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World Literature
World literature is sometimes used to refer to the sum total of the world's national
literatures, but usually it refers to the circulation of works into the wider world beyond
their country of origin. Often used in the past primarily for masterpieces of Western
European literature, world literature today is increasingly seen in global context. Readers
today have access to an unprecedented range of works from around the world in excellent
translations, and since the mid-1990s a lively debate has grown up concerning both the
aesthetic and the political values and limitations of an emphasis on global processes over
national traditions.
History of World Literature
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used the concept of Weltliteratur in several of his essays
in the early decades of the nineteenth century to describe the international circulation and
reception of literary works in Europe, including works of non-Western origin. The concept
achieved wide currency after his disciple Johann Peter Eckermann published a collection of
conversations with Goethe in 1835. Goethe spoke with Eckermann about the excitement of
reading Chinese novels and Persian and Serbian poetry as well as of his fascination with
seeing how his own works were translated and discussed abroad, especially in France. In a
famous statement in January 1827, Goethe predicted to Eckermann that in the coming years
world literature would supplant the national literatures as the major mode of literary
I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind,
revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. ... I therefore
like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National
literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and
everyone must strive to hasten its approach.[2]
Reflecting a fundamentally economic understanding of world literature as a process of
trade and exchange, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used the term in their Communist
Manifesto (1848) to describe the "cosmopolitan character" of bourgeois literary production,
asserting that
In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants,
requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates. ... And as in
material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations
become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more
and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a
world literature.
Martin Puchner has argued that Goethe had a keen sense of world literature as driven
by a new world market in literature. It was this market-based approach that Marx and
Engels pick up in 1848. But while the two authors admire the world literature created by
bourgeois capitalism, they also seek to exceed it. They hoped to create a new type of world
literature, one exemplified by the Manifesto, which was to be published simultaneously in
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many languages and several locations. This text was supposed to inaugurate a new type of
world literature and in fact partially succeeded, becoming one of the most influential texts
of the twentieth century.
Whereas Marx and Engels followed Goethe in seeing world literature as a modern or
even future phenomenon, in 1886 the Irish scholar H. M. Posnett argued that world
literature first arose in ancient empires such as the Roman Empire, long before the rise of
the modern national literatures. Certainly today, world literature is understood as including
classical works from all periods, as well as contemporary literature written for a global
audience. By the turn of the twentieth century, intellectuals in various parts of the globe
were thinking actively about world literature as a frame for their own national production,
a theme found in essays by several of the progressive writers of China's May Fourth
movement, including Lu Xun.
Contemporary Understandings
Over the course of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the rising tide
of nationalism led to an eclipse of interest in world literature, but in the postwar era,
comparative and world literature began to enjoy a resurgence in the United States. As a
nation of immigrants, and with a less well established national tradition than many older
countries possessed, the United States became a thriving site for the study of comparative
literature (often primarily at the graduate level) and of world literature, often taught as a
first-year general education class. The focus remained largely on the Greek and Roman
classics and the literatures of the major modern Western European powers, but a
confluence of factors in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to a greater openness to the
wider world. The end of the Cold War, the growing globalization of the world economy, and
new waves of immigration from many parts of the world led to several efforts to open out
the study of world literature. This change is well illustrated by the expansion of The Norton
Anthology of World Masterpieces, whose first edition of 1956 featured only Western
European and North American works, to a new "expanded edition" of 1995 with substantial
non-Western selections, and with the title changed from "masterpieces" to the less
exclusive "Literature". The major survey anthologies today, including those published by
Longman and by Bedford in addition to Norton, all showcase several hundred authors from
dozens of countries.
The explosive growth in the range of cultures studied under the rubric of world
literature has inspired a variety of theoretical attempts to define and delimit the field and
to propose effective modes of research and teaching. In his 2003 book What Is World
Literature? David Damrosch argued for world literature as less a vast canon of works and
more a matter of circulation and reception, and he proposed that works that thrive as world
literature are ones that work well and even gain in various ways in translation. Whereas
Damrosch's approach remains tied to the close reading of individual works, a very different
view was taken by the Stanford critic Franco Moretti in a pair of articles offering
"Conjectures on World Literature". Moretti argued that the scale of world literature far
exceeds what can be grasped by traditional methods of close reading, and he advocated
instead a mode of "distant reading" that would look at large-scale patterns as discerned
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from publication records and national literary histories, enabling one to trace the global
sweep of forms such as the novel or film.
Moretti's approach combined elements of evolutionary theory with the worldsystems analysis pioneered by Immanuel Wallerstein, an approach further discussed since
then by Emily Apter in her influential book The Translation Zone. Related to their worldsystems approach is the major work of French critic Pascale Casanova, La République
mondiale des lettres (1999). Drawing on the theories of cultural production developed by
the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, Casanova explores the ways in which the works of
peripheral writers must circulate into metropolitan centers in order to achieve recognition
as works of world literature. Both Moretti and Casanova emphasize the inequalities of the
global literary field, which Moretti describes as "one, but unequal".
The field of world literature continues to generate debate, with critics such as Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak arguing that too often the study of world literature in translation
smooths out both the linguistic richness of the original and the political force a work can
have in its original context. Other scholars, on the contrary, emphasize that world literature
can and should be studied with close attention to original languages and contexts, even as
works take on new dimensions and new meanings abroad. Once a primarily European and
American concern, world literature is now actively studied and discussed in many parts of
the world. World literature series are now being published in China and in Estonia, and a
new Institute for World Literature, offering month-long summer sessions on theory and
pedagogy, had its inaugural session at Peking University in 2011, with its next sessions at
Istanbul Bilgi University in 2012 and at Harvard University in 2013. Since the middle of the
first decade of the new century, a steady stream of works has provided materials for the
study of the history of world literature and the current debates. Valuable collections of
essays include:
Manfred Schmeling, Weltliteratur Heute (1995)
Christopher Prendergast, Debating World Literature (2004)
David Damrosch, Teaching World Literature (2009)
Theo D'haen's co-edited collections The Routledge Companion to World Literature (2011)
and World Literature: A Reader (2012).
Individual studies include:
Moretti, Maps, Graphs, Trees (2005)
John Pizer, The Idea of World Literature (2006),
Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, Mapping World Literature (2008)
Theo D'haen, The Routledge Concise History of World Literature (2011)
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, and Tutun Mukherjee, eds. Companion to Comparative
Literature, World Literatures, and Comparative Cultural Studies (2013).
