The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid are the holy trinity of classical European epic, and Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo, with their recent versions of the Aeneid, have translated all three. But the Aeneid is very different from the other two. The Homeric poems report from a misty prehistoric past: we don’t know who Homer was or even if he existed, the historical actuality of the Trojan War is a perennial subject of dispute, and the ancients could not say for sure to what island home his celebrated homecoming brought Odysseus, even if we think we can.1 The Greek epics have always been comparatively free of historical setting; by the time they emerged in the eighth to seventh centuries BCE the Mycenaean world they purported to depict had long been gone. What the classical Greeks knew of that world they knew from Homer, which means that Homer’s version of people and events enjoyed, as it still does, the definitiveness of fiction or myth: the legitimacy of the Iliad’s representation of King Agamemnon as an arrogantly boorish fool is not subject to revision in light of new evidence about any real historical Agamemnon, who might to our surprise turn out to have been, say, a wise and lovable commander, and husband, too.

By contrast, we know very well who Virgil was, and when and where he lived: he was an Italian citizen of Rome during the time of its bloody metamorphosis from a republic into the empire of modern imagination. Whether he wanted to be or not, Virgil was in the thick of history, and he must have wanted to be, since he never avoided it in any of his works, and he chose for his third and greatest, the Aeneid, no less a story than the imperial city’s mythological founding.

It takes Virgil all of five lines into his twelve-book epic to tell his audience that his undertaking is different from Homer’s. The Greek epics are concerned with a world and people whose links to their classical audience are left implicit; whoever Homer was, he makes it clear to us that the action he relates took place a long time ago, and as a narrator he avoids drawing connections between the Danaoi of the poems and the Hellenes of his audience, except to point out a few times that the heroes of the Iliad were able to lift rocks far heavier than anyone could today. Homer seems to share some of his fellow epic poet Hesiod’s sour view that things have gone downhill precipitously since the heroic age, and his explicit emphasis tends to be on discontinuity rather than its opposite. But here, in Stanley Lombardo’s translation, is how Virgil opens his story:

Arms I sing—and a man,
The first to come from the shores
Of Troy, exiled by Fate, to Italy
And the Lavinian coast; a man battered
On land and sea by the powers above
In the face of Juno’s relentless wrath;
A man who suffered greatly in war
Until he could found his city and bring his gods
Into Latium, from which arose
The Latin people, our Alban forefathers,
And the high walls of everlasting Rome.

With the “until” clause the myth is tied to the institutions of Virgil’s Rome; the action is said to have an ultimate purpose, and that purpose touches us, its audience. More disconcertingly, in “everlasting Rome” there might be, or there might not be—this is the problem—an implication that things since have perhaps gone a little bit uphill rather than Hesiodically down. But whether they’ve gone up or down, the significant point is that the “things since then” are there at all: the Iliad and the Odyssey do not fast-forward into the present in any remotely comparable way; what happens in the Iliad stays in the Iliad.


Virgil was born in 70 BCE and died, revising the Aeneid, in 19 BCE. He turned twenty-one in the year in which Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon (49 BCE). Factionalism and violence had been disrupting the republic for decades, but the civil war that now began persisted in various guises for two decades, and by the time it was over all power had been effectively concentrated into the hands of Virgil’s junior contemporary Octavian, the grandson of Julius Caesar’s sister and the great dictator’s adoptive son and designated heir. Precisely how this initially unprepossessing figure, eighteen years old at the time of Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, succeeded in clearing the field of all rivals, chief among whom was the not inconsiderable Mark Antony, is a question historians continue to puzzle over, hampered in their efforts by the absence of reliable and unpartisan accounts of the period.

