The Underworld in the Odyssey and the Aeneid

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Although the Classical Romans modeled their civilization after the Ancient Greek civilization, they did not merely imitate it. Instead, they also expanded upon the tradition of the Greeks, in an effort to demonstrate the superiority of Roman culture. Thus, when Virgil wrote the first six books of the Aeneid, which follow the adventures of Aeneas as he strives to reach Italy, he modeled them after Homer’s Odyssey, but made changes that reflect the differing values between the Greeks and the Romans. Of these changes, one of the most striking is the difference in the descriptions of the Underworld that we see when Odysseus and Aeneas each visit the dead. As both of these descriptions occur at or near the center of their respective poems, they reveal the heart of the difference between the two poets and the civilizations they belong to.

Homer’s description of Odysseus’ experience in the Underworld is very straightforward. After Odysseus is told to seek out Tiresias, he simply sails to the location told to him by Circe, performs the proper rituals and sacrifices, pours the blood from the sacrifices in a trench, and waits for the spirits to appear (Homer 11.1-41). Once they appear, he may let them drink some of the blood in the trench if he wishes to speak with them, or refuse to let them drink if he does not wish to speak with them (168-70).

But other than these few small formalities, there is almost a complete lack of organization in the Underworld. We are told that King Minos is “judging all the dead” (652), but we are not told the basis or results of any of his judgments. In fact, with the exceptions of the unlucky few who directly angered the gods during their life (660-89), we see no distinction between the just and the unjust.

The information pertaining to Odysseus’ future is also slightly ambiguous. He is told of the perils he will face, but he is not told how to get through them, so he must use his natural cunning—the same strategy he has used to get...
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