The first “almost modern” hero: Aeneas


It’s time to tie together three of my threads:

So what role did Aeneas play in the history of hero stories? What sort of hero was he?

A revolutionary one, it seems to me. He was a classical Homeric hero (literally mentioned in Homer’s Iliad) whom Virgil made into a recognizable modern hero, but with one interesting twist that still alienates him from us today.

I) The “weak” hero

In the Aeneid, we first meet Aeneas (and first meetings are important) in the middle of a storm that Juno has orchestrated in the hope of killing him and his Trojans. As the wind and waves tear his ships apart (sinking 7 of the 20),

Aeneas on the instant felt his knees go numb and slack, and stretched both hands to heaven, groaning out: ‘Triply lucky, all you men to whom death came before your fathers’ eyes below the wall at Troy! Bravest Danaan [ie, Greek], Diomedes, why could I not go down when you had wounded me, and lose my life on Ilium’s [Troy’s] battlefield? (I, 131-139)

This is an astonishing departure, a brave literary innovation, in ancient storytelling. We could not imagine, say, a Hercules or Theseus, or even a Jason, in despair — frightened to death in the sense of wishing to die.

Right from the start, therefore, we understand that Aeneas’ heroism will not consist only of strength — expressed as the overcoming of enemies or monsters — but, more importantly, of an inner struggle with himself.

So Aeneas is the first western hero whose internal journey is as important as his external journey. Virgil thus invites us, his readers, to empathize with Aeneas more than we would ever empathize with Hercules, Theseus or Jason.

II) The tender hero

Virgil also wants us to empathize in another way: Aeneas is the first hero (aside from Orpheus, arguably) who is presented to us as a whole man, a man who not only has a public duty but also private loyalties to:

  • father,
  • son,
  • wife,
  • and even lover.

Hercules, Theseus and Jason also had parents, wives and offspring, of course. But their stories never dwelt on these relationships.

Aeneas carries his father and son out of Troy

By contrast, Aeneas’ proto-Roman deference and respect for his father, Anchises, and his tender nurturing of his young boy, Ascanius, are deliberately touching. Here is Aeneas as Troy burns and its inhabitants are being slaughtered by the Greeks:

‘Then come, dear father. Arms around my neck: I’ll take you on my shoulders; no great weight. Whatever happens, both will face one danger, find one safety’…. Over my breadth of shoulder and bent neck, I spread out a lion skin for tawny cloak and stooped to take his weight. Then little Iulus [another name for Ascanius] put his hand in mine and came with shorter steps beside his father… (II, 921-924)

Aeneas loses his first wife, Creusa, in the genocide of Troy, but he makes clear how painful this is for him. Having rescued his father and son, he goes back into the burning city to look for her:

I filled the streets with calling; in my grief time after time I groaned and called Creusa, frantic, in endless quest from door to door. (II, 999-1000)

Aeneas also feels tenderness for his lover Dido, even after their “break-up” and her eternal hatred. We see this as Aeneas descends to Hades to seek advice from his dead father. In passing, he sees the shade of Dido (who has committed suicide, as Aeneas has guessed but does not know). Aeneas

wept and spoke tenderly to her: ‘Dido, so forlorn, the story then that came to me was true, that you were out of life, had met your end by your own hand. Was I, was I the cause? I swear by heaven’s stars, by the high gods, by any certainty below the earth, I left your land against my will … And I could not believe that I would hurt you so terribly by going… (VI, 611-625)

This is an unusual classical hero — a man who is aware of the ramifications his actions have on others, and man who has compassion.

III) The hero without free will

But there is also a clue to the aspect of Aeneas that alienates him from us today. “I left your land against my will,” he tells Dido’s shade. This is true. The gods ordered him to leave Dido, because they had sketched out a larger mission for him, which was to found the Roman nation.

This was his duty, and Aeneas is still, above all, pius Aeneas, as he himself says. (Dutiful is a better translation than pious here.)

In fact, as Susanna Braund points out in her fantastic (and free) Stanford lectures on the Aeneid, Aeneas uses a more telling phrase:

I sail for Italy not of my own free will. (IV, 499)

There you have it: no free will.

