Aeneas in Cossack-land: Kotliarevsky’s Ukrainian Eneida

Anatoly Grablevsky

On June 16 1775, Russian troops, after a lengthy siege, entered the Ukrainian capital. After disarming the populace, the city known as the Zaporozhian Sich, the last stronghold of Cossacks, those proud and fiercely independent ancestors of the Ukrainian people, was levelled to the ground by Russian artillery. Thus ended the first independent proto-Ukrainian state, known as the Cossack Hetmanate or the Zaporozhian Host,[1] which was now fully annexed to Russia and colonized by Russian and foreign settlers.

Map of Eastern Europe in the early 18th century: the Cossack Hetmanate proper, already much reduced from its heyday, is in dark green, the Zaporozhian Sich (the autonomous, freer entity within the South East of the Hetmanate) is in dark purple.

Although coming from a well-born Cossack background, Ivan Petrovych Kotliarevsky (1769–1838), who would have been six years old in 1775, pointedly avoids mentioning the traumatic events of that year in his life’s work, the Eneida (1798).[2] While otherwise closely sticking to the Virgilian narrative, his omission of Book 2 of the Aeneid, which vividly and horrifyingly describes the experience of the fall of a great city (Troy), speaks volumes. Although the sack looms large in the background throughout the work, the reader never quite learns what home meant for our Trojans, and whether that rootedness, stability and security can ever actually be regained.

Modern reconstruction of part of the capital of Zaporozhian Sich, the New Sich, located on the island of Khortytsia in the middle of the River Dnieper. The city was levelled to the ground by the Russians in 1775 and is now a Cossack museum.

This structural omission of a central part of the Aeneid is but one of the many ways that Kotliarevsky’s Eneida reappropriates and problematizes the Latin epic by anchoring familiar Virgilian characters and plotlines into a contemporary Ukrainian-Cossack context. In this extraordinary act of Classical and Virgilian reception, where all the main characters (whether Trojan, Latin, or Carthaginian) turn out to be Cossacks, Kotliarevsky ended up producing nothing less than the first masterpiece of modern Ukrainian literature, which to do this day is universally beloved in Ukraine – but sadly almost entirely unknown elsewhere. By writing a Virgilian “travesty”[3] in “the Malorussian tongue” and metre,[4] Kotliarevsky single-handedly put the Ukrainian language on the map of Europe as a literary tongue in its own right. Yet, even leaving aside the Eneida’s enormous literary, cultural and linguistic legacy in Ukraine, Kotliarevsky’s work transcends its “low-brow” genre and deserves to be appreciated as a masterpiece on its own terms: at times laugh-out-loud in its raunchiness, other times a quaint ethnographic exposé, the Eneida also approaches a humanist and often moving meditation on our shared inadequacy and the burden of history.

It is the characteristically Ukrainian humour that first strikes any reader of the Eneida, especially when compared with the austere seriousness of Virgil. Although any lover of the Aeneid will never feel completely lost given how closely Kotliarevsky follows the Virgilian narrative course,[5] the reader is still immediately destabilized from the very first lines of the poem, when the lofty, flowing, and grandiose language of epic is abandoned in favour of a comedic mock-heroic tone. Juno, the great antagonist, is introduced simply as “daughter of a bitch” (1.2) while Venus’ first epithet is “not the basest whore” (1.14). Iconic moments of the Aeneid, such as the famous bitter silence of Dido in the Underworld (6.469), are wonderfully parodied. In response to Aeneas teasing the unhappy queen and leaning in to kiss her, Dido threatens to break his nose… and tells him to go to hell (3.104)!

The Eneida’s most hilarious episode, for Classicists of all ages who still tend the lifelong pain of those first months of table memorization that are so integral to learning Latin, is the transformation of Aeneas into the typical Latin schoolteacher who swears only by his Latin grammar of choice and is willing to take over as many Saturdays as necessary to iron out declensions for his tutees (4.34). When the Trojan envoys, having learned their lesson, ask Latinus to be their Maecenas and protector, they do so in a lovely mix of Ukrainian and Latin:

Енеус ностер магнус панус/ І славний троянорум князь,/ Шмигляв по морю, як циганус, / Ад те, о рекс! прислав нунк нас (4.46).

