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Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles$

Dennis R. MacDonald

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300097702

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300097702.001.0001

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More Dreams and Portents

More Dreams and Portents

(p.29) 3 More Dreams and Portents
Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Dennis R. MacDonald

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter puts credence to a remark made by Cicero's interlocutor that “history is full of examples” of dreams. So common was the literary dream that rhetoricians considered it a cliche, and perhaps no dream was generative of more imitations than Agamemnon's in Iliad 2. The portent of the serpent and the sparrow, too, was a popular target for imitation, and some authors, like Luke in Acts 10–11, imitated both in the same context. For clarity, the chapter groups the imitations into three categories: texts that imitate the dream only, texts that imitate the portent only, and texts that imitate the dream and the portent together.

Keywords:   history, Cicero's interlocutor, examples of dreams, cliche, literary dream, rhetoricians

Cicero's interlocutor was right: “history is full of examples” of dreams.1 So common was the literary dream that rhetoricians considered it a cliché, and perhaps no dream was generative of more imitations than Agamemnon's in Iliad 2.2 What William Stuart Messer said of tragedy applies as well to prose.

I am fully convinced that the different types of dreams employed in tragedy find their being in an imitation, more or less direct, of the dreams used by Homer…. [T]he embryo of all the various forms [of dreams] is extant in the early epic…. The point to be remembered is that the immediate source of the dream in tragedy is to be found not in religion and cult, but in the literature, that is, the source of the dream is a bookish, artistic source.3

The portent of the serpent and the sparrow, too, was a popular target for imitation, and some authors, like Luke in Acts 10–11, imitated both in the same context. For clarity I will group the imitations into three categories: (1) texts that imitate the dream only, (2) texts that imitate the portent only, and (3) texts that imitate the dream and the portent together.

Imitations of the Lying Dream

Homer's account of the dream to Agamemnon consists of three scenes with the following motifs.4

  1. (p.30) 1. Sending the messenger

    1. 1.1. Decision of the deity (Zeus decides to deceive Agamemnon through Oneiros)

    2. 1.2. Instructions to the messenger

      1. 1.2.1. Order to depart (Zeus tells Oneiros to go to Agamemnon)

      2. 1.2.2. Command to the mortal (Oneiros is to tell the king to attack Troy)

      3. 1.2.3. Assurance of victory (Oneiros is to promise the king victory)

    3. 1.3. Journey of the messenger (Oneiros flies from Olympus to the Greek ships)

  2. 2. Delivering the message

    1. 2.1. Appearance of the messenger (Oneiros, as Nestor, stands over the king)

    2. 2.2. Rebuke (Oneiros rebukes Agamemnon for sleeping)

    3. 2.3. Expression of divine favor (Oneiros tells him that Zeus cares for him)

    4. 2.4. Command to the mortal (Oneiros tells him to attack Troy)

    5. 2.5. Assurance of victory (Oneiros tells him the destruction of Troy is certain)

    6. 2.6. Departure of the messenger (Oneiros then departs again for Olympus) Responding to the message (Agamemnon acts on the basis of the dream)

  3. 3. Responding to the message (Agamemnon acts on the basis of the dream)

Several classicists have argued that the poet of the Odyssey employed the dream in Iliad 2 as a model for several dreams in that epic, most notably those in 4.795–841 and 6.13–51.5 This view might well be correct, insofar as the poet of the Odyssey almost certainly was not the same as the poet of the Iliad and seems to have used it as a model for his own epic.6 Even so, literary influence is not the only reasonable explanation insofar as the dream was common coin in epic oral performance and thus would have been available to both poets independent of each other.7 Whether oral-formulaic or mimetic, the parallels merit mention.

1. Sending the messenger. In both Odyssean passages Athena grants a dream to a woman. In the first case the goddess sends a dream to comfort Penelope; in the second she herself appears to the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa to send her to the shore to meet shipwrecked Odysseus (motif 1.1). In these passages there is no explicit instruction to a messenger (motif 1.2), but both describe a journey (motif 1.3). Athena sends a phantom to Penelope's room, and she herself goes to the bedroom of Nausicaa.8

2. Delivering the message. According to Iliad 2, “He [Oneiros] stood above his head [στῆ δ' ἄρ' ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς] in the likeness of Nestor, son of Neleus, whom Agamemnon esteemed most among his elders. Appearing like him, the divine Oneiros spoke: ‘Are you sleeping [εὕδεις], son of wise Atreus, breaker of horses? A man burdened with decisions, on whom his people rely, with so many worries, ought not sleep through the night.’”9 In Odyssey 4 the phantom appears in the (p.31) likeness of Penelope's sister, Iphthime. “She stood above her head [στῆ δ' ἄρ' ὑπὲρκεφαλῆς] and spoke to her, ‘Are you sleeping [εὕδεις], Penelope, though your dear heart sorrows?’”10 Here is the description of Athena's appearance in Odyssey 6: “She stood above her head [στῆ δ' ἄρ' ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς] and spoke to her, looking like the daughter of Dymas, renowned for ships. She was of her same age and dear to her heart. Appearing like her, gleaming-eyed Athena spoke, ‘Nausicaa, how could your mother birth such a lazy child like you? Your gleaming clothes lie there neglected.’”11 As in Iliad 2, both dreams thus begin with the appearance of the messenger and a rebuke (motifs 2.1 and 2.2).