Braund thinks that this is the reason why the Aeneid has not yet been made into a Hollywood film, even though we’ve long had to suffer Brad-Pitt-Achilleses and their like.

It seems that we like heroes to be strong and weak, tough and tender, but that we need to believe that they are free. Subtle but interesting. To be continued.

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Viewing Dido & Aeneas in 1992, in sawdust

While I’m at it in this mini-thread on the Aeneid, I might as well tip my hat to Henry Purcell and his Baroque-operatic interpretation of Dido’s death. But, more importantly, to Claus Guth.

Claus is a sort of de facto bigger cousin of mine. In 1992, I was spending the summer in Munich after college, where Claus was working on the equivalent of his Masters Thesis, or whatever they call it for opera directors. He had chosen to direct Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Claus Guth

So I joined up as stage crew. I don’t recall contributing anything remotely useful, although I do recall being mightily impressed with the whole scene and with Claus, even if I did not yet appreciate Virgil’s underlying story as I do now. (I think that picture above is of Dido on that stage.)

And what a career that production launched! The next time I saw one of Claus’s opera’s, it was in Salzburg, where he was opening the Festival with Mozart’s Idomeneo. And it’s gone straight up from there.

Which proves, once again, how timeless good storytelling such as Virgil‘s is, and how crucial it is to find the right stage crew. 😉

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Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me!

Aeneas and Dido

What role did Carthage and Hannibal play in the history of Rome as Virgil saw it — ie, in the entire millennium between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus?

Last time in this mini-thread on the Aeneid, I tried to sketch the big historical picture of that great poem, the overarching tale of how a band of Trojan survivors arrived in Italy and merged with the Latin race to found what would become, fifteen generations hence, the Roman nation.

But I promised in that post to pay a bit more attention to Hannibal and Carthage. For Aeneas the Trojan, the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage would not start for another thousand years. For Virgil and Augustus, the worst memories of those Punic Wars (ie, the years when Hannibal was in Italy) already lay two centuries in the past. Did Carthage need to be in this story at all?

And how.

It is clear that Virgil and the Romans in the time of Augustus still considered Hannibal their worst enemy ever, the man who brought them closest to extinction. And so Virgil almost stuctures the entire poem around Carthage, albeit in very subtle and psychologically surprising ways. Here goes:

Juno (Hera) again….

Hera, whom the Romans called Juno, has already come up repeatedly as an almost generic source of trouble in antiquity, as when she drove Hercules mad in her jealousy. Well, the Aeneid takes place just after the Trojan War, and Virgil has Juno still seething with rage at the indignity that caused that war, which was Paris’ choice of Aphrodite (Venus) over Hera as “the most beautiful.” Venus, of course, not only went on to fight for the Trojans but was also the mother of Aeneas.

So Juno would do everything she could to torment Aeneas:

… the origins of that anger, that suffering, still rankled: deep within her, hidden away, the judgment Paris gave, snubbing her loveliness; the race she hated… (I, 38-41)

And so Virgil starts his poem, on the very first page, with Juno and her new obsession, which is Carthage (“new city” in Punic), which was just then being built, at least in this mythical version:

Tyrian settlers in that ancient time held Carthage, on the far shore of the sea, set against Italy and Tiber’s mouth, a rich new town, warlike and trained for war. And Juno, we are told, cared more for Carthage than for any walled city of the earth… There her armor and chariot were kept, and, fate permitting, Carthage would be the ruler of the world. So she intended, and so nursed that power. But she had heard long since that generations born of Trojan blood would one day overthrow her Tyrian walls, and from that blood a race would come in time with ample kingdoms, arrogant in war, for Libya’s ruin… (I, 20-32)

There, in a nutshell, you already have it all: Juno would nurse Carthage to become the world power, and yet she already knew that destiny intended, after a bloody struggle, for Rome to “overthrow its walls” and be its “ruin.”