Uneasy allies in the triumvirate formed after Caesar’s death, Antony and Octavian defeated the ostensibly pro-republican forces led by the assassin Brutus at Philippi in 42 BCE; thereafter the two men divided the empire between them, Octavian taking Italy and the West, Antony Egypt and the East. This arrangement was sealed in a traditional way: Octavian married his sister off to Antony. But the marriage proved as unworkable as the political union, and by the late 30s Octavian had succeeded in provoking a war with his rival and brother-in-law, and destroyed his forces at Actium, on the coast of northwestern Greece, in September of 31.


Such a summary can give no idea of the brutality and bloodshed, treachery and all around dirty-dealing that characterized life in the Roman world during these decades—Virgil’s entire adult life so far. The collapse of republican institutions in the middle years of the century had been violent enough, with the leading men maintaining private gangs to protect themselves and intimidate their enemies, and blood being spilled in the Forum on a regular basis. But during the years after Caesar’s assassination an almost absolute ruthlessness in dealing with one’s opponents became the order of the day: a take-no-prisoners approach to them on the battlefield, and off it the cruel and corrupting mechanism of public condemnation (“proscription”), whereby the triumvirs confiscated the property of their personal enemies, pronounced the men themselves outlaws, and had them tracked down and killed, often after their families had been bribed to betray them. So much for large parts of the former ruling class; as for the agrarian population of the Italian countryside, many of them were expelled from their ancestral farms so that the properties could be handed over to veterans of the victors’ armies as a form of pension. At every level, social dissolution must have seemed just about complete.

With all rivals either now dead, defeated, or prostrate from exhaustion, Octavian was free to bring peace and civic harmony to the vast empire and weary peoples he had devoted the past decades to rivening. This new decade, the one after Actium, when Octavian accepted the title Augustus and symbolically proclaimed an end to the war by closing the long-open temple of Janus, is the one in which Virgil, now in his forties, determined to compose the epic of Rome. He spent ten years on the project, and by legend ordered, on his deathbed, that the slightly unfinished manuscript be destroyed: Augustus intervened, and the Aeneid was saved.2


The plot of the Aeneid is not complicated. Jupiter has decreed that Aeneas and a group of other Trojans will escape the destruction of Troy and refound the city in Italy; this new city—it will be Rome—will enjoy a spectacular success. The action begins with Aeneas and company on what should be the last stage of their Romeward journey, sailing from Sicily for Italy proper. Jupiter’s wife and sister Juno, who has long hated Troy (not least because Paris judged Aeneas’ mother Venus the better-looking), is jealous of Rome’s future glory and wants to stop them; she suborns the wind god Aeolus to unleash a deadly storm. The little fleet, minus a couple of ships, ends up in pieces on the North African coast, near the new city of Carthage, whose young and widowed queen Dido takes the shipwrecked strangers in. While Venus and Juno conspire to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, the Trojan hero takes up two books of the epic to tell the young queen how he got out of Troy, and of his wanderings since.

Dido and Aeneas become lovers, but Jupiter soon sends Mercury to tell Aeneas to get on with his imperial mission, and the Trojans head once again for Italy. In her miserable abandonment, Dido kills herself, uttering a curse that ensures the lethal future enmity of Carthage and Rome. Aeneas arrives in Italy, detours briefly to the Underworld to watch a parade of future great Romans, and then establishes an alliance with Latinus, king of Latium, who proposes that Aeneas marry his daughter, Lavinia. Turnus, the prince of the neighboring Rutulians, to whom Latinus had already betrothed Lavinia, takes exception to this dismissive treatment, and Aeneas and the Trojans have a war on their hands. They gain the support of another Italian king, Evander, whose kingdom sits up the Tiber on the future site of Rome. Intense fighting ensues; Evander’s son is killed, and the final outcome is in doubt. Juno is at last reconciled to Jupiter’s determination that the new Troy be established, and Aeneas removes the final obstacle to the Trojans’ union with the Latins by killing Turnus, the act that abruptly concludes the poem.