In Odyssey 6 there is no expression of divine favor (motif 2.3)—it would be trivial in a command to wash clothing—but there is in Book 4: “The gods who live at ease do not permit you to weep or be distressed, since your son will still have his return, for he is not repugnant to the gods.”12 The poet of the Iliad had written, “I am an angel to you from Zeus, who, though he is far away, cares for you greatly and takes pity on you…. The immortals who dwell on Olympus are no longer of two minds.”13

Oneiros commanded Agamemnon to arm his troops and assault the city (motif 2.4), for success was certain (motif 2.5). The dreams in Odyssey 4 and 6 also give commands and imply success. The phantom orders Penelope to stop weeping, and assures her that Telemachus will return.14 Athena orders Nausicaa to ask her father for a wagon to transport laundry and promises to go with her.15 The departure of the messenger (motif 2.6) likewise appears in each instance. Iliad 2: “And when he [Oneiros] had spoken [ὥς ἄρα φωνήσας], he went away [ἀπεβήσετο].”16 Odyssey 4: “So saying [ὣς εἰπον]” the phantom flew away.17 Odyssey 6: “So saying [ὣς εἰποῡσ], gleaming-eyed Athena went off [ἀπέβη] to Olympus.”18

3. Responding to the message. After Agamemnon awoke, he summoned his elders to tell them about his dream. Penelope awoke and stopped her weeping.19 Nausicaa awoke and immediately asked her father for the wagon.20

Even though these parallels are striking, they need not indicate mimesis. Dream scenes were traditional before Homer, and many of the parallels cited here appear elsewhere in the epic. On the other hand, the author of the Odyssey almost certainly knew the Iliad and borrowed extensively from it. Greek tragedy, too, is replete with dreams, many of which show Homeric influence, as we have noted.21

Latin poets, too, found the lying dream alluring. In 65 C.E. Marcus Annaeus Lucanus died at the age of twenty-six leaving unfinished his epic on the Roman Civil War. The poem is suffused with imitations of Homer, Vergil, and other Latin poets, though Lucan skillfully avoids scenes of direct divine intervention that had become common in the ancient epic. Consequently, dreams are less frequent in (p.32) Lucan and never reveal the divine will to passive recipients; here dreams are psychological projections. In the case of Pompey's dream at the beginning of Book 7, Lucan may well be dependent on the Roman historian Livy, but the use of historical sources does not fully explain the content or function of the dream.22 For this one must turn to Homer.

Because the gods do not appear as characters in Lucan's epic, Pompey's dream has no parallels to many motifs in Iliad 2, such as the sending and arrival of the dream or the communication of divine favor and commands. Even so, scholars long have recognized Lucan's debt to the lying dream.23 Both Agamemnon and Pompey are military commanders, both have dreams at the beginning of books, both dreams are deceptive and stand in stark opposition to coming catastrophes.24 Pompey dreamed that throngs of celebrants filled the Roman theater singing his praises for victory over Spain in 71 B.C.E. He took this as a sign that he would defeat Caesar and again celebrate in Rome, but the reader knows better. Book 7 begins with the warning that “the night deceived” him “with a false apparition [nox … vana decepit imagine].”25 That night would be Pompey's last.

Vergil's imitation of the lying dream in Aeneid 7 is famous and illuminating.26 The Aeneid primarily imitates the Odyssey for Books 1–6 and the Iliad for 7–12. The lying dream thus appears at the beginning of the Iliad section. Expatriated Trojans, under the command of Aeneas, were negotiating with local authorities their resettlement in Italy, thereby infuriating their divine nemesis, Juno (= Hera). The founding of Rome was inevitable, decreed both by fate and Jupiter, but the mother of the gods could not tolerate the resettlement of her old foes without a fight.

1. Sending the messenger. “If I cannot bend the gods above, I will raise hell below,” even if it meant the destruction of soldiers on both sides (motif 1.1).27 To this end, she summoned from Hades the ferocious Fury Allecto and ordered her to unleash her misery: “Sow the crimes of war” (motif 1.2.1).28 “Immediately the goddess, on dark and dismal wings, took herself from there to the walls of the brave Rutulian” (motif 1.3).29 Allecto resembles Oneiros in several respects: Oneiros was the son of Nyx, Night; Allecto was daughter of Nox.30 Artists sometimes represented Oneiros as an angel, complete with wings; Allecto, too, was winged.31

2. Delivering the message. Allecto disguised herself as an old woman and appeared to Turnus as he slept (motif 2.1). (Here and in other imitations that are cited at length I underline the elements most clearly parallel to the Iliad. The Appendix contains parallel columns in the original languages to facilitate further analysis.) “Here in his high palace, in the dark of night, Turnus was enjoying a (p.33) deep sleep. Allecto strips off her harsh appearance and dreadful limbs and transforms herself into the look of an old woman…. She becomes Calybe, the old priestess of Juno and her temple.”32 Here, as in Iliad 2, is a rebuke (motif 2.2), not for sleeping, as in Iliad 2, but for tolerating Trojans. “Before the eyes of the young man she presents herself with these words: ‘Turnus, will you tolerate for no good reason so many hardships, including the transfer of your scepter to Dardanian colonists?’”33 Allecto tells Turnus: “It was this [message] that the almighty daughter of Saturn clearly ordered me to tell you as you take your rest during the peaceful night” (motif 2.3).34 Her instructions to Turnus are a transparent imitation of Oneiros's command that Agamemnon arm the Achaeans immediately (motif 2.4). “So arise and gladly prepare to arm the young men and march them from the gates to battle; lead them against the Phrygians … and torch their painted ships.”35 Allecto ends her orders to Turnus with, “The mighty power of the gods orders” the destruction of Trojans (motif 2.5).36 She vanishes when Turnus awakes (motif 2.6).

