The Odyssey and the Aeneid

and the Growing Influence of Women behind the Heroes

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Woo, Na Young
Term Paper, AP World History Class, September 2005

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Power
III. Position
IV. Passion
V. The Status of Women in Greek and Roman Society
VI. Bibliography

I. Introduction

            "If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation" - Abigail Adams

            Much of the information about the Greeks and the Romans come from two authors through their greatest works: the Odyssey by Homer and the Aeneid by Virgil. The Odyssey, which follows the homebound journey of a victorious Trojan War hero, the shrewd Odysseus, clearly reflects the Greek society of Homer's time. While the Odyssey is a Greek narrative, the Aeneid was created by the Roman, Virgil, in order to establish a national hero, a national mythology and a national identity. As a result, the Aeneid directly reflects the ideals of the Roman society. Virgil wrote a Homeric poem of fateful Aeneas, the Trojan prince, on a quest to establish a new kingdom on Hesperia, or Italy, and found a race there that would one day conquer the world. Capturing the Greek and Roman worlds in lyrics, the two authors provide insight on the lives of people behind the heroes, especially the women that helped shape Odysseus and Aeneas. From the Greeks to Romans, feminine influence expanded as illustrated in the strengthening power, position and passion of women from the Odyssey to the Aeneid.

II. Power

            First, the significant power of the Roman woman - as illustrated by the Roman portrayal of a Greek woman - compared to that of the Greek woman is shown through the heroes' reunion with their queens, Helen and Andromache. As portrayed in the Odyssey, Helen, the Queen of Sparta and the cause of the Trojan War, is powerless. She is taken to Troy by Prince Paris and, although she is not mistreated, spends ten years in captivity. Later on, she is to be rescued out of Troy, and even during her rescue - as portrayed in the Aeneid - Helen lies hurt and moaning instead of hurrying out the burning city into the arms of her husband, Menelaus. Her only glorious scene is her standing at the walls of Troy, watching the battle below and displaying her beauty, to give the men shallow and evanescent courage at such a stunning sight. Furthermore, she is a cruel wife, lover and mother who has no eloquent words of longing for Menelaus, Paris and even her only daughter, Hermione. When Menelaus weeps for his fellow Achaean soldiers, Telemachus for his father Odysseus, and Nestor's son, Peisistratus, for his dead brother, Helen weeps for herself having been forced to leave her home.
In contrast, Andromache, a Princess of Troy through marriage, represents the strength of women. As told in the Aeneid, she survived the great siege laid to her home, and afterwards, she recovers after the loss of both her husband, Prince Hector, and her toddler. Unlike Helen, however, Andromache never forgets about them; as a matter of fact, she first appears mourning before the two altars. Even during the war, Andromache provided true courage for Hector with her always being there and, despite all the hardship, managed to smile for Hector before he left her side, never to come back. Most importantly, Andromache, originally sent to serve Achilles' son, Pyhrrus, takes over his kingdom after his death with her new husband and greets Aeneas and his crew as the new Queen of the Greeks. She is the founder of a 'neo-Troy', conquering the Greeks as they had once conquered her own country. In conclusion, Andromache is a woman of power while Helen is only a game of such powers and their contrasting portrayals illustrate the changing role of women in the classical societies, from the Greeks to Romans.
Secondly, the similarities and differences in the ruling powers of the nations that cordially welcome the worn-out heroes are not only examples of the emerging importance of women but also of the transition of such movement. Both countries, Scheria and Carthage, gather what is left of Odysseus and Aeneas and nourish them with food and shelter. Then, the rulers of Scheria and Carthage, King Alcinous and Queen Dido, become the first persons to hear whole epic poetry recited by the heroes. In Scheria, whose people are called the Phaeacians, Odysseus is rescued from shipwreck by the Princess Nausicaa and is told to first appeal to the Queen, not necessarily the King. Both incidences clearly indicate a hint of feminine rule despite there being masculine powers. This implication then becomes a direct link to the fact that Carthage - a country satisfactory enough to be Hera's pet city - is a country singularly established by a Phoenician Princess, Dido, who is still in control when Aeneas lands there. Moreover, Dido is a widow, indicating a complete shift of power from male to female hands. Delineating the path of progression that puts emphasis on the presence of women, the political statuses of the two amiable nations are a foreshadowing of the rising power of women.
The symbol of feminine endurance in the Odyssey, Penelope, is ironically one of the most powerless women when compared to the female characters in the Aeneid. Although Penelope braves out twenty years without her husband, Odysseus, she is unable to protect her home from the rampage of her suitors. Feasting upon Odysseus' goods and devouring his country, Ithaca, the suitors refuse to leave unless Penelope marries one of them. Despite the rejection of all proposals being a strong show of faith, Penelope - unlike Andromache - refuses to make the logical choice, and instead, leads her country to depletion and countless men to their deaths upon Odysseus' return. In addition, Penelope has no control over her servants, especially her maids who become the suitors' night-time lovers. Her greatest feat - the postponing of second marriage to make a funeral shroud for Odysseus' father - is short-lived because her real plan, which was to unravel what she had made during the night, is reported to the suitors by her maids. She is powerless in domestic matters and lets her country fall as much as Dido makes her country rise. Ultimately, even Penelope, the only true heroine in the Odyssey, falls before the Roman women and their considerable powers - as shown through the portrayals of Andromache and Dido - because Penelope, depicted from a Greek's perspective, can be nothing more than a paradigmatic, powerless Greek woman.

