Critical Essays Literary Predecessors of the Aeneid


Although Virgil lived and wrote two thousand years ago, he was the heir to a literary and cultural tradition that was many centuries older. A master of his art and a great creative genius, it is both understandable and natural that the form and content of the Aeneid were influenced by other writers. Among these influential sources are Homer, the Cyclic Epics, Euripides, Alexandrian poets, and earlier Roman writers.

The foremost influence on Virgil was Homer, the Greek poet who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey. By Virgil's time, Homer was acknowledged as the greatest of all poets, and Virgil studied Homeric epic poetry in order to develop his own artistic techniques. Writing the Aeneid, Virgil consciously competed against Homer, for he was composing what he hoped would become the national poem of the Roman people, just as the Homeric epics were of such special significance to the Greeks.

From Homer, Virgil derived many of the technical characteristics of the Aeneid, such as the use of hexameter verse, in which each poetic line consists of six metrical feet, each foot having two syllables; the twelve-book division of epic poetry; and the use of epithets. However, the two poets's attitudes toward the world vary greatly. The Homeric epics are works in praise of the greatness and nobility of rugged individualism, whereas the Aeneid preaches the priority of organized society and the state over its citizens in order for individuals to achieve happiness. There is much to commend in both attitudes, and both poets express their views in works of great beauty.

Virgil strove to duplicate many of the famous episodes in the Iliad and the Odyssey in order to surpass Homer's literary reputation. Additionally, he wanted to demonstrate that Latin was as well adapted to poetry as Greek.

The first half of the Aeneid resembles the first half of the Odyssey, which, because that poem has twice as many divisions as Virgil's epic, comprises the twelve books that concern the wanderings of Odysseus as he seeks his homeland of Ithaca. The two heroes sail the same seas, and in Book III of the Aeneid, Virgil brings Aeneas and his people into contact with some of the same perils, thus providing strong reminders of the earlier epic.

In addition, the Aeneid's second half, which begins with Book VII, bears a likeness to the Odyssey's second half: Aeneas's struggle to establish the Trojans in Italy recalls how Odysseus forced out his wife Penelope's suitors, who usurped his place in his own household during his absence. Without any doubt, however, the Aeneid's last six books, particularly starting with Book IX, when war finally breaks out, more strongly resemble the Iliad. One example of this similarity is the comparison between Turnus, who fights against the Trojans during Aeneas's absence, and Hector, the Trojan prince who engages the Greeks in the absence of Achilles, who, angry with Agamemnon for having taken the woman Briseis from him, refuses to participate in the war until fairly late in Homer's epic. Achilles eventually returns to battle and slays Hector in order to avenge the death of his friend Patroclus at the hands of the Trojan hero, just as Aeneas slays Turnus in order to avenge Pallas's death at the hands of the Rutulian prince.

Many of the dreams, prophecies, and lists of genealogies in the Aeneid evoke Homer's works. For example, Aeneas's dream of Hector on the night that Troy falls to the Greeks recalls Achilles's vision, in Book XXIII of the Iliad, of the great warrior Patroclus, who, having been slain by Hector, implores Achilles to perform the funeral rites necessary for his passage into the underworld. Patroclus visits Achilles because he is driven by a profound personal concern, while Hector's appearance, like other incidents in the Aeneid that are based on Homer, is full of patriotic import. This parallel between Hector's and Patroclus's appearances is the only significant reference in the Aeneid's Book II to Homer, who could not have influenced Virgil's description of Troy's fall for the simple reason that his Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector, before Troy is destroyed, while his Odyssey begins ten years after the war is over.

It should be noted, however, that Homer was thoroughly learned in the stories having to do with Troy's fall, particularly the wooden horse, which is referred to three times in the Odyssey — by Helen and Menelaus in Book IV, when Telemachus, Odysseus's son, visits them at Sparta while seeking news of his absent father; by the blind bard Demodocus in the presence of Odysseus, who is being entertained with tales of the Trojan War in the king of Phaeacia's court in Book VIII; and finally by Odysseus himself when, in Book XI, he speaks to Achilles's ghost in the underworld about the bravery of his son Pyrrhus, who, as one of the warriors hidden in the wooden horse, showed no fear while waiting to be sprung from the horse's body cavity.