The plot has coherence, but not a lot of narrative tension. In both his epics, Homer winds the story up like a crossbow: the first two books of the Odyssey, for example, make us yearn to see Penelope’s obnoxious and evil suitors have something very nasty done to them; the tension on this wish is steadily ratcheted up over twenty-one more books until Odysseus, letting real arrows fly, kills them all. It’s brutal, gory, and thrilling. The last half of the Aeneid is brutal and gory without being particularly thrilling: we have only recently met Turnus, and he is not a particularly villainous villain; and why wouldn’t he be upset?


While not entirely abandoning Homeric plot development, Virgil builds his tension elsewhere, in his portrayal of Aeneas. Psychology is not the issue, however. We never “get inside” Aeneas; we see him first as someone outstanding in his capacity to endure pain, then as outstanding at inflicting it. It is not clear that the change is a change in his soul; he may just be reacting differently to different circumstances. What drives our interest in him is not his development as a character, but something external, namely, our constant sense that Virgil is using him to “think with”—to think specifically about Rome.

How does this work? As we have seen, the storyline of the Aeneid is mostly mythological. The poem contains a number of explicit statements of the connection between past and present: besides the parade of Romans in the Underworld (which is accompanied by an informative voiceover from Aeneas’ dead father, Anchises), Jupiter makes some memorable pronouncements about Roman destiny, and in particular there is a depiction of the Battle of Actium on a shield created by Vulcan for Aeneas, who puzzles over its significance. These explicit indications might sound somewhat artificially imposed, but they serve to alert us to the pulsations throbbing beneath the poem’s surfaces which yield, as an example will show, a sort of implied conversation between the text, its predecessor texts, and its readers.


As he makes his way through the Underworld to meet his father, Aeneas passes by a special region reserved for the spirits of those who have been destroyed by love. Here he espies the shade of his lover Dido, who died by her own hand after Aeneas left her. The hero approaches and speaks to her:

“Tragic Dido,
so, was the story true that came my way?
I heard that you were dead…
you took the final measure with a sword.
Oh, dear god, was it I who caused your death?
I swear by the stars, by the Powers on high, whatever
faith one swears by here in the depths of earth,
I left your shores, my Queen, against my will. Yes,
the will of the gods, that drives me through the shadows now,
these moldering places so forlorn, this deep unfathomed night—
their decrees have forced me on. Nor did I ever dream
my leaving could have brought you so much grief.
Stay a moment. Don’t withdraw from my sight.
Running away—from whom? This is the last word
that Fate allows me to say to you. The last.”
Aeneas, with such appeals, with welling tears,
tried to soothe her rage, her wild fiery glance.
But she, her eyes fixed on the ground, turned away,
her features no more moved by his pleas as he talked on
than if she were set in stony flint or Parian marble rock.

This scene (in Robert Fagles’s translation) is closely modeled on that in the Odyssey in which the hero, likewise visiting the Underworld, encounters, among many others, the shade of Ajax, the great warrior who killed himself out of humiliation when the Greek army voted to award the arms of the dead Achilles to Odysseus rather than himself. Like Aeneas, Odysseus voices regret over any role in the suicide’s death, and, like Dido, Ajax answers his tormentor with silence and withdrawal.

Adapting a recognizable (though not necessarily famous) passage from a predecessor for use in a new context is not an unusual artistic technique. We see it practiced somewhat compulsively by contemporary filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino, and in the “sampling” of hip-hop music. The effects achieved by such borrowings are various. Virgil learned the technique from Hellenistic scholar-poets like Callimachus and Apollonius of Rhodes, who used it especially as a type of mannerism that forces the reader to acknowledge (among other things) the literariness, that is, the artificiality, of any narrative representation of reality.

Thus the entire Dido and Aeneas sequence, for most readers the emotional center of the poem, is constructed by Virgil as the latest in a series of brilliant variations by other poets on the theme of the woman abandoned after she has served the hero’s purposes. The hero wanders into town, charms and usually sleeps with the local queen or princess, who gives him the help he needs, and he either abandons her there or somewhere he’s removed her to, often citing urgent business elsewhere. In constructing his tragedy of Dido, Virgil alludes to, and thus in a sense incorporates, previous treatments of such abandoned and once-helpful women by his older Roman contemporary Catullus, Apollonius of Rhodes (third century BCE), and Euripides (fifth century BCE); behind the narrative surface of the poem we’re aware of all three.

