The world has waited 2,000 years for my review of the Aeneid, so here: It owns. I spent my evenings last week slowly absorbing the epic’s first half—an “Odyssean” story of the war refugee Aeneas, grieving and wandering after the fall of Troy—by taking in verses in short bursts between quarters of basketball games and during hockey intermissions. Then, in one sitting, I tore through the final six books—the furious “Iliadic” portion of the poem, about the battles Aeneas and the displaced Trojans fight against the native Latins in Italy so Aeneas can establish the city that will become Rome. Virgil’s grand national founding myth, commissioned by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, gets panned sometimes as underbaked Homer fanfiction, but that’s only half true. I found it beautiful, violent, puzzling in parts, and intensely sad.
Classics are so often called “enduring” or “timeless,” truisms that might blunt their power to be read through specific, contemporary lenses. In fact, their foreignness ensures a kind of paradoxical intimacy: I felt removed enough from the Augustan milieu that I could totally set the terms of my engagement with the poem. Which brings me to the Aeneid Book V, the book of guys being dudes.
At the end of Book IV, Aeneas sets sail from Carthage, the North African city where Queen Dido takes him in after his fleet is shipwrecked. Earlier, Aeneas has heard a prophecy foretelling his destiny to build a new city. But he stalls in accepting his fate and strikes up an affair with Dido instead, an affair so intense and consuming that she falls under the impression the two are married. Of course, Aeneas’s destiny demands he put public duty over personal desire in the end. At the gods’ prodding, Aeneas leaves Dido, a little dickishly, and she is so distraught by this she kills herself, a chilling moment in an epic with no shortage of them. And then the mood changes entirely in Book V. Aeneas and crew take a day off from their fated mission—which, again, is literally to found Rome—and decide to play sports on a Sicilian beach. Supposedly, these are “funeral games” being held in honor of Aeneas’s late father, Anchises, on the first anniversary of his death. But I think they just wanted to have fun. Anyway, the games! Let me tell you about them:
- The boat race: The warriors divide into four teams, and things go haywire fast. In one boat, the captain and navigator begin feuding so bitterly that the captain throws the navigator overboard. The race comes down to Sergestus and Mnestheus, but Sergestus chokes and steers his boat into a bunch of rocks. When he returns to shore, everyone is laughing at him. But Aeneas says this is OK, and still gives him a prize. Here is our first glimpse of what will be a big theme in these games: No one will leave without a prize.
- The foot race: Shenanigans! Shenanigans abound! Nisus takes a commanding lead until he slips and falls in a pile of mud and blood as he approaches the finish line. His hopes of winning dashed, Nisus is now rooting for his pal Euryalus, who was two runners behind him. So Nisus trips the guy in second place, and Euryalus coasts to victory. Salius, the tripped second-place man, is understandably pissed, and pretty soon everyone is crying and yelling about how they placed in this race, so Aeneas keeps giving out prizes to tide them over. He has so many prizes. I don’t know how he fit them all on the boat.
- The boxing match: This is the funniest one. Dares, a beefy Trojan warrior, steps into the ring and demands his prize after a few seconds, when no one steps up to challenge him. The Sicilian king Acestes eggs on an aging former boxing champion named Entellus, who grudgingly agrees to fight Dares. Things go very badly for Entellus at first. He swings and misses so forcefully he falls down. But something changes when he gets back up. He goes nuts and rains blows upon Dares until Aeneas steps in and tells Entellus to please chill out. Entellus wins a bull as his prize, punches the bull so hard it dies (???????) and then announces his retirement from boxing (???)
- The archery competition: At first, the apparent winner of this contest is a guy named Eurytion, who successfully shoots the bird with his arrow. However! Acestes (the Sicilian king) also participates in the competition, and his arrow catches fire and vanishes in midair, which is so cool he is automatically declared the winner. Eurytion is fine with this, probably because he still gets—say it with me—a prize.
- The equestrian games: Then they do a little parade of horses on the beach. It’s nice.
- (Ah, you’ll also notice the women are excluded from these games. They are generally annoyed by Aeneas’s whole quest, so back by the shore, they are burning all of his ships in the hopes it will force everyone to settle down and stop sailing to Italy. It doesn’t work.)
It’s easy—and maybe correct—to read the Trojan games as foreshadowing of the wars to come. You can imagine a certain kind of lunkhead coach flattered to see athletic competition venerated by a foundational, bellicose Western text like this. Sports and battle, anyway, share a vocabulary—blitzes, generals, drafts—and the effect is usually to inflate the former in importance; from there, we get Mike Leach teaching a college seminar called “Insurgent Warfare and Football Strategies.” But I like this book for the opposite reason: The comparison between games and war is invited and immediately subverted. Sports have no real stakes in the Aeneid. Everyone gets a prize. Everyone wins. The fellas are just hanging out, taking pleasure in each other’s company, playing on the beach, having some laughs, without drama or tension at all. The Trojans have suffered so much in losing their first home and will suffer still more on their way to a second one. Sandwiched between Dido’s death and Aeneas’s Book VI trip to the underworld, where his father will show him visions of the future, this book can feel a little bizarre, and narratively not so consequential at all. But it’s the only time in the whole gloomy epic that Aeneas smiles.