I have not fully read Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey and I'm only in the Book 3 of The Aeneid. All I know is that in the Iliad, there is the fighting of the Trojan War. In the Odyssey, there is a return from the Trojan War. Finally, in the Aeneid, there is an escape from the ruins of the Trojan War. It is also said that The Aeneid is a very different poem from its two most famous predecessors, even though in so many ways it is based on those earlier poems. With these, how did the story of the Fall of Troy differ in the three epics? Are there certain events or characters whose story is told differently from the perspective of the various heroes?
The sack of Troy was depicted in an ancient epic poem, the Iliupersis; this was probably used by Virgil as a source, but it has since been lost. From a surviving summary we can get an idea of the contents of this poem, and as far as we can tell there is nothing in the Aeneid that is inconsistent with it, though we can see that Virgil selects the episodes that best suit his purpose in telling the story from Aeneas’ point of view and presenting the Trojans as the heroic ancestors of the Romans.
Homer’s account of the sack of Troy
The sack of Troy is not depicted in any detail in Homer. In the Odyssey there is Menelaus’ speech to Helen:
Then Menelaus said, “All that you have been saying, my dear wife, is true. I have travelled much, and have had much to do with heroes, but I have never seen such another man as Ulysses. What endurance too, and what courage he displayed within the wooden horse, wherein all the bravest of the Argives were lying in wait to bring death and destruction upon the Trojans. At that moment you came up to us; some god who wished well to the Trojans must have set you on to it and you had Deiphobus with you. Three times did you go all round our hiding place and pat it; you called our chiefs each by his own name, and mimicked all our wives—Diomed, Ulysses, and I from our seats inside heard what a noise you made. Diomed and I could not make up our minds whether to spring out then and there, or to answer you from inside, but Ulysses held us all in check, so we sat quite still, all except Anticlus, who was beginning to answer you, when Ulysses clapped his two brawny hands over his mouth, and kept them there. It was this that saved us all, for he muzzled Anticlus till Minerva took you away again.”
Odyssey IV.265–289. Translated by Samuel Butler (1925). London: Jonathan Cape.
Virgil omits this episode, I think, because it would not work if narrated by Aeneas: it is hard to imagine Aeneas describing Helen’s actions in a way that didn’t make him seem rather stupid.
Later in the Odyssey there is a summary of a song by the bard Demodocus:
The bard inspired of heaven took up the story at the point where some of the Argives set fire to their tents and sailed away while others, hidden within the horse, were waiting with Ulysses in the Trojan place of assembly. For the Trojans themselves had drawn the horse into their fortress, and it stood there while they sat in council round it, and were in three minds as to what they should do. Some were for breaking it up then and there; others would have it dragged to the top of the rock on which the fortress stood, and then thrown down the precipice; while yet others were for letting it remain as an offering and propitiation for the gods. And this was how they settled it in the end, for the city was doomed when it took in that horse, within which were all the bravest of the Argives waiting to bring death and destruction on the Trojans. Anon he sang how the sons of the Achaeans issued from the horse, and sacked the town, breaking out from their ambuscade. He sang how they overran the city hither and thither and ravaged it, and how Ulysses went raging like Mars along with Menelaus to the house of Deiphobus. It was there that the fight raged most furiously, nevertheless by Minerva’s help he was victorious.
Virgil’s account is consistent with this, but different in detail: instead of a divided council, he gives us Laocoön and the serpents, and Cassandra’s unheeded warning. But he does mention the house of Deiphobus (II.310–311).
Finally, there is a prophecy about Aeneas in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite:
Then Aphrodite the daughter of Zeus answered him: ‘Anchises, most glorious of mortal men, take courage and be not too fearful in your heart. You need fear no harm from me nor from the other blessed ones, for you are dear to the gods: and you shall have a dear son who shall reign among the Trojans, and children’s children after him, springing up continually. His name shall be Aeneas, because I felt awful grief in that I laid me in the bed of mortal man: yet are those of your race always the most like to gods of all mortal men in beauty and in stature.’
Hymn to Aphrodite, lines 191–201. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914). Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, pp. 419–421. London: William Heinemann.
You’ll see that the prophecy is ambiguous: Aeneas will “reign among the Trojans” (ὃς ἐν Τρώεσσιν ἀνάξει), the plain meaning of which is that he will be king of Troy after the war, but the phrase is equally compatible with the surviving Trojans emigrating and Aeneas being king elsewhere.
