Here Come The Trojans

7 Oct

The Classics (with a capital C) are one of those gaping holes in my reading. I was born about 30 years too late to have them drummed into me in school, and even if I had there’s every chance I’d have hated them. Sure, I loved Jason and the Argonauts, but if I’d had to study Latin or Ancient Greek just to “get” what I was reading, it might have become a bit of a chore.

In recent years I’ve tried – with varying success – to correct this. I’ve read Homer’s Iliad and  Odyssey (well… most of it), and thoroughly enjoyed Suetonius’s trashy biography, The Twelve Caesars. The Summer issue of The Paris Review featured a newly translated excerpt from Virgil’s The Aeneid, and I enjoyed that, so – with some trepidation – I thought I’d give it a go.

For those of you who’ve not read or heard of it, The Aeneid is an epic poem, written some time around 20BC, that tells the story of how a group of Trojans, lead by Aeneas, flee Troy following the events of The Iliad. It’s the most complete literary source we have for the Trojan Horse legend, and is – to quote a friend – the world’s oldest surviving example of fan fiction.

I’m just over half way through, and so far, so brilliant. Having struggled a little with E.V. Rieu’s prose version of Homer, I love that Fitzgerald translates The Aeneid as a work of poetry, and this isn’t just a dry and don-ish translation. Fitzgerald’s writing sparkles. The death of Laocoon and his sons (gobbled up by sea serpents) reads like a scene from The Thing (“…he fought to break the knots / Drenched in slime, his head-bands black with venom…”) and outside of Moby Dick I’ve read few better descriptions of storm-tossed seas.

Two things have struck me while reading it. First: Virgil really didn’t like women. If something goes tits up in The Aeneid, invariably it’s a girl’s fault. Their ships catch fire? Oh, that’ll be the goddess Iris come down, disguised as an old woman, and telling the Trojan womenfolk, “Say, I’ve got a great idea. Let’s set fire to our boats!” Aeneas is about to sign a peace treaty with King Latinus? Along comes Allecto to piss all over their chips. If they’re not fucking everything up they’re turning bunny boiler on our handsome hero. (Yes, Dido, I’m talking about you… now put the sword down).

The second thing that struck me? It would appear that quite a few ancient cultures felt the need to trace their lineage back to Troy. Aeneas, you see, was – according to Virgil – the founder of Rome. That’s kind of what the whole thing is about – how noble Aeneas came along and started a dynasty that would include everyone from Romulus to Augustus. What this reminded me of, instantly, was the legend, recorded by Geoffrey of Monmouth (a 12th Century historian, not just some bloke called Geoff from Monmouth) of Brutus of Troy, founder of Britain. Legend has it that Brutus sailed to Britain, landing at a point half way up Fore Street in Totnes.

Now, this is remarkable for several reasons. Firstly, the so-called “Brutus Stone”, marking the place of his landing, is about 300 feet above sea level, so unless he landed in a helicopter, it seems unlikely he did so on Fore Street. But second, again… what’s with all the Trojans? These days, post Wolfgang Peterson’s excremental Troy, we tend to think of the Trojans as – if not the bad guys – then at least the feckless losers. I mean… Who falls for the Trojan Horse trick? Seriously? (Actually, in Virgil there’s a lengthy explanation for all this. You see, Laocoon [mentioned above] did warn his fellow Trojans about the horse that turned up on their doorstep, saying, “Are you guys f***ing crazy? You just know that f***ing thing is crawling with Greeks. I say we burn the f***er.” But just then, wouldn’t you know it, he got eaten by a sea serpent, and all the Trojans said, “Hey… Maybe it’s an omen. We should totally accept the giant, conspicuously hollow horse gift.”)

“Seriously, guys… A hollow f***ing horse? Do they think we’re stu- AAAARGH! SEA SERPENTS!”

Anyway… Where was I? Oh yeah. So, right now we think of the Trojans as losers, but maybe our ancestors thought differently. Maybe, in this day and age, we’re just too cynical. We expect gifts to be filled with raping-and-pillaging bad guys, but back then… it was a more innocent time.

Unless you were a woman, of course, in which case you were a Fury, a Harpy, a mean-spirited goddess, a bunny boiler, or a chuckle headed moron.

Anyway. My next blog will probably be about The X Factor. It’s all about the balance.

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2 Responses to “Here Come The Trojans”

  1. A girl March 28, 2016 at 6:44 am #

    As a student of the Classics, it’s really exciting when someone stops to appreciate the works of the likes of Virgil, Catullus, and Ovid. Everyone is always talking about how Latin is a dead language, but it and its literature is the foundation of our modern literature; forgetting the Classics is like forgetting the Beatles – you may not necessarily prefer it to current art, but it’s still important.

    I’m not sure how much of this stuff you’ve read, but I have some favorites that you might want to try. I highly recommend Ovid as an interesting read, but if you’re looking for poetic resonance, go for some Catullus. Ovid is moving in Latin, but the English translations I’ve read somehow fail to do it justice in terms of the writing itself. And now, I leave you with one of my favorites from Martial:

    “You say, Sextus, that fair damsels are burning with love for you—–for you, who have the face of a man swimming under water.”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The opening paragraph of ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ – and why it’s terrible « A Forest of Beasts - October 17, 2012

    […] Is it that it started life as Twilight fan fiction? Certainly not. As I’ve pointed out in a previous blog, the history of fan fiction is a long one, and encompasses everything from Virgil’s Aeneid, […]

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