shun Danaids, reject violence against men, and relearn the Aeneid

The goddess Juno relentlessly raged, destroying the city. With his neighbors having their throats slit, Anchises refused to leave. Aeneas pleaded with his father not to root his family in death. Then he grabbed his sword to die fighting. Creusa wailed that her husband was neglecting her needs. If not for two omens suddenly portending a glorious future for their young son outside their native city, they would have died with many others.

Aeneas didn’t resent his father for his lack of foresight and for allowing their city to collapse. Preparing to flee, Aeneas said to his father:

So come, dear father, climb up onto my shoulders!
I will carry you on my back. This labor of love
will never wear me down. Whatever falls to us now,
we both will share one peril, one path to safety.

{ ergo age, care pater, cervici imponere nostrae;
ipse subibo umeris, nec me labor iste gravabit.
quo res cumque cadent, unum et commune periclum,
una salus ambobus erit. }

Aeneas clasped his young son’s hand and then walked quickly on the dark path leading away from home. Creusa followed far behind. What Virgil left unsaid readers of Tertullian would have understood: Creusa lingered to pack all her jewelry.

Aeneas carrying his father Anchises

At the shrine of the goddess of marriage outside the city, Aeneas noticed that his wife was missing. Aeneas retraced his steps back into the terror of the city and urgently searched for Creusa. He cried out her name again and again despite the danger of attracting attention. Then he saw her ghost. Her ghost spoke to him:

My dear husband, why so eager to give yourself
to such mad flights of grief? It was by the will
of heaven these things have come to pass.
Divine law forbids you to bear away Creusa.
The king of high Olympus will not let you.

The Great Mother of Gods detains me on these shores.
Farewell. Cherish the child that we created.

{ quid tantum insano iuvat indulgere dolori,
o dulcis coniunx? non haec sine numine divum
eveniunt; nec te comitem hinc portare Creusam
fas aut ille sinit superi regnator Olympi.

sed me magna deum genetrix his detinet oris.
iamque vale et nati serva communis amorem. }

Three times Aeneas tried to grab Creusa by the neck, to embrace her. But there was nothing to grab. He felt only:

a phantom sifting through my fingers,
light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.

{ ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno. }

Aeneas returned to his father and son outside the city at the shrine of marriage. Then he lifted his father onto his back, held his son’s hand, and headed into the mountains.

Aeneas failed to punish Helen for her crime that had engendered such brutal violence against men. He saw Helen in the city, impure woman, hiding silently in the shrine of hearth, home, and family. With his anger flaring to avenge her crime, Aeneas thought:

To execute a woman brings no glory —
that brings no fame, no praise of victory.
Yet I’ll destroy this evil, bring it justice —
I will be praised for that. I’ll satisfy my heart
with flames of vengeance for the ashes of my people.

{ namque etsi nullum memorabile nomen
feminea in poena est, nec habet victoria laudem;
exstinxisse nefas tamen et sumpsisse merentes
laudabor poenas, animumque explesse iuvabit
ultricis flammae et cineres satiasse meorum. }

Suddenly Aeneas’s mother appeared. She grasped his hand, held him back, and scolded him:

Child, what grief could incite such blazing anger?
Why such fury? Where is your love for us?

Give up your hatred for lovely Helen
and blameworthy Paris, since it is the gods,
the ruthless gods, who topple wealthy Troy.
Look around. I’ll sweep it all away, the mist
so murky, dark, and swirling around you now.
It clouds your vision, dulls your mortal sight.
You are my son. Never fear my orders.
Never refuse to bow to my commands.

{ nate, quis indomitas tantus dolor excitat iras?
quid furis? aut quonam nostri tibi cura recessit?

non tibi Tyndaridis facies invisa Lacaenae
culpatusve Paris; divum inclementia, divum,
has evertit opes sternitque a culmine Troiam.
aspice (namque omnem, quae nunc obducta tuenti
mortalis hebetat visus tibi et umida circum
caligat, nubem eripiam; tu ne qua parentis
iussa time neu praeceptis parere recusa) }

Aeneas’s goddess mother Venus blamed Paris for Helen and Paris’s sexual affair. That’s common gynocentric blindness. She had used Helen as a pawn to win a beauty contest against Juno. Juno came to hate the Trojans with a hatred that forever festered. Nonetheless, Aeneas’s mother described Juno and Jove fighting together against Aeneas’s Troy. That’s a bizarre vision. She herself knew of Jove’s favor to Aeneas and the Trojans. Mother goddesses engage in divine intrigues far beyond the minds of men. Even if their mothers object, men must trust their own judgments.

