Book of Exiles

The last time I read book 3 of the Aeneid, I wrote about the strange episode where Aeneas and his crew flee from Polyphemus. The scene is strange for its lack of any real tension. It is not a thrilling escape from danger. Excitement was not Virgil’s intent in placing that scene in his poem. I tried to find another motivation in his sympathy for Polyphemus, whose eye Odysseus had gouged out.

But there is another reason for the scene as well, and that will be my focus here. Just prior to their flight from Polyphemus, Aeneas and his crew meet Achaemenides, a holdover from Odysseus’ crew. In their escape from Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus and his men had apparently forgotten Achaemenides, and he had spent the next three months on the island, surviving on wild fruit and roots in the forest. On seeing Aeneas arrive, he approaches and, seeing that they are enemy Trojans, chooses to place himself at their mercy rather than condemn himself to continued existence in Sicily.

Now, surely, part of the reason why Virgil places this scene here is to take a swipe at Odysseus, the conniving and evil Greek. This serves two purposes: it gratifies Roman sentiment, and it establishes Virgil’s hero as superior to Homer’s. Aeneas would never leave a crew member behind out of negligence, after all.

But there is more to it than that. The Aeneid is, above all else, a book of exiles. Where the Odyssey is dominated by a morality of host-guest obligations, the moral fabric of the Aeneid concerns exiles and the community between them. Indeed, it might not even be a morality properly so called. It is less ordained by the gods than a natural consequence of empathy: those who have known exile are friendly to the wayward Trojans, and the Trojans are, in turn, friendly to the exiles they meet. (It was, of course, friendliness toward a pretend exile that caused the fall of Troy in the first place.)

The encounter with Achaemenides illustrates this. Even though he is a Greek who fought at Troy, and even though he is a former companion of hated Odysseus, Aeneas and the Trojans accept him into their ranks. This is doubly remarkable because the last time they showed sympathy to a Greek with a sob story, they were tricked into bringing the fatal horse inside the city walls. Yet they still accept Achaemenides as a “worthy suppliant” (3.770).

What we are to take away from this, I think, is that, in the world of the Aeneid, the status of being an exile creates a bond between all who share it. Who cares that Achaemenides was a Greek, and thus an enemy of the Trojans? That antagonism was between two established homes. When the homes are destroyed or otherwise lost, so too the grounds for hostility. Exileship trumps nationality.

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