Who Was the Roman Hero Aeneas?
How Is Aeneas Different?
Vergil’s character of Aeneas is an amalgamation of modified Homeric heroes, mixed with Stoic ideas, which make up a distinctly Roman type of hero. Although Aeneas was less desirous of eternal glory than Achilles, more consenting to a new home than Odysseus, and more dutiful to—and accepting of—the gods than Lucretius, he nevertheless falters occasionally over his task. Vergil allows Aeneas to stumble and stray from his dutiful and pious temperament enough to leave the reader wondering how different a man he was from the ideal Homeric hero. The poet depicts Aeneas at the end of the epic as ‘sacrificing’ Turnus in a morally ambiguous manner, allowing speculation about whether he is actually transformed—and therefore dissimilar from—the furious Achilles of Homer’s Iliad.
This study focuses on books two, four, and twelve of Vergil’s Aeneid, in order to highlight the similarities and differences between Aeneas and Achilles. Vergil appears to dissociate Aeneas from the Homeric epitome of a warrior who aims for everlasting fame; however, he allows Aeneas to deviate from his goal so much that the reader cannot help but connect him to Homer’s Achilles. In order for Aeneas to establish a great empire, he must cease to be the Trojan Aeneas of the Homeric epics. Aeneas becomes a reborn hero who embraces new and different ethics to become distinctly Roman and worthy of an epic.
Aeneas Fleeing Troy
The Aeneid and the Homeric Epics
There are obvious similarities between the Aeneid and the Homeric epics. Homer was the educator of Greece, and naturally the Romans learned from the Greeks. Through the Iliad and the Odyssey listeners familiarized themselves with the Homeric heroes. The best men are Achilles and Odysseus, men whom Homer would have his audience emulate. However, Homer has shown that heroism has two mutually contradictory forms. The conflict is manifested in the dispute between Achilles and Odysseus; Achilles wishes to enter battle immediately, obsessed with avenging his friend, while Odysseus is preoccupied with malnutrition, and insists the army must eat (Iliad 11.145-70). Neither man wholly convinces the other; while Achilles allows the men to eat, he himself does not. Achilles strives for the alien immortal life of the gods, renouncing his domestic life because it is mortally imperfect, while Odysseus yearns for his own dear things (his city, home, and family) because they reciprocate his love. Therefore the quarrel cannot be settled; Homer shows that in the heroic life there is no adequate resolution to the human problem.
If, however, Homer was mistaken and “presented in Achilles and Odysseus two mistaken versions of the best life for men,” Vergil is at hand to offer a the correct model. Vergil tempts his readers to renounce Achilles and Odysseus as incomplete heroes, and to allure them to the more complex character of Aeneas. To do this Vergil must make piety compete with—and ultimately become victorious over—ἀρετή and manly courage. The very first lines of the Aeneid recall both Homeric proems, although Vergil indicates that he will rival Homer by combining the two. Vergil begins with arma (weapons), a bellicose word, which recalls Achilles’ anger. Homer’s Iliad begins:
μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί’ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε’ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, Διὸς δ’ ἐτελείετο βουλή,
ἐξ οὗ δὴ τὰ πρῶτα διαστήτην ἐρίσαντε
Ἀτρεΐδης τε ἄναξ ἀνδρῶν καὶ δῖος Ἀχιλλεύς (Iliad 1-7).
Homer opens with anger; he calls to “the goddess” to sing of Achilles’ destructive fury that sent his own men to the Underworld. It is the will of Zeus and the actions of Apollo that brought together Achilles and Agamemnon—men on the same side—to fight each other and cause so many deaths. Whereas the Iliad commences with the hero’s rage and its subsequent destruction, and the gods who were involved, the Aeneid beings with Aeneas’ arms and journey, and the goddess involved. Vergil uses a martial word to allude to Achilles, but changes the significance from rage in war to tools of war.
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit
litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto
vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram;
multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem,
inferretque deos Latio, genus unde Latinum,
Albanique patres, atque altae moenia Romae (Aeneid 1-7).
Vergil recalls the anger that destroyed many Greeks, but does not imply that Aeneas possesses such an emotion. When he uses the word “cano” (I sing) Vergil indicates that he knows the story of Aeneas, and thus needs no goddess to relate it to him. The poet shows his superiority to Homer by only later asking for the Muse’s help to recall divine reasons, as he is, of course, unable to know the causes that moved Juno to assault Aeneas with so many troubles.
Do You Know Aeneas?
Have you read the Aeneid?
Aeneas Flees Troy With Family
Opening Lines of Each Poem
As in the Iliad, the first lines of the Odyssey also call out for inspiration. Homer implores the Muse to tell of the much-travelled man. The second component of Vergil’s “arma virumque cano” (I sing of weapons and the man) is based on the initial word of the Odyssey (the man). While the Iliad centers on Achilles’ rage, the second of Homer’s epics focuses on the character, Odysseus. While these two epics call to a higher power for inspiration, Vergil’s epic is conjured by him alone, and concentrates on both martial power and the man. It is significant that Vergil places weapons first; the sound of the line is most like the Odyssey (I and ἄνδρα), while the sense is more like the Iliad (I and anger).
