There’s a moment in Virgil’s “Aeneid” when the Trojan forces are massed like “a cloudburst wiping out the sun, sweeping over the seas toward land.” It’s an image that evokes another army, likewise intimidating, although this one’s composed chiefly of sedentary men, white-haired and bespectacled. Their numbers, too, are unreckonable — those squadrons of scholars who have, over the centuries, translated the “Aeneid.”
Has any book been recast into English more times than this tale of Aeneas’ wanderings and the eventual establishment of the Roman Empire? Probably not, given both the poem’s venerability and the relative accessibility of Latin. When you further consider all the partial or complete versions in private manuscript — often the work of old classics teachers, shared with their students — we indeed confront something that looms over us like a cloudburst.
Robert Fagles, the poem’s newest translator, comes to the fray well armed. An emeritus professor of comparative literature at Princeton, he has already translated, with great success, Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”