(Tyrian refers to Tyre, Carthage’s mother city in Phoenicia, today’s Lebanon. Libya at the time referred to the inhabitants of northern Africa.)

Carthage as eastern temptress

Aeneas and his Trojans, meanwhile, are at sea, trying to reach Italy. Juno tries to kill them, by persuading the god of winds to cause a storm. She almost succeeds. 13 of Aeneas ships sink, and only 7 remain. And where do they land?

At Carthage, as it is being built. Its ruler is the beautiful and good queen Dido. Dido is more than generous to these Trojan refugees. She even offers to share her kingdom:

Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms? The city I build is yours; haul up your ships; Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me. (I, 776-779.)

And then she beholds Aeneas, the Trojan leader, and falls for him,

for she who bore him [Venus] breathed upon him beauty of hair and bloom of youth and kindled brilliance in his eyes…. (I, 801-803)

From the start, there is a scintillating and even erotic chemistry between “Carthage” and “Rome”, these two opposites who are yet so attracted to each other.

So Dido asks to hear Aeneas tell of the sack of Troy, that Greek genocide about which all people in the Mediterranean had by then heard. Aeneas describes it, in Book II of the Aeneid, in harrowing detail (in the picture above, Dido is listening to him as Ascanius, Aeneas’ little boy, sits on her lap). Aeneas also tells of his wanderings, his “Odyssey”, that brought him from Troy to Carthage.

Did0 listens and is rapt:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached with longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound or inward fire eating her away. The manhood of the man, his pride of birth, came home to her time and again; his looks, his words remained with her to haunt her mind, and desire for him gave her no rest. (IV, 1-7)

They get together, in a wild cave on a wild night. It must have been great, for she wants more, infinitely more. In fact, she considers herself married.

Virgil’s Roman audience at this point pictures not only the temptresses that tried to seduce Odysseus but Cleopatra, another queen in northern Africa who had very recently led astray a great Roman (Mark Antony) with her wily and erotic eastern ways. This is titillating stuff to the Romans.

Indeed, Aeneas almost seems inclined to change his plans and stay with Dido. But this is not his duty, and he is “dutiful Aeneas”, pius Aeneas. Jupiter, via Mercury, reminds him unequivocally of his destiny: to go to Italy and sire the Roman race.

Aeneas understands and decides to be on his way. But he doesn’t know how to tell Dido. Indeed he fears her. So he orders the ships to prepare to sail away at night.

Dido finds out and goes into a rage, the mother of all meltdowns. As Cheri has said elsewhere, it is not a testosterone rage as Hercules might have it, defined as violent, intense and short. No, it is an “estrogen rage”: deep, lingering, even eternal and ultimately more destructive.

Thus Dido (Carthage) ceases being Aeneas’ (Rome’s) lover and becomes instead his enemy, indeed the enemy of his entire race:

Then, O my Tyrians, besiege with hate his progeny and all his race to come: Make this your offering to my dust. No love, no pact must be between our peoples; No, but rise up from my bones, avenging spirit! Harry with fire and sword … Coast with coast in conflict, I implore, and sea with sea, and arms with arms: may they contend in war, themselves and all the children of their children! (IV, 865-875)

Then she stabs herself with a sword and hurls herself on a funeral pyre.

Every Roman of Virgil’s day would have understood whom Dido was summoning as this “avenging spirit”: Hannibal.

Indeed, just in case anybody was still confused, Virgil later, in Book X, has Jupiter himself make it more explicit. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says

the time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome. (X15-19)

You almost get the sense that the entire Aeneid was mere prologue … to this:

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Trojan/Roman Aeneas: the historical big picture


What was Virgil trying to accomplish in writing his Aeneid, perhaps the greatest poem in history?

That’s the question I want to try to answer in this post.

(Since the Aeneid merits several posts, I’ll get into what its hero, Aeneas, meant for the development of Western ideas about heroism in a subsequent post.)

I propose that to answer the question, we need to understand something about

  1. Virgil’s own time, and
  2. All of history (ie, ≈1,250 years between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus), as viewed by Romans in Virgil’s time.

