On First Reading Virgil's Aeneid

the aeneid - aeneas fleeing troy

In good old-fashioned, unrecorded conversation, you can say any old nonsense and get away with it. Writing, for both better and worse, doesn’t disappear instantly into the aether. You’re damn well stuck with what you said, and both you and everyone else who’s read you can see and point out very easily when you’re proven an idiot. 

So it will inevitably be with this article. 

I read one of the most enduring and influential works in Western literature… and was underwhelmed. I’m well aware that it’s almost certainly my problem, not Virgil’s. I’m equally prepared to accept the probability that I’ll read this same article one year from now, or several, and wince incredulously at my own analytical failings; wonder how I could possibly have failed to appreciate such a masterpiece, to which the phrase ‘stood the test of time’ – two millennia on from the time it was written – would be an absurd understatement. 

The endless Dickens adaptations on stage and screen show that he has ‘stood the test of time’. Virgil’s longevity is on quite another level. His legacy is etched in stone. It is quite literally sculpted in marble. 

aeneas sculpture by Bernini

(Bernini’s famous sculpture, depicting the Aeneid’s most famous scene, in which Aeneas carries his father – in turn carrying their ‘household gods’ – to safety from Troy’s destruction)

The Aeneid directly influenced another of the most important works in the Western canon – Dante’s Comedy – some one thousand three hundred years after being written. That’s far longer than the gap between our own time and the Norman conquest, yet – in 14th century Italy – The Aeneid was still the touchstone of contemporary literature. 

So, again, I’m almost certainly wrong… but I simply didn’t enjoy The Aeneid. 

My Homer Fanboy Biases

I’ll put my cards on the table straight away, because they almost certainly had an impact on said lack of enjoyment. 

I took a full course studying The Iliad at university. The teacher was wonderful, and it was one of the best modules, if not the best, I took in the whole four years. 

If I’d had The Aeneid explained to me in a similarly brilliant manner, by an impassioned expert on the text, I’d surely feel different about it. Likewise, without such guidance, there’s no way I’d have become such a quivering Homer fanboy. 

Unfortunately, I feel as if having prior knowledge of The Iliad and The Odyssey (which I subsequently read alone, but obviously knew ‘what to look for’ by then) – while it certainly informs your reading of The Aeneid – detracts from your actual enjoyment of it. 

As noted, Virgil was writing a Very, Very Long Time Ago. But The Iliad and The Odyssey had been around since… Rome was even a real thing. Homer had been worshipped by educated Romans for centuries, just as he was by the Greeks. 


Virgil’s own reverence for Homer isn’t just plain to see – it’s dominant throughout The Aeneid. 

It forms the basic structure of the work. Quite simply, the first half is a naked re-imagining of The Odyssey, and the second half is Virgil’s take on The Iliad. Even entire chapters – such as Aeneas descending into the underworld and encountering his loved ones, or a lengthy list of all the parties taking part in the second half’s war – are essentially copied. 

Beyond that, there are many, many instances of action being lifted directly from Homer’s work. If you’ve read the latter, you can regularly tick off the repeated scenes which are all too familiar. 

Here’s the part with the Cyclops. There’s the bit where he tries to hug a ghost (more affecting than I’ve made it sound here). Oh, she’s a bit like Circe. Hmm, didn’t I read a detailed account of funereal games upon the death of a heroic figure somewhere before?

And on and on it goes, for almost the entire duration.


Of course it’s perfectly fine to draw influence from the great works of the past. But all too often here, it goes beyond mere allusion. Instead, Virgil is copying directly from his treasured source material, usually without putting any particularly interesting spin on it. 

As a reader, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Read Virgil first, and you’re obviously missing a huge part of his intentions, which was to deliberately and heavily reference Homer. Read Homer first, and (in addition to spoiling yourself with superior work) you’ll find large swathes of The Aeneid to be – despite their poetic value – simply derivative. 

Setting the Scene


With that moaning preamble out of the way, let’s actually discuss something of value. If you know nothing about The Aeneid (as I didn’t, before I started reading it), here’s your grounding. 

Virgil lived in the final years of the Roman Republic, and the early years of the Empire. His agricultural work, Georgics (sure, it doesn’t sound thrilling, but a lot of people still prefer it to The Aeneid), was very well-received, and the all-powerful Emperor Augustus knew him personally.

virgil and augustus

Indeed, Augustus either directly requested that Virgil write The Aeneid, or at least suggested he might like to try (more on that shortly). 

Whether forced into it or not, Virgil’s aim was to write an epic poem depicting the origins of the Roman people. 

