Review by: Debra Hamel, book-blog.com - October 6, 2005
In the Aeneid Vergil (70-19 B.C.) tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, who survived the Greek siege of Troy (the subject of Homer's Iliad) and went on, after considerable difficulty, to fulfill his destiny and found the Roman race. Anyone looking to dip their toes in Aeneas' story, either as a prelude to reading the Aeneid itself or merely to acquaint themselves with this major chapter of Greco-Roman mythology, would do well to spend a few hours with Rose Williams' brief, breezy retelling of the Aeneas legend. (Note that Williams' book is not precisely an abbreviated version of the Aeneid: she begins Aeneas's story in childhood while Vergil picks up the tale in the seventh year after the fall of Troy.)
Williams' tone throughout the book is light. In her discussion of the Trojan prince Paris, for example, who had been exposed as a baby but lived to tell about it, the author writes: "Anyone who has read much classical mythology knows that any babe abandoned on a mountainside was always rescued by a wandering shepherd and taken home to some unfortunate shepherd's wife. Thereafter the child was reared in flowery meadows tending sheep until a little bird told him one day about his royal heritage. Whereupon he descended on his true father's palace, or what he thought was his true father's palace, usually with disastrous results." In Paris' case those disastrous results would include the siege and destruction of Troy, which he brought about single-handedly by stealing Helen from her jealous Greek husband--her face launching a thousand ships and all that. Williams' writing is punctuated by cute asides which almost become cloying: "Pallas' war horse, Aethon, according to Vergil, was led in the procession with big tears rolling down his hairy cheeks. (The intelligentsia always scoffs at such statements, saying that horses do not cry in grief, or at all, for that matter. Maybe they just never encountered a horse in a lachrymose mood.)" But for the most part the writing is very successful.
The Labors of Aeneas includes a handful of notes and an appendix of major gods. The book might have been improved by the addition of an introduction--covering Vergil's biography, for example, the history of Rome in a nutshell--but it is not strictly necessary. Readers who are unacquainted with the book's subject matter will find that the author does a good job injecting explanatory material into her account. Her book is, in short, a well-written introduction to the world Vergil describes. Readers should find it both instructive and entertaining.
Review by: N. S. Gill, About.com - September 28, 2005
Knowing how to translate Latin is not enough to get you through the twelve book epic poem, The Aeneid, by Vergil — at least with any real understanding. Vergil was a master of the poetic medium in which he wrote. Obligated to glorify the current administration in dactyllic hexameters almost guaranteed that two millennia later readers would have trouble understanding all the undercurrents. Modern readers need a well-informed teacher, familiarity with the relevant mythology and iconography — if not the history of ancient Rome, or Rose William’s The Labors of Aeneas. Subtitled What A Pain It Was To Found The Roman Race, the slim volume pokes fun at epic pomposity
‘Vergil, like most self-respecting poets, never simply says that the sun came up. At this point he states that the sea reddened as Aurora the Dawn Goddess rose aloft in her saffron robes. In other words, the sun came up.’
while giving an affectionate, clear, and careful explanation of events in each of the twelve books of The Aeneid. Thus, The Labors of Aeneas is very useful, but no more so than it is charming.
If one were trying to translate the Aeneid for modern readers the obvious first choices would be prose or verse, but neither method assures that modern readers will know what’s happening. Frequently Vergil leaves out what seem like crucial details and he fails to make clear transitions, so reading along, you may wonder if you missed an important point. By treating the work as a serious piece to be adapted with loving humor and in fast-paced prose, Rose Williams can point out all these difficulties. For example, when Aeneas is planning to go to the Underworld for a tete a tete with his ghostly father Ascanius, he is warned that going down is easy compared with getting back out again; yet, as Williams says, “[Vergil] spends a sizeable part of the book getting Aeneas into Hades and then gets him out in three lines.” Her treatment of the gods and especially Juno is most fitting for our era when it can’t be assumed that readers even know the identity of the Roman gods and goddesses let alone understand their bizarre behavior:
‘Anyone with merely mortal intelligence would have seen this long ago, but classical deities were unbelievably hardheaded.’
