Virgil [70-19 B.C.E.], Aeneid  [19 B.C.E.] Book 1 and 2

        Book I of Virgil's Aeneid, should send you scrambling for your copy of Homer's Odyssey.  Virgil intends his readers to notice his borrowings and transformations of his predecessor poet(s).  Aeneas was well-known to the Greek world in the Homeric literature and in art, where a single iconic scene most often is portrayed, his escape from Troy with his crippled father on his back.  Later images add layers of detail, including his wife, Creusa, who walks separately, his son, Ascanius, whom he leads by the hand, and his household gods, which he is said to have carried along with his father from the burning city.  Though Aeneas makes no appearance in the Odyssey, his deeds and things he witnesses often correspond to things Odysseus does or witnesses.  The Iliad contains many passages in which Aeneas plays a role, though for the first nineteen books, he is usually a minor warrior the poet uses to send messages, to save a fallen Trojan's armor, etc.  By far the most significant thing Aeneas does in the Iliad is in Book XX, when he fights Achilles and almost is killed by him.  Neptune's speech, before the god saves Aeneas, is the most important link Homer and Virgil:

        "Aeneas would then have struck Achilles as he was springing towards him, either on the helmet, or on the shield that covered him, and Achilles would have closed with him and despatched him with his sword, had not Neptune lord of the earthquake been quick to mark, and said forthwith to the immortals, "Alas, I am sorry for great Aeneas, who will now go down to the house of Hades, vanquished by the son of Peleus. Fool that he was to give ear to the counsel of Apollo. Apollo will never save him from destruction. Why should this man suffer when he is guiltless, to no purpose, and in another's quarrel? Has he not at all times offered acceptable sacrifice to the gods that dwell in heaven? Let us then snatch him from death's jaws, lest the son of Saturn be angry should Achilles slay him. It is fated, moreover, that he should escape, and that the race of Dardanus, whom Jove loved above all the sons born to him of mortal women, shall not perish utterly without seed or sign. For now indeed has Jove hated the blood of Priam, while Aeneas shall reign over the Trojans, he and his children's children that shall be born hereafter." (Click here to read the whole bookClick here to see a Web page that excerpts and links to this and other scattered passages Virgil would have known in which Aeneas plays a role in the Iliad.)

        As you read, notice Virgil's combative engagement with the Greek ethos or social/ethical context of the Homeric poems.  He does not merely borrow material because he cannot imagine his own.  Previously he has published several collections of poems (the Eclogues and Bucolics) that owe little or nothing to Greek originals.  By tradition, composing under Caesar Augustus' command, he has openly criticized the foundational values which the Homeric poets praised, and he elevates a new set of Roman values with which he replaces them.  Many of the actions are the same: ships sail, storms destroy them, men and women make love and quarrel, men (and women!) fight wars, and above all, gods intervene in mortal affairs.  But the reasons why these things happen, in almost all cases, are significantly different in Virgil, and the difference is intended to show readers what Virgil (and Augustus, apparently) believe to be a Roman world view.  This text has, for scholars of Roman culture, some of the same disputed but anchoring character of the Torah for Jewish culture, the Bible for Christian culture, the Qu'ran for Islamic culture, and (of course) the Iliad and Odyssey were for Greek culture.