So if the passages quoted above are all the relevant material from the Homeric works, what did Virgil base his account on? Well, in antiquity there existed a complete Epic Cycle of eight poems depicting the course of the Trojan War and its aftermath. Of these works, only the Iliad and the Odyssey survive; the other six have been lost except for a few fragments quoted by other writers. One of these lost works was the Iliupersis, the ‘sack of Troy’, attributed to Arctinus of Miletus, and Virgil likely drew on this work for book II of the Aeneid. We have a summary of its contents in the Chrestomathy of Proclus:
Next come two books of the Sack of Ilium, by Arctinus of Miletus with the following contents. The Trojans were suspicious of the wooden horse and standing round it debated what they ought to do. Some thought they ought to hurl it down from the rocks, others to burn it up, while others said they ought to dedicate it to Athena. At last this third opinion prevailed. Then they turned to mirth and feasting believing the war was at an end. But at this very time two serpents appeared and destroyed Laocoon and one of his two sons, a portent which so alarmed the followers of Aeneas that they withdrew to Ida. Sinon then raised the fire-signal to the Achaeans, having previously got into the city by pretence. The Greeks then sailed in from Tenedos, and those in the wooden horse came out and fell upon their enemies, killing many and storming the city. Neoptolemus kills Priam who had fled to the altar of Zeus Herceius; Menelaus finds Helen and takes her to the ships, after killing Deiphobus; and Aias the son of Ileus, while trying to drag Cassandra away by force, tears away with her the image of Athena. At this the Greeks are so enraged that they determine to stone Aias, who only escapes from the danger threatening him by taking refuge at the altar of Athena. The Greeks, after burning the city, sacrifice Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles: Odysseus murders Astyanax; Neoptolemus takes Andromache as his prize, and the remaining spoils are divided. Demophon and Acamas find Aethra and take her with them. Lastly the Greeks sail away and Athena plans to destroy them on the high seas.
Proclus (2nd century CE). Chrestomathy II. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White (1914). Hesiod, the Homeric Hymns and Homerica, p. 521. London: William Heinemann.
Virgil’s account is consistent with this summary, except that he omits the detail of the withdrawal of the followers of Aeneas, presumably because it does not seem very heroic, and would not suit his purpose in portraying the Trojans as the legendary ancestors of the Romans.
Virgil is also careful not to commit an inconsistency with respect to the Palladium. This was a wooden image of Athena in her temple in Troy, about which there are two conflicting traditions. In one tradition (represented by the Little Iliad) Odysseus “carries the Palladium out of Troy with the help of Diomedes” prior to constructing the wooden horse, but in the other tradition (represented by the Iliupersis), during the sack of Troy, “Aias the son of Ileus, while trying to drag Cassandra away by force, tears away with her the image of Athena”. Virgil finesses this by writing “Cassandra, maiden daughter of Priam, was being dragged with disordered tresses from the temple and sanctuary of Minerva” (II.403–404) which could be consistent with either version.
Other descriptions of the sack of Troy appeared in plays such as Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Hecuba, in compilations of myths such as the Tragodoumena of Asclepiades (now lost), and probably in the works of early Roman historians such as Pictor and Varro (also lost).
We can get some idea of the contents of these lost mythic and historic accounts from the Epitome of pseudo-Apollodorus:
And at break of day, when the Trojans beheld the camp of the Greeks deserted and believed that they had fled, they with great joy dragged the horse, and stationing it beside the palace of Priam deliberated what they should do. As Cassandra said that there was an armed force in it, and she was further confirmed by Laocoon, the seer, some were for burning it, and others for throwing it down a precipice; but as most were in favour of sparing it as a votive offering sacred to a divinity, they betook them to sacrifice and feasting. However, Apollo sent them a sign; for two serpents swam through the sea from the neighboring islands and devoured the sons of Laocoon. And when night fell, and all were plunged in sleep, the Greeks drew near by sea from Tenedos, and Sinon kindled the beacon on the grave of Achilles to guide them. And Helen, going round the horse, called the chiefs, imitating the voices of each of their wives. But when Anticlus would have answered, Ulysses held fast his mouth. and when they thought that their foes were asleep, they opened the horse and came forth with their arms. The first, Echion, son of Portheus, was killed by leaping from it; but the rest let themselves down by a rope, and lighted on the walls, and having opened the gates they admitted their comrades who had landed from Tenedos. And marching, arms in hand, into the city, they entered the houses and slew the sleepers. Neoptolemus slew Priam, who had taken refuge at the altar of Zeus of the Courtyard. But when Glaucus, son of Antenor, fled to his house, Ulysses and Menelaus recognized and rescued him by their armed intervention. Aeneas took up his father Anchises and fled, and the Greeks let him alone on account of his piety. But Menelaus slew Deiphobus and led away Helen to the ships; and Aethra, mother of Theseus, was also led away by Demophon and Acamas, the sons of Theseus; for they say that they afterwards went to Troy. And the Locrian Ajax, seeing Cassandra clinging to the wooden image of Athena, violated her; therefore they say that the image looks to heaven.
Pseudo-Apollodorus (1st or 2nd century CE). Epitome E.5. Translated by James George Frazer (1921). London: William Heinemann.
Note that since pseudo-Apollodorus post-dates the Aeneid, we can’t use it to judge Virgil’s response to the mythical version of events, because, for all we know, pseudo-Apollodorus could have partly based his account on Virgil’s.