For Appearances Only:
The Low Position of Women in Virgil’s Aeneid
Examining the role of women in a work of literature nearly always allows readers to get a glimpse of the social customs of the time period in which the writer composes. In fact, understanding the role of women in a society allows readers to make connections regarding other important aspects of society, in addition to the values of the writer or main characters. The Aeneid is no exception. Because most who read the Aeneid are at least partially unfamiliar with the cultures of both Greece and Rome, examining the role of women in the poem allows others to become more familiar with that culture, in addition to the roles that women played in it. Because two cultures are represented in the Aeneid, however — the culture of the Trojans as well as the Latin culture of Italy — it is even more interesting to compare and contrast the treatment of women in both cultures, as this has implications not only for the cultures themselves, but also for the ancient world as a whole. And there is no shortage of women in the Aeneid. In the first book, the reader even learns that the fate of the Trojans is at least partially controlled by two women — goddesses Juno and Venus. In fact, it is due to “Juno’s unrelenting hate,” that the Trojans are “Expell’ed and Exil’d” from Troy, loosing their hometown (Virgil Book I). Virgil continues to sing his lament of woe about Juno when he says:
What goddess was provok’d, and whence her hate;
For what offense the Queen of Heav’n began
To persecute so brave, so just a man;
Involv’d his anxious life in endless cares,
Expos’d to wants, and hurried into wars!
Can heav’nly minds such high resentment show,
Or exercise their spite in human woe (Book I).
Although Aeneas’s mother, Venus, eventually reaches an agreement with Juno, stopping here from exercising her wrath against the Trojans, temporarily, in the form of lost battles and storms, Juno represents the portrayal of women throughout the epic poem. Women are seen as a hindrance to men’s affairs. Even though Virgil allows women to be powerful, to serve as queens and gods, this does not mean that they are portrayed positively in the poem. In fact, through an examination of Aeneas’s relationship with Dido, the behavior of women on the journey, and Amata’s actions, Virgil paints women as hindrances to men’s affairs, implying the low status that they hold in society.
Of course, when the reader first meets Dido, low status would be one of the most unlikely ways of describing this queen. Similarly, it would be equally incorrect to argue that Dido is a hindrance to Aeneas’s affairs at first, as she provides him with the means to reconstruct his fleet. But soon, Dido’s love for Aeneas becomes a burden to him, something that Juno specifically uses as an obstacle to Aeneas, to try to keep him from seeking Italy and his fate.
Venus begins by describing Dido’s heroic escape for Tyre to her son: upon learning that her brother had killed her husband, Dido organizes a group to flee from her brother’s rule and even takes the “treasure” that her brother stole from her late husband with her. In a brilliant description of her heroism, fellow female Venus describes Dido’s sailing to Carthage with her fellow refugees as “a woman leads the way” (Virgil Book I). When she first comes out to met Aeneas, Dido is similarly described being strong and of high status. Virgil writes:
“The beauteous Dido, with a num’rous train
And pomp of guards, ascends the sacred fane” (Book I).
Thus, Dido is beautiful, stately, intelligent, brave, and wealthy — everything that a woman of high status should be. In addition, her love for Aeneas is pure and sincere; she is described as having a “flame” within her veins for her lover (Virgil Book IV). Although the gods orchestrated that love, it is clear that the love that Dido has for Aeneas is not based simply on his looks, association with the gods, or power. In fact, Dido says:
“A man descended from the gods declare.
Fear ever argues a degenerate kind;
His birth is well asserted by his mind.
Then, what he suffer’d, when by Fate betray’d!
What brave attempts for falling Troy he made!
Such were his looks, so gracefully he spoke” (Virgil Book IV)
Dido has these musings while listening to Aeneas tell his story of the Trojan war and the defeat of Troy, and they suggest that Dido loves Aeneas in the truest sense, for all his admirable qualities combined.
When the two finally confront their love in a cave after Juno has created a storm in order to get them alone together, it is clear that they are happy. They are so happy, in fact, that some begin to wonder if they can continue ruling their respective tribes while consumed with such a love. Thus, it appears that Dido is an amazing wife and lover, in addition to being a strong, beautiful, and capable woman.
But when Jupiter reminds Aeneas that he needs to continue on his journey to Italy so that Rome can be founded, it is Dido who stands in his way. In a moment, Dido is transformed from the cool, collected woman who fled from Tyre with a band of refuges, took back the treasure that was rightfully hers, and founded and ruled Carthage with power and prestige. In a moment, Dido becomes an obstacle to Aeneas’s affairs, and although he feels bad about having to leave her, he does not consider staying in order to make her happy. Instead, he tries to hide the fact that he is mobilizing his fleets again, suggesting that he is more interested in escaping her wrath than letting her down gently. At the end of their relationship, Aeneas is gone to fulfill his destiny, and Dido, feeling used, torn and desperate, is dead on her funeral pyre, having killed herself because of Aeneas’s decision.
