Erik at Sententiae Antiquae takes down the Aeneid:

The Aeneid had the supreme good fortune to become immediately canonical, assigned in schools as the equivalent of a “modern classic” in those early imperial days. Well, what else were kids going to study? Livius Andronicus? Ennius? Cicero’s de Consulatu suo? The Aeneid is a marked aesthetic improvement over all of these, but one must also bear in mind that Augustus’ imprimatur must have counted for something. One would not be surprised to find that any monarch’s pet poetic project had received substantial attention, especially when free and outspoken critical judgment became a dangerous luxury. It’s hard to overlook the fact that the Aeneid’s ringing endorsement of Roman empire and the (prophetically foreshadowed) personal lineage/divine right of the Julio-Claudians had something to do with its inclusion in the school curriculum at such an early date.

Why do we have all of Vergil but just a few insignificant scraps of Cornelius Gallus? Their relations to power may have some small part in this. Naturally, they objection arises: what about Ovid? Was he not on the outs? I’d venture to suggest that his survival in the face not only of imperial hostility but also of his manifest unsuitability to Christian sentiment is a testament to his tremendous aesthetic and literary merits.

Outside of Vergil’s instructions to burn the poem, there was indeed a tradition of criticism of the Aeneid in antiquity. In my previous post, I relied on citation of my own students’ testimony, but Servius cites the existence of a “Vergiliomastix” (Scourge of Vergil), and Donatus mentions that a certain Carvilius Pictor wrote an “Aeneidomastix” (Scourge of the Aeneid), adding that “Vergil was never lacking in haters” (obtrectatores Vergilio numquam defuerunt). Of course, it’s also true that Augustine thought that he had wasted his time being compelled to learn the Aeneid.

When we reflect on Dante’s worship of Vergil, we ought to consider how much (or rather, how little) of ancient literature was entirely unknown to him. The rediscovery of Lucretius had to wait more than another century; one manuscript of Catullus was languishing away in Verona; anything he knew of Greek literature was solely in translation. Though we think of him as steeped in the classics, there was simply less available to Dante than there is now to anyone interested in it. Petrarch was a better classicist than Dante, and regretted that he was never able to read Homer in the original – how might their assessment of the Aeneid changed if they had been more familiar with its source material? (One might also note that Petrarch staked his poetic fame on his Africa, modeled heavily on the Aeneid – but this is almost entirely unread today because, from Lucan and Statius onward, imitation of the Aeneid was an aesthetic dead end. His Canzoniere is the text to read because it has far more liveliness than stale historical epic. This was just as true in the 1st century.)

All periods have their literary fashions. The Middle Ages loved Ovid, the 18th century loved Horace, etc. etc. I will re-emphasize this point: I regard Vergil’s treatment of Polyphemus in Book III of the Aeneid as one of the most affecting scenes in all of ancient literature. But one does not hype an album up as their “favorite album ever” on the basis of one good song, or even a few stellar tracks. I grant the aesthetic excellence of parts of the Aeneid, but I deny its excellence as a whole. […]

Despite the title of these posts, I did not mean to become the modern Aeneidomastix. For the past eight years, I have taught the Aeneid as half of the AP Latin curriculum and I have seen the effect it has on me and my class. Perhaps I was insufficiently clear in my last post: I do NOT mean to suggest that the Aeneid is not worth reading, but I think that it has been undeservedly canonized by its primacy of place in the last few iterations of the AP syllabus, and I am convinced that it is a terrible text for high school Latin students. By way of an English parallel: I love Dickens, but I regard it as a crime against literature that a high school student is most likely to be forced (yes, forced) to read either Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, or Great Expectations. It’s no wonder that they hate reading. When we select a text for teaching, we ought to pick something that really crackles – something endowed with real literary merit that will still afford the student genuine aesthetic pleasure.

Perhaps these criticisms have met with such resistance because so many members of the profession entered Latin literature by passing through the Vergilian antechamber; a kind of natural selection was at work, whereby everyone who hated the Aeneid simply dropped out of the game. (This is certainly what happened with a number of my own students.) I am against the Aeneid mandate, against its lofty canonization, but not against the poem itself; one ought not to be pressed to read it until they are already fully sold on the idea of Latin literature. Vergil may have served as Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory, but he couldn’t accompany him to Paradise.

