Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer’s new translation lets today’s reader hear Vergil as the Romans did.
It was 29 BC, two years into the reign of the emperor Augustus, when the Roman poet Vergil began writing his great epic, the Aeneid. Unlike the Odyssey and the Iliad, the Homeric epics it was responding to, Vergilʼs story is not just that of an individual hero. Itʼs also a national origin story, says Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer—“and that makes it a different kind of poem.”
In the poem, the Trojan Aeneas leads his followers west from his city, which the Greeks have sacked, in search of somewhere to start a new one. Along the way the gods, especially Juno and Aeneasʼs mother, Venus, throw obstacles and aids in his path. Finally, the Trojans land in Italy and found a city where Rome will later stand.
Many readers have seen Aeneas as a positive figure and one who would please Romeʼs leaders. Linked with the not-so-exciting virtue of piety, the hero is set up as an excellent ancestor for the emperor Augustus, who wanted to be seen as having similar virtues. “Heʼs not out for personal glory” like an Odysseus or Achilles, says Bartsch-Zimmer, the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics and the Program in Gender Studies, and the Aeneidʼs newest translator.
Bartsch-Zimmer, who publishes as Shadi Bartsch, spent four years working on her translation of the epic. To be released in the United States this February by Random House, it comes festooned with advance praise, and already warmly embraced by its first readers in the United Kingdom, where it was released last fall and was named a best book of 2020 by the Guardian.
Thereʼs no shortage of excellent English translations of the poem, Bartsch-Zimmer acknowledges. But, as a scholar and teacher of ancient Rome and its literature, she felt the absence of a translation that was closely faithful to Vergil. Her understanding of the poem, of its authorʼs intentions, and of why it continues to captivate readers two millennia after its writing also make meaningful departures from past scholarship.
Why a new Aeneid now? Many of the existing translations, Bartsch-Zimmer says, “are hailed as poems in their own right—thatʼs seen as the highest praise one can bestow.” She finds many of them valuable and beautiful, but she set out in the opposite direction: to make “an accurate translation of Vergil, because Vergil is powerful enough to supply the poetry. I can just be the medium through which Vergil flows.”
Of course the translator can never be fully invisible. “Thereʼs always an element of the personality and the angle of the translator embedded into the translation,” says Bartsch-Zimmer, “but I wanted to do my best to translate Vergil literally.” What that meant, for one thing, was staying true to how the poem sounds: to Vergilʼs distinctively quick pace and his everyday Latin.
Vergilʼs use of dactylic hexameter—a meter with six feet per line containing two or three syllables each—makes the Aeneid “very fast-moving, dense, exciting,” she explains. Itʼs a world apart from the authors sheʼd previously translated, such as Seneca, whose verse is stately and ornate.
But Vergil “is, bam, just pure Latin, and never-ending movement”—and his is a dense language to begin with. Latin, she writes in the translatorʼs note, “can say much in few words” compared to English. This poses a challenge that past translators have solved either by using more words and beats per line, or by using additional lines, to catch all the meaning. Both approaches create poetry that feels nothing like the Aeneid in Latin. And the latter, throwing off the line numbers between original and translation, hinders study of the poem in its original Latin.
So Bartsch-Zimmer set out to write her translation in no more than six feet per line, like Vergil, without adding lines or leaving any meaning out. “That was really, really, hard,” she says, “like boiling down the English into compact nuggets.” The result, however, offers “a radically different reading experience” than what has been available to English speakers, she writes in her translatorʼs note.
Read side by side with previous translations, the difference is clear. Take one popular and acclaimed translation, published by Robert Fagles in 2006. Fagles gives the epicʼs opening this way, making three lines into four:
Wars and a man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee the coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinian shores and Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above
In contrast, Bartschʼs translation tracks with the lines of the original, and reads with a decided punch:
My song is of war and a man: a refugee by fate,
the first from Troy to Italyʼs Lavinian shores,
battered much on land and sea by blows from gods
For readers without Latin, this is as close as we can get to reading the original without taking the two years of language classes Bartsch-Zimmer estimates one would need to even haltingly read the original. For those with a little Latin, her translation will make it easier to move between the Latin and the English. And overall, Bartsch-Zimmerʼs painstaking work to compress the English, packing each line with meaning while approximating Vergilʼs rhythm—“the beating heart of the poem,” she calls it in her translatorʼs note—makes for an approachable and gripping work. (Read an excerpt of the translation.)