Aeneas, noster magnus panus (the Latinized form of the Ukrainian word for lord and master, pan), glorious Troianum kniaz (the traditional East-Slavic/Rus’ title meaning “prince”) / Who was buffeted about the sea like some Tsiganus (Latinized form of the Ukrainian word for “Gypsy”)/, Ad te, o rex, he sent nunc us.

Aeneas as a school-teacher overseeing his men’s Latin learning: from an edition of the Eneida illustrated by Anatoliy Bazylevych (Dnipro, Kyiv, 1970).

As befits the humorous tone, the characterization of the Eneida is suitably more realistic and down-to-earth than Virgil’s idealized heroism. Aeneas is described quite positively in the opening lines as “a nimble fellow, and a damn good Cossack lad” (Ukr: Еней був парубок моторний) but it quickly emerges that the limited faculties of the Trojan prince and his men are much more often deployed for eating, dancing, wrestling, whoring and, above all, drinking than for the glories of epic slaughter and empire-building.

Aeneas himself, far from the dutiful and famously “taciturn” hero of Virgil, comes across as a bumbling, slovenly alcoholic the more the epic progresses. In his stay at Carthage, it is not the romantic city-founder, temporarily forgetful of his duty, that we see in Virgil (4.259–75) but a lusty and intemperate rascal. When Dido calls out Aeneas on his imminent departure,[6] in a far cry from his unfeeling, if courteous and deeply rhetorical, reply in lines 4.333–61, Kotliarevsky’s Aeneas unleashes a torrent of insults at Dido, and quite literally tells her to go to hell. Later on, after the Trojan women attempt to burn the Trojan fleet in Sicily,[7] the famously “pious” Aeneas goes off on a long tirade where he viciously insults every major god of the Roman pantheon one after another, including his own mother Venus. Finally, in case the reader still had some doubts about the moral fibre of this Aeneas, in the Underworld he is explicitly described as a coward (3.63) whom the Sibyl needs to drag along by the hand to see his father. This decidedly unheroic and uninspiring Aeneas is more than a parody, however, and in fact points to a running thread of the poem – a quasi-subversive scepticism of figures and precedents of authority.

Dido and Aeneas, Pompeo Batoni, 1747 (priv. coll.).

Indeed, Kotliarevsky’s Eneida is a powerful statement of Ukrainian identity and a vindication of Cossack culture at a time when these were increasingly being suppressed. By making Ukrainian Cossacks out of both Trojans and Latins, Kotliarevsky beautifully valorizes and forever immortalizes the customs, traditions, and way of life of Ukraine, just as imperially-sponsored and enforced Russification was threatening these.[8] In the Eneida, both gods and mortals feast on pig lard (Ukraine’s favourite snack to this day, known as salo) and borscht, drink rivulets of horilka (Ukrainian vodka), wear kuntushs, kozhukhs and shushuns (traditional Cossack attire), play the bandura (a Ukrainian lute), and dance the goriltsa and the sanzharivka.

Ukrainian culture is given centre stage even narratively, as Greco-Roman mythology gives way to Ukrainian folklore: Juturna is not a nymph but a mavka, one of those devious Ukrainian forest or mountain ghost spirits that would lure unsuspecting men to their death. The Sibyl becomes Baba Yaga, the terrifying East-Slavic hag-witch known to all Russian and Ukrainian children to this day, living inside her rotating hut on chicken legs. The shield of Aeneas, instead of Augustan propaganda, depicts the heroes of Ukrainian fairy tales (5.44–5), as do the walls of the palace of Latinus (4.40–1). Throughout the poem, then, Kotliarevsky is not only asserting his own authority as a worthy poet by explicitly distancing himself from Virgil and his muse but also legitimizing and preserving Ukrainian cultural heritage.