I love that on a number of counts (not least the very justified attack on forcing high school students to read Dickens, which ruined my own experience of him); it reminds me of my own grumbles about Proust, as well as Renata Adler’s classic 1980 New York Review assault on Pauline Kael, of which I said:

Kael was ripe for a demolition job, having been (as the essay so convincingly lays out) writing indefensible crap for years and yet (due to the usual Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome) not being called on it. I vividly remember the combination of horror and glee with which I read the piece—like many others, I had been letting my memories of Kael’s early work cloud my reaction to the recent stuff, and seeing the evidence laid out shook my intellectual world.

By all means read and appreciate Vergil, but don’t force him on people, and don’t make absurd claims of perfection!


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    PhD level capacity in missing the point

    Tee hee.

  2. Yes, I was fond of that passage too: “I submit that all anti-imperialist readings of the Aeneid stem from a refusal to read the poem on its own terms, within its own context, for what it is: a piece of work that was paid for by a political machine.”

  3. Hmm, I assumed that this post concerned a (possibly scholarly) character from Asterix. So much for being a classicist…

  4. J.W. Brewer says

    This fellow doesn’t even think that the Fourth Eclogue foretells the birth of Christ, so how reliable an interpreter of Vergil can he be? Going on about how much smarter he is than Dante and all.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I expected him to mention Virgil’s mediaeval reputation as a magician/alchemist, which presumably has some bearing on Dante’s take.

    (The Welsh fferyll “chemist, alchemist, magician” is derived from the name of the poet.)

  6. @ Andy:

    Search for Danielomastix and you’ll find a scourge living today.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    The Middle Ages loved Ovid

    The Middle Ages loved ghastly Seneca too. It’s almost enough to convince you of the Whig view of history.

  8. I didn’t advance far enough with Latin to be assailed by Virgil, but I had to endure force-feeding with Dickens. I remember having to read Great Expectations in a couple of weeks at age when I was immersed in Asimov’s Foundation series. On top of that, the BBC was forever showing dramatizations of Dickens, usually in half-hour episodes on Sunday night, for family viewing. They all looked the same — poor people in grubby clothes, living in falling-down hovels, drinking and arguing, being splattered in mud by the toffs as they passed in their coaches (wait, maybe that was Monty Python and the Holy Grail).

    I actually like Dickens now but it was many years before I summoned the nerve to try him again.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    It took me a long time to recover from being made to read Great Expectations at school, too.

    Even now, I can’t be dispassionate enough to tell whether my youthful dislike of the work was actually based on anything real about the actual novel itself. (My daughter tells me that my enthusiasm for Our Mutual Friend just shows that I am an intellectual lightweight, and she has actual degrees in these things, so there.)

    On the other hand, the Cambridge Latin Course successfully started me on a lifelong appreciation of Catullus and Tacitus (perhaps not a natural literary pairing …)

    So these things can be done right.

    I’m glad I wasn’t exposed to Horace much at that stage. I would have thought his poetic greatness was of exactly the kind calculated to alienate teenagers (though there seem to have been many, at least in the past, who felt otherwise. Lots of copies of the Odes carried by subalterns in WW1 trenches, I’ve been told.)

  10. I take it that Dickens-oriented school curricula are unlikely to assign The Pickwick Papers, which I found laugh-out-loud funny when I finally read it at age 30 or thereabouts?

    I don’t recall ever being assigned Dickens in school, FWIW. Typically in my high school English classes when you had to read an Approved Great Book there was a longish list you could pick your own choice from (Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea was famous/notorious for usually being the shortest of the acceptable choices …), except in 11th grade, where the focus was specifically on American writers and specific teacher-chosen works. So that year I was compelled to read dreadful stuff by hacks like Theodore Dreiser and Robert E. Lee (not the general, the 1918-94 one who co-wrote “Inherit the Wind”). Also Arthur Miller, but he was a sufficiently competent hack not to rub me the wrong way at age 16 although I have zero interest in rereading any of his stuff now.

    Whereas by 12th grade, the English teacher was all “if you really want to read Pound and Joyce [who may both have been too outre to be on an “approved choices” list] I’m not gonna stop you.”

    ETA: I did not do Latin long enough to get to Vergil, but read the Aeneid in translation in the sort of college course where that was an obvious fit (the semester was supposed to start with the Odyssey and end with Ulysses, except for a hasty and unsuccessful just-bolted-on “diversity” attempt to stick Virginia Woolf on at the very end* without enough time to think about her properly because we were of course running a bit behind.