At this point, you might think that the Romans already had a superhero-style ‘origin story’, involving Romulus, Remus, and a benevolent wolf. And you’d be right! This second stab at the story, however, coming many centuries later, could take into account Rome’s new status as the dominant and seemingly unstoppable continental power. It was, effectively, retrofitting an origin myth to suit the present day; when, naturally, you already knew the ending. 

(From a temporal perspective, The Aeneid takes place a long time before Romulus and Remus. Aeneas brings the people who will eventually become ‘The Romans’ to Italy, and a few centuries pass before the famous babies burst onto the scene). 

And who was Aeneas?

A Trojan hero, who – along with a surprisingly large number of other people – managed to escape the final downfall of Ilium. While there’s a little jumping around in time in The Aeneid, Aeneas’ own story here basically begins with him fleeing the burning city, then leading the other survivors on a topsy-turvy Odyssey around the Mediterranean, before finally landing in Italy; much to the understandable chagrin of many locals. 

(And no, these aren’t spoilers – you’re told exactly what will happen at the very beginning of the book… which is another reason why this isn’t the most fulfilling of reading experiences. But let’s stop moaning – we’re into the informative part of the piece now!). 

Divided Loyalties

Say one thing for old Virgil – he was put into a sticky situation. 

There’s no doubting, from a technical point of view, that he was an incredible writer. If left to his own devices, who knows what he might have come up with. When the most powerful man in the known world asks you to write a certain kind of story, however, all doors but one are closed. 

Virgil’s mission was clear. He was to explain where the Roman people came from, and what set them on the path to dominance. 

With a briefing like that, there’s not much room for nuance. Aeneas must be a very, very heroic leader. His people – the future Romans – must be brave, steadfast, ambitious, loyal, and possess every other characteristic which their descendants would eventually prize (in themselves). 

While the in-context focus of the actual story is on the ‘future’, though, the book is chock-full of overt references to events that actually took place many centuries later. Some are utterly obvious, including multiple not-so-subtle mentions of Augustus’ greatness. Others are references to important conflicts or characters which would fly high over the head of the modern-day reader who lacked sufficient explanatory notes. 

The frequency and force of this horn-tooting was the biggest detractor from my enjoyment here. Wherever it’s deployed, you’re pulled instantly out of the narrative and reminded that – whether we sympathise with him or not – Virgil had a major political role to play in his writing. Clearly he is a great poet, but this is not simply a poem; not writing created purely for art’s sake. It is also state-commissioned propaganda… and blatant propaganda at that.  

Very High Highs

Disappointed as I might have been in certain aspects, The Aeneid still undoubtedly contains some of the most wonderful scenes ever committed to paper.

 Books Two, Four, and Six are those most often quoted as the high points, and – indeed – it was these which Virgil himself read aloud for a royal audience. To this day, they – particularly the first two – have a major impact. 

Book Two is the real money-maker. It’s the one that, were you a casual (albeit highly educated) Roman in the Augustan period, you’d have most looked forward to reading. 

trojan horse

This is Aeneas’ account of Troy’s end. Homer’s Iliad finishes just as the city is about to fall, and Virgil’s second book is something of a sequel (albeit delivered centuries later). Crucially, our perspective is also flipped to the other side. Homer’s work was from the perspective of the victors; this, from that of the vanquished, whose entire civilisation is being destroyed in front of them. Aeneas’ account of his escape is both moving and genuinely thrilling, and Virgil steers brilliantly between bursts of violent action and moments of tragic pathos. 

Book Four relates the story of Aeneas and Dido. It’s incredibly famous, but I had absolutely no idea about it beforehand, and won’t spoil it for anybody equally ignorant. Suffice to say it is also intensely moving, and paints Aeneas – to modern readers, at least, although I’m genuinely unsure how Virgil saw his hero’s actions here – in a very different light to that in which we’ve previously seen him. 

Book Six tells of Aeneas’ journey into the underworld. It’s also incredibly famous, but – to my eyes, at least – holds the greatest value now for having so directly influenced Dante. It’s imaginatively told, I suppose, but is also very similar indeed to Odysseus’ descent. There’s also a lot of foreshadowing regarding Rome’s future successes, which – while I’m sure contemporary readers lapped it up – bears little artistic merit now. 

Again, none of the actual stories in these books are exactly ‘original’. The second tells the well-known story of Troy’s final demise, and the fourth and sixth are simply re-imaginings of similar chapters in The Odyssey. They’re so well-told, however, that you’re mostly able to put this aside and enjoy the brilliance of the storytelling on its own merit. 

