Despite the wide margin of time that elapsed from the writing of Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid, many of the same themes are apparent in each text. Within both The Aeneid and Iliad, there is a strong urge to present a world in which wars are glorious and the gods have a direct hand in human events and these deities influence fate. Through the representation of two similarly “blessed” protagonists, Achilles and Aeneas, the reader is able to view the ways in which these two cultural issues intertwine and attempt to create a picture of the ancient world which is at once brutally real (especially in terms of the depictions of not only the glory, but the horrors of war) and filled with the magical and supernatural machinations of the gods.
Throughout both The Aeneid and Iliad these works, each of the main characters are “chosen” by the gods in some way and have gained favor not only because of their birth (the partial sons of gods or goddesses) but also because they are destined to fulfill a certain fate or prove themselves in some other way. This essay will argue that each author’s representation of the gods having a direct influence on he lives of mortals is symbolic of this “glory age” in which each author was trying to capture and it will also explore the ways these two protagonists are different and similar in terms of the societies they are shown to be living in as seen in both works.
The gods in both The Iliad and The Aeneid are shown not only to have a direct hand in the lives of mortals, but also, they are shown to be choosy about who they wish to help. The reasons behind their motivations and decisions isn’t based on any modern Christian notion of who “deserves” to have the honor “Greek religion embraced powers and fears of all kinds. As we have seen, its gods were within the world, one that they did not create. These powers—gods, nymphs, and other spirits—did not die (ordinarily) but were born. The Greek gods had favorite humans and intervened in human affairs, but they did not live within the human heart. They were powerful, but their power had limits.
All gods, including Zeus, were subject to fate” (Powell 123). The fallibility of the gods is apparent in both works since they are capable of being defeated and they have emotional impulses that drive them to make decisions. They are not represented as being all-powerful, and are prone to vices and nepotism. Although The Iliad and The Aeneid were written in entirely different eras with different political structures and cultural systems, both Homer and Virgil (as well as their readers) would have had a similar understanding of the gods and these characters. Both pieces were written during times of political and social strife, and this could be part of the reason why both texts, particularly Homer’s (since the Aeneid was written in a corresponding style) are heavily invested in depicting a “golden era” where mighty heroes of war lived long adventures and were aided by the direct hands of the many gods. There are many important quotes from both the Aeneid and Iliad that reflect these themes.
Achilles and Aeneas are similar in the sense that they have received favor from the gods, partially as the result of a sort of “divine nepotism” and also because they stand out from ordinary men because of their military or physical prowess. Both of these from The Iliad and The Aeneid characters are a mix of the two, thus making them worthy to receive the direct contact. Perhaps what is most strange, at least to the modern reader (steeped, whether voluntarily or not) in the traditions of Christianity, is that although Aeneas seems to deserve his gifts, Achilles does not yet has divine favor nonetheless.
While Aeneas is proud, he is not arrogant. He is a warrior, but he has the capacity for great love and sympathy and instead of abandoning his fellow soldiers in a time of need, he rallies them with a moving speech. In these ways he seems to be a hero worthy of the divine intervention and to make an even stronger case for that, he is the direct descendent of a god. Achilles, quite unlike Aeneas, is very aggressive and often without the sympathy or kindness (until the very end) shown by Aeneas. He is quick to react negatively and holds grudges. He is, in many senses, not worthy of what the modern reader might think of as a great person, but he has superhuman strength and is the descendent of a god as well. One cannot help but question why they receive equal intervention, but then again, the gods are seen as fickle and nepotistic in both works, sometimes favoring the wrong cause and proving them to be prone to making bad decisions.
The gods occupy a strange role in the Iliad and the life of Achilles. “The gods do not meet the expectations of the human characters. They do support the Greeks, but for reasons that have nothing to do with morality. They love and they hate, but they never talk about justice. Thus the narrator gives us the impression that Troy must in any case fall, that the Trojans are victims of a power that men, however virtuous, cannot conquer” (Kip 381). In the Iliad, there is a particularly poignant statement made by Ares in regards to his role in the lives of humans when he states in one of the important quotes from The Iliad by Homer, “We everlasting gods . . . Ah what chilling blows/ we suffer—thanks to our own conflicting wills— /whenever we show these mortal men some kindness. (Iliad 5.346-348). It is clear from this statement that the gods realize their failures yet they continue on the behalf of their chosen mortals, Aeneas and in the Iliad, Achilles. Both Homer and Virgil show that the gods are not perfect and that they are capable of recognizing their own faults. In a cultural/religious context, this is a potent statement since it reveals that this is not a society that believed in the ultimate righteousness of their gods, but rather knew that they were prone to same fallacies of mortals. Keeping this in mind is important in the analysis of the two protagonists of each texts since many of their actions are based on these gods’ wills and decisions. While they may react differently (Aeneas with submission and Achilles with rage and defiance) the fact remains that they are just as much out of control in some senses as the gods that, through all their bickering and self-interest appear to be.
One of the biggest differences in between Achilles and Aeneas in terms of their interactions with the gods and subsequent decision is the way they handle this divine intervention. In the Iliad, there seems to be an underlying tension that Achilles carries about the fact that so much is already determined for him. He already knows his fate and although he does have the choice to settle down to the life of comfort he wishes for, he still decides to go and fight (partially for the glory rather than because of any sense of duty, it seems). This tension is apparent when he is speaking with his mother, the sea goddess Thetis, and she asks him what is troubling him. Achilles’ response reveals quite a bit about his feelings about this intervention as he shoots back, ““Why tell you what you know” (Iliad I.423). This is an enlightening scene since it shows the way Achilles reacts in the face of the divine influences, even if this one is his own mother. It also reveals the extent to which he knows his actions are being observed and that there is perhaps some hostility in this. It could also be that this is a more modern interpretation of this line and Achilles is not in fact angry, but is merely stating a fact. No matter which way the reader chooses to look it at though, he still knows that the gods are watching and finds out later that they are prone to favoritism, error, and violence.
