BMCR 2004.07.42

The Labors of Aeneas: What A Pain It Was to Found the Roman Race

, , The labors of Aeneas : what a pain it was to found the Roman race. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2003. vi, 108 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0865165564 $12.00.

The Labors of Aeneas by Rose Williams (hereafter W.) is an extensive paraphrase-cum-retelling of Vergil’s Aeneid in a voice that is quite opposite to that often accorded to the lofty Founder of the Roman Race. The book’s subtitle is from the translation of Book I.33, Tantae molis erat Romanam condere gentem : “What a pain it was to found the Roman race.” W. strives to retell the Aeneid in as painless a manner as possible, all the while keeping in mind “what a pain” reading this epic poem, in English or in Latin, can be for today’s high school Latin students as well as “untold millions of long-suffering history students” (1). This slender book lucidly recounts the story of Aeneas vis à vis the Trojan War in a tongue-in-cheek tone that pokes fun at the majestic seriousness often allotted to Vergil’s epic. Aeneas is compared to Scarlett O’Hara (“he knew that you can’t go forward if your head is hung over your shoulder looking back,” 16); the “chicken” Trojans’ haplessness is highlighted (74); Turnus is “an excellent example of an early spin doctor” (74).

The irreverence of W. is gleeful and high-spirited; here is an author whose fondness for her subject matter enables her to poke brazen fun at it. Comments like Aeneas sleeping in “his little trundle bed” (9) as the Greeks attack peel off the patina of “pious Aeneas,” The Father of the Roman People. Instead, Aeneas, with his mind set on fulfilling his Duty, can seem “an awful bore” (1). W. makes him a “thoroughly sound egg” (28), who “knows a divine neck when he saw one” (25), poses as an “art [critic]” before the door of the Sibyl’s temple (50), asks “as many questions as a four-year-old” (56), and is in need of “getting his beauty sleep” (67). The survivors of the Trojan War are his “Merry Men” (10). Dido’s death scene threatens “to be as drawn out as the death scene in an Italian opera” (37). Venus is Aeneas’ “dear Mama” (4), Achates his “beetle-brained” companion (24). The gods’ fickle natures are never forgotten: Juno thinks that, in regard to the Trojans, “none at all would be a nice number” (21). Jupiter, chief among the “double-dealing” gods (19), is seen “lolling on a cloud” and can’t resist “getting in a little dig at Juno” (82). Mercury, dispatched to remind Aeneas about his unforgettable Duty, “had long practiced prompt obedience when Papa dear was in [the] mood” (33). Tisiphone personifies “Extreme Nastiness” (56) while Cupid — that cherub! — is all “cuteness” (27)

The Labors of Aeneas is aimed as a companion piece to a student first studying the Aeneid. Each of the chapters retells the plot of one of the twelve books of the Latin epic. An Appendix provides succinct descriptions of the prominent gods in the poem and brief notes provide more information about specific mythological figures such as Polyphemus and Daedalus, and the Latin word pietas. W. shows keen awareness for students’ response in reading — slogging through — the twelve books of the Aeneid, noting the frequency with which Aeneas’ hair stands on end and his lengthy speeches, as well as the elaborate and recurring epithets that can seem rather pointless to a student drowning in vocabulary words: “Vergil, like most self-respecting poets, never simply says that the sun came up” (59). The “tedious accuracy of mythological prophecies” (68) — why bother to make them if they are going to happen? — is duly noted. A taste of Latin is provided via the epigraphs for each chapter, which are drawn from the Latin text and rendered in a translation that can evoke the same tone of gentle mockery as W.’s own text: Facilis decensus Averno; … / Sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras, / Hoc opus, hic labor est (VI.126, 128-9) is translated as “Going down to Hades is easy; / Finding your way back out / Is definitely the big job.”

In an attempt to make the text “relevant” to secondary students, words like “goo” (which Aeneas trudges through in Hades, 54) are peppered throughout — words that may seem simply odd to students whose ears and iPods are full of the harsher vocabulary of hip hop and its hybrids. Indeed, today’s student may have to hurry to to understand words like “lulu” (8), while calling Anchises “Pop” seems old-fashioned at best. And, at least with a group of cynical wise-cracking youth, a book like The Labors of Aeneas can do too much. The book offers a pre-prepared interpretation from an angle that makes it harder for students to devise their own spin on Vergil’s epic of “arms and the man” via the text’s non-sequiturs and sarcastic asides (as this comment, when Aeneas is pouring libations at his father’s tomb and a huge snake appears: “Young people have the most peculiar ideas about their parents,” 41). Students would have to be quite thoroughly knowledgeable about the poem and the myths to see the fun of saying the Romans are on a quest for “world domination” (99).

Also, the literary purist will perhaps catch her breath at the asides with their sarcasm and kindly sniggers at the foibles of Greeks and Trojans, of mortals and immortals alike. For The Labors of Aeneas very much presents W.’s view and voice. These are particularly evident in editorializing comments such as “The things that can happen to fish, fowl, and animal when there is no active SPCA!” (45) about the dove tied to a mast as a target for the archery context in Book V. A passing literary judgment appears in a comment about why the Trojans only pass by Sicily because “It would have been a waste of good time to have had the Trojans linger in adventure here, since Homer had already covered this watery turf in his Odyssey” (18). And, when writing dactylic hexameter in Latin, “a fellow needs all the help he can get” (25) and consequently can refer to Dido as Elissa, and her people as Punic, and Tyrian, and Sidonian, and on and on. The book’s easy familiarity with mythological references, the assumptions about Latin poetry and the broad references to Roman history, may not be apparent to students first reading the Aeneid. Given that such students seem to be the target audience for The Labors of Aeneas, the book might be best used by teachers to “spice up” a class working their way (however laboriously) through yet another indirect statement. The reader most likely to chuckle at W.’s teasing asides and silly parentheses may well be that teacher comfortably versed in Aeneas’ labors, aware of the tediousness of long works of literature for students, and the cheeriest of cheerleaders for the study of Latin, Roman history, and Vergil.

The Labors of Aeneas provides a witty plot summary and can serve as a anchor for the plot and the overall direction of the narrative; it reminds students that pius Aeneas need not only be seen as an august icon of Roman history. It might be argued that a verse translation, such as Robert Fitzgerald’s elegant work, of course, or Allen Mandelbaum’s, might do as well in providing an English version of Vergil’s epic; or a book such as Poet and Artist: Imaging the Aeneid by Henry Bender and David Califf that provides “translations” of another sort of the Aeneid, in the form of engravings. Perhaps what is really needed is an “adaption” of the Aeneid in the spirit of Christopher Logue’s adaptations/recreations of Homer’s Iliad in War Music, Kings, and All Day Permanent Red. These works turn Homer’s excerpts inside out by rendering the physical brutality and beauty of the Iliad‘s story in contemporary verse. W.’s The Labors of Aeneas serves another function: to re-present a great story of great deeds and great heroes, all while reminding us that such glory is achieved by humans (and by gods) acting their best as well as worst, through a mixture of sheer silliness and steadfast seriousness that is the very stuff of humanity.