Homer Iliad Book 22 and Virgil Aeneid Book 12: A Comparison.
The purpose of this paper is to compare the climactic moments in two epic poems separated by many centuries in composition. The Iliad was composed as part of the tradition of oral composition (see Kirk1), perhaps in the late eighth century BC: the Aeneid is a literary composition (see Quinn2) of the last half of the first century BC. Despite the many centuries between them, the two epics are built around the story of the Trojan War (a war which may have been fought about 1200 BC). The Iliad describes a short period in the tenth and last year of the war: the Aeneid relates the escape of the Trojan Aeneas from the destruction of Troy and his journey to settle in the new land of Hesperia (Italy). This paper will consider some of the main issues, ideas and techniques contained in the two books and examine similarities and differences between them. It is important to remember that Virgil had an intimate knowledge of Homer’s epics and made much use of them when composing the Aeneid. In the words of Quinn:
His (Virgil’s) poem expressly recalls Homer’s story and constantly evokes Homer’s conventions – the parallels are close and sustained in some books. There are the small things: scenes, similes, numberless details of phrase, not merely influenced by Homer but modelled closely on him. The structure of the poem is Homeric e.g. divine intervention. Yet, for all this, Virgil’s poem remains consciously, fundamentally, and unmistakably, Roman. Virgil is even striving to outdo his teacher.3
One thing worth noting to begin with is that Homer’s poem was not originally divided into books. The division that we think of today, into 24 books, happened long afterwards at the library at Alexandria. Virgil, however, chose to divide his poem into only twelve books, and so it is often felt by readers that Virgil’s text is more condensed and more complex. The Aeneid was written down over a long period of time, perhaps as long as eleven years, and so the manner of composition was very different from the Iliad. Iliad 22 is 515 lines long, whereas Aeneid 12 at 952 lines is almost twice as long. This allows Virgil to introduce more issues, to dwell on them longer and to have digressions from the narrative, such as the debate between Jupiter and Juno. It is also worth remembering that Hector is dead by line 365 and that a third of Book 22 and two other books bring the epic to a conclusion, whereas Turnus’ death in line 952 brings both the book and the epic to a sudden conclusion (more of this anon). Both poets use 16 similes which amount to about 8 per cent of each of the books, but this means that Virgil’s similes can be twice as long and that he can extend the images. (The paper returns to a comparison of the similes later.)
Let us first consider the mortals in the two works. Though the comparisons are not easy4, for the purpose of this paper Aeneas = Achilles and Turnus = Hector. In the Aeneid the Latinus figure is clearly based on the Homeric Priam, although he is not Turnus’s actual father. His address to Turnus (lines 18–45) mirrors that of Priam to Hector (lines 37–76) and he addresses Turnus as a father would a son, as he begs him not to face Aeneas, but to concede and go. Amata (lines 53–63) replaces Hecuba (lines 79–89). Her concern for Turnus is more like that of a mother than a mother-in-law (David Ross even suggests ‘lover’)5. There is no parallel to Andromache, since Lavinia (neither Turnus’ wife, nor the mother of his son, as he does not have one) does not speak and is only referred to briefly in lines 64–80 and 605–6.
The gods are much more intimately involved in the action of the Iliad than they are in the Aeneid, where their actions seem to be more removed from the mortals. Actions on a divine level are often difficult for the modern reader to come to terms with. Some of their interferences in both Homer and Virgil can be explained away as a means of explaining human rationality. For example, Apollo giving Hector the strength to complete the third circuit of Troy could be seen as a last superhuman effort in a parlous situation, and Venus’ suggestion to Aeneas that he should attack the city of Latinus could be a way of explaining Aeneas suddenly coming to such a decision himself. Other interventions defy logical explanation, such as Athene appearing to Hector as Deiphobus and returning Achilles’ spear, and the nymph Juturna, sister of Turnus, replacing Metiscus so that she can try to save Turnus. There are other parallels too. Athene’s active role in the Iliad on behalf of the victor is reflected in that of Juturna at the bidding of Juno on behalf of the loser. In both epics there is the image of the scales deciding the fate of the loser. In the Iliad Zeus lifts the scales (lines 209 ff.) and the fate of Hector is sealed; in the Aeneid Virgil uses the same idea, but adds a twist, as Jupiter’s balancing of the scales (lines 725 ff.) points to the finality of the duel, but does not declare a loser. In lines 166–187 Zeus thinks of saving Hector, but Athene shows him that he cannot, and Zeus allows Athene to have her head and bring about a conclusion to the duel; the duel between Aeneas and Turnus is delayed for almost 100 lines (lines 791–886), while matters are resolved at a divine level by Jupiter and Juno.