3. Responding to the message. When Allecto was finished with Turnus, “a monstrous trembling broke his sleep, and sweat pouring from his whole body soaked his bones and limbs.”37 As a result of this dream, he would lead his troops into battle where many of them, including himself, would die. Before Allecto left Turnus, she transformed herself into her own savage appearance and pulled from her hair two hissing serpents.38

Toward the end of the first century C.E., Publius Papinus Statius wrote a Latin epic based on the story of the Seven against Thebes. In this case, the author had no historical sources to inform him; his primary model for the dream in Book 2 was Iliad 2. Even more than Lucan and Vergil, Statius conforms to the Homeric pattern.39

The literary setting for the dream is this: the sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Etiocles, had agreed to share the governance of Thebes in alternating years, but at the end of the first year, Etiocles refused to cede the throne. Each brother marshaled an army for a notoriously futile civil war in which the brothers slew each other. The disaster began with a destructive dream sent by Juno.

1. Sending the messenger. In a spat with Juno, Jupiter expressed outrage at the sons of Oedipus for insolence and hunger for power. “I will send new wars on the guilty realm and uproot the whole clan of the destructive trunk” (motif 1.1).40 Jupiter commanded Mercury to fetch from Hades Laius, slain father of Oedipus: “Let him bring my commands to his cruel grandson” (motifs 1.2.1 and 1.2.2).41 Mercury descended to Hades and summoned Laius; the two of them returned to the land of the living (motif 1.3). The journey of Laius to Etiocles echoes that of (p.34) Oneiros to Agamemnon. “Such was the night when Cyllenius [Mercury with Laius in tow], flying on a silent breeze, glided up to the bed of the Echionian king [Etiocles]…. He sleeps. Then the old man [Laius] did as he had been ordered.”42

2. Delivering the message. Laius disguised himself as the blind seer Tiresias, clearly an imitation of Oneiros's disguise as Nestor in the Iliad (motif 2.1). “Lest he be seen as a false vision of the night, he put on the shadowy appearance of the old seer Tiresias, with his voice and famous woolly pelt.”43 His first words to Etiocles are a rebuke (motif 2.2): Laius “seemed to deliver fateful words. ‘This is no time for you to sleep, you sluggard, you who rest in the dead of night unconcerned about your brother. For some time momentous events have been calling you, as well as grave matters yet to come, you sloth!’”44 Like Oneiros in Iliad 2, the ghost of Laius here puts on a disguise and rebukes the commander for sleeping when he should be looking after his duties.

In Iliad 2 Oneiros told Agamemnon that Zeus pitied him, even though the gods actually intended to punish him. Similarly, in the Thebaid Laius lies: “Out of pity the sire of the gods himself sends me to you from on high” (motif 2.3).45 Laius then told Etiocles, “Hold on to Thebes and repel your brother, who is blind with lust to rule and brazen against you” (motif 2.4);46 Statius does not have Laius explicitly promise victory (motif 2.5), but it is implicit in the assurance of divine favor (motif 2.3). Laius disappears much as Oneiros had (motif 2.6): “So he spoke, and on leaving …”47

3. Responding to the message. When Laius had left him, Etiocles, “leaped up from his bed full of terror” and prepared his troops to defend the city in a bloody civil war that ultimately would claim his own life.48 In the Iliad, Agamemnon awoke and marshaled his troops for a disastrous battle.

To this point we have seen imitations of Agamemnon's dream in the Odyssey, Lucan, Vergil, and Statius; the end of this chapter will examine similar imitations in Herodotus and Silius Italicus, who imitate both the dream and the portent of the serpent and the sparrows. Before doing so, however, it is necessary to discuss imitations of the portent alone.

Imitations of the Serpent and the Sparrows

Chapter 2 supplied a translation of Odysseus's speech concerning the omen of the serpent and the sparrow, but a summary here may be useful. As the Greeks were about to sail from Aulis and were sacrificing hecatombs, they saw a sign. A serpent darted from beneath an altar, slithered up a tree, and ate eight nestlings, as their mother squawked and flitted about helplessly. Finally, the serpent ate her as well and immediately turned to stone. Those who saw it were befuddled, all (p.35) but the prophet Calchas, who interpreted the nine sparrows as nine years of war, with victory coming in the tenth. Later interpreters went further: the serpent represented Greeks, the sparrows Trojans. On the basis of this portent, the Greek army massed for an assault.

The first imitation of the portent may have been the appearance of fighting eagles in Odyssey 2.146–76. “[T]he resemblance between Iliad 2 and Odyssey 2 is so striking as to imply conscious borrowing: the obvious explanation being that the Odyssean passage imitates the Iliadic.”49 Telemachus, Odysseus's son, had finished threatening violence against the suitors of Penelope, when “farseeing Zeus sent two eagles to fly from above, from the peak of a mountain.”50 At first they flew together in apparent harmony, but when they came to the assembly, they broke into a savage fight. “Those assembled were amazed at the birds when they saw them with their eyes. Their hearts raced in fear about things that would come to pass.”51 The old seer Halitherses then interpreted the sign to mean that Odysseus “already is near, sowing murder and doom for all these men.”52 He then reminded them of a prophecy he had made twenty years before: “I said that, after enduring much suffering and losing all his comrades, he would come home in the twentieth year unrecognized by anyone. Now everything has come to pass.”53 When they saw this portent, the suitors should have abandoned their competition for Penelope's hand and land and thus avoided the predicted catastrophe. Instead, they took the vision of the fighting eagles as happenstance.

