Age: 17, Grade: 10
School Name: Trinity School, New York, NY
Educator: Rachel Dubit
Category: Critical Essay
Our understanding of ancient femininity has been carefully constructed by the male psyche. The representation of women in Roman literature projected authors’ own beliefs concerning the fragility of the female mind and her appropriate place in society. Under the rule of Augustus, women were strictly confined to the domestic sphere. The most famous literary women existed outside of these boundaries, and seemed to reject all of the characteristics that were required of a typical woman in antiquity: Vergil’s Dido was a widow who, through clever manipulation, secured a kingdom for herself and ruled it independently. The violent, disheartening outcomes of these somewhat radical women served as a warning for women of the time to remain within the traditionally accepted ideas of womanhood. While these authors were writing, the emperor Augustus was implementing his program of moral reform into Roman society, which was designed to place women back into their accepted roles as housewives and mothers. The literary portrayal of independent, powerful women as inevitably doomed mirrored the inherent misogyny present in ancient Roman society. The damaged mythical heroines of Virgil and Ovid were artfully intertwined with the submissive women of the Augustan period. When Augustus became emperor, he implemented a series of laws to improve moral conduct, especially surrounding marriage and family life. During the end of the Roman Republic, the women of the upper class were notoriously involved with adultery, divorce, and the reluctance to bear children. Augustus envisioned a state in which he had authority over people’s moral practices. The Lex Julia de Maritandis Ordinibus and the Lex Julia de Adulteriis Coercendiis set boundaries around traditional morality. The former law confined marriages within social status: someone from the senatorial class could not marry a freedperson. It also provided social, economic, and political benefits for those who had three or more children. The latter strictly prohibited adultery, and required not only the perpetrators, but the witnesses and sympathizers to comply with the newly restrictive legislation. Both of these laws severely intruded family life and the Roman people responded with significant levels of resistance. Augustus wanted society to operate under the strict Roman values of monogamy, chastity, and piety. He upheld ideologies from the past, because he felt that Rome had declined, and he attempted to reform the present based on the empire’s former greatness. His patriarchal and traditional institutions reflected the previous, but outdated ideals of antiquity, while society as a whole was becoming more open-minded, individualistic, and urban.
While Augustus was redefining female roles to reflect traditional values through his moral codes, Roman writers were producing what would come to be some of the most famous literary works of the classical time period. They were certainly aware of the political changes that were happening around them, and Augustus’ emphasis on female domesticity influenced the way that they portrayed their own female characters.
In his Aeneid, the Augustan poet Virgil suggests that Dido’s frenized, sudden rage that leads to her suicide, which is triggered by Aeneas’ prioritization of personal conquest and destiny, is a tragic cost of empire. Virgil’s Aeneid was a great epic so influential that it continued to be reproduced by various scribes throughout antiquity and the Renaissance. It serves as the origin story of Rome, beginning with the Greek victory of the Trojan War. Aeneas leads his men out from the ashes of Troy and ultimately settles in Latium, where his descendents will go on to found Rome. On his journey, he ends up on the shores of Carthage and receives aid from the Queen, Dido. They become romantically involved and start to build a life for themselves. The gods become frustrated and send Aeneas a message through Mercury that he must move on with his voyage, so he secretly plans to depart. Dido rages once she discovers Aeneas’ plan to leave her after she had shown hospitality to his men and fallen in love with him.‘Was it your hope to disguise, you perfidious cheat, such a monstrousWrong, to get out, with no word said, from this land that I govern?You are not bound by our union of love, by the hand you once gave me,Nor does Dido, doomed to a cruel death, now detain you,’ As readers, we can feel Dido’s anger. She has transformed from the composed, gracious ruler of her own city to a broken woman enraged by betrayal. When Dido accuses Aeneas of conspiring to leave Carthage behind her back, she uses the words “this land that I govern.” Dido has independently built her city from the ground up, and she opens her doors to the Trojans when they plead for help. Virgil emphasizes that Carthage is, in fact, Dido’s land, because Aeneas is fated to found a city of his own and therefore should not be compelled to stay in hers. Even if he were once entangled in their “union of love,” Mercury’s divine intervention reminds Aeneas that he is obligated to a greater purpose, to found the city that will become Rome, and that he must give up his love affair stumbled upon at sea. Dido represents the opposite of an ideal domestic woman of the time. She is a refugee, a widow, and an independent ruler. She fails to keep her promise of chastity following the murder of her husband, Sychaeus, by falling hopelessly in love with Aeneas. While Aeneas neglects both his preordained destiny and his men by integrating himself into Tyrian society, Dido ignores her responsibilities as leader because she is so caught up in love. She does not compel him to love her; it is his choice (despite the pressures put on him by the gods to keep moving forward). When Aeneas is finally prompted to leave Carthage, he is able to understand his duty to his people: both the men that accompany him on his journey, and his descendants who will inhabit Rome. Dido, however, is unable to control her emotions. She forgets the needs of her people, curses Aeneas, and hides the plans for her suicide from her sister Anna. For Dido, Aeneas’ departure marks the end of her life; she is “doomed to a cruel death” brought on by feelings of guilt, sadness, and rage. For Aeneas, he is simply re-embarking on his mission to found a great empire. Although Dido was made to love Aeneas through divine intervention and Aeneas returns that love out of his own free will, Dido is the one who is punished for their collective sin.
