The Roman Empire has been classified as perhaps the greatest empire of the ancient world. Some have even gone so far as to claim it is the greatest empire in the history of mankind. The Romans were unbelievably patriotic, and proud of their vast empire. This inevitably led them to compare themselves to those that had come before.
As a writer at this time, Virgil was not immune to Roman patriotism. In his Aeneid, Virgil highlights the comparison between the Romans and their cultural predecessors, the Greeks. He draws literary parallels to Homer to emphasize his point. The characters of Aeneas and Odysseus are microcosms of their respective cultures. Through a comparison of the hero Aeneas to the hero Odysseus, Virgil shows that the Romans are the superior culture.
In the Aeneid and the Odyssey, Aeneas and Odysseus both undergo a parallel journey with the ultimate purpose of returning (in Aeneas’ case establishing) a home. However, throughout their journeys, the actions of the two heroes are vastly different.
Aeneas embodies the Roman value of duty. He is given a task by the Gods, told directly by Mercury: to leave Carthage and found an empire in Rome. Immediately after receiving this message, Aeneas is prepared to obey, “As the sharp admonition and command from heaven had shaken him awake, he now burned only to be gone, to leave that land of the sweet life behind.” (N.A. 1093, 364) It is Aeneas’ instinct to obey the command of the Gods.
As the end of this sentence shows, Aeneas is willing to obey despite the fact that he knows he will be leaving “the sweet life behind”: leaving his lover, Dido and the good and peaceful life he could have had. “Duty-bound, Aeneas, though he struggled with desire…took the course heaven gave him and went back to the fleet.” (N.A. 1097, 520-526) Aeneas sacrifices his personal happiness – his private life – for the good of his people and his public duty.
Odysseus, on the other hand, is not driven by any sense of duty. He leaves Troy to return home to Ithaca, yet does not reach his destination for 10 years. Even when he does arrive, he does so without any of his original crew. Odysseus is driven purely by self-interest, and often abandons those he is indebted to and responsible for. He strays multiple times from his path: on the island of the Cyclops, with Circe and with Calypso, all the while putting his followers in danger and betraying his waiting wife.
Odysseus only returns to Ithaca and his wife at the order of the Gods, when he has had his fill of bliss with Calypso. All of Odysseus’ actions are fuelled by self-interest; he puts his private life above his public duty, a trait particularly abhorred by the Romans. Thus Virgil uses the comparison of Aeneas’ sense of duty to Odysseus’ self-interest to propel the Roman culture above and beyond that of the Greeks.
Homer’s works are part of the Trojan cycle, and represent two major themes: the Iliad is war, and the Odyssey is a journey. Virgil takes these two concepts and combines them in the Aeneid, which is a journey followed by a war. Yet Virgil’s Aeneas and Homer’s Odysseus approach war in vastly different ways.
Aeneas fights for the future, to create an empire for his son, and to continue the legacy of Troy. As he explains to Dido, “Priam’s great hall should stand again.” (N.A 1095, 449-450) Aeneas fights for a purpose greater than himself. As he is told by his father in the Underworld, “What glories follow Dardan generations in after years, and from Italian blood what famous children in your line will come, souls of the future, living in our name.” (N.A 1120, 619-622)
Aeneas knows that his battles are meant to benefit others, and he accepts this and fights harder for it. Unlike Aeneas, Odysseus fights for himself, to satisfy his own self-interest. Throughout his journey, Odysseus purposefully involves himself in the conflict in order to achieve glory for himself. On the island of the Cyclops, Odysseus could have avoided conflict with Polyphemos, and the eventual vengeance of Poseidon, had he not been so focused on personal glory.
Even once he has reclaimed his house from the suitors, Odysseus sees fit to kill them all despite their surrender and offer of compensation, “Not for the whole treasure of your fathers…would I hold my hand. There will be killing till the score is paid.” (N.A 496, 61-64) Odysseus’ motivation towards the suitors was his own revenge, not just the saving of his wife.
Benefit for others through Odysseus’ actions is merely a by-product of his own personal benefit; it is never first in his mind to fight for the cause of others, as he is always focused on his own self-interest. Aeneas fights his battles for others, for the future, and ultimately to create. Odysseus fights for himself, and the outcome is always destruction.
Virgil uses this as a metaphor for the comparison between cultures. Rome is focused on a greater purpose and creates the building of a vast empire and creation of an enormous united culture; whereas Greece is selfish, and destroys: the sacking of Troy followed by the internal destruction of the Peloponnesian war.
There is a reason that figures become great in the history of a culture. These infamous heroes often embody the ideal of that culture, the values it most wishes to uphold, and the image it wants to present. To compare the heroes of a culture is to compare the cultures themselves, and in Virgil’s Aeneid, he is able to do just that.
He compares his hero Aeneas, father of Rome, to the Greek Odysseus, and every time – especially from the Roman perspective – Aeneas is the victor. Aeneas is the ideal Roman hero, and in many ways has also highly influenced our contemporary notions of a hero. The comparative triumph of Aeneas over Odysseus is Virgil’s declaration of the triumph of Roman culture.