Maffeo Vegio and His Aeneid XIII
by Peter Schaeffer, University of California, Davis
Original Text © 2002 Peter Schaeffer. All rights reserved.
From the moment that Vergil's Aeneid begins its triumphal procession at the pinnacle of Roman poetry, and, as the most influential schoolbook of nearly two millennia, the single greatest cultural force in the shaping of moral and civic ideals, of the perennial Latin language, its imagery and its power, paradoxically dates also a certain apprehension that what Vergil bequeathed to us is an opus imperfectum - meaning not, of course, a flawed work, but one left uncompleted, whether in the philological or in the aesthetic sense, or as others have put it, whether qualitatively or quantitatively, or more simply, whether wanting its final polish or the completion of the tale it sets out to tell, an apprehension ironically emanating from the author himself in his all too well-known desire to have the work destroyed, a wish we may forever be grateful for having been overruled.
The triumphal procession is in evidence from the very beginning: among countless testimonials we need recall only the acclaim of his younger contemporary Propertius -
Cedite Romani scriptores, cedite Grai:
Nescioquid maius nascitur Iliade (III, xxxii, 65s);
or the self-effacing awe of Statius where he sends his Thebais out into the world -
vive, precor; nec tu divinam Aeneida tempta,
sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora (XII, 816s).
To this we could add the numerous verse summaries in the Anthologia Latina, evidently intended for school purposes, which I have found both useful and entertaining in teaching Vergil, the fictive epitaphs alongside that attributed to Vergil himself, and the oft-quoted epigram of Alcimus Avitus enthroning Vergil in a place second only to Homer and far ahead of any possible third contender.
Aside from the malevolence of the notorious Aeneidomastix of Carvilius Pictor, the incomplete verses which with one possible exception yield perfectly good sense, and a few other minor inconsistencies, all mentioned by Donatus, amount to very little, and the Aeneid commentary of Erasmus's friend Iodocus Badius Ascensius (Paris, 1501) clearly formulates the poetic consequence whereby Vergil ends with the death of Turnus just as Homer had ended the Iliad with that of Hector.
Two rather differently based developments in the recption of the Aeneid, however, generated the impulse to continue and indeed to complete the story from the point where Vergil had concluded it, as he might supposedly have done himself had he been granted the opportunity to do so. One of these was the tendency evident from Christian Antiquity to well into the Renaissance to allegorize the Aeneid in the sense of the passage of the soul through all the struggles and the vicissitudes of life to its fulfillment, which called for the attainment of this fulfillment through death and transfiguration. The other was the transformation of the Aeneid where medieval courtoisie softens the bloody chronicle of conflict into a romance of chivalry with all its attendant conventions, particularly in the two great medieval vernacular versions, the anonymous French Roman d'Eneas and Heinrich von Veldeke's German Eneasroman. Veldeke's version, as the abundant manuscript tradition attests, enjoyed great popularity and the highest critical acclaim from none less than Gottfried von Straßburg, who celebrated him as the founder of German medieval romance.