The story of Dido and Aeneas gets my vote as the great tragic love story. In the early chapters of Virgil's Aeneid, Aeneas, on his way from the smoking ruins of Troy to the shores of Italy, is shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage. There he meets Dido, the Carthaginian queen. They fall in love. He helps her build her royal city. Then Jupiter gets angry because Aeneas has lost sight of his duty to found the Roman empire. So the god sends a message to Aeneas: get moving. When Aeneas complies, Dido flies into a fit of rage and grief that culminates in her suicide as Aeneas and his fleet disappear over the horizon. As you read about their tear-stained confrontation, it's hard not to smile--this might be the first modern love story. Dido gets mad because Aeneas has commitment issues. Aeneas, with one foot out the door, sounds like the original heel. Love? Marriage? No way. Look, babe, I've got an empire to found.
Maybe it was the effect of Robert Fagles's superb new translation of the Aeneid, because this section rings with such chiseled immediacy that it's hard to remember the story he is recasting in modern English was written 2,000 years ago. More likely it was because I'm also hooked on "Rome," the seamy, grandiloquent and compulsively watchable HBO series that begins its second season this week. "Rome" is set when Virgil lived--the Aeneid was actually written to flatter Augustus--roughly a half century before the birth of Jesus. The scriptwriters know their history--and their Virgil. In a surprisingly touching scene, Octavian's sister recites the passage, "The descent to the Underworld is easy ... but to retrace your steps ... there the labor lies." Nevertheless, HBO's "Rome" is always thoroughly modern. It's "Upstairs, Downstairs" with swords and sandals and an almost all-English cast spouting lines like "Juno's mercy! What's she doing here?" The witchy women are more or less the equals of the swinish men, and whenever Julius Caesar or Octavian says he's acting not for himself but for the empire, you are invited to roll your eyes.
"Rome" plays everything fast and loose. Virgil always plays it straight. If you were to watch the series and read the Aeneid at the same time, you'd get whiplash going back and forth between ever-cynical "Rome" and the Aeneid's unironic endorsement of duty, honor, country. Virgil's telling of the Dido and Aeneas story is tragic not because Aeneas walks out on Dido but because he has to. It's his fated duty. This is a story about men: fathers and sons, patrimony and dynasty, inheritance and tradition.
But for all their differences, the Aeneid and "Rome" are more alike than not. Its gods and monsters aside, the Aeneid is the story of the search for a home and the obligations people have to their parents and their children. It resonates with us, not least because the culture it springs from remains the bedrock of ours. It is sewn into everything we do and think, from our form of government right down to our language. In his illuminating introduction to the Fagles translation, the great scholar Bernard Knox discusses the Latin that Virgil purposefully uses to describe the fort Aeneas constructs upon arriving in Italy. "The words used ... identify it with the camps (castra) that in the future Roman legionary soldiers will build at the end of the day's march--castra, which will be built all over Europe and have often left their marks on the names of the cities that occupy those sites--Lancaster, Manchester, Worchester." To live anywhere in Western civilization is to still live inside the long shadow of Rome and its beliefs and myths. The smarty-pants creators of "Rome" are there right along with the rest of us. There may be far more tarnished heroes in "Rome" than in Virgil, but there is still good and bad, moral and immoral. From epic poem to television series, the stories don't really change. The only thing that changes is how we tell the stories.