For more than 2,500 years, classical epic has been the province of men: written by, for, and about them, and passed down through the centuries by male translators. One could certainly describe Virgil’s Aeneid as a manly poem. From its arms-and-the-man opening to its climactic blood bath on the battlefield, the Latin epic tells a tale of exile, combat, and slaughter, with a body count rivaling that of Homer’s Iliad. Women figure mostly as collateral damage.
In what appears to be a first, however, a woman has finally tried her hand at bringing Virgil’s dactylic hexameters to a modern, English-speaking public. This month Yale University Press publishes a blank-verse translation by the poet and classicist Sarah Ruden…..
[The Aeneid] raises an urgent question — What price empire? — even as it creates a foundational myth of how a great empire came to be. In an age that has had its fill of war and foreign adventures, Virgil’s epic, written 2,000 years ago, still speaks volumes…..
Our own recent, bloody history makes it easy to hear echoes in Virgil’s tragedy. That has made the Aeneid even more appealing to a post-Vietnam generation of translators.
“Particularly when you get meaningless wars like World War I, Vietnam, and Iraq, the legitimacy of death gets questioned,” says Richard F. Thomas, a professor of Greek and Latin and director of graduate studies in the classics department at Harvard University. “This is a poem that activates that question pretty well: Is Rome worth it?”
After completing her doctorate, Ruden found her first teaching job at the University of Cape Town. Living in South Africa, a country still gripped by turmoil at the end of apartheid, she says she came to understand how Virgil felt about the brutality of civil war….
“How imperial conflict works itself out isn’t an academic matter for me,” she explains. “The Aeneid isn’t a stiff antiquarian pageant. It’s immediate and primal. ‘They’re taking our stuff! They want all of it! They’re killing us for it! Let’s kill them first!'”
“I don’t believe I put the slightest strain on the Latin in trying to echo Virgil’s defensiveness and helpless grief,” she says, “but first I had to understand it, and Africa gave me that gift.”
The Aeneid gets a Woman’s Touch, and Contemporary Relevance
May 14, 2008 by travdyn