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Virgil’s Aeneid details the trials and tribulations of Aeneas and the Trojan people en route to Italy from Troy. The journey parallels the epic adventures of the Homeric hero Odysseus. Virgil borrows Homer’s narrative style and frames a story that pays homage to the founding of Rome. Like that of Odysseus, the story of Aeneas is wrought with hardship and misadventure. Aeneas is subject to the forces of fate and the will of the gods. Additionally, like his counterpart in the Odyssey, Aeneas encounters several women on his journey who are critical to the protagonist’s progress in leading his people to Rome. His portrayal of female characters allows Virgil to explore “gender politics.” The women of the Aeneid are neither exclusively virtuous nor entirely vicious. Instead, each of Virgil’s females exhibits a combination of these traits in different proportions throughout the epic. However, the behavior of these women ultimately proves “problematic” and “undesirable.” Their transgressions interfere with the protagonist’s quest to fulfill his destiny. Furthermore, each woman’s misdeeds lead to her inevitable downfall.
Virgil introduces the epic’s primary heroine Dido in Book I of the Aeneid. The queen of Carthage is compared to Diana, the goddess of the moon. “In her stride she seems the tallest, taller by a head than any…so Dido seemed, in such delight she moved amid her people, cheering on the toil of a kingdom in the making.” (I.682-685). This initial portrayal of the queen conjures a truly majestic image. As a sovereign, Dido is poised, powerful, and in command of her burgeoning domain. The queen “gives [her subjects] judgments and rulings, apportions work with fairness, [and] assigns some tasks by lot” (I.690-692). Under the leadership of Dido, Carthage thrives with the hustle and bustle of a city in the making.
Virgil’s description of the city parallels Homer’s portrayal of the island of Phaiakia in the Odyssey. Both Carthage and Phaiakia represent an idyllic, utopian haven. Additionally, Phaiakia is ruled by a joint male/female monarchy. When Odysseus arrives on the island, he is instructed to approach queen Arete, rather than king Alkinoos, for assistance. Similarly, when he arrives in Carthage, Aeneas addresses Dido for help. Dido is sympathetic to the plight of the Trojan people: “My life was one of hardship and forced wandering like your own, till in this land at length Fortune would have me rest. Through pain I’ve learned to comfort suffering men” (I.857-861). Dido is the female counterpart of fearless and heroic Aeneas. Like the epic protagonist, the queen is the leader of an exiled people. When her brother Pygmalion, king of Tyre, assassinated her husband Sychaeus, Dido fled her fatherland for Carthage. The queen took with her a treasure of gold and silver and “all who hated the tyrant [Pygmalion], all in fear as bitter as her own” (I.468-504). Dido prevailed and successfully founded a homeland for her people.
The portrayal of Dido as a strong, even-handed sovereign is called into question in Book IV. In spite of herself, Dido falls in love with Aeneas and her passion ultimately unleashes a disastrous chain of events. Encouraged by her sister Anna, Dido breaks her vow of chastity and succumbs to her desire for Aeneas. Rather than attending to her queenly duties, Dido thinks only of her yearning. Thus, the growth of Carthage is halted: “Towers, half-built, rose no farther…Projects were broken off, laid over, and the menacing huge walls with cranes unmoving stood against the sky” (IV.121-126). Aeneas’s presence has distracted the queen beyond the point where she can manage and oversee the advancement of her domain: in fact, “[the lovers] reveled all the winter long unmindful of the realm, prisoners of lust” (IV.264-265). This portrayal of the lovers parallels Homer’s depiction of the love between Helen and Paris in the Iliad. Throughout the epic, Paris is found in the embraces of Helen when he ought to be on the battlefield. At the end of Book III, Paris is transported to Helen’s bed in the middle of a duel with Menelaos (Iliad.III.440-461). In Book VI, Hektor rebukes his brother for repeatedly fleeing from battle to sleep with Helen instead: “The people are dying around the city…and it is for you that this war with its clamor has flared up about our city” (Iliad.VI.327-331).