The opening of the Odyssey—unlike that of the Iliad—actually mentions Troy. As in the Iliad, Homer again refers to “many men,” πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων (cf. πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς . . . Ἡρώων); however, in the Odyssey they are the many men who are seen by the hero. In contrast, the “numerous” things Aeneas encounters are not men, but storms and toils: multum ille et terris iactatus et alto vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram; multa quoque et bello passus (1.3-5). This detail is more similar to the Odyssey; Aeneas is afflicted—after a war—by weather and the wrath of a god. Odysseus also suffers many woes (πολλὰ δ’ ὅ γ’ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν) after a war (ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν·).
In contrast to the Aeneid, the divine fury that vexes Odysseus is not mentioned in the proem as is Juno’s rage against Aeneas; instead Poseidon is finally mentioned at line twenty of the Odyssey (θεοὶ δ’ ἐλέαιρον ἅπαντες νόσφι Ποσειδάωνος·). In the lines preceding this, the poet tells of the divine suppression of Calypso. Like Dido, this nymph detains the hero and interferes with his plan. Thus, in the first twenty lines the essential points of the poem are outlined: the man, destruction of men (by their own hands, unlike the Achaeans of the Iliad), the man’s suffering, war, divine repression, and divine anger.
Similarities to the Iliad and Odyssey
The poet singing the Odyssey calls first to the μοῦσα (muse) in line one to ask for inspiration, and again in line ten (τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν), implying that he needs additional guidance. Again this stands in contrast to the first line of the Aeneid (cano) as well as the eighth line (Musa, mihi causas memora), which demonstrates Vergil’s near-independence from divine assistance and superiority to Homer.
The metrical design of the Aeneid’s proem is starkly different from the Odyssey, but similar to the Iliad. The Iliad—the tragic precursor to its following poems—opens with highly spondaic lines. Opposite to this is the Odyssey—actually a comic tale—which begins with distinctly dactylic lines. Vergil fashions the opening of the Aeneid with a combination of the two, while clearly resting his style on Homer’s Iliad. The first seven lines of the Aeneid contain eighteen spondees, just as the first seven lines of the Iliad (cf. fifteen in the Odyssey). The most spondaic line of the Odyssey’s proem tells of the men the hero will meet (πολλῶν δ’ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω); however, in both the Iliad and the Aeneid the line with five spondees is that which describes the troubles of the hero: πολλὰς δ’ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν, multa quoque et bello passus, dum conderet urbem. Thus Vergil reveals that the Aeneid is for the most part a tragic story about a troubled man.
As Vergil exhibits his intent to base his epic on the tragedy of the Iliad, he also shows the reader that he will use the comic features of the Odyssey. The first line demonstrates that Vergil will derive equally from the Homeric epics (arma virumque), but because Vergil places the arma first, he shows that he will reverse the order of the earlier stories. He plainly proposes that he will flip the two epics and change the focus; the wandering and rage of a god is first, with the war following.
Similarities to Homeric Heroes
Since the first six books of the Aeneid derive from the Odyssey, so does the character of the hero. Aeneas is an exile (fato profugus) who misses his homeland, relates his stories, is delayed by a woman, and proceeds to the Underworld. Just as Odysseus hoped to return to Ithaca, so does Aeneas wish to return to Troy. The latter man, however, is fated to make a new home, and cannot have his actual νόστος (homecoming). Moreover, Aeneas is delayed by a Carthaginian woman; Dido’s historical citizens will later engage in wars with the Romans, and is thus a more significant character. Lastly, Aeneas surpasses Odysseus by actually going into the Underworld, as opposed to meeting it above ground.
Aeneas also surpasses Achilles in his desire to be pious instead of immortal. Whereas Achilles desires immortality, but because of Fate is unable to gain it, Aeneas aims to be pious. The hero of the Iliad seeks immortal glory; he chooses for his κλέος to endure through time. Achilles identifies divine pleasure with immortality; the immortal life is higher and better than he is, so he seeks to attain it. Homer opens Achilles’ epic by relating wrath, destruction, divine hatred, and strife between two men. Of these key themes, Vergil only completely maintains one in his proem: divine hatred. He calls attention to celestial wrath—that of Juno—as opposed to mortal fury.
Fury is central to the Aeneid; however, it is not the same human rage of the Iliad. Although Achilles’ wrath is near godly, he is ultimately a mortal and thus his rage is regarded correspondingly. In the Aeneid Vergil’s first question bids the reader to wonder whether such anger exists among the gods: Tantaene animis caelestibus irae? (1.11). This ira (ire) of Juno is connected to Aeneas’ piety; the epic begins and ends with acts of furor, beginning with the immortal rage of the goddess and concluding with the furious deed of the hero.
Read more in Part Two of this series on the Roman Hero Aeneas!