Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's AENEID

Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's AENEID

by James J. O'Hara

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Here James O'Hara shows how the deceptive nature of prophecy in the Aeneid complicates assessment of the poem's attitude toward its hero's achievement and toward the future of Rome under Augustus Caesar. This close study of the language and rhetorical context of the prophecies reveals that they regularly suppress discouraging material: the gods send promising messages


Here James O'Hara shows how the deceptive nature of prophecy in the Aeneid complicates assessment of the poem's attitude toward its hero's achievement and toward the future of Rome under Augustus Caesar. This close study of the language and rhetorical context of the prophecies reveals that they regularly suppress discouraging material: the gods send promising messages to Aeneas and others to spur them on in their struggles, but these struggles often lead to untimely deaths or other disasters only darkly hinted at by the prophecies. O'Hara finds in these prophecies a persistent subtext that both stresses the human cost of Aeneas' mission and casts doubt on Jupiter's promise to Venus of an "endless empire" for the Romans. O'Hara considers the major prophecies that look confidently toward Augustus' Rome from the standpoint of Vergil's readers, who, like the characters within the poem, must struggle with the possibility that the optimism of the prophecies of Rome is undercut by darker material partially suppressed. The study shows that Vergil links the deception of his characters to the deceptiveness of Roman oratory, politics, and religion, and to the artifice of poetry itself. In response to recent debates about whether the Aeneid is optimistic or pessimistic, O'Hara argues that Vergil expresses both the Romans' hope for the peace of a Golden Age under Augustus and their fear that this hope might be illusory.

Editorial Reviews

Dowden (classics, Birmingham) draws on the findings of contemporary anthropology to present a theory of such Greek myths as Io, Daphne, the daughters of Danaus, and the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, as expressions of initiation rites for girls becoming women. O'Hara's (classics, Wesleyan U.) close study of the language and rhetorical context of the prophecies in the Aeneid shows how their deceptive nature complicates assessment of the poem's attitude toward its hero's achievement and toward the future of Rome under Augustus Caesar. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid

By James J. O'Hara


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-60657-6


Orontes, Palinurus, Anchises, and Pallas: Prophecy and Deaths "Before the Eyes of Aeneas"


The scene sequence dominated by the storm at sea (1.8–296) anticipates the whole poem in thought as well as mood. It is the prelude of the work, announcing the basic motifs after the manner of an overture.

V. Pöschl, The Art of Vergil 14

The first persons to die in the Aeneid are the Lycian Orontes and the men of his ship, which sinks in the storm that Aeolus sends in obedience to Juno in Book 1. Vergil's description of the wreck emphasizes the scene's pathos: a wave strikes the ship, the helmsman tumbles out, and the vessel is sucked down into the sea (1.113–19). Our attention is drawn toward the pain of Aeneas, for it is through his eyes that we see Orontes die (ipsius ante oculos 114, "before the eyes of Aeneas himself"). Through repetition of vocabulary, rhythm, and word order, line 119, arma virum tabulaeque et Troia gaza per undas ("men's arms and the planks and the Trojan treasure among the waves"), recalls the words of Aeneas at IOD-IOI, lamenting that it would have been better to have died at Troy, where

tot Simois correpta sub undis scuta virum galeasque et fortia corpora volvit.

(Simois snatched and rolled beneath its waves so many men's shields and helmets and strong bodies.)

"It is as if the horror of Troy is being re-enacted,"' as if Aeneas' troubles will never end, but will follow him wherever he goes. At last Neptune senses and stops the storm. Aeneas reaches shore with seven of his twenty ships, and there he encourages his men, telling them that the gods will grant an end to their suffering, and that they should remember the sedes quietae ("settlement free from trouble") that they have been promised in Italy (198–207). Vergil tells us here that Aeneas' optimism is feigned:

talia voce refert curisque ingentibus aeger spem vultu simulat, premit altum corde dolorem.


(Such things he says, and sick with great cares he feigns hope on his face, suppressing the pain deep in his heart.)

In each of these two lines the middle caesura marks the break between the pretense of hope and the grimmer despair that lies behind it. Vergil again draws attention to Aeneas' isolation, and to his hidden pain, at the end of the scene:

Aeneas nunc acris Oronti, nunc Amyci casum gemit et crudelia secum fata Lyci. ... (220–22)


(Aeneas mourns to himself now the loss of Orontes, now that of Amycus, and the cruel death of Lycus....)

