Along with The Iliad and The Odyssey, The Aeneid is one of the three epic pillars on which the edifice of western literature rests. These three works are, therefore, foundational.

Written by Virgil a few decades before the birth of Christ, and at least seven centuries after the time of Homer, The Aeneid owes its very existence to Homer’s earlier epics. It takes its inspiration from an episode in Book XX of The Iliad in which the Trojan warrior Aeneas is saved from death at the hands of Achilles by the intervention of the gods. He is spared so that the Trojan line might not be extinguished, Poseidon declaring to the other gods that it is destined that “Aeneas and his heirs, and theirs, will be the lords of Trojans born hereafter.” Virgil takes this divine prophecy and imagines that Aeneas and his heirs would not only prosper but that they would be destined to found the mighty empire of Rome, rising phoenix-like from the ashes of Troy to rule over their erstwhile Greek conquerors. This militaristic and triumphalist spirit informs the whole epic, which is, at root, an imperialistic celebration of the martial prowess of Rome. 

Whereas Homer had begun The Iliad by asking his Muse to help him sing of Achilles and the destructive consequences of Achilles’ anger, in the light of the will of Zeus which is accomplished through these providential consequences, Virgil proclaims merely that “I sing of warfare and a man of war.” Flying the Roman imperial flag, Virgil demonizes the Greeks in his retelling of the story of the fall of Troy. We are told that they are not the equal of the Trojans in battle and that they could only win the victory through lies and deception. It is to Virgil that we owe the adage, “beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” an allusion to the treachery of the Trojan horse. Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic, becomes, as Ulysses, a villain in Virgil’s revisionist account of the siege of Troy and its aftermath.

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