There are many Homeric echoes in the events of Virgil’s duel. Turnus’s recollection of the words of Drances (line 644) parallels Hector’s recall of Polydamas’ words(lines 99 ff.). Aeneas chases Turnus ten times round the inside of the ring of spectators (lines 742–765); Achilles chases Hector three times around the walls of Troy (lines 136–231). The chase is not for a prize in the games, but for the life of Turnus (line 765) as it is for the life of Hector (line 161). The brief appeal of Turnus to Aeneas (lines 930–938) echoes that of Hector to Achilles (lines 339 ff.). The freeing of Aeneas’ spear from the tree-root by Venus (lines 786–787) is similar to the return of Achilles’ spear by Athene (lines 276–277), though the latter is clearly divine interference, whereas it could be argued that the release of Aeneas’ spear from Faunus’ tree is simply the result of his constant efforts to pull it free. Both Achilles (line 321) and Aeneas (line 920) look for a place to strike their blows. The nature of Turnus’ disabling wound in the thigh, which prevents any further attempt to escape (lines 926–927), is different from the wound of Hector (lines 326–328), which is fatal, but does not prevent him from pleading for the return of his corpse and finally prophesying the death of Achilles. Note that Aeneas is confronted with the choice of life and death for Turnus, whereas Achilles’ choice is more focused on what he will do with Hector’s body. Compare the death of Hector in lines 361–363 with that of Turnus (lines 950–952).
One of the major differences in the duels is the fact that the death of Turnus brings the Aeneid to an abrupt and unsettling end, a conclusion that has been subject to much criticism over the years (see for example Putnam (1965) for a negative view). Many have claimed that the Aeneid is meant to be a criticism of Augustus and the human cost of establishing the Roman empire. In this reading Turnus and his allies stand for the broader cost of Roman domination. Much of the argument is based on Aeneas’ hesitation in lines 938–941 after the appeal of Turnus, and his anger at lines 946–947 (furiis accensus et ira terribilis – ‘on fire with a terrible fury and anger’). Then, at the sight of Pallas’s belt-buckle, Aeneas deals the fatal blow, claiming to be avenging the death of his young ally, Pallas, (947–949: for the figure of Pallas, see below). Earlier in the poem, in the Underworld, Aeneas had been advised by his dead father Anchises to adopt compassion and mercy to conquered peoples (6.853), but this is not what happens at the end of Book 12.6
The Iliad does not have this unsettling conclusion. Greek poets tended to favour an element of reconciliation at the end of their works. So Hector’s death is not the end of the poem. After he is killed, his body is mutilated by Achilles and his men, but the gods keep it intact, and it is ultimately given back to his father Priam by Achilles (in Book 24). Hector’s death in Book 22 is followed by the grieving of Hecuba and Priam and, most important of all, the very poignant picture of Andromache hearing the news and expressing her grief. The Iliad ends with the funeral of Hector, the final act for a fallen warrior, and the very moving farewells of the three women Andromache, Hecuba and, most significantly, Helen, who mourn for Hector and remember him in different ways. In the Aeneid we are spared Achilles’ shameful and barbaric treatment of Hector’s body, but there is no ritual mourning for Turnus after his death as there is for Hector – no eulogies and no funeral to bring a more satisfying conclusion to his life. The end of the Aeneid is therefore very stark and confronting when compared to the peaceful end of the Iliad. What reconciliation there is at the end of the Aeneid is on the grand scale of a cosmic agreement between Jupiter and Juno – the king and queen of heaven (12.791–842). Essentially, Virgil leaves the reader with a troubling and much more realistic end, which shows the brutality of war. It invites the reader to reflect on what has happened and gives rise to discussion, as it has among so many commentators.
