"Aeneas and His Family Fleeing from Troy" by Pompeo Batoni, 1753 (Sabauda Gallery)
Vergil’s Aeneid is an epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan who fled his burning city, under attack by the Greeks. He embarked on a terrifying journey across the Mediterranean, finally reaching Italy, a fate decided for him and his descendants by the god Jupiter. Aeneas defeats the local people, marries the Italian princess Lavinia, and founds the city that will become Rome.
Characterized as a founder and a “pious” man—as Vergil frequently called him—Aeneas was a heroic figure, popular with European conquerors who were imposing their version of civilization on indigenous people. Fast forward two thousand years, and the Aeneid’s triumphal narrative takes on a much darker tone. Should we assign the epic to the rubbish-heap of history, which is filling up with other dead-white-men narratives? Or did Vergil include commentary that denounced the story’s own propaganda? Have we been misreading it for centuries? Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, professor of classics and translator of the newest version of the Aeneid, defies the weight of the past and looks at the poem anew.
Bartsch-Zimmer is the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor in Classics at the University of Chicago and the Inaugural Director of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge.
Bartsch-Zimmer’s translation of the Aeneid is available for purchase.
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