Reading great books involves a juggling act. The reader must adroitly balance text and context, evaluating a work on its own merits while embedding that work in the “great conversation” across time and space. After filling a lacuna in my education by reading Virgil’s Aeneid, I find myself juggling. As much I try to handle The Aeneid independently, I cannot resist comparison to the epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Virgil, following the Roman pattern, borrows and adapts from the Greeks to craft his own poem about the founding of Rome. To apply a musical metaphor, creative improvisation deserves praise even though the score is not original. In his excellent guide, Virgil: The Aeneid, K. W. Gransden writes: “Despite Virgil’s immense and continuously proclaimed debt to Homer, the true value of the Aeneid lies in its transformations of Homer, in the way in which the larger themes and values of the Homeric world are modified by the ‘later’ sensibility of the Roman poet.”
Gransden lucidly explains how The Aeneid is in conversation with its Greek predecessors:
His masterstroke was to see in the story of Aeneas an opportunity to create a structural and thematic reworking of both the epics of Homer. The Iliad is a story set in the war between Greeks and Trojans; the Odyssey is the story of one Greek hero’s homecoming after the sack of Troy. Virgil reversed this sequence: the first half of his epic tells of the journey of the Trojan hero Aeneas after the fall of Troy in search of a homeland, the second half of Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, of the war he was obliged to fight to establish his settlement, and of his victory over a local chieftain, Turnus. The ancient Life of Virgil described the Aeneid as quasi amborum Homeri carminum instar: ‘a sort of counterpart of both the Homeric poems.’
Going into more detail, he writes:
It is clear that Virgil intended his poem to fall into two ‘halves’ corresponding structurally to the Odyssey, which also falls into two halves: Odyssey 1 to 12 describes Odysseus’ nostos or homecoming from Troy; books 13 to 24 describe his actions after arriving home in Ithaca, including the killing of the suitors of his wife Penelope. The first half of the Aeneid (books I to VI) describe Aeneas’ journey from Troy to his new home in Italy, while books VII to XII describe his actions in Italy, including his killing of Turnus, a rival suitor to the Italian princess Lavinia who is destined to marry the stranger from across the sea. Thus in one sense the whole of the Aeneid might be called ‘Odyssean’ in that it reflects both the theme and the structure of the Odyssey; it begins in media res (in the middle of the story) as had the Odyssey, and includes a ‘flashback’ in which the hero narratives his previous adventures to a royal host who has sheltered and succored him. But there is a further complication, in that the second half of Virgil’s poem is about war, its mise-en-scène is a battlefield: Odysseus’ killing of the suitors at the end of the Odyssey is in comparison merely a violent domestic episode which takes place inside Odysseus’ own palace. So Virgil turned from the Odyssey to the Iliad and modeled his last six books on Homer’s tragic poem of war. Nor can we oversimplify Virgil’s structure by assuming that there is nothing ‘Iliadic’ in the first six books of the Aeneid and nothing ‘Odyssean’ in the last six.
Finally, Gransden claims:
Aeneid VI is the pivot of the whole poem. It is the transition from the ‘Odyssean’ to the ‘Iliadic’ Aeneid, as it is Aeneas’ personal transformation from the role of wanderer to that of dux (commander, leader), from exile and near-despair (as articulated in his speech during the storm, when he wishes he had died at Troy) to a sense of mission and responsibility, the result of his meeting with his father in the underworld.
To summarize, I would say the “Odyssean” Aeneid involves the drama of adventure and romance while the “Iliadic” Aeneid involves the tragedy of war. Evidence for this interpretation can be found in the very opening lines of the epic, known as a proem or brief statement of the poem’s subject:
Arms and a man I sing, the first from Troy,
A fated exile to Lavinian shores
In Italy. On land and sea, divine will –
And Juno’s unforgetting rage – harassed him.
War racked him too, until he set his city
And gods in Latium. (trans. Sarah Ruden)
Arms signals the martial theme of the second half while man signals the humanist theme of the first half. Recall the the proem of The Iliad concerns arms:
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end. (trans. Robert Fagles)
Now recall that the proem of The Odyssey concerns a man:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home. (trans. Robert Fagles)
The genius of Virgil lies in reversing the sequence of Homer’s poems, compressing the Greek bard’s forty-eight books (the combined total for The Iliad and The Odyssey) into twelve, and then developing a hero admired by pagans and Christians alike for his piety and bravery.
Since I have always been partial to The Odyssey over the The Iliad, it came as no surprise that I favor the “Odyssean” Aeneid, especially Book 2 on the fall of Troy, Book 4 on the passion of Dido and Aeneas, and Book 6 on Aeneas’ visit to the underworld. That said, there are unforgettable moments in the “Iliadic” Aeneid, such as the death of Trojan warriors Euryalus and Nisus (Book 9), the council of gods at Mount Olympus (Book 10), the subplot of Camilla, the Amazonian figure and leader of the Volsci (Book 11), and the climax of Aeneas killing Turnus (Book 12). My impression is that Virgil’s best epic similes reside in the “Iliadic” Aeneid, where he repeatedly invokes the muse, starting in Book 7:
Goddess, direct your poet. Savage warfare
I’ll sing, and kings whose courage brought their death;
The Tuscan army; all Hesperia rallied
To arms. This is a higher story starting,
A greater work for me.
War, it appears, strains the poet more than adventure and romance, hence the “-er” suffix in the comparative adjectives of “higher story” and “greater work.” Virgil’s invocations to the muse in the second half of the poem amount to what contemporary poet Mark Jarman calls an “unanswered answered prayer”: they were “unanswered” because Mount Helicon is not home to patron goddesses of art but “answered” because Virgil’s writing is undeniably inspired.
- Bensonian: Why I am reading The Aeneid