I describe this scene for two reasons: first, in order to begin this chapter by looking at the death of Orontes, and second, because Vergil's comment, that Aeneas "feigns hope on his face, suppressing the pain deep in his heart," provides important insight into Vergil's awareness of the often deceptively rhetorical nature of speech in the Aeneid. This potential for deception is nowhere so apparent, or so thematically significant, as in the poem's numerous prophecies. I shall argue in this study that many of the prophecies in the Aeneid are characterized by the same sort of surface optimism and hidden doubt that we see in Aeneas' words. Many prophecies in the Aeneid predict success in some activity, or future happiness, while conspicuously omitting or only obscurely hinting at the death of one individual that will qualify or destroy that success. The deaths of Aeneas' father Anchises and his helmsman Palinurus are examples that may come quickly to mind for those familiar with the poem; variations of this pattern mark the deaths of several others, including Pallas, Turnus, Marcellus, and even Aeneas. This chapter will treat characters whose deaths call into question the truthfulness of prophecies made to Aeneas: Orontes; Aeneas' helmsman Palinurus, who dies despite an oracle of Apollo predicting that he would reach Italy safely; his father Anchises, whose death, Aeneas complains, is not mentioned by the prophets Helen us and Celaeno; and Pallas, who dies in battle following a chain of prophecies that seem to promise victory in war, but also foreshadow and even help to bring about his death.

Orontes and the Omen of the Swans

Orontes' death in the storm will be recalled at key points later in Book 1. At 1.314–410, Venus disguises herself as a local girl and visits Aeneas, tells him about Dido, and encourages him to proceed to Dido's city. She assures him that he is not hated by the gods (haud, credo, invisus caelestibus 387), for the ships that he thinks are lost, are safe:

namque tibi reduces socios classemque relatam nuntio et in tutum versis Aquilonibus actam....


(For I announce to you the return of both your companions and your fleet, driven to safety as the North winds turn.)

She points to twelve swans that escape from an eagle and begin to regroup onshore, and interprets them as an omen (393–401). The careful structure of Venus' speech stresses the tight correspondence between omen and interpretation. Near the beginning and at the end she gives similar commands (perge modo ... in 389 and 401). Four lines of description of the swans (393–96) are followed by four lines of exegesis, sharply structured by ut (397) and haud aliter (399). Both omen and interpretation end with lines split by aut ... aut (396, 400). The interpretation seems easy: as the birds reach shore, so Aeneas' men have or will soon have reached the safety of land.

But Orontes and his men are dead. Venus makes no mention of these victims of Juno's wrath, even though the bird omen does precisely describe the situation. Commentators have described Vergil's procedure here, without explaining his motivation. Aeneas started with twenty ships (1.381). He lands with seven, as Vergil tells us three times, in lines 170–71, 193–94, and 383. The men from twelve ships, like the twelve swans, get to shore, and one ship is lost. Seven plus twelve plus one: twenty. The numerical precision draws attention to the death ofOrontes, and to Venus' failure to mention him. The omen is precisely true, but the interpretation of it by Venus is subtly deceptive. Later, when the invisible Aeneas and Achates are watching the men from the twelve safe ships approach Dido, Achates mentions the apparent flaw in what Venus said:

nate dea, quae nunc animo sententia surgit? omnia tuta vides, classem sociosque receptos. unus abest, medio in fluctu quem vidimus ipsi submersum; dictis respondent cetera matris.


(Son of a goddess, what thought rises now in your heart? You see everything safe, with the welcome of the fleet and the companions. One is missing, whom we ourselves saw sunk in the waves; the rest corresponds to your mother's words.)

Achates' words remind us of those used to describe both Orontes' death and Venus' augury: unus ... quem vidimus ipsi (584, "one, whom we ourselves saw") recalls unam ... / ipsius ante oculos (113–14, "one, before the eyes of Aeneas himself"), and classem sociosque receptos (583, "the welcome of the fleet and the companions") echoes Venus' reduces socios classemque relatam (390, "the return of both your companions and the fleet"). Achates' statement unus abest seems an odd way to refer to Orontes and his men; Vergil is again stressing the mathematics that has previously drawn attention to Orontes. Achates and Aeneas, however, are not bothered by the omission, which seems harmless, because they saw Orontes die. The fulfillment of most of Venus' prophecy about the ships' return seems to confirm her optimistic view of the situation.