As we have said, these allusions and references can achieve different kinds of effects, depending on how they are used. Sometimes they can raise disturbing, even distressing, possibilities. In the passage quoted above, where Aeneas speaks to Dido’s shade, we are at a moment of the highest pathos: Dido is an immensely sympathetic figure, and we have reason to believe that Aeneas’ love for her and regret are sincere. But Virgil has unleashed a gremlin in the middle of the speech. The words “I left your shores, my Queen, against my will” (in Latin, invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi) are taken almost word for word from a poem of Catullus’ different from the one containing the theme of the helpful woman who has been abandoned.

The problem is that this other Catullan poem is, not to put too fine an edge on it, a joke—an exercise in Hellenistic facetiousness. The poem is spoken by a lock of hair, cut from the head of a queen and dedicated by her in a temple, in thanks for the safe return from war of her husband the king. The talking hair says, “I left your head, my Queen, against my will” (in Latin, invita, o regina, tuo de vertice cessi).

For many readers the implications of this allusion are extremely upsetting, even painful. The Marx Brothers seem suddenly to have clambered onto the set of a tragic opera. What could Virgil have been thinking? Perhaps he was not thinking at all, these readers suggest, and the line is “a wholly unconscious reminiscence.”3 But the idea that Virgil was capable of being “unconscious” of anything in Catullus is insupportable; he knew Catullus’ poetry better than the back of his own hand. So that explanation fails. Others see in the allusion a deliberately subversive irony. But the joke seems too undignified and crude to be taken seriously as such.

The matter is more complex than the bare linking of the two passages might lead one to believe. Catullus’ poem about the lock of hair is a translation from Callimachus (third century BCE), the unofficial head of the Alexandrian school of poetry of which both Catullus and Virgil were latter-day members. Callimachus’ original survives only in the briefest fragments: our knowledge of it derives primarily from Catullus’ translation. But the situation so humorously depicted was a real one: the Egyptian king Ptolemy had just married his cousin Berenice, and immediately went off to war in the East. The poem tells of the bride’s tearful lamentations, and of her vow to offer a lock of her hair (i.e., of the poem’s speaker) at a temple in the event of her husband’s victorious return. He did return victorious, and she dedicated the lock. Soon thereafter, however, the lock was found to have disappeared from the temple. But all’s well that ends well: the royal astronomer Conon promptly noticed a new constellation—the now-deified lock of Queen Berenice’s hair, which speaks to us in the poem from its new perch in the sky.

This all seems fairly precious and abstruse.4 The key point for the purposes of the Aeneid is that Virgil wants to get the figures of the Alexandrian royal bride and groom into his text here. Why? Because, like Virgil himself, the theme of the woman abandoned after she has given help had been overtaken by history.

Catullus had died as a young man around 54 BCE. Six years later Rome was in a state of civil war, and Julius Caesar, having defeated his opponent Pompey at Pharsalus in northern Greece, followed him to Egypt. Pompey was killed on arrival, but Caesar, after taking possession of Alexandria, was cut off there for several months, and used the time to take possession of the Egyptian queen as well. Eventually Caesar made his way out of Egypt; not long afterward Cleopatra gave birth to a son she named after the Roman general.

A few years later, Cleopatra became the lover and political ally of another powerful Roman, Mark Antony, lured, according to the propaganda of his rival Octavian, by her (supposedly) Oriental charms away from his lawful Roman wife, and from honorable Roman ways generally; Antony in effect went native. Beware the African queen! Octavian sorted this situation out at the Battle of Actium and, like Dido, both members of the defeated couple killed themselves (in Alexandria, as Octavian entered it).