Amid terrible violence against men in the Trojan War and in the Trojans’ invasion of Italy, modern gynocentric critics have failed to take seriously women’s violence and violence against women. An eminent Virgilian scholar summarized his view of the central ethic of the Aeneid:

humbled victims should not be killed, even when human nature cries out for retaliation. This is a dictum that goes as much against received heroic behavior, as canonically catalogued in the texts of Homer, as it does against man’s innate propensity for anger and vengeance for hurt.

Through the behavior of Juno, the first thirty-three lines of the Aeneid depict woman’s innate propensity for anger and vengeance for hurt. With respect to humbled victims, Aeneas didn’t perceive Helen to be a humbled victim:

She’ll ride like a queen in triumph with her trophies?
Feast her eyes on her husband, parents, children too?
Her retinue fawning round her, Phrygian ladies, slaves?
That — with Trojan King Priam put to the sword? And Troy up in flames?

{ partoque ibit regina triumpho?
coniugiumque domumque, patris natosque videbit
Iliadum turba et Phrygiis comitata ministris?
occiderit ferro Priamus? Troia arserit igni? }

Nonetheless, the eminent Virgilian scholar declared:

For Aeneas actually to kill a woman would be unthinkable.

Aeneas killed many men. Within the ethics of the Aeneid, Aeneas failed to kill Helen because he was subservient to his mother. More generally, men in their humanness often lack sufficient self-assertion in relation to women. Vulcan’s solicitousness in response to Venus’s request to make a shield for Aeneas is the paradigmatic example of yes dearism in meninist literary criticism. Within the ancient Greek epic cycle, Menelaus’s inanimate sword drooped when he saw Helen’s bare breasts. After he killed Penthesilea on the battlefield, Achilles became a weeping, lovesick man lashing out violently against a man ridiculing his folly. Aeneas parallels Achilles not just in raging violence against men, but also in emotional vulnerability to women.

Arruns’s actions tell of Aeneas’s failures and his fate. Arruns recognized that women are typically superior to men in guile. He recognized the importance in war of always changing and shifting. With the woman warrior Camilla leading the Italian forces in battle and killing many Trojan men, Arruns commendably sought to kill her. He cunningly circled and stalked her, ducking from sight whenever she turned to face him. Then Camilla wildly pursued a Trojan priest of the goddess Cybele, who had as servants castrated men. Camilla sought not the man, but his golden clothes. Arruns flung his spear at her with a winged prayer to Apollo, “highest of gods.” His spear struck deep under her bared breast and killed her:

Camilla’s life breath fled with a groan of outrage
down to the shades below.

{ vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras. }

Arruns himself died sprawled in nameless dust, with none of the glory he deserved. He didn’t understand the complex configuration of gods that run the world.

Apollo, the god to whom Arruns prayed, denied Arruns his deserved glory. A goddess servant of Apollo’s twin Diana killed Arruns with an arrow, shot quite unlike those of Cupid. The true hierarchy of gods explains Arruns’s fate. Jove, not Apollo, is formally the highest of gods. Yet gynocentrism is even more powerful than Jove. Gynocentrism denies men praise for destroying a raging, man-killing woman.

Misrepresentation of women’s social position portended Aeneas’s violent death. When the Italian leader Turnus killed the young Trojan warrior Pallas, Turnus stripped from him a heavy sword-belt of gold:

engraved with a monstrous crime: how one night,
their wedding night, that troop of grooms was butchered,
fouling their wedding chambers with pools of blood —
all carved by Clonus, Eurytus’s son, in priceless gold.
Now Turnus glories in that spoil, exults to make it his.

{ impressumque nefas: una sub nocte iugali
caesa manus iuvenum foede thalamique cruenti,
quae Clonus Eurytides multo caelaverat auro;
quo nunc Turnus ovat spolio gaudetque potitus. }

What strange misunderstanding could prompt Pallas to wear a luxurious gold sword-belt showing the Danaids killing their husbands on their wedding night? That misunderstanding was a common delusion. Turnus didn’t melt the heavy sword-belt for its precious gold. He too proudly wore it. Later, when Turnus was on the ground, supplicating to Aeneas for his life, the sword-belt showing the husband-killing Danaids determined his fate:

There Aeneas, ferocious in armor, stood,
shifting his gaze, holding back, his sword-arm still,
from Turnus’s pleading, his halting change of heart
grew stronger, when suddenly he saw, on that tall body,
the belt with shining studs that his young friend Pallas
had once worn. Turnus, who had cut him down,
displayed his enemy’s battle-emblem like a trophy.
Aeneas stared — the spoils commemorated
his wild grief, and he burned with terrible rage.
“Will you escape, decked in loot stripped from one of mine?
Never. Pallas strikes this blow. Pallas sacrifices you now,
makes you pay the price with your own guilty blood!”
In the same breath, blazing with wrath he plants
his iron sword hilt-deep in his enemy’s heart.
Limbs limp with the chill of death,
Turnus’s life breath fled with a groan of outrage
down to the shades below.