Here Vergil has gently established a pattern that will recur throughout the poem: a death is omitted from an optimistic prophecy. Most of the variations on this pattern will be more disturbing than Venus' failure to talk about Orontes; but Aeneas has been deceived, in that Venus conceals the work of Juno from him. Juno's hatred of Aeneas is prominent in the Aeneid's opening lines, in Juno's angry speech at 37–49, and in her request that Aeolus send the storm that threatens Aeneas and kills Orontes. Venus tells Aeneas that he is not hated by divinities (haud, credo, invisus caelestibus 387), right after Vergil has provided ample evidence of Juno's enmity. Then Venus downplays what Juno has accomplished by not mentioning Orontes. None of the gods hate Aeneas — except one; Aeneas' men and ships will return-except one. Venus may even suggest that Aeneas' troubles come not from the irrationalJuno but from the more reasonable Jupiter: the Iovis ales (394, "bird of Jupiter") scatters the swans, then leaves them alone. One commentator notes that "the swan was Venus' special bird ... so the eagle-swan picture suggests her triumph over Iuppiter's hostility." Venus' desire to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative is understandable, given Aeneas' despair (described in 208–9 curis ... ingentibus aeger/ ... premit altum corde dolorem, "sick with great cares, he suppresses the pain deep in his heart," and displayed in 384ff. ipse ignotus, egens ..., "myself unknown and needy ..."). A description of the mood of the recipient of a prophecy will be an important feature of many scenes in the Aeneid, often providing a clue as to the function of the prophecy. The rhetoric of Venus' exaggerated optimism is similar to Aeneas' hollow encouragement of his men when he "feigns hope on his face." Then her ambrosial exit reveals her true identity (1.402–5), and helps to vouch for the validity of her augury; many prophecies or omens in the poem will be confirmed by a divine sign or epiphany. Aeneas complains bitterly about Venus' deceptive appearance (quid natum totiens, crudelis tu quoque, falsis / ludis imaginibus? 407–8, "Why so many times do you — cruel like the rest-delude your son with false appearances?"). He does not know that the real deception is more subtle, or that Venus has concealed Juno's hatred from him. Immediately after the meeting with Venus, Aeneas is still discouraged; but as he stands invisible in Dido's city and sees most of his men alive, Venus' prophecy and its apparent fulfillment help convince him that his troubles may be over. Venus sends Aeneas more confidently toward the meeting with Dido that will bring not an end to suffering, but only confusion, pain, a bitter curse, and death.

The si non vana Motif

One feature of this scene deserves special comment: Venus' augury is prefaced by a disclaimer, ni frustra augurium vani docuere parentes (392, "unless my parents have given me vain and empty teaching of augury"). This type of qualification or limitation, in which someone giving a prophecy says, "unless divination is useless," is more common in Vergil and the other Augustans than has been noted. I call it the "si non vana motif," after Propertius 3.6.31: si non vana canunt mea somnia ("if my dreams do not sing empty things"). Venus' words here have been interpreted by scholars as showing her skepticism about augury, or conversely great confidence in it, or just Venus' or Vergil's sense of humor. In this study I shall show that this motif's effect in the Aeneid is best shown by the analysis of this line by the fourth-century commentator Servius: per hoc decipere plerumque ostendit auguria ("through this she shows that auguries for the most part deceive"). The si non vana motif adds an element of doubt to many prophecy scenes.

Typical Features

It will be helpful to list here some recurrent features of scenes of prophecies or omens in the Aeneid. The following typical elements need not all occur in any one scene; those found in the Venus-Aeneas scene are noted in parentheses.

1. description of the setting and of the mood of the recipient, who is usually discouraged before the prophecy (as Aeneas is here);

2. claim of divine authority (implicit in Venus' epiphany);

3. qualification of the prophecy through the si non vana motif (as here);

4· the encouraging prophecy, generally a call from inaction to action, often with the omission of or hidden reference to the death of one individual, or some other discouraging event (here Venus' augury is carefully phrased to encourage Aeneas by omitting mention of Orontes and Juno, with clear signs in the text calling attention to these omissions);

5. request for, promise of, or receiving of confirmation of the prophecy, often by a miraculous sign or by fulfillment of part of the prophecy (here we have Venus' epiphany, and the fulfillment of most of what she said about the return of the men and ships);

6. prayer by the recipient, perhaps also sacrifice; indication of his acceptance of the prophecy or omen and his willingness to follow the divine command;

7. description of the resulting mood of the recipient (here we see the immediate negative reaction of Aeneas to the prophecy, but also its eventual effect of encouraging him).