These events confirm not only the fact that Dido can be seen as an obstacle to men’s affairs, but that women held a low place in Trojan society, as they can be simply used and abandoned. This is especially clear when one examines how Aeneas treats Dido as he is preparing to leave. In their confrontation, Aeneas tells Dido that he “never pretended to the lawful claim / Of sacred nuptials, or a husband’s name” (Virgil Book IV). In addition, Aeneas goes on to tell Dido that he wishes he could stay with her, but that his calling from the gods is more important. Thus, Aeneas treats Dido as if she has just been some amusement while he was repairing his ships, something to take his mind of the tragedy that he has encountered. In that instant, the images of the high-class, stately queen are forever nullified by Aeneas’s words and actions. This implies that while women may be intelligent enough to hold places of power, acting as rulers and as gods, in addition to committing heroic acts, they still hold a low position in society. They are seen as obstacles in the way of men’s affairs and are not respected. Without respect, the high positions that they are able to hold mean little. Of course, Aeneas’s treatment of Dido was not the first time he treated a woman in such a fashion. Aeneas’s first wife, Creusa, however, seemed to have accepted her role in society as low class and an obstacle to men. Dying in the Trojan War, she informs Aeneas that he should not worry much about her death because he will find a new wife, suggesting that women not only reserve the lowest class of respect, but also that they are replaceable.
This theme is not only apparent among women with whom Aeneas is romantically involved. Instead, many of the women on Aeneas’s journey serve as obstacles to Aeneas’s ambitions, once again incited by the female God, Juno. After leaving Carthage, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans are forced to land in familiar territory because of the fierce storms they encountered. While Aeneas and the men are busy holding a series of games in honor of Aeneas’s father, who died one year prior, the women are attempting to thwart the men’s ability to go to Italy and fulfill their destiny, fueled by Juno, who “sends the goddess of the various bow/To try new methods of revenge below” (Virgil Book V). The term “new methods” is an allusion to the pervious method Juno used in order to hinder Aeneas — Dido’s love. Thus, Virgil makes no attempt to hide the fact that Juno, once again, appeals to the women in order to hinder Aeneas’s progress. Even before Iris incites them, the women are portrayed as grumbling and unhappy with their lot. Virgil gives this description of the Trojan women:
The Trojan matrons, on the sands alone,
With sighs and tears Anchises’ death bemoan;
Then, turning to the sea their weeping eyes,
Their pity to themselves renews their cries.
“Alas!” said one, “what oceans yet remain
For us to sail! what labors to sustain” (Book IV).
Playing on their already frustrated emotions, they are quick to succumb when “the goddess, great in mischief, views their pains” (Virgil Book V). Stirred-up by the goddess, the women set fire to the ships, only to have them put out by the Trojans with some assistance from the gods.
Thus, this is just another example in which women are considered hindrances in the Trojan culture. Furthermore, the fact that they hinder the Trojans suggests their low position in society. Clearly, the concept of fate is very important in the Trojan society, and by attempting to thwart fate, the women are acting in a way that is contrary to Trojan beliefs and values. In addition, their grumbling and complaining makes them appear weak and unfruitful. This is especially true in the above situation. Virgil spends many lines describing the heroics of the war games that the Trojans are playing, emphasizing their strength and glory. In contrast, the women are portrayed as grumbling and crying about the situation that the Trojans are embracing. Thus, compared to the men, the women look weak and less than industrious. In addition, the fact that the women attempt to thwart the Trojans through setting fire to the ships suggests that the women are uniquely malevolent, attempting to damage the honor of their own kin. Thus, in this situation, the Trojan women are described as obstacles to the men’s ambitions, in addition to obtaining a low place in society — a place where they do not heed the values of the culture and are weaker and less loyal than their male contemporaries.
After Juno has failed in her attempt to hinder Aeneas’s affairs through two incidents with women — his love for Dido and the rebellion of the Trojan women — she makes yet another attempt through a woman who cannot be described as low status. Like Dido, Amata, is a queen who is described sensually at first. Of course, this sensual description occurs only after Juno has infected Amata via the Fury, Juno’s “darling plague, the fav’rite of her snakes,” throwing the dart into her heart and making her likely to “kindle rage / And sacrifice to strife her house husband’s age” (Virgil Book VII). Suddenly, Amata is filled with a rage that has begun even before infection; she determines that Turnus, a native, is worthy to marry her daughter, Lavina, while Aeneas, a foreigner, is not. As Juno’s fury, in the form of a serpent slides into Amata, she is consumed by the desire to stop the Trojans and Aeneas, and is described as a sensual and powerful being. Virgil presents the reader with a picture of Amata lying, “her swelling breast / Fir’d with disdain for Turnus dispossess’d / And the new nuptials of the Trojan guest” (Book VII). Meanwhile, the fury shakes “From her black body,” fixing itself “Betwixt her linen and her naked limbs” (Virgil Book VII). Like Dido, the sensual description of Amata in this book allows readers to draw the conclusion that she is a powerful, sexual woman. In addition, her convictions, as well as her ability to influence others to the point of creating a war suggest her power. Indeed, Amata is quite powerful. In order to hinder Aeneas, she manages, with the help of Juno’s fury, to anger Turnus to the point where he is willing to fight. The transformation is quite stunning. When Amata first approaches the man she hopes to call her son-in-law, Turnus says:
You tell me, mother, what I knew before:
The Phrygian fleet is landed on the shore.
