Aeneas, and the Reinvention of the Hero

April 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

As a modern reader approaching the epics, one inevitably brings certain expectations and standards formed throughout the course of our experiences; one’s literary appetite is accustomed to a certain kind of satisfaction, and one of the most valuable rewards in reading these ancient works is having to examine and adapt one’s demands in order to come to a greater understanding of the history and function of literature. Roland Barthes writes: “… the goal of literary work… is to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text…”(S/Z, p. 4). As an entry into this more than passive relationship with literature, a reader must be able to identify with an element of humanity within a work, must be able to interact with a ‘hero’ he or she can recognize as utterly human. Because of this, one is tempted to place the epic outside of the classification of ‘literature’ that Barthes outlines; Homeric heroes are such in the classical definition of the word–god-like and superhuman, they are to be looked up to rather than empathized with or understood. Virgil, however, is strikingly different in this respect; while he obviously inscribed himself within the epic tradition, he also marked himself as a departure from this form, and a more recognizable precursor of literature as we know it today.In order to begin to examine Virgil’s departure from the epic it is useful to look to his hero. In comparing Aeneas with Homer’s Odysseus, between whom there are apparent and intended similarities, the reader sees that Virgil’s definition of hero was vastly different from that of Homer’s. The first resemblance between the two heroes is the fact that they are both traveling. Even this ostensible similarity illuminates a profound difference between the two men; whereas Odysseus’ journey is a homecoming, Aeneas wanders homeless–he is truly more lost than Odysseus ever was. By way of introduction to our hero, Virgil offers us this: “… a fugitive… buffeted cruelly on land as on the sea… till he could found a city and bring home his gods to Latium… for years [he] wandered as [his] destiny drove [him] on from one sea to the next…”(1.5-48). In a portentous occurrence early on in Book I, Aeneas’ ‘steersman’ is thrown overboard. In Book II, Aeneas describes his flight from the burning city of Troy: “… I turned aside from the known way, entering a maze of pathless places on the run…”(2.956). Virgil echoes this image of a maze later on in Book VI: upon landing at Hesperia, Aeneas and his men come across Daedelus’ Temple of Apollo, the walls of which are painted with representations of the myth of the Minotaur and its “… maze none could untangle…”(6.42). In epic terms, this wandering homelessness is a weakness, a vulnerability, at the very least a de-deification of ‘the hero’. A second correspondence between the two characters is their position as leaders of men. Again though, this likeness only serves to highlight another important distinction between the two men. Odysseus’ status as leader is presented in such a way that it is beyond question–Homer makes it plain from the start that ‘god-like Odysseus’ is not like other men. Aeneas on the other hand has none of the super-human skills or attributes that Odysseus displays, and though he is the son of a goddess, nothing about his character suggests the power or the scope of the divine–his circumstances are truly forced upon him and at times he seems less than steady under their weight. There is an interesting episode after Aeneas’ arrival at Carthage when he wanders into Juno’s temple and finds the walls painted with battle scenes from the Trojan War. Almost as if in worship, Aeneas stands with awe and humility before temple walls painted with representations of his own personal history. “… throw off your fear. This fame insures some kind of refuge…”(1.630) “… He himself he saw in combat with the first of the Achaeans…”(1.665). In this moment, when Aeneas recognizes himself painted alongside the most revered and legendary warriors, the reader senses his reassurance and newly restored faith, both in himself and in his quest. The pre-supposed self-doubt in Aeneas’ overwhelming sense of fortification drawn from this scene is not strictly ‘heroic’ in the Homeric sense.Through this summary comparison between Aeneas and Odysseus, the reader begins to recognize Virgil’s heroic template as distinctly different from his literary ancestor’s.When Homer’s godly voice booms out, the reader listens with a submissive ear. Virgil’s tender tone seems to allow the reader to approach and engage the text to a greater extent; while The Aeneid is the glorious tale of the founding of the Roman Empire, Virgil brings the hero down from the dais and closer to the reader by linking him personally and comprehensibly with his mission.In Aeneas’ narrative of his flee from Troy, he recounts the painful loss of his wife: “What crueler loss had I beheld, that night the city fell?”(2.970). He goes on to tell of her prophecy, and how “… three times I tried to put my arms around her neck, three times enfolded nothing, as the wraith slipped through my fingers, bodiless as wind, or like a flitting dream…”(2.1028). It is just after this that Aeneas ‘resign[s]’ himself and ‘turn[s] [his] face toward the mountain range'(2.1045). In this moment, the reader feels Aeneas’ resolve to be distilled, crystallized by personal grief. The image of Aeneas grasping at his wife’s shade is haunting; it is as if, on a symbolic level, his object throughout his travels remains only to grasp on to something that will not slip through his fingers. All his pain is displaced, sublimated into a fierce determination to find a home. In no less human terms, Virgil uses the story of Dido to portray the scope of Aeneas’ dedication to his journey. Writing about desire in a way that is more explicitly real than anything to be found in Homer, Virgil tells the tale of a love that is as passionate as it is doomed. Aeneas is swept up for a time in his love for the queen, but upon a scolding reminder from Olympus, Aeneas’ lust to reach Italy rekindles. “… he now burned only to be gone…”(4.383). Virgil makes sure to impress upon the reader how hard it is for Aeneas to leave Dido: “Duty-bound, Aeneas, though he struggled with desire to calm and comfort her in all her pain, to speak to her and turn her mind from grief, and though he sighed his heart out, shaken still with love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him and went back to the fleet.”(4.345). Aeneas leaves the ‘sweet life’ and the woman he loves to wander further, in search of a home.Aeneas’ heroism manifests itself not in any acts of super-human strength, bravery or skill, but rather in his steady endurance and his unflagging sense of duty, both of which stem from identifiably human instincts. By endowing Aeneas with such a palpable humanity, Virgil was stretching the strict definition of epic form as set forth by Homer seven hundred years before him, and in so doing, he was creating a new relationship between the reader and the text. One of the standards by which we judge great literature is its universality, who or what a work speaks to, to what extent it involves and moves the reader; in his creation of Aeneas, Virgil transcended the limitations of the Homeric form and created a new, truly human epic.

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