I shall point out how an example fits this pattern only when relevant to a point of interpretation. At times Vergil uses the similarity of two scenes to suggest that two characters' experiences with prophecy are comparable. Full references for the occurrences of these features are collected in an appendix to this chapter.


In introducing some aspects of the Aeneid's pattern of deceptively optimistic prophecies, the preceding pages have attempted to answer a simple question: Why does Vergil have Venus make what some have called a "trivial" prophecy about the return of Aeneas' ships, which "is shortly to be self-evident"? A similar question must be asked about Palinurus, who is the object of a prophecy described at 6. 343–46, and whom Vergil connects with Orontes in a number of ways.

Aeneas sees Palinurus in the underworld, after a brief and somewhat unexpected appearance of Orontes:

cernit ibi maestos et mortis honore carentis Leucaspim et Lyciae ductorem classis Oronten, quos simul a Troia ventosa per aequora vectos obruit Auster, aqua involvens navemque virosque. Ecce gubernator sese Palinurus agebat....


(There he sees, sad and lacking the rites of the dead, Leucaspis and the leader of the Lycian fleet, Orontes, whom after they sailed from Troy over the windy sea the South wind swamped, rolling in water the ship and its men. And look, the helmsman Palinurus was coming....)

Vergil's details are significant; the association of Palinurus with Orontes here must be deliberate. Aeneas asks Palinurus (who fell off his ship shortly before the Trojans reached Cumae), how he could have died, after an oracle of Apollo foretold that he would reach Italy safely:

dic age. namque mihi, fallax baud ante repertus, hoc uno responso animum delusit Apollo, qui fore te ponto incolumem finisque canebat venturum Ausonios. en haec promissa fides est?


(Tell me. For Apollo, who never proved false before, with this prediction alone deceived me, when he sang that you'd be safe at sea and reach the Ausonian shores. Is this how he keeps promises?)

The actual prophecy has taken place offstage, as it were, to be reported by Aeneas and mentioned nowhere else. We are left to wonder about the setting of the oracle, and its effect at that time on Aeneas. Palinurus assures Aeneas that he has not been deceived, and tells him that the prophecy was literally true, for he did reach Italy, by swimming, and was killed on shore by natives. Apollo's words thus resemble the "Deceptive Warning" common in prophecies in ancient and other literatures, except that here the false feeling of security is created not by the implication "if you do x, you will be safe," but by a simple promise. As with Orontes, we see an optimistic prophecy that omits mention of a death, but this time the omission is more disturbing. A commentator notes that this passage "brings out some of those problems of pietas that exercised Virgil's mind: Aeneas must not think that Apollo had played him false...." Aeneas' confidence in the success of his mission does indeed depend on his trust in Apollo and his other sources of prophetic information; but in this instance he should realize that he has in fact been deceived. Apollo conceals the truth; his prophecy was obviously worded so as to mislead, as in the useless warnings of folklore, and Aeneas might well be alarmed by this example of deception. He has just been told by Apollo's Sibyl that the Trojans will reach their goal in Italy safely, but will regret it:

in regna Lavini Dardanidae venient (mitte hanc de pectore curam), sed non et venisse volent. (6.84–86)

(The Dardanians will come to the kingdom of Laviniumput — this worry from your heart-but they will wish they had not come.)

Palinurus' explanation that his death does not contradict Apollo's prophecy is also like the interpretation later proposed by Turnus for the prophecies about Aeneas and the Trojans (and condemned by some commentators as "sophistry"):

nil me fatalia terrent, si qua Phryges prae se iactant, responsa deorum; sat fatis Venerique datum, tetigere quod arva fertilis Ausoniae Troes. sunt et mea contra fata mihi.... (9.133–37)

(The fateful responses of the gods that the Phrygians may brandish hold no terror for me. Enough has been granted to Venus and the fates that the Trojans have touched the fields of fertile Ausonia. For I too have my fated role to play....)


Excerpted from Death and the Optimistic Prophecy in Vergil's Aeneid by James J. O'Hara. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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