1) Virgil’s own time

Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BCE in the northern part of what we now call Italy, which was then still considered part of Gaul. He probably became a Roman citizen only at the age of 21, when Julius Caesar extended civic rights to the region.

Virgil was thus born in the middle of the century-long Roman Revolution, a time when the old Republic disintegrated — first gradually, then suddenly — as strongmen seized power and fought one another, murdering and terrorizing much of the population in the process. Virgil lived through several rounds of civil war. He was a scholar and spent some of these years in the relative peace of Naples. But the constant and often arbitrary slaughter terrified everybody at the time, including him.

Octavian (Augustus)

Out of that chaos, like a Lotus flower out of pond muck, rose Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus. Virgil was in Octavian’s social circle and began writing the Aeneid as Octavian consolidated his power, following his naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.

Shrewd and subtle, Octavian was careful to avoid the mistakes of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had begun to resemble a king — a dirty word to the Romans — and was murdered. So Octavian never called himself a king, but a princeps — “first head,” as in leading citizen (whence our word prince).

Over time, Octavian allowed the Senate and people of Rome — his genius manifested itself in this psychological coup — to bestow upon him ever greater powers and titles, increasingly mocking the non-use of the word king. In 27 BCE, the Senate began calling him Augustus, the august or blessed.

But to Virgil and most Romans of the time, all this was a huge improvement over the apparent alternative: more civil war. Augustus imposed peace, on Rome and on its empire. What we call the Pax Romana was really the Pax Augusta.

Augustus thus appeared to be the reluctant hero, the hero who wages war only to end war, who finally lets Rome reach its full, world-ruling and world-changing potential and mission. He seemed to be the end of Roman history, its telos.

What was needed was a story that would tell all of the past, starting before Rome even existed, as though everything inexorably led up to this man, this peace, by divine will.

And this is the answer to the question. Virgil wanted to write that story. We today might be tempted to call it propaganda, and it was. But it was sublime propaganda, in the most moving and intimate words, with allusions to all poems that preceded it. It was epic.

2) From Troy to Rome

There was, of course, an earlier epic poet to whom all of Mediterranean antiquity looked for explanation of the mysteries of life. That was Homer.


In about 750 BCE, Homer wrote the Iliad, about events in about 1,250 BCE just before the as yet un-named “Greeks” sacked Troy. And he wrote the Odyssey, one of the many nostos (“homecoming”) stories, in which the nominally victorious Greek heroes struggle and sometimes fail to re-enter society at home. (Whence our word nostalgia: nostos = return home; algos = pain.)

By Virgil’s time, the Romans had, of course, conquered the Greeks and in turn been culturally conquered by them. In fact, as Virgil has Aeneas’ father Anchises predict, in a vision just after the Trojan War for the not-yet-existing Rome:

Others [ie, the Greeks] will cast cast more tenderly in bronze their breathing figures, I can well believe, and bring more lifelike portraits out of marble; argue more eloquently, use the pointer to trace the paths of heaven accurately and accurately foretell the rising stars. 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. (VI, 1145-1154)

So this contrast, this proto-Ricardian division of labor, existed: Greek culture, Roman law. The Romans saw themselves as more trustworthy and purer than the Greeks, but simultaneously as the younger descendants of that older culture, a bit as Americans used to feel toward Brits.

So a creation myth had become fashionable in Rome that linked Rome to the same Homeric tradition and yet distinguished it from the Greeks.

This introduces a fascinating psychological symmetry and twist: The Romans had to have been there, to be fighting in the Trojan War, but not as Greeks. Ergo: They were the Trojans! As they had lost then, they prevailed now.

How? Homer himself had seeded the new storyline, in Book XX of the Iliad. Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the third cousin of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior, fought the monstrous Greek killing machine Achilles and survived. Neptune (ie, Poseidon, to the Greeks) convinced the gods to take Aeneas out of danger, because

his fate is to escape to ensure that the great line … may not unseeded perish from the world…. Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over Trojans born hereafter.