What then are the themes or issues of the poems and of these books in particular? The core theme of the Iliad is that of the anger of Achilles, which begins with his argument with Achilles in Book 1, and, though partly assuaged by the killing of Hector in Book 22, is not finally put to rest until his meeting with Priam in Book 24. The parallel for this in the Aeneid is the anger of Juno. She becomes the implacable enemy of the Trojans for the reasons given in the proem of the epic (1: 1–31) and does all that she can to prevent Aeneas from reaching Italy and fulfilling his destiny. She finally puts aside her anger in the discussion with Jupiter (12: 791–886). Jupiter tells her that, as she cannot stop fate, she should stop making life difficult for the Trojans. Juno gives way, but demands concessions, almost all of which Jupiter is happy to grant because they reflect what happened in the history which follows. Juno withdraws happy in the knowledge that will be honoured by the combined Trojans and Latins.
In Book 22 Achilles’ focus is on avenging the death of his beloved companion Patroclus at the hands of Hector in Book 16. The focus is solely on revenge, whereas in Aeneid 12 Aeneas’ prime focus is on meeting Turnus so that their duel can bring an end to the destructive fighting and bring peace to both Trojans and Latins. His pursuit of him is single-minded, made clear by the fact that he ignores other opponents (464–7). The desire for revenge does not appear until the very last lines when he sees the belt of Pallas. Then the memories of the death of Pallas (10.474–509) and his reaction to it, both immediately in a murderous rampage and in the cold light of dawn (11.26–99), come flooding back and overwhelm any feelings of compassion for Turnus and his aged father Daunus. Though Achilles is single-minded in his desire for vengeance on Hector, he allows himself to be distracted from that pursuit to kill others and even fight a river in Books 20 and 21. His purpose is not to end the war, but to kill Hector.
One epic concentrates on the destruction of a city, the other on the foundation of one. However, these antithetical ideas are linked because it is the destruction of Troy which will cause Aeneas and his followers to flee Troy and to search for a new place to settle. That new place, after several false starts, will prove to be Italy. Though Aeneas does not found Rome, he must settle in Italy so that descendants of his line can do so in due course.
The two epics are not only a long way apart in terms of their dates and the manners of composition, but they reside in two very different kind of cultures and languages. The Iliad is set in the world of Greek heroic conduct in war. The major warriors, especially Achilles, are preoccupied with material gain, and they go to great lengths to guard their reputations within the community. Warriors on the two sides frequently boast and taunt each other, as do Achilles and Hector in the final duel. In Iliad Book 1, in a dispute over the division of the spoils of earlier fighting, Agamemnon takes the prize of Achilles – the young girl Briseis. Achilles takes this as a grievous insult and loss of face, and he duly withdraws himself and his men from the fighting (and ‘sulks in his tent’!). Finally his great friend and companion, Patroclus, is talked into returning to the fighting, which he does, but is soon killed by Hector (Book 16). Achilles wants revenge for the death of Patroclus, even though killing Hector will bring about his own death shortly afterwards (this has been ordained by fate).
The Aeneid is based in the same heroic period of the Trojan War, but it is written in Latin, not Greek, and it contains many Roman ideas of Virgil’s time. Most significantly, it presents a very different kind of heroism from the Iliad. Aeneas is still ‘heroic’ and fights for his cause in the old fashioned way, but the guiding light for his actions is the Roman virtue of pietas. This can perhaps be best described as devotion to the gods of household and country and to the mission imposed by them, a devotion to one’s country and a sense of responsibility for one’s family and followers. This was one of the four virtues inscribed on the famous shield presented to Augustus (the others are iustitia, clementia, virtus). The adjective pius is used as an epithet for Aeneas as he struggles through the epic to learn and to live up to this new form of leadership. However, it does not mean that this new hero should not kill when it is necessary to achieve his mission and to protect his family and followers. Aeneas does not boast or taunt Turnus in the way that the Homeric heroes do. The heroic code of Homer seems to demand killing and almost to justify it. For the leading warriors it is a case of kill or be killed in the forefront of the battle. Virgil, perhaps influenced by the events of the civil wars of Rome’s immediate past, seems to concentrate much more on the brutality of war and its waste of human life.
