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Aeneid Vs. Odyssey Essay, Research Paper

Both the Odyssey and the Aeneid share some similarities as epics; both

describe the trials of a heroic figure who is the ideal representative of a

particular culture. There are even individual scenes in the Aeneid are

borrowed from the Odyssey. Yet, why are Odysseus and Aeneas so unlike one

another? The answer is that the authors lived in two different worlds, whose

values and perceptions varied greatly of a fundamental level.

To illustrate, two common ideas woven into the Odyssey are custom and

recklessness. Customs were handed down by the gods, and were meant to keep

men safe by giving them civilization. When men were reckless (when they

flaunted custom and the gods), they invited retribution and chaos by placing

themselves outside the ordained scope of humanity. Moreover, if the customs

are followed and proper respect given the gods, it is possible for man to live

in harmony indefinitely.

In contrast, the Aeneid propounds upon furor and civitas. Furor is the

discord that lies at the heart of each person which engenders violence, and

this furor must be restrained in order for civilization to work. This gives

rise to the idea of civitas, the overwhelming devotion to the state above

selfish personal desire; this is the only way man can chain furor on a large

scale. Moreover, it is always possible for furor to surface; even after years

of sacrifice and constant vigilance, peace is never guaranteed.

These differences in ethos are most easily seen when Virgil borrows a

scene and transforms it to his own ends. For example, Virgil adopts the

episode where Odysseus washes up on the shore of Skheria and meets the

Phaiakians and uses it to form the core of Aeneid I and II.

In the Odyssey, the episode begins with Odysseus on his makeshift raft,

heading home after all his trials. His eventual passage home has been agreed

upon by Zeus, “whose will is not subject to error.”1 However, in the past

Odysseus wounded Polyphemos and in reckless abandon questioned the power of

the gods; while he was fleeing from the Cyclops he yelled “If I could take

your life I would and take your time away, and hurl you down to hell! The god

of earthquake could not heal you there!”2 For this affront, Poseidon decided

to make Odysseus’ journey home a long and difficult one. The god of the sea

sends a storm his way but Odysseus survives with the nereid Ino’s gift and

guidance. After Poseidon departs, he finally reaches Skheria’s shore with

Athena’s help.

The opening scenes in the Aeneid corresponds to Homer’s sequence. Aeneas

and the Trojans are on their ships, heading to found a new city after many

travails. The eventual founding of the city has been agreed upon by Jupiter,

and thus the Trojan’s “[d]estiny is unaltered”3 regardless of what calamity

befalls them. However, Juno is worried that the Trojans’ descendants will

eventually surpass the Greeks, “root up her Libyan empire”4, and “enslave the

children of Agamemnon”5; so she convinces Aeolus to release to some winds to

destroy them now. The winds are so fierce that they need a “heap of mountains

[laid] upon them” and even then “[b]ehind the bars they bellow, mightily

fretting: the mountain is one immense murmur.”6 Aeolus releases them by

pushing his spear at the flank of the mountain, and “in a solid mass, [they]

hurl themselves through the gates” and they nearly devastate the Trojans.

Neptune quiets the winds and the seas, and then rides away.

Odysseus and the Trojans have much in common. Both are plagued by gods

(the former by Poseidon and the latter by Juno). Despite their troubles, both

are also guaranteed eventual success, for their accomplishments have been

ordained by the supreme God, and this cannot be denied. However, the

distinction between the source of their difficulties is an important one.

Odysseus willingly invited disaster by flaunting the power of the gods. If he

had not done so and followed custom as he should, he would have returned home

much sooner with much less travail. The Trojans are simply subject to

disaster, for no reason whatsoever. The winds are specifically portrayed as

bound furor for this reason; in Virgil’s world furor is always present and can

strike at any time. At the moment, this is just a subtle difference, but

further into the episode it becomes magnified.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus meets Nausikaa and wins her over, earning passage

into the city. He then proceeds to Phaiakia and meets Athena in the guise of

a little girl. With Athena’s guidance he makes his way to the palace, under a

mist which screens him from sight. There he stops to admire the courtyard and

orchard, and pauses to form his thoughts before entering. He then finds Arete

and beseeches her to help him. The corresponding scenes have been fused and

altered in the Aeneid. Aeneas first tries to scout the area and meets Venus

in the guise of a Tyrian girl. With Venus’s guidance he makes his way to the

temple/court, under a similar mist. While admiring the city builders, he

stops and laments over some frescoes of the Trojans war. He sees Dido

dispensing justice in her court, and then sees his comrade Ilioneus winning

her over. After observing this he reveals himself and thanks Dido for her

sympathy and help.