Aeneas rescuing his father and son

So there it is. Aeneas will survive the sack of Troy, a genocide he describes in the Aeneid in harrowing detail. With his father and his son and a band of other Trojan survivors, they will sail through the Mediterranean, trying to found a new Troy.

They try, and fail; again and again. One frustrating delay or disaster follows the next. As a result, Aeneas goes on his own “Odyssey”, criss-crossing the same ocean at the same time as Odysseus does. Virgil emphasizes this. Aeneas sails past Ithaca, Odyssues’ home, and meets one of Odysseus’ men who survived their encounter with the Cyclops. Aeneas’ itinerary, (click to enlarge), looks remarkably similar to Odysseus’:

Aeneas knows all along that he has a duty to found a new city, but he only discovers the details along the way, as they are revealed to him.

This is crucial, because through these revelations we (ie, Virgil’s Roman audience) are foretold the destiny of Rome — Rome’s future in the story which is already Virgil’s past. Indeed, Aeneas and his band of Trojans gradually become Romans — Virgil has them staging games and rituals that the Romans recognized as their own.

When Aeneas descends to the underworld to talk to his dead father, he, Anchises, spells out the next thousand years. He gives Aeneas glimpses of the Gallic wars and Pompey and Caesar and Augustus.

When Vulcan (Hephaestus, to the Greeks) forges him special armor, the shield depicts all of Roman history on its front — including, of course, Octavian’s victory at Actium. Message: This is what Aeneas is fighting to make come about!

The most traumatic part of the next thousand years of Roman history (ie, the millenium between Aeneas and Octavian) occurred during the third century BCE, when Rome fought Carthage and Hannibal came close to exterminating the race of Aeneas. How Virgil deals with that is fascinating. This being The Hannibal Blog, I’ll have more to say about it, as you might imagine. But I will do that in a separate post.

So this is the context of the first six books of the Aeneid: an “Odyssey” from burning Troy to “Hesperia”, the land of the West (ie, Italy).

The context of the remaining six books is a war that must be fought once Aeneas arrives in Italy, at the mouth of the Tiber: another “Iliad”, but this time a war for the founding of a city rather than the destruction of one.

Yes, it is his destiny to found a new Troy on this land, a new race that will rule the world. But the land is already taken. Aeneas and his Trojans will have to make alliances and to defeat the Latins. As Achilles once overpowered Aeneas’ cousin Hector, Aeneas now must become a Trojan Achilles to overpower the Latin hero Turnus.

Aeneas, killing Turnus

The Aeneid ends abruptly as Aeneas finishes the job, after a grueling battle. The last lines are these:

He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest. Then all the body slackened in death’s chill, and with a groan for that indignity his spirit fled into the gloom below.

But through the revelations up to that point, and of course through the history that the Roman audience knew, it was clear that Aeneas is now done with killing. The time for generating has begun. Aeneas marries the Latin princess Lavinia, and Trojans and Latins merge to become a new race, the future Romans.

The city of Rome itself, mind you, will not be founded for another few centuries, when Romulus kills his brother Remus, both suckled as babies by the she-wolf, and starts building the city he names after himself.

But the Romans bridged those centuries in their story with genealogy. Romulus and Remus were the offspring of Aeneas and Lavinia fifteen generations downstream. If you define a generation as 25 years, this places Romulus and Remus 375 years after Aeneas. If you assume that Aeneas arrived in Italy between 1,200 and 1,100 BCE, then this fits Romulus’ customary founding date of 753 BCE.

Name is destiny

Ever wonder why the Iliad is not called the Troiad? Well, there’s a little story there that brings us full circle in this post. (This is a bonus round for geeks.)

Remember what my premise for this post is: The Aeneid was a genius work of propaganda for Octavian.

Well, Octavian was adopted by Gaius Julius Caesar, and in Roman law the son takes the name and lineage of his new father. So Octavian’s name was also Gaius Julius Caesar. We call them the first of “the Caesars” (whence the words Kaiser, Tsar, Shah, etc). But they were from the clan of the Julii.

Now, Troy and the Trojans were a city and people with many names (ditto the Greeks), depending on which ancestor you wanted to emphasize.