In case there isn’t enough detail in the text (and there is), Williams also provides a glossary of the gods and goddesses Aeneas deals with on his adventures.
Rose Williams points out that prior to composing his masterpiece, Vergil had been writing horticultural treatises, which had a decided impact on his style. She also mentions that the poet’s experience with warfare may have colored his depictions of the battles in Italy:
‘If Vergil, who himself knew some of the horrors of war, wanted to discourage the Romans from ever undertaking it again, the appalling battle scenes he wrote should have been an excellent deterrent. Unfortunately, they did not have that effect.’
Full of wit and despite being written with her tongue firmly in her twenty-first century cheek, Rose Williams has produced an invaluable guide for modern readers — whether reading in Latin or in translation — to Vergil’s story of Aeneas.
Review by: Kristina Chew, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.42 - July 1, 2004
The Labors of Aeneas by Rose Williams (hereafter W.) is an extensive
paraphrase-cum-retelling of Vergil's Aeneid in a voice that is quite
opposite to that often accorded to the lofty Founder of the Roman Race.
The book's subtitle is from the translation of Book I.33, Tantae molis
erat Romanam condere gentem: "What a pain it was to found the Roman
race." W. strives to retell the Aeneid in as painless a manner as
possible, all the while keeping in mind "what a pain" reading this epic
poem, in English or in Latin, can be for today's high school Latin
students as well as "untold millions of long-suffering history
students" (1). This slender book lucidly recounts the story of Aeneas
vis a\ vis the Trojan War in a tongue-in-cheek tone that pokes fun at
the majestic seriousness often allotted to Vergil's epic. Aeneas is
compared to Scarlett O'Hara ("he knew that you can't go forward if your
head is hung over your shoulder looking back," 16); the "chicken"
Trojans' haplessness is highlighted (74); Turnus is "an excellent
example of an early spin doctor" (74).
The irreverence of W. is gleeful and high-spirited; here is an author
whose fondness for her subject matter enables her to poke brazen fun at
it. Comments like Aeneas sleeping in "his little trundle bed" (9) as
the Greeks attack peel off the patina of "pious Aeneas," The Father of
the Roman People. Instead, Aeneas, with his mind set on fulfilling his
Duty, can seem "an awful bore" (1). W. makes him a "thoroughly sound
egg" (28), who "knows a divine neck when he saw one" (25), poses as an
"art [critic]" before the door of the Sibyl's temple (50), asks "as
many questions as a four-year-old" (56), and is in need of "getting his
beauty sleep" (67). The survivors of the Trojan War are his "Merry Men"
(10). Dido's death scene threatens "to be as drawn out as the death
scene in an Italian opera" (37). Venus is Aeneas' "dear Mama" (4),
Achates his "beetle-brained" companion (24). The gods' fickle natures
are never forgotten: Juno thinks that, in regard to the Trojans, "none
at all would be a nice number" (21). Jupiter, chief among the
"double-dealing" gods (19), is seen "lolling on a cloud" and can't
resist "getting in a little dig at Juno" (82). Mercury, dispatched to
remind Aeneas about his unforgettable Duty, "had long practiced prompt
obedience when Papa dear was in [the] mood" (33). Tisiphone personifies
"Extreme Nastiness" (56) while Cupid -- that cherub! -- is all
The Labors of Aeneas is aimed as a companion piece to a student first
studying the Aeneid. Each of the chapters retells the plot of one of
the twelve books of the Latin epic. An Appendix provides succinct
descriptions of the prominent gods in the poem and brief notes provide
more information about specific mythological figures such as Polyphemus
and Daedalus, and the Latin word pietas. W. shows keen awareness for
students' response in reading -- slogging through -- the twelve books
of the Aeneid, noting the frequency with which Aeneas' hair stands on
end and his lengthy speeches, as well as the elaborate and recurring
epithets that can seem rather pointless to a student drowning in
vocabulary words: "Vergil, like most self-respecting poets, never
simply says that the sun came up" (59). The "tedious accuracy of
mythological prophecies" (68) -- why bother to make them if they are
going to happen? -- is duly noted. A taste of Latin is provided via the
epigraphs for each chapter, which are drawn from the Latin text and
rendered in a translation that can evoke the same tone of gentle
mockery as W.'s own text: Facilis decensus Averno; ... / Sed revocare
gradum superasque evadere ad auras, / Hoc opus, hic labor est (VI.126,
128-9) is translated as "Going down to Hades is easy; / Finding your
way back out / Is definitely the big job."
