A Beginner’s Guide To Reading 3 Epic Poems

epic [ep-ik] adj. noting or pertaining to a long poetic composition, usually centered upon a hero, in which a series of great achievements or events is narrated in elevated style

A few days I came across a curious thing on Tumblr: a student who was interested in and in possession of three epic poems – The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid – in translation, and who wanted to read them but didn’t know how to approach them in a way that made them easy to understand.

As a classics major in undergrad, I had little trouble understanding what was going on in these epics because I had been exposed to the stories, in varying amounts, and the cultural context of the stories for a number of years already. I can only imagine what it’s like to read these stories with little to no knowledge of the Greco-Roman world or the literature that came from it.

So, after a lot of thinking, I figured the easiest way to explain how to approach these epics was to provide anyone who wants to know how (i.e. anyone who’s reading this) with 1) a brief overview of the background, major characters, and major cultural topics of each epic and with 2) a general outline of the structure(s) of the epics.

THE ILIAD

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The Fury of Achilles, by Charles-Antoine Coypel, 1737

What is it?
\The Iliad is an epic poem that covers a very short span of time (20 days of fighting + 25 days following the death of Hector) in the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Although written in the 800s B.C., the story takes place approximately 300-400 years earlier.

Why is it happening?
\Because Zeus had heard a prophecy that the child he would have with Thetis would be a threat to him, he set her up to be married to Peleus instead (Peleus + Thetis = Achilles), throwing them a big wedding that everyone but Eris (Strife) was invited to. Because she was scorned, Eris showed up anyway and threw a golden apple into the middle of the party that said ‘for the fairest’, causing an argument to arise between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena. They didn’t trust any of the immortals to judge who the fairest of them was, so instead chose Paris, a mortal, leading to the  infamous Judgement of Paris. Each goddess offered him a gift, but Aphrodite’s – the most beautiful woman in the world – was most appealing to him.
\Thanks to Aphrodite (and the golden apple that led to the Judgement of Paris), Paris (a Trojan Prince) goes to Sparta and steals Helen away in order to make her his wife even though she already is a wife, leading Menelaus (her husband) to gather up the Achaeans (aka the Greeks) and go to war against the Trojans.

What’s happening now?
\Achilles’ honor/virtue/excellence has been (physically) taken away from him by Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and leader of the Achaean armies. Honor (arete) and glory (kleos) were super important in ancient Greece, usually earned and exhibited through military prowess and numerous war prizes (including land, riches, and women). Because he has been affronted in such a way, he refuses to fight in the war again until around Book 18 (approximately 3 weeks)

Other Important Characters
\Trojans: Aeneas, Hector (+ Andromache), Priam, Apollo*, Aphrodite*
\Achaeans: Diomedes, Odysseus, Patroclus, Hera*, Athena*, Poseidon*
*All of the gods take sides in the war except Zeus, who appears only to be influenced by and a proponent of Fate

Notes On Structure
\This is NOT the beginning of the Trojan War. It is also not the end. Lots of things happen afterward, so if it feels like the story is unfinished when you’re done, it is.
\There may be a lot of repetition, long catalogues of people or things, or comparisons to the natural world – these were all devices that were used purposefully in the oral composition of epic poetry. Feel free to skip the catalogue of ships in Book 2 (I always do).
\If you were expecting this to be All About Achilles, you may be a little disappointed. Perhaps the epic comes full circle in the way that it begins with him and ends with him, but most of the action happens without his involvement.

THE ODYSSEY

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Odysseus Departs From The Land of The Phaeacians, by Claude Lorrain

What is it?
\The Odyssey is the story of the homecoming of its titular character Odysseus. It is an epic in that Odysseus is the hero, and he goes on a lot of (mis)adventures as he tries to get home after the Achaeans have won the war and Troy has fallen. Because he has been gone for so long, his wife Penelope is confronted by over 100 suitors in her home who wish to marry her and take over Odysseus’ estate, while his son Telemachus goes out in search of answers about his father’s whereabouts. Written at about the same time as the Iliad, by the same author.

Why is it happening?
\While many of Odysseus’ comrades from the war have managed to return home safely (including Nestor, Menelaus + Helen, and, briefly, Agamemnon), Odysseus seems to run into A Lot of trouble finding his way back mostly because of his unreliable crew mates and his overzealous attitude. He breaks into the cave of a Cyclops (the son of Poseidon) and stabs one in the eye, his crew mates ignore his warning not to eat cattle that are sacred to the sun god Helios and thus he loses them and his ship, and he spends 7 years imprisoned on the island of Calypso, among many other things. In particular, Poseidon makes Odysseus’ journey especially difficult because of his control over the sea and Odysseus’ treatment of his son.

