Even back when I was doing my half-hearted best to be a good Christian, I never really believed that the Gospels were “the greatest story ever told“. Somewhat in the spirit of John Lennon’s famous declaration that Ringo Starr wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles, however, I’m now prepared to say that the Gospels aren’t even the greatest story told in the Roman Empire around the transition from BC to AD. I recently finished reading Virgil’s Aeneid, and for my money it’s substantially better.
So why do I think highly of the Aeneid? Well, mainly because it’s one hell of an epic poem, half Iliad and half Odyssey, with plenty of blood, guts and glory. As the translator’s postscript by Robert Fagles in my Penguin Classics edition says, “the pulsing sweep of the narrative” is a force to be reckoned with. The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a heroic warrior who flees Troy as the Greeks swoop in and finds himself leading an exiled remnant of his people. Needing a place to settle and call their own, they set sail for Italy, an appropriate destination because it was the homeland of Aeneas’ ancestor Dardanus.
Unfortunately, Juno the queen of the gods hates Trojans and is determined to stop them from settling in Italy, even though Jove the king of the gods has decreed that they will colonize the place successfully and rule as a dynasty “till Ilia, a royal priestess great with the brood of Mars” gives birth to Romulus and Remus. Romulus, of course, will go on to found Rome.
Despite Juno’s best efforts, Aeneas and his followers arrive in Italy. After many battles they defeat those native Italians who choose to resist the Trojan invaders rather than throw in their lot with them. In the final lines of the poem Aeneas finally dispatches his arch-enemy, the warrior Turnus:
In the same breath, blazing with wrath he plants
his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.
Turnus’ limbs went limp in the chill of death.
His life breath fled with a groan of outrage
down to the shades below.
Now that’s an ending! Somehow even the last bit of the Gospel of Matthew, which in my view is a little more satisfactory than those of the other three gospels, can’t quite measure up:
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.
It’s okay, I suppose, but it lacks the visceral sense of climax that accompanies the killing of Turnus. The Aeneid also has a doomed love affair that ends with the magnificent Dido of Carthage stabbing herself atop a pyre, a boxing match following which the aged victor punches a bull to death as a kind of encore, a journey to the kingdom of the dead, a bare-breasted warrior princess who can stab torsos and split skulls with the best of them, and even the occasional moment of quiet introspection, all described in a poetic mode that somehow manages to be both stately and wildly vivid. A stilted story about a bloke who witters on sanctimoniously about motes and beams, fixes the odd case of leprosy, and eventually gets crucified for his pains really can’t compete. I know, it’s in a rather different genre – but still. Some genres are just a lot more edifying than others.
I’ve never had much time for the sort of literary criticism that approaches fiction primarily as a vehicle for conveying earnest “messages”, rather than as a field for exploring fascinating possibilities in the realm of imagination, but it has to be said that the Aeneid is edifying partly because of the way its protagonists cope with the vicissitudes of living in a universe haunted by fickle gods and goddesses who are all too human in their passions and loyalties.
The Introduction to my edition of the Aeneid (as distinct from the Translator’s Note) points out that Virgil was described as a “naturally Christian spirit” by Tertullian. I think it would be more accurate to consider Virgil, at least in his capacity as author of the Aeneid, to be a kind of instinctive atheist. The gods are important characters who dictate events and constantly interfere in various ways with Aeneas and other mortals, but their motivations are either transparently emotional or basically inscrutable, and references to God in the singular are occasional and fleeting. The gods make the cosmos more colourful and unpredictable, but hardly more benevolent, and they vouchsafe no promises of salvation. At some points in the narrative the will of Jove, at least, seems virtually unassailable, but the mortals rarely seem sure whether Jove and the other gods are on their side and indeed whether they are paying any attention at all. Aeneas captures this uncertainty wonderfully when he says, reflecting on a hypothetical duel with Turnus:
One of us would have lived, the one whom Mars-
Or his own right arm-had granted life.
We atheists are pretty sure that we can only trust our own right arms, and when push comes to shove Aeneas seems to agree. The gods might help, but they can hardly be counted on, and ultimately a Trojan hero or an Italian warrior princess can only keep fighting and hope for the best. When shipwrecked and struggling on the coast of Africa, Aeneas mentions divine aid, but appeals mainly to his fellow Trojans’ courage and resilience:
My comrades, hardly strangers to pain before now,
we all have weathered worse. Some god will grant us
an end to this as well. You’ve threaded the rocks
resounding with Scylla’s howling rabid dogs,
and taken the brunt of the Cyclops’ boulders, too.
Call up your courage again. Dismiss your grief and fear.
A joy it will be one day, perhaps, to remember even this.
Of course, no god is going to just “grant us” an end to anything, but this passage is nevertheless one that I think will always prove useful to me in navigating the shoals of life. It can indeed be a joy to remember past ordeals, and calling up one’s courage seems preferable to writhing impotently on a cross and crying out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”