Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Aeneid Review

Everybody’s heard of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey of the fantastic adventures of the heroes of Achilleus and Odysseus, these works are considered fundamental to the development of literature, and are even considered by some to be the greatest literary works of all time. However, if you had lived two or three hundred years ago, the odds would be that, given a classical education, you never would have read either of Homer’s epics. Why not? Were they lost? Were they written in some obscure, untranslatable Greek dialect? In a word – no. The fact of the matter is that two hundred years ago Homer’s epics were considered unimportant. In their place, and hailed since its conception as the paragon of literary achievement, was the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid. It chronicles the adventures of its title character, Aeneas, as he leaves Troy in the wake of the Trojan War and begins a journey to fulfill his destiny as the founder of what would one day become the Roman Empire.

Spiritual Content: 8/10
This is hard to rate. The novel accepts and even characterizes the traditional Greco-roman paragon of gods. It is a pagan work, but it’s also very tasteful. The gods, as portrayed by Virgil, are more like the Christian God than they are in other adaptations. They tend to be a bit withdrawn, and are shown to be pretty omniscient and omnipotent, although they do retain their vengeful and petty characters. I give it an 8/10 because it is so different from other representations of the pagan gods, and because the book, as a whole, shows a very deep respect for religion in general. And, as no one really accepts the reality of pagan gods anymore, the ideas that they represent are relatively harmless for a modern reader.

Violence: 8/10
Again, this was hard. The Aeneid does have a lot of violence. A lot of the action of the plot takes place during war. A lot of killings are described in detail. The war parts are also really tedious and tend to read like lists. The violence can sound a little gross sometimes, but there’s nothing really disturbing about it. Most of it tends to run together.

Sexual Content: 9/10
This book is remarkably clean, which makes sense considering that it was written by a Roman. There is only one reference to sex in the whole book, and it’s really easy to miss/ misinterpret in an innocent way. There is also some reference to male love (gay relationships), but again, it’s really subtle. You have to look hard for it, and also understand a lot of what was going on culturally to get it.

Plot: 10/10
This book has an amazing story line. The first six books were by far my favorite. It gets really boring after that, but I have been informed by some boys I know that after book six is when the story gets interesting. Keeping this in mind I elected to give the plot a 10/10 for the overall combined favorable review when the opinions of the two sexes are put together. The first part is more like a story, revolving around the growth and development of characters. The second half is like a war chronicle, which, if you’re a male, I’m told is very exciting. Anyways, I loved the first part immensely and that’s enough for it a warrant a 10 from me.

Style: 10/10
The style of this book was lovely. It’s set in Homer’s epic past – in fact it loosely follows the same timeline as Odysseus’ travels, and the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey are referenced an number of times. Virgil follows pretty closely Homer’s style in his book, using many of the same conventions. There’s a good reason for this. Before Virgil, Homer really was the undisputed master of the literary world. If anyone wanted to achieve greatness as an author they would have to approach, if not surpass Homer. Virgil, by following Homer’s style, reaches the poet’s level, but he doesn’t just approximate Homer’s style – he improves it. He takes all of Homer’s conventions, and even his style, and makes them his own. The thing that he did that I really geek out about is make his epic an eschatological vision. The entire story about the founding of Rome is also the story of the emergence of the Roman Empire and the victories of Caesar Augustus. This is an amazing story to read for Virgil’s stylistic devices, and is 10x more fun if you’re familiar with Roman history – from its founding to the emergence of the Empire.

Character: 10/10
The characters in this book were wonderful. Aeneas went through a wonderful character change, starting out as a bit of a coward and moving to come fully into his own as a brave commander, soldier, and Roman. There was also a strong cast of female and child characters. The story of Dido and Aeneas was wonderful, and I loved Aeneas’ son Illus. I actually loved the fact that there was a child in this book, because it made it a little bit more beautiful. Illus also offered some comic relief (unintentionally, there’s not much humor in this book) in the battle scenes when, presumably overwhelmed, he just kind of lay down and went to sleep. The characters were really rich and deep, and even more so than normal considering that many of them actually represented future events and people.

Theme: 8/10
Despite everything else, the themes in this story are good, great even, but not quite in the upper echelon of themes. This is partially because the book doesn’t have a strict moral message that it’s trying to convey. The point of the book is to convey, eschatologically, the glory of Rome and the inevitability of its existence. In short, this work was commissioned to be, and is, a work of Roman propaganda. That being said, it’s a very good piece of propaganda, and its claims were, at the time, pretty well founded.

Overall Conclusion: 10/10
The great poet Dante used Virgil as his guide for much of his journey in the Divine Comedy. Many other poets, writers, painters, sculptors, etc. for centuries idolized Virgil and his work. Many Christians, even, were stuck by its poignancy, and many great church fathers and thinkers thought of Virgil as a proto-Christian. Virgil’s work has influenced centuries of artists and thinkers from diverse backgrounds and schools of thought. It’s a shame that this book is rarely taught anymore. There is little doubt in anyone’s mind as to the greatness of Homer’s works, just as there was no doubt in Virgil’s time. All that being said, I think that Homer would welcome Virgil to his island with joy and would love to spend time in the company of a man who understood his own literary vision, and surpassed him.

 >Read this book. Do it. Now.<

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