Note: references to the Iliad use the book and line numbers of the assigned translation (R. Lattimore/U. of Chicago Press) and correspond to the original Greek text; references to the Aeneid use the book and line numbers of the assigned translation (A. Mandelbaum/Bantam Books).


     The Aeneid is an epic poem in twelve books or chapters, written by the Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 B.C.), between 30 B.C. and 19 B.C.  It tells the story of the Trojan warrior, Aeneas, in the aftermath of the Trojan War.  During the sack of Troy, Aeneas fled the city with his father, Anchises, and his son, Ascanius.  Led by the prophecies that promised him a future kingdom, he and his followers finally settled in Latium, a region of central Italy.  From his descendants were said to come the Roman people.
     The legend of Aeneas’ escape, his journey to Italy, and his role as the ancestor of the Roman people grew out of an episode in Homer’s Iliad that takes place during Achilleus’ rampage on the battlefield.  With Apollo’s encouragement, Aeneas (=Aineias, in the Greek spelling) challenges Achilleus.  As they fight, Poseidon, the god of the sea, sees that Aeneas is in danger of being slain by Achilleus.  He says:
“But why does this man, who is guiltless, suffer his sorrows
for no reason, for the sake of others’ unhappiness, and always
he gives gifts that please them to the gods who hold the wide heaven.
But come, let us ourselves get him away from death, for fear
the son of Kronos may be angered if now Achilleus
kills this man.  It is destined that he shall be the survivor,
that the generation of Dardanos shall not die, without seed
obliterated, since Dardanos was dearest to Kronides
of all his sons that have been born to him from mortal women.
For Kronos’ son has cursed the generation of Priam,
and now the might of Aineias shall be lord over the Trojans,
and his sons’ sons, and those who are born of their seed hereafter. (20.297-308)”
This short passage - easily overlooked in the dramatic account of Achilleus’ rage - lies at the heart of the legend of Aeneas.  It establishes that Aeneas was destined to survive the sack of Troy, and it explains that he and his descendants would rule over the descendants of the Trojans.  In the classical and Hellenistic periods, various legends developed that described Aeneas’ wanderings and the cities he allegedly visited or founded.  By the end of the fifth century B.C., the Greek writer, Hellanicus, is known to have written that Aeneas eventually reached Italy.  As the Romans came into contact - and conflict - with the Greeks in the third and second centuries B.C., they sought to link themselves with Greek legends, and gradually adopted Aeneas - an enemy of the Greeks - as an ancestor and a founder of a city, Lavinium, that was a precursor of Rome itself.
     In the Aeneid, Virgil elaborated upon these legends, reworked some of them, and organized them into a grand epic that stressed Aeneas’ role as the ancestor of the Roman people and linked his personal destiny with the historical destiny of Rome to become the seat of a great empire.  At its core, though, is the hero whom Homer destined for survival in the Iliad.  Even the brief sketch of Aeneas in the Iliad (20.297-99) as a “guiltless” man who suffers sorrows for no reason, despite his devotion to the gods, became the starting point for Virgil’s portrayal of his hero.  In the prologue to the Aeneid, Virgil echoed that description by asking why Juno “compelled a man remarkable for goodness to endure so many crises, meet so many trials” (1.15-17).
     The first half of the Aeneid charts Aeneas’ wanderings, and may be compared with Homer’s account of Odysseus’ wanderings in the Odyssey.  It begins in the middle of the story - in the typical fashion of ancient epic - with Aeneas’ arrival in Carthage where he meets Queen Dido, herself a refugee from the Phoenician city of Tyre.  In Carthage, Aeneas tells his own story.  This gives the audience a "flashback", for Aeneas describes the sack of Troy (book two) and his subsequent wanderings (book three).  Virgil’s tale continues with the tragic love affair between Aeneas and Dido (book four) and the queen’s suicide after Aeneas abandoned her to pursue his destiny.  After Aeneas commemorates the first anniversary of his father’s death with funeral games in Sicily (book five), the first half ends with his landing in Italy and visit to the underworld (book six).  There, he meets figures from his own past, and the shade of his father, Anchises, shows him a pageant of great Romans, as a prophecy of the destiny of their descendants.
