[Booktalk] A literary Appendix N; The Aenead

A.k.a History’s first fanfiction a.k.a Warhammer -400 B.C., the Aenead is an essential part of the Classic Western Canon that has mostly sunk into obscurity among my generation. For shame, says I. Here’s why it rocks.

The Aenead is the unofficial sequel to Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, and follows the adventures of Aeneas, son of Venus, as he flees from a burning Troy to wander seas of the mediterranean, tracing in the footsteps of Odysseus, until he arrives in Libia, where he meets his love, the voluptuous and bipolar Queen Dido.

File:Aeneas bij Latinus Rijksmuseum SK-A-614.jpeg - Wikimedia Commons
Even the art is less cool

The Aenead is a fusion of disconnected oral tradition and borrowed greek myth into an  epic that exemplifies and glorifies Roman Culture and History. It is created myth. Gone is the formidable but at times laughably sheltered Trojan hero of the Illiad. The Aenead’s Aeneas is a different animal, stern, resolute, stoic, stripped of the preening bravado of the Greek and capable of both compassion and a terrifying ruthlessness.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth’s peoples – for your arts are to be these: To pacify, to impose the rule of law, To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.

In order to establish Rome as the worthy successor of all the achievements of the ancient world Aeneas, who personifies Rome, must prove themselves their equal. So it is that Aeneas follows in the footsteps of Odysseus; his fleet suffers the fury of Juno, he fights the Harpy Queen Celaeno, he faces off against the Cyclops and Charybdis, he searches for other Trojan colonies who send him on their way until he eventually learns of his manifest destiny to found a new nation in the country of Latium in Italy. Instead he ends up in Queen Dido’s bed in Carthage.

Every man’s last day is fixed. Lifetimes are brief, and not to be regained, for all mankind. But by their deeds to make their fame last: that is labor for the brave

Dido at first seems a companion and a boon to heal Aeneas’s hurts but we quickly learn she is but another obstacle to be overcome. She will not leave her country nor can she abide him to leave. There is a crucial nuance to Aeneas’s decision to leave. It is not that he does not love her, nor that he is callous, but that he can surpress his emotions and personal concerns to serve a higher calling. This makes him more civilized but also more terrifying then all the ancient heroes.

Though far away, I will chase you with murky brands and, when chill death has severed soul and body, everywhere my shade shall haunt you.

Dido cannot abide to live without him and is completely obsessed. She neglects her duties and jumps in bed with Aeneas before a marriage is made. When he leaves she kills herself with a sword but not before swearing eternal strife between their peoples, foreshadowing the conflict between Rome and Carthage.

Dido - Wikipedia
Desert Pussy, 400 B.C.

There is one last obstacle before the true story begins. Like Odysseus before him, Aeneas must venture into the Underworld, to placate the spirit of his perished father Anchises. There he witnesses the torments of the damned in Tartarus, but also a glimpse of the glory of Rome to be.

From that point onward the story grows into itself and takes place in terrestrial spheres. The other inhabitants of Italy (an awful lot of them Greek) are not content to let Aeneas forge his mighty city and sleep with the women of Latium in peace. This means fucking war!

“Undaunted I will meet this chief, although Like great Achilles he appear, arrayed Like him in armor wrought by Vulcan’s hands. To you, and to the king, my future sire, I, Turnus, second to no veteran here In valor, have devoted this my life. Is it me alone Aeneas challenges? Be it so, I pray!”

The line-up of adversaries is much larger then the Illiad. The tribes of Italy rise up against Aeneas and his men. Chief among them is Turnus, King of the Rutulians, of greek stock, a haughty, bloodthirsty killer. In his aristeia moment he is trapped alone within the walls of Aeneas’s camp, cutting down the Trojans, ripping javelins from fallen trojans and casting them into the fleeing throng. At his hands friends and allied tribesmen of Aeneas fall like chaff.

File:The Fight between Aeneas and King Turnus, from Virgil's ...
Aeneas v. Turnus

His companions are almost a classic era Legion of Doom. The exiled Etruscan King Mezentius, who punished men by dangling them upside down from a tree, tied to their dead relatives, and his honourable son Lausus. The amazon-like Camilla, queen of the Volscians, archer and champion of Diana. All manner of hostile tribes and a priest who can control snakes. An aged Diomedes is petitioned to join the Axis but decides he’s had enough after 11 years and declines.

Against the legion of Doom are arrayed Aeneas and his son Anchises. But also friendly kings like Evander, slayer of the three-souled, six-armed Eurelus, his son Pallas, king Tarchon of Tuscany but still mostly Aeneas.