Apparently, Dido’s love for Aeneas is paramount to her love for Carthage. In contrast, Aeneas ultimately proves that he values nostos above all else, including his love for Dido. Bearing a message from Jupiter, Mercury persuades Aeneas to consider the future of his race if he does not abandon Carthage. After an extended romance, Aeneas decides to leave Dido in order to lead his people to their homeland in Italy (IV.361-390). Aeneas plans to flee under the cover of night, but Dido “[feels] some plot afoot…for who deceives a woman in love?” (IV.403-404). Ever the strong-willed lover, Dido confronts Aeneas in a passionate rage. Absent are her poise and self-control when the queen hurls insults and hateful accusations at Aeneas. Dido begs Aeneas to take pity on her and blames him for abandoning her after she has sacrificed everything for him. “Because of you, Libyans and nomad kings detest me, my own Tyrians are hostile. Because of you, I lost my integrity” (IV.417-455).
Dido is justifiably furious, but her behavior is impulsive and extreme. The queen wishes upon Aeneas rough seas and restless wandering. She breaks off in the middle of her impassioned tirade and “[runs] in sickness from his sight and the light of day” (IV.505-540). After their final exchange, the queen is desolate, heartsick, and unable to sleep. Convinced that she has no other choice, she resolves to commit suicide. Book IV, aptly titled “The Passion of the Queen,” ends with Dido tragically impaling herself. In her final soliloquy, the queen curses the “cold Trojan far at sea” (IV.904-922). News of her demise spreads quickly. With the death of Dido, Carthage is in utter disarray. Addressing her sister’s lifeless body, Anna laments the death Dido has put on not only herself but on all of Carthage (IV.942-945).
The portrayal of Dido throughout Book IV suggests that Virgil has reservations about the legitimacy of female sovereignty. Although she is initially portrayed as a strong, dignified queen, Dido is ultimately impulsive and guided by her passions. Faced with extraordinary circumstances, the queen responds initially as any spurned lover would. She is bitter, angry, and heartbroken. However, her decision to commit suicide is, at the least, extreme. Driven by passion, Dido does not consider the potential consequences of her death on Carthage. This contrasts sharply with Aeneas’s conscientious decision to relinquish his happiness with Dido in order to fulfill his destiny. In spite of his love for Dido, Aeneas ultimately assumes responsibility for guiding his people to their homeland. On the other hand, Dido succumbs to her weakness—her passionate desire for Aeneas—and allows it to destroy her realm. The end of Book IV suggests that the death of the queen ushers in an era of decline in Carthage.
Virgil further explores “female transgression” in Book VII, with his portrayals of Juno, Allecto, and queen Amata of Latium. Frustrated with their good fortune after they land in Latium, Juno enlists one of the Furies to wreak havoc on the Trojans. Juno instructs Allecto to incite civil war between the Trojans and the Latins. “You [Allecto] can arm for combat brothers of one soul between them, twist homes with hatred, bring your whips inside, or firebrands of death” (VII.458-461). In turn, Allecto appears before Amata in the night and takes possession of her body. Under the Fury’s spell, Amata appeals to her husband Latinus to break off their daughter Lavinia’s engagement to Aeneas. When she is unable to persuade Latinus, Amata loses her grip on reality and “roams the city with insane abandon” (VII.495-520). Virgil further portrays Amata as “feign[ing] Bacchic possession (IV.209).” In her mad revelry, the queen incites countless Laurentine women to join her in a protest to postpone the marriage of Lavinia and Aeneas. Amata’s frenzy parallels the madness of queen Agave in the Bacchae. In Euripides’s tragedy, Agave is controlled by a spell of recklessness imposed by Dionysus. In her inebriated state, the leader of the Maenad cult mercilessly murders her son Pentheus.