     The full impact of what Virgil was asked/ordered to do by Augustus may be felt in the tension betweeen Jupiter's seemingly trouble-free judgment of the Roman imperial future and the anguish with which Aeneas acts out his role as the instrument of that judgement (I.ll. 374-5; I.284-303): "For these [Romans] I set no limits, world or time, / But make the gift of empire without end" ("his ego nec metas rerum nec tempora pono; / imperium sine fine dedi."); "So ran [Aeneas'] speech.  Burdened and sick at heart, / He feigned hope in his look, and inwardly / Contained his anguish" [ . . . ] "Aeneas, more than any secretly / Mourned for them all--for that fierce man, Orontes, / Then for Amycus, then for the bitter fate / Of Lycus, for brave Gyas, brave Cleanthus" ("Talia voce refert, curisque ingentibus aeger / spem voltu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem." [ . . . ] "praecipue pius Aeneas nunc acris Oronti, / nunc Amyci casum gemit et crudelia secum / fata Lyci fortemque Gyan fortemque Cloanthum").  Just as Homer's use of polutropon ("many-turning, wiley, experienced") for a repeated epithet to describe Odysseus concretely concentrated the hero's fundamental virtue and vulnerability in a single word, so Virgil repeatedly captures Aeneas' character in the single adjective "pius" (godly, good, dutiful, destiny-bound).  In Jupiter's speech, the king of the gods also calls Aeneas "magnanimum" (I.351, "great-souled"), and this is another way to understand Virgil's understanding of what Rome's founding virtue must have been, be, and become.  By writing this epic, he tasks himself with creating the mythos of Rome's present and future.  No small-minded, individualist, triumphalist tribal hero can hold together an empire that must, itself, unify tribes divided by hundreds of languages, thousands of miles, innumerable local gods and differing customs.  If Ovid was "thinking big" when he sought to weave together the story of humans and gods from the Creation to the end of time, Virgil was "thinking bigger" when he tried to convert his Roman readers' mentalities from pursuit of personal, familial, or even tribal (gens) ambitions to imagining the Rome of the future bringing peace to the world through the rationally controlled arts of war and government.  Curiously, that task seems to have required a hero vulnerable to intense feelings of responsiblity for others' fates and near indifference to his own.  His victories all will be bought with sacrifices he can barely sustain, and it appears Virgil intends that these losses should haunt Romans' consciences forever.

Discussion and Research Questions:

1)  How does Virgil's invocation of the muse differ from the   Homeric singer's invocation in The Odyssey?  Pay close attention to the speaker's verbs, and to what he's asking the Muse.

2)  How does Rome's historic relationship with Carthage before Virgil's day color his representation of Carthage's abilities in   warfare?  Any reasonably accurate, "encyclopedia"-type resource will tell the same basic story of the two cities' competition for dominance of the Mediterranean region.

3)  How does Virgil's attitude toward the gods differ from that  of  the Homeric singer‑of‑tales in the opening of his work?

4)  How does Virgil use Aeneas' lament in the storm to establish   Virgil's authority to control the Homeric material?  For a start,  who expresses similar sentiments in The Odyssey, and how do their  attitudes toward heroism situate Aeneas as the kind of hero he is?

5)  How does Virgil's extended simile when Poseidon stops the   storm reflect his audience's day‑to‑day reality, much as the   Homeric poet used his audience's knowledge of the world in his   comparison of Odysseus in the leaves to an ember in the ashes of   a traveler's fire at nearly the same place in that narrative?

6)  How would you compare Aeneas' special skills as a commander with those of Odysseus? 

7)  Virgil's hero also has a goddess who intervenes on his behalf  in the councils of the gods‑‑who is she, and how does her  intervention differ symbolically from the divine intervention  which frees Odysseus from Kalypso?  How does Virgil use the gods'  omniscience to mingle the Roman present and future with the  Homeric Trojan past?  What other ways does Virgil manipulate time  to enforce comparisons, apparent cause and effect, etc.?  As a "hider" or "delayer" of the hero, Kalypso might also be compared with Dido for their relative status, power, attractiveness to the hero's motivations, and other qualities.  Think about Virgil's Dido as an attempt to solve a thorny problem the poet had encountered in the mythos that he apparently did not think he could, or should, change.

8)  What is the last thing Aeneas sees before he sees Dido, in   what context does he see it, and why did Virgil plan it that way?   

9)  To what scenes in The Odyssey is Virgil specifically  referring  in the scene when Aeneas first speaks to Dido?  How do  the scenes'  outcomes differ and why? 

10)  How would you express Venus' strategy for seducing Dido in   psychological terms?

