A story about Virgil on his deathbed, possibly apocryphal, tells how he ordered his literary executors to destroy the Aeneid because it was imperfect; that he preferred that the poem die rather than go forth with a syllable out of place. Augustus himself, it is said, countermanded the order. The actual events on which this story was based have recently come to light, thanks to some newly discovered papyri from the still-ongoing excavations at Herculaneum. The papyrus in question is actually one of the missing books from the Saturnalia of Macrobius, which contains a generous amount of Virgilian commentary, and now has given us insight into Virgil’s second attempt at the last six Books of the Aeneid, as well as the events surrounding their destruction—and the reinstatement, by an imperial fiat, of what Virgil considered a failed first draft.
The second six Books of the Aeneid, based on the Iliad, are considerably less famous than the first six Books, which contain the descriptions of the sack of Troy, the affair with Dido, and the descent to the Underworld. The latter half of the epic is taken up with Aeneas and his allies fighting an Achilles-like Turnus and various Latin tribes. The entire incitement to the war is somewhat abrupt and weak: King Latinus promises Aeneas the hand of his daughter Lavinia (who is basically just a name; we know she is a blonde, and nothing more); the Queen and a rival suitor Turnus throw fits; and King Latinus reneges on the promise. Turnus and his allies besiege the Trojans, and warriors kill each other in scenes that echo the battle scenes from Homer. Camilla, a warrior princess, slaughters some Trojans and dies; King Latinus’s wife the Queen hangs herself; finally, Aeneas kills Turnus, and that’s a rather abrupt end.
These were the six Books, manifestly weaker than the first six, with which Virgil felt dissatisfied; these were the six Books he ordered destroyed, in order to substitute his revised version. Yet it was this revised version that Augustus censored. Why?
The new Macrobius passages (called by scholars the “H334 papyrus”) describe Virgil’s second draft in some detail, with a Book-by-Book synopsis beginning with Aeneas establishing his first settlement in Italy, shortly after his emergence from the Underworld at the end of Book Six. A synopsis of his synopsis is as follows:
Aeneas digs a city’s foundations and performs some rites to his mother, Venus. Venus maddens one of Aeneas’s prize horses and sends him galloping into the countryside; Aeneas jumps on a horse and follows him into the strange countryside.
Here, following the horse (who in turn follows the lead of Venus), Aeneas happens upon a young woman bathing, Artemis-like, in a secluded pool, with some friends. Venus whisks these friends away, leaving her son and the young woman alone. He introduces himself, and he and the woman flirt at length, until he tells her that he is going to visit King Latinus. At this she runs into the forest and vanishes.
Having recaptured the horse, Aeneas sets out with an entourage to visit King Latinus; and there he discovers that the young woman whom he met was none other than the Princess Lavinia. King Latinus explains that some oracles have decreed that Lavinia’s hand shall go to whoever can string the Bow of Hercules and shoot an arrow through seventeen axes (a nod to the Odyssey). The great festival, in which suitors will arrive from all over Italy, is to take place the next day.
On his way back, he encounters Camilla, the virgin warrior princess, who in this version is Turnus’s sister; she is smitten with him and begs to hear about the sack of Troy. Aeneas has done this once before with Dido, and he remembers what came of that; so he puts her off. Camilla offers Aeneas an alliance, but Ascanius, his son, laughs at such an offer coming from a woman; Aeneas declines more politely, but the Trojans have pissed Camilla off permanently.
Book Eight. We meet the Rutulian Turnus, to whom Lavinia had once been promised—before the oracles piped up and stipulated her groom perform this feat of arms. Local Italian kings and warriors try to string the bow, but no one can. Turnus strings the bow, but he shoots the arrow through twelve axes. He cuts the string in rage, and at last Aeneas has a go; he strings the bow with ease and shoots the arrow through all seventeen axes. Turnus and his sister Camilla swear vengeance and storm away.
Lavinia is thrilled at Aeneas’s success, and she begs her father to arrange the wedding as soon as possible. A bunch of good omens happen right then, in typical epic style—two doves start coupling, two serpents twine together, that kind of thing. The priests are unanimous: Everything is approved.