A Cossack wedding, Józef Brandt, 1893 (Upper Silesian Museum, Bytom, Poland).

The poem is also subversive, in that it is shot through with nostalgia for a time when the Ukrainian Cossacks were independent and free from Russian oppression and serfdom. When the speaker catalogues the characteristically Cossack military organization of the Latin army (4.99), he wistfully reminisces about a time when the Cossacks were free and mighty: “That’s how it was once in eternal memory in our Hetmanate” (4.101). This longing is also expressed more subtly, in that the great leaders and commanders of the Cossack Hetmanate who tried to keep the state free from Russian domination are repeatedly made out to be exemplary heroic models for Trojans and Latins alike.[9]

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Ilya Repin, 1891, perhaps the most famous depiction of Ukrainian Cossacks (State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia).

Nowhere, though, are the brutal consequences of recent history (i.e. the progressive destruction and annexation of the Hetmanate between 1762 and 1785) more apparent than in the Underworld, which, as often, is used to reflect on events in the real world and to police contemporary morality. The first and worst sinners that Aeneas encounters upon crossing the Styx in Hell proper are the cruel (Russian) landlords who had abused their serfs during their lifetime (3.70–1).[10] If we consider that the mass-“enserfment”[11] of the previously largely free Ukrainian peasantry was directly instituted by imperial decree in 1783, following the annexation of the Hetmanate, then decrying the abuses inherent in the Russian-imposed system of serfdom is as close as Kotliarevsky ever gets to criticizing the oppression of Russian rule in Ukraine.

An 18th-century etching of the Zaporozhian Sich Rada, the main vehicle of the Zaporozhian Cossack direct democracy.

Finally, from a literary perspective, Kotliarevsky is most ambitious and original not in merely parodying and recontextualizing the Virgilian epic in order to shed a light on the rich past and sad present of Ukraine but in questioning the core premise of the Aeneid – the righteousness of the Trojan cause. In the Eneida, there is no glorious, providential teleology, culminating in the foundation and subsequent Augustan refoundation of Rome that is so central to the Virgilian project. Instead, Kotliarevsky repeatedly distances his work from black-and-white, ideologically-charged hero narratives. The Trojans are thus presented in a much more morally ambivalent and even troubling light than in Virgil. While they may start out as worthy of sympathy, as destitute Cossack refugees in search of a new home, Jupiter’s programmatic prophecy points to a time when Aeneas and his followers will themselves become a new merciless ruling class of a “Tsardom” and reduce the whole world to serfdom (1.17).

Ukrainian postage stamp (2016) featuring an illustration to the Eneida by Anatoliy Bazylevych (1970). It shows Aeneas and his Cossacks in battle. The caption reads: Еней був парубок моторний, the first line of the Eneida.

Already at the very start of the work, and even more so in the second part of the epic, these Trojans appear increasingly to be those Cossack elites (the starshyna) who, instead of fighting, bent the knee to the Russian Empire and were integrated into the Russian officer corps, and even into the nobility, acquiring the right to own their less fortunate countrymen of old. It is instead the Latins who are explicitly compared to the noble and beleaguered Zaporozhian Cossacks (4.102), who fiercely continued to defend their Sich and free institutions until the very end against the foreign invaders.

Aeneas’ triumph over the Latins is thus made even more morally contentious and ambivalent than in the Aeneid, as the Trojan prince calls for generalized and indiscriminate slaughter against the fleeing Latins,[12] reminiscent of the worst Russian atrocities against the Cossacks.[13] The transformation of the loveable bumbling Cossack lad into senseless Russian catspaw is complete in the climactic moment preceding Aeneas’ slaying of Turnus, when the Trojan prince is explicitly assimilated to “Nechesa-prince”; the latter was none other than Prince Gregory Potemkin (1739–91), the most influential of Catherine II’s favourites, who, though he had been made a nominal honorary Cossack (hence the name Nechesa), oversaw the liquidation of the Sich in 1775 and the annexation of the rump-Hetmanate to Russia. Unlike in Virgil, where the abruptness of the end masks how much remains to be done, by the time we get to the end of the Eneida the reader, dazed and saddened, is left in contemporary times, when the once fiercely independent Cossacks, tamed by ambition and greed, have joined forces with the foreign invaders, and have crushed those among them (the Zaporoshians) who still clung to their autonomy.

