In Classics 102 (which I’ve just realized sounds like a radio station – "You’re listening to All Request Mozart, keep it here on Classics 102") right now, we’re reading the Aeneid. If you’re not familiar with this work, it’s an epic poem by the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC – 19 BC), better known to history as Virgil, who wrote it at around the same time that Octavian was becoming Augustus and the Roman Republic was becoming the Empire. It purports to tell the story of the founding of Rome by refugees from the sack of Troy, as described in Homer’s Iliad.
In class, we’re working from the Mandelbaum translation, which attempts to preserve something of the original verse form, and it’s pretty rough sledding – dense with mythological references and historical allegories that Virgil expected would be intuitively obvious to his audience, but which require a bit of digging for the modern reader (at least this modern reader) to come to grips with. It comes across as a sort of Odyssey-by-the-makers-of-Gladiator: a story of mythic travel and high adventure in which a doughty hero and his band of loyal followers are constantly messed about by the gods in an effort to get home, although where Ulysses and his men were trying to get back to the home they had left, Aeneas and the survivors of Troy are en route to a new home promised to them by the gods (the ones who aren’t trying to kill them) – the region of the Tiber in Italy, where Rome would eventually be.
The whole thing is pretty transparent propaganda, if you keep in mind when it was written and for whom. There’s a scene in which Aeneas is presented with a shield, made for him by Vulcan at the request of Venus (who happens to be Aeneas’s mother). On the shield is engraved a pictorial history of Rome, from the time of its founding to the triumph of Augustus, none of which had actually happened yet from Aeneas’s point of view, but the tail end of which was not just recent history but pretty much current affairs reportage for Virgil’s original readers. The basic thrust of the story is: "Rome. How long has it been awesome? It’s always been awesome, baby."
Where "just wow" comes into it is this: I was looking at my copy today, and realizing that it’s pretty old. The Mandelbaum translation was first published in 1961 and revised in 1971, and the edition we’re using in class is the Bantam Classics paperback, ca. 1985. On the spine, next to the utterly superfluous "USED" sticker the campus bookstore put on it – this is a paperback book whose pages have turned entirely yellow with age – is the original price, $2.95. I was curious about what it costs new these days, if this edition is even still in print, so I looked it up on Amazon.
As you might expect, there are a lot of editions of the Aeneid out there. While I was trawling down the list looking for the Bantam edition, I ran across one that made me just stop and stare for a moment: Alfred J. Church’s The Aeneid for Boys and Girls.
A children’s edition. Of the Aeneid.
This would have been astounding enough – I mean, we’re talking about a translation of an epic Roman poem about the fall of Troy (from the Trojan side) and its really quite exceedingly violent aftermath, including the foundation of Rome by the survivors of Troy in an area that already had a population, thank you, and reacted about as you would expect. And there’s a children’s edition.
But even that is not why we’re here to say "just wow" today. No, that leads on from my discovery, made from that listing, that Mr. Church also did for Boys and Girls editions of the classic works of Homer which Virgil was, let’s be honest, cribbing pretty heavily.
Which means, that’s right: The Iliad for Boys and Girls.
The Amazon listing has a "look inside!" feature that allows the prospective buyer to examine the first few pages. I encourage everyone to investigate this, but let’s look at a couple of the key points together, shall we?
As everyone who’s ever attempted to give himself a little classical culturin’ up knows – even if, like me, it’s about as far as he ever got – the Iliad begins with some translational variation on this classic line:
Sing, goddess, of the rage of Achilles son of Peleus, that ruinous wrath which brought such sorrow upon the Achaeans.
Mr. Church renders this:
Once upon a time there was a certain King of Sparta who had a most beautiful daughter, Helen by name.
Is it me, or does it, uh… rather lose something in this form?
My favorite part, though, is on the next page, where he’s listing some of the prominent Greek figures who are going to be involved in the upcoming war with Troy:
So they all came to a place called Aulis, with many ships and men. Others also who had not taken the oath came with them. The greatest of these chiefs were these:-
Diomed, son of Tydeus; Ajax the Greater and Ajax the Less, and Teucer the Archer, who was brother of Ajax the Greater.
Nestor, who was the oldest man in the world.
The wise Ulysses.
Achilles, who was the bravest and strongest of all the Greeks, and with him his dear friend Patroclus.
I’d just like to repeat that last part.
… and with him his dear friend Patroclus.
Oh, man. Any kid who reads this is going to be in for a deep, reverberating shock later on in life.
I ordered a copy of The Aeneid for Boys and Girls. I had to. I may bust it out in class as my Optional Extra Review. I resisted the siren call of The Iliad for Boys and Girls this time, but I may yet revisit the concept; it depends on how much fun The Aeneid for Boys and Girls turns out to be. I have to say, based on the sample provided, it looks very, very promising.