Curious Changes

To be incredibly reductive, I felt as if The Aeneid got better as it went along. If we step back and imagine Virgil as an actual human being – not the Latin cultural behemoth which he became – this is perfectly understandable.


The composition took him years. And while the actual quality of the writing itself remains consistent throughout, some fascinating changes do take place. Particularly upon Aeneas’ re-ascension to the world of the living (the unofficial halfway point), both the tone of the poem, and the character of the protagonist himself, alter quite dramatically. 

Tone Shift

As noted, the second half of The Aeneid is The Iliad, to the first part’s Odyssey. There is a clear demarcation within the poem itself, which is Aeneas – having suffered many trials and tribulations – leaving the underwothe writerrld, after a long, State of the Union-style talk with his deceased father.

aeneas leaves underworld

The first half is chock-full with prophecies of the glories Aeneas, and subsequently the Romans, will achieve. The second half concerns the costs of those glories. 

Virgil could never be accused of glorifying the violence which consumes his poem’s second half. Gory, grizzly details abound. Promising and beloved young men are cut down senselessly in their primes. Heroic bravery carries fighters a short way, before frequently leading to their demise. Nor is it only the fighters themselves who suffer: in a wonderfully Homeric detail, the warriors’ mothers crowd the city walls, trembling with fear and sorrow as their sons march out below them to battle. 

Again, it’s not a spoiler that the Trojans win the war. This outcome is revealed in some of the earliest lines of the poem. Virgil’s reaction to his own ancestors’ victory, however, is fascinatingly obscure. It is not nationalistically trumpeted, as you might have guessed. The Trojans’ eventual domination of the locals, rather than being a triumphal culmination of their years-long efforts, sees the work actually ending on an unexpectedly flat, sombre note. 

Throughout this second half, Virgil also gives ample attention and screen time to the local powers. These are led by the mighty Turnus, prophesied in the first half – in a brief yet wonderful instance of foreshadowing – as a ‘new Achilles’. 

Turnus’ objection to the Trojans’ arrival, their sudden claims of Italian land, and Aeneas’ seemingly imminent betrothal to a princess to whom Turnus was already engaged, all serve to build plenty of sympathy for the home team. Turnus himself seems at least a match in battle for Aeneas, and does indeed feature many of the admirable (from a Warrior Culture point of view) characteristics that the original Achilles possessed. 

In short, Virgil – having nakedly trumpeted Roman dominance through much of the first half of The Aeneid – becomes decidedly more ambiguous and balanced in his writing, once the violent price of that dominance comes into focus. 

It’s not a huge stretch, in fact, to suggest that he is actively criticising an army turning up in new lands out of the blue, claiming said lands for themselves, and killing the locals who resist… which, of course – before all the civilising and domesticating that invariably followed – was how Roman expansion typically took place. 

Heroic (D)Evolution?

One of my biggest gripes, especially early on, was with Aeneas himself. 

For much of The Aeneid, he is simply not an interesting character. He doesn’t have the ingenuity or charisma of Odysseus. Nor does he possess the enigmatic contrasts of Achilles, who oscillates between stubborn childishness and heroism, extreme sensitivity and mindless, industrial-level violence. 

Early on, Aeneas is simply capital-H Heroic, in the most boring way possible. He’s tall, handsome, strong, brave, and very, very pious. He’s just an all-round great guy, seemingly without fault. As touched upon earlier, even his behaviour towards Dido in Book Four – while a modern audience would surely find it objectionable – seems largely to be given a free pass by Virgil. 

As the war begins, then draws on, however… it seems almost as if Virgil’s views on his own protagonist change. 

The frequency of heroic adjectives slows notably. Aeneas is absent for a pivotal battle, off on an errand with which a lieutenant surely might have been trusted, while his great rival Turnus is in the thick of it and dominating. At one crucial point in the decisive battle, he is – perhaps to the frustration of the modern reader – saved from death directly by divine intervention, his involvement thereafter feeling undeserved. 

And then, of course, there is the infamous ending. 

Naturally, I don’t wish to spoil the specifics. But it feels almost as if our growing sense of Aeneas as a very different – markedly less sympathetic – character, compared to the one with whom we were presented earlier on, is firmly cemented here. Whether Virgil fell out of love with his hero, or his subject matter, or simply wanted to make a wider point, it’s an unexpectedly unexpected end to a story which – especially because the eventual outcome is revealed so early – has previously featured precious few genuine surprises. 

