50 Silly Queen! You know that doesn’t apply to him: The adventures of a woman in an unfair world

by Camille Molas

There is no question that the ancient world, specifically ancient Rome, produced a culture that still fascinates the modern world. The institution of Classics stands today to analyze and understand the world of the ancients. Their culture created action-driven stories and beautiful narratives that have inspired countless artworks and have helped mold civilizations. However, behind the enthralling words, there are problematic practices and beliefs that, unfortunately, still permeate today’s society.


Double standards, an issue that I have been far too familiar with in my life as a woman, are when one expectation is applied to one group and not the other, even if both groups are essentially equal. Double standards often occur in gender-related issues. For example, when it comes to sexuality, a woman who may have multiple sex partners is deemed “promiscuous”, “skanky”, and frequently labelled as a “whore”. But when a man has the same number of sexual partners, they are actually praised and regarded for displaying their “manliness”. The danger of double standards is how they affect how someone is portrayed and treated. While the double standard concept is considered as a modern school of thought, its practice is not exclusive to modern society. Double standards, especially of women, are ubiquitous in the ancient world and in ancient Rome. In this paper, I aim to analyze how the practice of double standards reveals itself in ancient Rome. I will specifically investigate how women in power are given a double standard by using Dido from Virgil’s Aeneid as the lens.


Virgil’s Aeneid is not a factual historical account of the founding of Rome, instead, it is a book composed of myths narrating the journey of Aeneas and his divine destiny to establish Rome. Nevertheless, it is a useful proxy for how ancient Romans thought and acted in reality. This is because The Aeneid was entertainment, history, and education for the ancient Romans. Virgil’s earlier poetry was taught in Roman schools, even before his death, all the way from the first century to the nineteenth; he was at the very center of European education (Desmond 1994). Essentially, The Aeneid was prime consumption for ancient Romans and the characters were ancient celebrities. To them, the characters Aeneas, Dido, Juno, and Venus were as famous as the Kardashians today. There was really no escape over the inundation of The Aeneid. Ancient Romans were entrenched in the epic story of the Trojan Aeneas. Therefore, the depictions and the treatments of the characters in The Aeneid permeated the ancient Roman culture.


Dido’s character in The Aeneid was pivotal to the founding of Rome, yet also so minuscule for only appearing in Book One and Four out of the twelve books of The Aeneid. But, even with the short number of pages she was included in, she still fell victim to the double standards of ancient Romans. I found that the double standards affecting Dido can be delineated between two categories: power and love. Although, these two different categories are still interrelated and intersect. Dido’s dual role as the Queen of Carthage and Aeneas’ lover was too excessive in the eyes of Virgil, and Dido became the perfect target for Virgil and translators to unleash their prejudice towards women.


Dido is first introduced in The Aeneid by the goddess Venus, who retells Dido’s escape from her murderous brother and the use of her wits to found the land of Carthage. Immediately, Dido is portrayed as a woman who sought liberation and led her people to safety by establishing an entire city. Venus exhibits a tone of respect for Dido’s actions. In line 1.364 of The Aeneid, Venus says,


 Dux femina facti


For this analysis, I have read two different translations of The Aeneid, the first from Robert Fagles and the second from the Loeb Classical Library by H.R Fairclough. Robert Fagles translates this Latin to “a woman leads them all” (Virgil, Fagles, and Knox 2006) while Fairclough translates it to “the leader of the enterprise a woman” (Virgil, Fairclough, and Goold 1999). Both translations send the clear message that Dido is a leader for her people. The fact that Venus said this, it makes it even more of an important line since goddesses are not usually fond of mortal women and mortal women can become victims of goddesses (Foley 2005). Dido’s power is also communicated by Venus when she urges her son, Aeneas, to seek Dido for help. Venus is obsessed with protecting Aeneas and by telling her son to receive aid from Dido, this reveals Venus’ conviction on the power that Dido holds. Venus would not send her son to someone she does not believe is capable of actually providing for Aeneas. It’s impressive that in an ancient Roman text, a woman is as powerful as how Dido is depicted. But alas, this characterization of Dido is fleeting. After this brief recognition of Dido’s leadership and power, Venus quickly turns against Dido once Aeneas interacts with her. Now, Dido’s power no longer lies in her intelligence to lead and found a city, instead, her powers are rooted in seduction. Venus now perceives Dido as dangerous and finds her threatening. Venus’s opinion on Dido changed merely because Aeneas was now part of Dido’s life. There were no changes to Dido’s actual power, leadership, or generosity, yet Venus now finds it threatening (instead of helpful as she did earlier) to the extent that she must intervene with Cupid. This is the beginning of the dismal transformation fueled by double standards of how Dido’s character is portrayed.


