So Virgil writes The Aeneid in the first century AD. It comes along long after Homer's Odyssey and Apollonius' Argonautica, and it seems like kind-of a knock-off, I would imagine. Virgil clearly has an agenda in writing this - the work is commissioned by Augustus Caesar, and Virgil's pretty intent on using the work to flatter him.
But here's where things get wacky. It's not just about the story. Virgil used a meter called dactylic hexameter, in which each line has six "feet," either dactyls or spondees. A dactyl has a long vowel sound, followed by another long vowel or two short vowel sounds. A spondee is two long vowel sounds, and before you ask, no, I don't remember the difference between a spondee's two long vowels and the two long vowels of a dactyl. Latin class was a long time ago, and I wasn't paying attention.
But digest that for a minute. This is just how people wrote... hundreds or thousands of lines of this careful, measured lines, never deviating from the rigid rules. I remember how, in class, we were supposed to diagram the meter - figure out which feet were dactyls and which were spondees, and I couldn't even do that. Plus, if you'll remember, there was little or no punctuation and sometimes there weren't even spaces between the words. It seems a miracle anyone could read it (I certainly couldn't), much less write in that meter.
Then there are all these crazy figures of speech. My favorite example is one in which the wayward Trojans make land. Aeneas' friend, faithful Achates, makes a fire using flint, and the text reads:
First, good Achates, with repeated strokes
Of clashing flints, their hidden fire provokes
Which in Latin reads:
Ac primum silic scintillam excudit
succeptiqe ignem foliis, atque arida circum
Notice the repetition of the s and c sounds, the sound of flints clashing. How cool is that? And we're not just talking about a poem or a story; he did this over twelve books. It took us an entire year in Latin class just to read one of them.
All of which leads me to wonder, are we getting dumber? If it used to be that writers just up and wrote entire epics following an impossibly complicated meter, and educated folk could just up and read them, what does that say about us?