In Virgil’s The Aeneid, Ovid’s Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), and Euripides’ Hippolytus, there are strong female characters that exercise various types of power. This essay will argue that women have power derived primarily through their intellect and wit—while men relied on violence—, and this implies that their cunning actions and intellectual abilities are the driving force behind their power, as it is their only means of achieving it. This essay will first discuss the roles of Dido and Venus in The Aeneid, who demonstrate both self-achieved and divine power but still rely on their intellect to maintain their different roles in Aeneas’ life. Dido is able to manipulate him emotionally while Venus can manipulate his actions. The essay will then move to Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta) where Venus’ character and manipulation will be discussed further and Atalanta will show that physical features are important to maintaining power as well. Finally, Phaedra’s character from Hippolytus will be discussed on how she is capable of holding her step-son’s life in her hands even after her death.
In The Aeneid, Virgil shows both self-achieved and divine power in Dido and Venus respectively. Dido was able to come to power after her husband was killed and he revealed the location of a large “hoard of gold and silver” (Virgil 1981: 13) and with this she was able to come to power. While her power directly comes from her husband, Dido is able to use this to her advantage and rules her own country because of the wealth she discovered. She alone sits on the throne and “[deals] judgments to her people and [gives] laws” (Virgil 1981: 18) and this power is essentially self-achieved. This power is also exemplified in her descriptions such as“[towering] over all other goddesses” and “[taking] her place on a high throne” (Virgil 1981: 18). When Aeneas finally reaches her, he sees his comrades speaking to her first and asking for her grace and kindness to not harm their fleets and men, however they do not ask this with a threat of violence toward her. These men hold her in a much higher esteem and power that makes them “beg [her] to keep the terror of fire from [their] fleet” (Virgil 1981: 19) showing that she has much more power than they do. Their words also show that there is a sense of fear when confronting her as they call themselves already “defeated” (Virgil 1981: 19) and fear typically stems from confronting someone with more power than one possesses.
Dido also holds more power over Aeneas than he expects. While she loves him and love tends to cloud judgment, Dido is able to assert her power and hurt Aeneas even in death. After Aeneas leaves her to carry out necessary duties, Dido, so upset over this action, decides to kill herself. In doing so, she knows that this action will hurt Aeneas immensely saying “Be this cruel death his omen as he sails!” (Virgil 1908: 140) The word cruel is used to make it clear that her death is not deserved, and the word omen is used to make it known that Aeneas will be affected by her death in the future. Her last words essentially curse Aeneas and are ultimately a demonstration of her power over him. This continues later in the text when Aeneas confronts her in the underworld in the area where “bitter love consumed with brutal waste” (Virgil 1981: 145), essentially the area filled with those who killed themselves because of love. When Aeneas first recognizes Dido, he is brought to tears and begs her to stay and speak with him. Yet, Dido exercises her power yet again and remains silent and does not accept his apologies. She is described as having “fierce [eyes]” and being “his enemy” (Virgil 1981: 146) and these descriptions are filled with negative imagery. Not only do they show her contempt for him, but she continues to use her anger as a means of hurting him emotionally as he is “stunned” as she leaves him for her first husband Sychaeus who “answers her sorrows” (Virgil 1981: 146). Her self-achieved power comes from her intellect and her ability to use this in a manipulative way.
Venus also uses intellect and manipulation to her and Aeneas’ advantage. Venus primarily has power over Aeneas, her son, and is able to use this power to manipulate the various situations he encounters in a favorable manner. However, her true power stems from the fact that while she wants to be a caring mother, she cannot always be there for him and therefore he cannot always expect her support which angers him. This is seen on his journey to Carthage when Venus presents herself to him in full divinity and he responds with resentment saying, “Why do you mock your son…Why can’t I ever join you…?” (Virgil 1981: 15). Aeneas is rightfully upset, as to him this appears to be mockery, but it is in fact Venus demonstrating her maternal power over him, and exercises her divine power as well to maintain her position of power. She is able to reveal herself when she sees fit and continues to assist him without his knowledge. Even after Aeneas is upset with her, Venus still “cloaks Aeneas and Achates…in a cape of cloud so that none can see or touch them or delay their way” (Virgil 1981: 15). This manipulation puts her in a place of power over him, as there is a chance he would have been slowed or perhaps never reached Carthage without her intervention. Venus’ assistance continues when Aeneas finally reaches Carthage and the cloud vanishes when he finds Dido. Venus then uses her divinity to make him appear “like a god” to the point where Dido is “startled” (Virgil 1981: 21, 22). The continued use of her power to manipulate these encounters shows Venus’ intellectual ability as she knows that these will result in favorable outcomes for her son, and this can be seen as cunning on her part as she is still outsmarting not only Aeneas himself, but those around him.
