On the anniversary of Virgil’s death in 19 BCE, the poet who (like so many from antiquity) dazzles me with his artistry while making me feel politically squeamish, I’ve returned to the old chestnut: how nearly complete was the Aeneid? The tradition that Virgil had not completed it and was not happy with it being published unrevised goes back to a biography written in the fourth century CE by a grammarian called Aelius Donatus. This biography may contain earlier material (but not therefore necessarily more reliable) written by Suetonius. It certainly includes bits of text added by other scholars subsequent to Donatus.
The main evidence that the poem was unfinished consists of the 57 incomplete lines spread across all 12 books but particularly concentrated in books 2-5, 7 and 9-10.
Donatus says that Virgil went to Greece, planning a three-year stay to finish the epic. He asked his friend Varius to burn the Aeneid if anything happened to him. He fell ill in Greece, returned to the Italian port city of Brindisi, and died there, having tried and failed to have the manuscripts burned. Varius published them anyway ‘acting under the authority of Augustus. But they were revised only in a cursory fashion, so that if there were any unfinished lines, he left them unfinished’.
There have been several responses to this information. People who think Virgil was quietly subversive towards Augustus and the Roman Empire suppose that he had fallen out of love with the propagandist aspects of the poem and so considered destroying it. This premise informed the famous 1945 novel The Death of Virgil by Hermann Broch, which explores the difficulties faced by an artist under totalitarianism.
Others have said that Virgil knew he wanted to adjust or supplement the ideological import of the poem to make it either more anti- or pro-Augustus. Sometimes they cite a passage interpolated into Donatus’ account, which says that ‘if he had lived longer, Virgil would have written 24 books, up to the time of Augustus, and that he meant…to deal with the deeds of Augustus in detail’.
But I am not alone in thinking that at least some of the ‘unfinished’ lines were actually finished. The truncation of the metrical flow often adds pathos or rhetorical emphasis.
When the Trojans take the momentous decision to drag the wooden horse into the city, the moment just before Aeneas says ‘we parted the walls and laid bare the city’s battlements’ is preceded by the ominous pause created by a missing half-line (2.233).
When Aeneas brutally tells Dido to stop harassing him with her complaints, ‘for I’m not trying to get to Italy of my own volition’, the impact his emotional brutality has on Dido is arguably increased, again, by the thudding silence of the missing metrical feet (4.361).
In the final book, when Turnus, who has lost some of his dearest friends in battle, is upbraided by his disguised sister for not attacking hard enough, a pause precedes the tragic soliloquy in which he accepts that his violent death is now imminent and inevitable (12.630). It is as if he is drawing a very deep breath.
One thing is for certain, if the human race survives what it is currently doing to the planet, and unless a wholly unexpected and reliable new source turns up for what went on in Brindisi just before and on 21st September 19 BCE, we will be arguing about Virgil’s aesthetic and political intentions in the Aeneid for a good few millennia to come.
|The Tomb of Virgil' by Joseph Wright of Derby|