@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;

Ancient Greek and Roman Mythology Assignment 1 {Coursera / Penn University}

Prompt 2.     Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Functionalism. In this theory, a myth serves to legitimize social values and norms (such as the practice of xenia). Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. What social norm does this episode legitimize? Be sure to spell out your reasoning very carefully. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.

Functionalism in Homeric epic: The Odyssey

Reading myth from a functionalist perspective has become a popular trend among anthropologists and philosophers so as to deduce social norms of a certain era based on hidden symbolism within mythical context. Thus from a tiny episode in Odyssey we are to understand further connotations that relate to social rules and way of thinking during Homer’s time.

In his epic journeys we are told that Odysseus has to face two sea nymphs, one more terrifying than the other; Scylla a six-headed monster eager to devour anything in its path and Charybdis a life consuming water whirlpool. Both preside over the Strait of Messina on the way to prized Ithaca and – unfortunately – there is no way to draw a different course, regardless Odysseus’ dexterity (Butler 2009: XII, line 31). The episode of Odysseus facing Scylla and Charybdis is of functionalist note here. Butler recounts of how Circe advises the Greek hero to approach those two monsters:

“…you must hug the Scylla side and drive ship by as fast as you can, for you had better lose six men than your whole crew.” (Butler 2009: XII, lines 26-27)

Circe tries at first to let Odysseus decide upon the outcome of the morbid dilemma (Butler: XII, line 14) and yet she offers the “best” seeming choice; six men over the entire ship reflects cold logic. Fundamentalists would argue that during Homeric times logic was considered not only a virtue but a priority over other emotions. “Polytropos” Odysseus himself portrays a man of multiple twists and turns, a man of logic. Scylla is insofar as functionalism goes not only the lesser evil of the two but the ultimate triumph of a hard decision based on the greater good.

In retrospect, we can echo Bentham’s utilitarianism in Homeric society; the choice over the greater good versus the individual good is legitimized, in this case logic over emotion. In A Fragment on Government, Bentham says, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong” (Bentham 1776: Preface, line 5). Perhaps these words reflect what Odysseus had in mind when he chooses to follow the witch’s advice and also not warn his men over what was awaiting. Cold logic ensued; still the sight was unbearable to witness. [Butler 2009: XII, lines 55-63]

Emotionally draining, this experience was not meant for the weak; logic harshly overrides feelings for loved ones among other things.  The cultural value of a sacrifice for the common welfare– a repeated motif in Ancient Greek tragedies and epic– represents that a scapegoat is painfully necessary for a greater benefit to arise.

The functional meaning of the episode still applies in society nowadays. At the end of the day, having to choose between two evils, between Scylla and Charybdis, what will your criteria be?


Works cited:

Bentham, Jeremy. “A fragment of Government”. 1776. Web. Retrieved 19th May 2013 from http://www.constitution.org/jb/frag_gov.htm

Butler, Samuel. Translation of the “Odyssey” by Homer. 2009. Web. Retrieved 19th May 2013 from http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html