How may the demands of empire in Virgil’s Aeneid be seen to modify the characteristics of Homeric epic?
The characteristics of Homeric epic are many and varied, but the key elements of the Odyssey and the Iliad can be narrowed down to two main things: a focus on one hero (Achilles and Odysseus, respectively) and the need for that hero to attain kleos, and in the case of Odysseus, nostos. Virgil’s epic draws on Homer’s epics, but because Virgil’s motives and aims are very different, the characteristics of his epic are naturally different, too. The hero of Virgil’s epic, Aeneas, shares some characteristics with Homeric heroes but is notably different in that he does not want to achieve kleos. Many of the qualities that characterize Homeric heroes are presented as bad in the Aeneid. These differences can almost all be attributed to the fact that empire plays a large part in Virgil’s epic. It does so because Virgil is writing a “history” of the Roman people from the time of Troy until the Pax Augustus in order to flatter the emperor Augustus. Also, because Aeneas’s fate is to found the city of Rome and begin the Roman lineage, this directs everything that he does in a way that is not found in Homer’s epics.There is an element of fate in both Homer’s and Virgil’s epics, but it does not become overbearing in either the Iliad or the Odyssey because the heroes of these two epics are also concerned with other things. Aeneas is told by the gods to leave the ashes of Troy to found a new city. Juno says, “must the Trojans reign in Italy? So Fate will have it” (I.57) showing the inevitability of Aeneas’s success. This is his fatum, and he could not escape it even if he wanted to. This is a heavy burden to carry, but Virgil makes it explicit from the start that he will succeed by linking Augustus’s Rome with Troy and with Aeneas’s followers. The whole poem is consequently extremely teleological. Virgil is writing from a point in Roman “history” that the reader knows will eventually end up in Virgil’s Rome. Jupiter’s speech in book I also gives another reason why Troy’s fall was regrettable but necessary: “Troy shall overturn the Grecian state, and sweet revenge her conquering sons shall call” (I.386-7), but this can only happen once the Roman Empire is founded and established. Aeneas’s progress is therefore also incredibly goal-oriented–so much so that he sacrifices personal happiness with Dido to obey the gods and continue on his journey to find a site for Rome. This is very different from the idea of destiny that Homer expresses; Achilles knows that he is fated to die young and he therefore seeks to win kleos in battle so that he will be remembered after his death. Odysseus’s goal is to return home to Penelope in order to restore social order in Ithaca, but he is easily sidetracked; for example, he spends years on Calypso’s island before the gods intervene to send him home.The demands of empire are clearly seen in both the fact that Aeneas has to found Rome in order to begin the Roman Empire and the fact that Virgil himself is writing his epic as a way of glorifying emperor Augustus and the peace he created out of a potential civil war. The Optimistic school of criticism sees the whole poem as a celebration and glorification of Rome and its empire, showing the necessity for Aeneas to put aside personal wishes and found Rome. This is very persuasive because Virgil does glorify the Rome he knew by explicitly linking it to the great heroes of epic. O’Connell comments that the Aeneid can be read as “an uncomplicated apology for Augustus and Empire” (p.298). In Book V of the Aeneid, the players of the funeral games are given the names of great Roman families of Virgil’s time in order to flatter them with the idea that their lineage stretched back to Trojan heroes. Some readers see Aeneas as a personification of Augustus; they are both great leaders who successfully face the challenge of bringing peace and restoring the social order after many years unrest. Virgil’s glorification of the Roman Empire by linking it with Troy has an immediate problem: according to Homer, the Trojans lost the war. This means that the Greeks, presented as heroes in Homer’s epics, have to be made into the enemies of Rome. The fact that they unquestionably won the war and razed Troy to the ground could be glossed over by Virgil, but this would be unconvincing because Homer’s epics were well known. Virgil attempts to show that the fall of Troy was an evil necessary in order that Rome could be founded–a second Troy from the ashes of the first. Aeneas could not fulfill his destiny if the Trojans had won the war. This is where Virgil has to depart from Homeric epic: the qualities that characterized the Homeric hero are shown by Virgil to be bad character traits. Achilles’s bloodlust and degradation of Hector’s body, which he dragged “thrice round the Trojan walls” (I.677), have no place in Aeneas’s character because he has to personify the Roman virtues of moderation, self-sacrifice and level-headedness. Similarly, Odysseus is referred to with scorn for his deceitfulness; the cunning and intelligence heroized in