{ stetit acer in armis
Aeneas volvens oculos dextramque repressit;
et iam iamque magis cunctantem flectere sermo
coeperat, infelix umero cum apparuit alto
balteus et notis fulserunt cingula bullis
Pallantis pueri, victum quem vulnere Turnus
straverat atque umeris inimicum insigne gerebat.
ille, oculis postquam saevi monumenta doloris
exuviasque hausit, furiis accensus et ira
terribilis: “tune hinc spoliis indute meorum
eripiare mihi? Pallas te hoc vulnere, Pallas
immolat et poenam scelerato ex sanguine sumit.”
hoc dicens ferrum adverso sub pectore condit
fervidus; ast illi solvuntur frigore membra
vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras. }

Pallas, the man who initially wore the golden sword-belt showing the husband-killing Danaids, was to Aeneas “one of mine.” Aeneas misunderstood the horror of men proudly wearing that golden sword-belt. The last two lines above (which are one line in the Latin) conclude the Aeneid. They are the same lines that mark the death of Camilla after she had effectively seized control of the Italian forces. The Aeneid is concerned not just with the complexities of love, but also with the complexities of women and men’s relationships more generally.

Wearing the golden sword-belt showing the husband-killing Danaids indicates men’s delusions about violence and paternal authority. The Danaids killed their husbands on their wedding night in accordance with their father’s orders. That’s false comfort to men who understand their vulnerability to women’s violence. In the Aeneid, Juno’s rage wasn’t under Jove’s authority. Moreover, Aeneas’s mother acted on her own initiative to stop Aeneas from killing Helen. In reality, women control violence. Statues of the Danaids and their father stood in front of Augustus’s temple of Palatine Apollo. Augustus wanted his rule to encompass women. The delusions of Pallus, Turnus, and Aeneas, along with the ignoble death of Arruns after praying to Apollo and killing Camilla, should have troubled Augustus.

When Aeneas met his father Anchises in the kingdom of dead, Anchises was in a field, reviewing his cherished heirs’ fates and fortunes, their manly values and acts of valor. Three times Aeneas tried to grab his father by the neck, to embrace him. But there was nothing to grab. He felt only:

a phantom sifting through my fingers,
light as wind, quick as a dream in flight.

{ ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par levibus ventis volucrique simillima somno. }

Anchises infused his son’s soul with love of glory to come, of wars that must be waged, ordeals that must be shouldered. With respect to women, Anchises mentioned only Lavinia bearing a son for Aeneas in his old age. Anchises said nothing about Creusa, Juno, or the Danaids. Aeneas left the kingdom of the dead through the Ivory Gate of false dreams.

To create a new republic, women and men must better understand the Aeneid. George Washington, “father of his country,” procured for his mantel a bronze of Aeneas carrying his father from their collapsing native city. In his farewell address, Washington warned his beloved country against insidious wiles of foreign influence, factionalism, and the absolute power of an individual. He addressed his farewell to friends and citizens. Washington’s farewell said nothing about men in relation to women, or about women at all. George Washington didn’t understand the Aeneid. We must read again and understand better.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


All the quotes above, with the exception of two, are from the Aeneid of Virgil, written in Latin in the years leading up to Virgil’s death in 19 BGC. I’ve adapted the quotes from the translations of Fagles (2006) and Ruden (2008), the latter of which follows closely the Latin lines, as well as my study of the Latin text. Citations by book and line number of the Latin text: 2.707-10 (So come, dear father…); 2.776-9,788-9 (My dear husband…); 2.793-4 (a phantom…); 2.583-7 (To execute a woman…); 2.594-5, 601-7 (Child, what grief…); 2.578-81 (She’ll ride like a queen…); 11.831 (Camilla’s life breath…); 10.497-500 (engraved with a monstrous crime…); 12.938-52 (There Aeneas, ferocious in armor…); 6.701-2 (a phantom…). Tony Kline has graciously made a fine English translation of the Aeneid available to everyone online.

Aeneas three times attempts to grab his wife Creusa in Troy and three times attempts to grab his father in the kingdom of the dead. The Latin text describing these attempts is identical. The language is more vigorous and aggressive than merely a mournful attempt to embrace. These repeated passages in the Aeneid closely translate Odysseus three times attempting to grasp his mother in Hades in Odysssey 11.206-8. Relative to the Odyssey, the Aeneid emphasizes more strongly failure in intimate relations.