Not only do the portents of the serpent-sparrows and the two fighting eagles follow the same basic narrative pattern (sign, bafflement, interpretation, and response), they share several distinctive traits. Both portents come from Zeus, involve Odysseus, and predict destruction. In the Iliad, Odysseus reminded the troops that nine years earlier, just before setting sail for Troy, they had seen the portent. Calchas interpreted the nine sparrows as nine years, with the victory over Troy coming in the tenth. According to the Odyssey, Halitherses reminded the suitors that twenty years earlier, “when the Argives embarked for Ilium,” he had predicted Odysseus's return in the twentieth year. Immediately after Odysseus recounted the interpretation of Calchas he said, “Now everything is come to pass [τὰ δὲ δὴ νῡν πάντα τελεῖται],” precisely the same six words that Halitherses used to conclude his prophetic interpretation.54

Aeschylus has Agamemnon narrate a portent at Aulis that differs from Iliad 2 but nonetheless was inspired by it. Before the army attacked Troy, two eagles viciously attacked a rabbit pregnant with young and devoured it. Calchas again is called on to provide the interpretation. The two birds are the armies of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the mother hare is Troy. The Greeks will be victorious in the end, but their savagery will infuriate Artemis, who will prolong the war, inflict harm on the Greeks, and require the sacrifice of Iphigenia.55

(p.36) Philostratus tells how hunters slew a lioness pregnant with eight whelps. Apollonius, as the story goes, thought each of the whelps signified one month, the mother one year. His companion, however, was not convinced. “But what do the sparrows in Homer mean—the eight that the serpent devoured at Aulis, seizing their mother as the ninth? Calchas explained these as nine years.”56 By that measure, the eight whelps would represent eight years and the lioness the ninth. Apollonius countered that born chicks obviously are older than unborn lion whelps; ergo, the whelps must represent a shorter period of time. Homer didn't count chicks as years before they hatched.57

The epic poet Nonnus wrote: “I will make my pattern like Homer's and sing the last year of warfare, I will describe that which has the number of my seventh sparrow,” viz., the seventh year.58 Just a few lines earlier he had spoken of nestlings in a plane-tree (= Indians) about to be eaten by a serpent (= Dionysus).59

Scholars long have recognized Vergil's use of Homer's serpent and sparrows as a model for the death of Laocoön.60

Then occurred another sign, greater and far more frightful, which confounded our unwary flock. Laocoön, allotted that day to be priest to Neptune, was sacrificing at sacred altars an enormous bull. All of a sudden—I tremble when I say it—from Tenedos over a calm sea twin snakes with endless coils make their way over the deep and together reach the shore. Their stomachs, erect over the path of the surge, and their crests blood-red rise above the waves…. In a straight path they rush at Laocoön. First, each serpent encoils the small body of one of the two boys, and each devours the pitiable limbs with its fangs. As their father rushes to their aid and brings weapons, they seize him and entwine him with their huge coils…. At the same time, he lifts hideous cries to heaven…. The pair of serpents slither away to the highest shrines and come to the citadel of fierce Tritonia [Minerva], where they hide themselves under her feet and the orb of her shield.61

Homer said that as the Greek army sacrificed bulls at Aulis, a serpent appeared, “blood-red on its back,” that devoured eight chicks before their helpless and squawking mother. Finally, the serpent ate the mother as well and quickly disappeared. According to Vergil, the Trojans took the death of Laocoön and his sons as divine disapproval of his opposition to receiving the Trojan horse. Minerva (= Athena) had indeed sent the serpents against Laocoön but not because he was wrong; he was entirely correct. The goddess was manipulating the destruction of the city by having the Trojans accept the horse. Here we have not a lying dream but a lying portent. Vergil clearly modeled this passage after the vision of the serpent and the sparrows. What distinguishes this imitation from others is the absence of a symbolic meaning. The serpents do not symbolize something or someone else.

(p.37) Imitations of the Dream and the Portent

Now the fun begins. A few imitations of Iliad 2 combine a dream with a portent. A dream is by nature private and subjective. Even when the messenger gives unambiguous commands, the dreamer has reason to suspect its reliability. A portent, however, usually occurs when the recipient is awake and may be seen by many people at once, but unlike the dream, the portent almost always is symbolic—frequently involving serpents or birds—and therefore requires interpretation, often by a seer. The combination of the unambiguous, private dream followed by a symbolic, public portent interpreted by a holy man was powerful and popular.62

One critic has noted that a dominant function of the dream in Greek tragedy was “to prepare the way for an omen or an oracle upon which the action may be safely based. This combination of dream and omen or of dream and oracle is found nowhere in the Iliad or the Odyssey.”63 This statement by an otherwise reliable guide to ancient literary dreams is patently wrong. As we have seen, Odysseus interpreted the earliest dream in Greek literature in light of the portent of the serpent and the sparrows.

The function of the combined dream and portent in Iliad 2 is not corroborative except in the mind of the Greek army. The portent at Aulis had guaranteed victory over Troy in the tenth year, the very year that Odysseus reminded the troops of it in Iliad 2. This as yet unfulfilled prophecy seemed to confirm the dream to Agamemnon, but the dream and the portent actually were contradictory—by deceptive divine design. Troy soon would fall, an event promised both by the dream and the portent, but the portent was truer. Troy would fall in the tenth year, but it would not fall “now” and certainly not “that very day.” This disparity between the dream and the portent generates suspense for the rest of the epic: someday the Greeks would take Troy but not before many of them died as punishment for Agamemnon's insult to Achilles. Mimetic combinations of the dream and the portent usually make them unambiguously confirm each other and always fall short of Homer's sophistication.

Herodotus told how the Persian king Xerxes decided to lead his ill-fated campaign against the Greeks despite the warning of his counselor Artabanus. A deceptive dream (ὄνειρος) came to him and urged him to fight. Iliad 2 lies behind the tale.64 Herodotus skillfully avoids stating that a god actually sent the dream, for he insists that he was merely recording Persian lore (ὡς λέγεται ὑπò Пερσέων).65 He also says that Xerxes “supposed [ἐδόκεε]” he saw the dream; Herodotus uses the same verb for the dream to Artabanus, Xerxes' counselor, who then deduced that “apparently [ὡς οἶκε]” some god must have sent it.66 The result of the campaign would be a disastrous defeat and the death of thousands of Persians. (p.38) Because Herodotus does not presume to know the mind of the divine, there are no parallels to the first cluster of motifs: 1. Sending the messenger.

