Homer and Vergil: A Study in Contrasts, Bounded in a Nutshell

In Aeneid 1, Vergil describes the pictures of the Trojan War on Juno’s temple in Carthage. The scene of the supplication of the Trojan women is modeled on Iliad 6.297-311. The supplication is in vain; the last line of the passage tells how Athena turned her eyes away:

ὣς ἔφατ᾽ εὐχομένη, ἀνένευε δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη.

Thus she spoke in prayer, but Pallas Athena shook her head no.

The translation is my own, both here and below.

It is straightforwardly descriptive, not a word wasted, the quintessential Homeric economy.

Vergil uses this line as the inspiration and raw material for Aen. 1.482. Notice the changes he makes to give it, in his own turn, the quintessential Vergilian pathos:

diva solo fixos oculos aversa tenebat.

The goddess turned away and kept her eyes fixed fast on the ground.

There is a whole volume on the differences between Homer and Vergil in this one line from each poem. Even with these two lines and nothing else, we could gain quite a bit of insight about their respective styles.

But, of course, these are not the only lines we have, and Vergil’s changes here mirror and reinforce others that he has made to the passage. His Trojan women come to the temple not just “of Athena” but non aequae Palladis–“of Athena who is not”…not…what, precisely? Non aequae might mean “not favorable,” which is true; but it might also mean “not just.” His women have “disheveled hair” (crinibus…passis); they are “sad” (tristes); they “have beaten their breasts with the palms of their hands” (tunsae pectora palmis).

None of this is present in Il. 6. Pausing to contemplate those differences, and their reasons, will tell you much about both the art and the meaning of Vergil’s Aeneid.

*(Image: Antonio Canova, “The Offering of the Peplos to Athena” (detail). Image credit: Fondazione Cariplo)


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