III. Position

            In comparing the two epic poems, the Odyssey and the Aeneid, the changes in gender - from male to female - indicate a lift in the position of women from the Greek culture to the Roman culture. The Aeneid is frequently said to be "based on several Homeric motifs" (Boardman, Griffin, Murray p.219). As an illustration, the Odyssey includes a scene of the Underworld, and the Iliad - another one of Homer's works - has a scene of a great, final battle; naturally, the Aeneid does not forget either element. In these chapters of the Aeneid, however, the main characters that were males in the Odyssey and the Iliad are, not surprisingly, transformed into female characters.
While Odysseus sets out for Hades' palace to seek the dead prophet of Thebes, Tiresias, Aeneas sets out for the same place to seek his father, and to see a vision of what his descendents would one day accomplish. A major concern is that Aeneas was accompanied by another sort of prophet, the Sibyl of Cumae, who was a woman. This difference indicates, first, that the important task of predicting the future has transcended into the women's hands from the men's. Secondly, while Tirasias is dead and only gives Odysseus an abstract workings of his future, the Sibyl is not only of the living but also extremely helpful. She has cakes to distract the three-headed dog, Cerberus, and even encourages Aeneas when he becomes fearful of the ghosts. Keep in mind, Odysseus is required to seek his prophet with the blood of a sheep and is forced to face the terrors of the Underworld alone.
Furthermore, the two heroes meet unexpected persons whom still hold grudges against them even in their deaths. The 'angry ones' refuse to talk to Odysseus and Aeneas and provide a chilling sight to the unnerved heroes. The great Ajax, who committed suicide in the Iliad, still silently blames Odysseus for his embarrassment and his death because he had lost Achilles' glorious armor to Odysseus according to an anonymous ballot. On the other hand, Aeneas meets Dido, the Queen of Carthage and his once lover, who had stabbed herself and ordered her body to be burned with all his belongings upon his departure. Although Dido chooses to return to her husband without a word to Aeneas, this reaction can be interpreted as her still remembering their time together on earth. These encounters could then, further support the claim that women are more passionate and sensible beings than men, because men such as Ajax keep a grudge just for the sake of honor and pride, while women such as Dido forever remember and treasure their love.
The Iliad focuses primarily on the ninth - and the last - year of the Trojan War, which was fought for the sake of a single woman, Helen the Beautiful. Similarly, the last chapters of the Aeneid are dedicated to a battle between the Trojans and the Italians for yet another woman, the Princess Lavina of Laurentum. In both the Trojan War and the War with the Italians, deadly warriors rise to glory and meet their deaths. Two most important warrior-generals of such kinds are Prince Hector of Troy and Camilla. The more obscure figure, Camilla, is a warrior maiden, accepted by Artemis at infancy when Camilla's father lost his crown and kingdom. During the war, she fights bare-chested because she can move more freely without any piece of armor or clothing on her torso. She also heads a group of maiden soldiers who are "like Amazons of Thrace who make the banks of the Thermodon ring with their hoof beats as they ride to battle with their painted arms" (Virgil p.264). The similarities between Hector and Camilla are great. They are both handpicked and protected by divine forces : Apollo chooses Hector and Artemis, Camilla. However, it is both warriors' fates to die, and even the gods acknowledge this fact. The sibling gods let go of their favorite warriors and mourn for them prior to their deaths. In addition, the murderers of these two, Achilles and Arruns, also meet their fates shortly after the killings, almost as if paying for the two lives they have taken away. Keep in mind the transition from a great male warrior, Hector, to a female one, Camilla, who equals the former in strength, courage and support from the people as well as the heavens. In closing, the changing genders of the attention-drawing characters, such as the two prophets and the two warriors, indicate the emergence of women's identity to significant positions in the Roman society, which used to be all-male occupations in that of the Greeks.