2. Delivering the message. Herodotus records four dreams, the last of which consists of a symbolic vision. In the first three, the recipient (Xerxes or Artabanus) sleeps at night and sees a man or an oneiros standing over him (ἄνδρα οἱ ἐπιστάντα; ὅνετρον … ἐπιστάν; ὅνειρον … ὑπερστάν) and rebuking him for not pursuing the war against Hellas. Oneiros in Iliad 2 “stood over the head [στῆ … ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς]” of Agamemnon. In Herodotus, the three rebukes consist of questions that imitate Oneiros's question to Agamemnon, “Are you sleeping?” The first of Xerxes' dreams asks, “O Persian, are you altering your plan so as not to lead your army against Greece?” Here is the second rebuke: “O son of Darius, have you come out and renounced the campaign before the Persians and taken no account of my words as though you had heard nothing?” The dream to Artabanus asked: “Are you the one who dissuades Xerxes from battle against Greece?”67 Each of the dreams thus begins with a rebuke in the form of a question, like the rebuke issued to Agamemnon (motifs 2.1 and 2.2). The recurrent dreams invariably ordered Xerxes and Artabanus to wage war with Greece (motif 2.4). The dreams did not explicitly promise victory (motif 2.5), but Artabanus interpreted them as propitious signs: “Since some divine impetus is at hand, and some god-sent destruction is gripping Greece—so it would appear—I reverse myself and change my opinion; you must notify the Persians of the messages from the god.”68 “It seemed to Xerxes that the one who said these things flew away” (motif 2.6).69

3. Responding to the message. When Xerxes awoke from his first dream, he did not heed it and, in fact, told his troops he would not ask them to fight the Greeks. But after the second dream, he was taken aback: “Xerxes, terrified at the vision, jumped up from his bed and sent a messenger to Artabanus,” asking him to sleep on the throne to see if he, too, would be visited by the dream.70 At issue was whether it was or was not θεἆoς, “divine,” the very word Agamemnon foolishly used of his deadly dream. When Artabanus, too, received the dream, “he leaped up with a loud cry.”71 His decision, based on the dream, sent thousands of Persians to death.

As though these three dreams were insufficient, Xerxes had yet another. Even though Xerxes was sleeping when he saw this vision (ὄψις), it may well imitate the sign of the serpent and the sparrows and its interpretation by Calchas. Xerxes saw himself crowned with an olive branch with shoots spreading throughout the world. Magicians, playing a role similar to Calchas, interpreted it to mean that all peoples would serve him.72 The vision thus seemed to confirm the message of the dreams, and Xerxes set out at once to assemble his vast army. Just as Agamemnon did not understand the dream as insidious until after a series of military defeats, Xerxes did not question the dream until he suffered several setbacks.73

(p.39) Late in the first century C.E., Silius Italicus wrote a Latin epic on the Punic War toward the beginning of which Hannibal pondered whether to pursue a campaign against Rome. A deceptive dream from Jupiter helped him make up his mind—with tragic consequences for Carthage. This dream, accompanied by a portent, is particularly fascinating for its history of composition. A Greek-speaking historian named Silenus had traveled with Hannibal and recorded the campaign against Rome in an account that no longer survives. A Latin-speaking historian, Coelius Antipater, used Silenus's account for his own version of the Second Punic War, but his account, too, has not survived apart from references in later authors. According to Cicero, Silenus had written that before deciding to attack Italy, Hannibal dreamed that Jupiter called him to a council of the gods. “When he arrived, Jove ordered that he wage war on Italy, giving him one of the divine council as a guide”—almost certainly Mercury. Marching to war with his Olympian companion, Hannibal looked behind him and saw a huge beast “enveloped with snakes” that destroyed every tree and house in its path. The god then told him that the serpent was the destruction of Italy.74

Livy's account is modestly different. Hannibal did not visit the council of the gods; instead, he dreamed he saw a godlike young man—a common description of Mercury—who told him that Jupiter had ordered him to attack Italy. As in Cicero's account, Hannibal turned around and saw “a serpent of monstrous size” that left only destruction in its path. When the general asked the meaning of the portent, the youth said it was “the devastation of Italy.”75

Unfortunately, it is impossible to know precisely what Silenus had written, but this much is clear: Hannibal reportedly had a dream or a vision in which Zeus (= Jupiter) instructed him to attack Italy and guaranteed a victory by means of an accompanying sign that included a serpent or serpents. The parallels with Iliad 2 are obvious and suggest that Silenus compared Hannibal with Agamemnon and attributed his ultimate defeat to the will of Zeus.76

Silius seems to have recast Livy's version fully aware of its similarities to the dream and portent in Iliad 2, for his own embellishments display mimetic traces not present in the earlier versions.77

1. Sending the Messenger. He begins his tale with Jupiter's decision to stir up Hannibal (motif 1.1). “Then the Father Almighty, planning how to trouble the Dardanian [Trojan] people with trials, to raise to the stars their fame for ferocious warfare, and to resume their ancient hardships [viz. the Trojan War], precipitates the man's [Hannibal's] designs, disturbing his slothful rest and interrupting his sleep with the sending of a terror.”78 One must deduce from what follows Jupiter's instructions to his messenger Mercury (motifs 1.2.2 and 1.2.3), but Mercury's journey again imitates Iliad 2 (motif 1.3). “And so through the (p.40)

Table of Motifs


Iliad 2

Herodotus 7

Aeneid 7

Thebaid 2

Tunica 3

1. Sending the messenger

    1.1. Decision of the deity

Zeus wanted to punish Agamemnon

Juno wanted to punish Aeneas

Jupiter wanted to punish sons of Oedipus

Jupiter wanted to send Hannibal against Italy

    1.2. Instructions

        1.2.1. Order to depart


“Sow crimes!”

