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Christian Readings in Classical Literature


If We Could Be Heroes: Comparing Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid from a Christian Perspective, Part 2
By Mario Baghos But no griefs moved Aeneas. He
heard but did not heed her words.
“We too, if we are wise, shall take from The Fates forbade it and God
this literature whatever is suitable for us blocked his ears to all appeals.
and is allied to the truth, and shall pass Just as the north winds off the
over the rest.”1 Alps vie with one another to up-
- St Basil the Great root the mighty oak whose timber
has hardened over long years of
In my last article, we discussed the fact life, blowing upon it from this side
that Homer’s Iliad contained motifs which and from that and howling
can benefit us if interpreted with discern- through it; the trunk feels the
ment. Our interpretation was centred on shock and the foliage from its
the main character of the tale, prince head covers the ground, but it
Achilles. In our present article, we will be holds onto the rocks with roots
analysing the Aeneid, an epic poem com- plunged as deep into the world
posed by the Roman author Virgil (70BC- below as its crown soars towards
19BC) in the latter half of the first century the winds of heaven - just so the
BC during the reign of the emperor Augus- hero Aeneas was buffeted by all
tus (63BC-14AD). The Aeneid follows the this pleading on this side and that,
exploits of prince Aeneas of Troy, son of and felt the pain in his mighty
Venus (the Roman equivalent of Aphrodite), heart but his mind remained un
who manages to escape the city after it is moved and the tears rolled in
conquered by the Greeks. This article will vain.3
contrast the manner in which both Aeneas Aeneas flees burning Troy, by Federico Barocci, 1598 In this beautiful simile, Aeneas is depicted
and Achilles are portrayed by Virgil and as unswayed as a tree which is battered
Homer respectively before putting forward sophical thought that is more or less ab- for his people, Dido’s profound love for by the howling winds that attempt to up-
an alternative to pagan heroism that can sent from Homer’s epic. Indeed, it is the him turns into an even more emphatic sad- root it; his resolve is steadfast, his disposi-
be found in the lives of saints of the philosophical principles of Stoicism, found- ness that leads to an uncontrollable rage. tion unaffected. But this ‘disaffection’ is not
church. ed by Zeno of Citium in Cyprus (334- After dramatically appealing to Aeneas to tantamount to the modern concept of apa-
262BC) but later appropriated by Roman stay, she sends her sister Anna to plead thy. He feels compassion, “the pain in his
With the Aeneid, Virgil attempted to au- thinkers such as Cicero (106-43BC), that with him time and time again on her be- mighty heart.”4 However, despite the pas-
thenticate the growing worldview of the are employed by Virgil throughout the epic, half, and the text goes on to read:
Augustan age to which he belonged; a especially in his description of Aeneas’
worldview which deified the emperor and temperament.
placed him at the centre of an ever ex-
panding Roman empire. He did this by giv- The Stoics believed that in order to live
ing some grounding to the contemporary in accordance with nature human beings
circumstances under Augustus, embarking needed to practice asceticism, which, for
on the composition of a myth set in the them, was associated with the practice of
past which predicted the ascent of the Au- logic, reflection and contemplation. These
gustan regime. The Aeneid attempts to exercises were conducive towards the
achieve this by ‘predicting’ that Rome is much sought-after state of apatheia
destined to rise from the descendants of (aπάθεια), which, far from corresponding
Aeneas, whose perilous journey to found a to the contemporary word ‘apathy,’ instead
city for his displaced people comprises denotes a freedom from subversive emo-
much of the narrative. tions leading to a state of dispassion.

