Women’s Agency in The Aeneid


In our discussion of The Aeneid, we talked of the distinct way law appears, Fate, Aeneas’ character, a history of the text, women’s role, Roman rule, and an array of other things. A swerve was discussed in reference to creation of the powerful Roman Empire. While I found many parts of our discussion moving and interesting, the real “swerve” or turning point I find is the way women are depicted in this text compared to all others we have encountered, particularly in The Iliad. In stark constant to the Iliad, women in The Aeneid have a voice, affect change, rule a city, and dare I say have agency. Perhaps it is the hundreds of years between these two texts that cause this incredible change to be possible. I would argue that Virgil sees women’s value in a way Homer never considered. Virgil gives woman not quite the credit due to them, but a generous, commendable effort was made to give some much needed balance. His language being more romantic as pointed out in class, I believe gives the necessary condition for a huge shift in the treatment and portrayal of women. The language of the other text was fitting for the amount of male influence, while this style of writing may be what allowed for women to be involved in a way we haven’t encountered very much in the scope of the class.

In the Iliad, Helen was blamed for so much while the “wonderful, handsome” men were constantly sidetracked with avenging someone or being petty and angry. It seemed that within certain codes, men could do no wrong, and the massive slaughters committed were for the good of the people. It was almost like a running joke to me (the condemnation of Helen), as Helen did not actively choose to leave but was stolen, and while the men carry on in a bloodbath whose purpose I question as well. It then becomes so easy to blame a woman’s “terrible beauty” for an entire war. Furthermore, the few times she spoke added only to the hopelessness of her situation. It was as if by giving her a voice, she negated her own value even more, and her voice only empathized her lack of agency. In the Aeneid, it is flat out said that Helen shouldn’t be blamed for the war and that the true blame for that situation lies with the gods. The implications of such a concept being brought forth are immense. All through the Iliad, the gods dashed around impulsively like teenagers, and there was no real consequence for them. Here we have a truth that many students have pointed out and questioned countless times. The gods’ role in Fate and in the action of the texts is huge, but is just now being acknowledged as a point of concern by Virgil.

A female goddess who is treated very differently in these two texts is Hera, so much that the term “New Hera” was coined during our discussion. Hera, while cunning and conniving throughout The Iliad, is passed over as an irrational angry women whose ideas aren’t valued. Zeus admits to being afraid of his wife, but the limit of what say she has, even as a goddess is rage inducing. It is interesting to trace a female god, and Juno (or Hera) as an example of this shift in women’s agency within the two texts. Interestingly, in The Aeneid, although “New Hera” shows her action through a masculine-like rage, there is a greater question I consider. I do not buy that Hera (or Juno) was acting particularly masculine. She was acting in a way that fueled events that were to come. Yes, all people previously behaving in this way were men. Achilles was synonymous with rage almost throughout The Iliad, as was Ares God of War. It’s as if women are not permitted to have this level of power, and so Juno’s rage on the first page of Virgil’s text is jolting. I would argue that character traits being ascribed to men such as rage and power are unisex traits. Women can be powerful, angry, and affect change and Virgil shows us that. When men are angry, they rush off to war, avenge a death, or having a silly argument. Yet, angry women are cast off as the irrational ones… The reading that Hera had to be written with a masculine description in order to be taken seriously is not my reading at all. Innana, queen of the heavens, had this same kick-butt attitude throughout her story, but we never described that as a masculine attribute. She was also clever and conniving in a similar way to Hera. As I recall, Inanna was considered a very powerful woman and that gave her so much agency. By calling Hera’s behavior “masculine”, it takes away from the notion of agency I feel is given to her in The Aeneid. In class, the reason that was given for why Dido, the female ruler of Carthage was being tricked was that Virgil would be giving her too much agency if she fell in love of her own accord. Indeed, I agree that Virgil took Dido’s agency for something that is not even explained in the text. The fact that there was a female ruler of a city is remarkable, so I would expect some clear, concise reason for why she would be put to ruin.
Having agency or free will verses everything being up to Fate in The Aeneid is something we did not come to an agreement on in class. The concept I found striking while we questioned Fate in class was walking a path, and being able to deviate from this path. It was pointed out as a possibility, that you can have four paths to deviate to, but they will all lead to the same place. The power of Juno in this text gives me the sense that while Fate is in place, there is a certain degree of agency for all mortals and gods alike. One source is the gods intervening and changing events through a drastic action or something as simple as a mist. I maintain while it is written on a scroll, both mortals and gods can change Fate. Now that Virgil has presented this huge change in how we think of women, they are a part of this discussion of changing Fate. Before this, I didn’t think of women as able to affect change. However, this is only the beginning of this epic. Unlike Aristotle in On the Heavens, I have not taken into account everything in my argument. As this text evolves, what will become of women’s voices and their agency? Will Dido’s ruin be seen as something that was in her control? Was Virgil’s generous amount of time spent on evolving the agency of a woman something that was created only to be later destroyed?