“Go to Hades!”

“Send terror!”

        1.2.2. Command to mortal

Take Troy

Retain the throne

Take Italy

        1.2.3. Assurance of victory

Zeus takes pity (a lie)

    1.3. Journey of messenger

Oneiros flew to Agamemnon

Allecto flew to Turnus

Mercury flew to Hades

Mercury flew to Hannibal

2. Delivering the message

    2.1. Appearance

Oneiros, as Nestor, stood over his head

  1. 1. A man stood by

  2. 2. Dream stood by

  3. 3. Dream stood over

Allecto, as old woman, came to Turnus

Laius, as Tiresias, came to Etiocles

Mercury came to Hannibal

    2.2. Rebuke

“Are you sleeping?”

  1. 1. Why not fight?

  2. 2. Did you not hear?

  3. 3. Are you the one?

“Why tolerate Trojans?”

“No time to sleep!”

“It is repulsive to sleep!”

    2.3. Divine favor

“Zeus cares for you.”

Juno gave this order

Jupiter cares for you

Jupiter gave this order.

    2.4. Command

Take Troy

1, 2, 3: fight Greece

Fight Trojans

Retain the throne

Take Italy

    2.5. Assurance of victory

Troy's destruction is sure

Gods will destroy Trojans

“I will make you victor.”

    2.6. Return of messenger

Oneiros left

The dreams left

Allecto vanished

Laius and Mercury left

Mercury left

3. Responding to message

Agamemnon woke and prepared for war

Xerxes/Artabanus woke and prepared for war

Turnus woke and prepared for war

Etiocles woke and prepared for war

Hannibal woke and prepared for war

    Confirming portent

Serpent and sparrows

Olive branch

Allecto appeared as herself, with attending serpents

Enormous serpent


Many Greeks perished

Persians lost war

Turnus and many other soldiers died

Etiocles, Polynices, and many others died

Carthaginians lost war

(p.41) (p.42) cool of the night Cyllenius [Mercury], gliding on the wing, carried the orders of his father.”79

2. Delivering the message. As in the Iliad, a rebuke (motif 2.2) immediately follows the appearance of the messenger (motif 2.1). “Without delay he [Mercury], approaches the youth, who is softened by an unworried sleep, and assaults him with bitter rebukes. ‘Master of Libya, it is repulsive for a leader to squander the whole night in sleep: wars succeed for a wakeful commander.’”80 Mercury then tells Hannibal, “The father of the gods himself has ordered” him to lead his armies against Rome (motif 2.3).81 “Get moving! If anything in your soul is inclined to courageous adventures, promptly make your way with me and follow my call” (motif 2.4).82 The command to Hannibal ends with this promise: “I will establish you as victor of the high walls of Rome” (motif 2.5).83

At this point in the dream, where one might expect the messenger to leave and the dreamer to wake, Hannibal sees an enormous serpent leaving a path of destruction. “Terrified by this portent (for neither was he asleep nor was the power of the night at its height, for the god mixed light with the sleep by driving darkness away with his rod), he asked what the terrible pestilence was.”84 Mercury told him that he and his army were the serpent and that the devastation was the harm he would inflict on Italy and the Roman armies. Here again one finds a serpent portent confirming the message of a dream, but now it is incorporated into the dream itself, an innovation already visible in Silius's sources.

Once Mercury had interpreted the dream, he left (motif 2.6). Hannibal then acted on the basis of the dream's command and promise (motif 3). “The god and sleep left him agitated by these proddings. A cold sweat broke out on his body, and with a joyful dread he turned over the promises of the dream.”85 Hannibal reflected on the dream and the portent and their promises of victory, offered sacrifices to Zeus, Ares, and Mercury, and began to mobilize his troops. He would, indeed, inflict great harm on the Romans, but eventually he would lose the war, despite Jupiter's promises.86

The table on pages 40–41 lists the motifs of the dream-portent pattern as it appears in Homer, Herodotus, Vergil, Statius, and Silius. Absent are the parallels in Odyssey 4 and 6 insofar as it is difficult to know if they issue from mimesis of Iliad 2 or from the conventions of dreams in the epic tradition. Also absent is the parallel in Lucan, whose imitation of Agamemnon's lying dream takes greater liberties with the narrative pattern. It is important to remember that the parallels in Herodotus, Vergil, Statius, and Silius each derive from direct imitation of Homer, even in cases where the author knows and imitates other works as well. For example, Statius and Silius obviously knew and imitated the Aeneid elsewhere, but for these dreams the Iliad was their primary model.

In each column, Zeus, Jupiter (his Roman clone), or Juno sends a messenger to (p.43) a military leader with commands to wage war. In Vergil and Statius, as in Homer, the messenger transforms his or her appearance to that of an elder (Nestor, Calybe, or Tiresias). In Homer, Statius, and Silius the messenger begins by rebuking the leader for sleeping, and each example contains a rebuke for inaction. Divine favor or assurance of victory is explicit in Homer, Vergil, Statius, and Silius, and inferred by Artabanus and Xerxes in Herodotus. In each case the leader thus awakes confident of victory, but his obedience to the command will result in a deadly debacle. The same holds true of Lucan's description of the dream to Pompey. Notice also that none of these examples is trivial: they involve the origins of the Theban civil war (the Thebaid), events toward the end of the Trojan War (the Iliad), the settlement of Trojans in Italy (the Aeneid), the beginning of the Persian War (Herodotus), the Roman Civil War (Lucan), and the beginning of the Second Punic War (Silius). Furthermore, in each case the dream occurs at a significant juncture in its host narrative and profoundly informs the reading of what follows.