Unlike Aeneas in the Aeneid, Achilles is prone to fits of rage and although he may seem a bit daunted by the interference of the gods at times, they do serve to help him curb his very worst character flaw—rage. For example, when the reader is first shown how aggressive Achilles is, they also quickly learn that gods who favor him act as balancers to his anger. Recall the scene in which Achilles is ready to kill Agamemnon without a thought, but Athena intervenes and explained in one of the important quotes from The Aeneid by Virgil, “It was to check this killing rage I came from heaven, if you will listen. Hera sent me, being fond of both of you, concerned for both. Enough: break off this combat” (Iliad I.243-246). Not only are the gods then shown to have favorites between these two prominent men, they act as personality moderators and seem to know the outcome—presumably that Achilles will win this fight and kill Agamemnon.
In some ways, it only seems fitting that Achilles’ capacity for rage and outbursts of childishness are sometimes unchecked by the gods. After all, the gods themselves, while bickering about the fate of the mortal Achilles, are prone to their own angry outbursts and childish scenes. Hera challenges Zeus’ decision to punish the Greeks in revenge for Achilles’ dishonor, and later she directly intervenes in the midst of a successful Trojan onslaught, angry at their successes. “In these instances her anger is not described in conjunction with a reference to thumos, but at other times she surely has a thumos—‘Now Hera, she of the golden throne … her thumos was happy’ (Iliad 14.155). Even Aphrodite admits to having a thumos when she addresses Hera: “Speak forth whatever is on your mind. My thumos is urgent….” (Iliad 14.195). Only Thetis among the goddesses is particularly liable to sorrow” (Koziak 1066). Again, as with the mortals that have been chosen, the gods themselves are victims to the same sorts of emotion (thumos)-driven battles that Achilles and Agamemnon are open to. When viewed in this context, the actions of the gods in both texts are seen as entirely fallible and one can’t help but question whether Aeneas has been somewhat more foolish that Achilles in devoting himself to their fickle wills.
Still even though one may question the issue of the reliability of the gods, the fact remains that Aeneas does put a great deal of stock in their will. On the other hand, the gods are beneficial—at least in their eyes—because they think they helping Aeneas overcome a flaw. Very much as with Achilles, Aeneas’ “negative” personality traits are counterbalanced by the actions of the gods. By calling a trait “negative” in Aeneas’ case, this would be his devotion to the vengeful Dido. The gods know that he has a prophecy to fulfill, thus they serve as constant reminders of his duty and don’t allow him to slip into a domesticated life with a woman that he obviously loves. When they send him the divine message that he must leave Dido, he obeys, and thus is obeying the will of the gods (who, when one really thinks about it, are merely playing off of his domestic instincts by invoking his father’s name). Although the personality traits are very different between Aeneas, the fact remains that the gods serve to make them hold true to their purposes by causing them to act in ways that cancel out their bad habits and undesirable ways of acting of believing.
It truly seems as though Aeneas, unlike Achilles, is more willing to bow down to the pressures of the gods—even if he might think they have erred in their judgment. “Aeneas has long been recognized as a sort of proto-Stoic, struggling with variable success to achieve self-control and obedience to Fate. At the beginning of his journey, however, he momentarily resembles an Epicurean philosopher even as he engages in an act of conventional pietas. When his attempts to uproot a small tree to deck his altar twice cause the bark to drip blood (Aeneid 3.24-29), he tries to discover the hidden cause of this bizarre phenomenon” (Dyson 449). This is a rare moment of symbolism in the text and reveals Aeneas to be searcher for truth. Strangely though, his truth is not found in his own emotions, which the gods seem to deem as secondary to his fate, but his undaunted belief in this will seems unshakable and the fact that he questions the smallest signs would lead one to believe that he wishes to know the meaning of things.
In this cultural context (gods playing a direct role in the lives of mortals) one sees clearly that both Homer and Virgil, by attempting to reconstruct a romanticized past of glorious wars and great heroes, must have these men being directed by something divine. What makes these two characters so similar is that they both are the children of one god (thus the nepotism angle) and that they both possess outstanding features. While Achilles is the strongest man, he is prone to violent outbursts, but the gods temper this flaw. While Aeneas has a strongly emotional side, this too is counterbalanced by the wishes of the gods. Even though they have these two things in common, it is clear that their biggest difference lies in the way they react in the face of divine intervention, but more importantly, how greatly they wish to put stock in entities that are prone to making rash decisions. It would be difficult to engage in any meaningful discussion about either of these heroic characters without mentioning the gods, thus this paper has sought to represent the two in order to compare and contrast Achilles and Aeneas.
Dyson, JT. “Fluctus Irarum, Fluctus Curarum: Lucretian Religio in the Aeneid.” American Journal of Philology 118.3 (1997): 449
Kip, A. Maria Van Erp Taalman. “The gods of the Iliad and the fate of Troy.” Mnemosyne 53.4 (2000): 385.
Koziak, Barbara. “Homeric Thumos: The Early History of Gender, Emotion, and Politics.” Journal of Politics 61.4 (1999): 1068.
Powell, Barry B., and Ian Morris. The Greeks: History, Culture, and Society. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2002. 123.