Sometime in the ten years between the Aeneid’s conception and its final draft, Virgil agreed to give his emperor a preview reading of three books. Virgil selected Book II, the story of the fall of Troy, Book IV, the love affair between the Carthaginian queen Dido and Aeneas, and Book VI with its visit to the underworld and triumphant pageant of Roman heroes.
Virgil would have done well on book tour. These three books are a perfect selection for a reading, each comprising a gripping and self-contained story for which no background is needed (other than Homer, which most educated Romans learned as children). But unbeknownst to him, this choice would set the tone for readers over the next two millennia. These three books, along with Book I, the story of Aeneas’ shipwrecked arrival at Carthage, became the most read and most beloved parts of the Aeneid, to the exclusion of the rest of the poem. They were seen as so endlessly stirring, passionate, tragic, and beautiful that readers saw no need to read further (St. Augustine counted his excessive love of Book IV as one of his sins). The work’s second half, with its longer story arc, battles, and speeches, proved less attractive.
This strange blindness to over half the poem extended to scholars and teachers in the ages to follow. Even today, textbooks almost uniformly excerpt from those four canonical books only. Likewise, there are numerous commentaries dedicated exclusively to the big four, but only a handful on the latter books. In America, the Advanced Placement Latin exam, founded in 1956, didn’t begin including selections from books ten and twelve until the new millennium and, sadly, these are to be dropped again starting in 2012. But imagine how it might change your understanding of Hamlet if you read just its first two acts. Or if you only made it halfway through Lord of the Flies; maybe the boys would work it out after all?
Translations played a similarly obscuring role, and none more so than John Dryden’s 1697 version of the Aeneid. Immensely popular, not only in its own time but for centuries after, it was crowned the gold standard against which all other translations were judged.
In his preface to the work, Dryden claimed to have captured the Aeneid’s spirit, but close analysis shows otherwise. In numerous places Dryden can be seen emphatically pumping up Virgil’s imperialism and smoothing away his ambiguities. Witness his treatment of Rome’s mission statement:
But, Rome, ’tis thine alone, with awful sway,
To rule mankind, and make the world obey,
Disposing peace and war by thy own
To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free:
These are imperial arts, and worthy thee.
My own, more literal translation reads:
You, O Roman, remember (for these will be your arts) to rule the people with power, and place a custom for peace, pardon those who have been cast down, and defeat the proud.
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