Another consideration of the rising position of women comes from the two different portrayals of Andromache in the Greek Iliad and the Roman Aeneid. Homer portrays Andromache as almost a nanny in the Trojan castle than as the wife of Hector and the rightful Princess of Troy. She is shadowed by Helen the Beautiful and even her son, her only "accomplishment," is shown as a weakling who shrinks away from his father's glistening armor and helmet. Additionally, when Andromache tries to give Hector some tips on military tactics, he immediately discerns her advice and tells her to return to the house and to the loom, where she belongs. He treats her in the similar insincere manner as he treats his toddler son. Except for the time Andromache says her last words to Hector and smiles for him as he leaves her side forever, their relationship remains that of a man and a minor, and not that of a man and a woman. On the contrary, Andromache appears as a Queen of the Greeks in the Aeneid, and furthermore, has acquired this position on her own, starting as a part of Pyhrrus' collection of booty. Her new husband, Helenus, and her people treat her with great respect and Andromache in the Aeneid is hardly a minor, but a woman - a woman of great power and position. She holds the rights to celebrate "her yearly rites of grief, her customary sacrifice to Hector" and also the ability to demand and provide for her friend Aeneas, a route to Hesperia (Virgil p.62). The metamorphosis Andromache experiences from a Greek woman with no privileges of adulthood to a Roman-portrayed woman glowing with honor and passion is yet another example of the strengthening position of women in the Roman world compared to that of the Greek world.
Lastly, the growing importance of women's positions is also shown in the heavens of Mount Olympus. In the Odyssey and the Iliad, the influences of the male gods are far more notable than those of the goddesses. Although the goddesses Eris - the maker the golden apple inscribed "for the fairest" - , Hera, Aphrodite and Pallas Athena - the three goddesses involved in Paris' Judgment - start the Trojan War, the major decisions in the war are made by Apollo, Zeus and Poseidon. Additionally, when Thetis, the goddess that rose from the sea and the mother of Achilles, is unable to help her son directly, she turns to pleading and seducing Zeus to win his aid and favor. Moreover, although Athena becomes infuriated at the Achaeans for the mistreatment of Princess Cassandra in her temple, she can only express her anger through Poseidon. To do much damage, she must borrow her uncle's powers to send storms that destroy and disorient the homebound Achaean fleets. Shortly afterwards, however, in the beginning of the Odyssey, Athena feels a sudden pity for the Achaeans - especially Odysseus - and this change of mind almost criticizes the fickleness of women. Despite the ten year gap, Athena is a goddess and thus, an immortal. Therefore, ten years would be nothing more than a flicker of an eye in her perspective, which further supports the claims about her spasmodic state of mind even in all her divinity. If a perfect being were to behave in this manner, then, the imperfect forms of the goddesses, or the human women, were surely to be more dependent and fickle than Athena. Later on, Athena finally decides to help Odysseus, but only in Poseidon's absence, and when Poseidon reverses Athena's meticulously planned rescue work with a simple stroke of this trident, the helplessness of women is obviously implied between the lines.
In contrast, the Aeneid can be summarized as a hero's struggle in a war among the goddesses. First of all, while Hera acts out her rage against the surviving Trojans, Zeus and Poseidon can only help them from the shadows. Although they preferred the Trojans from the beginning and still wish to help them, they must be careful with Hera and take all the necessary cautions. Thus, the two gods become basically of no aid to Aeneas and his followers. Also, it is destiny that Aeneas will give rise to an empire that would someday rule the world, including Carthage, Hera's pet city. Despite this solid prophesy, which Zeus - the King of the Heavens - himself would not have challenged, Hera still makes an effort to divert Aeneas from his chosen path through attempting to drown him, making him wish to settle in Carthage with Dido and finally, raising the Italians against his arrival on Hesperia. Until Hera admits that "Sit Romana potens Itala uirtute propago," or that "Italian hardihood shall make Rome great", Aeneas and his followers are never to be at rest (Boardman, Griffin, Murray p.223 from Virgil).
Similarly, another goddess, Aphrodite, takes full control of her position in the Aeneid. She chooses when to reveal her true identity at whim, almost teasing Aeneas in a sense that she disappears the moment Aeneas realizes that his mother had been with him. This quality is rarely shown in the Odyssey, in which, Athena and Hermes either directly reveal themselves or the human characters feel a certain divine presence around them. Additionally, Aphrodite is able to achieve all she wants with a single drop of her tear presented before Zeus. Anything out of her power, which is basically most of the events minus Aeneas' encounter with Dido on Carthage, Zeus becomes susceptible to her tears and grants all her wishes. When Thetis begged Zeus to help Achilles, her promise was short-lived and hardly full-filled since Zeus forgot all about it after Hera approached him in all her glamour. To conclude, the heavens also experienced a shift in the female position of power, rank and ability when depicted by a Roman as opposed to those in a heaven depicted by a Greek.

