Monday, December 02, 2002

One of the members of my ancient Rome discussion group nominated Vergil as the greatest Roman that ever lived even if his Aeneid was basically a restatement of exisiting myth. About his "restatement of existing myth" though, I would like to share some distinct differences between The Aeneid and the Homeric epics explained by Professor Vandiver in my audio course on the Aeneid.

Professor Vandiver pointed out that The Aeneid was obviously modeled after the Homeric epics with the first six books modeled after The Odyssey and the last six books modeled after The Illiad. However, The Aeneid's goal was to stress the importance of service to the society (a very Roman concept) as opposed to the actions of an individual. In fact, the role of fate is stressed as a key theme in The Aeneid in contrast to the Homeric epics. This concept seems to have been common in Roman society as many leaders (including Julius Caesar) considered their successes a result of favor by the goddess Fortuna.

Another key difference was the character of Aeneas himself. Aeneas is characterized as a "man noted for pietas", a laudable Roman ideal, unlike the Greeks of Homer's Illiad who were guilty of the most despicable violations of social morality (rape of Cassandra in the temple of Athena, the murder of Priam at the household altar, the human sacrifice of the 12 Trojan youths at the funeral of Patroklos, the sacrifice of one of Priam's daughters at their departure).

In Books II and III, Professor Vandiver points out that Odysseus' narrative in the Odyssey focuses on his own cleverness and skill in avoiding death while Aeneas' focuses on the sorrows he has endured and the responsiblity imposed on him by fate. Although, in some ways, Aeneas retraces Odysseus' steps, "this [The Aeneid] is not simply a Roman Odyssey; the focus in on Aeneas' destiny as the ancestor of the Roman people, not on his adventures as an individual hero."

In Book IV, Vergil relates the events surrounding the Trojans in Carthage. Vandiver explains that the relationship with the Carthaginian queen Dido is the first example of the cost of Rome for those Aeneas meets and provides a background to explain the historical enmity between Rome and Carthage.

In Book V, the funeral games held to celebrate the anniversary of Aeneas' father's death are modeled on the funeral games of Patroklos but they are also meant to provide a background to the Roman tradition of the lusus Troiae (Trojan games) that were reinstituted by Augustus, Vergil's patron.

Aeneas' "nequia" or journey to the underworld in Book VI is far more descriptive than Odysseus' visit. Furthermore, Odysseus does not actually descend into the Underworld. The ghosts he encounters come out to speak to him. Aeneas actually enters the underworld guided by the Cumaean Sibyl, who actively assists him. Here the Roman audience are given very detailed descriptions of the Fields of Mourning, the region for spirits renowned in war, examples of the punishments in Tartaros and beautiful descriptions of the "Blessed Groves" or Elysium. The "Pageant of Heros" gives the Roman audience a recounting of the great Romans and their deeds and includes a statement about Roman skills and virtues - stressed as social values of the Roman people rather than emphasized as individual achievements.

Books VII and VIII bring Aeneas to the future site of Rome and introduces him to Pallas, a friend that will become as dear as Patroklos was to Achilles. Here Aeneas receives his shield from Vulcan but the scenes depicted on it are not generic like Achilles but specific, including a depiction of the Battle of Actium.

Books IX and X are considered the most "Illiadic" section of the Aeneid but here the Trojans are inverted to parallel Greek characters and the Latin Turnus takes on the role of Hector.

Books XI and XII conclude the Aeneid with the famous battle scene between Aeneas and Turnus. However, it is Turnus who has violated the truce. Aeneas actively attempts to prevent further hostilities unlike Achilles who will not be satisfied until he has slain Hector.

Vergil truly gave us a treasure in the Aeneid and to think that on his death bed he asked that it be burned because it wasn't finished!