After Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, Virgil’s Aeneid is the ancient work most illuminating for an America wrestling with the tragic costs and contradictions of political idealism and global empire. When Virgil died in 19 B.C., leaving his epic of Rome’s founding by the Trojan exile Aeneas nearly complete, Rome had finally resolved its own bloody conflict between an agrarian republicanism and the vast empire that it had gained almost by accident—“an achievement which was without parallel in human history,” as the Greek historian Polybius wrote. Yet that achievement was purchased at the price of brutal civil wars, proscriptions, riots, moral corruption, and the demise of the Roman Republic that for half a millennium had nursed the remarkable men who had made an obscure city-state master of a world now to be ruled by civilization and law rather than by force.

This tragic conjunction of successful idealism and bloody brutality is Virgil’s theme, one he works out in the context of a larger philosophical issue: the mysterious, intimate interplay of order with chaos, and the troubling dependence of our highest idealism on passion and violence, the same ideas he developed in his earlier masterpiece the Georgics. The political order of Rome, based on law, consensual government, and public virtue, brings the benefits of a higher civilization to the peoples brought under Roman rule, and hence is superior to rule by elites who monopolize resources and power in order to pursue their private ambitions and appetites. At the same time, however, this process of creating an ideal order necessitates violence and the brutalizing disorder unleashed by the chaotic passions that define all men, Romans included. Virgil goes beyond merely raising the question of whether the political ideal is worth the price in blood. His “negative capability” can answer this question both yes and no. But his tragic vision also recognizes that we may not even have a choice: that no matter how high the price of success, the failure to create the ideal will lead to even greater evil.

As Virgil recounts the adventures of Aeneas struggling to fulfill the gods’ command to found Rome, this dual vision is the Aeneid’s most characteristic quality, one evident at every thematic level—from the gods to the natural world, from visions of history to the conflicted human soul. Jupiter is the divine manager of cosmic order, yet his sister-wife Juno is the epitome of irrational destructiveness. The circular orbits of the constellations and planets testify to nature’s order, but storms, fires, plagues, and earthquakes reveal nature’s catastrophic disorder. History is providential, a progressive sequence of divinely ordered events culminating in the Roman Empire, a universal socio-political structure that brings civilization to the savage and peace to the world; at the same time, history is mere cyclic repetition, the consequence of unchanging human passion that creates another ruined Troy, another Achilles, and another Romulus (or Sulla, Marius, Caesar, Brutus, Antony, Octavian) who murders his brother Remus (or the Gracchi, Pompey, Cato, Caesar, Cicero, Antony …). The soul can know its duty and strive to honor it, no matter what the personal cost, yet at the same time the soul is riven by powerful passions that drive men to do what they know they should not. Homer’s Achilles, a constant presence in the Aeneid, embodies the Greek epic hero, one whose wrath at dishonor and thirst for personal glory wreak havoc on friend as well as foe. But Aeneas suggests another model of heroism, a Roman hero of self-sacrificial duty to an ideal that will benefit the whole world. At every level, Virgil gives both perspectives their full due, refusing to choose one over the other, and often showing us both at work simultaneously, as in Aeneas’s reversion to the Achillean paradigm even as he fulfills his duty to create Rome.

Virgil’s ideas, then, are philosophically complex, reflecting equally the competing perspectives of Stoic idealism and Epicurean materialism, as well as the conflict between the optimistic utopianism of rational virtue, and the pessimistic realism of tragedy. But as Virgil’s contemporary Horace said, the great poets mix the “useful” with the “sweet,” ideas with aesthetic pleasure. And this is what makes Virgil’s achievement in the Aeneid even more stunning: this complex philosophical meditation is presented through a poetic craftsmanship rarely matched in the tradition of narrative poetry. Like all the great poets of the dying Roman Republic—the so-called neoterics or “new poets,” as Cicero scornfully called them—Virgil was influenced by Hellenistic Greek aesthetic canons that placed a high value on “learning” and “polish,” the self-conscious display of poetic craftsmanship through a sophisticated interplay of meter, word-play, learned allusions, literary references, imagery, and sound. As for ideas, the collapse of the autonomous Greek city-states under Macedonian imperial hegemony made the traditional themes of epic heroic achievement seem politically pointless in an age of autocrats ruling through imperial bureaucracies and mercenary armies. Thus private life, personal relations like love and friendship, the pleasures of recherché knowledge, and the craft of poetry provide the subject matter of Hellenistic poetry. To the Greek masters like Callimachus, these demands meant that traditional epic, what Callimachus scorned as the “ass’s braying” or the “muddy river” from which the vulgar drink, was impossible, if not reprehensible. Hence the preference for small-scale genres such as epigram, lyric, or the epyllion, the “little epic,” which usually was not even as long as one book of Homer. Thus Virgil in the nearly ten-thousand hexameters of the Aeneid accomplishes the neoteric equivalent of squaring the circle: he writes a traditional epic that still displays in almost every line the intricate, self-conscious craftsmanship prized by the “new poets,” now in service to the grand themes of political idealism and martial heroism.

The scope of Virgil’s achievement makes translation of the Aeneid a daunting task. As Robert Fagles has proven before with his successful translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the primary responsibility of the translator is to tell the story accurately and capture something of the style of the original, all the while that the translation is faithful to the peculiar qualities of literary English—as Fagles himself puts it in his Postscript, “to find a middle ground … between the features of an ancient author and the expectations of a contemporary reader.” Fagles’ Aeneid accomplishes this goal, capturing Virgil’s narrative drive and duplicating many of his poetic effects without sounding like a Victorian pastiche. As English poetry, Fagles’ Aeneid is first-rate, its literary qualities obvious particularly when read aloud. But the understandable, and no doubt correct priority he puts on writing good English poetry means that occasionally the translation cannot remain faithful to the poetic techniques by which Virgil constructs his complex meanings.