Indeed, the work contains many of the In book IV, Aeneas is portrayed as hav-
themes we discussed in part one of this ing reached some level of Stoic dispassion
article; the vicissitudes of the gods, the un- or apatheia when, through the workings of
alterable rhythms of fate, and the in- fate and the behest of the gods, he is com-
evitability of Hades for the deceased.2 All pelled to leave the illustrious queen Dido of
of these striking beliefs were just as much Carthage whom he had temporarily mar-
a part of the Virgil’s immediate historical ried as a result of a love spell hatched by
context as they were Homer’s. The pas- the god Cupid (Eros), son of Venus and
sage of time between the composition of Mars (Ares, the god of war). With the
the former and the latter, however, was prospect of Aeneas leaving Carthage and
marked by the emergence of Greek philo- continuing his journey to found a new city

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Cont. from previous page and the devil. This participation in Christ’s
victory, which is transformative and deify-
sionate behaviour which Dido directs ing, renders all ‘victories’ of a militaristic
towards him, Aeneas remains unmoved. sense invalid; they become nothing other
Aeneas can here be contrasted to Achilles, than senselessly violent hallmarks in the
whose anger, as discussed in part 1 of this continuous cycle of human suffering, a suf-
article, precipitates the downfall both of his fering that consumes both the aggressor
comrades and of the city of Troy. Indeed, and the aggressed, the victor and his
from a Christian perspective, the fomenting defeated foe - as pertinently manifested by
of internal passions (coming from the Latin the tumultuous rage that carries both
passio, in Greek pathos) - which are the Achilles and Aeneas from one battle to the
pernicious thoughts originating in either the next. The Christian, therefore, is called to
cultivation of bad habits or demonic temp- emulate the saints who have permitted
tation - can lead to subversive behaviour. Christ to conquer them. Indeed, each and
Dido, unable to control her feelings for every human person is called to this
Aeneas, becomes enslaved by them; and authentic form of heroism; to struggle, not
as these emotions evolve from love to against his or her neighbour, but against
anger and thence to despair and suicide, the internal passions with the assistance of
they begin to threaten those around her. As Jesus Christ. And the spoils of this journey
in the case of Achilles, whose rage is indis- towards a ‘saintly heroism’ are nothing
criminately imputed to those around him, other than participation in Christ’s ultimate
Dido’s internal sadness and rage is pro- victory over death wrought by his resur-
jected externally onto Aeneas and even rection from the dead. But this journey,
onto her very own sister, who she unwit- Bust of Virgil located outside unlike the paradoxically autonomous yet
tingly solicits for help in ending her own his tomb in Naples, Italy fatalistic paths carved out by the heroes of
life. Aeneas, whilst empathising with her, is old, requires a different set of criteria; it
rational enough to continue what he must be framed by prayer, love, humility
believes is a divinely ordained mission to and guidance.
Italy.
earlier in the narrative into a man ensnared power that a Christian may begin the jour- *Associate Teacher in Early Byzantine History
At a glance, the temperaments of Aeneas by his own wrath; something which ney towards the conquest of the base St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College.
and Achilles seem to be diametrically Achilles was able to overcome, at least thoughts and emotions that assail all
opposed to one another. The former is momentarily, when he granted Priam the human beings, gradually realising within
able to resist the adversity directed to him body of his son and the eleven day themselves the absolute freedom from
from ‘without,’ from Dido’s madness. The amnesty from battle. But, despite their passion - the state of apatheia - which can 1
Taken from the forthcoming publication by St
latter, to give just one example, becomes capacity for some goodness, both heroes only be achieved in Christ. Andrew’s Orthodox Press, St Basil the Great’s
consigned to the rage that erupted within are nevertheless motivated and somehow Address to Youth: On How they might benefit
him upon hearing of the death of Patroclus. from Classical Greek Literature.
consumed by a single overwhelming fac- Reaching the end of the present article, 2
With the notable exception of the Elysian
Despite this, at the end of both the Iliad and tor, and this is the passionate hatred which we are made aware of the fact that, Fields, that precinct of the underworld which is
the Aeneid a different portrait of each main afflicts them at various times. Hence, despite their entertaining exploits, the reserved exclusively for heroes.
character emerges. Achilles, for all of his although both Achilles and Aeneas are suc- saints of the Church have acquired a 3
David West, trans. Virgil: The Aeneid, Revised Edition
wrath and in the midst of the turmoil (England: Penguin Books, 2003), 81-82. Although the
cessful in their various campaigns in an greater victory than the pagan heroes. Aeneid is an epic poem written in Latin, this version,
caused by his exaction of revenge against external sense, internally they are torment- Instead of seeking external conquest and based on precedents established by many other schol-
prince Hector of Troy, the slayer of ed by rage. glory, these men and women, the saints of ars, has taken the liberty of translating it into English
Patroclus, behaves quite uncharacteristical- the Church, sought to be conquered by the prose.
