Latin teachers. She subordinates ornament to movement, and her movement puts the emphasis on those who move. Or who are moved—tempest-tossed, manipulated, messed with—drawn from one misstep to another in the working out of destiny.