Book Nine. Olympus: Juno is pissed off. Jove tells her not to interfere with Aeneas’s destiny for like the tenth time. She does anyway. Description of Aeneas and Lavinia’s wedding. Juno sends Turnus and Camilla to bust up the wedding. Aeneas is not armed; Turnus carries off Lavinia in the middle of the rites and gallops her back to the Rutulian capital city, Ardea. Camilla (the virgin warrior princess) insists that her brother not violate Lavinia, but hold her captive until she agrees of her own will to marry Turnus; Turnus agrees to this.
Book Ten. Aeneas’s anguish. The Muses descend from heaven at Venus’s bidding, and they teach Aeneas the Latin language, with which, they say, the various tribes and peoples of Italy will understand him and be persuaded by him. He goes and collects allies.
Meanwhile Venus goes to Vulcan and persuades him to build for Aeneas, not a shield, but a siege engine. Here follows an elaborate description of the Catapult of Aeneas, which contains carvings of Rome’s future victories and provinces, with the cup of the catapult in the shape of the Colosseum.
Book Eleven. The siege of Ardea. Warriors slay other warriors outside the gates. They harangue each other. Camilla kills a lot of people, targets Ascanius who laughed at her, and wounds him in the thigh—but Venus whisks him away just in time. She doesn’t end up getting killed; she returns into Ardea. Turnus fights like a mountain lion, in an extended epic simile. The siege engines are brought to bear on the walls of Ardea, but Juno charms the walls so that they cannot be destroyed.
Book Twelve. The final showdown between Aeneas and Turnus. This takes the pattern—as it does in the version that has come down to us—of the Achilles-versus-Hector battle, where Turnus’s blade snaps and he has to take off running, and Aeneas pursues him. Aeneas expresses mild unease that he is replicating what Achilles did to Hector. Finally, he kills Turnus—and this is where the extant version ends.
In the version described by Macrobius, however, there is an additional scene: Venus tells Aeneas that Turnus’s death means nothing; that Camilla is now Queen of Ardea, and that she will never surrender Lavinia and will continue the battle to avenge her brother. The only way to undo Juno’s magic is to drag Turnus’s body around the walls of Ardea, behind his chariot.
And here Aeneas protests: He says he cannot bear to become so utterly like that brutal warrior Achilles, he cannot bear to drag a corpse behind his chariot and sack a city the way Achilles and the Greeks did to Troy. But Venus insists. And, sobbing, he does it, replicates exactly the humiliation of Hector’s body by Achilles, thereby becoming the thing he hates. And the final scene is of Vulcan’s great Catapult being fired, and the gates of Ardea crashing down, and the Trojans rushing through to do unto Ardea as the Greeks did unto Troy.
This, then, was the version that Augustus censored in favor of the one we have now. Interestingly, the revised version more closely follows the Homeric model, with a war waged to retrieve a kidnapped beauty; this aspect also, of course, resembles quite closely the plot of the Ramayana. Virgil, however, transforms Aeneas the Good Trojan into, not a Hector-equivalent, but an Achilles-equivalent. And Virgil’s final scene shows Aeneas facing the dark side of empire-building and military glory: He must engage in the very kinds of violent cruelty he fought and fled when he fought the siege and fled the sack of Troy. It is, if anything, a closer patterning on Homer—and a more honest depiction of the nature of empire.
These more incident-rich, alternate six Books are the ones Virgil (according to Macrobius) wanted preserved; he wanted his first draft to be destroyed. We can see why Augustus, having recently crushed his enemies in a civil war, preferred the earlier version—which did not raise such unpleasant ambiguities, and did not pattern Aeneas’s actions too closely on those of the corpse-desecrating Achilles.
Polybius, a character in the Macrobius dialogue, does hint that he possesses a samizdat copy of the alternate second half of the Aeneid, and he proposes to read from it. Another character expresses skepticism and claims Polybius must have written it himself–for construction on the Colosseum, apparently part of the Catapult of Aeneas, did not begin until the reign of Vespasian, ninety years after Virgil’s death. Polybius insists the hexameters are authentic, and he has just unrolled the first of his scrolls and cleared his throat when the manuscript becomes unreadable and crumbles away in my hands.