Category Archives: Ovid

Virgil and Ovid on Aeneas and Dido

These two texts are foundational in the Western Tradition’s view of passionate love and they highlight the misogyny inherent in Roman culture that valued the male’s  “virtue” – virtus – of strength and masculinity and his devotion to Jove over the later Christian piety which is portrayed as feminine (motherly virtue and chastity).

In context, Aeneas loves his country, not the woman whom he had an affair with (and got pregnant) and excuses his misogyny by basically saying that the gods told him to move on out of Carthage.

We also see the tension between what Dido believes is a legitimate marriage and what Aeneas believes is an illegitimate marriage. Though she claims the lightning of the gods serve as the wedding torches and the gods themselves are witness to a legitimate ceremony, he does not recognize that particular supernatural authority. In fact we could tease this out as being the bedrock upon which the conflict between Rome and Carthage was built and why the two cities hated each other.

We also have the theme of love as insanity where she is like the wounded animal who, with the arrow having pierced her still as she tries to escape the hunter, stands in contrast to Aeneas who is passive. The woman is described as being little more than a terrified beast who lives off of instinct and emotion whereas the man is the passive, rational master hunter.

It is important to remember, however, that Virgil’s and Ovid’s audience were well aware what they were writing was a historical fiction, just as we know the film Gladiator is a historical fiction and as Shakespeare’s audience know Richard III was historical fiction. Yet the images are so powerful and convincing to an audience that they become embedded in our thinking and traditions and culture until the not just the stories, but the cultural attitudes present in the stories remain with us through the centuries.