     The second half of the poem describes the wars he fought in Italy.  It is a complex account rich in allusions to the Trojan War and Homer’s Iliad.  As in the Iliad, a contested marriage lies at the heart of the struggle.  The aged king of the Latins, Latinus, welcomes Aeneas and proposes that his daughter, Lavinia, marry Aeneas to unite the two peoples and fulfill a prophecy (book seven).  The goddess, Juno - Aeneas’ antagonist throughout the poem, inflames Latinus’ wife, queen Amata, with rage against the Trojans, and war soon breaks out.  The queen had supported a marriage between Lavinia and the Rutulian warrior, Turnus.  Turnus leads the forces against the Trojans, and, at the end of the poem, he is slain by Aeneas.


     In our discussion of the Aeneid, I will focus on three ways of examining the poem.  Poetically, Virgil offers a sophisticated reworking of Homer’s epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, to create an epic for the Roman people that would rival the poems of Homer.  Ethically, Virgil explores the making of a Roman hero, as Aeneas struggles to become a figure characterized by the Roman virtue, pietas, and embodying the ideals of Stoic ethics.  Politically, Virgil reflects upon Roman history.  By linking Greek mythology with Roman history, he looks ahead to the growth of Rome’s empire and the century of violence and civil strife that preceded the triumph of Octavian (Augustus) over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C.
     In the most obvious way, Virgil connects his poem with the Homeric epic by telling a story that grows out of the legends of the Trojan War.  He also fills his tale with the familiar meddling gods and goddesses - under their Latin names - of the Homeric epic.  Virgil, however, does much more than simply build on the legends in Homer’s poem.  He carefully transforms specific scenes from Homer, purposefully develops complex parallels between his characters and those in the Iliad and the Odyssey, and creatively adapts poetic devices, like the simile and embedded narrative, from Homer’s epics.  At first, this might challenge our ideas of artistic creativity or originality, but Virgil is most creative precisely in the imaginative and surprising ways in which he uses familiar material from Homer, and the Odyssey's own complex relationship to the Iliad provides one starting point for Virgil's approach. References to Homer’s poems suggest contrasts and comparisons that deepen the meaning and intensify the impact of Virgil’s work. What at first seems like imitation soon reveals itself to be a complex dialogue between Virgil and Homer, in which the Roman poet seeks to outdo his own mentor.
     For us, Virgil’s use of Homer is one example of a larger issue: the response of Rome to the culture of the Greeks whom they conquered.  As such, it represents an important thread linking different parts of the course together.  We’ll discuss how early Christian writers, like Augustine, and medieval artists responded to the classical tradition of Greece and Rome, and we’ll see how the medieval Italian poet, Dante, literally made use of Virgil as a character in his Divine Comedy, as he created a Christian epic in the vernacular language, Italian.  It may suggest some reflection on how we still today make use of this past.
     Virgil uses the figure of Aeneas to reflect upon the Roman hero.  While many scenes invite us to compare Aeneas with Homeric heroes like Achilleus, Hektor or Odysseus, there are important differences.  From the opening lines of the poem, Aeneas is characterized as a good man who suffers.  As he develops, he is portrayed as a man who must learn to dominate his passions, suppress his own desires, and subordinate his own individual will to a larger divine plan.  In short, he must be willing to make and accept sacrifices to fulfill a destiny for the good of his descendants.  He must learn to embrace a “sense of duty”, the Roman virtue, pietas; he must fulfill his duty to those to whom duty is owed: the gods, his father and son, his descendants and, by extension, the future people of Rome.  Whether Aeneas achieves this is a question that is left open in the poem, and Virgil may be exploring the difficulty - or impossibility - of fully becoming the sort of character who can tame the passions and subordinate the will for a higher purpose.
     Some of the characteristics that Aeneas displays - or aspires to - are consistent with Stoic philosophy.  Stoicism was a philosophy that gained popularity in the Hellenistic period.  The Greek philosopher, Zeno of Citium, was its founder (c. 300 B.C.), and it derived its name from the Stoa Poikile - the painted porch, the place in Athens where he and his followers taught.  The philosophy became popular with Romans who focused upon its ethical aspects, and tried to adapt its ethical precepts to the active lives and practical concerns of statesmen and soldiers.  Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor of the late second century A.D., wrote a philosophical diary, the Meditations, that reflects his Stoic philosophy and expresses some of its key tenets.
