Thursday, 22 August 2013

A Visit to the Underworld - Aeneid Book VI - Black Sabbath riffs andother matters

The Aeneid is undoubtedly Virgil’s greatest work even despite its unfinished state at the time of his death in Greece in 19B.C. Furthermore he set in motion a romantic precedent for countless tragic artists to come when he made his deathbed request to have the entire work consigned to the flames. To continue the romantic trope, his unfaithful amanuensis fortunately ignored the request and we are forever in his debt as a result. You can’t really do much better in terms of Latin Epic than the Aeneid – although on second thoughts you could do much better in the shape of Lucan’s Pharsalia, which can certainly give Virgil a run for his money poetically and for its sheer frenzied and startlingly powerful imagery.
I happened to read Lucan in my own time outside of the school syllabus (Virgil’s Aeneid as set text) and to honest it was a much better read IMHO – it provides the flipside to the Imperial propaganda which runs through the Aeneid – where the Lucanian vision of the future Imperium is brutal, bloody and one of great destruction and horror, past present and future giving the lie to the wonderful paradise that is promised after the dust settles on Rome’s enemies within and without. I have to be honest here and say that I found Aeneas a bit  too ‘moral’ for my liking and almost a tad dorkish (perhaps like the Odyssey but with Tom Cruise in it instead of a much better but more ‘flawed’ actor and storyline).It struck my innocent schoolboy mind as all a bit too Roman Hollywood I suppose and the Pharsalia, like Tacitus is a very interesting contrast to the orchestral greatness of ‘eternal Rome the savior of all mankind’ portrayed in the Aeneid. It would be an interesting future project to contrast the two works – the light and dark sides of the Roman principate.
If the two works were rock groups, I would imagine the Aeneid as Queen’s Greatest Hits and the Pharsalia more Black Sabbath. The former quite brilliant, sparkling, flashy, erudite but a little bit shall we say…conservative and safe. Whereas with Lucan’s work we have lines like a Tony Iommi solo at 200Decibels shearing off your synapses and hammering your poetic eardrums into submission – it doesn’t pull any punches and it lowers its sophistication level knowingly for brutal effect – much like the opening riffs of Paranoid or War Pigs.
Even today listening to radio broadcasts and podcast commentaries on the Aeneid one still gets the impression that many modern readers/pundits are dazzled by the sheer magnificence of the work as poetry and as a result have swallowed the propaganda a little too much. It’s often glossed over – and since there was not such a distinction in ancient times between the roles that poetry and prose played in official and public use at the time, this becomes an even more important point, namely, to look at the works purely in aesthetic terms is at the risk of misunderstanding their real impact at the time and thus their deeper historical and political significance. I really feel that if Latin texts were taught in this way even at A Level they would be far more engaging. The fact that Virgil is presented or almost pre-presented as ‘great’ to a beginner classicist as I was at the time – it produced in me a distinct lack of genuine tangibility or engagement with the work, which was/is a great pity.

Until recently scholarship shied away from looking at Virgil’s work in this more penetrating way however it is certainly a valid point to look more closely at why the Aeneid was written and with what audience in mind. The image of Maecenas once again looms Saatchi-like out of the shadows. To be fair, Lucan (60s AD) did sort of pinch a lot of ideas from Virgil and subvert them for his own literary ends (often to great effect) but then again couldn’t it be posited that in its own way, Book VI of the Aeneid is based thematically on Greek philosophical thought relating to the afterlife and in literary terms borrows heavily from the Odyssey?
I have been reading an article from Classical Philology Vol. 67, No.1 (January 1972) by Friedrich Solmsen-The World of the Dead in Book VI of the Aeneid (JSTOR who describes the loose and shifting tripartite structure of Book VI, namely into Homeric, Moral and Philosophical parts which in turn are meant to represent the primitive, moral and rational facets of human nature. The underworld as Aeneas discovers is a place of all time, Past, Present and Future where he is guided through the horrors to meet his father and Dido once again.
These two meetings put Virgil into a new category of epic, since they succeed in humanizing and adding great realistic individual detail – this is something that doesn’t happen on quite so a personal and emotional level in the underworld meetings in the Odyssey (upon which they are based).
There are in such individualized encounters highly emotionally charged and extremely moving lines of poetry (e.g. the contrasting encounters with Anchises and Dido) which in turn inspired Dante , who used this Virgilian map of the underworld as well as the concept of the recycling of souls, in his own masterpiece of the Divine Comedy (Hell in particular, Purgatory in general). Virgil’s model of the underworld with its emphasis on generalized Judgment , punishment and justice stands in contrast to earlier Greek depictions where the retribution is meted out upon specific divine renegades. In the Aeneid, the underworld is where all humanity is judged and if good enough may eventually pass to Elysium or remain forever in Tartaros, the darkest deepest pit where dwell the original renegades against divine order and reason. You can easily see where later concepts of heaven and hell came in the later fleshing out of later medieval Christian eschatology.
The great innovation here and the groundbreaking development is that the underworld of generalized judgment we experience with Virgil is also one of individuals; the salvation or damnation of the individual soul is at stake and is brought much closer to home and sharper focus that any previous ancient description. This is just one aspect of his great genius as a poet, a truly revolutionary innovation and an exciting fresh idea appearing for the first time in Latin epic verse. Dante takes this concept much further but the essential original concept is right here in Book VI and is a remarkable new step.
In a further emotional encounter we also meet Marcellus as part of the Imperial Roman future that for him will never be, golden imperial hope and deeply mourned by all levels of society as he apparently was– again a tragic and fascinating use of telescoping time back and forth in this realm of the dead to remind Aeneas of his past and his future trials and tribulations, and ultimately his destiny of founding hero of Rome. And all this in the most exquisite hexameter verse.
Aeneas finally emerges safely from the underworld, refreshed, rebooted even and ready for anything – he is going to have to be with a warrior the likes of Turnus just around the corner and his trials far from over. See you all on Sunday to discuss this work together with book IV of the Georgics. Salve atque vale!


  1. Hi Stephen, thanks for this and the Georgics posts. By a coincidence I picked up a second hand copy of the Lucan today, and so will probably dip into that next. I haven't read all of the Aeneid yet, but am enjoying it, thought the second book on the sack of Troy was fairly amazing. In both the Aeneid and the Georgics there are reflections of the odyssey, not just in the theme of a visit to the underworld. Will try to bring these up tomorrow.

  2. I just got these posts up in the nick of time. Yes it is clear that Virgil's works are imbued with the twin pillars of Greek learning The Illiad and the Odyssey (amongst Lucan's lost works there is an 'Illiacos'). The Romans sort of knew at heart that they couldn't really completely replace Greek learning to which they were really completely indebted- and throughout Latin epic and Roman poetry in general its hard to find much that has no trace of Homeric or Hesiodic allusion. It was the literary lingua franca and basic tool kit I suppose - we have a little of this in some English author's predilictions for French or Shakespeare of Biblical quotations...for many learned men of the ancient pagan world..the Illiad and Odyssey were fonts of learning and wisdom to be constantly drawn upon and referred to as authorities in all sorts of contexts. Hope to see you tomorrow. I corrected an error in the post...Lucan was extant in the 60s not the 90s AD!