Art and Experience in the Odyssey and the Aeneid

Deborah Beck

Swarthmore College

In Aeneid 1, Aeneas sees the reliefs of the Trojan War on Dido's temple to Juno (446-95).  This scene evokes Odysseus hearing tales of his own adventures in Troy from Demodocus at the palace of the Phaeacians (Odyssey 8.83-92 and 521-35; Knauer 1964: 166-69).  Virgil's depiction of Aeneas reacting to an artistic representation of his own history illustrates key characteristics not only of the hero, but also of the role of art in helping people to process their own experiences, the media of that art, and the interaction of different levels of human audiences with art that tells the story of someone's past.  In fact, we may see this ecphrasis as Virgil's statement of his own views about the relationship between art and experience, which partly depends for its impact on the implied similarities and contrasts between Aeneas and Odysseus (vs. Putnam 1998: 50-54, which sees the Aeneid passage as competing with and ultimately surpassing its predecessor). 

Odysseus weeps when he hears songs about himself.  The medium in which he experiences his own story is the same as the medium in which the narrator represents him hearing his story.  Audiences at several different levels respond to this tale:  Odysseus, hearing about his past; the Phaeacians, external to the events narrated but internal to the poem; and the external audience of the Odyssey.  The narrator of the Odyssey implicitly makes this particular way of telling a story -- a bard singing a poem -- one of the things that the poem itself is about (e.g. Segal 1994: 113-41). 

Virgil also shows his hero weeping in response to his own tale, but unlike Odysseus, Aeneas is responding to images in a visual work of art.  This is both similar to (visual) and different from (pictorial vs. verbal) the written words that represent to an external audience Aeneas experiencing his own story.  At the same time, through the parallel of "main character, reaching safety after wanderings, weeps at a retelling of his adventures at Troy", this scene evokes the oral, sung poetry of Odyssey 8.  Thus, Virgil uses this ecphrasis to establish a multitude of artistic media as emotionally effective ways of representing human experience.  Some of these are not present in Aeneid 1, but are implied by the Homeric model he evokes.  The Odyssey is centrally concerned with poetry as a medium for representing human experience.  The Aeneid, partly through contrast with the Odyssey, is interested in the variety of ways that human experience can be successfully represented and made meaningful not only to those who have gone through it, but to internal and external audiences.

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