There was a Dardanus, so the Trojans in the Aeneid are sometimes the Dardans or Dardanians. In fact, we still call the former Hellespont, the straits that separate Europe from Asia, the Dardanelles. Troy was a few miles inland.

There was a Teucer, who married Dardanus’ daughter, so the Trojans are also sometimes called Teucrians. And Teucer had a grandson named Tros, whence Troy.

Tros had three sons: Assaracus, Ilus and Ganymede.

Ilus gave the city one of its names, Ilium. Hence the Iliad. (Ilus was also the grandfather of Priam and great-grandfather of Hector.)

Assaracus, meanwhile, was the grandfather of Anchises, who had the enormous luck to sleep with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) and sire Aeneas. Aeneas then married Hector’s sister (his own third cousin) Creusa, and they had a son, Ascanius, also named Iulus, a form of Ilus.

Ilus, Iulus, Julius: They are all variations of the same family name. The Julii claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Venus.

Julius Caesar Augustus, you see, was Iulus, was Aeneas, was the reluctant warrior peacemaker, and Rome was the new Ilium, the new Troy.

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Carthage and Rome: murderous twins

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

I left off in this thread on the historical background of the main characters in my forthcoming book by asking you to savor a certain sense of mystery:

At the beginning of the so-called Hellenistic era (ie, the death of Alexander), Carthage was a superpower and Rome all but unknown. 177 years later, Rome was the superpower, and Carthage was completely razed. And our world would forever after be Roman. What happened in those 177 years?

Before I go on, please, remember that my book will not be a history lesson; it is a story of characters, from Hannibal and Scipio to modern people you know, who illustrate a theme that you, I hope, will recognize in your own life.

That said, in these posts I’m amusing myself with a bit of history. And so back to the mystery. It actually gets more mysterious for a while, because Carthage and Rome were … friends.

That might be overstating things, but they were a) extremely alike in some ways and b) entirely tolerant of each other for many centuries.

If you believe Roman legends, the two cities were founded almost at the same time–Carthage in 814 BCE by the beautiful and wily queen Dido, and Rome a few generations later by the descendants of Aeneas, a Trojan survivor and Dido’s erstwhile lover. Dido and Aeneas are pictured together above. (The lewd version is here.)

Rome and Carthage then evolved almost as twins: two polytheistic city-states that shook off tyrants and became proud republics, with popular assemblies, councils of elders, and two annually-elected presidents–the Romans called them consuls, the Carthaginians suffetes.

Carthaginian empire

Carthaginian empire

To the extent that they were also different, this actually helped them to get along. Rome was agrarian, provincial and essentially land-locked in central Italy. It had no navy at all! When it had to fight, it drafted all male citizens. Carthage, by contrast, was maritime, controlled a vast sea empire and made profits from trading. When it had to fight, it hired mercenaries to do the fighting on the citizens’ behalf.

So for centuries the Romans worried about their neighbors in Italy, and the Carthaginians about their profits and sea routes, and both sides were happy. They had treaties of friendship. There seemed to be no problem.

To be continued.

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Lavinia and Aeneas

Ursula LeGuin

Ursula LeGuin

You’ve heard of Dido and Aeneas (and Purcell, Virgil and all that). Well, a well-known author named Ursula LeGuin decided to pick one of the most obscure but potentially interesting characters of the whole Aeneid and give you Lavinia and Aeneas. The novel is called Lavinia, and I just finished it.

The book came to my attention through my wife. Her book club, having heard that NPR considers the book one of last year’s best, decided to read it. So my wife read it. “You would get more out of this,” she kept saying to me, since there was all this, you know, ancient and Roman stuff in it. I was intrigued.

But when she finished it she and her book club weren’t so convinced. My wife’s verdict: “Sloooow start, but she made the Aeneid accessible to me.”

So I picked it up. And this came to mind:


Always avoid cliché.

So I remember Alfred Hitchcock saying in some interview I once saw. The Hannibal Blog has of late been exploring what makes good storytelling good. But I haven’t said much about the enemies of good stories. I think cliché is the most dangerous of them.

