Aeneas' Behavior during the Sea Storm in Aeneid 1: The Philosophical Background of Vergil's Allusions to Homer and Apollonius

Wolfgang Polleichtner

Ruhr-Universität, Bochum, Germany

Various scholars consider Aeneas in the sea storm of the Aeneid's opening book as a coward who in the course of the subsequent scenes of the poem learns to live up to the expectations of his audience. This interpretation fails to see that significant differences between Aeneas and the literary parallels for this scene as we find them in Homer and in Apollonius correspond to various philosophical views of how a sage should and can behave in a situation similar to that of Aeneas. Therefore we have reason to seriously doubt that people in Vergil's time would have considered Aeneas a failing hero in the sea storm of Aeneid 1.

A comparative reading of the sea storm passage in Aeneid 1 and the Homeric and Apollonian scenes that served as its models will yield the following results. 1) The Trojans cannot escape the storm. In its intensity the storm is an example of irresistible forces of nature. 2) Aeneas' fear lasts only for one verse (Aen. 1.92). Then other emotions take over. In the context of this paper Aeneas' Achillean dismay at his fate is particularly important. 3) When compared to Odysseus and Livius Andronicus' translation of the decisive verse Od. 5.297, Aeneas suffers less from fear than Odysseus. While the typical epic hero wishes to have the chance to die a more glorious death than to suffer shameful drowning or starvation, Aeneas wishes to have died in the presence of his fathers. 4) Willing to carry on after the storm even without divine help, Aeneas is the opposite of Jason in the end of book 4 of Apollonius' Argonautica.

Aeneas' restraint in regard to his emotions suggests Vergil's familiarity with contemporary Stoic ideas about when a feeling can really be called and subsequently condemned as an emotion. Plato in his Protagoras (344d) explains that in the face of unpreventable and irresistible circumstances even a wise, good, and resourceful man will appear to be the opposite. Plato uses a steersman in a fierce winter storm as his example for this claim. Aristotle in his Ethica Nicomachaea (1115f.) describes how a courageous man in a sea storm has no chance to show his courage. Aristotle points out that there are limits for what dangers a man can tolerate without fearing them and defines the courageous man as one who fears and endures what is right to fear and to endure. The dangers of the treacherous sea are among them. According to Aristotle, the courageous man will be dismayed at the kind of death he is about to die in a shipwreck. Death in battle would mean a more glorious death. Philodemus in de morte IV, cols. 26ff. counters the belief that death in battle is better than dying in some ignoble way. The only aspect of dying that an Epicurean wise man may feel a pang about is to die while being away from his family.

Just as other scholars have pointed out in regard to, e.g., the final scene of the Aeneid or the Helen episode, Vergil is aware of contemporary views on ethics. Aeneas might not be a hero during the sea storm in the eyes of some contemporary critics, but in antiquity his behavior during and after a storm of such magnitude as in Aeneid 1 probably would have found literary and philosophical approval.


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