The Aeneid

by: Virgil

Motifs

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Prophecies and Predictions

Prophecy and prediction take many forms in the Aeneid, including dreams, visitations from the dead, mysterious signs and omens, and direct visitations of the gods or their divine messengers. These windows onto the future orient mortal characters toward fate as they try to glean, sometimes clearly and sometimes dimly, what is to come. Virgil’s audience, however, hears these predictions with the advantage of hindsight, looking backward to observe the realization of an already accomplished fate. As observers who know about the future, the audience is in the same position as the gods, and the tension between the audience’s and the characters’ perspectives therefore emulates the difference between the position of mortals and that of gods.

Founding a New City

The mission to build a new city is an obsession for Aeneas and the Trojans. In Book II, Aeneas relates the story of Troy’s destruction to Dido, who is herself recently displaced and in the process of founding a new city of her own. In Book III, Virgil relates several attempts undertaken by the Trojans to lay the foundations for a city, all of which were thwarted by ill omens or plague. Aeneas also frequently uses the image of the realized city to inspire his people when their spirits flag. The walls, foundation, or towers of a city stand for civilization and order itself, a remedy for the uncertainty, irrationality, and confusion that result from wandering without a home.

Vengeance

Avenging a wrong, especially the death of a loved one, is an important element of heroic culture and a pervasive motif in the Aeneid. The most prominent instance of vengeance comes in the final lines of the poem. Aeneas, having decided to spare Turnus, changes his mind when reminded of the slain Pallas, whose belt Turnus wears as a trophy. It would be considered dishonorable and disloyal to allow Pallas’s death go unpunished. Vengeance comes in other, perhaps less noble, forms as well. Dido’s suicide is at least partly an act of revenge on Aeneas, and she curses him as one of her last acts. The Harpies act out of vengefulness when they curse Aeneas for having killed their livestock. Similarly, the struggles of the gods against one another are likewise motivated by spite and revenge: the history of bruised vanity, left over from Paris’s judgment of Venus as the fairest goddess, largely motivates Juno’s aggressive behavior against the Trojans and Venus, their divine protector.


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