The theme of family, and the poetic exploration of this theme, is important in both the Aeneid and the Iliad. The hero’s relationship with his family acts as a lens through which one can observe the cultural norms of the time, as well as showing more specifically the way in which the characters interact with each other. The Aeneid and the Iliad treat the idea of family in very different ways, and ascribe varying levels of importance to the theme.
The Roman idea of pietas acts as the lynchpin of the Aeneid. Often translated as ‘filial piety’, it emphasises the importance of the family and its place in the life of the hero, in this case Aeneas. The father-son relationship is the most important presentation of the family in the Aeneid. The enduring image of this familial bond is presented in book 2 when Aeneas carries his elderly father Anchises and leads by the hand his young son Ascanius from the burning wreckage of their beloved city, saying, ‘Come then, dear father, up on my back. I shall take you on my shoulders. Your weight will be nothing to me. Whatever may come, danger or safety, it will be the same for both of us. Young Iulus can walk by my side.’ As they are forced to abandon all that they know and love, the solidarity of Aeneas’ family unit symbolises the strength which they will use to found their new city; Virgil is clearly emphasising the importance of family as part of the ancestry of the Roman people. This link between the concept of pietas and the importance of family is vital in the Aeneid since one of the major themes of Virgil’s epic is Aeneas’ transformation from a Trojan warrior into a Roman hero.
This importance is emphasised throughout the Aeneid in the presentation of father and son pairings: Anchises and Aeneas; Aeneas and Ascanius; Mezentius and Lausus; Evander and Pallas. The gods make it clear to Aeneas that even if he does not wish to fulfil his destiny out of the desire for personal glory, he must do it out of concern for the future of his son and ‘his descendants yet to be born’ – ‘If the glory of such destiny does not fire his heart, if he does not strive to win fame himself, ask him if he grudges the citadel of Rome to his son Ascanius - while the fact that Neoptolemus has become ‘the one who murders the son before the face of the father, and the father is at the altar’ makes his acts even more terrible. The Aeneid firmly establishes the idea that consideration for one’s family leads to a far more balanced society than selfish acts – an idea purposefully designed to chime with the ‘family values’ line peddled by Emperor Augustus.
While the Aeneid undoubtedly places the family at the centre of a hero’s life, the Iliad sits at the other end of the spectrum: Homer goes to great lengths to emphasise the importance of military glory over family life. Homer repeatedly forces his characters to choose between being with their loved ones and achieving kleos, such as when Andromache cries out to Hektor ‘Please, feel pity for us, stay here on the battlements, so you do not make an orphan of your child and your wife a widow’ – Hektor is obviously going to choose to leap back into battle, regardless of pleas from his family. In this respect, family holds a far less important position in the Iliad than in the Aeneid. When Paris chooses to spend time with Helen instead of fighting, he is treated with derision and contempt by his fellow Trojan men; they ‘[attack] him with shaming words’ for daring to put the welfare of his family above that of his state.
Achilles’ decision to stay at Troy and avenge Patroclus, despite knowing that it will lead him to an ‘early death’, shows the extent to which Homer and his characters place military glory above family. Achilles knows that he ‘shall not return home either to be welcomed in his house by the old horseman Peleus’, but he values so highly the martial ideals gained through battle that he willingly sacrifices the chance to reach old age surrounded by his family in a quest for kleos and vengeance.
This formula of ‘glory over family’ is reversed in the Aeneid; Virgil constantly emphasises the cost of battle, and this is important when considering the theme of family in the two epics. After losing Creusa in the ruins of Troy, Aeneas ‘puts [his] life in peril’ searching for her and Virgil’s language emphasises the emotional anguish our hero goes though – ‘I stormed and raged and blamed every god and man that ever was. This was the cruellest think I saw in all the sack of the city’. The only episode in the Iliad which is comparable to this is Priam’s visit to Achilles’ hut in an attempt to recover Hektor’s body, which says more about the importance of burial rights than the importance of family. The fact that Aeneas goes to such great lengths for his wife, not a son who is necessary to carry on the family line, is even more evidence that family is of greater importance in the Aeneid than in the Iliad.
The theme of family is an important one: it is something to which the majority of readers can relate, and it adds layers of emotion to build upon would otherwise be empty words. While family is important in the Iliad, it takes a backseat to themes like honour, glory and duty, which Homer uses to emphasise the martial grandeur of his heroes. In the Aeneid, Virgil’s adherence to the concept of pietas means that family runs through the epic like a spine, binding together his characters in a firm embrace. Unlike Homer’s epic, the Aeneid treats the theme of family with a reverence and veneration, giving it precedence over the military themes which feature so highly in the Iliad.