Both "The Iliad” and “The Aeneid” are classics in epic poetry. They invoke fate, soldierly duty and heroism. Where the Iliad focuses on the end of the Trojan War and war’s destructive power, however, the “Aeneid” takes up the tale during the war’s aftermath and lays the foundation -- and justification -- for a new civilization and the celebration of the conquerors.
No one knows when the blind poet Homer lived. Scholars estimate he was born as early as 700 B.C. His poems were passed down through an oral tradition until they were written in ancient Greek centuries after their composition. However Virgil, the author of "The Aeneid" was literate, and he had the opportunity to scrutinize Homer’s work, adopt it and try to enhance it. Virgil lived in the first century B.C. at the height of the Augustan age. He wrote in Latin and sought to bring glory to the Roman Empire and Caesar Augustus through his work.
The hero of "The Iliad,” Achilles, is brave but vain, respected but misguided by emotion. He wants no part in the Trojan War and refuses to fight until his young companion, Patroclus, is killed by Hector. On the other hand, Aeneas is guided from his homeland of Troy by a sense of duty to fulfill his destiny. He fights so that his people will have a place to live, a new homeland. Near the end of both wars, each hero must face and kill a final foe: as Achilles kills Hector, the bravest of the Trojan army, Aeneas kills the hero of the Latins, Turnus. However, the motive of revenge that drives Achilles to murder is absent for the hero of "The Aeneid" until, with the enemy leader pleading for his life, Aeneas discovers that Turnus has killed his beloved ally, Pallas.
Although both epics end with a hero’s death, in "The Iliad” Achilles is begged to return Hector’s desecrated corpse to his father, Priam, for a proper funeral rite. The poem ends on a note of contrition. Yet "The Aeneid” ends with Turnus’ death and no call for remorse. In the “Aeneid,” Turnus’ killing is necessary and justified. It brings about the end of the war and ultimately clears the way for the birth of Rome, but Aeneas is not without loss. He must give up his homeland and leave behind his love, Dido, to fulfill his destiny. He is not conflicted by the intense emotions that drive Achilles because of his sense of piety and duty to the mission of his people.
Where the “Iliad” illuminates both the valor and peril inherent in war, Virgil’s “Aeneid” does so with a clear political purpose. Virgil wrote his epic to glorify Rome’s conquest of the ancient world and legitimate the rule of Caesar Augustus. As the Romans adopted the Gods, philosophy and culture of the ancient Greeks into their civilization, using the best the ancient world had to offer and adapting it to justify their own ends as keepers of a worldwide empire, so did Virgil adopt Homer's style and themes into his own work.
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