Notes On Structure
\At first, the Odyssey can be a little hard to follow because it is, essentially, two parallel stories all rolled up in one. There is the story of Penelope + Telemachus + the Suitors, and then there is the story of Odysseus, within which is the story of his tumultuous journey home. It is presented in that order from Books 1-12; Books 1-4 deal with Telemachus and the situation at home on Ithaca; Books 5-8 detail Odysseus’ release from Calypso’s island and arrival at the land of Phaeacians; and Books 9-12 are the ‘story within the story’ where Odysseus explains to the Phaeacians how he got where he is.
\The second half of the epic deals with Odysseus’ return home (in disguise), his reunion with his family, and the aftermath.

Themes
\Moral virtue (arete) – Penelope is the poster child for this concept in the Odyssey because she, as a good ancient Greek wife would, remains faithful to her husband even in the face of being forced by the Suitors to choose a new husband. She, like her son, knows that her husband isn’t dead and stands by him till the very end of the epic. This is juxtaposed with Odysseus’ constant infidelity with Circe and Calypso.
\Respecting the Gods

THE AENEID

aeneas_and_turnus
Aeneas defeats Turnus, by Luca Giordano, 1634-1705

What is it?
\Strangely, the Aeneid was written hundreds of years later (First Century BC) in a totally different culture (Roman) with a completely different purpose behind it (Augustan propaganda?), but is still a part of what is called ‘The Trojan Cycle.’ Like the Odyssey, it describes the adventures of a hero, namely the Trojan Aeneas, after the fall of Troy as he sails to Italy with his companions, his father Anchises, and his son, Ascanias. The main antagonist on his quest is Juno (the Roman equivalent of Hera), who was on the Achaean side of the war.

Why is it happening?
\While Troy was being seiged by the Achaeans (and, ultimately, the Trojans had lost the war), Aeneas tried to help and fight, but his mother Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite) pulled him away and he soon after fled Troy. He is told by his wife’s ghost that he is destined to found a new city, so he goes out West in search of it, eventually ending up in Italy, but stopping in a few places, such as Crete and Carthage, along the way.
\The story as a whole aims to (and was ultimately successful) create an elaborate myth predating the founding of Rome, to forge connections between the Trojans and the Romans, such as drawing connections from Aeneas, to Romulus and Remus, to Augustus, and to set up the animosity between the Romans and the Carthaginians.

Important Characters
\Aeneas, Dido, Turnus, Juno, Pallas, Venus

Notes on Structure
\The epic story begins with a brief exposition and then by the end of Book 1 we have met Dido and Aeneas is in Carthage. Books 2-3 recount Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Carthage, much like Odysseus told his story to the Phaeacians. There is a journey to the underworld in Book 6 that is much like the one in the Odyssey; there is a description of Aeneas’ shield in Book 8 that reflects the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad. In a lot of ways, the epic was modeled off of the earlier ones of Homer – it is even written in the same meter.
\The second half of the story deals with Aeneas’ relations with the current inhabitants of Italy – the Latins – both good and bad. There is some fighting (reminiscent of the fighting in the Iliad), but it lasts only a few books at the end of the epic.

Themes
\The entire epic sets up the founding of a city (Lavinium) NEAR Rome, not necessarily on the spot where Rome would be some 400 years later. Dido’s ultimately failed (or sabotaged) relationship alludes to the later conflict between the Romans and the Carthaginians during the Punic Wars. The clearest Augustan propaganda can be seen in the description of the shield of Aeneas, which doesn’t describe contemporary things, but instead describes events from Roman history that haven’t happened yet (from Romulus and Remus, to Augustus’ reign as emperor, which was happening at the time Virgil was writing).
\Piety – In the same vein as ‘respecting the gods’ in the Odyssey, the Aeneid deals more with piety and even references Aeneas bringing his ‘household gods’ – a Roman institution – with him when he comes to Italy. Additionally, he often recognizes signs from gods, and listens when they tell him what to do. Aeneas is also the son of a goddess – Venus – which ties into the Roman way of always believing that someone powerful (like Augustus) was descended from a god.
\Duty – Even when he gets off track, like when he ‘falls in love’ with Dido and spends a lot of time in Carthage, he is ultimately reminded of his duty to go to Italy and his purpose for sailing out West to begin with – to found a city. Even if it means turning his back on someone he cares for – which he feels bad about later when he sees her in the underworld – Aeneas recognizes his duty and stops at nothing to accomplish his task.

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