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Causas memora: Overdetermination and Undermotivation in the Aeneid

Bill Beck

Critics have long recognized that causae are a problem in the Aeneid.  Motivations for even the most fundamental plot points are often obscured to the point of near incoherence, so as to complicate or thwart retrospective interpretation.  Why does Juno harass Aeneas – what, in other words, is the motivating impetus for the whole poem?  The answers that the poem gives, as commentators since Servius and Tiberius Claudius Donatus have pointed out, are notoriously dissatisfying.  There is the problem of overdetermination: Why do Aeneas and Dido fall in love?, and why does she build a pyre?  The multitude of concurrent causes for these and similar issues prevents us from pinning down an ἀρχὴ κακῶν with any precision.  Undermotivation is also a consistent problem.  When Turnus becomes a major character in the poem and the arch nemesis of Aeneas, we know almost nothing about him, and Lavinia is referred to as the causa mali tanti before we even meet her (6.93).

In this paper I examine the causae of the Aeneid, as outlined at the beginning of the poem (1.1-49).  I argue that (1) the manner in which Vergil deploys the motivations for the poem condense the problematic aspects of the αἴτια of the Iliad and the Odyssey, taking into account the comments of the scholia on those passages and in fact expanding on the errors they point to.  I suggest (2) that the etiological obfuscation set in motion in the beginning of the poem is in fact part of a consistent narrative strategy employed throughout the Aeneid.  I conclude with the notion that the Aeneid is, at the core of its self-understanding, a poem with what we might call ‘motivational issues.’  Building on the insights of Knauer and Nelis into the utter comprehensiveness of Vergil’s intertextual program, we can see how the Aeneid is not only subject to overdetermination in the causae that motivate individual plot-lines, it is also intertextually overdetermined.

Most of the paper focuses on the first use of causa in the poem and the notoriously perplexing indirect questions that depend on it.  I unravel the dense web of intertextual connections latent in these lines to demonstrate how Vergil subsumes and subverts his source texts.  Where scholiasts on Il. 1.8 praise Homer’s technique of providing an immediate answer to his question (‘Which of the gods was it…? Apollo’), Vergil imitates the famous Iliadic question but pointedly delays the answer for some twenty lines, and the answer that he finally gives raises more difficulties than it answers.  Why, for example, does the motivation for Juno’s hatred of Aeneas have nothing to do with Aeneas?  Though ancient commentators call frequent attention to this oddity, none seem troubled by the idea that the motivating causa for the plot (Juno’s hatred for Aeneas) receives no justification in the poem–that the poem’s main motivation is itself unmotivated.  For us, however, Aeneas’ absence from Juno’s list of grievances calls into question Aeneas’ (non)essentiality for the plot, a theme that comes to the fore in the later books of the Aeneid.  Vergil also splits the original Iliadic question in two.  I demonstrate that the seeming redundancy of the two indirect questions alludes to the problem of double motivation that can be found in the opening passages of the Homeric passages and their scholia. 

Several of these problems have received individual attention (Williams 1985; Lyne 1987; Feeney 1993; Perkell 1999), but no study has yet analyzed the causae of the Aeneid, either with reference to their Homeric (and scholiastic) background, nor as a consistent strategy of etiological obfuscation that runs through the poem.

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Vergil’s Aeneid

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