Its accessibility, together with the fact that the book will be issued by a major commercial publishing house, has potential to put the Aeneid on nonscholarsʼ reading lists. A broad new audience for the epic would be a welcome turn of events, as it was with Emily Wilsonʼs translation of the Odyssey, published by W. W. Norton in 2017. Like Wilson’s Odyssey, Bartsch-Zimmer’s Aeneid sees the epic through a new lens.
The Aeneid is a bit of a problem poem. Its puzzles include fragmentary lines and contradictions, especially around its title figure. Vergil makes Aeneas his hero and insists on the characterʼs piety—understood in this context, Bartsch-Zimmer explains, not as religious piety but as faithfulness to his gods, family, and country alike. Aeneas is described as pious more than 20 times in the poem. But Aeneas commits acts that belie that description, including his final act, killing Turnus in a rage as the defeated Italian king pleads for his life.
Bartsch-Zimmer points out that in classical literature predating Vergil, Aeneas was often characterized as the traitor who gave up Troy to the Greeks. In Vergilʼs epic, Aeneas shows glimpses of his old self—and that sheds light on Vergilʼs complex purposes.
Over years of studying and teaching the Aeneid, Bartsch-Zimmer started to recognize in those uncharacteristic moments the Aeneas found in earlier works of classical literature. In some works he has to be rescued by superior warriors or by the gods; in some “heʼs actually the person who betrayed Troy to the Greeks, and thatʼs as bad a history as you could start out with for a hero.”
To all but specialists, those versions of Aeneas arenʼt known today, but they would have been familiar to Vergilʼs contemporary readers. The success of the Aeneid changed that: “from the time of its publication, the epic became so influential that not many traces of the earlier Aeneas remain,” she writes in the bookʼs introduction.
What does it mean for Vergil to resurface these older, lesser models in his poem, even while elevating Aeneas to a hero and, in Bartsch-Zimmerʼs words, Augustusʼs “principal figure for posterity”?
Caught between the political imperative to please Augustus and the poetic imperative to produce a work of real literary value, Vergil wrote an epic that is double-edged, Bartsch-Zimmer contends, and, in calling attention to its own artifice, surprisingly modern. Where other critics and scholars tend to dismiss the inconsistencies around Aeneasʼs character as what she calls “Vergilian fumbles,” Bartsch-Zimmer sees the poet playing a deeper game, making the poemʼs problems look more like politics.
In such moments, “heʼs referring to the other traditions, and the cumulative effect is that what looks like a piece of propaganda actually isnʼt. The effect is to show you that the authoritative version of Aeneas is only one version among many,” she says. This is exceptional in classical literature. “Usually, when an authoritative version is set down, it doesnʼt let you see behind it to the other versions—the whole point is that itʼs going to block them out of sight.” Vergil, in this reading, “was doing something very ingenious, both pleasing the emperor Augustus but also refusing to participate in a full-fledged rewriting of history.”
Why did Vergil hedge his bets like this? The parallel between pious Augustus and his forebear, pious Aeneas, is key to Bartsch-Zimmerʼs reading. Augustus came to power in Rome after defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, two years before Vergil began writing his epic. His reign marked the beginning of a long period of relative harmony, the Pax Augustus. But before becoming emperor, Augustus was the general Octavian and was known for his brutality on the battlefield. As emperor, he took his new name, which means “the kindly one”—signaling how he now wanted to be perceived. When Vergil was writing the epic, the peace following the Battle of Actium was still in its infancy and Augustusʼs ultimate character and legacy were open questions. Bartsch-Zimmer believes the poet, while needing to please Augustus, was wary of writing pure propaganda, especially not knowing how the emperor would rule in the long run.
