Excerpts from an interesting piece at the New York Times’ Paper Cuts Blog:
There’s a scene in David Malouf’s “Ransom” — a novel based mainly on Homer’s “Iliad” — in which King Priam of Troy is slaughtered by Neoptolemus, the son of the Greek hero Achilles. That episode, which is not described in the “Iliad,” ultimately derives from a lost archaic Greek epic, the “Iliou Persis,” or “Sack of Troy.” But the best-known surviving version of the death of Priam appears in the second book of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” and Latinists took me to task for not mentioning it in my review of “Ransom” published in the Book Review last month.
In recompense, here are two translations of the passage in Virgil to compare, the first by Sarah Ruden. In The New York Review of Books, Garry Wills said her 2008 “Aeneid” “has soared over the bar” set high by Robert Fagles in 2006. His translation follows hers. (Neoptolemus is here called Pyrrhus; the narrator is Aeneas, at the court of Queen Dido of Carthage.)
Some other notes:
— The fantastic vase painting of the killing of Priam is from an Attic black-figure amphora of the late sixth century B.C., now in the Louvre. Like many ancient illustrations of the Trojan War, it depicts the conquest of Troy as a savage and merciless slaughter of innocents; here Neoptolemus bludgeons Priam with the body of a Trojan child.
— Virgil’s references to the rule of Asia and a headless trunk on the shore would have been immediately understood by Romans of the early Augustan age as a reference to Pompey the Great, the Roman conqueror of the East treacherously assassinated and beheaded on the shores of Egypt.
— The title of Malouf’s novel, “Ransom,” is a translation of the Greek term for the Iliadic episode in which Priam ransoms the body of his son Hector from Achilles. It’s just one of the many ways in which Malouf shows his thorough engagement with the “Iliad.”
— No matter how skillful these translations, Virgil’s Latin suffers far more in translation than does Homeric Greek. It’s worth learning Latin just to read the “Aeneid.”