The Aeneid on Facebook

by zunguzungu

It’s unclear who transformed Virgil’s Aeneid into a facebook narrative, but to that anonymous soul toiling in, um, anonymity, I say kudos. The thing is incredibly funny, and even though it’s been a few years since I’ve read the epic in question, gags like “Aeneas changed his relationship status to It’s Complicated” after hooking up with Dido are, as far as I’m concerned, the cat’s meow in pajamas, LOLZ.

Anyway, I trust humor more than I trust anything else; where there’s smoke there’s fire, and laughter always indicates that some itch was there to have made it worth scratching. So let me scratch this a little deeper. Why pick the Aeneid for this gag? There are more obvious choices. The Odyssey would work as well, I bet, and is more widely known, while Brad Pitt’s turn in Troy might have made people more aware of the Illiad. In any cases, when a modern looks for a “dusty old epic” to spoof, it’s almost always not Virgil.

But here’s a guess as to why the Aeneid might have been the appropriate choice for this treatment, intentionally or no. Unlike Homer’s epics, The Aeneid is about foundation myths as myths, both the story of the mythical founding of Rome and, in a more general sense, about the ways that the acts of human beings here and now can actually be determinative of the course taken by their predecessors (by, say, creating a mythological story). There’s a nice fantasy of empire, right at the beating heart of the thing, that gets revealed as fantasy, the question of whether one can ever “found” anything and whether permanance can ever be created. It is, in other words, about the ways words become flesh, and about how flesh undoes words: Aeneis’ rage (in a revision of Homer’s Achilles) is the thing that founds Rome, but it’s also a peculiar kind of undoing of it, a vengeful act of founding that simultaneously sows the seeds of its own destruction.

But don’t take my word for it. As Sharon James tells us, “It is, in Jane Austen’s words, a truth universally acknowledged that the Aeneid is concerned with the founding of Rome, an event commonly described by the verb condere. This word is so crucial to the poem that it appears conspicuously at both beginning and end: dum conderet urbem (1.5) and ferrum adverso sub pectore condit (12.950). But these two acts are so different — the one a slow, constructive struggle to settle down and build a civilization, the other a swift, destructive act of enraged killing — that by placing them in such prominent symmetry and using the same word of them, Vergil calls attention to the relationship between them…In linking the slow founding of Rome to the swift stabbing of Turnus, Vergil suggests that the former rests on the latter. Thus he shows the violence and fury beneath the founding of Rome.”

As James notes, this is a linguistic innovation of Virgil’s; while the idiom “to bury a weapon in an opponent” is common both in English and in Latin after the Aeneid, it was Virgil’s use of the two terms in deadly symmetry in the Aeneid, linking the foundation of Rome with the murderous passion that undoes it, that gives it this connotation. All of which is, I suppose, just to make a fairly simple point: what better way to mock the pretensions of the imperial epic than this most transient of texts, the facebook page? What less imperial form of discourse could there possibly be?