Chapter 3: Homer, The Odyssey and Virgil, The Aeneid

This chapter is intended for readers who really liked The Iliad and want to try either—or both—of the other great narrative poems of antiquity, Homer’s Odyssey and Virgil’s Aeneid. Neither of these poems is quite as difficult as The Iliad, and both of them are fun to read. Of course, since almost everyone likes The Odyssey, even those who are not wild about The Iliad should give it a try.

The Odyssey

For many people, The Iliad and The Odyssey seem to go together. After all, they are both by Homer and The Odyssey seems to be a continuation of The Iliad. Of course, the reality is not quite so simple. First, since we are not sure that a person named Homer either wrote the poems or even actually existed, it is dangerous for us to assume that the same person was responsible for both poems, and given the history of oral composition that I described briefly in the last chapter, it is dangerous for us to assume that any single person wrote either of them. Furthermore, The Odyssey is a continuation of The Iliad in only the loosest sense. People tend to remember Odysseus’ spectacular adventures, but those adventures form only a small part of the poem. Those adventures are exciting, but the heart of The Odyssey is elsewhere. Actually there were a number of other poems built around the Troy story, but except for brief fragments, those poems have disappeared.

The Iliad opens by announcing as its subject the wrath of Achilleus and the destruction that resulted from that wrath. Achilleus’ wrath, with all its implications, begins and prolongs the action of that poem, a poem full of wrathful characters who feel compelled to show how heroic they can be in the most traditional sense of heroism. The Odyssey is quite different, as even the opening lines show, for the narrator announces as his subject not wrath or any other quality but a man, “the man of many ways” (again using Richmond Lattimore’s translation). What we see immediately is not the rigidity of Achilleus and his peers but the adaptability of Odysseus, the man of many ways.” Even more important, we are introduced to Odysseus’ intelligence. He may have had fantastic adventures, but what the narrator emphasizes is how much Odysseus learned from them. As we shall see, physical prowess is important in this poem, but it is far less important than mental ability. In addition, while The Iliad focuses on wrath, destruction, and death, The Odyssey focuses on a man, on his wife, on their son, and on life. The Iliad is an epic because it focuses on a pivotal moment in the history of Troy, the moment leading up to its destruction. The Odyssey is a romance because it focuses on individuals and on fantastic adventures.

The Odyssey then focuses on domesticity. Odysseus’ entire purpose in the poem is simply to get home to his wife and son, as he explains to the Phaiakians in Book XIII. He is just a man who wants to get home. He does not talk about how he is the best warrior, how he is superior to others. He does not boast, but his goal turns out to be harder to achieve than we might expect. Achieving it requires Odysseus to learn about himself, about the many roles he (like any other human being) must play in life, and about his wife and child.

In fact, this poem requires that wife, Penelope, and that child, Telemachos, to learn about themselves as well. In this sense, The Odyssey tells three separate stories, not one highly unified story as we see in The Iliad. If we look only at Odysseus, we miss far too much of the poem. Perhaps that is why we never even see Odysseus until Book V, and in our first view of him we see him sitting on Kalypso’s island and weeping over his separation from his loved ones. Yes, our first view of the great hero shows him crying because he cannot get home. The first four books of the poem, and large parts of later books, are devoted to Penelope and Telemachos and their fates.

We must always remember that if Odysseus’ plight—he has been away from home for twenty years, ten at the Trojan War and ten in his wanderings—has been hard on him, it has also been a trial for his family in Ithaka. His wife Penelope, one of the most remarkable women in all of literature, has awaited his homecoming for two decades, during the latter of which she has had to fend off the attentions of the one hundred eight suitors who have moved into her house and consumed the treasures that Odysseus left behind. Through a combination of wiles and intelligence (and often those two are the same thing), she has managed to preserve her independence, though as The Odyssey progresses, it is clear that unless Odysseus returns soon, she is about to lose that independence.

That Penelope’s independence should even be a question, however, is an indication of how remarkable this poem is, for women in ancient Greece had very little independence, and The Odyssey is full of independent women: Athene, Kalypso, Circe, the Sirens, Nausikaa, Helen, and Penelope come immediately to mind, though all but the last three are divine or supernatural. Nonetheless, the emphasis on women is obvious, and these women make important points not only about themselves but about men as well. Circe, for instance, is famous for her ability to change men into pigs, but (dare I say it?), rather than actually transforming them, she only seems to be allowing them to show their real natures. We have ample proof in other episodes that Odysseus’ companions behave like pigs, which means that Circe is just letting them be themselves.

Kalypso, on the other hand, is really taken with Odysseus and offers him immortality if he will stay on her island with her. She presents a major test for Odysseus, who indicates often in this poem that he is deeply concerned with the problems of human mortality; but Odysseus passes this test without a hint of hesitation. He wants only to be home with Penelope. He would rather be home with his by now middle aged wife than to live forever on a tropical island with a beautiful goddess, which is surely a sign of how much he loves that wife.

