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The Aeneid

Taking a character from The Iliad and setting him on his own journey, the Roman Virgil's epic The Aeneid necessarily contains certain parallels with the earlier Greek text. The overall story of this lengthy poem in and of itself reflects many of the same basic understandings of mankind's place in the universe, its relationship to the gods, and the relationships that exist within society and between men that are already described above, demonstrating that no real fundamental change has occurred in this schema. Aeneas, the titular hero of the tale who flees his native Troy after it is sacked by the Greeks, is as important as the individual heroes of the war itself, but more than a tale of individual heroism The Aeneid is the story of the founding of a people and the long trajectory of history and humanity. It is a tale for and in many ways about successive and succeeding generations rather than about the exploits and adventures of a singular human being. Virgil also uses leaves as a rather fatalistic symbol in this work, echoing its appearance in The Iliad with more macabre overtones.

For Virgil, at least in The Aeneid, the world of the afterlife is as real and as potent as the mortal world experienced every day. In a description of the souls of those who did not receive proper burials lining up and waiting to across the Acheron into Hades, a series of descriptions implying the same lack of autonomy and individuality noted in The Iliad again makes itself known. The collection of souls all yearning for the river's other side are, in the words of the poet, "countless as leaves that fall in the forest, / loosened by autumn's first frost…they stretch their hands for love of the opposite side" (VI.309-314). Again, there is the use of leaves as a collective symbol, with each individual leaf representing an individual human being but with no real recognition or acknowledgment of the individuality that belongs to any of these souls in and of themselves. The fact that these "leaves" can do nothing to alter their own destiny and position serves as another limitation of their autonomy, and in fact it can be seen that these leaves are at the mercy of other elements and forces to an even greater degree than those of The Iliad. In the earlier work, the image of the leaves simply removes autonomy by making any decision-making or physical power absent; in this later example of a very similar symbol, the "first autumn frost" acts on the leaves as the cause of their fall and their scattering, not simply making autonomy absent but directly refuting or countering it.

It is worth noting, however, that despite the collective nature of the image that is clearly present in this usage and the lack of autonomy and individuality in the symbol, these souls are described as having desires -- desires that they cannot act upon and that are continually thwarted, it's true, but desires nonetheless. This along with certain plot and character details that put this passage in a richer context suggest that while individual paths, destinies, and proclivities are recognized to a greater degree in the Roman society that produced this work, beliefs in communal success or failure and the inescapable nature of fate and destiny are also still quite strong. Ultimately, the comparison of these souls and mankind at large to so many dead or dying leaves suggests a position of mankind that is imbued with all of the drives, passions, and plans of the gods, yet with capabilities amounting to that of mere vegetation. Individual men are trampled under the course of larger histories and destines, and heroism exists only in recognizing and serving this purpose, and in bearing the individual fates that these larger trajectories require of the lives they incorporate and touch.

The Divine Comedy

Virgil was not the only notable author of the Italian peninsula to have his characters visit the underworld, nor is he even the most famous. Dante's Divine Comedy, especially the first volume, Inferno, is one of the most well-known works of any Latinate language, and with good reason. Exploring quite directly, explicitly and eloquently many of the features and foibles of men and mankind, this work provides a comprehensive commentary on the state of man and his position to the Divine and the universe at large. As might be expected, this work also includes the use of leaves as a symbol for mankind, providing another instance of insight into the development of man's view of himself and the world around him. These leaves are again autumnal, and again reflect a certain fatalism and lack of individuality, and even a certain subsuming of autonomy in the face of larger and more powerful forces. There are also significant differences in Dante's use of the symbol, however, that suggest more fundamental changes in Western society and culture having taken place in the centuries between Virgil's ancient Rome and the pre-Renaissance Italy of Dante's time.

It is immediately following Dante's arrival in Hell that this image arises, and again it is in relation to the river Acheron and the person of Charon, tasked with ferrying the deserving souls across into Hell-proper, as it were. This is not Hades, though, where souls seek to go as a final place of rest (or unrest, as the case may be), but truly Hell, and Charon is vicious and much more active in his job of collecting and moving souls as he "herds them in":

As leaves in autumn loosen and stream down

Until the branch stands bare above its tatters

Spread on the rustling ground, so one by one

The evil seed of Adam in its Fall

Cast themselves, as his signal, from the shore


Again, there is a sense of collectiveness and thus of an eradication of individuality; one leaf is the same as the next in this scenario, and the fatalistic autumnal period causes the leaves to fall just as the evilness of these particular people is an inherent trait that leads inevitably to their own descent. The leaves spread on the ground as in The Iliad, and are loosened by the external forces of autumn as in both The Iliad and The Aeneid, creating a direct through-line for this image.

Here, though, the similarities essentially cease. Though the autumn causes leaves to fall, there is no sense of regeneration or a cyclical imperative here; instead, the bare branch is focused on as an important feature. Dante is describing souls that are damned and not mankind as a whole, of course, which changes the nature of the symbol to a certain extent, but it is telling that his focus and the symbol moves in this direction. Also telling is the presence of at least some degree of autonomy here -- though the leaves are loosened by autumn, the souls that these leaves represent "cast themselves" down, and while evil might be an inherent part of a soul it is through the choices individuals make that they end up banished to hell. While fate and external powers still exist and remain hugely influential in the culture underlying the production of the Divine Comedy, there is a greater sense of control as well. Individuals might not have real control over the elements of their lives, but there is a choice of at least basic paths to be made. Autonomy and individual identities play a larger role in the plot and side commentary of this work as a whole, as well, strengthening this reading of the leaf symbol.

Paradise Lost

It is a well-recognized fact that major societal changes occurred in Western civilization between the late Middle Ages in which Dante was writing and the Renaissance, which came to Italy first and spread through Europe to eventually arrive in England in the sixteenth century. It is also well recognized that John Milton's Paradise Lost is one of the greatest works of English literature to come out of the later period of the Renaissance, in the seventeenth century, and one of the greatest works of English literature of any period. Given these facts, it should come as no surprise that Paradise Lost contains a great deal of explicit and implicit commentary on the state of man and his place in the system of the divine and the hierarchy of the universe as it was perceived in this period and culture. The influence of religious authority and of growing religious freedom had complex impacts on man's understanding of man -- of his autonomy, his individuality, and his ability to engage in the active planning and determination of his own future. When the leaf symbolism comes into play here, though, it is applied to mankind only tangentially rather than directly.

The first portion of Paradise Lost recounts Satan's rebellion against God due to God's love for mankind, and it…[continue]

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