On the Internet
The World Wide Web provides in many ways the logical medium for the global
circulation of world literature, and many websites now enable readers around the world to
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sample the world's literary productions. The website Words Without Borders offers a wide
selection of fiction and poetry from around the world, and the Annenberg Foundation has
created an ambitious thirteen-part DVD/web series produced by Boston's public television
station WGBH, "Invitation to World Literature." The major survey anthologies all have
extensive websites, providing background information, images, and links to resources on
many authors. Finally, globally oriented authors themselves are increasingly creating work
for the internet. The Serbian experimentalist Milorad Pavić (1929–2009) was an early
proponent of the possibilities of electronic modes of creation and reading, as can be seen
on his website. Though Pavić remained primarily a print-based writer, the
Korean/American duo known as Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries create their works
entirely for internet distribution, often in several languages. World literature today exists
in symbiosis with national literatures, enabling writers in small countries to reach out to
global audiences, and helping readers around the world gain a better sense of the world
around them as it has been reflected and refracted in the world's literatures over the past
five millennia.
What texts count as world literature is debatable. While some argue that a work's
exemplary artistic value and influence allow it to enter the canon of world literature, many
scholars of world literature point out that literary quality is not inherent nor influence
universal or lasting; rather, standards of quality are relative and vary among communities
and across space and time. As the scholar David Damrosch writes, "Over the centuries, an
unusually shifty work can come in and out of the sphere of world literature several different
times; and at any given point, a work may function as world literature for some readers but
not others, and for some kinds of reading but not others. The shifts a work may undergo,
moreover, do not reflect the unfolding of some internal logic of the work in itself but come
about through often complex dynamics of cultural change and contestation. Very few works
secure a quick and permanent place in the limited company of perennial World
Masterpieces; most works shift around over time, even moving into and out of the category
of 'the masterpiece.'"
Thus, rather than gauge a work's worthiness as world literature on its inherent
quality or lasting influence, many scholars assert that what makes a work world literature
is merely its circulation beyond its country of origin. For example, Damrosch states, "A work
enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second,
by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin."
Likewise, the world literature scholar Venkat Mani argues that the "worlding" of literature
is brought about by "information transfer" largely generated by developments in print
culture, specifically the advent of the library: "Publishers and booksellers who print and sell
affordable books, literate citizens who acquire these books, and public libraries that make
these books available to those who cannot afford to buy them collectively play a very
important role in the “making” of world literature." Readers then will have to decide for
themselves on what counts as world literature and whether that status is determined by
the work itself or larger social forces at work on it.
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Epic of Gilgamesh
(Epic poem, anonymous, Sumerian/Mesopotamian/Akkadian, c. 20th - 10th Century BCE,
about 1,950 lines)
“The Epic of Gilgamesh” is an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia and among the
earliest known literary writings in the world. It originated as a series of Sumerian legends
and poems in cuneiform script dating back to the early 3rd or late 2nd millenium BCE, which
were later gathered into a longer Akkadian poem (the most complete version existing today,
preserved on 12 clay tablets, dates from the 12th to 10th Century BCE). It follows the story
of Gilgamesh, the mythological hero-king of Uruk, and his half-wild friend, Enkidu, as they
undertake a series of dangerous quests and adventures, and then Gilgamesh’s search for the
secret of immortality after the death of his friend. It also includes the story of a great flood
very similar to the story of Noah in "The Bible" and elsewhere.
The story begins with the introduction of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, two-thirds god and
one-third human, blessed by the gods with strength, courage and beauty, and the strongest
and greatest king who ever existed. The great city of Uruk is also praised for its glory and
its strong brick walls.
However, the people of Uruk are not happy, and complain that Gilgamesh is too harsh
and abuses his power by sleeping with their women. The goddess of creation, Aruru, creates
a mighty wild-man named Enkidu, a rival in strength to Gilgamesh. He lives a natural life
with the wild animals, but he soon starts bothering the shepherds and trappers of the area
and jostles the animals at the watering hole. At the request of a trapper, Gilgamesh sends a
temple prostitute, Shamhat, to seduce and tame Enkidu and, after six days and seven nights
with the harlot, he is no longer just a wild beast who lives with animals. He soon learns the
ways of men and is shunned by the animals he used to live with, and the harlot eventually
persuades him to come to live in the city. Meanwhile, Gilgamesh has some strange dreams,
which his mother, Ninsun, explains as an indication that a mighty friend will come to him.
The newly-civilized Enkidu leaves the wilderness with his consort for the city of Uruk,
where he learns to help the local shepherds and trappers in their work. One day, when
Gilgamesh himself comes to a wedding party to sleep with the bride, as is his custom, he
finds his way blocked by the mighty Enkidu, who opposes Gilgamesh's ego, his treatment of
women and the defamation of the sacred bonds of marriage. Enkidu and Gilgamesh fight
each other and, after a mighty battle, Gilgamesh defeats Enkidu, but breaks off from the fight
and spares his life. He also begins to heed what Enkidu has said, and to learn the virtues of
mercy and humility, along with courage and nobility. Both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are
transformed for the better through their new-found friendship and have many lessons to
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learn from each other. In time, they begin to see each other as brothers and become
Years later, bored with the peaceful life in Uruk and wanting to make an everlasting
name for himself, Gilgamesh proposes to travel to the sacred Cedar Forest to cut some great
trees and kill the guardian, the demon Humbaba. Enkidu objects to the plan as the Cedar
Forest is the sacred realm of the gods and not meant for mortals, but neither Enkidu not the
council of elders of Uruk can convince Gilgamesh not to go. Gilgamesh’s mother also
complains about the quest, but eventually gives in and asks the sun-god Shamash for his
support. She also gives Enkidu some advice and adopts him as her second son.
On the way to the Cedar Forest, Gilgamesh has some bad dreams, but each time
Enkidu manages to explain away the dreams as good omens, and he encourages and urges
Gilgamesh on when he becomes afraid again on reaching the forest. Finally, the two heroes
confront Humbaba, the demon-ogre guardian of the sacred trees, and a great battle
commences. Gilgamesh offers the monster his own sisters as wives and concubines in order
to distract it into giving away his seven layers of armour, and finally, with the help of the
winds sent by the sun-god Shamash, Humbaba is defeated. The monster begs Gilgamesh for
his life, and Gilgamesh at first pities the creature, despite Enkidu’s practical advice to kill
the beast. Humbaba then curses them both, and Gilgamesh finally puts an end to it. The two
heroes cut down a huge cedar tree, and Enkidu uses it to make a massive door for the gods,
which he floats down the river.
Some time later, the goddess Ishtar (goddess of love and war, and daughter of the skygod Anu) makes sexual advances to Gilgamesh, but he rejects her, because of her
mistreatment of her previous lovers. The offended Ishtar insists that her father send the
"Bull of Heaven" to avenge Gilgamesh’s rejection, threatening to raise the dead if he will not
comply. The beast brings with it a great drought and plague of the land, but Gilgamesh and
Enkidu, this time without divine help, slay the beast and offer its heart to Shamash, throwing
the bull's hindquarters in the face of the outraged Ishtar.
The city of Uruk celebrates the great victory, but Enkidu has a bad dream in which the
gods decide to punish Enkidu himself for the killing of the Bull of Heaven and Humbaba. He
curses the door he made for the gods, and he curses the trapper he met, the harlot he loved
and the very day that he became human. However, he regrets his curses when Shamash
speaks from heaven and points out how unfair Enkidu is being. He also points out that
Gilgamesh will become but a shadow of his former self if Enkidu were to die. Nevertheless,
the curse takes hold and day after day Enkidu becomes more and more ill. As he dies, he
describes his descent into the horrific dark Underworld (the "House of Dust"), where the
dead wear feathers like birds and eat clay.