Athene, too, is a central figure in this poem. This goddess of wisdom is Odysseus’ protector and ally, and time after time we see that Odysseus would rather rely on the intelligence that she represents than on the muscle that he also has in abundance. In fact, it would not be going too far to say that the poem is largely about the uses of intelligence, which invariably triumphs over the more common male attribute of prowess in fighting. Time after time we see the superiority of wisdom over might. Might is a last resort, a lamentable last resort. Even Menelaos in Book IV expresses his regret to Telemachos over the Trojan War and its consequences. Menelaos and Helen, whose passions stood at the center of the war, have become images of domesticity, preparing in Book IV for the wedding of their daughter to the son of Achilleus, though we may sense some troubles beneath the surface. That modest domesticity, coupled with wisdom, is at the center of The Odyssey and brings us back to Penelope, who, despite her husband’s mysterious disappearance, remains faithful to him and outwits the suitors. Furthermore, even when Odysseus reveals himself near the poem’s end, Penelope has one more test for him. He cannot simply announce his return; he must prove himself to the woman who is so clearly his equal in intelligence. As we will see, Odysseus learns much about himself, largely through his encounters with women on his journey, but Penelope has also learned a great deal about herself during his absence.

The other character whose education about self is so important in this poem is Odysseus and Penelope’s son Telemachos. As the poem opens, Telemachos is about twenty years old. He has grown up in the shadow of a famous father whom he has never known, has watched as his mother has been besieged by the suitors, and has been helpless to prevent them from devouring his inheritance. In The Odyssey we watch him turn from a boy into a man, as he begins to assert himself and then allies himself with his returned father. The importance of Telemachos’ story to the poem as a whole can be seen in the way that the poem’s first four books are devoted to him, as well as in the attention that is given to Odysseus himself not only as Telemachos’ father but as his parents’ son. Family relationships are central to this poem.

Early in the poem, Telemachos announces one of the poem’s major themes:

My mother says indeed I am his [Odysseus’]. I for my part
do not know. Nobody really knows his own father. (I.215-16)

James Joyce, in Ulysses, his rewriting of the Odysseus story, refers to this theme as the “mystery of paternity,” but that mystery refers to more than the simple physical relationship between a child and the child’s alleged father. In Telemachos’ case, it refers to his need to define himself without the aid of his absent father, to discover what it means to be not Telemachos, the son of Odysseus, but just Telemachos. This process, which we might think of as the process of becoming an adult, is not easy for the individual involved nor for those around the person. In order to define himself, Telemachos must go on his own journey, visiting Nestor and Menelaos, defying the suitors, and even establishing his power in relation to his mother. In all of these endeavors he is aided by his father’s guardian, Athene, goddess of wisdom, which means that he, too, is wise. Athene convinces him that his father will return, but she convinces him also that he cannot simply wait for that return. He must assert himself and take action on his own. As a result of this maturation, when Odysseus does return, Telemachos can relate to him not just as a son but as an independent person, which is an essential step in growing up.

This development in no way diminishes Telemachos’ attachment to his father. If anything, it strengthens that attachment, because Telemachos is driven not only by what is expected of him as a son but by his own choice. One of the most touching moments in the poem—and there are many such moments, as Odysseus reveals himself to friends and family members—comes when Odysseus reveals himself to Telemachos. Thanks to Athene, Odysseus’ appearance has been altered, so that when he meets Telemachos at the home of the swineherd Eumaios, the son does not recognize the father (whom he would not recognize anyhow), but Odysseus has a chance to see the fine person that his son has become. Finally, when the two of them are alone, Athene restores Odysseus’ appearance and he announces his identity, which Telemachos promptly doubts, until Odysseus says, “No other Odysseus than I will ever come back to you” (XVI.203-04) and the two of them embrace, father and son having proven themselves to each other and having accepted each other on their own terms as individuals. The moment is magical and almost as affecting as the moment when Odysseus reveals himself to Penelope and she tricks him into proving his identity, after which they “gladly went together to bed, and their old ritual” (XXIII.296).

Of course, growing up is never easy, and Telemachos has much to learn. Early in the poem, as he begins to assert himself, he criticizes his mother and tells her, basically, to go back to her room and leave the business of the household to him (I.356-60). He is not exactly delicate with his mother, and modern readers might well find the way he talks to his mother offensive, so we must be aware of the sexism inherent in the culture we are observing. In order to assert himself in front of the suitors, Telemachos, who is reaching male adulthood, must establish himself as independent of and more powerful than his mother. In terms of his society, he is correct to say that the household power is his, which Penelope acknowledges by doing what he says, but which she also laments as she weeps for her missing husband. In another sense, she is proud that Telemachos has asserted himself, though she is sad at the implications of his self-assertion for herself and for what it says about expectations for Odysseus’ return, because it means that another generation has matured and is about to take over.

Elsewhere in the poem, however, Telemachos learns to be more diplomatic in his self-assertion, and despite Telemachos’ harsh words to her, Penelope, as we have seen, is credited with insight and intelligence. The dynamics of this family are working themselves out in difficult circumstances, and it is vital, as we consider Odysseus, to keep in mind the stories of his wife and of his son.