Julius Caesar, for his part, was a highly educated man, with strong literary interests and accomplishments. He is said to have known Catullus and his family quite well, if not always happily: the young poet insulted the great man in a number of poems. Caesar felt these had damaged his reputation, but when Catullus apologized, Caesar invited him to dinner. Did Caesar know the poet’s translation of Callimachus’ poem about Berenice’s lock, or Callimachus’ original? It is certainly possible, even likely. At any rate, half a dozen years after Catullus’ death Caesar found himself in Egypt departing for war and from his new “wife,” Cleopatra, the lineal descendant and successor of the Ptolemy and Berenice of Callimachus’ and Catullus’ poems. Was the couple aware of the historical and literary background? Of the parallelism between their situation and that of Ptolemy and Berenice as related in the two poems?

Perhaps they were, perhaps they were not. But Virgil most certainly was, as well as of the other parallelism provided by Cleopatra’s fatal alliance with her second Roman lover, Antony, by whom she had three children. They had died only a few years before Virgil wrote the invitus, regina lines, and the Roman world was still shuddering from the impact of their defeat. Virgil’s allusion to Catullus and Callimachus, then, points us to the representations of the examples of Ptolemy and Berenice, to Caesar and Cleopatra, and to Cleopatra and Mark Antony, all of whom are terribly present to mind.

This web of literary and historical references in the invitus, regina line makes the task of interpreting Aeneas extremely complicated, as Virgil wishes: Is Aeneas a good guy or a bad guy? Is he Caesar? Antony? or Augustus, who stayed on course with his Roman duty and brought about Cleopatra-Dido’s suicide? Or is he a little of all of them? Virgil does not tell us how to decide among the possibilities; it is his way simply to dangle them before us; and the more we look into his poem, the more of them we see.


It would be asking a bit much to expect a translator to produce a version that guided us to all these subtleties. Besides, how many readers would want them all? We have in the new translations by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo two very accomplished works. Both read very well, and great care and admirable skill have been brought to bear in both. Each has its own set of virtues and defects. Both are accompanied by superb introductions, by W.R. Johnson for Lombardo, by Bernard Knox for Fagles. In his preface Lombardo calls Johnson’s 1976 book Darkness Visible “the most telling study of the Aeneid,” a judgment with which I and many others concur; the present introduction is masterful and illuminating. Knox has written profound studies of ancient conceptions of heroism; he has long been a person you could point to in answer to the question “Why study the classics?” and his essay here concludes with a personal anecdote from his days fighting in Italy as an OSS officer that demonstrates the correctness of this answer, showing him as he finds a copy of Virgil in the debris of a bombed-out villa and ponders the lines “…a world in ruins… for right and wrong change places….”

Fagles’s language is the richer and lusher, and it seeks more identifiably poetic effects; Lombardo is more austere, and sticks closer to Virgil; he is very skillful at maintaining fidelity while keeping within the bounds of natural English. Here is first Fagles’s, then Lombardo’s version of the introduction of the Amazon-like warrior Camilla :

Topping off the armies
rides Camilla, sprung from the Volscian people,
heading her horsemen, squadrons gleaming bronze.
This warrior girl, with her young hands untrained
for Minerva’s spools and baskets filled with wool,
a virgin seasoned to bear the rough work of battle,
swift to outrace the winds with her lightning pace.
Camilla could skim the tips of the unreaped crops,
never bruising the tender ears in her swift rush….

Now Lombardo:

Last of all rode Camilla the Volscian,
Leading her mounted troops and squadrons
Flowering with bronze. This princess warrior
Had not trained her hands to women’s work,
Spinning and weaving, but trained to endure
The hardships of war and to outrun the wind.
She could sprint over a field of wheat
And not even bruise the tender ears….

