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Homer And Virgil
Comparative Analysis of the Aeneid, Odyssey, and Iliad
The Iliad and the Odyssey are two of the best Greek epics written by Homer. Despite their popularity, almost nothing is known about the author beyond the existence of his masterpieces. Surprisingly enough no concrete evidence of his existence is available; not even to confirm the same person created the two works. The authorship of the Iliad and the Odyssey were debated even in the times of the ancient Greeks. Many scholars have argued that Homer did not compose the Iliad and the Odyssey; only compiled over the centuries by many different storytellers.
Certainly, it is known that the stories that comprise these two works come from a long mythological tradition. The Iliad in particular, is an especially well documented oral tradition, and its stories would have been quite familiar to Homer's audiences before the epic was written down. Interestingly, the style of the Iliad, its similarity to the Odyssey, cast of characters and their portrayal all support the belief that they were the work of a one author, who took familiar stories and worked them into two major works. Should this have happened, it was likely around the eighth century B.C.
This puts the third work to be discussed, the Aeneid just a little over seven centuries younger than the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Aeneid written by Virgil, the best known of Roman poets. Shortly after finishing Georgics, a long poem on farming, he began his masterwork, the Aeneid, the story of the founding of Rome. The Aeneid took eleven years to complete, and even then Virgil did not consider the epic fit for publication. At his death, he ordered the destruction of the Aeneid. However, Emperor Augustus intervened and, to the great benefit of Western culture, had the poem published.
Politically speaking, Virgil lived at the height of the first age of the Roman Empire-- during the reign of Augustus. Luckily enough, he gained the favor of Augustus therefore the Aeneid serves to legitimize the reign of this benefactor. In establishing the foundations of Rome, Virgil often foreshadows the eventual rule of Augustus, perhaps to placate critics who claimed that the emperor ruled because of treachery. To use fate as an explanation for changes in leadership was an easy way to justify the rule of Augustus. Despite the definite political leanings the Aeneid has, it is still a great epic poem.
Virgil’s popularity soared throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. He inspired many poets such as Dante, and Milton in English. However, there has been a different trend in modern society. Virgil is now often times compared to Homer, the conclusion being that Homer is superior to Virgil. Furthermore, Virgil himself often was inspired by Homer.
There are several large differences between the Odyssey and the Iliad and the Aeneid. Homer was a master of ironic tragedy; therefore his two works are both tragedies, albeit adventures. The Aeneid however, is not a tragedy as the main character is destined to succeed unlike the protagonists in the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Aeneid begins and ends with parallels to the Iliad, using references to Troy and her people:
The Iliad starts off with:
“I sing of warfare and a man at war.
From the sea- coast of Troy in early days
He came to Italy by destiny
To our Lavinian western shore….”
And finishes with:
“In deep suspense the Trojan seem'd to stand,
And, just prepar'd to strike, repress'd his hand.
He roll'd his eyes, and ev'ry moment felt
His manly soul with more compassion melt;
When, casting down a casual glance, he spied
The golden belt that glitter'd on his side,
The fatal spoils which haughty Turnus tore
From dying Pallas, and in triumph wore.
Then, rous'd anew to wrath, he loudly cries
(Flames, while he spoke, came flashing from his eyes):
Traitor, dost thou, dost thou to grace pretend,
Clad, as thou art, in trophies of my friend?
To his sad soul a grateful off'ring go!
'T is Pallas, Pallas gives this deadly blow.
He rais'd his arm aloft, and, at the word,
Deep in his bosom drove the shining sword.
The streaming blood distain'd his arms around,
And the disdainful soul came rushing thro' the wound.”
(Please note that the latter quote is from a different translation of the Aeneid by John Dryden.)
In a manner of speaking, the Aeneid is sandwiched between elements taken directly from Homer; thus it is inviting us to consider Virgil's poetry in light of Homer's. The Aeneid is both praise to the Homer’s style—if indeed imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. By imitating it Virgil attempts to further develop the style. This directly correlates with the Roman desire to imitate the Greeks in terms of art and religion. As mentioned before, Virgil does not have the Iliad's irony. Of course, the Aeneid is not truly a tragedy. The man Aeneas is destined to succeed and found Rome and the structure is unconventional in that Aeneas is not the absolute dominant in the story. From the very beginning of the poem, when Aeneas flees Troy, thus tying back to Homer and the Greeks, his character seems somewhat displaced. He does not have the driving desire Odysseus possessed since it was not by his choice he moved away from his home city. Because of this, he finds many homes along the way until he is compelled by his fate to move on. It is ironic that Aeneas, who has no ambition, has a destiny to become great while Odysseus does not.
There are also many similarities between the three works. With the exception of the Iliad, the Odyssey and the Aeneid both describe the trials of a heroic figure who is the ideal representative of a particular culture and time period.
Yet, Achilles/ Odysseus and Aeneas are unlike one another. This is understandable once it is understood that the two authors lived in very different worlds, whose values and perceptions varied greatly of a fundamental level. In addition they have different motivations behind the pieces. For an example, the two common ideas woven into the Odyssey and the Iliad are custom and recklessness. The gods, to keep order handed down customs. When men were reckless, tempting the wrath of the gods with hubris, they invited retribution and chaos by exalting themselves. In fact, if the laws of the gods were unquestioningly followed, life had the potential for eternal goodness.
In contrast, the Aeneid advocate upon a type of anger and loyalty to the state. When mentioning anger, it is the struggle that lies within every person, and needing to be restrained in order for civilization to work. This idea gives rise to the idea of loyalty to country, or patriotism. Thus this encouraged the sacrifice of self-interest in favor for the country. Which goes further to explain the Aeneid’s political flavoring.
Moreover, in some absolute sense Odysseus belongs at home on Ithaca, and once there he can remain there indefinitely in safety. The Romans' world was much more uncertain because of the constant possibility for disaster, and believed that human existence was inherently a tragedy because of this constant anger. Even had all the Trojans done nothing wrong, they still would have received the winds sent at Juno's (Hera) behest. All they had was vulnerable, their lives, their cities, and their civilization; anything could be destroyed by the godless discord. Moreover, no matter how devout and full of duty one is, it is always possible for furor to surface. Thus, it is not surprising that the Greek and Roman epics were so different, since what they perceived were really two different worlds.
Word Count: 1284
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