Perhaps we should approach Odysseus first as a son himself, a role that he plays on two particular occasions in the poem. At the very end of the poem, after Odysseus has routed the suitors and been reunited with Penelope, he goes to tell Laertes, his aged father, of his return, but, being Odysseus, he cannot simply approach the old man and say, “Hi, Dad. I’m back.” Although he is greatly affected at seeing how sad and old his father has become over the past twenty years, Odysseus concocts one of his many stories, describing himself as someone who had seen Odysseus only five years before and still hopes for his return. As a result of this speech, his father pours dust over his own head, a sign of mourning. At this point even Odysseus cannot continue the masquerade and he reveals himself, but we are left wondering why Odysseus would behave in such a way. Why, seeing his father after twenty years, does he play a role, making up a new identity for himself? The answer is not that he is a cruel man who enjoys tormenting people. In fact, as we see throughout the poem, Odysseus enjoys inventing identities for himself. He tells stories to Eumaios, to Telemachos, to Penelope, to the Cyclopes—to almost everyone he meets. Some of these stories are told for strategic purposes, because at times Odysseus must not identify himself, but some of them seem to indicate Odysseus’ need constantly to recreate himself, to create an identity for himself, as though he is not entirely secure in who he is.

One of my favorite instances occurs just after Odysseus discovers from a stranger (who is Athene in disguise) that he has awakened in Ithaka, and he identifies himself by telling one of his long fictional stories, full of realistic details and identifiable names, to which Athene basically responds, “Oh come off it. I know who you are” (XIII.291-95). Clearly Athene is fond of Odysseus, who is, after all, her protégé, and she recognizes much of herself in him. In other words, she knows that his deviousness and his deceptive tales, which are signs of his intelligence because he employs them so intelligently, are part of his nature. At the same time, she is telling him that though he may be great at inventing identities, he is no match for her. Simultaneously, then, he is being both praised and put in his place. He can adopt any identity that he likes, says Athene, but she will always know who he is.

We might legitimately wonder, however, whether he always really knows who he is, just as we may wonder whether we always really know who we are or whether, like Odysseus, we constantly go through a process of reinventing ourselves.

That question is raised not only by the many stories Odysseus tells and the many disguises he wears (some of them the work of Athene) but by the well-known adventures that he describes to the Phaiakians. Perhaps his most famous adventure, his encounter with the Cyclopes, illustrates this point best. The Cyclopes are a savage group who have developed no societal structure. Furthermore, their possession of a single eye in the middle of their foreheads indicates a lack of depth perception, a deficiency that is both physical and intellectual. In order to deal with such barbaric creatures, Odysseus must deny not only who he is but what he is, so that when Polyphemos asks his name, he answers, “Nobody” (in Greek, Outis). This may seem to us like a fairly primitive trick, and we may laugh at Polyphemos for falling for it, but it has a deeper meaning for The Odyssey. By denying his identity, by saying that he is “Nobody,” he succeeds in saving most of his men, as well as himself. And when he does assert his true self by yelling out his name as they depart the Cyclopes’ island, he dooms his men and condemns himself to more years away from home. The point that is made in this episode, and throughout much of the poem, is that identity, selfhood, can be dangerous. It must be understood and controlled. Consequently, Odysseus must even visit the Underworld, where he learns of his future—that his death will come from the sea—and where he meets his mother, who has died from grief during his absence, because he was such a good son and because she loved him so much. His love for his mother, his identity as a good son, has killed her. In short, everything we do, the good and the bad, has unforeseen consequences. The poet always comments on the ironies of human existence.

It should be obvious now that every part of the poem—every character, every episode—contributes to the overall effect of the poem. Nothing is extraneous and nothing is out of place, though we as readers must often exercise our own intelligence to see and understand the connections. In this sense, this three thousand-year-old poem is interactive, as literature tends to be. It shows us the stories of Penelope, Telemachos, and Odysseus, but we as modern readers must put those stories together, see where they lead us.

Usually a writer will help us in this task. A writer may focus on particular words or images to stress a point, or a writer may repeat particular kinds of scenes with significant variations, as we saw in The Iliad. In The Odyssey, the poet helps us by having numerous characters refer to yet another story, one that seems at first to have nothing to do with Odysseus, the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming. This story would have been known to the earliest audience of The Odyssey, but we may need to be reminded of it.

After the Achaians’ victory at Troy, most of the leading warriors had trouble with their homecomings. Many, in fact, died before they could return home, and in the course of The Odyssey we hear about the fates of Nestor, Aias, Menelaos, and others. Most prominent, however, is the story of Agamemnon, who reached home relatively easily, only to be killed almost immediately by his wife Klytaimestra and her lover Aigisthos, the latter of whom was killed several years later by Agamemnon’s son Orestes. (Some three centuries after The Odyssey was completed, the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote a trilogy of play, The Oresteaid, based on this story. The focus of Aeschylus’ works, as well as numerous elements of the plot, is quite different from what we see in The Odyssey, though like all the Greek tragedies, they are well worth reading.) The story of Agamemnon is referred to prominently by Athene in Book I, by Nestor in Book III, by Menelaos in Book IV, by the occupants of the Underworld (including Agamemnon himself) in Book XI, and by Odysseus in Book XIII). Why? Clearly this story stands in sharp contrast to most of The Odyssey. Agamemnon, as we saw in The Iliad is a man of force and brutality, but his physical power counts for little when he returns home. His return itself is without obstacles, and he learns nothing from his experiences, unlike Odysseus, whose return is difficult but provides him a vital education. Klytaimestra has hardly been faithful during Agamemnon’s absence and she plays an active role in his death, whereas Penelope remains faithful throughout Odysseus’ doubly long absence. (Of course, unlike Odysseus, Agamemnon came home with a captured woman, Kassandra, whom Klytaimestra also killed. Agamemnon really is not terribly bright.) And Telemachos joins his father in combatting their enemies, while Orestes was forced to seek vengeance on his own. The characters in Odysseus’ household all learn to subordinate their selfish desires to the greater good of the family, whereas in Agamemnon’s household each character operates independently, rather like the Cyclopes, looking out only for him or herself. In fact, the two stories once again return us to the question of identity by focusing our attention on how these characters behave and why they do so. It is revealing that the ghost of Agamemnon tells Odysseus what he learned from his bloody homecoming, that women are untrustworthy. Still the same old introspective Agamemnon that we saw in The Iliad. He contrasts sharply with Odysseus, who learns so much from his adventures, including that he absolutely must trust women.

