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The Carletonian

A semi-serious ranking of The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid

  1. The Odyssey

Perhaps the only time the sequel was better than the prequel, the story of the Odyssey takes place after the sacking of Troy. Odysseus, king of Ithaca, master schemer and military commander, tries to find his way back home to his wife Penelope, who’s accosted by more than a hundred suitors, and his son Telemachus who goes on a journey of his own to find out where his father is. 

This epic, unlike others, isn’t about a hero saving or changing the world, performing superhuman feats, or defeating an enemy in battle. It’s about a man trying to come home alive and reclaim his power and identity. In this respect the Odyssey is better than the Aeneid and the Iliad because it’s relatable. Odysseus isn’t the son of a god, nor does he have divinely enhanced strength or fighting skills. All he has is his brain, sheer will to survive and his love of family and home to take him where he needs to be. The majority of people on this earth aren’t descended from gods and are of rather unremarkable strength and cleverness. Nonetheless, the journey of finding and making one’s home and claiming one’s power is something everyone must go through in life. In the Iliad, Achilles is aware of his power. Far too aware of his power, and that makes him a less sympathetic character. The same goes with Aeneas. 

The Iliad and The Aeneid both have characters who are controlled by prophecies and fate. Achilles will die as a great warrior, Aeneas is going to found Rome, but Odysseus has no grand prophecy about his life. Neither the audience nor Odysseus himself know if he’ll come home alive for a good part of the book. The lack of a grand prophecy helps create suspense and creates a more exciting narrative. 

  1. The Iliad

Depending on your translation, this epic starts with the most iconic of opening lines, “Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.” The Iliad describes the story of Achilles, son of Thetis and Peleus and a great warrior who’s destined to die a glorious death if he continues to fight in Troy. The book also weaves in the stories and perspectives of other warriors such as Hector, Menelaus, Patroclus, Diomedes, Agamemnon, Odysseus and the Ajaxes. At the start of his book, Achilles is robbed by Agamemnon of his war prize Briseis because he didn’t want Chryses, priest of Apollo and father of Chryseis, to take his war prize Chryseis. Of course, rules regarding war prizes were different back in Mycenaean Greece and taking one’s prisoner of war was seen as a huge source of dishonor, but he should’ve gotten over his pride about eight books earlier. If he did, Patroclus might not have been killed. 

The most sympathetic character in this book has to be Patroclus, Achilles’s loyal friend, who sacrifices himself to stave off the Trojans from attacking the wall protecting the Greek ships. He’s arguably a greater hero than Achilles because he thinks of more than himself and his own glory. He isn’t the son of a god nor is he a very strong warrior; yet he still manages to take down dozens of Trojans and Sarpedon, son of Zeus. What’s sad is that he’s only known in conjunction with Achilles and didn’t get a story of his own until Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles. 


  1. The Aeneid

This epic is about Aeneas who flees Troy and founds Rome. On his way he makes multiple stops along the Mediterranean and almost marries Dido, Queen of Carthage. However, bound by his fate and duty, he must leave her and create the foundations of the Roman Empire. 

 This was the worst out of the three epics. It was a cheap spinoff of both of Homer’s epics. It lacked the psychological drama of The Iliad and the Odyssey’s examination of the human experience. It doesn’t help that the Aeneid is Roman propaganda meant to flatter Augustus. Although I suppose it would make sense for the Aeneid to lack the depth of the Odyssey and the Iliad; propaganda usually doesn’t make for very good art. Aeneas is also a bland and uninteresting character. It makes sense considering he’s the son of Venus, who does nothing but cause trouble. It’s unbelievable that he would dump a literal queen such as Dido, who literally fled from Phoenicia with nothing and built the most prosperous city on the Mediterranean, AKA Carthage. The most memorable scene in the book was her death. She builds an elaborate funeral pyre, throws herself upon a sword and bids a tearful goodbye to her sister Anna. It’s rather unfortunate that such a complete and utter girlboss would give up her life for a slimeball such as Aeneas, but alas that’s a societal problem that doesn’t seem to have ameliorated within the last 2,000 years. Thankfully, her curse for eternal war between Carthage and Rome worked because Rome got not one, but three Punic Wars. Unfortunately, Carthage lost all of them, but Dido still got her revenge. The second half of the book is a bunch of random battle scenes that could be skipped through. A bunch of random people get killed. The final scene is Aeneas stabbing Turnus (the leader of the Latins). All in all, it’s a very unremarkable plotline with a few remarkable characters (Dido and possibly Turnus). 

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    AlymirraApr 30, 2024 at 2:25 pm

    Very interesting take on this. I have been listening to a musical retelling of the Odyssey (Epic by Jorge Rivera-Herrans) and realized I should brush up on my understanding of the Odyssey and how it relates to the other poems of its time.