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Homer Notes

Classics Notes > Virgil’s Aeneid Notes

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What are the techniques which Vergil uses in imitating Homer in the Aeneid, and how influential is post-Homeric epic tradition on the Aeneid?
The obvious and overwhelming model for Virgil's Aeneid is Homer. However, just as it is impossible for us to read the Aeneid as a first century Roman would since we have the benefit of historical knowledge and the influences of subsequent authors; it is hard to get a full picture of what is going on in the Aeneid without keeping in mind the post-Homeric epic tradition. Virgil, in all likelihood, read Homer with commentaries and was at least aware of the epics now lost to us. Furthermore he has clearly been influenced by the Argonautica of Apollonius and the Roman epics of Ennius and Naevius. The Aeneid is a Roman epic and it was conceived as such from the very beginning by Virgil. Therefore it is natural he looked back to previous attempts at such an epic to search for ideas, styles and most of all the precedence set by the tradition he was entering into. The first of these was the Bellum Punicum of Naevius, which although lacked sophistication and sensitivity, was nevertheless thoroughly Roman and dealt with historical themes with genuine feeling. The important thing to note is that this epic, according to Macrobius, contained the original storm and the Jupiter/ Venus discussion with which the Aeneid begins. This comes as no surprise because the prophecy of the sort that takes place in book one was not done by Homer and so it is natural that the framework that Virgil uses for it is taken from a Roman source. The other author, Ennius, was clearly the decisive Roman precedent. He, like Naevius, began with the Aeneas myth and then proceeded to a full scale Roman history is an annalistic way, but with some elements of the epic machinery. For example he wrote in hexameter verse and a prophecy of Jupiter involving the appeasement of Juno; he was the first Homeric epic on a roman theme. All this is clear from the fact that he began his epic with an alter Homerus dream sequence in an attempt to portray himself as the Roman Homer. However there was a problem is following these models completely because of the very real danger that something he wrote could open up the resentment and anger brought about by the civil wars against him. The idea of the Aeneid was to unite the Roman and Italian people with a sense of patriotism and unity behind the new princeps Augustus, which was the main reason why he has to avoid the civil wars as far as possible. Similarly he could not completely absorb himself in myth because for one a whole country cannot be united by a myth which is totally irrelevant to the situation and, perhaps more importantly, there was a very poor tradition of such work in Rome. This came in the form of the epyllia, which regurgitated tired themes again and again in a very uninspiring way. Virgil had to find a happy medium between the mythical world of Homer and the historical epics of Rome, which is why the influence of both is crucial to the formation of the story. His solution was to go with the Aeneas legend which Augustus took very seriously as his actual divine ancestry and furthermore characters such as Latinus, Turnus and Mezentius were widely regarded as historical figures. Virgil, therefore, may possibly have been viewed by his audience as treating in a poetic, Homeric way events which actually happened.

However before the crucial models and influences of Homer are discussed and appreciated, another filter through which Virgil would have viewed the Odyssey and the Iliad must be considered. Apollonius of Rhodes, who used many techniques of his own along with those he inherited from Homer, was clearly a very significant influence on Virgil in terms of certain scenes and even significant characterisations. The Argonautica deals with the wanderings of Jason and the Argonauts on their way to retrieve the Golden Fleece from the far side of the black sea, and so is parallel to book 3 of the Aeneid which similarly deals with wanderings as Aeneas tries to find his new home. The more obvious thing to say is that it is modelled on the wanderings of Odysseus, but this is where it is clear that Virgil has read the Odyssey in light of the Argonautica and so both have mingled to create book 3. Arguably the first half of book 3 resembles the latter much more strongly because some of the scenes are so equivalent. For example the parched, diseased land of Crete in which the Penates appear to advise and protect Aeneas is very reminiscent of the heroines who appear to Jason in the mid-day heat while the Argonauts are trapped in the burning land of Libya. The prophecy of Helenus is also another clear example of a scene taken from the Argonautica because it directly parallels Jason's scene with Phineus. He, like Helenus, tells the Argonauts of the path which they must take. "Next to these live the Sapeires; beyond their borders, the Byzeres; and beyond them again the warlike Colchians themselves. But sail on till you come to the farthest corner of the black sea." Helenus also talks about the dangers of Scylla and Charybdis, and likewise Phineus talks about the "serpent, a formidable beast who appears all round and never, night or day, allows sweet sleep to conquer his unblinking eyes." Both these prophecies follow a similar encounter with the harpies, although Aeneas' men do avoid armed combat and Aeneas himself receives a prophecy which Jason does not. There are other references to the Argonautica scattered throughout the Aeneid, but especially in instances when more magical elements are called for. This is something which Homer on the whole, except for Circe avoids and so necessarily Virgil must draw on this epic for inspiration. The majority of examples come from book 6 where the Sibyl gives Aeneas magical protection, as does Medea to Jason in book 3; both women are in fact priests of Hecate as well. Also the soporific drugging of Cerberus is also taken from the Argonautica, as is the idea of the golden bough, which could reflect the Golden Fleece. The strange scene where Dido tries to employ black magic in book 4 is a clear indication that she is meant to reflect Medea. This equivalence of characters is the most striking and impressive way that Virgil emulates Apollonius. The key way in which Apollonius differed from Homer was the romance and psychological insight which he gave to his story and Virgil clearly picked up on his because he created a large detour in his narrative in order in allow himself book

4. The Dido encounter is the closest thing to tragedy in epic and deals with the deep psychological torment of the queen, but this method characterisation is borrowed entirely from Apollonius with, of course, the exception of the ultimate ending. This blocks the charge of plagiarism because although the details may be the same Virgil ultimately does something quite different and far more tragic with the material. In the Argonautica, as in the Aeneid, Medea is struck by an arrow from Cupid at the instigation of his mother (and also Hera and Athena.) There is the same sense of the gods ganging up on one innocent and ultimately powerless human character and the same disturbing playfulness with

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