    *By contrast, the effort to add “diversity” to the prior semester of dead white playwrights from Aeschylus to Chekhov by adding in Ntozake Shange (who was not only non-white, non-male, and non-dead, but was only 35 years old at the time) worked a lot better.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Pickwick Papers was my own breakthrough with Dickens. Altogether wonderful, and not a bit like horrid Great Expectations.

    Also, very realistic medical students.

  12. Hold on, I thought Our Mutual Friend is the only Dickens novel that intellectual heavyweights approve of? It’s all very confusing.

    I didn’t read The Pickwick Papers until last year. It’s entertaining, in its way, but only as a collection of jolly tales.

    I don’t remember having any choice in what we read in school. A couple of Shakespeares, of course, along with A High Wind in Jamaica (does anyone even know of that these days) and Lark Rise to Candleford, because I grew up in Oxfordshire.

    The only book I remember with any fondness is Cider with Rosie, because it had snogging, or at least implied snogging.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    I am tickled to learn that so wide-ranging was the Aeneid’s influence that the “first literary work published wholly in the modern Ukrainian language” (in 1798) was a mock-heroic burlesque of it. That one may have actually had an anti-imperialist subtext. *

    *The English translation quoted toward the end of the wiki-article sounds pretty doggerel-like, but for all I know that accurately captures the vibe of the original.

  14. But of course we study – or immerse ourselves in – Vergil, Ovid, Homer, and the Bible (KJV or other) not only for the delight and edification they afford in their own right. How could we appreciate Shakespeare adequately without a good knowledge of Ovid or the Christian canon? I speak of content, not of the exact expression in original languages which I am not competent to judge and which I consider patently less influential. And then, how could we grasp the main threads of Ulysses without a good preliminary reading of Hamlet?

    Pleased to see Lucretius mentioned. There’s another case of swerving the current of later human intellectual production, but more in the sciences than in literature. How might things have gone if De rerum natura had not languished in the back-rooms of monasteries till 1407? Stephen Greenblatt, in his acclaimed but often winding and long-winded The Swerve, would have it that Lucretius kick-started the Renaissance and modernity. An eminently disputable claim, but he certainly prefigured a great deal of the action in science over the last four centuries. It’s uncanny also how much Lucretian doctrine gets re-stated in philosophy from Descartes onward, just as Descartes (with much of his waywardness of thought) is emulated with sublime but equally defeasible brilliance in the work of David Chalmers, in our own time.

  15. John Cowan says

    By all means read and appreciate Vergil, but don’t force him on people, and don’t make absurd claims of perfection!

    And the same for Homer, or indeed anyone else.

  16. Amen! I also had to read Dickens and Hardy in high school. I think it was “The Great Expectations” one term and “Tess of the Durbervilles” in another.

    In earlier years of high school they also forced us to read more recent 20th century dross like “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Z for Zacharia”, and Lord knows what else that I had mercifully forgotten about. Ugh.

    It ruined reading as a pleasurable activity for me for the next 5 years.

  17. I read Great Expectations as a freshman. Everyone else read an abridged version (which cut out my favorite part of the novel, Pip and Estella visiting Newgate prison), but Mr. Swartout gifted me a copy of the full version. The book is certainly too long, as evidenced by the fact that it is divided into three parts of approximately equal lengths, but the main mystery plot only actually occupies the second part. Nonetheless, I liked the book very much. Undoubtedly, my appreciation for the story was helped again by Mr. Swartout, who emphasized how funny some of the characters were, like Wemmick’s Aged Parent.

  18. In my school a math teacher was reading Tolkien aloud for some 15 minutes during some of her lessons… I guess it counts as “forcing”?

  19. Stu Clayton says
  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    Eneida’s English translation feels very bowdlerized compared to the juiciest juicy Ukrainian original

  21. Adler on Kael: New York Review, not New Yorker.

  22. My cross in high school was Silas Marner. Though it was nice when *looks name up* Dunsey was found in the quarry, having walked straight into it after robbing Silas.

  23. New York Review, not New Yorker.

    Brain fart fixed, thanks!

  24. I’m surprised over your schools’ choice of Dickens. Oliver Twist was the most popular choice, and I also have vague memories of David Copperfield and A Christmas Carol. For the more ambitious, perhaps A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t actually remember anything relating to that one.