There is one other aspect of The Odyssey that should be covered in this brief introduction, the role of the bards. There are a number of bards who appear in the poem, the most important of whom are Demodokos, the bard of the Phaiakians, and Phemios, the bard in Odysseus’ house. There are a number of reasons that a reader should pay close attention to these bards. One is that they give us an idea of how a Homeric poet might have operated. After meals, the bards are brought in to recite in poetic form the exploits of some hero, providing what we would call after-dinner entertainment. It is especially interesting that Demodokos is blind, since Homer (if such a person existed) was reputed to be blind. In fact, bards in oral cultures tend not to be blind, but literate cultures assume that only blind people would be able to memorize so much poetry. Of course, as I explained in the chapter on The Iliad, we are not really talking about memorization but oral composition. Another thing that is important about the bards concerns Odysseus directly. While he is with the hospitable Phaiakians, in disguise, Demodokos tells a story about Odysseus. That is, Odysseus has become a hero, the subject of heroic poetry, in his own lifetime. Odysseus, who has been cut off from society for so many years, is shocked to realize that he has become the stuff of legend. So moved is he that he weeps (again). What Homer has done here is to create a fascinating mirror effect, a meta-narrative: within a poem about Odysseus, we see the creation of a poem about Odysseus. Odysseus becomes the audience to his own story, just as we become the audience to this story, which, as it relates to human identity, to the vicissitudes of human existence, is also our story.

Finally, we see the honor that is paid to the bards. Poets love to write about the importance of poetry, naturally, and the poet might well be exaggerating the role of the bards, but it is clear that Demodokos is a respected member of the court who receives all sorts of special considerations. And Phemios, who is accused of collusion with the suitors back in Ithaka, is given the benefit of the doubt and spared. Perhaps the poet is simply glorifying poets, but more likely what we see is how important poets were to the society that produced these poems.

I have tried to make this discussion of The Odyssey shorter and less detailed than the discussion of The Iliad, partly because reading The Iliad is itself a preparation for reading The Odyssey and partly because The Odyssey presents fewer problems for modern readers, who tend to be more familiar with romance than with epic. There are fewer battle scenes, Odysseus’ adventures are already well-known, and the poem is set on a smaller scale. It still has cosmic overtones, but not to the same extent as The Iliad. However foreign The Odyssey might be to us, its domestic concerns, as well as Odysseus’ adventures, still resonate. He just wants to get home, to be with his wife and son and the loyal members of his household. He, like Achilleus, is aware of the dark side of human life, and he knows after his visit to the Underworld that he is fated to go wandering yet again, but we all know that human happiness is fleeting. What The Odyssey confirms for us is that human happiness is a possibility that can be found in the mundane.

Incidentally, for readers who really like The Odyssey, there are two modern works based on it that may be of interest. One is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and the other, loosely related to The Odyssey, is Derek Walcott’s beautiful and effective Omeros.

The Aeneid

I am including a few pages here on Virgil’s Aeneid because I know that readers who have finished The Iliad and The Odyssey will want to read this third great poem of adventure from antiquity. That last sentence can be a bit misleading, however. It is easy for us to think of these three poems dating from antiquity as being almost contemporaneous, but we must remember that the Aeneid was written, that is, it was composed with pen and ink, between seven and eight hundred years after the other two were finally written down. Eight hundred years is a relatively long time. Imagine if someone today wrote a series of laws to accompany the Magna Carta, which was written in 1215. So many things about our world have changed that it would seem silly to do so. Between about 800 BCE and Virgil’s death in 19 BCE, many things had also changed. Greece was no longer a major power (though it was still a major influence), but Rome was in the process of becoming an empire. Greek ideals had been transformed into Roman ideals. Oral culture had largely been replaced by written culture in many areas. Ideas about heroism had changed. Even ideas about Troy had changed, since the Romans considered themselves descendants of Trojan warriors and could hardly be expected to feel sympathy for the Greeks, whom they were still in the process of displacing. So The Aeneid is a very different poem from its two most famous predecessors, even though in so many ways it is based on those earlier poems.

Before we get to The Aeneid itself, a bit of history is in order. In the third century BCE, a struggle began for control of the Mediterranean. The city that won this struggle would have the opportunity to develop great wealth and power. The contestants were Rome, a city that had developed prominence and power in Italy, and Carthage, a city in that part of North Africa that is now Tunisia. In the three Punic Wars (which took place over a span of one hundred twenty years) Rome soundly defeated Carthage and was launched on its way toward become the empire that we know.