the Odyssey also have no place in Virgil’s Romanized epic because the Roman hero should be truthful and win battles by being reasonable and reasoned, not by trickery or rampaging. “A juster lord, or nobler warrior, never drew a sword: observant of the right, religious of his word” (I.768-9): this shows both the moderation that “impious Achilles” (II.118) lacked and the truthfulness that Odysseus lacked when he practiced “fallacious arts” (II.118).All the things that the reader has come to associate with heroism from Homeric epic (bloodlust, power in battle, strength, intelligence, etc.) are attributed to furor by Virgil, which is detrimental to goal-fulfillment and something that only Aeneas’s enemies are seen to possess. Aeneas briefly succumbs to “unmanly rage” (II.810) when he sees Helen in the ruins of Troy but is quickly set right again by his mother. The Aeneid can be read as a “correction of decadent Greek models in favor of Roman pietas and imperium.” (O’Connell, p.298) Turnus is a very Homeric character, and is therefore an enemy of Aeneas and of Rome. He has an aristeia (rampage) and is full of bloodlust. He ignores the contract of combat and “spurn[s] the wretched corpse then snatch[es] the shining belt” (X.690) of the dead Pallas, which later leads to Aeneas’s righteous anger and refusal to show mercy. Virgil makes it explicit that Aeneas’s killing of Turnus is only brought about by Turnus’s furor. Had he shown pietas and allowed Pallas’s body to be returned un-plundered, then Aeneas would not have seen the golden belt and felt the need to kill him. Aeneas is the epitome of Romanness; he behaves moderately and with pietas at all times, except when temporarily seduced by Dido.The need for Aeneas to leave Dido and continue on his quest to begin the Roman dynasty again illustrates the demands of empire; Aeneas puts the good of his followers and descendants before his personal desires by leaving Dido. It is very easy for us, as post-Romantic readers, to criticise Aeneas for his treatment of Dido, but this cannot be Virgil’s intention: he never explicitly criticizes Aeneas’s decision because what he did was right for Rome. Dido would have been seen as a Barbarian queen and an enemy of Rome, and her attempts to prevent Aeneas’s fulfilling his fatum can only be seen as wrong; she is too passionate and possessed by furor. This is shown by the fact that she is an excellent queen who “dispenses laws…tasks in equal portions she divides” (I.713) until a “secret fire” (IV.4) burns within her and she falls in love with Aeneas, causing the building of Carthage to cease: “the walls neglected lie short of their promised height” (IV.127). This can be seen as Virgil’s direct criticism of the leader who allows personal passion to defeat reason and doing good for the people. Dido is also criticised for her other un-Roman qualities: she would have been expected by the Roman people to remain single after her husband’s death and not to act on feelings for another man.”Love is the antithesis of history, for it is timeless; it is the supreme anti-historical force, seeking to bring the forward progression of events to a halt or to initiate a different sequence of events altogether, dictated not by divine providence but by individual desire.” (Gransden, p.45)Love clearly shows the demands of empire on Aeneas, and, to some extent, Dido. The idea that Dido is controlled “not by divine providence but by individual desire” is what separates her from Aeneas. Aeneas does not allow himself to be ruled by his desires. Odysseus is lucky that his wishes coincide with his fate; the gods decide almost unanimously to help him home so that he can restore order. But Aeneas’s wish to stay with Dido cannot be fulfilled because it halts the building of Carthage and delays his mission to found Rome. “City” (from the Latin “civitas”) is symbolic of a whole civilization, of nationhood and a sense of Roman identity; therefore, it is imperative that Aeneas puts his own desires aside and leaves Dido to found Rome.Not all of the characteristics of Homeric epic are modified by the demands of empire. Virgil wanted to surpass Homer but was indebted to him too much to move away from Homeric qualities totally. The first six books of the Aeneid can be read much like the Odyssey–a similar voyage, similar adventures and temptations along the way, and a final kind of nostos when Aeneas arrives in Italy. Books Seven to Twelve are very Iliadic in that the Trojans as an invading force parallel the Greeks in the Iliad, and the final duel between Aeneas and Turnus resembles that fought between Hector and Achilles. The Aeneid follows one hero in much the same way that the Odyssey and Iliad do: other characters are mentioned and occasionally praised, but the focus of the narrator and the gods is mostly on the eponymous hero. As a character, however, the demands of empire make Virgil’s hero very different from Homer’s heroes, as explained above.In terms of literary characteristics, the very nature of epic demands that Virgil follows Homer’s example to some extent because epic poems had not changed vastly between Homer’s time