A common feature of both epics is the use of the simile, a literary technique which adds colour to the narrative and helps the audience to picture more clearly the events being described. There are sixteen similes in Book 12, the highest number in any book. Three of them [Turnus like Mars (331–336), Aeneas pursuing Turnus like a dog pursuing a stag (749–757), and Turnus being like a man in a dream (908–912)] have a direct parallel in Iliad 22 [Achilles is like Enyalios the god of war (132), Achilles chases Hector like a dog chasing a fawn (189–193), and the chase is like that of men in a dream who cannot escape or close the gap (199–201)]. Four others have a parallel in another book of the Iliad.7 There is an excellent discussion of the similes in Book 12 by Hornsby8, who sees many links and much symbolism in them.
The opening simile (4–8) – Book 12 is the only book to begin with a simile9 – likens Turnus to a wounded lion. The mention of Carthage will recall Dido and her sacrificial death, and hint at Turnus’s. The wounded lion reflects the wounded Turnus at the very end, but the behaviour of the lion reminds us that Turnus is still a dangerous force. As Putnam says ‘roars from his bloodstained mouth’ (fremit ore cruento) reminds us of Furor (1.294–296) and Nisus (9.341).10 Turnus is then likened to a young bull, another dangerous animal, preparing for its first battle (103–106). This is picked up brilliantly with the description of Aeneas and Turnus beginning their duel by clashing like bulls (715–722). Hornsby points to the fact that those likened to lions or bulls generally die. He also remarks that Virgil pointedly says that the whole herd will follow the leader, just as the Trojans and Latins will. The last animal simile is that of a hunting dog pursuing a stag (749–757). There are echoes here of Book 4, especially the simile of Dido being a deer (4.68–73) and the use of ‘red feathers’ (puniceae pennae 750 – note how the translation cannot include the extra nuance of puniceae = Punic/Phoenician/Carthaginian), but one should remember that a stag with its antlers is a dangerous animal. This echoes Homer too (189–193), who likens Achilles chase of Hector to a dog chasing the fawn of a deer (not a stag as Putnam incorrectly states11 – the fawn is a much more timid creature and is sometimes a sign of cowardice, as perhaps here). This fact points to Virgil’s subtle use of differences.
The doomed Hector is not the dangerous threat that Turnus is. To study Virgil’s similes is to gain some understanding of his virtuosity and his debt to Homer. His choice and use of animal images is deliberate and so clever. Apart from the image of the dog and the stag, none of his animal images come from Iliad 22. Homer’s animal images are of Achilles approaching Hector like a champion horse (22f), Hector waiting for him like a snake in a hole (93–95), Achilles’ pursuit of Hector like a hawk pursuing a dove (139–142) and like a horse race (162–164), and Hector’s final charge at Achilles like an eagle swooping on a lamb or hare (308–310) [some lamb!]. They too add brilliant colour to the narrative. For the most part they hint at Hector’s doom.
There is another set of similes which Virgil has adapted from those of Homer, but from other books of the Iliad. They are a group of four similes which use the destructive forces of nature. When Turnus goes on the rampage, the opposition gives way like clouds before Boreas, the north wind (365–367). Homer uses the image of the pursuing blasts of wind in 4.419 f., 11.305, and 15.624. When Aeneas has recovered from his wound and sets out after Turnus, his approach is likened to clouds which presage a coming storm (451–456). In 4.275 ff. Homer describes the Ajaxes and the Greeks as like a storm cloud. When Aeneas, angered by Messapus’ attack, begins to match the slaughter of Turnus, they are likened together to a bush fire or a raging flood (521–525), [Homer says that the sound of the clashing armies is like a mountain torrent in 4.452 ff. and 16.390ff.] two more very destructive natural elements, both of which are usually the result of a violent storm. The linking together of these destructive images is very clever. There is a link in the last image which Hornsby does not comment upon. It brings to mind the simile of the shepherd in 2.304–308, who hears a fire or flooding stream, which is likened to the destructive forces of the Greeks within Troy. In Virgil it is particularly important to look for these links to other parts of the Aeneid, as memories of them may enhance the current simile. Virgil cleverly contrasts Turnus as a dislodged boulder crashing down a mountain
(684–689), which will be destructive, but become inert, with Aeneas likened to massive, solid mountains (701–703). The image of the boulder comes from Iliad 13.136 ff., where Homer’s loser, Hector, is described as like a boulder crashing down a mountain, as he threatens to break through the Greek ranks. ‘He pressed in hard but was brought to a stop’ like the boulder, which ‘can roll no more’.
