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Admirable qualities of men in Virgil’s The Aeneid include bravery, honor, and courage, but a woman’s value is based less on their power, wit and brains and more on their beauty, or lack of beauty. There are many instances within The Aeneid where both male and female characters value a woman based on how beautiful she is. Although he is the hero of the epic, it can be argued that Aeneas follows patriarchal suit in equating feminine beauty with value by analyzing his three wives and how long their respective relationships were. Similarly, many of the female figures, other than his wives, that shape and help Aeneas through his journey exist in a society where beauty was a priority for both mortal and immortal women. Often there are political reasons to why decisions are made, but beauty still remains an overlooked subplot in The Aeneid
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The first instance of beauty as power can be found in the opening pages of The Aeneid. Aeneas’ journey was prompted by the anger of the goddess Juno. Her rage was based on two determinants: vanity and favoritism. Virgil describes how Aeneas was destined to destroy Carthage, a city favored by Juno, in Book I. Within this description on lines 38-44, there is an allusion to a past judgment made by Paris in parentheses. “The causes of [Juno’s] bitterness, her sharp and savage hurt, had not yet left her spirit; for deep within her mind lie stored the judgment of Paris and the wrong done to her scorned beauty” (I.39-43). This coy parenthetical addition calls attention to itself declaring that there is more than one reason why Juno is angry. Juno’s anger is not simply based on politics and favoritism; it is also because of vanity. Paris, a Trojan prince, was given the task of selecting the most beautiful between Juno, Venus and Minerva. When Paris declared Venus as the fairest of the three, Juno became undeniably bitter with Paris. Paris, only one miniscule fraction of the Trojan empire, became representative of his whole nation, and after Juno was not dubbed the fairest of the Goddesses, she directed her bitterness to anyone with a Trojan bloodline. Unfortunately for Aeneas, he was 1) the son of Venus, who could be considered the source of Juno’s envy, 2) a Trojan, 3) destined to ruin Carthage. Juno’s anger toward Paris reveals that she puts a great deal of value in beauty, while her displacement of anger to Aeneas shows her pettiness. In the world of The Aeneid, beauty equals clout. Juno’s drive and plans to sabotage Aeneas’ journey to found the Roman Empire was based on both politics and vanity.
Another example of the importance of beauty can be seen through the wives of Aeneas. Within The Aeneid, the physical traits of Creusa, Aeneas’ first wife, and Dido, the second, are never discussed. Creusa was obviously loved by Aeneas, because he mourns her loss when recounting the events after the Trojan War in Book II with Queen Dido. However all of Aeneas’ references to Creusa exemplified her helplessness, loyalty and tragic death, but her appearance is never discussed. One could assume that it is a given that Aeneas would choose a good looking wife, but a definite argument can be made that the lack of mention of her physical appearance is worth taking a second look at. This lack subliminally signals that Creusa’s appearance is not worth mentioning, which is odd, because when Virgil describes his characters, a lot of physical detail is usually involved. Virgil does away with this character, because it is imperative that Aeneas moves on from Creusa to Dido, because this is a part of his journey. But it is interesting that a physically faceless character is so easily disposed. Perhaps it is because Creusa is a minor character, but the equally faceless description of Dido follows suit.
Like Creusa, Dido is not described using physical characteristics. Instead, she is described as having a kind spirit, “gracious mind,” brave, a loyal wife, a just queen, outspoken, and luckless. She is considered Aeneas’ equivalent, if not superior, is admired by her followers, and she is excessively hospitable toward Aeneas, which is a trait cherished in this time period. Her virtues are penned onto the pages like a list, but Virgil never mentions her physical appearance. There are two instances when readers are given a slight hint to what Dido may look like. The first is when Virgil equates her to Diana, goddess of the hunt, but even this is problematic. When Paris judges the most beautiful between the goddesses, Diana does not win the competition. Diana is not even included. Diana is known for her gracious behavior and mind, not her beauty, much like Dido. The second time Dido’s physical self was somewhat described takes place in the moments that culminated to her suicide. The closest image to beauty is when her hair is described as having gold ornament in Book IV, but her actual hair, which could be a potential emblem of beauty, is never described.