4
ly. Upon discovering that king Priam had Ibid.
In the Church, we find a corrective to God-man Jesus Christ. In this way, the vic- 5
Cf. Robert Fitzgerald, trans. Homer: The Iliad (Oxford:
surreptitiously entered the Greek camp in these passions as manifested in the lives tories achieved by the saints are perma- Oxford University Press, 1998), 421, 424-425, 439-443.
order to retrieve the exposed and mutilat- of Christian ascetics who forsake all exter- nent because they consist in a participation 6
West, trans. Virgil: The Aeneid, 290.
ed corpse of his son Hector, instead of nal forms of earthly glory, whether brought in Christ’s perennial victory over sin, death, 7
Ibid.
killing Priam and thereby ending the whole about by conquest or otherwise. The
debacle, Achilles actually takes pity on him, pagan heroes, on account of the gloomy
giving the body of Hector back to Priam and unpredictable nature of the afterlife,
and, in a show of magnanimity, suspending
the war for the eleven days needed by the
Trojans to prepare and complete the peri-
sought glory in the here-and-now, often
through violent conquest. Christians, how-
ever, consider earthly glory to be superfi-
NEW FROM ST ANDREW'S
od of mourning and subsequent funerary cial, especially when considered in light of ORTHODOX PRESS
rites for their slain prince.5 (or, if acquired at the expense of others, as
So, irrespective of his violent temper, an impediment) to heavenly glory to which
Achilles emerges as a character capable of we can attain both here and in the here- CD-BOOK: LEARNING GREEK ORTHODOX HYMNS
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This is not the case, however, with Aeneas. hymns of the Orthodox Church.
Towards the end of the narrative, the In order to achieve glory therefore, the
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Achilles that marauds through most of the against the passions so that he or she may in musical form. They are worth knowing by heart!
Iliad. Exacting revenge for the death of his become recipients of the divine grace to
comrade Pallas who was killed at the which all human beings are providentially This 100-page book contains the inspired words of 40
hands of his nemesis Turnus, Aeneas’ called. In Christian spirituality, the ascetic major hymns with accompanying CD in Greek by Basilios
actions point to a radical ‘devolution’ in his gradually abandons himself to the will and Psilacos, lecturer in Byzantine Music at St Andrew's
disposition. The final verses of the narra- mercy of Jesus Christ, a process which Greek Orthodox Theological College and Chanter at
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Turnus makes a plea to Aeneas to spare ic passions that, for whatever reason, have
his life as the Trojan lurches over him. anchored themselves in him or her. This Hymns of the Resurrection, the 12 Major Feast Days, the
Initially, Aeneas is in fact moved by Turnus’ spiritual warfare is remarkably illustrated Patron Saints of Day Schools in Australia and segments
pleas, that is, until he spots Pallas’ baldric in the lives of the desert fathers, those of various Services, are all included in the book's three
or belt hanging over his enemy’s shoulder. champions of the faith who exiled them- categories:
With the resurgence of the memory of his selves into the chaotic Egyptian desert so 1. Greek lyrics 1. Greek lyrics
friend’s murder at the hands of his enemy, as to master the chaos within themselves
2. English translation 2. English translation
the work reads that Aeneas, “burning with and thereby participate in the divine life.
mad passion and terrible in his wrath,”6 But the struggles of these great fathers and 3. Transliteration 3. Transliteration
declares that he now stands in the place of mothers denote the fact that this endeav- 'I am certain that, among the faithful, there will be many interested listeners
Pallas as he kills the defenceless Turnus, our is impossible according to one’s own who will benefit from this devoted effort of our beloved co-worker'
whose life flees “in anger down into the devices because of, on the one hand, - Archbishop Stylianos of Australia
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It is clear therefore that Aeneas regress- on the other, the snares of the devil. It is To order, go to: www.standrewsorthodoxpress.com.au
es from the Stoic descriptions employed only by responding to God’s initiative and