I neither fear nor will provoke the war;
My fate is Juno’s most peculiar care.
But time has made you dote, and vainly tell
Of arms imagin’d in your lonely cell.
Go; be the temple and the gods your care;
Permit to men the thought of peace and war” (Virgil Book VII).
But just seconds later, Amata’s words, helped by Juno’s fury, manage to enrage Turnus and send him to meet the Trojans with war in mind. Indeed, Juno’s use of Amata and Amata’s rage serve as the greatest obstacles to Aeneas’s ambitions, as it is Amata’s and Jupiter’s actions that cause the battle between the Latins and the Trojans, and while the Trojans eventually win, many die in the attempt.
Thus, this situation shows that women are seen as hindrances to men’s ambitions, a commentary on their low position in society in Italy as well as in Troy. While Amata certainly does not appear to be of low status when the reader first encounters her, Virgil suggests that she is, ultimately, of a lower status than men in two regards. First, Virgil’s heroes are the Trojans, and it is clear that he means the reader to see them as their protagonists. By putting Amata, and other women, in the way of the Trojans, Virgil lowers the opinion of Amata in the eyes of the reader. Amata, with her fellow female, Juno, is not only standing in the way of the protagonist, but is also standing in the way of fate, the founding of the great Roman Empire. Thus, readers see Amata as nothing but an antagonist. In addition, when Amata confronts Turnus before the Fury enters him, Turnus suggests that women are valued lower in society than men by suggesting that Amata should not think about politics, but should stick with more womanly topics, such as religion.
From Dido to the Trojan women, to Amata, women in Virgil’s Aeneid are consistently filling the roles of those hindering or preventing Aeneas’s ambition to fulfill his fate — founding Rome. This observation is especially interesting in light of the progressive tone that the poem seems to take at first glance. Women certainly hold the appearance of power in both Trojan and Latin societies. They are gods, rulers, and messengers to the gods. They are described as beautiful, sensual, strong, and intellectually stimulating, and often times they are seen as equal to men. This is true in the case of Dido, who seems to rule, literally, hand-in-hand with Aeneas in her kingdom for a time. The Trojan woman have the power to organize and revolt, Sibyl controls who enters the underworld, and Amata is not only a ruler, but she is strong enough to incite war — a man’s affair. Of course, it is impossible to forget that the war between the Latins and the Trojans is waged over a woman, Lavina, just like the war in Troy occurs because of another beautiful woman — Helen.
But a closer reading of Virgil’s poem suggests that this apparent power is just a farce, making the low place that women hold in society even more poignant. Women in Trojan and Latin society have no more real power than the current Queen of England. Instead, it is all about appearances. Despite the fact that women hold high political stations, they are not given respect, and are seen as mere obstacles to men’s affairs. While Aeneas truly loves Dido, he does not hesitate to leave her when Jupiter reminds him that it is his fate to go to Italy, denying that he was her husband. Dido receives death and eternal wandering in the Field of Suicides, while Aeneas eventually reaches Italy and will always be remembered as the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. Dido may have the power to rule, to lead refuges to a new world, and to give the Trojans the means to repair their ships, but she is ultimately just an obstacle to Aeneas’s journey. The Trojan women may have the power to lead a revolt, but they do not have the power to actually stop the journey, and they are portrayed as weal and foolish beside the athletic and heroic men. Finally, Amata may be a powerful queen and mother, but Turnus makes it clear that she is not equal with men, she is not seen as one whose opinion matters on the affairs of war. In addition, she is seen as the primary obstacle in the way of Aeneas’s attaining his fate without the loss of so many lives. In fact, it can be argued that her intervention is what is responsible for Turnus’s death.
Thus, while they may seem to hold positions that are equal with men, Virgil’s Aeneid suggests that women are part of a low society in both Trojan and Latin culture. While hardly a man stands in the way of Aeneas’s attempt to satisfy the value of fate in Trojan culture, many women do, fueled by the desire of Juno, a female deity. Because of this, readers ultimately see women as antagonists, hinderers of men’s affairs, betrayers of their cultures, and members of a lower position in society. Thus, Virgil’s Aeneid not only allows reader to see the low position that women held in both societies, but also fosters a negative view of women in the mind of the reader. This has implications for Trojan and Latin society, as well as for the entire ancient world. The fact that women have the appearance of power, but are really members of a lower class suggests that the ancient Latin and Trojan societies were even more damaging to women than their sister societies that denied women many rights. In this circumstance, it would be much more difficult for women to gain real rights, and the emotional conditions of the mortal women in this poem certainly suggest the harm of this institution.
Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. John Dryden. 19 B.C.E. The Internet Classics Archive. MIT. 3
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