The gods are on the side of the stranger

The Aeneid

The story of Aeneas' flight from Troy, and his eventual sowing of the seeds of the Roman empire: everyone knows it and nobody's read it all. Generations of grammar- and public-schoolboys have studied chunks of Virgil's epic at school, with varying amounts of context to aid digestion. While it's certainly beyond the scope of this review to discuss the Aeneid's place in the classical literary pantheon---who would dare, realistically?---it's nonetheless worth asking the separate questions: how has the Aeneid aged? is it worth reading, if not casually then at any rate on the sofa, train or beach? Hundreds of thousands of copies of this book, in various translations (here Jackson Knight's), inhabit the Classics shelves. Should some be rescued from the indignity of the pulping bin?

The answer is generally affirmative, with some reservations. The characterizations and relationships, with some histrionic exceptions, are warm, rich and complex. With a little background knowledge---for example that Virgil, like Shakespeare, wrote his work to placate to the hegemony of the time, each establishing an empire's semi-divine right to exist and indeed prosper---there is political and moral depth here that earns for the Aeneid the right to be considered a current classic as well as a literary milestone. The moral balance and interconnectedness, which we would now call karma, and the weird, Delphic fatalism that pervades Aeneas' quest to fulfil Jupiter's will, is intriguing and often wildly unpredictable in both cause and effect.

Most of the battle scenes can be omitted, excepting most obviously the death of Camilla. But the most fascinating part of the book is Aeneas himself: his reactions during the sacking of Troy, and his legendary, doomed relationship with Dido. For a modern audience Aeneas is at his most intriguing, and frightening, during his moments of greatest piety and certainty in Jupiter's will. His eyes flash; his hair floats; he's a Byronesque hero and a flawed, eccentric human at the same time. Aeneas as a conduit of the power of the gods is chilling indeed. In its protagonist, if nowhere else, the Aeneid has undergone a miracle of aging, changing from mythical epic into character study, acquiring new flavours over time that Virgil possibly never intended. This epic shows that some old classics never die; they just follow their own, opaque destinies.