    Tolkien was of course an afterschool activity.

  25. jack morava says

    @ David L,

    a shout-out for A High Wind in Jamaica, which I dearly love.

    By the way there are three Avram Davidson novels about Vergil the Magician… and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, about Aeneas’s wife and her conversations with Vergil…

  26. @JWB, there also was a Russian version and a Belarusian version (and of course, much earlier versions in other European languages).

  27. English WP does not cover those particularly well:-/ I don’t mean East Slavic versions, I mean travestied Aeneids in general…

    The whole article Virgile travesti: “Virgile travesti is a parody of the Aeneid written by Paul Scarron in 1648. This early example of French burlesque literature[1] is notable for introducing the word travesty[2] into English.[3] Produced in eight volumes, the last book in the work was not published until 1659.[4]“

  28. I may be an outlier, but I never was put off of a book or reading in general by being assigned something at school. I loved reading, read indiscriminately, and in most cases finished assigned readings before the school term even started. In German class we had these readers (Lesebuch) with collected short stories and excerpts from bigger works; I read everything in them, assigned piece or not, plus the interpretation notes and background info on stories and authors. When later we got assigned readings of entire works, it frequently happened that I had read the books anyway before.
    That doesn’t mean I liked everything – I remember e.g. finding Holden Caulfield annoying beyond description and wondering why a book about the whining of a teenager was expected to speak to me (I was neither especially rebellious nor really angsty as a teenager, only awkward around girls for a couple of years). But it wouldn’t occur to me to dislike reading just because I had to sit through a book I didn’t really enjoy.
    One time being assigned a book even rekindled interest in an author I had dismissed. When I was around seventeen we read Max Frisch’s “Homo Faber” and “Andorra” in class. I had opened his “Stiller”, which was on my parents’ bookshelves, when I was ten or eleven, and upon reading the first line (“Ich bin nicht Stiller”) I had thought “that’s stupid, it says on the title that it’s about a guy called Stiller, make up your mind”) and put it back. Upon finding that Frisch wrote quite well, I gave the book a second chance, and it turns out that I actually liked it; pre-teen me just hadn’t been ready for that kind of literature.

  29. The only problem I have ever had with assigned readings was when the instructor wanted to force on us an interpretation of a work that I tended to disagree with. When that happens, I think it can really ruin an otherwise enjoyable work. Unfortunately, these kinds of enforced interpretations are relatively common in how we instruct American children and young adults in literature.*

    For example, when I took Reading and Writing the Essay in college, the instructor for my section was an Orthodox Jew, and one of the reading she selected** for us was the Book of Ruth. Even the inclusion of piece in an essay-focuses course was dubious, and she justified it by an interpretation of Ruth as a persuasive essay about the excellence of Hebrew governance traditions. I agree that understanding the context of the Jewish law and culture of the time is indeed very important to grasping what is going on in that story and what points it was supposed to make, but I was not convinced that her preferred interpretation was particularly convincing.

    * However, this kind of problematic dogmatism actually seems to be less of problem in English classes that focus on reading and analyzing literature than in ones that focus more narrowly on composition. As I concluded in comment at Language Log back in 2009:

    I believe there is actually a much more general problem with teaching writing to high school and college students, of which the proscription against “passives” is merely one particular but pervasive form. The lesson of such classes frequently seems to be, “It’s less important whether you write well than whether you write the way I like.” While a sufficiently bright student, or one who sees several different dogmatic viewpoints about how writing should be done, may not be too hindered by this attitude in their instructors, many people, who may only see one particular version of what is the “right” way to write may never move beyond the particular set of irrelevant rules they had drummed into them.

    ** Some of the “essays” we studied were the same for every section of the course (“Civil Disobedience” and “Living Like Weasels,” for example), but the three people teaching the sections also got to choose some selections for their own classes.

  30. The lesson of such classes frequently seems to be, “It’s less important whether you write well than whether you write the way I like.”

    This can be generalized well beyond writing. “There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the Army way.”

  31. In Israel, even in secular schools such as the ones I went to, Bible is a core class from second to twelfth grades. It was generally considered the most boring class in every grade, and my mother had a similar experience (not sure about my dad). She had to rediscover it as an adult and bore a grudge against her teachers for teaching it the way they did. I had to rediscover it as well, for good (literature, language) and bad (violence, oppression).