     The Stoics held that the universe was rationally governed and it was the Stoic’s responsibility to harmonize one’s own desires with what was good for the whole - whether that refers to the order of things in nature or the social order.  The image of the Body Politic expresses this view well.  Marcus Aurelius described it this way:
“We were born to labor together, like the feet, the hands, the eyes, and the rows of upper and lower teeth.  To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature, and to be angry against a man or turn one’s back on him is to work against him.”
(Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, book II.1, translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett: Indianapolis, 1983, p. 11)
For the Stoic, virtue is the only good, and one must learn to endure misfortunes, secure in the knowledge that these are only apparent evils.  This provides another answer to the issue raised in so many works in the course - and posed by Virgil at the opening of the Aeneid: why do good individuals suffer misfortunes?  Marcus Aurelius writes:
“Neither through ignorance nor with knowledge could the nature of the Whole have neglected to guard against this or correct it; nor through lack of power or skill could it have committed so great a wrong, namely that good and evil should come to the good and the evil alike, and at random.  True, death and life, good and ill repute, toil and pleasure, wealth and poverty, being neither good nor bad, come to the good and the bad equally.  They are therefore neither blessings nor evils.” (Meditations, II.11)
What on earth does that mean!?  In effect, he is saying that, in a rationally governed universe, it cannot be true that good and wicked individuals equally suffer good and ill fortune - as Achilleus had suggested in his story of the urns of the Zeus.  He accepts that those things which people regard as misfortune - a bad reputation, labor, poverty, even death - do come to the good and bad alike, but he concludes that, because of this, they cannot be truly bad and must simply be endured.  In other instances, he argues that we must remember that everything that happens, happens for the good of the Whole, and we, as part of the Whole, benefit from that:
“There is also Necessity and what is beneficial to the whole ordered universe of which you are a part.  That which is brought by the nature of the Whole, and preserves it, is good for every part.” (Meditations II.3)
     In the Aeneid, Aeneas’ destiny and that of Rome are presented as a divine plan unfolding through history.  This historical or political dimension of Virgil’s poem is one that also sets it apart from Homer’s work.  Virgil mentions nearly contemporary events like the battle of Actium depicted on the Shield of Aeneas (8.874-929) or the death and funeral of Augustus’ nephew and son-in-law, Marcellus (6.1148-82).  By contrast, Homer never referred to specific events in his own time, and, today, students of Homer and the oral tradition still puzzle over linguistic and archaeological evidence in an effort to piece together the historical roots of the world he describes.  Later Greeks would try to link the Homeric stories with subsequent historical events.  The historian, Herodotus, saw the Trojan War as part of a chain of causes that eventually led to the Persian Wars of the early fifth century B.C.  Herodotus’ histories, Greek tragedies and the public monuments of fifth century Athens show that the Greeks viewed the Persian Wars as a clash of two contrasting cultures, and projected that view backwards onto the Trojan War.  In fact, when Alexander the Great launched his war of conquest against the Persian Empire in 334 B.C., he is said to have visited the site of Troy.  Where Homer had described two peoples - the Greeks and Trojans - who worshipped the same gods and spoke the same language, later Greeks came to see the Trojans as antecedents of the Persians, and Priam as a distinctly Asian monarch.
     Such efforts to link myth and history provided precedents for Virgil’s own work.  Aeneas’ destiny merges with the future destiny of Rome, and Virgil incorporates prophecies, visions and representations of Rome’s history - conceived of as the future of Aeneas’ descendants - into the Aeneid.  The conflicts between the Greeks and Trojans and the tragic love affair of Aeneas and the queen of Carthage, Dido, become the roots of Rome’s later wars with Carthage and Roman expansion into the Greek world.  This allows Virgil to use the poem to reflect upon two great facts of Roman history: the establishment of a world-empire through military power, and the collapse of the institutions of the Roman Republic in a century of bloody chaos and civil strife.  Virgil examines the cost and consequences of Rome’s achievements, and he raises questions about the future of a people whose past has been characterized by such violence.

SCHEDULE OF READINGS (Tuesday night class)