Objects and locations in the Aenead are granted signficance by their relation to legendary events of old. Heroes are known by their ancestry and the deeds of their fathers. Like in the Illiad, most heroes can trace their ancestry back directly to the gods. The bronze-plated boxing gloves of Hercules is a prize in the games (yes there is an entire chapter where everyone competes in sports). The city of Palanteum is founded near the place where Hercules killed the fire-breathing cave-giant Cacus.

“And do you think,” he cried, “to escape my hand, Clothed in the spoils you have snatched from my friend? It’s Pallas, Pallas slays you with this blow, And takes his vengeance with your accursed blood!” He spoke, and plunged his sword into his breast. Relaxed, the limbs lay cold, and, with a groan, Down to the Shades the soul, indignant, fled.

Aeneas himself goes garbed in armor forged by Vulcan himself. Upon his shield he bears all the major triumphs of Roman history that have yet to be written, proclaiming his invulnerability and victory by divine decree. He carries the destiny of the empire he will forge in his hand and carries it into battle. A candidate for a +5 shield if ever there was one. When he gets wounded later on Venus instructs the physician tending to his needs to prepare a healing ointment, after which he can continue the fight.

The epic proper is quite splendid, complete with sudden reversals, last minute reinforcements, single combat, hubris, divine meddling, revenge and ending in a dazzling single combat between champions.

Lou Rollins Miniatures: Space Marine Kill Team!
“Not this the parting promise that I gave Your sire, for you, when with his last embrace He sent me forth against a mighty realm, And, fearful, gave me warning I should meet Fierce foes, and battles with a hardy race.”

If the Illiad is the definitive epic on the fighting man of old, of pride, personal honour, glory and tempestuous wrath, the Aenead is the definitive epic on the imperial fighting man; a man of filial piety, faith, pragmatism and capable of frightening ruthlessness. Anyone who does anything with empires in his game would do well to check it out, a worthy successor to the towering legacy of Homer. The Michael J Oakley translation I have renders the latin in crisp, breathtakingly beautiful and highly readable english while preserving the dactylic hexameter wherever possible.


7 thoughts on “[Booktalk] A literary Appendix N; The Aenead

  1. I have not read it and assume it is losing something in translation for me, which poetry usually does. I will take a look at the Oakley translation.


    1. No Virgil on the author level scale?!? Talk to a classics buddy for a translation consultation. The one I use is the Worldsworth classics one, which is affordable and stirring, but my palette is coarse from the frequent bombardement of Horus Heresy novels. I might have added quotes from other translations since I do not own a pdf. This version is at least not littered with the hideous anachronistic mid-20th century suburban lingo like ‘fellows’ and ‘constable’ like the E.V. Rieu translation of the Illiad. I imagine Oakley is an 8 foot tall pipe-smoking Innuit bouncer with a dream of matching his fists against every species on the planet (he still has to do cetaceans, giant squid and Anaconda), with the vanquished tattooed on his skin so he should be qualified.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We are very lucky with our translations of Homer, to 1950 there was no Lattimore Iliad or Fitzgerald Odyssey, though Lawrence’s Odyssey had been around for a couple of decades. With Pope’s Iliad for novelty I don’t tread outside those four books.

        For Ovid Sandys and Ted Hughes, but no one else I have tried and I try most; I don’t like Golding. What a trial it is to read reviews of translations of poetry, track every recommendation down and have a method to discriminate. But once you have found editions (usually English poets) which make the work as powerful as you are told it should be then *stop searching*.

        Poetry is highly personal, I confine myself to relatively few of the greats, and given that the best translators are poets they are likely to disturb a previous work into their own idiom. This I believe means you can only appreciate poetry in translation if you admire both poets.

        I admire your enthusiasm for Virgil, for whom I have felt nothing as yet. Enthusiasm can bore or invigorate depending on the source, but it is only enthusiasm, or word of mouth, which perpetuates the western canon; Harold Bloom as high manic preacher.


      2. “I admire your enthusiasm for Virgil, for whom I have felt nothing as yet. Enthusiasm can bore or invigorate depending on the source, but it is only enthusiasm, or word of mouth, which perpetuates the western canon; Harold Bloom as high manic preacher.”

        After all the sanitized tripe of the last few years, to read an unvarnished appeal to courage, duty, filial piety and civilization, written in the highest tongue, it sets the blood afire. Carry the fucking torch I say.


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