Aeneid for Appearances Only: The Low Position Essay

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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;

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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).

TOPIC: Essay on Aeneid for Appearances Only: The Low Position Assignment

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… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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