A Poem for Our Time
The Aeneid is a story of a man who lived three thousand years ago in the city of Troy in the north-west tip of Asia Minor. What has this got to do with us?
Troy was beseiged and sacked by the Greeks. After a series of disaters Aeneas met and loved a woman, Dido, queen of Carthage, but obeyed the call of duty to his people and his gods and left her to her death. Then, after long years of wandering, he reach Italy, fought a bitter war against the peoples of Latium and in the end formed an alliance with them which enabled hum to found his city of Lavinium. From these beginnings, 333 years later, in 753 BC, the city of Rome was to be founded. The Romans had arrived in Italy.
The Aeneid is still read and still resonates because it is a great poem. Part of its relevance to us is that it is the story of a human being who knew defeat and dispossession, love and the loss of love, whose life was ruled by his sense of duty to his gods, his people and his family, particularly to his beloved son Ascanius. But it was a hard duty and he sometimes wearied of it. He knew about war and hated the waste and ugliness of it, but fought, when he had to fight, with hatred and passion. After three millennia, the world is still full of such people. While we are of them and feel for them we shall find something in the Aeneid. The gods have changed, but for human beings there is not much difference:
Pitiless Mars was now dealing grief and death to both sides with impartial hand. Victors and vanquished killed and were killed and neither side though of flight. In the halls of Jupiter the gods pitied the futile anger of the two armies and grieved that men had so much suffering... Book 10. 755-9.
But the Aeneid is not simply a contemplation of the general human predicament. It is also full of individual human beings behaving as human beings still do. Take the charm and humour of Dido putting the Trojans at their ease at 1. 562 - 78; the grief of Andromache when she meets the Trojan youth who is the same age as her son Astyanax would have been is he had been allowed to live - we do not need to be told that Astyanax is the name on the second altar at 3. 305; the cunning of Acestes and Aeneas as they shame the great old champion back into the ring at 5. 389 - 408; the childish joke of Iulus at 7. 116 and its momentous interpretation; the god hero feasting his eyes on his old friend's son at 8. 152 or realising at 8. 560 that he can do nothing not except talk; the native's abuse of the foreigners from 9. 598; the lying harridans at the…