When the Roman armies conquered the remnants of Alexander’s empire in 168 B.C., they recognized something in Greek culture that was more impressive than anything Rome, itself, had achieved. The result is that Rome adapted itself to the model of Greece.
Among the adaptors of Greek culture, none was more brilliant, original or influential than the poet Virgil. He faced a formidable challenge in that everyone who encountered Greek culture recognized how much it had been shaped by Homer. To write a Roman equivalent to The Iliad or The Odyssey required the ability to think, a way with words, and a storytelling capacity that would enable a poet to do for Rome what Homer had done for Greece. Only one poet succeeded and that was Virgil.
Virgil began working on The Aeneid with an advantage Homer lacked: he was literate. Unlike the Greek aoidos, Virgil did not learn his art from oral storytellers. As his hero, Virgil chose a Trojan fighter whom Homer describes briefly in The Iliad. Virgil kept the outlines of Homer’s Aeneas, but he developed the character in new and profound directions.
The Aeneid resembles The Odyssey in recounting a series of Mediterranean adventures and an eventual homecoming (Books 1-6).
It resembles The Illiad in recounting a war to capture a city (Books 7-12).
But the home to which Aeneas sails is a new one, and his quest is to establish something that had not before existed rather than to return to something he once knew, as Odysseus does. The Aeneid is a founding myth and virtually every episode is symbolically charged with the weight of Aeneas’s historic destiny. This destiny is the very thing that enables Virgil to reshape the character he found in Homer, transforming a warrior hero into a man who would influence the world for centuries to come.
Sappho (the greek poet) One of the great Greek lyrists and few known female poets of the ancient world, Sappho was born some time between 630 and 612 BC. She was said to be small and dark in appearance. Sappho's home was the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. She was born of a noble family, the child of Skamandronymos and Cleis. She also was an aristocrat who married a prosperous merchant, ...
We see Aeneas gradually changing in a series of crises throughout the first half of the poem. Virgil presents Aeneas’s departure from Troy as a departure from the values that had defined Homer’s story of the war to capture Troy. One of the most memorable portraits of Aeneas is his weeping in Carthage as he contemplates depictions of the Trojan war: “there are tears for passing things; here, too/things mortal touch the mind.” The tears of a Homeric hero have never had such weighty moral and historic implications.
Readers of The Odyssey will recognize that Virgil has modeled Aeneas’s affair with Dido (Books 1-4) on Odysseus’s affair with various females on his way home from Troy. Aeneas’s departure from Carthage has many parallels with Odysseus’s departure from Ogygia, where he lived for seven years with Kalypso. In both cases, the foremost of the gods (Zeus for Homer and Jupiter for Virgil) sends the messenger of the gods (Hermes for Homer and Mercury for Virgil) on an impressive descent to the place where the hero is detained. Also, in both cases, the messenger speaks to someone about the necessity for the hero to leave and a loving female is abandoned by the hero.
But the Dido episode is not just an imitation of Homer; it is a total reinterpretation of what such an episode means in the context of historic destiny. Rich with symbolic and historical implications, the Dido episode is also a poignant tragedy.
The foundation that Aeneas lays in The Aeneid is for “the ramparts of high Rome,” but he lays it symbolically, and he does not found a city, he captures one. Here, Virgil is treating readers to what today would be termed historical fiction.
The real foundation Aeneas lays is for the moral fabric of an ideal Rome; an ideal Virgil, himself, hoped for in the Rome he knew. That is why it was so important for Virgil to transform the character of Homer’s hero into the new sort of hero he had in mind. During Virgil’s lifetime (70-19 B.C.), Octavius Caesar defeated Marcus Antonius at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., becoming the unrivaled source of power and taking the title “Augustus” to signify the importance of his position. One way to read The Aeneid is to say that Aeneas is an idealized version of Augustus; the battle of Actium is depicted at the center of Aeneas’s shield, even if Aeneas does not know what that depiction signifies.
When comparing “The Aeneid” to “The Odyssey”, it is impossible not to notice the similarity between Homer and Virgil’s poems. Both heroes leave Troy, granted one barely escapes and the other leaves victoriously, and both in one sense or the other are trying to reach their home, whether it is the old or future home. The adventures of the two heroes are incredibly similar on a number of ...
The Aeneid, however is far more than flattery. Just as Aeneas has to lose Troy in order to establish Rome, so he loses something in victory, when he defeats Turnus in Book 12. The victory is the culmination of his quest in Italy and it is necessary for his destiny to be realized. It also anticipates the military success of Rome in Virgil’s own day. But it also involves terrible loss which tinges the victory with tragedy. We are reminded of our own mortality everywhere in this story. If Rome is built on an awareness of this mortal insight, as Virgil seems to suggest, its greatness is justified and it may perhaps endure.