In the last post, I briefly discussed the character of Odysseus in the Greek Homeric myth, The Odyssey. This time, I just wanted to round out the discussion with another example from the ancient Mediterranean, Aeneas.
In 29 BC, civil wars had drowned the Roman Republic and the people looked uncertainly to the rule of Emperor Augustus who was trying to reform the Roman government. At this time, there was a demand for a teleological myth to reassure the populace. Virgil provided this with his Aeneid.
Virgil reads the Aeneid to Emperor Augustus
Aeneas was a minor character on the Trojan side during the sack of Troy. He was also vaguely associated with the foundation of Rome. Out of these uncertain origins, Virgil spun a tale of the foundation of Rome with Aeneas as its founder, champion and embodiment of values.
We first meet Aeneas, not alone like Odysseus, but fleeing from the burning troy with his family, carrying his aged father on his back. He leads his band of Trojans through various adventures, constantly attentive to their welfare until they reach the shores of Carthage.
Aeneas flees Troy with his family
In Carthage, Aeneas meets and falls in love with Queen Dido. Unlike Odysseus who continued to pine for his home while living on Circe’s isle, Aeneas has lost his home and most of his family by now. He lives happily with Dido till the gods interfere to remind him of his duty and destiny.
Aeneas meeting Dido Aeneas leaves Dido
Aeneas reluctantly leaves a furious Dido who curses eternal strife between her people and his before committing suicide. Many people have come up with explanations of this scene between the Roman and the Carthaginian. Rome had famously defeated the previously leading Mediterranean sea power in the Punic Wars and interpretations comparing that with the Aeneid go from the teleological to the Freudian.
Like Odysseus, Aeneas is caught in the whirlpool of Charybdis and come ashore on the land of the Cyclops. There is also a sojourn where Aeneas ventures into the underworld. Finally, the Trojans land in Italy and is dragged into a war with the local people, the Rutuli (“the red ones” meaning “the blond ones”). The epic ends with Aeneas slaying Turnus, the Rutuli champion.
Aeneas slays Turnus
Like Odysseus, Aeneas is also victim to the machinations of the gods on Olympos and there are many other obvious similarities between the events of the two stories which were written 600 years apart. Virgil deliberately copied his predecessor’s work. But whereas Odysseus embodies the Greek virtues of cunning, self-reliance and frankly looking after one’s self interest without concern for any higher principle, the ideals of the Aeneid are more familiar to us.
Aeneas is acutely aware of his responsibility to his men and the gods. There is a constant tension between his passions and his judgement. Odysseus feels no such tension, he acts consistently to satisfy his own and only his own desires.
To some extent, this may reflect the change in society from Homeric to Roman times. The shift to living in larger cities and greater level of cooperation meant that society could only function when people sacrificed their interests for the greater good. Hence the idea of Aeneas, a hero closer to our own age.