But the road toward empire was not smooth, and the history of Rome in the first century BCE is the history of external conquests and internal power struggles. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, civil war broke out, with Marc Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavius on one side and the assassins, led by Brutus, on the other. After Brutus was defeated, there was further war between Antony and Octavian, until finally Octavian was victorious and established himself as Augustus, the sole ruler over what had become a vast empire. Under Augustus, relative peace broke out, order was restored to everyday life, and the arts flourished. Among the poets who wrote during the reign of Augustus were Horace, Ovid (who was eventually exiled from Rome for having somehow offended the emperor), and, perhaps the greatest of all, Virgil.

Virgil’s earliest poems are The Eclogues, a series of poems that describe the lives, conversations, and poetry of a group of ostensible shepherds. I hope I am not insulting shepherds when I say that real shepherds have never behaved the way Virgil’s shepherds do (though Virgil helped to set the example that pastoral poetry would follow even into our own time). These shepherds are eloquent, philosophical, and deeply concerned with issues that were vital to the developing empire. Actually, Virgil was using isolated country settings to confront important issues that concerned him throughout his life. The same is true, though even less directly, about his next work, The Georgics. But his greatest achievement was The Aeneid, on which he was still working when he died. In fact, on his deathbed he is reputed to have asked that the manuscript be destroyed, though no one is quite sure why. One theory is that the poem was not finished—we can tell that it is unfinished because there are a number of lines that are metrically incorrect and it is likely that Virgil would have corrected them had he lived. Some readers also think that the poem stops without a conclusion, that it seems to end in the middle of an episode. Supposedly Virgil would have supplied a more appropriate conclusion had he lived. As I will show, I agree with those who think that the poem ends exactly as it is supposed to end. Yet another possibility is that Virgil realized that the poem is not the unalloyed praise of the new empire that Augustus and other Romans expected. Certainly the poem does praise Rome and its emperor, but it also contains pointed warnings about what the empire could become. Virgil could see clearly enough that in the greatness of Rome lay the seeds of its destruction, and he tried to warn his contemporaries so that they could emphasize the good and guard against the flaws that were inherent in Rome. Perhaps on his deathbed he worried about how that approach would be viewed. We simply do not know what he was thinking. We can only be thankful that his wishes were not carried out and the poem survived.

Until relatively recently, when Latin ceased to be a required language for virtually anyone who claimed to be educated, The Aeneid was one of the most extensively read and influential poems in history. Even if students did not love it, they read it. The Latin is relatively easy and the story is good. In the Middle Ages, the poem was given Christian readings (though Virgil had died in 19 BCE). At times it was even a custom that when a person had a problem or an important decision to make, he (it was usually a he) would open The Aeneid at random and point to a line at random and then interpret that line as an answer to the problem. In the early fourteenth century, Dante used Virgil as his guide through Hell and most of Purgatory in The Divine Comedy. Virgil continued to influence authors of epics (or mock epics or near epics) well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Henry Fielding’s novel Amelia is heavily indebted to The Aeneid, as are scenes from numerous other works. There are also operas based on the poem, like Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz’ Les Troyens.

Why has this poem exercised such power for so long? As I already mentioned, it tells a good story, full of romance, adventure, and memorable scenes and characters. It also raises a number of questions that have continued to engage people’s minds over the two thousand years since it was written. Virgil may have used The Iliad and The Odyssey, but he gave them his own stamp. Even in the poem’s first words, Virgil announces his debt to Homer: “Arma virumque cano,” I sing of arms and of a man (in Allen Mandelbaum’s translation). The first six of the poem’s twelve books are about Aeneas and his adventures as he sets out from Troy and ultimately arrives in Italy. In this section of the poem he is like Odysseus, even to the extent of repeating several of Odysseus’ adventures. In this section as well Virgil focuses on Aeneas as “a man,” referring back to the opening line of The Odyssey. In the second half of the poem, in which we see Aeneas’ struggle to establish himself in Italy, we focus more on the “arms,” and this section of the poem recalls The Iliad. Thus Virgil has combined these two great poems to create his own masterpiece, but he has done so in order to explore in his own terms what it means to be a Roman, what it means to be Aeneas, what it means to be a human being.

The Aeneid, like The Odyssey, begins in the middle of the action, tells a bit of the story, and then goes back to the beginning of the story and continues to the end. After a brief introduction, we see Aeneas and his men caught in a storm at sea and shipwrecked at Carthage, where Aeneas meets Dido, tells her his story, falls in love with her, and then leaves (a point to which we will return). He visits the Underworld and then proceeds to Italy, where he becomes involved in a war to establish his right to stay there. That is the story. We have now to see what Virgil did with it.

From the very beginning, the narrator tells us that Aeneas is a remarkably good man who is being tormented by Juno. Throughout the poem, Juno, queen of the gods and goddess of marriage, stands for the irrational, the illogical, those aspects of the world that disrupt life without seeming to make any kind of sense. Her husband Jove (or Jupiter) is her opposite, but, even though he is all-powerful, he often lets her have her own way. The other important deity in the poem is Venus, goddess of love, mother of Aeneas, and of special importance to Rome. (Roma, the Latin name of Rome, spelled backwards is Amor, the Latin for love!) Unfortunately for Aeneas, Venus and Juno are deadly enemies, to the extent that goddesses can be deadly enemies. At any rate, they do not like each other. This enmity between the goddess of marriage and the goddess of love does tell us something about how the ancients regarded love and marriage: as we see in the poem, love and marriage are in no way connected.

