‘I sing of arms and of the man’ – these iconic words begin Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem with a great scope and a complex ideology. As Dr Gail Trimble, a Fellow in Classics at Trinity College Oxford, explained to the Association on Thursday night, these three opening words are fascinating because they encapsulate Virgil’s entire literary and political programme. ‘Arma’ recalls Homer’s bellicose Iliad – perhaps the greatest story ever told – whilst ‘virum’ directly alludes to the opening of Homer’s Odyssey, a tale of one man’s journey homewards, his ‘nostos’ (hence our word nostalgia).
Virgil, therefore, immediately warns us that his nationalistic poem, designed to placate and praise the newly-crowned Augustus, will have a distinctly Homeric flavouring. He will not imitate the great poet but he will transcend him by reworking his literary inheritance. He will write a new Odyssey and a new Iliad, set against a Roman backdrop, condensing 48 books of Homer into just 12 chapters, and in doing so, he will raise the epic bar. But, as Dr Trimble argued, Virgil is rarely pure and never simple. In one sense, the first six books of the Aeneid (despite a few temporal difficulties) reflect the turbulent wanderings of Odysseus, complete with a trip to the underworld, a seductive sorceress (or two), storm, shipwreck, storytelling and a series of temptations which distract the hero from his goal. Equally, the latter six, after a bold statement from the narrator, evoke the themes of the Iliad where there is a war (this time in Latium) over a woman, there is great anger and grief at the death of the hero’s companion (Patroclus/Pallas), and citizens lose their home.
But in another sense, both Homeric epics are infused throughout the tale as a whole. An Iliadic funeral games appears in the Odyssean half, whilst the Iliadic half is actually more concerned with showing the burden of ‘homecoming’. Aeneas’ tale is an oikestic narrative and this places him within a wider literary tradition. Moreover, we could view the entire Aeneid as an Odyssey because those opening lines ‘arma virumque cano’ do not have to separate the man from the war, but instead they place him firmly within it. It is the story of a man, who is at once an exile, a foreigner, a Trojan, a Greek, an Italian and a proto-Roman. He is the ‘pater patriae’ and war determines both his mindset and his mission. He must, like his descendant Augustus, build peace and construct ‘imperium sine fine’ by destructive combat; he has to wage a civil war against his Italian enemy (and brother) Turnus in order to lose his Trojan identity and to become a Roman; and all the while, lives are cut short because of the ‘cost of founding the Roman race’. Virgil does not shrink away from this melancholy message, but he embraces it and mixes his panegyric of Augustus with a clear warning to prevent further civil war and a call to unify the Italian people under the Roman state rather than to exclude them from citizenship and political affairs.
As the title of Dr Trimble’s talk emphasised, Virgil successfully brings his Aeneid within the net of both Homeric epic and Roman paean. Broadly speaking, Aeneas is a very Roman hero, who leads his men selflessly in accordance with his duty (‘pietas’) to his people and to his descendants, and yet, even at the poem’s conclusion, he appears like Achilles – a ruthless fighter and individualistic man – and when he kills Turnus in rage he fails to demonstrate ‘clementia’, another key guiding principle of Augustan morality. He is, therefore, also an anti-hero; likewise, at the same time as he appears to be like Augustus, triumphantly returning home from the East (just like after the battle of Actium), he also displays the sort of effeminate behaviour with Dido/Cleopatra that was associated with Augustus’ rival Mark Antony.
Dr Trimble drew out these complexities with great dexterity and showed us how important it is when reading an ancient text to be aware of earlier literature as well as the contemporary political climate, and to look first for similarities which enable us to see the differences as well. She guided us through Virgil’s dense, allusive text and revealed the structure hidden beneath, often signposted by episodes which look beyond Aeneas’ story to the recent history of Virgil’s audience. In book 8, for instance, Aeneas is given a new shield, welded by the gods (just as Achilles had in the Iliad), which contains images of famous events in Roman history such as the attack on the city engineered by the Gauls and the battle of Actium. Aeneas is impressed by the glory and opulence shown on his shield but is of course completely ignorant of the fates and identities of these eminent Romans known to Virgil’s contemporaries – and so Aeneas’ devotion to Roma (an anagram of Amor!) is symbolised by the fact that he quite literally takes the burden of the entire Roman race onto his shoulders.
A great selection of questions proved just how stimulating Dr Trimble’s talk was and we considered how far Shakespeare was influenced by Virgil in some of his plays, including Twelfth Night and Macbeth (where a parade of kings mirrors the parade of ancestors that is shown to Aeneas in the underworld). We also discussed the plight of Dido – an endlessly fascinating figure – and realised that she is another complicated character because her principles, her literary model (as a heroine of Greek tragedy), and her position within the poem as another sacrifice for Rome’s success, all drive her to suicide. It was an excellent lecture because, as Leon said in his eloquent vote of thanks to Dr Trimble, it appealed to the complete beginner and the seasoned reader of Virgil alike. We all now feel the need to read or re-read the poem and search for the meaning hidden within his masterpiece.
Thank you, as always, to everyone who attended the lecture and bought raffle tickets – we have now raised enough money from our Bursary Fund to be able to send six students to the Repton Summer School in July and I know they are all very grateful for this opportunity. Do join us next Thursday (23rd March) for the final of this year’s Classics Competition: we hope to see many of you there for an exciting night of presentations by local students, accompanied by some wine and sandwiches!