Let It Burn

October 4, 2008

Legend has it that on his deathbed, the illustrious Roman poet Virgil asked that his manuscript for The Aeneid be burned because it wasn’t finished. Thankfully, the emperor Augustus intervened and saved it from destruction, and over two thousand years later a lowly student now finds herself studying it like so many other students before her. The idea that one of the greatest works of literature might have been lost if someone had been a little more considerate of a dying man’s wishes, or a little quicker with the matches, is amazing and somewhat terrifying. The fact that we even have a surviving copy anyway is pretty mind-boggling, all things considered.

Unlike The Odyssey, this is not the story of one man trying to get home, it is the story of a man and twenty ships full of his closest friends and family leaving a burning city and looking for a new place to live. Odysseus has a crew, certainly, but its members exist mostly to ramp up the body count, so that when he finally gets home alone it is more significant. Aeneas, on the other hand, doesn’t have the luxury of sacrificing six of his least favorite uncles to Scylla if the going gets tough. It’s a very different dynamic, and says a lot about Virgil’s thematic interests as opposed to Homer’s. I look forward to exploring the dichotomy further.

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