Exactly why does Juno hate Aeneas? As we learn at the beginning of the poem, Juno feels a special affection for Carthage, and she knows that Aeneas is destined to establish Rome, which will overcome and displace Carthage. From a Roman point of view, her irrationality appears in two ways here: she irrationally favors Carthage over Rome and she irrationally believes that she can counter fate. This mixture of motives is itself proof that Juno’s hatred is basically irrational, but of course Aeneas’ innocence does nothing to ease his suffering, of which there is plenty. Thus The Aeneid, though it is about the triumph of Aeneas and of Rome, is ultimately a very sad work. As he moves toward his military triumph, Aeneas is forced to abandon everything that is important to him—love, family, friends, repose. He becomes increasingly isolated and tied to his sense of duty, and he becomes less rounded, more one-dimensional.

Throughout the poem, Aeneas is referred to as “pius Aeneas.” The Latin “pius” means more than we mean when we say “pious.” It does mean godfearing, but it also means something like religiously and morally upstanding. As the story progresses, Aeneas realizes that he has duties to carry out and those duties are more important than his own happiness. Those duties are presented most poignantly in two separate episodes. The first occurs in Aeneas’ description of the fall of Troy. Having been surprised by the ruse of the Trojan horse, the Trojans are being routed by the Greek forces. In the chaos created by the fire, fighting, and panic, Aeneas, who knows that the battle has been lost, becomes separated from his wife Creusa. When he tries to find her, he finds only her ghost, who briefly predicts his future and disappears. And when Aeneas finally does escape from Troy, he does so leading his young son by the hand and carrying his aged father on his back. In this sequence, we see first the beginning of the process by which Aeneas is gradually cut off from Troy and from family affection. There is little from his past in Troy that he can take with him into this future. This point is emphasized by the image of him with his father and his son. He bears his father, symbol of the past, on his back, and leads his son, symbol of the future, by the hand. In a sense, he offers simply a connection between the past, Troy, and the future, Rome, and in that role he must continually become depersonalized, especially after the death of his father, when he himself becomes the symbol of both the past and the present. Furthermore, his love for his wife, whom he seeks frantically in the falling city, shows him to be a passionate man who cares deeply for those around him, and his sorrow at losing her is quite moving.

We can see this point being carried further in the most famous episode of the poem, the story of Dido and Aeneas in Book IV. At first glance, Dido and Aeneas would seem to be a nearly perfect couple. Both are powerful leaders, both have been exiled from their native lands, both have been widowed. Moreover, they like each other. Unfortunately, there are a number of obstacles in their way, primarily fate—Dido is fated to found Carthage and Aeneas to found Rome. Juno and Venus, patron goddesses of those cities, try to outmaneuver each other in defense of their cities, and Dido and Aeneas are their victims. These two tragic figures are allowed to fall in love because Juno hopes to keep Aeneas in Carthage, away from Rome, but the status of their love is highly ambiguous. When they go out hunting, they are trapped in a cave during a thunderstorm. There they consummate their love. Such love is the realm of Venus. The problem that will arise is whether this lovemaking constitutes an actual marriage, the realm of Juno. Dido thinks it does, but the narrator implies that she thinks so only in order to justify the lovemaking. Clearly Virgil has made this situation intentionally ambiguous: Dido and Aeneas are in love, but Dido considers them married and Aeneas does not. I can hear readers, at least some of them, muttering, “How typical!” but Aeneas is not simply ignoring his responsibility or commitment. He actually loves Dido and he sees in Carthage a chance to put his life back together. Consequently, when Jove sends Mercury to tell him that he must leave Carthage, that he has a duty to fulfill in founding Rome, he is reluctant to go, though he eventually does. But he leaves not on a whim, not because he lacks commitment to Dido. He leaves because the gods order him to. If Aeneas errs in this situation, he does so only in not telling Dido that he must leave until she confronts him, at which point he is honest with her, expressing his view that they are not married and telling her that he is leaving against his will.

Opinions about Aeneas’ behavior at this point have varied considerably over the centuries. Many readers have taken Dido’s part and been highly critical of Aeneas. (See Dido’s letter to Aeneas in Ovid’s Heroides for an example.) For these readers, Aeneas is the epitome of the unfaithful lover, the seducer who abandons his helpless lover. Other readers have accepted Aeneas’ explanation that he is powerless, since he must follow the orders of the gods. I side with the latter argument, not because Aeneas’ behavior is admirable but because he does it so clearly against his own wishes. Having lost his beloved wife, his city, his father, and many of his companions, Aeneas would like nothing better than to settle down with Dido, to live in peace. Of course, as a result of their love, work on building Carthage has stopped, so their love is not an unalloyed blessing for either side. Aeneas, however, must fulfill his destiny, regardless of how painful that destiny may be. His duty to Rome must take precedence over everything else in his life.

Virgil is here talking about what it means to be a Roman: it means responsibility rather than privilege, self-sacrifice rather than self-aggrandizement. Personal happiness cannot be as important as the welfare of the empire. Or can it? For Virgil is not merely declaring that Romans must sacrifice all for the empire. Perhaps he is also questioning whether that is the case. Not only must Aeneas abandon Dido, but he must also, when he arrives in Italy, marry Lavinia, who may, for all we know, be a delightful young woman but who is presented in the poem as virtually without a personality. Aeneas’ marriage will be based not on passion but on the needs of Rome.