Gilgamesh is devasted by Enkidu’s death and offers gifts to the gods, in the hope that
he might be allowed to walk beside Enkidu in the Underworld. He orders the people of Uruk,
from the lowest farmer to the highest temple priests, to also mourn Enkidu, and orders
statues of Enkidu to be built. Gilgamesh is so full of grief and sorrow over his friend that he
refuses to leave Enkidu's side, or allow his corpse to be buried, until six days and seven
nights after his death when maggots begin to fall from his body.
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Gilgamesh is determined to avoid Enkidu's fate and decides to make the perilous
journey to visit Utnapishtim and his wife, the only humans to have survived the Great Flood
and who were granted immortality by the gods, in the hope of discovering the secret of
everlasting life. The ageless Utnapishtim and his wife now reside in a beautiful country in
another world, Dilmun, and Gilgamesh travels far to the east in search of them, crossing
great rivers and oceans and mountain passes, and grappling and slaying monstrous
mountain lions, bears and other beasts.
Eventually, he comes to the twin peaks of Mount Mashu at the end of the earth, from
where the sun rises from the other world, the gate of which is guarded by two terrible
scorpion-beings. They allow Gilgamesh to proceed when he convinces them of his divinity
and his desperation, and he travels for twelve leagues through the dark tunnel where the
sun travels every night. The world at the end of the tunnel is a bright wonderland, full of
trees with leaves of jewels.
The first person Gilgamesh meets there is the wine-maker Siduri, who initially
believes he is a murderer from his dishevelled appearance and attempts to dissuade him
from his quest. But eventually she sends him to Urshanabi, the ferryman who must help him
cross the sea to the island where Utnapishtim lives, navigating the Waters of Death, of which
the slightest touch means instant death.
When he meets Urshanabi, though, he appears to be surrounded by a company of
stone-giants, which Gilgamesh promptly kills, thinking them to be hostile. He tells the
ferryman his story and asks for his help, but Urshanabi explains that he has just destroyed
the sacred stones which allow the ferry boat to safely cross the Waters of Death. The only
way they can now cross is if Gilgamesh cuts 120 trees and fashions them into punting poles,
so that they can cross the waters by using a new pole each time and by using his garment as
a sail.
Finally, they reach the island of Dilmun and, when Utnapishtim sees that there is
someone else in the boat, he asks Gilgamesh who he is. Gilgamesh tells him his story and
asks for help, but Utnapishtim reprimands him because he knows that fighting the fate of
humans is futile and ruins the joy in life. Gilgamesh demands of Utnapishtim in what way
their two situations differ and Utnapishtim tells him the story of how he survived the great
Utnapishtim recounts how a great storm and flood was brought to the world by the
god Enlil, who wanted to destroy all of mankind for the noise and confusion they brought
to the world. But the god Ea forewarned Utnapishtim, advising him to build a ship in
readiness and to load onto it his treasures, his family and the seeds of all living things. The
rains came as promised and the whole world was covered with water, killing everything
except Utnapishtim and his boat. The boat came to rest on the tip of the mountain of Nisir,
where they waited for the waters to subside, releasing first a dove, then a swallow and then
a raven to check for dry land. Utnapishtim then made sacrifices and libations to the gods
and, although Enlil was angry that someone had survived his flood, Ea advised him to make
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his peace. So, Enlil blessed Utnapishtim and his wife and granted them everlasting life, and
took them to live in the land of the gods on the island of Dilmun.
However, despite his reservations about why the gods should give him the same
honour as himself, the hero of the flood, Utnapishtim does reluctantly decide to offer
Gilgamesh a chance for immortality. First, though, he challenges Gilgamesh to stay awake
for six days and seven nights, but Gilgamesh falls asleep almost before Utnapishtim finishes
speaking. When he awakes after seven days of sleep, Utnapishtim ridicules his failure and
sends him back to Uruk, along with the ferryman Urshanabi in exile.
As they leave, though, Utnapishtim's wife asks her husband to have mercy on
Gilgamesh for his long journey, and so he tells Gilgamesh of a plant that grows at the very
bottom of the ocean that will make him young again. Gilgamesh obtains the plant by binding
stones to his feet to allow him to walk on the bottom of the sea. He plans to use the flower
to rejuvenate the old men of the city of Uruk and then to use it himself. Unfortunately, he
places the plant on the shore of a lake while he bathes, and it is stolen by a serpent, which
loses its old skin and is thus reborn. Gilgamesh weeps at having failed at both opportunities
to obtain immortality, and he disconsolately returns to the massive walls of his own city of
In time, Gilgamesh too dies, and the people of Uruk mourn his passing, knowing that
they will never see his like again.
The twelfth tablet is apparently unconnected with previous ones, and tells an
alternative legend from earlier in the story, when Enkidu is still alive. Gilgamesh complains
to Enkidu that he has lost some objects given to him by the goddess Ishtar when they fell in
the Underworld. Enkidu offers to bring them back for him, and the delighted Gilgamesh tells
Enkidu what he must, and must not, do in the Underworld in order to be sure of coming
When Enkidu sets off, however, he promptly forgets all this advice, and does
everything he was told not to do, resulting in his being trapped in the Underworld.
Gilgamesh prays to the gods to return his friend and, although Enlil and Suen do not even
bother to reply, Ea and Shamash decide to help. Shamash cracks a hole in the earth and
Enkidu jumps out of it (whether as a ghost or in reality is not clear). Gilgamesh questions
Enkidu about what he has seen in the Underworld.
The earliest Sumerian versions of “The Epic of Gilgamesh” date from as early as the
Third Dynasty of Ur (2150 - 2000 BCE), and are written in Sumerian cuneiform script, one
of the earliest known forms of written expression. It relates ancient folklore, tales and
myths and it is believed that there were many different smaller stories and myths that over
time grew together into one complete work. The earliest Akkadian versions (Akkadian is a
later, unrelated, Mesopotamian language, which also used the cuneiform writing system)
are dated to the early 2nd millennium.
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The so-called “standard” Akkadian version, consisting of twelve (damaged) tablets
written by the Babylonian scribe Sin-liqe-unninni some time between 1300 and 1000 BCE,
was discovered in 1849 in the library of the 7th Century BCE Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal,
in Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire (in modern-day Iraq). It is written in
standard Babylonian, a dialect of Akkadian that was only used for literary purposes. The
original title, based on the opening words, was “He Who Saw the Deep” (“Sha naqba imuru”)
or, in the earlier Sumerian versions, “Surpassing All Other Kings” (“Shutur eli sharri”).
