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date: 28 September 2020

Ilias Latina

Summary and Keywords

The Ilias Latina is a short poem composed in Latin hexameter that retells Homer’s Iliad. It is generally attributed to Baebius Italicus and dated to c. 54–65 ce. The analysis of the poem reveals how the Homeric Iliadic material has been reimagined to fit Roman, post-Virgilian and Neronian sensibilities, and to showcase the human emotions underlying the Trojan War.

Keywords: Ilias Latina, Homer, Iliad, Nero, Roman epic, Aeneas, Virgil, Paris, epitome, Baebius Italicus, Trojan war

The Ilias Latina is a poem composed in Latin hexameter that retells Homer’s Iliad in 1,070 verses. Most commonly referred to as Ilias Latina [Latin Iliad], a title coined by Emil Baehrens in his 1881 edition, the manuscripts refer to the poem variously as Epitome Iliados Homeri [Epitome of the Iliad of Homer], Liber Homeri [Book of Homer], or Homerus (de bello Troiano) [Homer (concerning the Trojan war)]. It is popularly attributed to Baebius Italicus, following the manuscript Vindobonensis Latinus 3509 [Bebii Italici] and taking note of an apparent acrostic created (with small emendation) from the first letter of the opening and closing eight verses of the poem: Italic*u*s . . . scripsit (IL 1–8, 1063–1070, Italicus wrote [this]).1 Thematic and linguistic analyses point towards a Neronian dating for the poem, c. ce 54–65.2

The label epitome might be one way of describing a poem that reduces 15,693 verses of Homer’s Iliad to just 1,070. Indeed, after falling into obscurity after its production in the 1st century ce, it is the poem’s brevity that contributes to its resurgence in popularity in late Antiquity and (especially) the Middle Ages, where it serves as an accessible introduction to the Trojan myth for an audience unfamiliar with Homeric Greek and classical culture more generally.3 In other ways, the term epitome is misleading, in that it obscures important structural and thematic choices that the poet makes over his Homeric material.

On a macro level, the poet opts for one continuous poem and prioritises narrative action, especially martial and rhetorical confrontations between key individuals: Paris and Hector (IL 256–276), Paris and Menelaus (IL 281–316), Hector and Ajax (IL 602–630), Dolon and Ulysses/Diomedes (IL 703–729), Hector and Patroclus (IL 805–835), Hector and Achilles (IL 944–1003), Priam and Achilles (IL 1019–1045). Other important features of the Homeric original, such as communal debates, similes, and religious and political paraphernalia, are generally downplayed or avoided, although the poet does grant himself license to describe in detail the shield of Achilles (IL 862–891), and to turn the catalogue of Greek ships into a mathematical puzzle for his reader, complete with the final tally (IL 161–221). Thematic prioritisation of this kind results in some striking unevenness of coverage: for example, treatment of the first five books of the Iliad accounts for over half the poem’s length (IL 1–537), while Books 9, 13, 14, 17 and 23 of the Iliad are each allotted eleven verses or fewer in the Latin poem.

But the poet has exercised a range of choices on a micro level as well. The Homeric material is regularly reviewed through a Roman, post-Virgilian, and even Neronian lens. There is a Roman flavour to Menelaus’ desire for a triumph (IL 539–541) and to the Trojans’ adoption of the attack formation of the testudo (IL 767). Virgilian influence is evident from the poet’s adoption of epic tags and phraseology, but it extends to the thematic level as well.4 Aeneas is given a suitably Virgilian religious aspect which is absent from Homer (sacer Aeneas, IL 236; cf. Hom. Il. 2.819–821), and his bout of furor at Troy (IL 511) prefigures his subsequent struggles against this personified evil in the Virgilian tradition of the foundation of Rome. The sentiment that closes the catalogue of Trojan forces—that Troy would have conquered the trickery of the Greeks had it not been for the adverse Fates—recalls Aeneas’ perspective on the enemy and his own pitiful counterfactual reflections on the Trojan war (with IL 250-251, cf. Virg. A. 2.43–44, 54–56, 195–198, 431–434). The vague pronouncements for Aeneas’ future in Homer (Hom. Il. 20.302–308) are duly fleshed out, in Virgilian style, to herald the family of Augustus and its stellar trajectory (IL 899–902). This last detail might also sound a Neronian note, in light of the Emperor’s family connection to and professed emulation of Augustus, and the poem’s Neronian context may have been significant in other ways. First, on a general level, the literary environment under Nero seems to have been particularly conducive to Latin retellings of the Trojan myth: different stages of the story are offered in Seneca’s tragedies (Troades, Agamemnon) and PetroniusSatyricon (the Troiae Halosis, Petr. 89), as well as lost poems such as Lucan’s Iliacon and Nero’s own Troica.5 But Nero’s presence may be felt more directly within the Ilias Latina. The prominence of Apollo – acknowledged as the poet’s divine supporter (IL 165–166, 1070) and, in contrast to Homer, granted a place on Achilles’ shield (IL 880–884) – accords with Nero’s own promotion of and identification with this deity. The shield of Achilles, moreover, condenses the complex Homeric picture of human society into one peaceable image of a serene and fair-minded judge (aequus iudex, IL 878–879), an atmosphere which chimes with (early) Neronian discourse celebrating the return of the rule of law after the legal corruption of the Emperor Claudius (cf. e.g., Sen. Apoc. 4.1. vv. 23–24, 10.4; Sen. Clem. 1.1.4). More boldly, the stature of Paris may have been consciously enhanced in the Latin poem, as the character is subtly reconfigured to promote a form of heroism that embraces both military and aesthetic/ erotic talents; in this way, Paris might be designed to provide a more appropriate Trojan avatar for the artistically-inclined Nero.6

