Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book #41 - The Aeneid (Virgil)

Sing in me, O muse, and let me tell the story of that heroic Trojan warrior, Aeneas, who flees from his fallen city, wanders the Mediterranean, and ends up founding the great city of Rome. Let me sing this story without the use of copious amounts of alcohol, because it's only 1pm and that's way too early to be boozing it up. And this decaf coffee just ain't cutting it, if you know what I mean, O muse. It tastes good, like coffee should, and it's from Ritual Roasters in San Francisco, who make awesome coffee, but the lack of caffeine is always a bit of a letdown when it comes to coffee. Yet that's what a middle aged guy like me is relegated to these days, O muse, because caffeine gets me too wired out and nervous and then I can't get to sleep for days on end and that's just no good, especially when I have to focus at work, which can be hard to do when you've been up for 52 hours straight. Dammit, muse, I've digressed.

Anyway, after finishing up Gilgamesh, I decided to move forward in time about 1000 years to ancient Rome, where the poet Virgil decided to write an epic poem in the spirit of Homer. In The Aeneid he describes the fall of Troy and the subsequent wanderings of Aeneas who will eventually found Rome, the city that Virgil lives in and which is ruled by Augustus Caesar, a very powerful man whom Virgil wants to suck up to, thus giving Virgil the motivation to write his epic poem in the first place. Well, Augustus and Virgil are long dead, but The Aeneid lives on, and it's my job to support its continued existence by reading it and blogging about it.

The poem consists of 12 books, which today we would call chapters. I have finished the first three so far. I was a little bit daunted by reading this one. I read the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, in college and high school respectively, and while I enjoyed them very much, and while the stories have really stuck with me through the years, I remember that parts of them were a little hard to get through. Well, parts of The Iliad anyway. But I'm happy to report that The Aeneid has been a great read so far. The story really moves along, and is quite poignant and moving in parts, even after 2000 years. The only problem I've encountered is that one really needs to know their Greek and Roman mythology to understand everything that goes on in this story. In particular, I wouldn't recommend reading this unless you've already read The Iliad and The Odyssey because so much of what happens in the Aeneid is related to what happens in those epics. And also because Virgil is consciously invoking those works, which were written down maybe some 700 years previously to his writing of the Aeneid.

The story so far: In Book I we meet Aeneas, a Trojan warrior fleeing the fallen city with a ragtag band of fellow Trojans, seeking the promised land called "Italy" where it is prophesied that he will found a new city called Rome, which will eventually rule the known universe. Yes, I know, it's just like Battlestar Galactica, except that the cylons are Greeks. Aeneas has the goddess Venus on his side, because she's his mother, but he has an enemy in Juno, who is pissed off because he's Trojan, and the Trojan prince Paris voted Venus more beautiful than Juno or Minerva in a beauty contest. Yep, there's a lot of back story here, as there is in most other parts of the Aeneid. But all you really need to know is this: don't fuck with the Gods because they will get pissed off and come after you relentlessly. In fact, even if you don't piss them off, but someone from your city once pissed them off, even a little bit a long time ago, then you're still probably fucked because that's the way the Gods roll. But here's the rub: it has been prophesied that Aeneas will found Rome and so nothing that he does, or that any of the Gods do, can really stop this. They can delay it, and make his life a living hell, but there seems to be some part of fate that is beyond even the Gods control.

But I've digressed again. So in Book I Aeneas and his ragtag team are at sea, fleeing Troy, when Juno makes a big storm and tries to kill them all. She fails, and they shipwreck near the new city of Carthage, which it turns out is run by a friendly queen named Dido, who takes the Trojans in and asks to hear their story. Books II and III are Aeneas's retelling of the fall of Troy and their subsequent wanderings to her. Book II in particular tells the story of how the Greeks defeat the Trojans using the famous Trojan horse, and it includes vivid descriptions of the subsequent sacking of Troy. When the Greeks break into the city at night and start the sacking, Aeneas wakes up and is determined to fight them to the death. He fights a bit, but then Venus, his mother, comes to him and tells him that he must flee...that he is fated to found Rome and he thus needs to escape and fulfill his destiny. She then allows him to see what mortals normally cannot see...he sees the Gods helping the Greeks defeat Troy, which makes him realize that fighting the Greeks is futile. Mortals can't beat Gods in warfare. So he packs up some heirlooms, grabs his kid, carries his elderly father on his back, and with his wife following they run away (conveniently illustrated in the picture at the top of this post). But Aeneas makes a mistake by telling his wife to follow them, because she lags behind and is cut down in the streets. Oops. But seriously, the whole scenes of the sack of Troy are both very moving and very exciting. And there's lots of bloodshed. This could make a good movie...maybe with Brad Pitt? Oh wait...

Book III recounts the wanderings of Aeneas and his Trojan refugees from Troy up to the point of their shipwreck in Carthage (which was on the shores of what today is Tunisia). One interesting part of this chapter is that they find a survivor of Odysseus's crew, who is trapped on the island of the cyclops. They take this man on board and he joins up with them, as they escape from the cyclops unscathed. It's kind of fun that Virgil weaves his story in with that of Homer's Odyssey. Too bad he didn't go in for some kind of merchandising tie-in as well.

Now it's onward to Book IV...and because I've had no alcohol of caffeine today, I'm not too tipsy or wired out to prevent me from continuing.

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