Fragments of other compositions of the Gilgamesh story have been found in other
places in Mesopotamia and as far away as Syria and Turkey. Five shorter poems in the
Sumerian language ("Gilgamesh and Huwawa", "Gilgamesh and the Bull of Heaven",
"Gilgamesh and Agga of Kish", "Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Netherworld" and "Death of
Gilgamesh”), more than 1,000 years older than the Nineveh tablets, have also been
discovered. The Akkadian standard edition is the basis of most modern translations, with
the older Sumerian versions being used to supplement it and fill in the gaps or lacunae.
The twelfth tablet, which is often appended as a kind of sequel to the original eleven,
was most probably added at a later date and seems to bear little relation to the well-crafted
and finished eleven tablet epic. It is actually a near copy of an earlier tale, in which
Gilgamesh sends Enkidu to retrieve some objects of his from the Underworld, but Enkidu
dies and returns in the form of a spirit to relate the nature of the Underworld to Gilgamesh.
Enkidu’s pessimistic description of the Underworld in this tablet is the oldest such
description known.
Gilgamesh might actually have been a real ruler in the late Early Dynastic II period (c.
27th Century BCE), a contemporary of Agga, king of Kish. The discovery of artifacts, dating
back to around 2600 BCE, associated with Enmebaragesi of Kish (who is mentioned in the
legends as the father of one of Gilgamesh's adversaries), has lent credibility to the historical
existence of Gilgamesh. In Sumerian king lists, Gilgamesh is noted as the fifth king ruling
after the flood.
According to some scholars, there are many parallel verses, as well as themes or
episodes, which indicate a substantial influence of the “Epic of Gilgamesh” on the later Greek
epic poem “The Odyssey”, ascribed to Homer. Some aspects of the "Gilgamesh" flood myth
seem to be closely related to the story of Noah's ark in "The Bible" and the Qur’an, as well
as similar stories in Greek, Hindu and other myths, down to the building of a boat to
accommodate all life, its eventual coming to rest on the top of a mountain and the sending
out of a dove to find dry land. It is also thought that the Alexander the Great myth in Islamic
and Syrian cultures is influenced by the Gilgamesh story.
The “Epic of Gilgamesh” is essentially a secular narrative, and there no suggestion that
it was ever recited as part of a religious ritual. It is divided into loosely connected episodes
covering the most important events in the life of the hero, although there is no account of
Gilgamesh’s miraculous birth or childhood legends.
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The standard Akkadian version of the poem is written in loose rhythmic verse, with
four beats to a line, while the older, Sumerian version has a shorter line, with two beats. It
uses “stock epithets” (repeated common descriptive words applied to the main characters)
in the same way as Homer does, although they are perhaps more sparingly used than in
Homer. Also, as in many oral poetry traditions, there are word for word repetitions of (often
fairly long) narrative and conversation sections, and of long and elaborate greeting
formulae. A number of the usual devices of poetic embellishment are employed, including
puns, deliberate ambiguity and irony, and the occasional effective use of similes.
Despite the antiquity of the work, we are shown, through the action, a very human
concern with mortality, the search for knowledge and for an escape from the common lot of
man. Much of the tragedy in the poem arises from the conflict between the desires of the
divine part of Gilgamesh (from his goddess mother) and the destiny of the mortal man (his
mortality conferred on him by his human father).
The wild man Enkidu was created by the gods both as a friend and companion for
Gilgamesh, but also as a foil for him and as a focus for his excessive vigour and energy.
Interestingly, Enkidu’s progression from wild animal to civilized city man represents a kind
of biblical “Fall” in reverse, and an allegory of the stages by which man reaches civilization
(from savagery to pastoralism to city life), suggesting that the early Babylonians may have
been social evolutionists.
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(Epic Poem, Greek, c. 750 BCE, 15,693 lines)
“The Iliad” (Gr: “Iliás”) is an epic poem by the ancient Greek poet Homer, which
recounts some of the significant events of the final weeks of the Trojan War and the Greek
siege of the city of Troy (which was also known as Ilion, Ilios or Ilium in ancient times).
Written in the mid-8th Century BCE, “The Iliad” is usually considered to be the earliest work
in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best known and loved stories of all
time. Through its portrayal of the epic subject matter of the Trojan War, the stirring scenes
of bloody battle, the wrath of Achilles and the constant interventions of the gods, it explores
themes of glory, wrath, homecoming and fate, and has provided subjects and stories for
many other later Greek, Roman and Renaissance writings.
The story covered by “The Iliad” begins nearly ten years into the siege of Troy by the
Greek forces, led by Agamemnon, King of Mycenae. The Greeks are quarrelling about
whether or not to return Chryseis, a Trojan captive of King Agamemnon, to her father,
Chryses, a priest of Apollo. When Agamemnon refuses and threatens to ransom the girl to
her father, the offended Apollo plagues them with a pestilence.
The Greeks, at the behest of the warrior-hero Achilles, force Agamemnon to return
Chryseis in order to appease Apollo and end the pestilence. But, when Agamemnon
eventually reluctantly agrees to give her back, he takes in her stead Briseis, Achilles’s own
war-prize concubine. Feeling dishonoured, Achilles wrathfully withdraws both himself and
his Myrmidon warriors from the Trojan War.
Testing the resolve of the Greeks, Agamemnon feigns a homeward order, but
Odysseus encourages the Greeks to pursue the fight. During a brief truce in the hostilities,
Paris and Menelaus meet in single combat over Helen, while she and old King Priam of Troy
watch from the city walls and, despite the goddess Aphrodite’s intervention on behalf of the
over-matched Paris, Menelaus is the victor. The goddess Athena, however, who favours the
Greeks, soon provokes a Trojan truce-breaking and battle begins anew.
The Greek hero Diomedes, strengthened by Athena, drives the Trojans before him but,
in his arrogance and blood-lust, strikes and injures Aphrodite. Despite the misgivings of his
wife, Andromache, the Trojan hero, Hector, son of King Priam, challenges the Greek warriorhero Ajax to single combat, and is almost overcome in battle. Throughout all, in the
background, the various gods and goddesses (particularly Hera, Athena, Apollo and
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Poseidon) continue to argue among themselves and to manipulate and intervene in the
struggle, despite Zeus’ specific orders to the contrary.
Achilles steadfastly refuses to give in to pleas for help from Agamemnon, Odysseus,
Ajax, Phoenix and Nestor, spurning the offered honours and riches and even Agamemnon’s
belated offer to return Briseis to him. Diomedes and Odysseus sneak into the Trojan camp
and wreak havoc. But, with Achilles and his warriors out of battle, the tide appears to begin
to turn in favour of the Trojans. Agamemnon is wounded in the battle and, despite the
heroics of Ajax, Hector successfully breaches the fortified Greek camp, wounding Odysseus
and Diomedes in the process, and threatens to set the Greek ships on fire.
