Reading the Aeneid with teenagers

Since first being introduced to it as a teenager, I have loved Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. The experience of studying the Aeneid was what made me want to continue studying the ancient world at university. My enthusiasm for the Aeneid remains undimmed today as I find myself teaching the poem to my own pupils. This said, it’s a genuine challenge to try to get a class of teenage boys interested in reading ancient poetry…

It’s helpful, therefore, that the storyline of the Aeneid is far from dull. Aeneas is the strapping warrior who flees Troy, his home city, after a debacle involving audacious Greek cunning and a large wooden horse. He washes up on the North African shoreline, where he falls into the lap of Dido, captivating queen of Carthage (modern Tunis), who puts him up in style in her not-so-humble abode. Dido, listening to Aeneas tell of his Odysseus-like wanderings since his escape from Troy, is struck by Cupid’s bow. Aeneas, for his part, is enchanted by Dido – but, tragically for both Dido and himself, he has bigger fish to fry (or so says Jupiter, king of the gods). He must leave Carthage immediately and press ahead to Italy, where his arrival will ensure the foundation (in the distant future) of the city of Rome.

This is the situation that confronts the reader in the first four books (of twelve) of the poem. By leaving Dido, Aeneas discards romantic love in the name of duty, eschewing the queen of Carthage’s luxurious court and its exotic African location. He thereby ensures that an as yet undistinguished patch of Italy will one day be not just the home of a few clueless sheep and a sentimental, rambling old monarch (Evander, whom he meets in book 8), but the centre of the greatest empire in the world, a war machine, and the bringer and self-appointed standard bearer of ‘civilisation’.

Much of the excitement of this story lies in its sweeping scale, its coverage of vast territories of space and time. In its geography, the Aeneid traverses the Mediterranean, navigating both physical space and the boundaries between neighbouring cultures. In terms of history, the poem famously blends material relating to the mythical past, and indeed the mythical future (insofar as Virgil integrates allusions to the emperor in his own contemporary Rome, Augustus), together with its tale of Aeneas.

If its vast scope is so central a feature of the poem, the value of a GCSE paper which focuses on only a few lines of the poem can reasonably be doubted. How could pupils preparing to take this paper gain a sense of the vastness of the canvas Virgil is using, when their eyes are trained only on a few dozen verses?

One answer here is that they can’t, and that they should just get on and read the whole 12 books of the poem by way of compensation. Knowing what I do about the reading proclivities of teenagers, I think it’s fair to say that this sort of recommendation would be unlikely to be acted upon by everyone. It’s fortunate, then, that numerous passages of the Aeneid present in microcosm several of the poem’s main overarching themes.

The passage I’ve been covering in recent weeks with my GCSE class fits this description. In it, Aeneas faces up to the reality that he needs to leave behind Carthage – and his lover, Dido – in order to continue his journey, over the Mediterranean, to Italy. Doing so is about fulfilling his own personal destiny, and acting in accordance with the wishes of Jupiter, king of the gods. The passage raises questions about determinism and free will: is Aeneas really ‘free’ to act as he wishes, when he has a destiny to fulfil and the demands of the king of the gods to obey?

When Dido learns that Aeneas is preparing to leave, she’s distraught (it is her emotional state, not Aeneas’, that Virgil dwells on). Virgil likens her to a deranged follower of the god Bacchus, god of wine, drunkenness and orgiastic ritual, and he uses different poetic effects to illustrate her disconsolate, fluttering state of mind. On a superficial reading, the comparison to a Bacchus worshipper is profoundly unflattering to Dido – yet isn’t Bacchus (like Jupiter) a god? And isn’t his divine expertise concerned with precisely those energies and experiences which ordinary ‘civilised’ society can’t cope with? On this reading, Dido’s experience as a quasi-Bacchant looks authentic and human. Why should she acquiesce humbly to the diktats of Jupiter, as Aeneas does? This involves breaking off a special love affair and, as a matter of grim duty, repressing true feelings (Aeneas for the most part maintains a stoical silence), while setting sail for a dimly apprehended future – because he’s assured he must. Aeneas puts the political above the personal: must this be the essence of genuine heroism?

Virgil often highlights Aeneas’ religious piety in the Aeneid, but there’s a sense that this ‘piety’ often amounts to little more than doing what he is told by a powerful agent: on the contrary, Dido, by giving full vent to her true thoughts and setting enormous store on the value of her human connection with Aeneas, presents a threat to Jupiter’s designs. She is emotionally alert, passionate and communicative of her feelings, even as her character suffers a forlorn and tragic demise: she ends up killing herself as Aeneas leaves her city.

One kind of teenage boy will incline, at least initially, to a misogynistic interpretation of this episode, finding in it evidence of male mastery, strength and control and contrasting it with a pitiable instance of female weakness and desperation. But arguably it is Aeneas, not Dido, who comes closest to being a puppet on a god’s string (he leaves for Italy ‘not of his own accord’) and it is he who might stand accused of emotional inarticulacy: is this really a case of male strength and control in action? And is a masculinity constituted by strength and control here something a reader ought, in the end, to admire?

Lots of big themes swirl through Virgil’s writing in the Aeneid – and this is just one such case. My experience has been that, even if pupils are focussed on only a few dozen lines of the poem, there is plenty of exploring to do. It crosses my sceptical mind to wonder whether it would be equally possible to get as much from a few dozen lines of a Dickens or a Steinbeck.

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