The other similes in the two books are listed in the appendix. All but two of Homer’s are used during the pursuit and the duel. Those two, the lamentation in Troy just as it would be if the city was on fire (410-11) and Andromache like a woman in a frenzy (460), are used by Virgil in Book 4, where Dido is a woman in a frenzy (4.69, 4.298, 4.474, 4.646) and the lamentation in Carthage is as if the city was captured and on fire (4.669–671). Homer’s similes may generally be short, sometimes less than a line, but they are varied and vivid, and add so much to the narrative. Virgil, in contrast, has the vast Homeric source (and other predecessors) to draw upon for inspiration and ideas. He is able to produce expanded similes from Homeric models. He too seems to make such excellent use of the simile to present appropriate analogies to the events which he is describing. The images which he presents to his audience would have been so familiar to many of them. This surely must be the test of a simile. Does it resonate with the audience? Though we in Melbourne are less concerned with the countryside than Virgil and his contemporary Romans, most of them resonate with us too, especially those of the destructive force of natural elements.
There is a useful article by David West12 that is focused on the deaths of Hector and Turnus in the Iliad and the Aeneid. West points to differences in the ‘organisation of the elements in these two duels’ and explains the effects that he believes that these changes have. He is critical of Virgil for lacking the ‘soldierly realism’ of Homer and for making too much use of the supernatural. It seems strange that he does not mention the way in which Athene intervenes to return Achilles’ spear to him, which would damage his claim for ‘soldierly realism’ and must be seen as supernatural. West also has a major problem with 12.950–951, as he considers that it cannot be ‘soldierly realism’ for Aeneas to bury his sword in Turnus’ breast, as his armour would have prevented it. Further consideration of the Aeneid suggests that such an act is not impossible. Swords (and spears) frequently pierce armour in the Aeneid. Consider the death blow delivered by Turnus to Pallas in 10.479–485, where Turnus’ iron-tipped spear goes right through the shield and breastplate of Pallas. In 10.601 Aeneas kills Liger in the breast with his sword. When he kills Lausus, it is a sword blow to the midriff, perhaps too low to be covered by a breastplate, but the blow is enough to go through the shield and the tunic woven with gold thread (10.815–819). Most significantly, the death of Theron, the first to fall to Aeneas in Book 10, perhaps sets a precedent for what is to come at the climax of Book 12. Aeneas stabs him in the side through the bronze of his chain mail. When Turnus arms himself at the beginning of Book 12, he puts over his shoulders mail made of gold and copper. If Theron’s mail was not enough to keep out Aeneas’ sword (which, of course, is a divine sword made by Vulcan), why should the mail of Turnus, made of the softer metals of gold and copper, be able to? It is also possible from the descriptions of the arming of Lausus and Turnus to think that it was only their shoulders and the top of the trunk which were protected by their armour. One of the contributors to this paper is not entirely convinced by some of the arguments, and has recently argued that realism belongs to the Aeneid compared to the fantasy of the Iliad.13
To conclude, there is perhaps a sense of inevitability in Homer’s story, even though Hector does not know that he is going to die until 297–303. Once confronted with that realisation, he faces the inevitable in the manner of a heroic warrior. Iliad 22 is a wonderfully raw and vivid episode, full of passion and sadness, but one that belongs largely in the realm of fantasy, as the intervention of the gods shows. This is perhaps appropriate for a poem composed at a time before history, when the distinction between man and god was often blurred. In the narrative of the Aeneid Turnus realises that he is doomed much longer before his death. In his speech to his sister Juturna (631–649) he regrets the deaths that his actions have caused, asks whether death is so bad and prays to be allowed to escape dishonour by what he now does. After Saces has brought news of the attack on the city, he again addresses his sister (676–680) in some of the most significant and poignant lines of the book. He must face fate whatever it is and death without any more shame, but he pleads to be allowed to go out in a blaze of glory and fury (hunc, oro, sine me furere ante furorem). It is fury, the force which opposes pietas, which has guided him throughout. Very appropriately the simile of the boulder follows. Yet, though he knows that he is doomed, the reader is not sure till the very end, because Jupiter does not give the game away with the scales, and Aeneas hesitates before delivering the fatal blow. Aeneid 12 is equally vivid and full of passion and sadness, but seems much more realistic and believable, reflecting the age in which Virgil lived. His Rome and Italy had been racked for a hundred years by the wars which accompanied the downfall of the republic. Peace may have come with the rule of Augustus, but the memories of the brutality of war were too vivid to ignore. War is no longer the gentlemanly playground of the hero.