Torn between his allegiances, Achilles orders his friend and lover, Patroclus, to dress
in Achilles’ own armour and to lead the Myrmidons in repelling the Trojans. Intoxicated by
his success, Patroclus forgets Achilles’ warning, and pursues the fleeing Trojans to the walls
of Troy and would have taken the city were it not for the actions of Apollo. In the heat of the
battle, though, Hector finds the disguised Patroclus and, thinking him to be Achilles, fights
and (again with Apollo’s help) kills him. Menelaus and the Greeks manage to recover
Patroclus’s corpse before Hector can inflict more damage.
Distraught at the death of his companion, Achilles then reconciles with Agamemnon
and rejoins the fray, despite knowing his deadly fate, and drives all the Trojans before him
in his fury. As the ten year war reaches its climax, even the gods join in the battle and the
earth shakes with the clamour of the combat.
Clad in new armour fashioned specially for him by Hephaestus, Achilles takes revenge
for his friend Patroclus by slaying Hector in single combat, but then defiles and desecrates
his corpse for several days. Now, at last, Patroclus’ funeral can be celebrated in what Achilles
sees as a fitting manner. Hector’s father, King Priam, emboldened by his grief and aided by
Hermes, recovers Hector’s corpse from Achilles, and “The Iliad” ends with Hector’s funeral
during a twelve day truce granted by Achilles.
Although attributed to Homer, "The Iliad" is clearly dependent on an older oral
tradition and may well have been the collective inheritance of many singer-poets over a
long period of time (the historical Fall of Troy is usually dated to around the start of the
12th Century BCE). Homer was probably one of the first generation of authors who were
also literate, as the Greek alphabet was introduced in the early 8th Century BCE, and the
language used in his epic poems is an archaic version of Ionic Greek, with admixtures from
certain other dialects such as Aeolic Greek. However, it is by no means certain that Homer
himself (if in fact such a man ever really existed) actually wrote down the verses.
“The Iliad” was part of a group of ancient poems known as the "Epic Cycle", most of
which are now lost to us, which dealt with the history of the Trojan War and the events
surrounding it. Whether or not they were written down, we do know that Homer's poems
(along with others in the “Epic Cycle”) were recited in later days at festivals and ceremonial
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occasions by professional singers called "rhapsodes", who beat out the measure with
rhythm staffs.
“The Iliad” itself does not cover the early events of the Trojan War, which had been
launched ten years before the events described in the poem in order to rescue Helen, the
wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, after her abduction by the Trojan prince, Paris. Likewise,
the death of Achilles and the eventual fall of Troy are not covered in the poem, and these
matters are the subjects of other (non-Homeric) "Epic Cycle" poems, which survive only in
fragments. “The Odyssey”, a separate work also by Homer, narrates Odysseus’ decade-long
journey home to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan War.
The poem consists of twenty-four scrolls, containing 15,693 lines of dactylic
hexameter verse. The entire poem has a formal rhythm that is consistent throughout
(making it easier to memorize) and yet varied slightly from line to line (preventing it from
being monotonous). Many phrases, sometimes whole passages, are repeated verbatim over
and over again throughout “The Iliad”, partly to fulfill the demands of the metre and partly
as part of the formulaic oral tradition. In the same way, many of the descriptive phrases that
are linked with a certain character (such as "swift-footed Achilles", "Diomedes of the great
war cry", "Hector of the shining helm", and "Agamemnon the lord of men") match the
number of syllables in a hero's name, and are repeated regularly to the extent that they
almost seem to become part of the characters' names themselves.
The immortal gods and goddesses are portrayed as characters in “The Iliad”,
displaying individuality and will in their actions, but they are also stock religious figures,
sometimes allegorical, sometimes psychological, and their relation to humans is extremely
complex. They are often used as a way of explaining how or why an event took place, but
they are also sometimes used as comic relief from the war, mimicking, parodying and
mocking mortals. Indeed, it is often the gods, not the mortals, who seem casual, petty and
The main theme of the poem is that of war and peace, and the whole poem is
essentially a description of war and fighting. There is a sense of horror and futility built into
Homer's chronicle, and yet, posed against the viciousness, there is a sense of heroism and
glory that adds a glamour to the fighting: Homer appears both to abhor war and to glorify
it. Frequent similes tell of the peacetime efforts back home in Greece, and serve as contrasts
to the war, reminding us of the human values that are destroyed by fighting, as well as what
is worth fighting for.
The concept of heroism, and the honour that results from it, is also one of the major
currents running through the poem. Achilles in particular represents the heroic code and
his struggle revolves around his belief in an honour system, as opposed to Agamemnon's
reliance on royal privilege. But, as fighter after heroic fighter enters the fray in search of
honour and is slain before our eyes, the question always remains as to whether their
struggle, heroic or not, is really worth the sacrifice.
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“Menin” or “menis” (“anger” or “wrath”) is the word that opens “The Iliad”, and one
of the major themes of the poem is Achilles coming to terms with his anger and taking
responsibility for his actions and emotions.
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Oedipus Rex
(Tragedy, Greek, c. 429 BCE, 1,530 lines)
“Oedipus the King” (Gr: “Oidipous Tyrannos”; Lat: “Oedipus Rex”) is a tragedy by the
ancient Greek playwright Sophocles, first performed in about 429 BCE. It was the second of
Sophocles' three Theban plays to be produced, but it comes first in the internal chronology
(followed by “Oedipus at Colonus” and then “Antigone”). It follows the story of King Oedipus
of Thebes as he discovers that he has unwittingly killed his own father, Laius, and married
his own mother, Jocasta. Over the centuries, it has come to be regarded by many as the
Greek tragedy par excellence and certainly as the summit of Sophocles’ achievements.
To briefly recap on the background to the play:
Shortly after Oedipus’ birth, his father, King Laius of Thebes, learned from an oracle that he,
Laius, was doomed to perish by the hand of his own son, and so ordered his wife Jocasta to
kill the infant. However, neither she nor her servant could bring themselves to kill him and
he was abandoned to elements. There he was found and brought up by a shepherd, before
being taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were
his own son.
Stung by rumours that he was not the biological son of the king, Oedipus consulted an oracle
which foretold that he would marry his own mother and kill his own father. Desperate to
avoid this foretold fate, and believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus
left Corinth. On the road to Thebes, he met Laius, his real father, and, unaware of each
other's true identities, they quarrelled and Oedipus' pride led him to murder Laius, fulfilling
part of the oracle's prophecy. Later, he solved the riddle of the Sphinx and his reward for
freeing the kingdom of Thebes from the Sphinx’s curse was the hand of Queen Jocasta
(actually his biological mother) and the crown of the city of Thebes. The prophecy was thus
fulfilled, although none of the main characters were aware of it at this point.
As the play opens, a priest and the Chorus of Theban elders are calling on King Oedipus to
aid them with the plague which has been sent by Apollo to ravage the city. Oedipus has
already sent Creon, his brother-in-law, to consult the oracle at Delphi on the matter, and
when Creon returns at that very moment, he reports that the plague will only end when the
murderer of their former king, Laius, is caught and brought to justice. Oedipus vows to find
the murderer and curses him for the plague that he has caused.
