Man of Constant Sorrow

I mentioned in my last post that Aeneid was more visibly self-conscious than Iliad or Odyssey, suggesting that it was the distance afforded by time that was at the root of this. Insofar as there is any regional psychology of the Trojan War, it is only as distilled by Homer and, later, by Virgil. While we have a scholar-backed view of the historicity of the city itself, it is unclear if there was any singular event that could be considered THE Trojan War. It is just as likely that, as often happens in the process of mythology, a number of separate events conflated to become the myth, and the separate events themselves faded in importance. In this way, the psychological impact of the war is the folding and weaving of unrelated histories and extant myths into a coherent myth, and therefore entering the burgeoning national consciousness of the early Greek people. But if Homer’s goal was to elaborate a founding myth, such narrative appears absent from his works.

Contrast with Virgil. From the beginning, we get a sense of Aeneas’s destiny to plant the seeds that would flourish into the Roman Empire. Virgil, in fact, is quite heavy-handed in this, layering prophecy and foreshadowing in order to remind the reader at every turn. By the time Virgil was writing, some eight centuries separated his own treatment of the fall of Troy from Homer’s, whereas Homer was separated from his subject by half the time. In human historical terms, a thousand years is a long time. It is a long time in which to study and internalize the myths of others, and it is certainly long enough to carefully construct narratives that serve as exuberantly self-conscious foundation myths.

Beyond layers of prophecy foretelling Aeneas’s destiny, Virgil is a shameless name-dropper. Homer’s Aeneas is but a minor character, rating a mention nonetheless. True, in Greek mythology, he was known to be the son born of the liaison between Anchises and Aphrodite, but Homer hardly dwelt on this fact. Whether there were already prevalent post-Troy biographical accounts of Aeneas prior to Virgil’s treatment of him doesn’t seem to be known, but even if there were, it is Virgil’s work that most defines the character of Aeneas. We are left, then, with a question of why Virgil chose Aeneas to carry the seeds of Rome’s founding, but whatever the questions of provenance, Virgil seeks quickly to establish the credibility of his minted hero by associating him with other well-known people. The most prominent of these is Ulysses (whom the Greeks called Odysseus).

Spoiler: we don’t meet the man of constant sorrow in Aeneid. Instead, we meet one of his luckless mates left behind during Ulysses’s flight from the island of the Cyclops. We’re led to believe that Ulysses has only departed recently, as the blinded Polyphemus has not fully healed from the dreadful wound that ended up enraging Neptune and preventing Ulysses’s return home. With this stroke, Virgil has demonstrated that Aeneas is not only following in the footsteps of Ulysses, but that by the end of his journeys, he will have endured his own odyssey, even if the particular trials end up being different. This, by the way, is only Aeneas’s recounting of the journey that landed him on the Libyan coast to be sheltered by Dido and the Carthaginians.

I think Virgil is setting us up to accept a whole new breed of suffering wanderer. And you know what? Aeneas’s tale, the story of the man who lost before planting the seeds of victory over his enemies, is in many ways far more sympathetic than the tale of the man who won but then just got lost on the way home.

I posted an edited version of this quote on Facebook, channeling its Fitzgeraldian flavor, but here it is more apt in its full length and captures Aeneas’s plight:

Breakneck on, impelled by the sharp edge of fear, we shake our sheets out, spread our sails to the wind, wherever it may blow.