Here we begin to see the divergence between the episodes. Phaiakia

represents the ultimate god-blessed society, so fortunate that it has no

understanding of the suffering present in human experience. One is led to

believe that they have never known hunger or thirst, since their palace has an

orchard upon which “[f]ruits never failed”7; they feast on “abundant fare”8

and have a clear fountain to serve “all who came for water.”9 Nor have the

Phaiakians ever known true conflict or division, as “[n]o grace or wisdom

fails in [Arete]; indeed just men in quarrels [go] to her for equity”10 and

“the power or [their] people stands”11 with Alkinoos. It is also certain that

the Phaiakians have never known war, since “there’s no fool is so brash, and

never will be, as to bring war or pillage to [that] coast.”12 Consequently,

they have no grasp of the horrors of war, for Alkinoos needs to ask Odysseus

why he “grieve[s] so terribly over … the fall of Troy.”13

Carthage is a newly founded city under construction, vibrant and growing,

where “[t]he work goes on like wildfire.” Aeneas “marvels at [their] great

building, … city gates, and the din of paved streets.” and exclaims, “Ah,

how fortunate you are, whose town is already building!” Moreover, the city

has great potential, with the “prospect of great towers”14 and signs that

“[t]heir nation would thrive in wealth and war.”15 Aeneas is moved by the

Carthaginians’ renewal, and “first dared to hope for Salvation and believe

that at last his luck was turning.” But then he notices “a series of frescoes

depicting the Trojan war,” and cries, “is there anywhere, any place left on

earth unhaunted by our sorrows?” He is touched by “human transience.”16

There are again basic similarities between the two situations; both

Phaiakia and Carthage represent ideal societies to the wanderers. Moreover,

even though the cultures are ideal, neither of them belong there. But again,

the differences between the two societies illuminate the differences in

ideology. Phaiakia is a static culture, a type of fairy tale place where

everything is in perfect harmony. As long as its citizens follow custom as

they should, it will continue to exist in perfection. Carthage is a dynamic

culture, one link in the chain of successively better societies. However,

even if they have extreme civitas and do nothing wrong, it is still possible

for furor to destroy it, just like it destroyed Troy. The former is an

immortal society, existing forever; the latter is a mortal society in the

process of birth, and consequently the possibility of death.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus sits in the ashes of the fire. Ekheneos, an

elder and oracle versed in the laws, admonishes Alkinoos for not instantly

offering his hospitality. Alkinoos then offers the wanderer a seat of honor,

orders food brought, and decrees the customary rituals to be performed. Then

he speaks to Odysseus, is taken by him, and offers him his daughter’s hand in

marriage. Everyone rests, and the next day is spent in festivities.

Afterwards, Odysseus recounts his various wanderings to the Phaiakians. Then

he is sped on his way home. In the Aeneid, Venus sends Cupid in the form of

Ascanius to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas. Aeneas then recounts two

tales to Dido and her court: the fall of Troy and the Trojan wanderings.

Meanwhile, Dido has become enamored with Aeneas, and eventually Aeneas

reciprocates her love. He decides to stay in Carthage and help with the

building until he is chastised by Hermes. When he then prepares to leave,

Dido becomes enraged and then despondent. Finally, after he is gone she takes

her own life.

Even though Odysseus is given very good treatment by a variety of people,

he never doubts for a moment that he belongs home on Ithaka. For example,

when he was with Calypso, he had immortality and divine companionship;

moreover, his return home would be fraught with adversity. Yet, “each day,

[he longed] for home” and felt his “tough heart could undergo”17 any trail.

Hermes had to chastise Calypso to let Odysseus go, rather than spurring the

wanderer himself. On Skheria, Alkinoos would make Odysseus his “son-in-law,

if [he] remained. A home, lands, and riches”18 would be his as well. Offered

a place in this ideal society, Odysseus still chooses to return home. From

the Cyclops’ island, where is known “none but savage ways”19; to Aiolia, where

they still “gave [sisters] to [brothers] to be their gentle brides”20; to the

“magic house of Circe”, where there is “eating and drinking, endlessly

regaled.”21; Odysseus realizes that he belongs in none of these places. His

wanderings merely represent his unceasing climb back to his proper place, were

he always has and always will belong.

However, Aeneas’ tale is far different. He begins with the fall of Troy,

which was precipitated by the Trojan Horse. The Horse is portrayed as bound

furor just like Aeolus’ winds. Laocoon throws a spear into its side, which

stuck “quivering” and the Horse “grunted at the concussion and rumbled

hollowly.”22 Soon after, the potential for violence pent-up in the Horse is

released violently, and Troy is consumed in flames. Moreover, no one is proof

from this same type of disaster. Aeneas is the pinnacle of his culture, the

paragon of sacrifice and duty who carried his father out of Troy. Even he

falls prey to his human passions and stays with Dido; in so forgetting his

civitas, he relaxes his grip on furor. Dido is then consumed in flames just

like Troy, and her final words are prelude to strife between Rome and Carthage

in the future.

The comparison of these scenes shows the fundamental differences between

the Greek and Roman ideals. The Greeks believed in the everlasting power of

custom to protect and preserve them, and that any tragedy stemmed from their

own recklessness. In a sense, Odysseus brought his troubles upon himself. If

he had followed custom like the Phaiakians had, he would have remained within

the ordained scope of humanity. Moreover, in some absolute sense Odysseus

belongs at home on Ithaka, and once there he can remain there indefinitely in

safety. The Romans’ world was much more uncertain because of the constant

possibility for disaster, and believed that human existence was inherently a

tragedy because of this everpresent furor. Even had all the Trojans done

nothing wrong, they still would have received the winds sent at Juno’s behest.

All they had was vulnerable, their lives, their cities, and their

civilization; anything could be destroyed by the godless discord. Moreover,

no matter how devout and full of civitas one is, it is always possible for

furor to surface. Thus, it is not surprising that the Greek and Roman epics

were so different, since what the they perceived were really two different



1Odyssey V, line 34

2Odyssey IX, lines 571-73

3Aeneid I, page 20

4Aeneid I, page 13 of the 1952 C. Day Lewis translation; all further page

references are from this.

5Aeneid I, page 21

6Both quotes are from Aeneid I, page 14

7Odyssey VII, line 124

8Odyssey VII, line 106

9Odyssey VII, lines 138-140

10Odyssey VII, lines 77-78

11Odyssey VI, lines 210-11

12Odyssey VI, lines 215-16

13Odyssey VIII lines 617-18

14Last four quotes from Aeneid I, page 25

15Aeneid I, pages 25-26

16Last four quotes from Aeneid I, page 26

17Odyssey V, lines 229-233

18Odyssey V, lines 337-38

19Odyssey IX, line 204

20Odyssey X, line 9

21Odyssey X, lines 473-74

22Last two quotes from Aeneid II, page 36

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