Did Virgil Copy Homer?

Now, I know this is more of a literary question than a historical one, but why shouldn’t it be included? As everyone else on the blog can tell you, Classical Civilisation is my true passion (History is a very close second), and I thought I’d share some of that with our lovely readers.

When looking at The Aeneid, there is debate as to whether Virgil has simply plagiarised Homer’s works, written centuries before. It is argued that Virgil intended the Aeneid to be a tribute to Homer, while others say he’s manipulated Homer’s works to create his own. In particular, you can see many parallels between the storms in book one of The Aeneid and in books five and twelve of The Odyssey.

One of the most glaring similarities is the parts the gods play in the storms. All are started by a god who has something against the hero. However, there is a notable difference in that whilst Poseidon starts the storm, his Roman counterpart, Neptune, calms it.

“With that he marshalled the clouds and, seizing his trident in his hands, stirred up the sea.”
The Odyssey, Book 5

“These were his words and, before he had finished speaking, he was calming the swell…”
The Aeneid, Book 1

This is the main difference between the gods’ actions in the storms. Despite this, in both a god who supports the hero calms the storm- Neptune in the Aeneid and Athene in the Odyssey. Also, there is a goddess featured in both although, again, there is a role-reversal- Virgil’s goddess is the villain whilst Homer’s is a heroine.
On the same topic, Virgil’s portrayal of Juno makes her seem less omnipotent that Poseidon in the Odyssey. Whilst he doesn’t say that she can’t raise the storm by herself, she persuades another god to do so for her- Aeolus, King of the Winds. This makes her seems less powerful and more conniving, whereas Poseidon, as seen in the quote above, has no trouble raising a storm by himself.

Another similarity is the way the gods seem to be completely human, only with far more power than any human could ever have. All the gods shown in the storms- Poseidon, Athene, Juno, Aeolus and Neptune- all have their own motives and grudges.

“The sight of Odysseus sailing over the seas enraged him.”
The Odyssey, Book 5

“He recognised the anger and cunning of his sister Juno…”
The Aeneid, Book 1

This is a huge similarity between all Greek and Roman tales- the gods are far more human than we see our modern deities as. They fight with each other as any mortal would, they all have favourites and their family ties are as important as ours are. Since this is a feature of all literature and mythology from that period, it can’t be used to say that Virgil copied Homer.

The way the hero speaks and acts is also quite similar. For example, as the storms gain intensity, they act almost identically- “Odysseus’ knees shook and his spirit failed.” (The Odyssey, Book 5) “A sudden chill went through Aeneas and his legs grew weak.” (The Aeneid, Book 1)
What both heroes also do is make long, heartfelt speeches about their terrible plight and how they wish they’d died heroically at Troy, instead of the ignominious end that would come at sea. They wax lyrical about those who perished at Troy, Achilles mentioned by both. Here is an example of Virgil heavily borrowing from Homer.

Both of the gods who start the storms- Aeolus and Poseidon- use a long weapon to spark it off.

“At these words he struck the side of the hollow mountain with the butt of his spear and the winds seemed to form a column and pour out through the open gate to blow a hurricane over the whole earth.”
The Aeneid, Book 1

“With that he marshalled the clouds and, seizing his trident in his hands, stirred up the sea.”
The Odyssey, Book 5

The difference here is the way they start the storms- Poseidon uses his trident to stir up the sea, whilst Aeolus uses his spear to release the winds who do the stirring for him. However, despite using them in a different fashion, both use weapons to start the storm.

As he describes the winds, seas and skies, many of Virgil’s descriptions bear vast similarity to Homer’s. Amongst these, the most striking similarity is the whirlpool in the Odyssey and the waves in the Aeneid.

“…the waters opened and in the troughs could bee seen the sea-bed and the seething sand.”
The Aeneid, Book 1

“…the awesome Charybdis sucked down the salt water in her dreadful way… and the dark blue sands of the sea-bed were exposed.”
The Odyssey, Book 12

Other examples include the darkening of the sea. In The Odyssey, Homer tells us ‘the sea was darkened by shadow’ and in The Aeneid, Virgil writes ‘black night brooded over the sea’.

In my opinion, Virgil was intending for the reader to detect the similarities between his poem and the works of Homer- which all literate Romans would have learnt. He was using intertextuality to increase the reader’s enjoyment of the poem. However, I think that he could have achieved the same effect without taking as much from Homer as he did.


One thought on “Did Virgil Copy Homer?

  1. while Virgil may not have been the first plagiarist, there’s no doubt in my mind that he indeed was one. He may also have been a bit of a misogynist since his goddess was a villain instead of a hero. Personally I prefer The Iliad and Odyssey over the Aeneid any day. That’s just my personal preference, I prefer the Ancient Greek art and literature to Roman. The Romans may have been military and engineering geniuses but when it came to art and literature they were just a bunch of copycats.


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