The great epic by Roman poet Virgil (or Vergil; 70-19 BC) became an instant classic. His Aeneid was celebrated by other poets and the imperial family, and taught in schools in antiquity (indeed, it is still taught in some schools today). The 12-book Latin poem, written during the reign of Augustus, tells the story of Aeneas, son of the goddess Venus, a royal refugee from war-torn Troy, and a legendary ancestor of the emperor, as he is driven by fate to Italy, where he is to settle and where, centuries later, his descendant Romulus is to build Rome.
In the first book of the poem, Jupiter says of the Romans, as Shadi Bartsch, Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, puts it in her new translation, ‘On them I set no boundaries of time or space:/I’ve granted empire without end’. It is easy to why such statements would appeal to the Romans, and centuries later the text still had nationalistic appeal, as reflected by the inclusion of Pater Aeneas (‘Father Aeneas’) in Mussolini’s 1937-1938 exhibition celebrating 2,000 years since the birth of Augustus.
Augustus had a public persona of pietas (‘piety’), and it is this concept that is closely attached to his heroic ancestor Aeneas throughout the poem: Aeneas is often described as pius (translated as ‘pious’), referring to a range of duties and devotion to one’s family, country, and gods. One early commentary written in the 4th or 5th century remarks that Virgil’s aim is to praise Augustus by praising his ancestors: their shared pietas is one element that could lead to such an interpretation.
There are, as Bartsch elaborates in her thoughtful introduction, other readings of the Latin epic. For example, for some in the medieval period, the poem could be read as a Christian allegory. That another translation has just been published is a clear sign of its enduring popularity, and it offers a new opportunity for English readers to develop their own interpretations.
Translation – especially of poetry – is notoriously thorny. What do you do with the metre? The number of lines? In Latin, much can be said in a few words, and English translations can greatly increase the length of the poem trying to convey their meaning. For her translation, Bartsch has aimed for line-for-line correspondence, keeping them at a similar length to Virgil’s Latin with concise and straightforward language.
The result is a lively translation, which captures the power and drama of Virgil’s poem as it sings of Aeneas’ voyages and time in Carthage, leading to the suicide of queen Dido and a centuries-long feud between Carthage and Rome, wars in Italy, and the scheming of gods and goddesses.
It is an enjoyable read for anyone curious about this ancient poem, and – with explanatory notes for certain lines and passages, and an informative introduction – a useful volume for those studying the text in translation.
The Aeneid: A New Translation Vergil, translated by Shadi Bartsch Profile Books, £16.99, Hardback ISBN 978-1788162678. Reviewed by Lucia Marchini