Book VI of The Aeneid is a tough one for non-classicists to love. The central theme of the book — about 900 lines of Latin dactylic hexameter, the epic verse — is the imperial destiny of Rome. At first glance, Vergil lets his poetic license run freely in defense of empire. The prophecy of the dead Anchises, when he meets his son Aeneas in the underworld, is often taken to be representative:
Tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos
Translated here by Seamus Heaney:
…But you, Roman,
Remember: to you will fall the exercise of power
Over the nations, and these will be your gifts —
To impose peace and justify your sway,
Spare those you conquer, crush those who overbear.
This may be the first time Aeneas is called Romanus, indicating the city his descendants were to found. Vergil casts his eye all the way to praise Augustus, in whose circle he was living and whose favor, we must suppose, he wished to obtain. In our post-colonial age we cannot help but see a more complicated story, find a different reading experience in these lines than did the generations of Victorian school boys who were raised on visions of a civilizing empire. But more of that in a moment.
The sixth book of the 12-book Latin epic on the founding of Rome sits right on the cusp between its so-called “Trojan” and “Roman” halves, sometimes also called its “Odyssey” and “Iliad” halves. The first half features many of its most famous images: the Trojan horse, the flight of Aeneas and his family with other refugees from burning Troy, the doomed love story of Aeneas and Dido queen of Carthage. These books echo the wanderings of Odysseus as he makes his way back to his home of Ithaca, except here Aeneas, propelled by the gods, is seeking a new home for his defeated people.
After Book VI we see Aeneas and his wandering band of Trojans make land in Italy, setting the stage for war with the land of Latium, where he finds, Lavinia, the woman fated to become Aeneas’ wife (after he kills Turnus, his Italian rival). These books, again an echo of Vergil’s Homeric model in the Iliad, describe the events which Aeneas endured in order to fulfill his destiny.
This is not the first time Seamus Heaney, who died in 2013 after an illustrious career, including the Nobel Prize in 1995, has tackled this book. In 2010, in a poem sequence called “Route 110,” Heaney used the underworld journey as a counterpoint to autobiography. A bus journey becomes his underworld, and Heaney brings out the father-son story embedded in Book VI reflected in his own life.
The book proper is divided into roughly three pieces. First is the journey to the lair of the Sibyl at Cumae on the Italian coast, the prophet possessed by the god Apollo who will tell Aeneas’ fate; the second section deals with the burial rites for Aeneas’s comrade Misenus, who had challenged the gods to a musical contest and was drowned by Triton in anger (“Triton … inter saxa virum spumosa immerserat unda”/Triton was shaken with envy … and surged up/And drowned him in a sudden backwash of foam”). The final, longest section is the tour through the underworld where Sibyl acts as guide and where, at its climax, Aeneas meets his father, whose burial closed Book V.
In a short preface, Heaney writes that he treated book VI separately out of a somewhat Roman sense of obligation: ”The translation is more like “classics homework, the result of a lifelong desire to honour the memory of my Latin teacher at St. Columb’s College, father Michael McGlinchey.” This is not false modesty; even a workable translation of Vergil is no mean feat, but once Vergil’s style is grasped, some rough translation is not that difficult, which is one reason the text has long been used for students (cultural training for imperial administration was, of course, another). Heaney marked the draft that forms the basis for this text as “final;” as Catherine Heaney and Matthew Hollis, who brought the translation to publication, the text is as Heaney intended it, barring final revisions prior to publication.
Unlike his translation of Beowulf, Heaney tries no pyrotechnics with the Aeneid. There are few opportunities to do so in any event. The book has set pieces, but they are written as long evocations of Roman glory, and there is only so much poetic license to be taken. Heaney himself alludes to the effect reading it has for aspiring translators; aside from some notable passages early on, “[b]y the time the story reaches its climax of Anchises’ vision of a glorious Roman race who will issue from Aeneas’ marriage with Lavinia, the translator is likely to have moved from inspiration to grim determination: the roll call of generals and imperial heroes … make this part of the poem something of a test for reader and translator alike.”
The meeting with Dido may be an exception. Aeneas abandoned Dido in Africa back in Book IV, after which she commits suicide; her shade in some sense haunts the poem. They meet again in the underworld. Dido says nothing, but Aeneas exclaims:
…tibi causa fui? Per sidera iuro
Per superos, et si qua fides tellure sub ima est
Invitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.
Was I, O was I to blame
For your death? I swear by the stars, by the powers
Above and by any truth that may be under earth,
I embarked from your shore, my queen, unwillingly.
Whether we believe Aeneas’ defense that he was driven from Carthage by the gods, or whether it was special pleading by a callous and ambitious man, says a lot of how we view the poem as a whole. Another recent translation covering the first six books tries a different tack with this scene:
by the starsby the gods
and whatever honor
I have, I never
Meant to hurt you
The gods want what they want.
Heaney’s is the more literal here, and the clearest. But this second version (translated by David Hadbawnik) has more contemporary punch.
Which brings us back to that imperial complication. Recent scholars have changed the view of the poem, and have argued Vergil may in fact be more ambivalent toward empire than traditionally supposed. There is Dido, first of all, whose story shows us that the advent of Rome causes personal and national grief. Anchises recounts Rome’s future by showing his son the shades of his descendants, including good men cut down in their youth and wars bringing ruin. And the Sibyl, too, even as she prophesies Rome’s success, gives witness to its dark side. Roma may indeed be Victrix, but “non et venisse volent. Bella, horrida bella … cerno” (“But the day is one you will rue. I see wars/Atrocious wars…”)
In retrospect, it is hard not to see the conflicted vision of imperial glory reflected in the poem. Perhaps, even if unwittingly, those Victorians were right to focus on the Aeneid after all.