But the most striking difference between the Latin poem and the original is the way in which the Ilias Latina reduces the ethical complexity of the Homeric Trojan conflict. The moral, civic and religious values that govern action in the Iliad are significantly downplayed in favour of a tale that showcases, in almost Stoic fashion, the (dangerous) power of unharnessed human emotion, especially erotic passion. In this way, the Ilias Latina participates in a humanised approach towards the Trojan myth that is made popular in Rome by the Neoteric poets, the love poets and, perhaps most famously, Ovid.7 Analysing IL 1–110 against its Homeric counterpart, Iliad 1, provides an effective case study. Apollo appears to send two distinct forms of pestilence, one to the heart of the king himself and the other to the bodies of the Greeks at large (IL 10–12). While the latter is a clear reference to the plague, the former turns out to be an emotional affliction, an unbridled erotic passion. Agamemnon harbours a ‘wild love’ (ferus amor) and a ‘ruinous lust’ (damnosa libido) for Chryseis (IL 25–26; cf. the limited physical attraction between the two implied in the Homeric version, Hom. Il. 1.113–115). Her father, Chryses, focuses his resentment on the domestic, eroticised scene of a girl forced to endure ‘the bed of a harsh enemy’ (hostis duri cubile, IL 41–43). When Agamemnon sends Chryseis away, he does so ‘unwillingly’ and ‘sick at heart’ (invitos aeger, IL 63) and, with his ‘ardour’ unabated (ardor, IL 70), he demands Briseis as recompense, ‘one individual’s fire for another’ (suos alienis ignibus ignes, IL 72–73). This is far removed from the Homeric scene, where dispassionate heroes treat Chryseis and Briseis as objects of trade (Hom. Il. 1.116-117, 297–299), and the transferal of Briseis from Achilles to Agamemnon is a matter of personal honour and hierarchy (e.g., Hom. Il. 1.130–139, 182–187, 318–325, 352–356, 407–412). In the ensuing brawl between Agamemnon and Achilles, Pallas Athena intervenes to thwart the workings of ‘blind love’ (caecus amor, IL 79), while Thetis beseeches the king of the gods to prevent the violation of her son’s ‘flame’ (flammas, IL 91). The poem thus initiates a mythical course that is driven by erotic rather than civic or ethical concerns, and it is sustained throughout, no more so than in the poignant image of the solitary Achilles who, in stark contrast to Homer’s figure (Hom. Il. 7.229–230), is found ‘soothing his harsh love with the sweet lyre’ (cithara dulci durum lenibat amorem, IL 586).

Primary Texts

English Translations

  • Kennedy, George A. The Latin Iliad: Introduction, Text, Translation, and Notes. Fort Collins, CO: self published, 1998.Find this resource:

  • McKinley, Kathryn L. “The Medieval Homer: The Ilias Latina.” Allegorica: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Literature 19 (1998): 3–61.Find this resource:

  • Perkins, Steven R. Achilles in Rome: The Latin Iliad of Baebius Italicus. Morrisville, NC: Lulu Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Editions and Commentaries

  • Baehrens, Emil. “Homerus Latinus” Poetae Latini Minores, vol. III. Leipzig: Teubner, 1881.Find this resource:

  • Fry, Gérard. Récits inédits sur la guerre de Troie: Iliade latine; Ephéméride de la guerre de Troie; Histoire de la destruction de Troie. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1998.Find this resource:

  • Plessis, Frédéric. Italici Ilias Latina. Paris: Libraire Hachette, 1885.Find this resource:

  • Scaffai, Mario. Baebii Italici Ilias Latina: Introduzione, Edizione Critica, Truduzione Italiana e Commento. Bologna, Italy: Patron, 1982.Find this resource:

  • Tilroe, Welcome A. “The Ilias Latina: A Study of the Latin Iliad, including Translation, Commentary, and Concordance” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1939.Find this resource:

  • Vollmer, Friedrich. “Homerus Latinus.” Poetae Latini Minores, vol. II.3. Leipzig: Teubner, 1913.Find this resource:


Courtney, Edward. The Fragmentary Latin Poets. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.Find this resource:

Courtney, Edward. “The Dating of the Ilias Latina.” Prometheus 27 (2001): 149–152.Find this resource:

Fabre-Serris, Jacqueline. Mythologie et Littérature à Rome: La Réécriture des Mythes aux 1ers siècles avant et après J.-C. Lausanne: Sciences Humaines, 1998.Find this resource:

Fantuzzi, Marco. Achilles in Love: Intertextual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Marshall, Peter K. “Ilias Latina.” In Texts and Transmission: A Survey of the Latin Classics. Edited by L. D. Reynolds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983: 191–194.Find this resource:

Néraudau, Jean-Pierre. “Néron et le nouveau chant de Troie.” ANRW 2.32.3 (1985): 2032–2045.Find this resource:

Reitz, Christiane. “Verkurzen und Erweitern: Literarische Techniken fur eilige leser? Die Ilias Latina als poetische Epitome.” Hermes 135 (2007): 334–351.Find this resource:

Ripoll, F. “Réécritures d’un mythe homérique à travers le temps: Le personnage de Pâris dans l’épopée latine de Virgile à Stace.” Euphrosyne 28 (2000): 83–112.Find this resource:

Venini, Paola. “Sull imitatio virgiliana nell’ Ilias Latina.” Vichiana 11 (1982): 311–317.Find this resource:

Venini, Paola. “Fedeltà e infedeltà a Omero nell’ Ilias Latina.” Rivista di Filologia e di Istruzione Classica 117 (1989): 316–324.Find this resource:


(1.) The Ilias Latina is abbreviated in references to ‘IL’; the Homeric epic is abbreviated to ‘Hom. Il.’

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