Oedipus also summons the blind prophet Tiresias, who claims to know the answers to
Oedipus' questions, but refuses to speak, lamenting his ability to see the truth when the
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truth brings nothing but pain. He advises Oedipus to abandon his search but, when the
enraged Oedipus accuses Tiresias of complicity in the murder, Tiresias is provoked into
telling the king the truth that he himself is the murderer. Oedipus dismisses this as nonsense,
accusing the prophet of being corrupted by the ambitious Creon in an attempt to undermine
him, and Tiresias leaves, putting forth one last riddle: that the murderer of Laius will turn
out to be both father and brother to his own children, and the son of his own wife.
Oedipus demands that Creon be executed, convinced that he is conspiring against him, and
only the intervention of the Chorus persuades him to let Creon live. Oedipus' wife Jocasta
tells him he should take no notice of prophets and oracles anyway because, many years ago,
she and Laius received an oracle which never came true. This prophecy said that Laius
would be killed by his own son but, as everyone knows, Laius was actually killed by bandits
at a crossroads on the way to Delphi. The mention of crossroads causes Oedipus to give
pause and he suddenly becomes worried that Tiresias' accusations may actually have been
When a messenger from Corinth arrives with news of the death of King Polybus, Oedipus
shocks everyone with his apparent happiness at the news, as he sees this as proof that he
can never kill his father, although he still fears that he may somehow commit incest with
his mother. The messenger, eager to ease Oedipus' mind, tells him not to worry because
Queen Merope of Corinth was not in fact his real mother anyway.
The messenger turns out to be the very shepherd who had looked after an abandoned child,
which he later took to Corinth and gave up to King Polybus for adoption. He is also the very
same shepherd who witnessed the murder of Laius. By now, Jocasta is beginning to realize
the truth, and desperately begs Oedipus to stop asking questions. But Oedipus presses the
shepherd, threatening him with torture or execution, until it finally emerges that the child
he gave away was Laius' own son, and that Jocasta had given the baby to the shepherd to
secretly be exposed upon the mountainside, in fear of the prophecy that Jocasta said had
never come true: that the child would kill its father.
With all now finally revealed, Oedipus curses himself and his tragic destiny and stumbles
off, as the Chorus laments how even a great man can be felled by fate. A servant enters and
explains that Jocasta, when she had begun to suspect the truth, had ran to the palace
bedroom and hanged herself there. Oedipus enters, deliriously calling for a sword so that
he might kill himself and raging through the house until he comes upon Jocasta's body. In
final despair, Oedipus takes two long gold pins from her dress, and plunges them into his
own eyes.
Now blind, Oedipus begs to be exiled as soon as possible, and asks Creon to look after his
two daughters, Antigone and Ismene, lamenting that they should have been born into such
a cursed family. Creon counsels that Oedipus should be kept in the palace until oracles can
be consulted regarding what is best to be done, and the play ends as the Chorus wails: ‘Count
no man happy till he dies, free of pain at last’.
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The play follows one chapter (the most dramatic one) in the life of Oedipus, King of
Thebes, who lived about a generation before the events of the Trojan War, namely his
gradual realization that he has killed his own father, Laius, and committed incest with his
own mother, Jocasta. It assumes a certain amount of background knowledge of his story,
which Greek audiences would have known well, although much of the background is also
explained as the action unfolds. The basis of the myth is recounted to some extent in
Homer’s “The Odyssey”, and more detailed accounts would have appeared in the chronicles
of Thebes known as the Theban Cycle, although these have since been lost to us.
“Oedipus the King” is structured as a prologue and five episodes, each introduced by
a choral ode. Each of the incidents in the play is part of a tightly constructed cause-andeffect chain, assembled together as an investigation of the past, and the play is considered
a marvel of plot structure. Part of the tremendous sense of inevitability and fate in the play
stems from the fact that all the irrational things have already occurred and are therefore
The main themes of the play are: fate and free will (the inevitability of oracular
predictions is a theme that often occurs in Greek tragedies); the conflict between the
individual and the state (similar to that in Sophocles’ “Antigone”); people’s willingness to
ignore painful truths (both Oedipus and Jocasta clutch at unlikely details in order to
avoiding facing up to the inceasingly apparent truth); and sight and blindness (the irony
that the blind seer Tiresius can actually “see” more clearly than the supposedly clear-eyed
Oedipus, who is in reality blind to the truth about his origins and his inadvertent crimes).
Sophocles makes good use of dramatic irony in “Oedipus the King”. For example: the
people of Thebes come to Oedipus at the start of the play, asking him to rid the city of the
plague, when in reality, it is he who is the cause; Oedipus curses the murderer of Laius out
of a deep anger at not being able to find him, actually cursing himself in he process; he
insults Tiresius’ blindness when he is the one who actually lacks vision, and will soon
himself be blind; and he rejoices in the news of the death of King Polybus of Corinth, when
this new information is what actually brings the tragic prophecy to light.
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The Aeneid
(Epic Poem, Latin/Roman, 19 BCE, 9,996 lines)
“The Aeneid” (Lat: “Aeneis”) is an epic poem by Vergil (Virgil), the pre-eminent poet
of the Roman Empire. It was his final work and the twelve books of the poem occupied him
for about ten years from 29 BCE until his death in 19 BCE. It tells the legendary story of the
Trojan hero Aeneas who, after years of wandering after the fall of Troy, travelled to Italy to
battle the Latins, eventually becoming the ancestor of the Roman nation. It is Vergil’s bestknown work and was considered the masterpiece of Roman literature by the Romans of his
day, and the fluidity of its rigorously structured poetry and its vivid portrayals of human
emotion have earned it a legacy as one of the greatest poems in the Latin language.
In keeping with the style of the epics of Homer, the poem begins with an invocation
to the poet’s Muse, and an explanation of the principal conflict of the early part of plot, which
stems from the resentment held by the goddess Juno against the Trojan people.
The action begins with the Trojan fleet, led by Aeneas, in the eastern Mediterranean,
heading towards Italy on a voyage to find a second home, in accordance with the prophecy
that Aeneas will give rise to a noble and courageous race in Italy, which is destined to
become known throughout the world.
The goddess Juno, however, is still wrathful at being overlooked by the judgment of
Paris in favour of Aeneas's mother, Venus, and also because her favourite city, Carthage, is
destined to be destroyed by Aeneas' descendants, and because the Trojan prince Ganymede
was chosen to be the cup-bearer to the gods, replacing Juno's own daughter, Hebe. For all
these reasons, Juno bribes Aeolus, god of the winds, with the offer of Deiopea (the loveliest
of all the sea nymphs) as a wife, and Aeolus releases the winds to stir up a huge storm, which
devastates Aeneas’ fleet.
Although himself no friend of the Trojans, Neptune is infuriated by Juno’s intrusion
into his domain, and stills the winds and calms the waters, allowing the fleet to take shelter
on the coast of Africa, near Carthage, a city recently founded by Phoenician refugees from
Tyre. Aeneas, after encouragement from his mother, Venus, soon gains the favour of Dido,
Queen of Carthage.