IV. Passion

            Lastly, an affluence of passion is expressed by the women of the Aeneid while the women of the Odyssey remain relatively mundane and characterless. Primarily, the 'parting women', Calypso of the Odyssey and Dido of the Aeneid, can be considered the climax of each poem's sorrowful passion. Of course, in the Odyssey, Odysseus and Penelope's personal remembrances of their times together, and Circe's, the witch-goddess's, release of Odysseus can also be other possible moments of passion. However, the husband and wife's thoughts are rarely spoken outright and there are only glimpses of such emotions. Also, Circe's domain, unlike Calypso's island, is occasionally visited by unfortunate sailors - whom she turns into swine - and consists of far more interesting buildings, jungles and animals, which provide her with entertainment other than Odysseus. Therefore, it can be said that Calypso feels the most expressible sadness in the Odyssey. But this minor goddess, who is more a nymph, gives Odysseus the permission to build ships for his departure, simply following orders from Zeus. She even lends Odysseus her tools and supervises the building of the ships. Even though she should be able to express all sorts of pain, the Greek portrayal of women only allows her to show her sentiments through leaving a sac of dainties Odysseus had enjoyed in midst of other supplies.
On the other hand, the Aeneid has no such restrictions on passion. When Dido cannot comprehend the reason behind Aeneas' departure - the destiny to raise a new race of conquerors, the Romans -, "the book is dominated by a series of passionate speeches by Dido, of reproach, entreaty, bitterness, [and] curses" (Boardman, Griffin, Murray p.221). After Aeneas leaves Carthage, Dido searches for all his leftover belongings and dramatically builds a pyre, on which she places herself and lets Aeneas' dagger end her life. Just as her passionate love and the flowing expression of such emotion, the pyre burns furiously and vehemently. