India’s Iliad and Rome’s Odyssey: The Mahabharata and the Aeneid

We sing of arms and the men…

This week we’re going to get a little less historical and a little more literary with a dive into two primordial works of world poetry (I know, I can hear you all groaning from here), the Hindu epic the Mahabharata and Virgil’s Aeneid. Partly because they’re interesting, but also because both have a part to play in Daughter of Eagles — oh yeah, we’re going global in this one. And just maybe we’ll stumble on their surprising similarities.  

All the great stories are connected and derivative.

The Mahabharata’s modern form is as a written epic in Sanskrit, compiled between the 3rd century BC and the 3rd century AD, but its oldest roots, like the Greek epics of Homer, are in an oral tradition likely dating from the 8th or 9th century BC, which is often considered the period during which the events of the poem take place. It also has the distinction of being the world’s longest poem — at around 1.8 million words (keep that in mind when you’re despairing over my long books…). Like the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Mahabharata likely has many authors but as with the figure of Homer, the traditional author of the work is the sage Vyasa, who is also a character in the epic.  

As you can imagine, it’s no mean task to summarize a two million-word poem, but the crux of the Mahabharata concerns the struggle between two sets of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne of Hastinapura, an ancient kingdom in Uttar Pradesh (northern India). After a series of unfortunate incidents leaves the dynasty without an heir and on the verge of collapse, the aforementioned Vyasa, who is a previously-born son of the queen mother, agrees to father sons with the widows of the dead king. Now, Vedic sages were known for having awe-inspiring powers and Vyasa was said to have a fierce demeanor, so the widowed queens do their duty, but each of them makes a mistake in how they approach him and their subsequently-born sons pay for it. I should also point out that at least one version of the story I’ve read suggested that old men living in the woods, however holy, might not have had the most exemplary hygiene, and that might have accounted for the queens’ reactions as well. The first queen keeps her eyes closed the whole time and therefore her son Dhritarashtra is born blind. The second queen turns pale at the sight of the sage and therefore her son Pandu is born unnaturally pale. But at least the dynasty is saved.  


The ministers at court declare that a blind king cannot protect the people, so Dhritarashtra steps aside to allow Pandu to rule, even though he is the younger brother. But after Pandu angers another Vedic sage and goes into voluntary exile with his wives, Dhritarashtra takes the throne again. Part of Pandu’s punishment is that he cannot sleep with his wives or he will die, but luckily his principle wife Kunti has been given a mantra that allows her to call on any god and she has the gods father sons for her husband. She has three — Yudhishthira, Bhima, and Arjuna — and she allows the second wife, Madri, to use the mantra as well and she gives birth to twins Nakula and Sahadeva. And these five princes are collectively the Pandavas — the sons of Pandu, even if their real fathers are deities.  

As it turns out, Dhritarashtra is also having some difficulty in the heir-producing department, but his wife also snags a magic boon that allows her (after a delay of two years) to give birth to one hundred sons – the Kauravas, led by the eldest prince, Duryodhana. But the delay becomes important because it means that the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, is technically the oldest prince in Hastinapura, and that gives him a legitimate claim to the throne, particularly since it could be said that Duryodhana’s claim is weakened by the fact that the sages had thought Dhritarashtra wasn’t fit to rule because of his blindness. Though as the vacilating Dhritarashtra wavers between his desire to honor his brother’s son’s claim to the kingdom and his consuming love for proud, volitile Duryodhana, it isn’t hard to see that it might not have been his literal blindness the sages were speaking of. The result is the Mahabharata, the epic story of the rivalry between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, culminating in the apocalypic Battle of Kurukshetra where the great warriors of both sides of the conflict fight it out for the destiny of their family. But as in the great mythic tales of the West, there are also gods, demons, and plenty of magic throughout.  

The major themes of the Mahabharata are also similar to the other master works of human literature. The ideas of right action, fate and choice, loyalty, family, and the cruel paradox of just war all play a part in the vast cosmogony of the story. Which sounds exactly like the other poem I was threatening you with at the start of this…  

Unlike the Mahabharata, we know exactly when the Aeneid was written and by whom. Virgil, the most prominent of the Latin poets, wrote his masterwork during the last ten years of his life (29 BC – 19 BC), suffering the worst of authorial fates — dying in the middle of your edits. He was unhappy enough about the prospect that he demanded that the poem be burned upon his decease. But even in its unfinished state, the Aeneid had a superfan who’d seen enough of the drafts that he overruled a friend’s last request and had it published with only the most superficial adjustments.  

You’re welcome, world literature.