At a banquet in honour of the Trojans, Aeneas recounts the events which led upto
their arrival, beginning shortly after the events described in “The Iliad”. He tells of how the
crafty Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek) devised a plan for Greek warriors to gain entry into Troy
by hiding in a large wooden horse. The Greeks then pretended to sail away, leaving Sinon
to tell the Trojans that the horse was an offering and that if it were taken into the city, the
Trojans would be able to conquer Greece. The Trojan priest, Laocoön, saw through the
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Greek plot and urged the horse's destruction, but he and both his sons were attacked and
eaten by two giant sea snakes in an apparently divine intervention.
The Trojans brought the wooden horse inside the city walls, and after nightfall the
armed Greeks emerged and began to slaughter the city's inhabitants. Aeneas valiantly tried
to fight off the enemy, but he soon lost his comrades and was was advised by his mother,
Venus, to flee with his family. Although his wife, Creusa, was killed in the melée, Aeneas
managed to escape with his son, Ascanius, and his father, Anchises. Rallying the other
Trojan survivors, he built a fleet of ships, making landfall at various locations in the
Mediterranean, notably Aenea in Thrace, Pergamea in Crete and Buthrotum in Epirus.
Twice they attempted to build a new city, only to be driven away by bad omens and plagues.
They were cursed by the Harpies (mythical creatures that are part woman and part bird),
but they also unexpectedly encountered friendly countrymen.
In Buthrotum, Aeneas met Hector’s widow, Andromache, as well as Hector's brother,
Helenus, who had the gift of prophecy. Helenus prophesied that Aeneas should seek out the
land of Italy (also known as Ausonia or Hesperia), where his descendants would not only
prosper, but in time would come to rule the entire known world. Helenus also advised him
to visit the Sibyl in Cumae, and Aeneas and his fleet set off towards Italy, making first landfall
in Italy at Castrum Minervae. However, on rounding Sicily and making for the mainland,
Juno raised up a storm which drove the fleet back across the sea to Carthage in North Africa,
thus bringing Aeneas’ story up to date.
Through the machinations of Aeneas’ mother Venus, and her son, Cupid, Queen Dido
of Carthage falls madly in love with Aeneas, even though she had previously sworn fidelity
to her late husband, Sychaeus (who had been murdered by her brother Pygmalion). Aeneas
is inclined to return Dido's love, and they do become lovers for a time. But, when Jupiter
sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his duty and his destiny, he has no choice but to leave
Carthage. Heart-broken, Dido commits suicide by stabbing herself on a funeral pyre with
Aeneas’ own sword, predicting in her death throes eternal strife between Aeneas’ people
and hers. Looking back from the deck of his ship, Aeneas sees the smoke of Dido's funeral
pyre and knows its meaning only too clearly. However, destiny calls him, and the Trojan
fleet sails on towards Italy.
They return to Sicily to hold funeral games in honour of Aeneas’ father, Anchises, who
had died before Juno’s storm blew them off course. Some of the Trojan women, tired of the
seemingly endless voyage, begin to burn the ships, but a downpour puts the fires out.
Aeneas is sympathetic, though, and some of the travel-weary are allowed to stay behind in
Eventually, the fleet lands on the mainland of Italy, and Aeneas, with the guidance of
the Sibyl of Cumae, descends into the underworld to speak with the spirit of his father,
Anchises. He is given a prophetic vision of the destiny of Rome, which helps him to better
understand the importance of his mission. On returning to the land of the living, at the end
of Book VI, Aeneas leads the Trojans to settle in the land of Latium, where he is welcomed
and begins to court Lavinia, the daughter of King Latinus.
The second half of the poem begins with the break out of war between the Trojans
and the Latins. Although Aeneas has tried to avoid war, Juno had stirred up trouble by
convincing Queen Amata of the Latins that her daughter Lavinia should be married to a local
suitor, Turnus, the king of the Rutuli, and not Aeneas, thus effectively ensuring war. Aeneas
goes to seek military support among the neighbouring tribes who are also enemies of
Turnus, and Pallas, son of King Evander of Arcadia, agrees to lead troops against the other
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Italians. However, while the Trojan leader is away, Turnus sees his opportunity to attack,
and Aeneas returns to find his countrymen embroiled in battle. A midnight raid leads to the
tragic deaths of Nisus and his companion Euryalus, in one of the most emotional passages
in the book.
In the battle that follows, many heroes are killed, notably Pallas, who is killed by
Turnus; Mezentius (Turnus’ friend, who had inadvertently allowed his son to be killed while
he himself fled), who is killed by Aeneas in single combat; and Camilla, a sort of Amazon
character devoted to the goddess Diana, who fights bravely but is eventually killed, which
leads to the man who killed her being struck dead by Diana's sentinel, Opis.
A short-lived truce is called and a hand-to-hand duel is proposed between Aeneas and
Turnus in order to spare any further unnecessary carnage. Aeneas would have easily won,
but the truce is broken first and full-scale battle resumes. Aeneas is injured in the thigh
during the fighting, but he returns to the battle shortly afterwards.
When Aeneas makes a daring attack on the city of Latium itself (causing Queen Amata
to hang herself in despair), he forces Turnus into single combat once more. In a dramatic
scene, Turnus’ strength deserts him as he tries to hurl a rock, and he is struck by Aeneas'
spear in the leg. Turnus begs on his knees for his life, and Aeneas is tempted to spare him
until he sees that Turnus is wearing the belt of his friend Pallas as a trophy. The poem ends
with Aeneas, now in a towering rage, killing Turnus.
The pious hero Aeneas was already well known in Greco-Roman legend and myth,
having been a major character in Homer’s “The Iliad”, in which Poseidon first prophesies
that Aeneas will survive the Trojan War and assume leadership over the Trojan people. But
Vergil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas' wanderings and his vague mythical association
with the foundation of Rome and fashioned them into a compelling founding myth or
nationalist epic, at once tying Rome to the legends of Troy, glorifying traditional Roman
virtues and legitimizing the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes
and gods of Rome and Troy.
Vergil borrowed heavily from Homer, wishing to create an epic worthy of, and even
to surpass, the Greek poet. Many contemporary scholars hold that Vergil's poetry pales in
comparison to Homer's, and does not possess the same originality of expression. However,
most scholars agree that Vergil distinguished himself within the epic tradition of antiquity
by representing the broad spectrum of human emotion in his characters as they are
subsumed in the historical tides of dislocation and war.
“The Aeneid” can be divided into two halves: Books 1 to 6 describe Aeneas' journey to
Italy, and Books 7 to 12 cover the war in Italy. These two halves are commonly regarded as
reflecting Vergil's ambition to rival Homer by treating both the wandering theme of “The
Odyssey” and the warfare theme of “The Iliad”.