(1) . De divinatione 1.24.50.

(2) . Quintilian 4.2.9: “By the very fact that they are so easy, embellishments from dreams and wonders have lost their authority.” According to Seneca the Elder, declaiming against trivial uses of dreams was a rhetorical topos (Suasoriae 4.4; cf. Controversiae 2.1.33 and Petronius Satyricon 10).

(3) . Dream in Homer, 57–58 (Messer's emphasis). Joachim Latacz says much the same (“Funktionen des Traums in der antiken Literatur,” WJA 10 [1984]: 31).

(4) . This delineation of motifs is similar to that provided by James F. Morris in “‘Dream Scenes’ in Homer: A Study in Variation,” TAPA 113 (1983): 39–54.

(5) . E.g., F. Oskar Hey, Der Traumglaube der Antike. Ein historischer Versuch, Programm des kgl. Realgymnasiums München 1907–1908 (Munich: F. Staub, 1908), 12–13, and Messer, Dream in Homer, 24–31.

(6) . E.g., Georg Danek, Epos und Zitat. Studien zu den Quellen der Odyssee, WS 22 (Vienna: Æsterreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1998), 1–23.

(7) . See the misgivings about literary dependence by Hundt (Traumglaube, 65. n. 76).

(8) . Odyssey 4.799–802 and 6.13–19.

(9) . Iliad 2.20–25.

(10) . Odyssey 4.803–4.

(11) . Odyssey 6.21–25; cf. Iliad 2.795. Compare Odyssey 6.24: τῆ μιν ἐεισάμενος προσέφη γλανκῶπις 'Aθῆνη, and Iliad 2.22: τῷ μιν ἐεισάμενος προσεφώνεε θεῖος ὄνειρος.

(12) . Odyssey 4.805–7.

(13) . Iliad 2.26–27 and 30–31.

(14) . Odyssey 4.812–13 and 825.

(15) . Odyssey 6.36–40.

(16) . Iliad 2.35.

(17) . Odyssey 4.838–39.

(18) . Odyssey 6.41–42.

(19) . Odyssey 4.839–41.

(20) . Odyssey 6.48–65.

(21) . For the most part, dreams in the tragedies do not strictly follow the Homeric pattern, though their function is similar. Echoes of the lying dream are audible also in Apollonius Argonautica 3.616–32 and 4.1347–61 and perhaps Plutarch Alexander 18. Plutarch probably had Iliad 2 in mind also when composing the dream to Agesilaus: a voice told him that he alone, like Agamemnon, was general of all of the Greek forces, leading them against the armies of Asia, and even sailing off from Aulis. Like Agamemnon, he was to offer in sacrifice his own daughter, something he refused to do (Agesilaus 6.4).

(22) . See Plutarch Pompey 68.2, Florus 2.13.45, Julius Obsequens 65a; cf. Appian Civil War 2.68. On the complex connection with Livy, see W. Rutz, “Die Träume des Pompeius in Lucans Pharsalia,” Hermes 91 (1963): 335–37.

(23) . See especially Lausberg, “Lucan,” 1574–80. On mimesis in Latin poetry see especially Williams, “Roman Poets,” 211–37.

(24) . Lausberg, “Lucan,” 1574.

(25) . Bellum civile 7.7–8. Ovid's paraphrase of the lying dream to Agamemnon uses a similar expression: deceptus imagine somni (Metamorphoses 13.216).

(26) . For a discussion of this imitation see Knauer, Aeneis und Homer, 236–37, and “Vergil and Homer,” ANRW 2.32.2 (1981): 883 (“This dream scene [in the Iliad] has in fact served as pattern from the dream scene with Allecto and Turnus”). The most thorough treatment of dreams in the Aeneid is Hans Rudolf Steiner, Der Traum in der Aeneis, NR 5 (Bern: Paul Haupt, 1952); he discusses the dream of Turnus in 62–66 and compares it with Iliad 2 in 64–65. Useful as well is Clyde Murley, “The Use of Messenger Gods by Vergil and Homer,” Vergilius 3 (1939): 3–11.

(27) . Aeneid 7.312–16; cf. Iliad 2.13–14, where Homer says Hera “bent [ἐπέγναμφεν]” the minds of the Olympians.

(28) . Aeneid 7.339.

(29) . Aeneid 7.408–9.

(30) . Aeneid 7.331.

(31) . Aeneid 7.408, 476, and 561.

(32) . Aeneid 7.413–16 and 419; see the Appendix.

(33) . Aeneid 7.420–22; see the Appendix.

(34) . Aeneid 7.427–28.

(35) . Aeneid 7.429–31; see the Appendix.

(36) . Aeneid 7.432.

(37) . Aeneid 7.458–59.

(38) . Aeneid 7.445–55.

(39) . Juhnke demonstrates that Statius borrowed directly from Homer for his dream in Thebaid 2 (Homerisches, 65–67). In addition to Juhnke's authoritative treatment, see Kytzler, “Imitatio und Aemulatio,” 209–32.

(40) . Thebaid 1.241–43.

(41) . Thebaid 1.298.

(42) . Thebaid 2.89–90 and 93–94; see the Appendix. Statius actually devoted much of the opening of the poem to Mercury's journey; see also 1.303–11 and 2.1–80.

(43) . Thebaid 2.94–97; see the Appendix.

(44) . Thebaid 2.101–4; see the Appendix.

(45) . Thebaid 2.115–16.