One of Virgil’s most important poetic techniques is the careful repetition of key words and images in different circumstances, so that as the poem progresses the idea linked to the word acquires more complexity, nuance, and scope. For example, the word used in the Aeneid to evoke destructive disorder is furor and its various cognates. This word means not just “rage,” as does its English derivative “fury,” but any intense passion or desire that overwhelms the mind and drives a person to destructive actions. The image that most frequently functions as the “objective correlative” of this force is fire. Virgil uses this nexus of diction and imagery to characterize the whole cosmos—gods like Juno, natural phenomena, and most important the passions of humans, each a manifestation of this totalizing force of destruction that must be tamed before the ideal order envisioned by the gods can exist.

Virgil establishes this pattern in the Aeneid’s first scene, which is programmatic of the whole epic’s ideas and poetic techniques. In Book One, as Juno burns (flammato corde) with anger at seeing her enemy the Trojans sailing to Italy and a glorious destiny, she recalls how Athena punished Ajax for raping Cassandra in the goddess’s temple, a crime Virgil calls furias, a mad passionate lust. Juno then bribes Aeolus, king of the winds (furentibus Austris), to raise a storm to destroy the fleet, promising him a beautiful nymph for his bed. This scene culminates in the epic’s first simile, which compares Neptune’s calming of the stormy sea to the effect a virtuous politician, “whose devotion and public service lend him weight,” can have on a rebellious mob, “all slaves to passion,/rocks firebrands flying. Rage [Furor] finds them arms.” In just one scene, Virgil has connected divine disorder, nature’s destructive power, sexual madness, political chaos, and human passion, all manifestations of the cosmic force of destruction that, like fire, can burn and destroy. As the poem progresses, more examples of this force’s power will be depicted with this same diction and imagery: Aeneas’s desire to die exacting revenge on the Greeks during the sack of Troy, his grief at losing his wife Creusa during the flight from the burning city, Dido’s sexual madness that ends in her own death and ultimately ignites the Punic Wars, the bitter disappointment of Turnus at losing to Aeneas the Latin princess Lavinia, and Aeneas’s Achillean slaughter of the suppliant Turnus, thus failing to honor his father Anchises’ injunction to “spare the defeated,” which is to be imperial Rome’s moral destiny—all are described with the same diction and imagery, which interlinks them into the vehicle for developing Virgil’s ideas. In the end, we know the enormous price we must pay to create a political ideal, for the powerful forces we must try to tame permeate the whole cosmos, and lay at the heart of our own human identity.

Fagles’ translation sometimes honors but often obscures these careful connections. He describes Ajax’s rape of Cassandra as a “mad crime,” but the reader will have to consult the notes to learn what that crime is. “Mad,” however, misses the full import of Virgil’s furias, which is better captured by Allen Mandelbaum’s clunky “outrage done by one infuriated man.” The furentibus Austris that link nature’s destruction to human sexual madness become in Fagles “raging gusts,” which limits the Latin to the suggestion of intense anger, whereas something like “raving” better retains the important connotation of a loss of mental control, the failure of the mind that should order the soul. And in the key simile that lays out in miniature Virgil’s political ideal—the necessity of political virtues like duty for creating social order—Fagles’s choice of “Rage” for Virgil’s personified Furor leaves us thinking that “intense anger” is what Virgil sees as threatening political stability, when in actual fact Furor has much greater scope: all the passions and appetites of men, correlative with the forces of cosmic disorder found in nature and the gods, are what must be tamed and controlled before we humans have a chance at creating social and political orders in which we can be virtuous and happy—a much greater and more serious challenge, and one whose chance of success is more in doubt.

My point is not that Fagles missed better choices, although occasionally one can argue he does. And often, there is no good choice in English for capturing the full resonance of the Latin word. Overall, Fagles has made the choices that create a poem in English of superlative quality and readability. The larger issue is the limits of any translation when the work is one of the philosophical and artistic complexity of the Aeneid, a problem not nearly as troublesome for translating Homer. This means the reader should be provided supplementary materials to do the explanatory work that translation alone couldn’t. Fagles’s endnotes are helpful in this regard, but more important would have been an introduction that goes beyond the biographical and historical information Bernard Knox provides, though his discussion of Roman virtues like pietas is first-rate. But any even moderately educated Victorian would have known most of the rest. I suppose it is testimony to the sorry state of contemporary education when even literate people who will buy a translation of the Aeneid must be provided such elementary background information.

And that lack of an interpretive essay is a shame, for Virgil’s ideas have great relevance to the United States today, which finds itself the most powerful nation on the planet, the creator and guarantor of global order, now under attack by a fanatic, destructive force. Yet as the impatience with the war in Iraq shows—a conflict in part motivated by democratic idealism, a faith in the universal rightness of political freedom, rule by law, and individual autonomy—we chafe at the cost of such idealism, what Abraham Lincoln called the “awful arithmetic”: not just killing and dying, but the brutality and disorder that war always and everywhere raises in the souls of even the good, and that sometimes drive us to violate our own principles. For as Thucydides and Virgil both recognized, human nature is constant, one of its defining characteristics being a penchant for irrational disorder that always threatens to erupt and challenge our highest ideals. This tragic cost and suffering are what I think Virgil means by the lacrimae rerum, the “tears for things” and, in Fagles’ fine phrase, “the burdens of mortality [that] touch the heart.” Despite the poetic brilliance of Fagles’ Aenied, a translation alone cannot communicate the full depth of Virgil’s timely wisdom.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 25 Number 10, on page 72
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