This picture of what it means to be a Roman is ambivalent, as, I suspect, Virgil meant it to be. On the one hand it demonstrates the importance of the empire and the virtue of duty to the empire. Being responsible for an empire, being a Roman, requires a particular kind of selflessness. On the other hand, that duty to the empire hurts people: in this situation it hurts Dido, it hurts Aeneas, and in the course of the poem it hurts numerous other characters. What is the solution? Virgil offers no solution, since one purpose of literature is to raise questions at least as much as it is to offer answers. Clearly the empire is vitally important to Virgil. He sees it as a means of civilizing the world by bringing law and order. In Book VI, when Aeneas visits the Underworld, his father shows him a vision of Rome’s future. Aeneas sees Augustus, the emperor who will restore the golden age to Rome. A golden age—this is the promise of Rome. But are people willing, and should they be willing, to pay the price for that promise? After all, Aeneas sacrifices almost everything and in return receives only the prediction of Roman glory. As a character, as an individual human being, he gradually disappears from the poem. If that is what Rome demands, it is a heavy price, but not to pay it is to go against the gods. It is to dally with Dido while neither city is being built.

And what are Aeneas’ alternatives? He could, of course, die, as so many Trojans did, but death is hardly a solution. Or he could do what Helenus and Andromache do, in one of the saddest episodes of the poem. As Aeneas wanders around the Mediterranean looking for the land that has been promised him, he finds a city being ruled by Helenus, a son of Priam, and Andromache, the widow of Hektor. This city is a replica of Troy, with its tower, its gates, and its river. Troy may have been destroyed, but here it has been recreated, although this re-creation differs significantly from its original in being much smaller and in having a little stream instead of a great river. At first Aeneas is happy to see this little Troy. Being there is like being home again. But it is not the same as being home: this Troy is a miniature. It mimes rather than replaces the real city. Helenus and Andromache are stuck in the past. So tied are they to Troy that they are willing to dwell in this poor reproduction of Troy. Aeneas knows that he cannot go home again, that Troy is gone forever, and that he must move not in the direction of the past but of the future, even if that future is uncertain and frightening. He carried his father on his back as a burden, but he led his son by the hand into the future.

So Aeneas has no other choice. He has his duty, which has been dictated to him by the gods and by fate, and he must fulfill that duty without hesitation or complaint. It is for this reason that as the poem progresses, Aeneas becomes so much less human. He represents the philosophy of Stoicism, or that aspect of it that called on human beings to carry out their duties in the face of adversities without showing human passions. Stoicism is in many ways an admirable doctrine, but, as the end of The Aeneid shows, it is not always a doctrine that human beings can follow. Whether they should try is another question altogether.

I should note that the second half of The Aeneid, the half that is more like The Iliad, is not as well known as the first half. The first half contains more separate adventures, and though Aeneas may lack Odysseus’ panache as he experiences or recalls those adventures, the stories themselves are gripping and moving. In the second half of the poem, however, we have the fight for Italy and all the complications that accompany it. That aspect of the story is not so vital to modern readers, though the issues that Virgil confronts in the second half are vital and often relate to issues that were raised in the first six books. I will not summarize the plot except to say that many of Aeneas’ troubles continue to be the result of Juno’s enmity, which has become even stronger (if that is possible) since the death of Dido. One of Juno’s main tools for trying to thwart Aeneas is Turnus, who was the king of the Rutulians, one of the peoples who lived in Italy, and who was originally supposed to marry Lavinia. Since Aeneas is destined to rule Italy and wed Lavinia, we might be able to understand why Turnus is more than a little upset at this arrival and opposes him as much as he can, but, though Turnus is clearly the enemy in the poem, he is not presented as a thoroughly villainous person. He is, if one word can be used to describe him, outdated. His notions of heroism are old-fashioned, right out of The Iliad perhaps. He is not prepared to meet the future, which is represented by the arrival of Aeneas, and he launches a suicidal war in a fruitless attempt to preserve the values of the past. Those values, Virgil implies, may once have been admirable, but the future belongs to Rome, with its potential for good (and with its potential for abusing its power as well).

This opposition is evident throughout the poem’s last six books, but it is especially obvious in Book XII. In that book both Turnus and Aeneas, under the influence of war, become vicious killers. Turnus is compared to a bull preparing to fight, and Aeneas becomes associated with brutal slaughter and violence (just as Rome would be). Finally, as Aeneas and Turnus face each other in the poem’s climactic battle, Jove and Juno settle the heavenly aspect of the conflict. Juno at long last recognizes that Aeneas must triumph, and she asks only that the Latin language and certain native customs be preserved. Jove grants her wishes—Rome will not be simply a re-established Troy but it will combine the finest qualities of the Trojans and the native Latins—and Juno withdraws her opposition. At this point, Turnus is doomed to lose, even though the final battle has become unnecessary. The only significant question remaining is what form his loss will take, and the answer to that question brings the poem to its conclusion in a cloud of uncertainty.

