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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.