She points out a parallel in Roman archaeology: when power changed hands, rather than make a new statue of a new emperor, the Romans would decapitate existing statues of old emperors, replacing their heads. It saved money, time, and marble, but that wasnʼt the only effect. “You could often see the seam,” Bartsch-Zimmer says. “You were reminded that the old guy was a bad guy, and you were supposed to forget about him. But being reminded that you should forget is getting reminded, and so you donʼt forget.”
That practice sheds light on the poemʼs moments of self-contradiction. Vergil is “showing people that his version of Aeneas is not the only version, almost as if somebody was to produce propaganda but hold up a big sign saying this is propaganda. Once you recognize propaganda as propaganda, itʼs no longer valid.”
The Aeneid has spoken in distinct ways to each era and culture for which it has had meaning. “A classic is a work that seems to echo the values of every society that needs it,” Bartsch-Zimmer says. “Thatʼs why it stays classic.”
For Vergilʼs fellow Romans, the epic praised Augustus and the empire, and provided an origin story. Christian readers in the Middle Ages took it to be an allegory of Christʼs life. Nineteenth-century Americans found the account of Aeneasʼs westward voyage and conquering of native peoples resonant with manifest destiny, while for Americans of the Vietnam War era the epic dramatized the costs of empire. Mussolini commandeered the Aeneid to buttress a vision of his Italy as “the true fulfillment of the great Rome,” Bartsch-Zimmer says.
Her own reading is embedded in its time and place and culture too. “Now Iʼm reading it as a sort of propaganda that lets you see it as such, that points to itself and says, you can accept me, maybe Iʼll be useful for you in making the nation cohere better by giving it a foundation story. But every foundation story also has a cost.” From our 21st-century perch, weʼre well placed to see what that cost entails: “Weeding out things that donʼt fit in the foundation story, whether itʼs womenʼs voices, or indigenous voices, or the voices of the people who resist it. Other voices have to be silenced for this voice to exist.”
“Here,” she imagines Vergil saying from behind the curtain, “Iʼm writing a beautiful foundation story for Rome. But I want you to remember that itʼs a story. Itʼs not the truth of the matter.” Seeing through the beautiful stories might be a watchword for consuming information in America post–World War II. “Maybe Iʼve been influenced by things like ‘fake news,ʼ” Bartsch-Zimmer muses. But what sheʼs really thinking of are the justifications given for morally problematic foreign and domestic policies, “stories we tell that provide a nice gloss and give us something to believe in, but that maybe we should examine more skeptically.” As, in her reading, Vergil subtly prods his audience to do with his story.
Bartsch-Zimmer sums up the poemʼs contemporary political resonance in her introduction. “In an age of refugees seeking to escape their war-torn homelands,” she writes, “an age of rising nationalism across the globe; an age in which many in Europe and the United States are suspicious of ‘the Eastʼ and its religious differences—in our age, that is—the Aeneid has more to say to us than ever, especially about the costs (and to be fair, benefits) of national ideologies and the way that myths of origins and heroes are created.”
Now, on the eve of the bookʼs US publication, she looks back on the project with a certain wistfulness, and a sense of her life having changed. Four years in such close quarters with a great work of art have left their mark. “No matter what happens to me on a daily basis, now I see it through the lens of the language of the epic,” she says. “Itʼs a very strange feeling when lines will bubble up that seem to express the situation perfectly.”
Bartsch-Zimmer leaves her mark on the classic in turn, giving an account of Vergilʼs purposes and his poemʼs meanings that is new and powerful—and a brisk-reading translation that shortens the distance between his language and ours. “I feel like after 2,000 years,” she says, “Iʼm helping people read the poem differently, not as pro empire or against empire, but as a story about how political literature comes to be.”
Read an excerpt from The Aeneid, translated by Shadi Bartsch.
Updated 02.24.2021: A previous version of this story stated that Bartsch-Zimmer’s book is the first major English translation of the Aeneid by a woman. Sarah Ruden’s translation of the epic first appeared in 2008. We regret the error.