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‘Wars and a man I sing – an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil.’
From the smouldering ruins of Troy, one prince escapes the victorious Greeks: Aeneas. Before they reach a safe haven, Aeneas and his Trojans will have ‘drunk deep/of each and every disaster land and sea can offer’. The goddess Juno is their implacable enemy, and harries the Trojans by sea and on land. In Carthage, Aeneas faces a painful conflict between duty and love for Queen Dido. In Italy, the Trojans must endure a further war with indigenous tribes before Aeneas can fulfil his destiny: to found the new kingdom of Rome.
The Aeneid was written at the end of the 1st century BC, in the wake of the civil wars that had convulsed Rome and effectively ended the Roman Republic. Augustus Caesar was on the imperial throne and with his reign, a period of stability had begun. In writing the story of Rome’s foundation, Virgil gave these recent wars a heroic new context. He provided the Empire with a national epic to rival the Odyssey and the Iliad, and gave Romans a sense of destiny fulfilled, and the promise of hope for the future.
The Aeneid, however, is far more than a political poem. Few have seen the price of empire and the pity of war as clearly as Virgil. When Aeneas first meets Dido, he has just been reduced to tears by frescoes depicting the Trojan War and his fallen comrades. Aeneas’ visit to the underworld, where he meets his father and other loved ones; Dido’s suicide; Cassandra dragged from Minerva’s sanctuary by Ajax and Priam slaughtered at the altar – these are among the most powerful moments in all literature.
T. S. Eliot considered the Aeneid to be the most important single work in Western literature: the supreme literary achievement of the most influential culture in European history and the standard by which all subsequent works were to be judged. The greatest European writers have been influenced by Virgil – Chaucer; Shakespeare; Milton and Dante, who chose Virgil as his guide to Hell and Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. The very phrases of the Aeneid have entered our culture and literature: ‘Arms and the man I sing’ (arma virumque cano); ‘There are tears of things’ (sunt lacrimae rerum) and ‘I fear the Greeks bearing gifts’ (timeo Danaos et dona ferentis).
Robert Fagles was a renowned classicist and one of only a handful of people to have translated all three great classical epics. His translations of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, both published in Folio Society editions, have been critically acclaimed and widely read. Two years before his death in 2008, he published this much-praised translation of the Aeneid. It blends the natural directness of Virgil’s language with the lyrical intensity of his metaphors. Fagles wrote, ‘I have sought a compromise between Virgil’s spacious hexameter, his “ocean-roll of rhythm”, and a tighter line more native to English verse.’
‘Arms, my comrades,
bring me arms! The last light calls the defeated.
Send me back to the Greeks, let me go back
to fight new battles. Not all of us here
will die today without revenge.’
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This Folio Society edition includes extensive notes and a glossary of all the characters compiled by Fagles himself, as well as a postscript in which he describes Virgil’s ‘unequalled blend of grandeur and accessibility … of eloquence and action, heroics and humanity’. A substantial introduction by Yale classicist Bernard Knox, Fagles’s former tutor and long-term collaborator, places the poem in its historical context and also describes his own early encounter with Virgil’s poetry while a soldier in Italy during the Second World War.
The stories of Aeneas’ wanderings and battles have inspired countless works of art, from baroque oil paintings to Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. The Aeneid was a particularly popular subject for art in the Roman world. This Folio Society edition is illustrated with plates of frescoes from Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia, Stabiae and Rome. In the case of two of them, one showing Aeneas with his father and son and another with Aeneas carrying the armour of the Etruscan king Mezentius, this is the first time they have been reproduced in a book.