Do not try to compare the two works so that you conclude that one is better than the other. They are both wonderful poets and these books are great examples of their virtuosity. You and your students will probably prefer one to the other. Let the students make up their own minds rather than force your views upon them. Your task is to compare and contrast these two fine examples of epic poetry and the issues, themes and techniques which they contain so that your students can write a comparative essay on a given topic in the end of year examination. It is hoped that this paper has done something to help you and them in that task.
Finkelberg, M (ed.) 2010, The Homer Encyclopedia (2 volumes), Oxford.
Hornsby, RA 1970, Patterns of Action in the Aeneid, Iowa City.
Kirk, GS 1962, The Songs of Homer (Cambridge)
Mackie, CJ 1988, The Character of Aeneas, Edinburgh.
Mountford, PNG 1987, ‘Images in Virgil’, Iris n.s. 2, 1987, 10–25.
– 1996, ‘Virgil Aeneid 12: Homeric Echoes in a Tragic Ending’, Iris n.s. 8, 2–8.
– 2007, ‘From Fantasy to Reality in Epic Duels – Iliad 22 and Aeneid 12’, Iris n.s. 20, 53–61.
Otis, B 1964, Virgil, a Sudy in Civilised Poetry, Oxford.
Putnam, MCJ 1965, The Poetry of the Aeneid, Cambridge MA.
– 1999, ‘Aeneid 12: Unity in Closure’ in C. Perkell (ed.), Reading Virgil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide, Norman.
Quinn, K 1969, Virgil’s Aeneid: A Critical Description, London.
Ross, DO 2007, Virgils’s Aeneid: A Reader’s Guide, Oxford.
West, D 1974, ‘The deaths of Hector and Turnus’, Greece and Rome 21, 21–31.
Williams, RD 1973, The Aeneid of Virgil Books 7–12, London.
– 1977, An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid, Sydney.
Appendix – a comparison of the similes.
Iliad 22 Aeneid 12
Achilles like the god of war (132–134) Turnus like Mars himself (331-6)
Achilles and Hector like a dog and a fawn Aeneas and Turnus like a hunting dog and a
of a deer (189-92) stag (749-57)
Hector like a man in a dream (199–200) Turnus like a man in a dream (908-12)
Pursuing blasts of wind (4.419ff.; 11.305; Turnus like clouds fleeing before Boreas
15.624) across the sky (365-7)
Ajaxes and Greeks like a storm cloud (4.275ff.) Aeneas like a cloud presaging a storm (451-6)
Sound of clashing armies like a mountain The rampage of Aeneas and Turnus like a
torrent (4.452ff.; 16.390ff.) bushfire or raging flood (521-5)
Hector like a boulder crashing down a Turnus like a boulder crashing down a
mountain (13-136ff.) mountain (684-9)
Trojans panicked like fawns (1) Turnus like a wounded lion (4-8)
Achilles like a champion horse (22-3) Lavinia’s cheeks like stained ivory or
Achilles’ spear like the star Orion (26-31) roses among lilies (67-9)
Hector like a snake in a hole (93-5) Turnus like a bull preparing for its first battle
Hector unarmed like a woman (125) (103-6)
Armour shining like fire or rising sun (134-5) Juturna like a black swallow (473-7)
Achilles chases Hector like a hawk chases a Citizens like bees being smoked out (587-
dove (139-42) 592)
Steam rises as if there was a fire (150) Aeneas like a mountain – Athos, Eryx or
Pusuit like a horse race (162-4) the Appenines (701-3)
Hector swoops like an eagle on a lamb or Aeneas and Turnus like two bulls (715-22)
hare (308-10) Dira’s approach like an arrow (856-9)
Point of Achilles’ spear like the evening Noise of Aeneas’ spear like an artillery stone
star (317-8) or thunderbolt, and its flight like a
Lamentation in Troy just as it would be if whirlwind (921-5)
The city was on fire (410-1)
Andromache like a woman in a frenzy (460)