In an attempt to make the text "relevant" to secondary students, words
like "goo" (which Aeneas trudges through in Hades, 54) are peppered
throughout -- words that may seem simply odd to students whose ears and
iPods are full of the harsher vocabulary of hip hop and its hybrids.
Indeed, today's student may have to hurry to www.dictionary.com to
understand words like "lulu" (8), while calling Anchises "Pop" seems
old-fashioned at best. And, at least with a group of cynical
wise-cracking youth, a book like The Labors of Aeneas can do too much.
The book offers a pre-prepared interpretation from an angle that makes
it harder for students to devise their own spin on Vergil's epic of
"arms and the man" via the text's non-sequiturs and sarcastic asides
(as this comment, when Aeneas is pouring libations at his father's tomb
and a huge snake appears: "Young people have the most peculiar ideas
about their parents," 41). Students would have to be quite thoroughly
knowledgeable about the poem and the myths to see the fun of saying the
Romans are on a quest for "world domination" (99).
Also, the literary purist will perhaps catch her breath at the asides
with their sarcasm and kindly sniggers at the foibles of Greeks and
Trojans, of mortals and immortals alike. For The Labors of Aeneas very
much presents W.'s view and voice. These are particularly evident in
editorializing comments such as "The things that can happen to fish,
fowl, and animal when there is no active SPCA!" (45) about the dove
tied to a mast as a target for the archery context in Book V. A passing
literary judgment appears in a comment about why the Trojans only pass
by Sicily because "It would have been a waste of good time to have had
the Trojans linger in adventure here, since Homer had already covered
this watery turf in his Odyssey" (18). And, when writing dactylic
hexameter in Latin, "a fellow needs all the help he can get" (25) and
consequently can refer to Dido as Elissa, and her people as Punic, and
Tyrian, and Sidonian, and on and on. The book's easy familiarity with
mythological references, the assumptions about Latin poetry and the
broad references to Roman history, may not be apparent to students
first reading the Aeneid. Given that such students seem to be the
target audience for The Labors of Aeneas, the book might be best used
by teachers to "spice up" a class working their way (however
laboriously) through yet another indirect statement. The reader most
likely to chuckle at W.'s teasing asides and silly parentheses may well
be that teacher comfortably versed in Aeneas' labors, aware of the
tediousness of long works of literature for students, and the cheeriest
of cheerleaders for the study of Latin, Roman history, and Vergil.
The Labors of Aeneas provides a witty plot summary and can serve as a
anchor for the plot and the overall direction of the narrative; it
reminds students that pius Aeneas need not only be seen as an august
icon of Roman history. It might be argued that a verse translation,
such as Robert Fitzgerald's elegant work, of course, or Allen
Mandelbaum's, might do as well in providing an English version of
Vergil's epic; or a book such as Poet and Artist: Imaging the Aeneid by
Henry Bender and David Califf that provides "translations" of another
sort of the Aeneid, in the form of engravings. Perhaps what is really
needed is an "adaption" of the Aeneid in the spirit of Christopher
Logue's adaptations/recreations of Homer's Iliad in War Music, Kings,
and All Day Permanent Red. These works turn Homer's excerpts inside out
by rendering the physical brutality and beauty of the Iliad's story in
contemporary verse. W.'s The Labors of Aeneas serves another function:
to re-present a great story of great deeds and great heroes, all while
reminding us that such glory is achieved by humans (and by gods) acting
their best as well as worst, through a mixture of sheer silliness and
steadfast seriousness that is the very stuff of humanity.
Review by: Juliet Waldron, Thie Historical Novels Review - March 30, 2004
This is Virgil's famous propaganda piece, the Aeneid cheerfully made accessible to a modern reader who wouldn't glance at a formal translation. It is faithful to the story and might be used in conjunction with a high school Latin class. Beyond that, it was fun for this long-ago Latin student to peruse a cheeky retelling.