Since Dido escaped from Tyre after the murder of her husband by her brother, she had managed to build a successful and thriving city called Carthage, specifically without a man by her side. Of course, many suitors have tried asking for her hand in marriage to which she refused profusely, citing her loyalty to her dead husband, Sychaeus. However, when she falls in love with Aeneas (with the help of Cupid), she admits to her sister, Anna, her true feelings. Naturally, her sister is enthusiastic about how Dido feels about a new man but then she states something unsettling,


Quam tu urbem, soror, hanc cernes, quae surgere regna coniugio tali! (4.47-4.48)


Fairclough translates it as “What a city you will see rise here, my sister, what a realm, by reason of such a marriage!” and Fagles as “Think what a city you will see, my sister, what a kingdom rising high if you marry such a man.” Anna emphasizes that through this marriage, Carthage can “rise”. But Carthage is already rising because of Dido’s leadership alone, all built without a man next to her. For some reason though, there exists this belief that by marrying a man, Carthage can automatically become better just because of her new marriage. As a Queen, it isn’t enough for Dido to lead her people to prosperity, instead, there is a default mindset that having a King will make Carthage better off, not necessarily because the man is great, but just merely because there is a man present. While marriages for rulers are expected, it is much more common for King-less Queens to be questioned on their ability to rule rather than the other way around. Dido has clearly taken care of her people and provided for them, yet the marriage of a random Trojan man whom they barely know is the key to making Carthage even better. Dido’s power and her ability to rule is degraded and replaced because now a person with a phallus is available.


The portrayal of Dido’s leadership changes dramatically in Book Four of The Aeneid. As Dido continues to fall in love with Aeneas, she begins to neglect her duties as the leader of Carthage. Important infrastructure projects seize and all work is suspended. However, I argue that this behavior from Dido does not stem from her actual nature but instead from Virgil’s inherent bias toward women. While Dido is widowed, she is capable of being a leader but the moment she falls in love, she is not capable of anything else but loving a man. Dido’s leadership is questioned and even erased because she is now in love, as if it is so impossible to lead and be in love with another person simultaneously. This shows that ancient women are seen as one dimensional, either as a single masculine-like leader or a feminine woman that’s in love, but never as both. The erasure of Dido’s leadership is perpetuated by translators. In line 4.124 and 4.165, Virgil repeats the same phrase to describe Dido and Aeneas,


            Dido dux et Troianus


The Latin dux translates to leader, et to and, while Troianus to Trojan. When translated to the same order as the Latin it reads: “Dido leader and Trojan”. Shockingly, professional translators disagree with that translation. Fagles translates it to “Dido and Troy’s commander” and Fairclough to “Dido and the Trojan chief”. The dux magically moves to the other side of the et and gets attached to Troianus. While Virgil may still believe that Dido is a leader, the way he has belittled Dido by portraying her as “tragic” (Virgil, Fagles, and Knox 2006), “lovesick”(Virgil, Fagles, and Knox 2006), and “unhappy” (Virgil, Fairclough, and Goold 1999) has convinced white men translators that this equates to Dido failing to be a leader. It’s important to remember that Dido and Aeneas’ relationship was not unrequited, Aeneas also loved Dido. Yet, we see an opposite portrayal of Aeneas at this time. He is the one who now earns the title of dux and simultaneously strips it from Dido. If Dido truly was distracted from her leadership duties and was the reason she no longer was entitled to “dux”, how come Aeneas is still praised and regarded? He quite literally has twelve books written about all the distractions he faced to achieve his divine destiny. Yet, Dido is the one who is deprived of her title as a leader, even though she has already achieved what Aeneas is trying to do – establish a city. Dido’s leadership is removed from her due to the biases that men have when writing and translating about strong, self-willed, and powerful women.


It’s not a surprise that the ancient Roman world was patriarchal and demanded fidelity from women in marriage, as most cultures still do in modern times. Dido’s strong conviction of loyalty to her dead husband was a crucial characteristic. Ancient Romans expected this devotion of loyalty without any question. The numerous suitors she had were offended at her rejection but nevertheless accepted it because she was insanely devoted to her late husband, which just reinforced ancient Roman values. Ancient Romans’ obsession with chastity and faithfulness can even lead to the death of a woman. Marriage of cum manu meant that the husband possessed full control over the woman, her property and her life (Aneni 2012). Cum manu required such a strong sense of fidelity, that if a woman were unfaithful, her husband could legally kill her (Aneni 2012). But, not to anyone’s surprise, fidelity was not an expectation for both genders equally. Men were not punished when they were unfaithful, certainly not sentenced to death. When Aeneas escapes Troy, his wife, Creusa, is killed in the middle of the chaos. Aeneas tries to look for her but instead her spirit appears to him to describe his future and it includes a “queen to make [his] wife” (Virgil, Fagles, and Knox 2006). This is almost facetious, that the ghost of Aeneas’ late beloved tells him that his life will be amazing without her and that he will have another wife so he should not worry at all. His dead wife is essentially encouraging him to move on and be happy. I believe this specific scene was created in order for ancient Roman men to justify the double standards of fidelity. Since their late wife said it was okay for them to move on, then it is okay. But a late husband would never tell a wife such a thing, therefore women should be expected to remain loyal. Aeneas has the freedom and the approval from his dead wife to be with any woman he could want, while Dido still feels guilty about her new found attraction and desire for Aeneas even though her husband is six feet underground.


