Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Aeneid: Those Pesky Women

You know how in a previous post I promised to leave historical influence out of my future reviews of The Aeneid?

I lied.

Aeneas and his band of stalwart exiled Trojans all get to Europe and it turns out that all their women and children and old people are too tired to go on to Italy and Fulfill Aeneas’ Destiny Of Founding Rome for him. So Aeneas says, “Okay you guys build New Troy here and we’ll leave you then.”  Which they do.

This is characteristic for Virgil because pretty much anytime there is a lady in this story she gets quickly written out. 
  • Creusa is Aeneas’ wife.  She dies off screen.
  • Queen Dido is the awesome Phoenician Princess and Founder of Carthage until she falls for Aeneas, he breaks her heart, and she kills herself.
  • Now all the Trojan exiled women are left behind on a deserted island to take care of the kiddies and the elderly while the Trojan men go off to have fun, steal some Sabine chicks from their homes, and conquer Italy.

During their first encounters with the natives of Italy, all goes well for the Trojans.  Too well, if you ask me. Just like the Carthaginians were all welcoming and not at all threatened by a fleet of warriors coming and living amongst them, the Latians are totally fine with this.  They even offer their beautiful princess Lavinia to be the wife of Aeneas.  

(Good thing his wife got killed off already and his girlfriend is also conveniently demised.)

But don’t worry, chick-flick hating, violence-loving Roman readers!  Because Lavinia is not only hardly in the story, she has no personality whatsoever!  She’s like Helen of Troy, only without the guilt over the death and destruction she causes her people later! 

And she’ll cause LOTS of death and destruction, because Juno, goddess of making the plot more complicated and therefore allowing Virgil to make this story longer, is still mad at Aeneas for some stuff that happened in The Iliad, and decides to use Lavinia’s betrothal to spark war between the Trojans and the Latians.  Juno sends a harpy to make the Lavinia’s mother insane and full of hatred against Aeneas for breaking up Lavinia’s betrothal to Turnus, the Latian’s head noble and top warrior.

So, just like The Iliad—in fact, so similar that it’s almost as if Virgil were ripping Homer off, but nah, Virgil would never…on second thought, never mind<<<DEAR BLOGGER: SHUT UP.  SINCERELY, VIRGIL'S SHADE>>>—war breaks out over a girl, never asking whether Lavinia actually loves Turnus.  She’s a pawn in this bid for power, and whoever marries her will dictate the future of Italy.

Roman readers of The Aeneid wouldn’t EXPECT Lavinia to have any personality or opinion in the matter.  It’s a very recent concept, actually, that women have the same capacity for thought and feeling as men.  Throughout history it’s pretty common to see female characters in literature (not to mention ACTUAL females) treated like children.  And in Rome especially, where marriage was lauded as sacred in theory but rarely in practice, women were passed about from husband to husband for political purposes, and their sole value rested on their ability to produce sons to perpetuate their husbands’ family line.

Creusa was a good woman in Roman standards.  She lived only for her husband.  She gave Aeneas a son.  What more could she have lived for?  So her death was not premature in their eyes.  In fact, since Aeneas needed to marry Lavinia to solidify his authority in Italy, it’s just as well Creusa died.  She would have just gotten in the way.

Dido was not a good woman by Roman standards.  In fact, she’s a lot like Cleopatra, who was hated by the Romans for seducing Julius Caesar AND Mark Antony.  Dido, a female with authority, who disgraced the name of her dead husband by falling in love with Aeneas, only redeemed herself by committing suicide (suicide being the preferred way to redeem oneself in Rome, as opposed to actually doing something constructive with your life to atone for your sins). 

Now we have Lavinia, a beautiful nonentity whose opinion means nothing.  By Roman standards, she was the pinnacle of womanhood.

The female characters of The Aeneid consistently get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.  Mothers who lose their sons go insane with grief and kill themselves, the scene where Aeneas visits the Sybil (the Oracle of Delphi in Greek terms<<<NOT THAT THIS IS RIPPING OFF HOMER OR ANYTHING>>>) is very unsettling because the female Sybil gets possessed by Apollo, the nymph Juturna is condemned to a life of immortality as recompense for being raped by Jupiter, even though she wants to die when her brother Turnus is killed.  Even the awesome Amazon-esque* Camilla dies a stupid death, as she enters the fray of the Trojan-Latian war and shows great courage, only to be killed by a cowardly spear thrown at her across the battlefield instead of single combat. 

Behold, the warrior girl Camilla, unafraid of hand-to-hand combat and combining polka-dots with Charlie Brown zigzag stripes. 

The only female characters, in fact, that DON’T meet an untimely end are the goddesses.  Juturna I already mentioned, and she wishes she could meet an untimely end.  Venus is annoying whether she’s Aphrodite or not, going around seducing people to do her will with her Powers of Love or whatever they’re called.  Although she is always painted as a villainess, I actually like Juno.  The goddess of matrimony is always being cheated on by Jupiter, so her constant bitterness and thirst for justice is understandable.  She also points out to Venus that Aeneas could always fulfill his destiny elsewhere, without forcing the Latians to subject themselves to his rule, which is one thing I kept thinking myself as I read of all the blood spilled just for him to Fulfill His Destiny.

*Not really an Amazon, since that would be stealing from Homer, and of course Virgil would never<<<MOVING ON>>>

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