A suggestive history of Western moral, literary and political sensibility could be written in terms of the relative status, at given periods and in different societies, of Homer and Virgil. The actual Homeric texts come late into European Christendom. Dante knew of the 'sovereign poet' only by hearsay and via derivative epics. The Virgilian presence is continuous. Christological readings of the Fourth Eclogue bestow on Virgil an aura of prophetic illumination. He is known as a magician and sibylline prognosticator in Medieval Italy. The Renaissance ranks Homer as almost divine, but is Virgilian in its poetic practices and aesthetics. Generally, the Enlightenment and early Romanticism - Shelley would be an instance - are Homeric in preference. But an artist such as Turner sees in Virgil the prophetic witness to the imperial politics and aesthetic tone of the times. Angles of incidence and of interpretation are complicated by the deepening understanding of the decisive but often oblique status of the Iliad and Odyssey 'inside' the Aeneid, and by the realisation, even more challenging, of the ways in which Virgil's epic retrospectively alters our responses to Homer.
LRB 12 July 1990 | PDF Download