Along with The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid is one of the three epic pillars on which the edifice of western literature rests. These three works are, therefore, foundational.
Written by Virgil a few decades before the birth of Christ, and at least seven centuries after the time of Homer, The Aeneid owes its very existence to Homer’s earlier epics. It takes its inspiration from an episode in Book XX of The Iliad in which the Trojan warrior Aeneas is saved from death at the hands of Achilles by the intervention of the gods. He is spared so that the Trojan line might not be extinguished, Poseidon declaring to the other gods that it is destined that “Aeneas and his heirs, and theirs, will be the lords of Trojans born hereafter.” Virgil takes this divine prophecy and imagines that Aeneas and his heirs would not only prosper but that they would be destined to found the mighty empire of Rome, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of Troy to rule over their erstwhile Greek conquerors. This militaristic and triumphalist spirit informs the whole epic, which is, at root, an imperialistic celebration of the martial prowess of Rome.
Whereas Homer had begun The Iliad by asking his Muse to help him sing of Achilles and the destructive consequences of Achilles’ anger, in the light of the will of Zeus which is accomplished through these providential consequences, Virgil proclaims merely that “I sing of warfare and a man of war.” Flying the Roman imperial flag, Virgil demonizes the Greeks in his retelling of the story of the fall of Troy. We are told that they are not the equal of the Trojans in battle and that they could only win the victory through lies and deception. It is to Virgil that we owe the adage, “beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” an allusion to the treachery of the Trojan horse. Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic, becomes, as Ulysses, a villain in Virgil’s revisionist account of the siege of Troy and its aftermath.
In spite of his militaristic and patriot predilections, Virgil is the equal of Homer in the tenderness with which he depicts familial love. His description of Aeneas carrying his elderly father, while taking his young son’s hand, with his wife beside him, as they endeavor to escape from Troy, is an iconic image of family life, reminiscent of Homer’s depiction of Hektor with his wife and son in The Iliad.
A similar tenderness and sense of empathy is evident in Virgil’s telling of the story of Aeneas and Dido, “prisoners of lust” who are so besotted with each other that they are utterly negligent of their duty to their respective peoples. It takes direct divine intervention to bring Aeneas to his senses, reminding him of the necessity of putting conscientious duty before unconscionable desire. Virgil’s metaphorical employment of an oak tree to embody the immovable and indomitable will of Aeneas to withstand the winds of passion exemplifies Virgil’s poetic genius. Dido, on the other hand, fails to govern her own passions, her love for Aeneas turning to hatred, itself a metaphorical prophesy of the Punic Wars between the Rome that Aeneas is destined to found and the Carthage of which Dido is queen.
If Virgil’s heart-rending treatment of the lust-love affair between Aeneas and Dido exhibits the presence of what might be termed a proto-romanticism in the midst of the classical epic, it should not distract us from the poet’s primary and epic purpose of leading us to Rome, to which all the threads of the plot are ultimately leading, woven by divine design.
Theologically, Virgil’s portrayal of Aeneas’ visit to the underworld is rich with theological significance and is more colorful and textured than Homer’s portrayal in The Odyssey of Odysseus’ descent to the dead. In Virgil’s epic, the judgment of the dead, and the contrast between the hell of “black Tartarus” and the heaven of Elysium, is far more congruent with the Christian eschatological vision than is the relatively shallow shadowland depicted by Homer. It is no wonder that Virgil’s rich vision of the life hereafter should have proved so seminal to the imagination of Dante.
Philosophically, Virgil shows himself to be a follower of Plato in the platonic discourse that he places on the lips of the shade of Anchises, Aeneas’ recently deceased father, in the underworld. There are also hints of what might be called purgatory in Anchises’ explanation that souls after death “undergo the discipline of punishments and pay in penance for past sins,” adding that “the stain of wrong is washed by floods or burned away by fire.”
Ultimately, however, Anchises’ discourse leads us back to “illustrious Rome [which] will bound her power with earth, her spirit with Olympus.” It is to the founding of this “eternal” city that Virgil is leading us, but he never finally gets us there, the work being unfinished at the time of his death in 19 B.C. This is frustrating, to be sure, leaving us with unanswered and unanswerable questions. For this reason, if for no other, Virgil’s epic is not the equal of either of the Homeric pillars with which it stands and to which it owes its very being. The irony is that The Aeneid would not have been possible, or even thinkable, if Homer the Greek hadn’t been the bearer of the great gifts of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Let’s be thankful, therefore, for Greeks bearing gifts.
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in an ongoing series of articles that will explain the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”
[Image Credit: Aeneas’ Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci (public domain)]