Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.