11)  How do the songs of Iopas differ from those of Phemios and   Demodokos, and whose song does his resemble? 

Aeneid Books II and III, begin to play the "Homer vs. NOT-Homer" game very seriously.  As Aeneas narrates Troy's fall and his first book of wanderings, he combines two types of critique: scenes Homer alludes to or describes, but retold from the Trojan point of view; and scenes Homer does not mention, often scenes that make the Greeks look immoral and savage, again seen from the Trojan point of view.  All the while, Virgil is reshaping the Greek textual tradition as it represents Aeneas' flight from Troy to answer, or at least to make un-answerable, questions you raised when reading Book I (Is Aeneas married?; What happened to his wife?; Will Dido actually become Aeneas' wife?; How can Aeneas separate himself from Dido if fate decrees that Rome and Carthage must be enemies?).  Try to keep track of the answers Virgil's text proposes, and pay close attention to circumstances in which he allows room for doubt.  Remember he seems to be in a position to control destiny, itself, because he describes events that are intended to make the Rome he inhabits come into being as the center of a world empire.  When he does not seize that full control, perhaps there are reasons he does not do so.

Click here to see a Web page that excerpts and links to this and other scattered passages Virgil would have known in which Aeneas plays a role in the Iliad.)

Book II‑‑

1)  How does Sinon's lie reflect his kinship with Odysseus in an  unflattering way? 

2)  What are the key abstract qualities Laocoon represents, and how might his death be interpreted by an audience who knew what the Horse really was

3)  Why is Aeneas first aware that the Greeks have entered Troy, and why does Virgil use this method of notification?

4)  Why is Deiphobos' house the first to be consumed in flames?  (Remember your Odyssey or wait until Book 6.)  This scene provides Geoffrey Chaucer with one of his most poignant allusions to Virgil in the Troilus, where the dinner party at which Troilus first speaks to his beloved Criseide is held at Deiphobos' palace (Book II: ll. 1393 ff.).

5)  What is Aeneas' first response to the realization that the city is doomed, and how does he describe the emotions felt by him and those with him?  What does Virgil want you to feel as a result of this comparison?

6)  What role do the gods play in the night's events, as far as Aeneas has described them (e.g., re: Cassandra and the others who die at Pallas Athena's altar)?

7)  The death‑scene of Polites (Priam's youngest son) and Priam  is the first instance of a theme in the Aeneid which we have  encountered before in Greek drama.  What does Priam say to  Pyrrhus as Polites bleeds to death between them, and how does  Pyrrhus' reply suggest yet another view of warrior‑heroes (also  see Book I, #4)?  How does this sight affect Aeneas?  With Priam's death scene fresh in your mind, try rereading Percy Bysshe Shelley's, "Ozymandias."  There are many ways to read a poem, and when you are a rebellious English Romantic poet opposed to all forms of monarchical government, even Priam might not seem so sympathetic, but so does Virgil inspire even when he inspires rebels.

8)  What prompts Venus to speak to Aeneas, and how might you interpret that event allegorically?

9)  When Venus speaks to Aeneas during Troy's fall in order to  clarify his mortal vision, what does she enable him to see and  what does that mean?  That is, what is it to see with an immortal's vision, and how might this relate to what Virgil is trying to do for you?  Compare Ovid's project in Metamorphoses.

10)  How does Aeneas attempt to persuade Anchises to leave Troy, and to what previous event does he refer with particular horror?  What convinces Anchises to heed his son's plea to leave Troy,  and where else in Western culture have such signs been taken to  signify someone's great destiny?

11)  Aeneas' departure from Troy requires him to bear an unusual  burden, and to dispose the rest of his family and goods about him  in a very specific order.  What does this tableau mean,  symbolically?  (Compare Book II, #2 above.)

12)  How do you interpret Creusa's loss and Virgil's ambiguous  explanation of what happened to her?  (Also, what scenes from Greek literature is Virgil transforming here?)