We must agree that any artist, however talented, cannot altogether avoid the influence of his age. He is to take into account the characteristics of his age. In other words having his root in the contemporary time, he is to express the thoughts and feelings of his mind. So is the case with both the epics. Undoubtedly The Iliad of Homer and The Aeneid of Virgil are the two masterpieces of the epic literature of the world. Despite having many things in common in structure and theme, they differ widely and The Aeneid is considered a national epic.
Time of Composition
It is strange that these two epics are related to the great story of the destruction of Troy although there is a gap of many centuries between the times of composition. The Iliad deals with the war that took place between the Achaean and the Trojans and ended in the destruction of the great walled up city. On the other hand, The Aeneid deals with the after-effects of this war.
Because of this big gap of time, the two epics are the products of different cultures and societies. The Iliad represents the pictures of a society, still in the state of pre-literacy and heroic by nature while The Aeneid represents an organized, cultural and literate society.
Purpose of Composition
We must remember that The Iliad is an oral epic which was intended to sing at the royal courts to entertain the Kings and the Princes. It also contains much of the history and folk-wisdom of the culture in which it was created. On the other hand, The Aeneid, less stark than oral, is intended not to be read only as a source of pleasure but to be perused and followed by a nation because this embodies the hopes and aspirations of a great nation i. e., The Romans.
True that all epic poetry has a serious theme narrated on the grand scale and aims at heightening understanding of human nature and the meaning of life. But the literary or the national epic is more sentimental and didactic and has a more sophisticated poetic style and subordinates its human characters and their affairs to its philosophical and moral theme. The oral epic like The Iliad are usually narrated in a simple, realistic and objective manner, while the literary epic uses many elaborate subjective devices, such as symbolism, allegory and allusions to other poetic or philosophical literature and in general, is more studied and precise than the spontaneous, lovely organized oral epic.
Heroes Vs Nation
The Aeneid is not a personal epic about Aeneas but a national epic. It is the glorification and exaltation of Rome and the destiny of the Roman people. Unlike The Iliad which describes the exploits of the heroes, The Aeneid is not concerned with the life and adventures of its hero, Aeneas, but with the part, he played in founding the Roman state. It shows how he embodies the most important Roman personal qualities and attributes particularly the Roman sense of duty and responsibility because these qualities, Virgil thought, have enabled him to build up Rome and its civilization. Virgil was a patriot in a special sense and he had a spiritualized, idealistic and aspiring conception of Rome, which he viewed as majestic and sacred, or claimed by destiny and providence to rule the world. Virgil believed that all human affairs are controlled by superhuman forces and it naturally followed that gods must have ordained that Rome should attain the greatness he sings. He thought of a new golden age of human life to be brought about by Augustus, his friend, and emperor of Rome. He saw its beginning in his reign. As a result, The Aeneid is designed to exalt Rome, to show the hand played by the divine in its establishment and to glorify its virtues and finest features by their personification in Aeneas, an epic hero who is meant to represent the archetypal Roman.
But the writer of The Iliad had no such didactic purpose in singing his episodes. His attitude to life was astonishingly objective. He sings in praise of the greatness and nobility of rugged individualism. All that happened in The Iliad is very intimately connected with the fate of a great city. Without having any definite purpose like Virgil, Homer tells a tale of Troy and all the events involved with it. It does not describe the national hopes and aspirations nor does he dream of any national aggrandizement or of any golden age. Although The Iliad is sometimes regarded as the ultimate authority for information about morality and early history of the Greek people, it is never a national epic in the sense The Aeneid is.
The Iliad depicts how the people, especially those who were kings, chiefs, and aristocrats and their interests in life. The main interests of their life were warfare and hunting and those were the only ways to gain honor and renown in the society. We find in The Iliad that the heroes set the acquisition of honor and fame as the most important goal in their lives. The Iliad begins with the wrath of Achilles and ended with the death of Hector but nowhere in the epic, he tries to set the rules of good life for the Achaean’s. It is true that The Iliad had many important lessons but these are only a by-product of the story of Achilles and the story itself is the main reason for the poem’s existence. The nature and qualities of heroes are universal rather than national. The story in The Iliad unfolds itself naturally without any super-imposition but in The Aeneid, sophisticated techniques have been made use of to confirm the activities of Aeneas for the purpose of glorifying Rome.
Apparently, The Aeneid is an exciting and well-told adventure story, dealing with the exploits of a great hero, the wanderings of his people, a savage war, and a passionate romance. But Virgil is not merely a story-teller and likewise, The Aeneid is not just a story. It is more than just a story. All his life, Virgil meditated earnestly on many of the major issues of his time and in his most important work, he presented his views on these issues. His poem enumerates the most worthwhile features of both Republican and the Imperial Rome and treats the two together as if they were a single, intertwined unit. During his wanderings, Aeneas undergoes many hardships and makes many personal sacrifices. In every instance, the hero is able to console himself by remembering the great destiny of the nation he is fated to found. In his appeal to the Muse, he makes his purpose clear that he wants to track back the foundation of Roman to Aeneas. So, essentially The Aeneid has become a national epic in its theme while The Iliad was quite opposite of it.
In conclusion, we must admit that The Aeneid, besides being a literary masterpiece, became what was, perhaps, the strongest intellectual bulwark of the Roman Empire. Contrary to this, The Iliad deals with a broader theme concerning the question of human existence in the world. But it is enough to point out that both the epics have stood the test of time and are counted among the finest works of poetry ever composition.