Virgil’s Style, And The Reading Experience

bust of virgil

And what of Virgil, The Writer? 

Because crucially, of course, he was a writer. The Homeric epics were passed down orally for a very long time before being committed to paper. The Aeneid was always going to be a work of literature, however, and every word (in the original Latin, obviously) remains exactly as Virgil wrote it. 

Part of my frustration here, regarding those pesky narrative and thematic restrictions enforced on him, does lie in the fact that Virgil was clearly a brilliant writer. Pointless as such hypotheticals are, it’s still interesting to wonder what he might have written, given complete artistic freedom. 

Overall, Virgil has a very definite style, quite unlike any other I’ve read. 

Most notably, his writing is dense. I don’t mean that in a negative way: it’s not difficult to read, nor boring. But there is an incredible precision to the language. It’s clear that every single word, quite literally, has carefully and deliberately been chosen for its own particular meaning. There is no wasted space. 

This density and specificity has two main effects. 

Firstly, it makes the descriptions extremely accurate. Nothing – whether setting, action, or character – is ever merely outlined in vague generalities. Instead it is specified, exactly as it truly is.  

Secondly, it means that this is a relatively slow read. Again, that’s not because it’s boring. Rather, if you want to give this classic work of literature a real shot, and commit to a meaningful reading experience, you’ll also want to take your time, since every line contains detail which is easily skipped over.  

Is the writing ‘beautiful’? Sometimes, but certainly not compared to Dante’s Comedy, for example, which is its clear spiritual successor. I’d instead describe Virgil’s style as ‘effective’, and – while this is certainly not a short book – efficient too, thanks to that aforementioned precision.  

Lost in Translation?

Obviously, as we read these works today – separated from the originals by gulfs in both time and language – the specific translation we’re working with plays an enormous role. 

I read the Robert Fagles version, published in 2006. For reference, I read Fagles’ translations of both The Iliad and Odyssey, and enjoyed both. In this case, I simply couldn’t get along with it. 

In his own Translator’s Notes, following the main text, Fagles mentions how his approach changed compared to that for the Homeric epics; how he gave himself more licence for creative divergence from the original Latin. 

I wish he hadn’t. 

The tone of this translation is… strange. It’s clearly intended to be modern and ‘readable’, but it doesn’t actually read very well at all. The phrasing is often awkward, and – overall – it feels as if Fagles is trying too hard. I found it hard work to follow along from very early on; something that certainly wasn’t the case with his Homeric works. 

This doesn’t account for some of my major qualms: the propaganda, largely dull protagonist, lack of genuine surprise, and so on. I do feel, however, as if a translation more to my liking would – quite simply – have made the reading experience more fun. 

Looking Ahead

aeneas turnus

Go far enough back, and Aeneas’ ancestors were supposedly from Italy. A cynic might say this provides a convenient excuse for the Trojans’ actions in The Aeneid. It’s not an invasion after all, but a homecoming; they’re only claiming what’s been rightfully theirs all along. Regardless, it means that – rather than being an A-to-Z journey – the story of The Aeneid is actually one of a cycle being completed. 

So it is with my little review. In the first and second sections, I suggested that it’s almost certainly my fault for not ‘getting’ The Aeneid, and that I’d have undoubtedly derived more enjoyment had I sought a little help along the way, as was certainly the case with The Iliad. 

Well, I’m absolutely certain that’s what I’ll do in the future. 

A significant part of The Aeneid’s legendary status is surely down to its circumstances. This was the great Roman epic, written by the great Roman poet, at the very peak of the Roman empire’s power. It was judged an instant classic, and immediately became part of not only the literary canon, but also the curriculum for school students. 

Judging The Aeneid two millenia later, simply as a piece of writing, it doesn’t have the same impact as it originally did. Of course it’s still head and shoulders above – at a conservative estimate – ninety nine percent of what’s been written since. But I don’t feel as if it belongs on that very, absolute, tip-top level. That’s true even of epic poems, with Homer’s works, Dante’s Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost each being better by a distance. 

With all that said, as noted, I’m not finished with my Virgilian (I assume that’s an adjective) journey. Even after finishing my first reading, I gained a significant amount of analytical insight from reading Fagles’ Translator’s Notes, and re-reading the excellent introduction by Bernard Knox. Both are relatively short, and I’m more than willing to give the whole thing another go, with far more prior preparation, plenty of notes kept handy along the way, and a different translator at the helm. 

We’ll see in time, I suppose, whether either I, or two thousand years of combined literary judgement, are correct about The Aeneid.

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