(46) . Thebaid 2.116–17.

(47) . Thebaid 2.120; see the Appendix.

(48) . Thebaid 2.125–27.

(49) . Adele J. Haft, “τὰ δὴ νȗν πάντα τελεȋται: Prophecy and Recollection in the Assemblies of Iliad 2 and Odyssey 2,” Arethusa 25 (1992): 224. It should be noted that Haft argues for a more complex and interactive relationship between the two epics. Richard B. Rutherford is more confident that Odyssey 2 imitates Iliad 2 (“From the Odyssey,” BICS 38 [1991–93]: 44). Danek, however, refuses to decide on the mechanics of the parallels: “conscious imitation; style of the poet himself; traditional style” (Epos und Zitat, 75).

(50) . Odyssey 2.146–47.

(51) . Odyssey 2.155–56.

(52) . Odyssey 2.165–66. Compare also the description of Halitherses in 2.157–160 with that of Calchas in Iliad 1.68–73. Odyssey 2.160 and Iliad 1.73 are identical.

(53) . Odyssey 2.174–76.

(54) . Iliad 2.330 and Odyssey 2.176.

(55) . Agamemnon 104–59. For an explanation of the transformation of the serpentsparrow portent to the eagles-hare, see Richard Seaford, “Homer and Tragic Sacrifice,” TAPA 119 (1989): 87–95. The “great sign” of the “red serpent” in Rev. 12:1–6 could be an imitation of the same scene. The serpent stands before a pregnant woman waiting for her to bear a child so that he can devour it. According to Photius, Alexander of Myndos claimed that the serpent that ate the sparrows once had fought with Heracles against the Nemean lion (Bibliotheca 190.147b.27).

(56) . Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1.22.

(57) . Similarly, Vergil recounts the traditional Roman portent of Aeneas and the white sow with a litter of thirty sucklings, with each suckling representing a year (Aeneid 8.40–48). On the origin of this portent see Steiner, Traum, 71–72 and 103–4.

(58) . Dionysiaca 25.7–10.

(59) . Dionysiaca 25.4–6.

(60) . The parallels between Iliad 2 and Vergil's account of Laocoön are well known. See especially the detailed comparison of Adele J. Haft in “Odysseus' Wrath and Grief in the Iliad: Agamemnon, the Ithacan King, and the Sack of Troy in Books 2, 4, and 14,” CJ 85 (1990): 107–9. Haft uses the parallels to argue that Homer already knew of the Laocoön (p.181) episode and modeled the death of Democoön in Iliad 4 after it. Vergil clearly knew of Laocoön from epic tradition; see H. Kleinknecht, “Laokoon,” Hermes 79 (1944): 66–111.

(61) . Aeneid 2.199–207, 212–17, 222, and 225–27; see the Appendix.

(62) . “The story of the dream can come only from the lips of the dreamer, and this fact introduces that element of uncertainty about the dream … which must be confirmed by the direct omen” (Messer, Dream in Homer, 68).

(63) . Ibid., 67. Messer argues that the combination of the dream and the portent first appeared in Aeschylus.

(64) . “The analogy with the dream of Agamemnon … has often been pointed out” (Reginald Walter Macan, Herodotus. The Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Books, vol. 1, pt. 1 [London: Macmillan, 1908], 22). According to Hundt, the dream in Herodotus 7.12 displays “distinct Homeric influence” (Traumglaube, 42). See also Hey, Traumglaube, 17–18; Ludwig Huber, “Herodots Homerverständnis,” in Synusia, FS Wolfgang Schadewaldt, ed. Hellmut Flashar and Konrad Gaiser (Pfullingen: Neske, 1965), 38, and especially H. A. Gärtner's superb treatment of the dreams and their indebtedness to Iliad 2 (“Les Rêves de Xerxès et d'Artaban chez Hérodote,” Ktéma 8 [1983]: 11–18). On Herodotus and Homer generally see Michèle Giraudeau, “L'Héritage épique chez Hérodote,” BAGB (1984): 4–13.

(65) . History 7.12. Here I part company with Peter Frisch, who thinks Herodotus actually had access to a Persian source (Die Träume bei Herodot, BKP 27 [Meisenheim: Anton Hain, 1968], 14–15).

(66) . History 7.18.

(67) . History 7.12, 14, and 17.

(68) . History 7.18.

(69) . History 7.13.

(70) . History 7.15.

(71) . History 7.18.

(72) . Adolf Köhnken argues that Herodotus imitated the dream to Agamemnon for the first three dreams and composed the fourth dream as a sign of confirmation, but he does not relate it to the serpent-sparrow portent (“Der dritte Traum des Xerxes bei Herodot,” Hermes 116 [1988]: 24–40).

(73) . History 7.47.

(74) . De divinatione 1.48–49. See also Valerius Maximus 1.7.

(75) . Livy 21.22.7–9.

(76) . Polybius despised these superstitious, pseudo-historical explanations of Hannibal's decision (3.48).

(77) . See Juhnke's treatment in Homerisches, 197–98. See also Hundt, Traumglaube, 54 n. 41.

(78) . Punica 3.163–67; see the Appendix.

(79) . Punica 3.168–69; see the Appendix.

(80) . Punica 3.170–74; see the Appendix.

(81) . Punica 3.181.

(82) . Punica 3.179–81.

(83) . Punica 3.182.

(84) . Punica 3.198–201.

(85) . Punica 3.214–16; see the Appendix.

(86) . Other examples of dreams followed by portents or oracles include: Aeschylus Persians 176–214 (where after a dream the mother of Xerxes sees a hawk slay an eagle at the altar of Helios), Prometheus Bound 637–73, Plutarch Alexander 26.3–6, and Cimon 18.