Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2018-19: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VI: Augustan Rome 44 B.C to A.D. 14

Week 17: P. Vergilius Maro, ca. 70 - 19 B.C.

An ancient mosaic depicting Vergil with a passage of his poetry, surrounded by two Muses. Image courtesy VRoma.

For this week, please read:

Vergil’s books are somewhat longer than Homer’s, but there are fewer of them, so this should not be an intolerable amount of reading. Once again, though, please get to it early in the week — don’t put it all off to the last minute, or you may find it overwhelming. Even in an easy-to-read prose version, this is a fair chunk: it represents about 4500 lines of poetry.

As you read Vergil, there are a number of things to consider:

First, please remember that your translation is a prose translation. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are certain things about Vergil that must fall through the cracks if you cannot read him in the original Latin. Those who are particularly diligent in Latin may be able to have a shot at Vergil later on — it’s an eye-opener. I chose this translation because even a poetic translation cannot capture what makes Vergil really click, but it will inevitably be a lot harder to read.

← A portrait bust of C. Julius Caesar Octavianus (Octavian, later called Augustus). New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photograph, Bruce McMenomy.

Please bear in mind when Vergil is writing. He is writing very shortly after the end of the Roman republic, which may be thought as having come to an end with the death of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. After that, his nephew and heir Octavian became more or less undisputed master of the Roman world, and — despite his protestations of putting everything back the way it had been — changed the form of government in the Roman world forever. He received the title “Augustus” from the senate, and was still ruling, some years after Vergil’s death, when Jesus was born.

Maître de Lā€™Énéide, Limoges, ca. 1530 (enamel on copper). The Fall of Troy. Paris, Musée du Louvre. Photograph, © Copyright 2010, Bruce McMenomy. →

This may help put it into context you already know. It should also help you remember that this was a very long time after Homer and some of the other things we have read in this course so far. It is perhaps 800 years since Homer; 400 years since the tragedy we have studied was written in the fifth century B.C. at Athens. Vergil is responding to Homer, in a sense — but at a distance.

What he is looking at is what makes a hero, and how duty and honor are to be related to one another. Many have read the Aeneid as primarily a propaganda tract for Augtustus, and there may be some truth to that (though I will in class suggest some different approaches). Still, it’s worth asking why Aeneas does what he does, as compared to why Achilles acts as he does. Particularly consider:

We’ll address these and other issues in class. Enjoy the book — it brings together some of the great themes and methods of the classical literary tradition, and is widely regarded as the single greatest literary product of the Roman world.