Portrait of the Russian field-marshal Grigory “Nechesa” Potemkin, Johann Baptist Lampi. c.1790 (State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia).

It is difficult to overemphasize how foundational Kotliarevsky’s Eneida would prove to be for the Ukrainian people and their culture. Indeed, Kotliarevsky is not only the founding father of modern Ukrainian literature but can be said to have standardized the Ukrainian language: this he achieved by setting his native Poltavan dialect of Ukrainian as the “Classical” form. Our poet produced the first ever Ukrainian dictionary, as an annex to the poem, which comprised over a thousand words and preserved the full colorful, often idiomatic variety of the language, anchored in the Ukrainian “folk spirit”.[14] He often deliberately included parochial, archaic, and orally derived words that would be unintelligible to educated Russian speakers in order to showcase the full linguistic wealth of Ukrainian, which preserved older Slavic forms that had ceased to be used in Russian owing to foreign (mostly French and German) influence. Kotliarevsky thus did not just create a national epic but fundamentally shaped a national language that would blossom into the likes of Taras Shevchenko (1814–69) within a couple of years of this trailblazer’s death.[15]

Soviet postage stamp of Kotliarevsky (1969).

Kotliarevsky, like a Ukrainian Dante, follows his Latin guide not just in exploring the full breadth of human experience in both its tragic and comic aspects but also in attempting to fashion a narrative and style that can encapsulate the Ukrainian national consciousness, with all its joys and sorrows. In this, Kotliarevsky succeeds, as the Eneida continues to be, for good and ill, relevant to the national experience of the descendants of the Cossacks. In the fourth part of the poem, written after Kotliarevsky had seen the horrors of war during his service in the Russian Cossack regiments during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia (1812), the poet intervenes to lament the coming conflict: “War is here, clad in a blood-soaked gown, / and just behind Wounds, Death and Lacerations, / impiety and inhumanity / hold up the tail-end of the cloak of War” (4.114). And as the endings of both Virgil’s and Kotliarevsky’s epics show, it is far from clear whether the folly and furore of war ever really reach their ends.[16]

Anatoly Grablevsky is a third-year undergraduate reading Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge, whose family hail from Chernihiv, Ukraine.

Further Reading

The most recent and full translation of the Eneida into English is Bohdan Melnyk’s rendition (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2006). The translation has the merit of preserving the rhyme and rhythm of the original. Unfortunately, in trying to convey as much as possible the riotous and often crude humour of the work to a non-Ukrainian audience, the translation often departs too much from the source text. Accordingly, I have revised and altered Melnyk’s translation when I deemed it appropriate. Partial translations of the work exist for those wanting just a taste of Kotliarevsky’s opus.

The only commentary available on the work is in Ukrainian (Stavitskiy, 1989), but can be consulted by those who do not speak the language, not least to delight in the beautiful and award-winning illustrations of the Eneida by Anatoliy Bazylevych (1970).

For a discussion of Kotliarevsky’s poetic project, his literary context and his subsequent influence on Ukrainian literature and language, see Chapter 10 (“Classicism”) in Dmitrij Tschizewskij’s A History of Ukrainian Literature (tr. Dolly Ferguson and Doreen Gorsline, Ukrainian Academic Press, New York, 1997).

For an overview of 17th– and 18th-century Ukrainian history, in which the Hetmanate and Zaporozhian Cossacks feature centrally, see especially parts 4 and 5 of Paul Magosci’s A History of Ukraine (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1996).