Reading this text while being aware of Augustus’ comprehensive reform of society allows us to understand why Virgil chose to characterize Dido as someone so helpless and destined to suffer a tragic end. As a strong female leader, she is a threat to male power and Augustan values. Virgil knew who his audience was, and that the approval of Augustus opened the door to opportunity, privilege, and success. He deliberately juxtaposed the death of a radical woman with the rise of the future Roman Empire. We can also consider the ways in which he portrays Dido in relation to the historical figure of Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Like Dido, she was a foreigner, the ruler of her own kingdom, and the lover of a Roman. She was defeated alongside Mark Antony by Octavian at the Battle of Actium in a power struggle over who would become the next leader after the assassination of Julius Caesar. Dido and Cleopatra posed serious threats to the success of the Empire, but in both cases, Rome prevailed. Through the literary death of Dido, Virgil celebrates Augustus’ victory over Cleopatra and condemns female power.
A generation later, Ovid adopted the same story of Dido and Aeneas during the first century BC in his fictional collection of letters from women to their absent lovers, titled the Heroides. The letter from Dido to Aeneas was found inside of a Latin manuscript from Southern Germany, titled the Epistulae Heroidum c. 1500-1525. Schools taught Ovid to not only teach grammar and vocabulary, but also to spread ethical and moral ideals. Although Ovid’s playfulness in his writing can be interpreted as an exaggeration for no other purpose other than playfulness itself, scholars of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries recorded in their commentaries that his Heroides served as a model of Roman culture. The letter takes place around the time that Dido finds out that Aeneas is planning to leave Carthage without warning. She threatens her own suicide. Nor when I have been consumed upon the pyre, shall my inscription read: Elissa, wife of Sychaeus; let this brief epitaph be read on the marble of my tomb: From Aeneas came the cause of her death, and from him the blade; from the hand of Dido herself came the stroke by which she fell. Unlike Vergil, Ovid does not address Aeneas’s devotion to a greater mission that acts as his justification for the abandonment of Dido. He does not spend time on the future glory of Rome. He was not so concerned with the greatness of empire than he was with exploring human feeling. Because of the prominence of Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid was able to assume that the public had prior knowledge of the general plot, so he had the freedom to shift his focus onto the romantic relationship between Aeneas and Dido, and how the betrayal of one partner provoked such a strong emotional (and eventually physical) response from the other. Dido is self-aware that her fatal flaw is loving Aeneas to the point where she puts him before everything else in her life. She blames him for being the “cause of her death,” but she accepts responsibility for her fate. Even though Aeneas gifted her with the sword that she ends her life with, she acknowledges that the suicide is “from the hand of Dido herself.” In broader terms, Aeneas showed up in Carthage, but Dido is the one who allowed herself to fall so deeply in love with him, despite knowing that she was betraying her late husband and her people, and that Aeneas’ ultimate destiny was to found a new city in Latium. After Aeneas wrongs her, the only way that she is able to reclaim agency is through suicide, which is the singular option for women in Roman literature. Again, there is also a strong connection to history: when Cleopatra is famously defeated by Octavian’s forces, her suicide allows her to die by her own hands, and not by those of the enemy. However, while Virgil takes inspiration from the defeat of Cleopatra to frame Dido’s tragic end, Ovid focuses on the way that she was able to redeem her power through suicide, and offers Dido the same privilege.