    I did have a teacher in 10th or 11th grade who introduced us to Tur-Sinai’s interpretation of Job, and to Biblical criticism in general, which was slightly mind-blowing.

  32. David Eddyshaw says

    I get the impression that Christians (at any rate) who grew up in environments where close familiarity with the Bible text is the norm find it difficult to take a mental step back and see just how strange it often is.

    I get the further impression that this quite often leads to misinterpretation: after all, if you think you’ve grown up knowing exactly what some passage is all about, it can be difficult to realise that, actually, you don’t. Unbelievers (in the days when they read the Bible at all) sometimes had insights into this which were not at all obvious to the Faithful.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Ich bin nicht Stiller

    Ah, Leonard Nimoy’s books I am not Spock and I am Spock.

    (Knowledge is to know that Leonard Nimoy is not Spock. Wisdom is to understand that Leonard Nimoy is Spock…)

    I get the impression that Christians (at any rate) who grew up in environments where close familiarity with the Bible text is the norm find it difficult to take a mental step back and see just how strange it often is.

    Sure, but that’s no different in environments where the familiarity is second- or third-hand (through children’s bibles, church and religion lessons) and probably much more restricted (in that larger parts of the Bible are always ignored). The believers believe the stories in some form or other, the unbelievers believe they’re fairytales or straightforward etiological myths or straightforward moral parables or whatever, and neither side is usually aware how much more exotic the background is.

  34. “(Knowledge is to know that Leonard Nimoy is not Spock. Wisdom is to understand that Leonard Nimoy is Spock…)”

    … and transcendent wisdom is to feel in every fibre, with that other entirely fictitious ruminator responsible for a certain four-word paragraph in the Lestrygonians episode, that:

    No one is anything.

    “Ah” indeed. There are half a dozen such zen-gems in Ulysses. Each one is to be treasured.

  35. Owlmirror says

    Somewhat Aeneid related…

    The famous anecdote about the English language by William Caxton was in fact the prologue to his translation of “Eneydos”. (Here fynyssheth the boke yf Eneydos, compyled by Vyrgyle, which hathe be translated oute of latyne in to frenshe, and oute of frenshe reduced in to Englysshe by me wyll[ia]m Caxton, the xxij. daye of Iuyn. the yere of our lorde. M.iiij.Clxxxx. The fythe yere of the regne of kynge Henry the seuenth.)

    Someone more knowledgeable than myself might have an explanation for why Caxton transliterated the Latin in that particular way.

  36. In his signature scene in Star Trek VI, Nimoy’s Spock came down in favor of the principle that there is no easy or all-embracing wisdom. The chick from Sex and the City should have listened.

  37. PlasticPaddy says

    Caxton’s French source was the “Livre des Eneydes”. I do not know why the final e is replaced by an o in the English version.

  38. Seth Schoen says

    The Latin name of the Aeneid is “Aeneis” and (as a Greek-inspired Latin word) it often uses a Greek-inspired genitive form “Aeneidos”, which then shows up a ton in titles in printed editions (old and modern), like

    P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Primus

    P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Quartus

    P. Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Libri XII

    and so on. (“The first book of the Aeneid of Publius Vergilius Maro.”)

    The Latin diphthong “ae” is often rendered as “e” in medieval texts and some Romance languages because of pronunciation and orthographic changes. (Even in some learned borrowings in American English orthography, where British English uses æ or ae, like “feces” instead of “fæces”, “anemia” instead of “anæmia”, “pediatrician” instead of “pædiatrician”, although the latter two are ultimately from Greek αι rather than Latin ae.)

    So I think that accounts for “Eneidos”, especially in the context of a title where one wants to say “of the Aeneid”, but I’m not sure about the y for the i there. There’s something about older Germanic orthography using y in some places where modern languages use i, but I don’t think I understand the pattern or the history. (For instance, I’ve seen “drey”, “bey”, and “frey” for modern German “drei”, “bei”, and “frei”.)

  39. David Marjanović says

    Nothing Germanic about it. The Middle Ages widely treated i and y as interchangeable (except in Old English and Old Norse, where they represented different sounds!), and this was at first (16th-17th century) resolved by using y at the ends of words and i elsewhere. This is still a rule in Malagasy, remains common in transcriptions of Egyptian Arabic names, and is the reason why adding -s to an English word in -y gives -ies.

  40. Seth Schoen says

    Thanks, I guess my “theoryes” about y/i were far too narrow!

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