Nowhere is Homer more easily recognized as Virgil's chief source of poetic reference than in Book VI of the Aeneid. The story of Aeneas's descent into the underworld abounds in details that reflect original counterparts in Book XI of the Odyssey, which tells of Odysseus's own visit to the land of the dead to consult the ghost of the Theban seer Tiresias, who resembles Anchises in his prophetic role. However, Anchises's philosophical concepts, which prepare for the historical pageant that is central to Book VI, have absolutely no place in the Odyssey, being alien to Homer's joyous, life-embracing realism. Anchises's presenting Rome's glorious future is entirely different from Tiresias's role, which is to advise Odysseus only on the events of the hero's own future before and after arriving home in Ithaca.

Here, as elsewhere, Virgil's main reason for constructing parallels to Homer, which he was no doubt certain his readers would identify and relish, was to add luster to the Aeneid as a latter-day epic appearing in another language more than seven centuries after his immensely prestigious, literary forebear. Virgil gives Homer's original incidents an import for the development of his own epic that is absent from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Never far from his mind is his purpose of making the Aeneid a national epic (discussed in the next essay), which neither of Homer's works were. Once we understand how Virgil adapted his borrowings from Homer for his own ends, we see how far he was from being a mere imitator of the great poet who preceded him.

In the centuries that immediately followed the time of Homer, a number of epics of little quality were written that supplemented the information in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These poems, known as the Cyclic Epics, describe the events of the Trojan War before and after the period covered by the Iliad and recount the additional adventures of other heroes besides Odysseus. Only fragments of these minor epics survive today, but scholars have a fairly good idea of their entire contents. The Cyclic Epics provided Virgil with a wealth of mythological material, which he incorporated into the Aeneid in order to enrich his poem. The most important portions of the Aeneid to be drawn from these minor poems are the stories of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy, which are dramatically retold in Book II.

For Greek tragedians who wrote in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., their favorite source of plots was their mythological heritage, and, naturally, the Trojan War was a major part of this tradition. Many playwrights dealt with incidents drawn from Homer or the Cyclic poets, and Virgil, being a scholar as well as an artist, was thoroughly acquainted with these dramatists, including Sophocles and Aeschylus. The plays of the Greek dramatist Euripides especially influenced him, for Virgil possesses the same humanistic outlook and horror of war that Euripides was renowned for. Euripides's Trojan Women and Hecuba, which question one of the most pathetic situations of any war — the fate of noncombatants who, through no fault of their own, must suffer bitter hardships and endure the loss of home, family, pride, and country — must have been on Virgil's mind when he wrote about the fate of the Trojans in Book II. No doubt Virgil recalled Euripides's Andromachë when he described Aeneas's encounter with Andromachë, Hector's widow, at Buthrotum in Book III, by which time she had become Helenus's wife.

By the third century B.C., the center of Hellenic culture and scholarship had moved from mainland Greece to the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Here, a school of poetry developed that is noted for its love of learning, literary decoration, and stylistic polish. Virgil and many of his Roman compatriots were deeply and permanently influenced by this school's methods. One of the most important poets of this period was Apollonius of Rhodes, who composed the Argonautica, an epic in four books that concerns the quest for the Golden Fleece. A comparison of the romance of Jason and Medea in the Argonautica to that of Aeneas and Dido in the Aeneid, and the treatment of the gods in both poems clearly indicate Virgil's debt to Apollonius.

Like most Romans, Virgil was subject to the sway of Greek culture and Greek philosophy. For example, Plato, whose imaginative speculations concern the nature of the soul and its fate after death, influenced the Aeneid's Book VI, in which Aeneas visits his father in the underworld. Nonetheless, Virgil wrote in the Latin language and was the product of a Roman environment. His education, like that of all well-off Romans, was predominantly Greek, but Rome had its own long and fruitful literary history, which he was also familiar with.

Among Roman writers, Virgil learned most from Ennius, an epic poet of the second century B.C., who composed the Annales, a poem tracing Rome's history from Aeneas's wanderings to Ennius's own time; Lucretius, a poet of the early first century B.C., who wrote On the Nature of Things, a philosophical epic from which Virgil derived many of his own philosophical ideas; and Catullus, a lyric poet who lived in Julius Caesar's time. Each of these Roman writers was himself under the influence of Greek literary models, just as Virgil was.

Discovering the many sources from which Virgil drew ideas in no way lessens the magnitude of his achievement. A student of his predecessors but never a mere imitator, he reshaped, unified, and gave new meaning to his borrowings. His genius is shown by the beauty and originality of the Aeneid, which has become the literary justification and explanation of the Roman Empire to the entire world.