Despite Dido’s suitors accepting her rejection, Dido was soon faced with backlash once news of a “marriage” between Dido and Aeneas emerged. Lord Iarbas was appalled that Dido would ever choose Aeneas as a partner over him. Although, this anger did not stem from his feelings of Dido, instead it stemmed from his ego. Iarbas calls the incident a “second Judgment of Paris” (Virgil, Fagles, and Knox 2006). Iarbas’ statement reveals his arrogance and aligns himself with the gods. He does not wish to marry Dido for happiness ever after, but rather for his own gain. It’s interesting that Lord Iarbas allowed Dido to remain unmarried and did not cause quite a stir because of Dido’s loyalty to her dead husband. But when Dido broke that fidelity to be with Aeneas, Lord Iarbas felt it was wrongful and that he had been cheated since he allowed Dido to settle in his land. Lord Iarbas feels a sense of entitlement to Dido for what he did for her and Carthage. Regardless of a woman actually being married cum manu or not, the tone and expectations of women are still instilled within the patriarchs of ancient Rome.


Dido’s transformation from Book One to Book Four of The Aeneid was perpetuated by the double standards of her power and ability to rule as well as her relationships of love and marriage. The double standards that Dido suffered from ultimately led to her own demise. Virgil’s inherent bias against women is revealed in how Dido commits suicide. The abrupt departure of Aeneas causes the mental and emotional breakdown of Dido in Virgil’s eyes. Virgil writes about the “tragic”, “helpless”, and “lovesick” Queen throwing herself into the pyre. To me, Virgil underestimates women and their ability to handle a heartbreak and disappointment. The death of Dido writes itself as an exaggeration of emotions in the eyes of a man. Dido’s world prior to Aeneas was about structure, leadership, and her people. However, Virgil writes about Dido in a way that she becomes tangled and immerse in a world solely based on Aeneas. Virgil is under the assumption that women, even women in power, when in love will focus exclusively on the man, neglecting their life before them. Dido completely becomes unhinged at the news of Aeneas’ departure and ultimately believes that her own people do not want her to rule. The culmination of these overwhelming issues pushes Dido to the edge. Virgil imposes his own double standards onto Dido by having her ultimately kill herself. Dido is just an extension of Virgil’s mind and personality, and his thoughts are that women who are devotedly in love, simply cannot continue their life without the man. However, any man, like Aeneas, can be strong enough to move on regardless of their hardships.


Dido’s character was stripped of her power, not because Dido herself lost it, but because of Virgil’s expectation and how he portrayed her to be. How come Dido is the only one to suffer and lose everything when Aeneas also fell in love? It’s because ancient Roman men are “divinely destined” to do more and accomplish epic tasks. And ancient Roman women are merely there to do a man’s bidding. Dido quite literally accomplished what Aeneas was trying to do- found a city. Yet, Dido was reduced to a “tragic” and “lovesick” Queen while Aeneas gets to continue to be a hero. Dido deserved more than the writings of Virgil. Her strength, leadership, and intelligence that were first introduced in Book One never disappeared from her true characteristics, instead it was engulfed by the double standards of ancient Roman men.  Should Dido be a real person, her actions may not be the same as Virgil writes them out to be. Sadly though, they would likely still be written and translated in the same biased and double standard manner.


While Dido was a fictitious character written from an ancient Roman man’s point of view, an important real-life figure holds similar qualities as her- Cleopatra VII. Both were powerful Queens that were tarnished by double standards. At the culmination of their life, they were both victims of “madness” (Benario 1970). Dido by the madness of a woman in love and Cleopatra by the madness of her actions and her “depraved state of mind” (Benario 1970). Cleopatra being cunning and charming, was vilified as manipulating powerful men in order to gain more power herself. Dido received the same reaction from Venus once Aeneas entered her life. When self-sufficient and powerful women are successful, they are then seen as a threat and accused of using their sexuality as manipulation, as if that’s the only way women can become more powerful. But powerful men are rarely questioned when they achieve the same success. Both Dido and Cleopatra were considered enemies of Rome as they both had illegitimate sexual relationships with critical figures of Rome. This only made them more of a target for impossible double standards as a way to tear them and their legacy down. Their successes were never seen as successes, instead only as threats that were extinguished by degrading their characters and actions through the unachievable double standards that the ancient Romans practiced.


This analysis of double standards was under the lens of ancient times. Nevertheless, I anticipate that readers will still feel a despondent familiarity of the double standards that Dido suffered. The belief that women are beneath men and must adhere to different rules and expectations alters how a person is viewed and characterized, even if that may not be who they truly are. And when they do not conform to the double standards, they are written in history as “tragic” and their story disparaged. While double standards are academically a modern theory, the practice of it stems all the way to ancient time. The Aeneid was the ultimate source of history, entertainment, and education for ancient Romans and they absorbed and practiced these biases that Dido faced. Disappointingly, society has not evolved to the point of eradicating double standards. Even today, translators are still imposing their own prejudice to ancient characters. And we still implement it in modern times such that there are women today who will fall victim of double standards, such as the legendary Dido, Queen of Carthage, did.


Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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