@coursera_myth Assignment 2: Female sexuality boundaries in Imperial #Rome

 Ancient Greek & Roman Mythology Assignment 2  {Coursera / Penn University}

In this course, we have introduced Functionalism, Structuralism, Freudianism, and Myth and Ritual theory as tools to examine our myths. Choose one of these tools and use it to analyze one episode in the Greek tragedies or the portions of Vergil’s Aeneid or Ovid’s Metamorphoses that we have read for this class. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. The best answers to this question will demonstrate a thorough understanding of the theoretical tool, and will use it to reveal something new in the episode under consideration. You may NOT repeat a specific result, using one of these theoretical tools, set out in lecture. Move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.

Female sexuality boundaries in Imperial Rome

Virgil writes the Aeneid in times of great political change; the former Roman Republic has given way to an autocracy by Augustus, as sole ruler of the “Imperium Romanum” [1]. Literature and myth written during that time convey multiple social conformities of the era or at least the ones that the Roman Emperor would like to establish. Reading Aeneid’s Book IV, the tragic tale of a woman abandoned by her lover, withholds multiple meanings when viewed from a functionalist perspective.

Dido is infatuated by the Trojan hero, Aeneas; she seems “…fetter’d in the chains of love” [2]. However,  to exhibit her love fervor “by no sense of shame“[2] is unheard of. Virgil stresses through myth that Imperial Roman society would have any attempt “to perfect this affair” [2] remain in hiding, for nothing but shame would be the result; thus Juno cloaks the infamous cave scene in “a pitchy cloud” [2] surrounded by the sounds of a tempest.  This sexual interaction hardly meets the expectations of matrimony for the Romans, thus it is portrayed as a mere “lustful” union of bodies. For an “univira” [1], a one-man woman, to appear less than modest was considered a social hubris. Dryden’s translation is indicative of Virgil’s disproval:


Painting in oils, ‘The Feast of Dido and Aeneas by François de Troy, 1704. Source licensed under CC: http://www.artnet.com/Artists/LotDetailPage.aspx?lot_id=12F5C9013F565317D88FCF849473A0A8 (Retrieved 24 June 2013 from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Feast_of_Dido_and_Aeneas_by_Fran%C3%A7ois_de_Troy,_1704.jpg)

Lost in their loves, insensible of shame,

And both forgetful of their better fame. [2]

Dido believes otherwise; yet for a woman to uphold “pudicitia” [1], i.e. remain virtuous certain procedures ought to have taken place. It wouldn’t seem inappropriate for a widow to remarry in ancient Roman times, yet the carnal, non-sanctified affair is deemed as untimely and controversial for a woman of nobility.

The myth goes on to invoke  the Gods, in order for Aeneas to flee in seek of his destiny and as stated in-text “to redeem his honor lost” [2]. These strong words for the epic’s protagonist denote that sexual desire and liberal affairs with a woman of a certain class seldom abide by male duty and honor, too.

Virgil appeals to the reader’s empathy for Dido as he concludes Book IV; still her tragic end is imperative. Could it be that her sister speaks the poet’s mind, as she tries to reawaken the Tyrian queen in vain?

At once thou hast destroy’d thyself and me,
Thy town, thy senate, and thy colony! [2]

Dido has ruined her own life, her family and Carthage itself (!) not only by committing suicide but also by allowing herself to fall from grace. Why is it that Virgil requires a fatal blow for Dido? Again, functionalism justifies the myth’s means to a social end. Augustus had instituted a legislation to enforce piety among Roman women [1], so Dido’s symbolic erotic behaviour might have been illegal as well as immoral during that time.

To conclude, Virgil ‘s Aeneid highlights plenty of social norms during the Imperial Roman Era through a functionalist aspect of  his myth; Book  IV indicates, a woman’s place ought to be next to a lawful husband and not a lover; otherwise one must face severe consequences.

Works cited:

1. Burton, Neel. “Sexuality in Ancient Rome.”  Web Blog post. Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers LLC, 24 June 2012. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201206/sexuality-in-ancient-rome&gt;.

2. Virgil. “Book IV.” The Aeneid. Trans. John Dryden. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Web. 24 June 2013. <http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.4.iv.html&gt;