and Virgil’s. The use of epithets (“pious prince” 1.146), cataloguing, and similes (1.65) are common to all three epics, as is the use of classical language. It is difficult to comment on the language of any of these epics in detail because translations vary quite a lot. The main linguistic difference is that Virgil refers to all the gods by their Roman names rather than their Greek ones, perhaps showing his determination to build on and develop what Homer began.The idea of the final duel between long-time enemies is very much present in the Aeneid, but its characteristics are modified a lot. Aeneas fights only when necessary, and he is diplomatic and far more merciful and calm than Homeric heroes. Turnus’s degradation of Pallas’s corpse is very similar to Achilles’s treatment of Hector’s body in the Iliad, and Virgil makes it explicit that Aeneas, in control of his feelings, is inclined to be merciful to Turnus until he is reminded of Turnus’s inexcusable furor by Pallas’s sword belt. This contrasts sharply with Odysseus’s and Diomedes’s treatment of the Trojan spy they capture and brutally kill. Aeneas has to remain in control of his feelings in order to come through all the ordeals he faces and found Rome, but the Homeric heroes have no such noble goal and therefore need not control their bloodlust. In Homeric epic it can generally be said that the hero has one task to fulfill and can then relax and enjoy his nostos. Odysseus’s great wanderings culminate in his return to Ithaca and his reuniting with Penelope, which builds on the notion in the Iliad that one can choose either kleos or nostos but not both because the two are incompatible; Achilles knows that, by returning to the battle and winning great honour, he will die an early death. Aeneas, however, cannot have the same kind of nostos that Odysseus eventually enjoys because he has to build a new home rather than return to an old one. Aeneas’s task is to begin a nation that will eventually become the Roman empire, so, although his task ostensibly ends when he defeats Turnus and establishes a site for Rome, it is not the same kind of resolution that Homer offers his heroes. The whole point of Virgil’s epic is to show that, because Rome came from such great origins, it will continue forever. Also, Virgil is very explicit that kleos is a Greek idea associated with furor and therefore undesirable, so his hero has no need to fight to win honour. His renown will come from his constructive actions rather than his destructive ones.The Aeneid can be seen as a much more didactic epic than either the Odyssey or the Iliad, because Virgil’s intention is to surpass Homer’s epic and create a new breed of hero. As the author of a secondary epic, Virgil had the luxury of being able to plan and redraft, something that Homer could not do because his epics were spoken, not written. This means that Virgil was able to use his poem to show the qualities he believed a good Roman should embody and perhaps to try and teach the Roman people of his own time how the great lineage he describes should help them to live their lives. Homer tells a good story, but Virgil’s work, as Yasmin Syed points out, is trying to “exert a formative influence on its readers, profoundly shaping their sense of self as Romans” (p.35). Virgil illustrates that Greek epic heroes should not be admired because of their inherent un-Romanness, instead creating a new Roman hero who is the kind of man that Virgil felt was needed to keep the Pax Augustus going and to extend the “long glories of majestic Rome” (I.10) even further. By feeling connected to the great heroic past, perhaps the Roman empire could become more extensive–but it had to be the right kind of Roman past with a Roman hero, not a furor-filled Greek hero.The demands of empire direct everything that Aeneas does, and this in itself considerably modifies Homer’s epics because his heroes are motivated by more selfish desires: Achilles craves honour and recognition, and Odysseus wishes to return home. The gods interfere with Aeneas in much the same way that they do with Achilles and Odysseus, so this idea of the gods’ meddling in human affairs has not been modified a great deal by Virgil. The biggest step that Virgil takes away from Homer is in his characterization: Aeneas has to be a Roman hero, not a Greek one, in order to be a worthy founder of Rome. Epic battles, adventures, and trips to the underworld are all still present in Homer’s and Virgil’s epics because these things are necessary for all three heroes to fulfil their goals and fates. Virgil changes only what is necessary to make Aeneas different enough to be totally un-Greek but still a recognisable epic hero.Works CitedGransden, K.: Virgil: The Aeneid, CUP, 1990O’Connell, M.: The Specter of Dido: Spenser and Virgilian Epic, Renaissance Quarterly, 1998. (Viewed online).Syed, Y: Vergil’s (sic) Aeneid and the Roman Self: Subject and Nation in Literary Discourse, ed. A. Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2005.Virgil: The Aeneid, trans. John Dryden, Wordsworth World Classics, 1997.
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