English necessarily expands Latin; it has definite and indefinite articles, for one thing, and Latin hasn’t. Virgil’s lines here run to forty-seven words; Lombardo’s version, fifty-nine; Fagles’s, seventy. My impression is that these figures accurately reflect the expansion rates of the two translators in general. Lombardo’s greater leanness is largely owed to his fidelity to Virgil, whose imagery he tends to trust will carry over into English; “flowering with bronze,” for example, is a literal translation. But this faithfulness is not slavish; where Fagles has “Minerva’s spools and baskets filled with wool,” Virgil has “distaff or baskets of Minerva”; Fagles clarifies the mythological reference at the price of expansion, while Lombardo, with “spinning and weaving,” preserves Virgil’s brevity by chucking Minerva. On the other hand, Fagles does better with “Camilla could skim the tips of the unreaped crops”; the rhythm of his line as a whole makes a meaty and Virgilian mouthful, and goes a little further toward preserving an element in the intactae segetis per summa volaret gramina of the original (intactae: untouched; Fagles’s “unreaped”) that is lost in Lombardo’s minimalist “over a field of wheat.”

Fagles’s desire to clarify means that he tends to interpret more than Lombardo. Sometimes this is perfectly harmless, if puzzling to the reader who knows the Latin. When Juno makes her pitch to bribe the wind god Aeolus in Book 1, Virgil introduces his reply with a laconic and verbless three words: Aeolus haec contra: “Aeolus the following in response,” or, idiomatically, “Aeolus replied.” Fagles gives us “Aeolus warmed to Juno’s offer.” It’s perfectly true—Aeolus does warm to it; but why can’t we be left to learn this from what he says in the speech itself?

Sometimes, however, Fagles’s choices push too hard on matters that count. The poem’s opening lines are inevitably trying for a translator, with Dryden’s inescapable “Arms and the man I sing” haunting the background. But it is in what comes after that that Fagles becomes alarming:

Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil….

We like our heroes to be first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of their countrymen; “first to flee” doesn’t sound so good. In fact, it sounds decidedly bad, and “decidedly bad” is not Virgil’s way. This is not a trivial matter. As we have already seen, forming a judgment of Aeneas’ character is a challenging task. The circumstances in which he escaped the sack of Troy are a point of vulnerability, and Virgil does not shrink from making his hero uneasy about it. Aeneas’ account of his flight in Book 2 is sometimes painful to read; he not only escaped when his comrades and relations were being butchered, he managed to lose his wife while doing so (thereby making possible his affair with Dido). It is a delicate matter, and Virgil, in his usual manner, leads us to consider all the possible constructions that might be put upon it. Fagles editorializes in ways not characteristic of Virgil, and does so at the cost of sense: it’s not as if there were a lot of escapees to be the first of, after all. That’s one of the main points about Aeneas: he was uniquely allowed by the gods to get out so that he could found Rome. Lombardo’s “Arms I sing—and a man,/ The first to come from the shores/Of Troy, exiled by Fate, to Italy” puts the “first” where the Latin does.

Lombardo, as I have said, tends to let Virgil be Virgil, and so avoids imposing unwarranted interpretations on the unwary reader. What he does impose is a distinctly demotic turn of phrase in direct-speech passages. In just two pages we read: “Make this happen!,” “It’s your move, Mezentius,” “You’re not so tough now, are you…?” There is no hint of such colloquialism in Virgil’s Latin, and my guess is that Lombardo is trying to give the speeches a contemporary feel. The dust jacket has a picture of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (as the same translator’s Iliad showed a D-Day landing craft), which suggests a striving after topicality. At one point, Turnus—the enemy of Aeneas—is threatened by a Trojan opponent, and replies, “Bring it on.” This did make me wish Lombardo had withstood temptation.

Both of these translations are good, and both might be recommended to a friend or assigned to a class with confidence that they will deliver a good sense of Virgil’s poem and even genuine pleasure in reading it. But the contest to come up with an ideal twenty-first-century English Aeneid is not over.

This Issue

April 12, 2007