As the battle progresses, Aeneas brings Turnus to his knees with a cast of his spear. At this point, everyone knows that the battle is essentially over, and Turnus appeals to Aeneas for mercy, concluding his moving speech with a plea that Aeneas will abandon hatred. In the face of this plea, Aeneas hesitates. Why should he kill Turnus, who has admitted defeat? Aeneas has been victorious and it would make political sense to spare Turnus, to show that he can be as merciful in victory as he can be fierce in battle; but then, as he is on the verge of agreeing, he sees the belt that Turnus is wearing, the belt that Turnus took after his earlier victory over the young warrior Pallas, who was dear to Aeneas. Aeneas responds wrathfully, then stabs Turnus in the chest, and the poem ends with Turnus’ soul hastening to the Underworld.

That’s it. There is no more. No wonder that people think the poem is unfinished. What kind of a conclusion is that? In fact it is a very clever conclusion, for it ends the poem by posing some of the key problems that faced Rome in Virgil’s time. Aeneas’ response to Turnus is clearly not a Stoic response. Although it might seem reasonable for him to kill Turnus, he makes his decision not on the basis of reason but out of passion. Even “pius Aeneas,” the great forefather and exemplar of Rome, cannot always act according to the dictates of Stoicism. What does that conclusion say about those lesser mortals who were Virgil’s contemporaries? If even Aeneas is overcome by his ferocity and his passions, how well will the Romans of the empire behave with the most powerful army in the world? Will they be the masters of themselves and of their power or will they lose themselves and become the slaves of their own might? I frame these points as questions because Virgil, by ending the poem as he does, raises the questions. We must account for Aeneas’ behavior not simply because we have to know about Aeneas but because we have to know about what Aeneas represents, the ideals of Rome. If Aeneas fails, what are the prospects for Rome?

These questions have been inherent in the poem from the beginning. For instance, when Neptune calms the seas after the storm that opens Book I, Virgil compares him to a righteous man who can control the passions of a rebellious, rock-throwing mob. The very oddness of that comparison calls our attention to it, to the use of reason to overcome passion, and to the existence of rebellious mobs in Virgil’s Rome. Throughout the poem Virgil draws our attention to such problems, and we know from the history of the Roman Empire that Virgil saw clearly into both the virtues and the potential failings of that empire. We should hardly be surprised that medieval readers thought of him as a prophet.

There is one more episode that I would like to comment on briefly, Aeneas’ voyage to the Underworld in Book VI. At this point in the poem, Aeneas visits the Underworld so he can receive further instructions from his father, and Virgil is clearly imitating Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld in The Odyssey. But Aeneas’ visit is quite different from Odysseus’. Aside from the more highly developed picture of an Underworld that Virgil presents, there is another significant difference. Odysseus, on his visit, learns much about himself—about his role in his mother’s death, about his ultimate fate, and about his way home to domestic bliss. Aeneas learns about the doctrine of reincarnation and is told about the future history of Rome. All that is important here is the future of Rome, and the only indication that Aeneas has any important individuality comes when he sees the ghosts of the Greek warriors, who flee before him, and when he sees the ghost of Dido, who rejects his attempts at explanation and also flees from him. Otherwise his individuality is entirely subordinated to the cause of Rome.

Another interesting aspect of Book VI is the way it encapsulates the whole poem. It unites the human and the superhuman, and it even includes one character, the Sibyl, who entered the Roman Catholic liturgy in the hymn called the “Dies Irae.” Book VI, like the poem as a whole, focuses on Aeneas’ duty and on his fate. It proclaims the future of Rome in glorious terms, and it tempers that glory by culminating in a description of the sadness of human life. This mixture of glory and melancholy typifies The Aeneid. In Book VI, Aeneas’ father Anchises describes the great heroes of Roman history—Romulus, Numa, Caesar, Augustus (a bit of flattery there)—but then Aeneas notices one despondent spirit and Anchises explains that this is the ghost of Marcellus, Augustus’ nephew, who, despite his many natural gifts and the promise he holds for Rome, is destined to die young. As always in The Aeneid, the promise of Roman glory is suffused with an air of sadness, of promises that cannot be fulfilled.

And just as Book XII ends on a puzzling note, so does Book VI. When Aeneas leaves the Underworld, he finds two gates. One is made of horn, and through “true Shades” can enter the world. The other is made of polished ivory, and through that gate false dreams enter the world. When Aeneas leaves the Underworld, his father sends him through the ivory gate, the gate of false dreams. Why? Is Virgil casting doubt on the veracity of his vision of Roman history? No one knows for sure why Virgil took this step, though interpretations abound, but the concluding passage about Marcellus and the exit through the gate of false dreams certainly subdue the chauvinism of the rest of the book. Like the end of Book XII, the end of Book VI is an undiluted warning to Virgil’s contemporaries. And like so much in this poem, it brings in that eternal note of sadness, of potential failure, that is such an integral part of the poem.

If Virgil’s Aeneid contained only praise for Rome and the glorification of Aeneas, it would be a far lesser poem. It was part of Virgil’s genius that he could write so honestly about the city he loved. We can only be grateful that his dying wish to have his poem destroyed was not followed.

The Middle Ages

Although no works from the Middle Ages are covered in this volume, readers can find similar chapters on a number of medieval works in my earlier book Reading the Middle Ages (Jefferson, NC.: McFarland, 2003).