So, yeah, if you’ve read the Aeneid and enjoyed it, thank Octavius because he’s the reason we still have it.  

Now the Aeneid’s story is also significantly more straightforward than the sprawling Mahabharata. It is the story of Aeneas, a cousin of the Trojan royal family, who escapes the destruction of Troy depicted in the Iliad with a small band of survivors,  and is destined to found a new homeland for them in Italy as the father of the Roman people. Like the Pandavas, Aeneas is also the child of a god — his mother is Venus (Aphrodite) and the Olympian deities are full participants in the moving action of the story, much of which is driven by the vengeful Juno (Hera), who hates the Trojan refugees because their descendants are destined to destroy her favorite city, Carthage. Virgil uses the story to both elaborate on a Roman founding mythos and create a mythological explanation for the emity between historic rivals Rome and Carthage. He also uses it as a construct to support another new founding mythos, that of the Caesars.  

Ha, you all thought I saved it because I love books or something? I’m not some NERD like other people around here…

Remember how I said Aeneas was descended from Venus? Some of you might vaguely recall from The God’s Wife that someone else you know has made the same claim…  

Duh. How else do you think I got my smooth moves with the ladies? …And the bros?

…Heqet speaks for us all…

Anyway… the Julii clan was supposedly descended from Aeneas and therefore, Venus, so the Aeneid is also a way to tie the new government Octavius was building into the Roman Empire to its established mythological past. 

As I alluded to in the title, if the Mahabharata is India’s answer to the Iliad, with its dueling heroes and magic weapons, the Aeneid is more like the Odyssey, the story of a homecoming,  albeit the homecoming to a new home. Virgil specifically and deliberately echoes both in his writing as another way to bind Rome to a classical cultural tradition that his people wished to emulate. In both there are women who thwart (willingly or unknowingly) the hero from his destiny, the help and hindrance of gods, and a trip into the underworld, just to illustrate a few.  

And some of the character beats and tropes are also evident in relation to the real-world story he is trying to tell — that is, Octavius’ story. Aeneas is known for his filial piety — the best-known image of Aeneas is of him saving his father, Anchises, by carrying him out of Troy on his back, even to the cost of his wife’s life (eh, patriarchy, am I right?).  One of Octavius’ many titles is Divi filius — “Son of the God” — i.e., the son of Caesar. It was important for Octavius to be linked to the newly deified Julius, for both the latter’s mortal and immortal connections, and one of the ways he did this was by demonstrating his loyalty to his adopted father’s memory by promoting the new god’s cult as much as possible. By being a devoted son, he could also show himself to be like the heroic Aeneas and therefore worthy of instituting a “new” Rome, i.e., the Empire. 

Aeneas and his crew experience several setbacks when trying to make a new homeland for themselves — arriving somewhere, only to be driven out — but the most painful of these for Aeneas is their sojourn in Carthage, where Venus decides that the best way to mitigate  Juno’s scheming against her son is to make him and Carthage’s queen, Dido, fall in love with one another. This works for a while, until Jupiter (Zeus) forces Aeneas to remember his duty to found a people in Italy and the hero abandons Dido so he can arrive in the Italian kingdom of Latium and marry Lavinia, the daughter of the king. Dido commits suicide out of despair and it doesn’t take a terrible lot of stretching to see pieces of Octavius’ story still peeking out of this part, either. The exotic African Dido, who keeps the hero from his destiny (though Virgil has a little more sympathy than that for her) bears more than a passing resemblance to the queen of Egypt who fought Octavius tooth and nail for everything he earned. This is particularly true if you see Octavius and Mark Antony both as potential Aeneases (Aenei?), and the climax of the Roman civil wars as a morality tale between them used by the victor. Antony is a failed Aeneas, distracted by lust and forgetful of his duty, whereas Octavius is the righteous hero who (supposedly) spurns the advances of Cleopatra and is rewarded with his rule. Of course, this part may have backfired on Octavius a bit if this was his intent, because as the poet Ovid was so quick to point out: 

…And yet he who was the fortunate author of 

Thy Aeneid introduced his arms and his hero 

 to a Tyrian intrigue: and no subject is more  

Read of, throughout the whole work than 

Love united by unlawful ties… 

In short, everyone loves a good, tragic love story over a hero who always does the right thing. That’s why Shakespeare wrote Antony and Cleopatra,  not Octavius Caesar. 

Maybe the Earl of Oxford did.

Excuse me, folks, I now must go duel the first Emperor of Rome for daring to dabble in Anti-Strafordianism. I will tolerate no Shakespearean blasphemy on this blog… 

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