Hindsight

In book one of the Aeneid, Aeneas has a meeting with his mother, Venus, who is of course in disguise. I’m not a classy guy by nature, which I’ll demonstrate shortly, and that’s why my favorite part of the work happens at the end of this scene.

Having comforted a suspicious Aeneas using the form of a Tyrian huntress with a killer fashion sense, Venus inadvertently reveals herself as his goddess mother. Exactly how and why this happens is the topic of some scholarly disagreement, the sort of which can only be settled by underground classics department dance battles.

Here’s Fagles translation of the scene (1.487-91):

“At that,
as she turned away her neck shone with a rosy glow,
her mane of hair gave off an ambrosial fragrance,
her skirt flowed loose, rippling down to her feet
and her stride alone revealed her as a goddess.”

Consensus about the meaning of this scene seems to be that we only know the designs of the gods in hindsight. Emphasis on hind. That’s quite a clever interpretation, but I have my own: Virgil is an ass man. The goddess Venus is beautiful from the front, and Aeneas strongly suspects that she is a goddess–but he can’t say which. It isn’t until she turns around that our hero realizes he is gazing upon the perfection of the goddess of beauty herself.

The Aeneid is also noteworthy insofar as it plays host to what is, as far as I can tell, the original Strong Female Character. I was very much looking forward to Camilla’s book after her introduction, but she was a little off putting when she actually began to speak. Like all the best SFCs, she is cursed by the fact that everyone around her is more human and has a more interesting story than she does, including her ruined king of a father and the cowardly guy who kills her. Camilla’s motives for doing what she does are, like Rey’s, somewhat murky.

Typically characters in the Aeneid who taunt their opponents have some reason to–they’ve been wronged in some way, or are angry from a prior incident. Camilla lays into everyone, using language which is familiar to a modern reader, who has seen hundreds of these characters sussed out on page and screen.

Here she taunts Ornytus, who has done nothing to her (11.809-811):

“Still in the woods, you thought, and flushing game,
my fine Etruscan hunter? Well, the day has come
when a woman’s weapons prove your daydreams wrong!”

Beaten by a girl, see. Camilla’s rage doesn’t seem to have either a source or a direction. She kills a man from behind, which isn’t entirely wrong, but is something some of the more valiant male heroes pointedly refuse.

Conditions in Rome at the time of the writing of the Aeneid were much closer, in terms of women’s rights, to our own time than to the Iliad. At least for the upper classes, women had more rights during the end of the Republic and the early Empire than any time before or after, until very recently. Virgil famously read his poem to Octavia and Augustus, and you can’t help but wonder if Camilla and her retinue of Amazons isn’t the First Pandering.

Another possibility is that Virgil, with the unlikable Camilla, was making a subtle dig at similar characters he was seeing in Roman literature at the time, which I’m either not familiar with or haven’t come down to us on account of their lack of quality.