1 The quasi-independent Hetmanate, established by the Bohdan Khlmelnystsky in 1654, encompassed at its height much of what is today central Ukraine. It was ruled by an elected “Hetman”, but as Russian influence grew (after the defeat of Mazepa in 1709 by Peter I) and Cossack autonomy decreased, the Hetman increasingly became a Russian-appointed figurehead. In the 18th century, the old Cossack ways of relative freedom and equality were preserved only in the southernmost part of the Hetmanate, centered around the Zaporozhian Sich, which continued to be ruled as a direct democracy, though under Russian overlordship: the rada, in which all Cossacks were entitled to participate, voted on all major political matters and annually elected its own executive and general (the Kosh otaman).
2 Kotliarevsky began composing his magnum opus in the 1790s; the first three books circulated illegally in 1798, but he only completed a first draft of the six-part poem in 1822. He continued to work on polishing his work for the rest of his life, until the final and definitive edition was published posthumously in 1842.
3 The genre, along with the term itself, of the Virgilian travesty, was born with the Virgile travesti of Paul Scaron (1648), and remained a popular genre throughout the 18th century across Europe.
4 The 7,000+ lines of the poem are written as four-foot rhyming iambs, arranged in ten-line stanzas. The poem is divided into six parts, hence quotations are marked as (“book number”, “stanza number”).
5 Most of the iconic characters and famous episodes that we know and love from Virgil are all present in the Eneida. The gods are as fickle as ever, the mortals, human – all too human. The structure is the same as well, with the poem beginning, after a prologue, with Jupiter’s prophecy, and ending with the death of Turnus.
6 She memorably sneers that Aeneas is utterly worthless, and tells him “your only fame is what’s in your pants” (1.54).
7 Kotliarevsky attributes this primarily not to divine causation but to the women feeling physically neglected by their husbands, who are busy getting drunk and partying with the Sicilians for weeks on end.
8 Catherine II (r. 1762–6) had officially set out a policy for the Russification of Ukraine in a letter to her trusted advisor Alexander Vyazemsky in 1764, in which she proclaimed her intention to “erase the memory of the period of the Hetmanate in ‘little-Russia’”. By the 1780s, the Russian government was also actively attempting to suppress the Ukrainian language: both higher and lower education in Ukrainian had been completely banned, and Ukrainian printing was strictly supervised and allowed only in Russia.
9 The anti-Russian hetmans Petro Sahaidachny (r.1616–22) and Petro Doroshenko (r.1665–72), as well as rebel leader Maksym Zalizniak (d.1768), are all sung about and praised.
10 In the justice of Hell, the landlords, under threat of the whip, have themselves to do the tasks that they used to impose on their serfs, such as tend to the hellfire.
11 Before Russian rule, the peasants in the Cossack state who did not know own their own homesteads had to do two days of corvée labour for their landlords every week, but this never became a system comparable to that of Russian serfdom, where the “souls” had no rights at all, not even freedom of movement.
12 This also includes the killing of blameless King Latinus, who had done everything in his power to avoid the war (6.146).
13 The most infamous Russian atrocity against the Ukrainian Cossacks was the sack of Baturyn (1708), perpetrated by Prince Menshikov under orders from Peter I (“the Great”), where the entire civilian population of the city of Baturyn was exterminated, to the widespread shock and horror of Europe.
14 A good example: the peasant’s truth is thorny, while the master’s bends every which way (6.97).
15 Ukraine’s greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko, acknowledged his debt to Kotliarevsky in the poem “In eternal memory of Kotliarevsky”, written in the year of the poet’s death (1838): “You will prevail, father / For as long as people live, / For as long as the sun shines from the sky /You will never be forgotten!”
16 The only hint we get about some kind of take-away message is a gnomic, almost Euripidean morale, which closes off the poem: “Whoever lives recklessly, will never live comfortably. And what’s more, his conscience oppresses him” (6.171).