The eminent Virgilian scholar quoted above is Michael C.J. Putnam, from Putnam (2011) p. 132 (humbled victims…), p. 108 (For Aeneas actually to kill a woman…). Id. p. 15 states: “The Aeneid, we learn at last, is a poem that is concerned as much with the complexities of love as of war.” By war, Putnam means only organized men-on-men violence.

The above post draws insight from other important scholarly work on the Aeneid. Harrison (1998) extensively discusses the sword-belt showing the husband-killing Danaids and the sculptures of the Danaids and Danaus on the portico of Augustus’s temple of Palatine Apollo in Rome. Harrison interprets the Danaids not as women acting violently in service to paternal authority, but as a monstrous foreign threat:

Placed in the portico of Augustus’ temple of Palatine Apollo, the depictions of the Danaids, barbarians prepared to commit the most appalling crimes, are trophies representing the kind of monstrous opposition overcome at Actium through the support of Apollo, who matches Augustus in his role as civilised victor over barbarians.

Id. p. 236. That interpretation seems to me to place the Danaids too distant from key domestic concerns.

Arruns has attracted relatively little attention in scholarly study of the Aeneid. Scholars have commonly disparaged him. Channeling dominant gynocentric ideology, Anderson (1999), pp. 207-8, calls Arruns a “cowardly fanatic” and declares, “nobody weeps for Arruns: his victory in inglorious.” Camilla, in contrast, he describes as “high and heroic.” Kepple (1976) insightfully describes parallels between Arruns and Aeneas, but doesn’t explore implications for men’s relations with women.

Konstan (1987) explores the complexity of divine intrigues among Venus, Juno, and Jove. Anticipating a theme that has become central to meninist criticism, Konstan observes:

The mystery of the poem, as I understand it, is in a vision that insists simultaneously on order and opposition, and on an opposition which is integral to the order.

Id. p. 24. The failure of men to offer any opposition to women is a critical cultural issue of our time and a fundamental threat to a humane order.

The medieval Virgilian tradition shows awareness of conflict between women and men in the legend of Virgil in the basket and Virgil’s revenge. For sources on this important legend, Ziolkowski & Putnam (2008) pp. 457-8, 874-90. In a closely related medieval legend, Hippocrates also found himself hoisted in a basket. More generally, medieval literature of men’s sexed protest is a vital resource for re-writing the Aeneid.

On the reception of Virgil in the New World (Americas), Ziolkowski (1993) pp. 19-24, 146-93. Id. p. 147, mentions George Washington’s mantelpiece, citing Gummere (1963) p. 15.

Lee (1979) studies the relations of fathers and sons in the Aeneid and perceives “an ineffably sad view”:

Aeneas is the loving, suffering son and also the unavailing father in the epic named for him. And for all his pietas his father cannot help him in his final moment of need, nor is he of avail when his many surrogate sons fall to their fates.

Id. pp. 175, 7. While this view seems to me to capture an important aspect of life, men’s impotence shouldn’t be overly generalized. Fathers can teach and sons can learn fuller, more earthy appreciation for women.

[image] Aeneas carries his father Anchises from burning Troy. Oil on canvas painting by Charles-André van Loo, made in 1729. Held in the Louvre Museum (Paris), item INV. 6278. Thanks to Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Anderson, William S. 1999. “The Saddest Book – Aeneid 11.” Ch. 11 (pp. 195-209) in Perkell, Christine G, ed. 1999. Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: an interpretive guide. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Fagles, Robert, trans. 2006. Virgil. The Aeneid. New York: Viking.

Gummere, Richard M. 1963. The American colonial mind and the classical tradition: essays in comparative culture. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Harrison, Stephen J. 1998. “The Sword-Belt of Pallas (Aeneid X. 495-505): Moral Symbolism and Political Ideology.” Pp. 223-42 in Stahl, Hans-Peter, and Elaine Fantham, eds. Vergil’s Aeneid: Augustan epic and political context. London: Duckworth, in association with the Classical Press of Wales.

Kepple, Laurence R. 1976. “Arruns and the Death of Aeneas.” The American Journal of Philology. 97 (4): 344-360.

Konstan, David. 1987. “Venus’s enigmatic smile.” Vergilius. 32: 18-25.

Lee, M. Owen. 1979. Fathers and sons in Virgil’s Aeneid: tum genitor natum. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Putnam, Michael C. J. 2011. The humanness of heroes: studies in the conclusion of Virgil’s Aeneid. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. (Davis’s online review; West’s online review)

Ruden, Sarah, trans. 2008. Virgil. The Aeneid. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ziolkowski, Jan M., and Michael C. J. Putnam. 2008. The Virgilian tradition: the first fifteen hundred years. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ziolkowski, Theodore. 1993. Virgil and the moderns. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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