Ovid suggests that even women who were aware of their weaknesses were no less vulnerable to them than those who were not. However, the fact that he chose to construct a female character who possesses this depth of self-knowledge casts his work apart from Virgil’s strict adherence to Augustan principles in the Aeneid. Ovid stays true to the plot; an independent woman is doomed from the start, but he adds a certain complexity to her character that allows us to understand why she reacts to Aeneas with such hostility and ends up taking her own life. During a time in which women were being confined into traditional roles by the Augustan moral codes, Ovid offers us the perspective of and provokes compassion for someone who defies all of these restrictions.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he departs from his somewhat sympathetic portrayal of Dido and follows the chilling metamorphosis of Medea from woman to witch. Ovid takes inspiration from the Greek myth of Jason and Medea and presents it in his playful, exaggerated manner. After Jason marries the sorceress Medea, in exchange for her help in obtaining the golden fleece from King Aeetes, she is able to heal his ageing father Aeson with magic. She then goes to visit Jason’s dying uncle and rival, Pelias, and promises his daughters that she can save him with her youth elixir. But instead of rejuvenating him, she tricks the girls into stabbing their father to death, to do Jason a favor. When she returns, she finds out that Jason has taken a new wife, and she travels to Athens to seek out revenge.
Medea is originally portrayed similarly to Dido. She finds Jason, who, like Aeneas, is on a journey towards a greater purpose, and offers him help in return for love. However, as the story progresses, Medea shifts from a woman using her magic to heal to abusing it to destroy. She murders Jason’s new wife, and proceeds to kill her own children that she had with him. Her uncontrolled obsession with Jason quickly turns to hate, and Ovid stays true to the standard literary characterization of Medea in prior Greek and Roman writing: that she is not only unable to control her emotions, but is naturally driven to evil and violence when provoked. At the end of the myth, Medea is no longer a woman, but a monster. In eradicating the lives around her, she is also killing the human parts of herself.
These powerful female characters of Ancient Roman literature were imagined by men. We can read their stories as projections of their insecurities of women in positions of power. Virgil suggests in the Aeneid that a man’s destiny to found a great city is more important than loyalty to his romantic relationship. We observe a classic Ovidian moment the Heroides; Dido is portrayed as a woman doomed from the beginning for two reasons: she knows that loving Aeneas will lead to her death but chooses to pursue him anyway, and also because Ovid wrote as a reader of Virgil, who had already famously killed her in his epic. In Book Seven of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he follows the transformation of Medea, who is so consumed by love for Jason that it drives her to madness, from a devoted wife to a ruthless killer. By the end of the story, she is unrecognizable as a human; her rage has turned her into a monster.
Through Dido, we feel pity for a woman who is unable to control her emotions and eventually she takes her own life. But with Medea, we feel a certain resentment towards her, because she uses violence to hurt the people whom she once loved, and disappears without punishment. In both cases, women are inevitably fated to experience or invoke death, destruction, and bitter hate. We can interpret the bitter end of Dido and Aeneas’ relationship as foreshadowing for the Punic Wars that break out between the Carthaginians and the Romans centuries into the future. Dido’s fiery resentment towards Aeneas engenders violence long after she passes away.
Male insecurity about female power is reflected in Roman literature, legislation, and propaganda. In the Aeneid, the end of the epic love affair in Book Four leads Dido to her death, because as a woman, she cannot adequately control her emotions, but at the same time it marks Aeneas’ return to his mission of founding the city that will become Rome. The woman falls, but Rome prevails. Ovid, in his Heroides, does not characterize Dido as a powerful, independent city builder, but as the broken ex-lover of Aeneas. She is pitiful, because even though she is self-aware of her sin, she has no way of preventing herself from indulging it. Both Virgil and Ovid take a woman who is a respectable and hospitable leader and strip her of these heroic qualities, until she simply exists as the embodiment of the female temper. In his later work, the Metamorphoses, Ovid transforms Medea from human to witch, implying that strong emotions such as love and hate will drive vulnerable women to evil. These biased portrayals matched the declined status of women during the Augustan age. Moral reforms attempted to restructure Roman society to reflect traditional values of female domesticity, even though the upper class women were moving away from marriage and having children. Propaganda that circulated around Rome through images on coins further reinforced Augustus’ goal to deem women as subservient to and supportive of their husbands. Men projected their fears of women threatening their own masculinity and sense of power onto their literary works and political moves. Their imagined version of womanhood was rooted in stereotypes and designed to ease their anxieties.