Culture: Virgil Goes Viral

4 minute read
Michael Elliott

At school, I loathed Latin, in general, but I detested Virgil in particular. After you’d spent hours wading through conjugations and declensions and ablative absolutes and gerunds and pasts perfect, imperfect and pluperfect, there was the pointless torture of learning and then reciting lines of dactylic hexameter about this bloke wandering aimlessly around the Mediterranean at the whim of a perpetually pissed-off goddess. I mean, even Milton was more fun than that.

Imagine my surprise, then, to open Robert Fagles’ new translation of The Aeneid and discover that it’s, you know, pretty great stuff. Here’s the demise of Euryalus: “He writhes in death/ as blood flows over his shapely limbs, his neck droops,/ sinking over a shoulder, limp as a crimson flower/ cut off by a passing plow.” Fagles published terrific translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey a few years ago, so maybe I shouldn’t have been gobsmacked by his Virgil. They’re all quite popular too, part of a renewed passion for the classical world. The culture has lately offered up for mass consumption two new histories of the Peloponnesian War, a whacking great biography of Julius Caesar, a film on Alexander the Great (plus a book lauding his business strategy), the current bbc-hbo series on Rome, Robert Harris’ recent novel Imperium and a book (with a film to come this year) on the battle of Thermopylae.

In this enthusiasm, the usual biases seem to be absent. Old fogies like me are reaching for the classics and so are young guns; 300, the film about Thermopylae, is based on a graphic novel. Conservatives sup at the classic cup; Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar of ancient warfare, is Dick Cheney’s favorite historian. (One of the lessons of the Peloponnesian War, Hanson writes, is that “resolute action” brings “lasting peace.” Ah, yes.) And liberals seek succor from the ancient texts too; it is easy to read Harris’ novel on political intrigue in Ciceronian Rome as a critique of the idea that external threats justify politicians taking extraordinary power. But why this sudden thing for the toga-and-sandals set? Quid donat?

We reach for the classics, I think, when we are uncertain of our own bearings. We imagine that the Greeks and Romans knew what stars to steer by, that virtues such as honor and bravery, nobility and loyalty, guided their behavior. We think that the classical world was sharply defined, immune to the little cowardices of doubt. We would like the comfort of thinking that our times can be like that too. “This administration … divides the world into friends and foes, and the foes are incorrigible and not redeemable,” veteran Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross told the New York Times recently, which sounded to me like a description of a bunch of people who just love reading the classics.

I do too. I like the fact that in our small-bore times, we can look back and see rock-jawed men (rarely women, I fear) like Caesar and Mark Antony, heroes who bestride the narrow world like colossi. There’s much to be said for hero worship–a lot more, in any event, than for its opposite, which is the cynical assumption (distressingly common among journalists) that nobody but liars ever entered public life. But we can misuse the past too, especially if we look back to what we think was a time of moral clarity and of actions based upon it–and then use that supposed lesson as a way of beating up our miserable selves for lives of tentative compromise.

In truth, life has always been a shades-of-gray thing; there’s something dishonest about cherry-picking the past as if it was always nobler than the present. The Greeks were indeed cultured and eloquent. They were also the most frightful pederasts, but you don’t hear much of that from their conservative admirers today, nor that stoic, law-giving Romans spent 200 years figuring out really, really bad ways to kill Christians.

There’s nothing especially venal about the ancients in this regard; nobody’s perfect or ever was. The classical world knew crosshatching as much as bands of white and black; the Greeks and Romans had their moments of doubt. Here’s Virgil’s Aeneas in the underworld, catching sight of his erstwhile lover, Dido, Queen of Carthage, whom he had deserted as she climbed onto her funeral pyre: “Oh, dear god, was it I who caused your death?/ I swear by the stars, by the Powers on high … I left your shores, my Queen, against my will … Stay a moment. Don’t withdraw from my sight.” That sounds like a man distressed, confused, lost, uncertain, indecisive: a man like us and none the worse for that.

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