Like Dido at the time of her death, Amata is a victim of passion and impulsiveness. Granted, the Latin queen is possessed by the wrath of the Furies when she runs wild through her domain. In this way, Amata’s tragic demise differs from that of Dido. The queen of Latium is at the mercy of an external force, one that drives her to uncontrollable madness. Similarly, Dido is driven to her downfall by passion and love, forces that were beyond her control. The “problematic behavior” of both queens highlights the Aeneid’s underlying caution that a woman in power is not wholly desirable. Virgil’s message is a moderate version of Aeschylus’s view in the Eumenides. In his tragedy, Aeschylus suggests that the notion of female sovereignty is not ideal. Athene explicitly states the tragedy’s message: patriarchy and male leadership are supreme (Eumenides.735-743).
Virgil further explores the transgression of a woman in power in Book XI, with Camilla the warrior queen of the Volscians. Like Dido in Book I, Camilla is strong, composed, and regal.
Book XI of the epic is essentially Camilla’s oresteia, a catalog of her glorious and heroic moments. “Amid the carnage, like an Amazon, Camilla rode exultant, one breast bared for fighting ease, her quiver at her back…” (XI.880-883). The virgin queen kills many an enemy with ease. Her heroic exploits parallel those of numerous male counterparts. Book V of the Iliad is a well-renowned oresteia of the Achaian warrior Diomedes, whose killing rampage fells countless enemy Trojans.
Virgil pointedly emphasizes the purity and chastity of Camilla throughout Book XI of the epic. Unlike Dido, the warrior queen is not corrupted by unchaste passions. Camilla is powerful because she is pure and thereby not hindered by weakness. Dido, on the other hand, commits suicide because she is a slave of passion. Before the arrival of Aeneas, Dido is fully in control of her realm. Thus, Carthage thrives under her leadership. The arrival of a love-interest damages Dido’s queenly demeanor. She becomes distracted and her leadership is flawed in the presence of Aeneas. Similarly, Camilla is the model of purity and potency until she meets her weakness on the battlefield. Her skills as a warrior rival those of the great epic heroes Achilles, Diomedes, and Hektor of the Iliad. However, Camilla inevitably succumbs to her weakness. After annihilating countless enemy warriors, the warrior queen meets magnificently adorned Arruns on the battleground. Camilla marvels at the beautiful warrior, thereby revealing her first hint of desire. “Blindly, as a huntress, following him…she rode on through a whole scattered squadron, recklessly, in a girl’s love of finery” (XI.1033-1066). Arruns notices that Camilla is distracted by his splendid armor. The warrior attacks the queen, and she dies instantly.
Throughout the Aeneid, Virgil suggests that a woman’s “problematic and undesirable behavior” is a sign of her tendency to succumb easily to weakness. In the beginning of the epic, Dido is a headstrong, even-tempered queen. She has prevailed over injustice and has led an entire people to a new home in Carthage. Under Dido’s leadership, the city is on its rise to glory. However, the arrival of Aeneas stirs the passions of the chaste queen, who begins to neglect her duties and pursues romance instead. Dido is completely engrossed in love for Aeneas when he abandons her. In a fit of impulsive madness, the queen takes her own life. Similarly, Amata is a victim of passionate frenzy. Her actions sow the seeds for civil strife between Trojans and Latins. In opposition to the success of Aeneas, Juno intervenes in mortal affairs and indirectly seizes Amata’s spirit. Unlike Dido, who is a victim of fate, Amata is punished by the gods. Finally, Camilla represents the ideal, chaste, powerful queen until she succumbs to her own weakness for “finery.” Like Dido, Camilla is ultimately corrupted by desire. Her tragic demise, like that of Dido, inevitably ensues. Essentially, Virgil is criticizing the frailty of women. In the final analysis, Dido, Amata, and Camilla are weaker than their male counterparts. Aeneas, Latinus, and Arruns prevail over these women because they do not yield to passion or sympathy.
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