Venus’ manipulation is seen in other works as well. In Venus and Adonis (and Atalanta), Venus uses her divine power to intervene on Hippomenes’ behalf. When he challenges Atalanta to a race for her hand in marriage, there is little chance he would win on his own as Atalanta even feels guilty that he is attempting to race her saying, “his innocence, his boyishness touches me and hurts me” (Ovid 1999: 125). Yet, because of Venus giving him the golden apples that distract Atalanta during the race, he is victorious. This seemingly small act of divine power shows how Venus is able to use this power to manipulate others’ actions in a positive manner; because of this Hippomenes did not have to die. However, her manipulation is not always positive. At the start of the work Venus was the one who turned Myrrha into a tree, but this action demonstrates the extent to which she can use her divine power. She is capable of much greater things than golden apples and shrouding cloaks. But Venus is eventually met with Adonis who Myrrha, with her last bit of power, “finds her revenge” and has Venus fall in love with him (Ovid 1999: 120), which is another example of power from a female character.
Atalanta her own power in the text as well. Her power is physical as she “can [outrun] any man” (Ovid 1999: 122), but with this power the only way for her to marry is to find someone who is capable of beating her in a foot race, but if they lose they must die. This, coupled with her beauty, Venus describes as “[lending] her headier power [and] only made her suitors giddier” (Ovid 1999: 123). Her beauty itself holds power as she is able to make men fall in love with her at first sight as seen with Hippomenes whose “brain seemed to turn over” as soon as he saw her face and body (Ovid 1999: 123). This power is not a force to be reckoned with as it is capable of bringing men to their death. Even during races Atalanta does not want to lose this power because if she falls behind she “[comes] back in with a vengeance” (Ovid 1999: 128) showing her desire to fortify and keep her reputation.
This need to uphold a reputation allows for Phaedra to keep her power in Hippolytus, even after her death, and her power too comes from her intellect and cunning actions. Phaedra uses suicide to rid herself of her love for her step-son Hippolytus as well as leave “a life of fair repute to [her] children” (Euripides 2001: 32). Although she never had sexual relations with Hippolytus, Phaedra was worried that if her feelings for him were ever revealed it would lead to a bad image for herself as well as her children, who would be seen as illegitimate because Hippolytus may have fathered them instead of Theseus, her husband and king. Phaedra’s power is see through this act of suicide, but also in her cunning manipulation of the entire situation. She leaves a note for Theseus to see upon his return claiming that “dared to touch [their] marriage bed by force” (Euripides 2001: 39) implying that he attempted to, or succeeded in raping her. Because this action was done by force, Hippolytus is portrayed in a negative manner and banished by his father, ultimately dying on his journey to a new land. Phaedra’s actions are cunning and put her in a position of power of Hippolytus and put his life ultimately into her hands, and all of this is achieved after her death. These actions are done because of Phaedra’s unwillingness to accept the power that Hippolytus has over her sexually, and this is her last effort through a suicide note to reclaim her power over him.
Female characters are typically portrayed in roles of power when their intellect is involved, and in many cases this intellect can be overlooked at the female characters’ expense. In the Greco-Roman works women are shown as subordinate to men and it is only when given power that they may be fully respected. As seen in the characters of Venus, Dido, and Phaedra, manipulation, whether it be from divine or self-achieved power, is a strong tool to change situations in one’s favor, and this power can extend into death and affect others emotionally as well. Power from physical features is important as well, as seen in Atalanta who uses her abilities to create a reputation for herself. This depiction of women as cunning in the Greco-Roman works is able to show that the culture values these acts, as the women who are able to complete them successfully are then placed in a position of power.