It was written in a time of major political and social change in Rome, with the recent
fall of the Republic and the Final War of the Roman Republic (in which Octavian decisively
defeated the forces of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra) having torn through society, and the
faith of many Romans in the greatness of Rome was seen to be severely faltering. The new
emperor, Augustus Caesar, however, began to institute a new era of prosperity and peace,
specifically through the re-introduction of traditional Roman moral values, and “The Aeneid”
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can be seen as purposely reflecting this aim. Vergil finally felt some hope for the future of
his country, and it was the deep gratitude and admiration he felt for Augustus that inspired
him to write his great epic poem.
In addition, it attempts to legitimize the rule of Julius Caesar (and by extension, the
rule of his adopted son, Augustus, and his heirs) by renaming Aeneas' son, Ascanius,
(originally known as Ilus, after Ilium, another name for Troy), as Iulus, and putting him
forward as an ancestor of the family of Julius Caesar and his imperial descendants. In the
epic, Vergil repeatedly foreshadows the coming of Augustus, perhaps in an attempt to
silence critics who claimed that he achieved power through violence and treachery, and
there are many parallels between Aeneas' actions and Augustus'. In some respects, Vergil
worked backward, connecting the political and social situation of his own day with the
inherited tradition of the Greek gods and heroes, in order to show the former as historically
derived from the latter.
Like other classical epics, “The Aeneid” is written in dactylic hexameter, with each line
having six feet made up of dactyls (one long syllable and two shorts) and spondees (two
long syllables). It also incorporates to great effect all the usual poetic devices, such as
alliteration, onomatopoeia, synecdoche and assonance.
Although the writing of “The Aeneid” is generally highly polished and complex in
nature, (legend has it that Vergil wrote only three lines of the poem each day), there are a
number of half-complete lines. That, and its rather abrupt ending, is generally seen as
evidence that Vergil died before he could finish the work. Having said that, because the
poem was composed and preserved in writing rather than orally, the text of “The Aeneid”
that has come down to us is actually more complete than most classical epics.
Another legend suggests that Vergil, fearing that he would die before he had properly
revised the poem, gave instructions to friends (including the Emperor Augustus) that “The
Aeneid” should be burned on his death, partly due to its unfinished state and partly because
he had apparently come to dislike one of the sequences in Book VIII, in which Venus and
Vulcan have sexual intercourse, which he saw as non-conformity to Roman moral virtues.
He supposedly planned to spend up to three years editing it, but fell ill while returning from
a trip to Greece and, just before his death in September 19 BCE, he ordered that the
manuscript of “The Aeneid” be burned as he still considered it unfinished. In the event of his
death, though, Augustus himself ordered that these wishes be disregarded, and the poem
was published after only very minor modifications.
The main overall theme of “The Aeneid” is that of opposition. The main opposition is
that of Aeneas (as guided by Jupiter), representing the ancient virtue of “pietas” (considered
the key quality of any honorable Roman, incorporating reasoned judgment, piety and duty
towards the gods, the homeland and the family), as against Dido and Turnus (who are
guided by Juno), representing unbridled “furor” (mindless passion and fury). However,
there are several other oppositions within “The Aeneid”, including: fate versus action; male
versus female; Rome versus Carthage; “Aeneas as Odysseus” (in Books 1 to 6) versus
“Aeneas as Achilles” (in Books 7 to 12); calm weather versus storms; etc.
The poem emphasizes the idea of a homeland as one's source of identity, and the Trojans’
long wanderings at sea serve as a metaphor for the kind of wandering that is characteristic
of life in general. A further theme explores the bonds of family, particularly the strong
relationship between fathers and sons: the bonds between Aeneas and Ascanius, Aeneas
and Anchises, Evander and Pallas, and between Mezentius and Lausus are all worthy of note.
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This theme also reflects Augustan moral reforms and was perhaps intended to set an
example for Roman youth.
In the same way, the poem advocates the acceptance of the workings of the gods as
fate, particularly stressing that the gods work their ways through humans. The direction
and destination of Aeneas’ course are preordained, and his various sufferings and glories
over the course of the poem merely postpone this unchangeable destiny. Vergil is trying to
impress on his Roman audience that, just as the gods used Aeneas to found Rome, they are
now using Augustus to lead it, and it is the duty of all good citizens to accept this situation.
Aeneas’s character throughout the poem is defined by his piety (he is repeatedly referred
to as “pious Aeneas”) and the subordination of personal desire to duty, perhaps best
exemplified by his abandonment of Dido in the pursuit of his destiny. His behaviour is
particularly contrasted with Juno’s and Turnus’ in this regard, as those characters fight fate
every step of the way (but ultimately lose out).
The figure of Dido in the poem is a tragic one. Once the dignified, confident and competent
ruler of Carthage, resolute in her determination to preserve the memory of her dead
husband, Cupid’s arrow causes her to risk everything by falling for Aeneas, and she finds
herself unable to reassume her dignified position when this love fails. As a result, she loses
the support of the citizens of Carthage and alienates the local African chieftains who had
previously been suitors (and now pose a military threat). She is a figure of passion and
volatility, starkly contrasted with the order and control represented by Aeneas (traits that
Vergil associated with Rome itself in his own day), and her irrational obsession drives her
to a frenzied suicide, which has struck a chord with many subsequent writers, artists and
Turnus, another of Juno's protégés who must eventually perish in order for Aeneas to
fulfill his destiny, is a counterpart to Dido in the second half of the poem. Like Dido, he
represents the forces of irrationality in contrast to Aeneas' pious sense of order and,
whereas Dido is undone by her romantic desire, Turnus is doomed by his unrelenting rage
and pride. Turnus refuses to accept the destiny Jupiter has decreed for him, stubbornly
interpreting all the signs and omens to his own advantage rather than seeking their true
meaning. Despite his desperate desire to be a hero, Turnus' character changes in the last
few battle scenes, and we see him gradually lose confidence as he comes to understand and
accept his tragic fate.
Some have found so-called "hidden messages" or allegories within the poem, although these
are largely speculative and highly contested by scholars. One example of these is the
passage in Book VI where Aeneas exits the underworld through the “gate of false dreams”,
which some have interpreted as implying that all of Aeneas’ subsequent actions are
somehow "false" and, by extension, that the history of the world since the foundation of
Rome is but a lie. Another example is the rage and fury Aeneas exhibits when he kills Turnus
at the end of Book XII, which some see as his final abandonment of "pietas" in favour of
"furor". Some claim that Vergil meant to change these passages before he died, while others
believe that their strategic locations (at the very end of each half of the overall poem) are
evidence that Vergil placed them there quite purposefully.
“The Aeneid” has long been considered a fundamental member of the Western canon
of literature, and it has been highly influential on subsequent works, attracting both
imitations as well as parodies and travesties. There have been numerous translations over
the years into English and many other languages, including an important English translation
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by the 17th Century poet John Dryden, as well as 20th Century versions by Ezra Pound, C.
Day Lewis, Allen Mandelbaum, Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fagles.
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