The Underworld in the Odyssey and the Aeneid Essay

Although the Classical Romans modeled their civilization after the Ancient Greek civilization, they did not merely imitate it. Instead, they also expanded upon the tradition of the Greeks, in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Roman culture. Thus, when Virgil wrote the first six books of the Aeneid, which follow the adventures of Aeneas as he strives to reach Italy, he modeled them after Homer’s Odyssey, but made changes that reflect the differing values between the Greeks and the Romans.

Of these changes, one of the most striking is the difference in the descriptions of the Underworld that we see when Odysseus and Aeneas each visit the dead. As both of these descriptions occur at or near the center of their respective poems, they reveal the heart of the difference between the two poets and the civilizations they belong to. Homer’s description of Odysseus’ experience in the Underworld is very straightforward.

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After Odysseus is told to seek out Tiresias, he simply sails to the location told to him by Circe, performs the proper rituals and sacrifices, pours the blood from the sacrifices in a trench, and waits for the spirits to appear (Homer 11. 1-41). Once they appear, he may let them drink some of the blood in the trench if he wishes to speak with them, or refuse to let them drink if he does not wish to speak with them (168-70). But other than these few small formalities, there is almost a complete lack of organization in the Underworld.

We are told that King Minos is “judging all the dead” (652), but we are not told the basis or results of any of his judgments. In fact, with the exceptions of the unlucky few who directly angered the gods during their life (660-89), we see no distinction between the just and the unjust. The information pertaining to Odysseus’ future is also slightly ambiguous. He is told of the perils he will face, but he is not told how to get through them, so he must use his natural cunning—the same strategy he has used to get through every peril thus far (117-52). As a result, Odysseus does not undergo a noticeable character development.

In contrast, Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ experience is much more extensive. Like Odysseus, he must perform several rituals; he must sacrifice bulls and sheep (46-48), and pluck a “golden bough” from a hidden tree to present to Proserpina as a gift (161-70). Unlike Odysseus, he must rely on the Sibyl to guide him (302), illustrating the need to rely on something other than himself: a need that self-reliant Odysseus has almost never encountered. And while Odysseus waited for the dead to come to him, Aeneas must cross the River Styx, which is the great divide between the earth and the Underworld.

After crossing the river, however, he discovers that the water barrier is the only great separation between those who walk the earth and the souls in the Underworld. Anchises tells him that souls are the “seeds of life” that inhabit earthly bodies (843). The soul is the essence of, and the seat of emotion in a person, not the bodily matter “born for death” that obscures the soul’s sight of spiritual reality (844-49). This is why, according to Anchises, souls can enter a new body after they have been purified and have had their memory erased (865-869).

Therefore, the body is merely a tool of the soul, just as Aeneas is a tool of fate. This lesson is also a subtle jibe at Homer, who says that Odysseus saw the ghost of Heracles at the same time the man himself was with “the deathless gods on high” (Homer 11. 690-92), which is impossible if the body is worthless without the soul. Anchises then reveals to Aeneas the future that is Aeneas’ destiny to bring about. Unlike Homer, Virgil looks beyond Aeneas’ lifetime to his descendants, and the great deeds they will perform if only Aeneas lives according to his responsibility.

He does so by giving a brief overview of the history of Roman civilization, beginning with Silvius, Aeneas’ unborn son, and ending with Marcellus, a great Roman general from the Punic Wars (880-992). We discover the true reason for including this list of great Roman leaders when Anchises mentions Caesar Augustus, and tells of all his glorious accomplishments (911-31): Virgil is catering to Augustus, his ruler, and this list is an eloquent example of Roman propaganda. But perhaps the most significant difference is the reality of judgment. In Virgil’s Underworld, King Minos separates the dead with respect to how they had lived their lives.

There are “infants…robbed of their share / of this sweet life” (Virgil 6. 492-93), “those condemned to die on a false charge” (496), “innocents…who brought on death by their own hands” (503), “souls / consumed by the harsh, wasting sickness, cruel love” in the Fields of Mourning (512-13), “the great war heroes” of the past (556), those who had directly angered the gods and those who reveled in immorality during life eternally punished together in Tartarus (670-727), and finally “those we remember well for the good they did mankind” in Elysium (769).

By showing this separation of the dead, Virgil is deemphasizing the role of fate in determining our actions; showing instead that all people have choices, and are held responsible for the choices they make. While Virgil’s conception of spiritual reality is not perfect, it is superior to Homer’s. Virgil more accurately recognizes the role of the soul in human life, and the impact it has on moral responsibility.

Along the same lines, he shows that we must often suppress our own desires and strive toward our destiny, in contrast to the Homeric idea that fate and destiny are inescapable with little or no allowance for free will. Virgil’s insights, however, are tainted by his bias toward Roman superiority. His overview of Roman history is obvious propaganda, and he never mentions any of Aeneas’ flaws, which would mar an idealistic view of Roman society. In contrast, Homer seems to present the story of Odysseus as objectively as possible.

Thus, although he most likely is not devoid of bias, and most likely does not tell the story perfectly, he is more readily trusted to provide the truth. Therefore, whereas Virgil’s account of the Underworld is more accurate in regard to spiritual reality, he does not accomplish his goal of being superior to Homer in every way. In spite of his greater knowledge, he does not realize, as Homer does, that history is meant to inform, not persuade. By attempting to outshine Homer, Virgil dooms himself to remain in Homer’s shadow, proving Classical Rome’s superiority over Ancient Greece to be superficial.