And this is the dilemma of Lavinia: Fantastic conceit for a novel! Really. Exactly the sort of idea that I have time for; indeed not that far away conceptually from the book idea that I myself had. But what a shame about the corny bits.

Here is the genius of the conceit: Aeneas survives the sack of Troy and escapes with his father and son (but not his wife, who perishes in Troy) to wander the Mediterranean. He has a torrid affair with Dido, the wily queen of Carthage, but leaves her and she burns herself (presaging, I might add, what Scipio’s–and Aeneas’–heir will one day do to all of Carthage). Aeneas ends up in Italy, Latium, where his destiny is to found a people, later to become Rome. But it’s not easy. He has to make alliances and fight local wars first. Enter Lavinia. She becomes his second wife (after Creusa in Troy), with whom he will sire the Roman race.

Virgil only mentions her in a line or two. So does Livy. And yet she seems to be so important. A Rutulian king named Turnus had the hots for her and felt upstaged when Aeneas swooped in, and that–ie, she–is what set off the bloody wars. (Shades of Helen?) Oh, and Lavinia is implicitly the mother of the Roman race.

So LeGuin bravely sets out to make Lavinia come alive. And she succeeds in part, but only after page 100 or so. For the first 100 pages LeGuin colors in this woman about whom we know nothing by making her the eternal damsel in distress, slightly hippie, slightly dreamy, chaste but yearning, right out of a B movie. Everything about this Lavinia is a cliché.

Once Aeneas arrives on the scene and we finally have some mythological material to work with (Virgil’s), it gets good. But what gets good is, in effect, the last part of the old Aeneid.

More accessible, yes, as my wife said. In fact, she recommends the book, and so do I, by a hair.

Still, the last word that wants to roll of the tongue of the reviewer is the one that is so devilishly hard for the storyteller to avoid, the one that no storyteller wants to hear said: cliché.

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I left off my series on the bibliography for my book with a long post on Polybius. Polybius, as I said, was one of the greatest historians ever, but most of his books were lost. This means that for the history of Hannibal’s war against Rome we have to rely heavily on another ancient source. And that is Titus Livius, or Livy in English.

There are big problems with Livy. He lived a century and a half after Hannibal’s war. Polybius had interviewed eye witnesses and traveled Hannibal’s route, but Livy did not even attempt any such research. Instead, he merrily plagiarized Polybius (and mentions him only once, by my count). At least we can take comfort from knowing that he had all of Polybius available to him, as well as other sources lost to us, such as Roman documents.

The next problem is that Livy had an agenda other than telling the best and purest history. Like his contemporary Virgil, Livy was writing under the reign of the emperor Augustus, who “restored” Rome’s republic after the long civil wars by replacing it with a monarchy in all but name.

Virgil responded by writing an epic poem, the Aeneid, placing Augustus in the context of a noble unfolding of destiny. A literary masterwork, but somewhat close to brown-nosing the great emperor. Livy sort of did the same, only in prose. So he starts his “history” with Aeneas’ flight from Troy, his journey to Italy, Romulus and Remus and so forth.

Aeneas flees burning Troy

Aeneas flees burning Troy

In general, Livy always makes the Romans look good and their enemies look bad. So the Gauls are unreliable and lazy brutes. The Greeks are savvy but slimy know-it-alls. The Carthaginians are either cruel or cunning or miserly or deceitful. Much of Livy is propaganda. Awfully entertaining propaganda, as it happens.

So if Polybius clearly emulated his fellow Greek Thucydides in trying to stay close to facts and analysis, Livy takes Herodotus as his example and embellishes and invents freely for the sake of a cracking good read. At that, he succeeds.

When the Europeans woke up at the end of the Middle Ages and rediscovered the classics, Livy became one of their favorites.

Personally, I couldn’t care less about Livy’s shortcomings. I’m in it for the stories, the characters, the scenes that I need to tell the story that I want to tell, which involves so many other people. More to come soon.

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