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The absence of the description of Dido’s appearance is odd. Perhaps it is because Dido’s virtues outweigh her physical appearance. It could also suggest that her physical appearance is too bland and not worth mentioning. Reading between the lines helps identify why these characters, who Aeneas’ obviously loves, become casualties in this storyline. The fact remains that these Creusa and Dido, two “faceless” characters, exit Aeneas’ life so that Lavinia, a character coincidently only known for her physical beauty, could enter his life and become his final wife and the queen of a great empire.
Lavinia, unlike Aeneas’ previous wives, is described as beautiful. Aeneas’ attraction to Lavinia works on a political and superficial level. Although the main reasons that Lavinia is sought after are based on politics and a prophecy that she will be both Aeneas’ future wife and the queen of the Roman Empire, her beauty is also emphasized and given immense value. Despite being an important figure in Aeneas’ life and the prophesized queen of the great Roman Empire, Lavinia is not given a speaking role. Any chance of wit and intelligence are pushed aside, and her beauty becomes the focus of her character. Lavinia’s blush is paralleled to a “kindled fire,” stained “Indian ivory,” and “white lilies mixed with many roses” (XII.90-94). The flower imagery used to describe Lavinia is perhaps the most obvious signal of her beauty. Her femininity is emphasized through the use of “lilies” and “roses.” But the other images are particularly interesting. For example the “ivory” reference promotes delicacy. Even more interesting is how Lavinia’s blush is not equivalent to a raging fire. Instead it is controlled and “kindled.” Because Lavinia is the destined queen, this suggests that a controlled woman is a valued woman. It is undeniable that Lavinia’s worth to Aeneas is based on politics and prophecy, but it does not seem like a coincidence that Lavinia’s traits parallel feminine qualities admired in Virgil’s time. She is beautiful, controlled and silenced.
Beauty is also shown as value in The Aeneid by describing the polar opposite of beauty. The Harpies, characters best known for their unfortunate physical appearance, are considered worthless. To be a beautiful woman is to be valued. To be an ugly woman is to be of no value. Interestingly, the Harpies are the only group in The Aeneid to be composed of solely women. They are women of the underworld who are described as foul and birdlike. Despite being immortal, they are shunned from the divine Gods and Goddesses. Aeneas’ men confused these creatures for goddesses, because their femininity was constantly being emphasized. However, their femininity was completely different from other female characters in The Aeneid. It was described in an extremely negative light. ““These birds may wear the face of virgins, but their bellies drip with a disgusting discharge, and their hands are talons, and their feature pale and famished” (III.284-287). Historically, paleness is often associated with delicacy or aristocracy, but this is not the case with the Harpies. The Harpies are pale from hunger, as if they are eager to suck the life and energy out of another being. The belly areas of the Harpies are also described with great detail. Normally in literature, the female stomach area is celebrated, because it is often a reference to fertility and the beauty of birth. Instead, pus drips and reeks from the mid-area of the Harpies suggesting the ability to pollute and taint, which gives Virgil’s audience an extremely negative perception of the “ugly woman.” They are perhaps the ugliest group of creatures that Aeneas encounters and are considered worthless. The Harpies, or the “ugly women” of The Aeneid are exiled rejects of the immortal world and a threat to Aeneas and his men. Like Lavinia’s beauty gives her value, the Harpies lack of beauty hinders their worth greatly.
Although beauty is not a main concern of The Aeneid, it is a noticeable subplot, which develops itself through its female characters. Lavinia is an example of what the ideal Roman queen should be. Although Virgil does not blatantly say that beauty is essential, the fact that Lavinia’s physical appearance and political worth are her only mentionable characteristics is significant. The main reason behind Juno’s anger toward Aeneas is based on politics and favoritism. But there is another reason behind her drive to wreck Aeneas’ journey that is less obvious. Her bitterness is also due to her jealousy, a result from her great desire to be considered the most beautiful of the goddesses as if the title would give her more power or clout. Beauty is both important in the mortal and immortal world. Women who lack beauty are pushed aside, and women who are the opposite of beautiful, such as the Harpies, are seen as rejects of the world. While male characters, like Aeneas, are admired for heroism, beauty is the focus of his female counterparts. Beauty is a reoccurring theme in The Aeneid, which gives readers insight into the undeniably sexist Latin world, which Virgil was apart of.
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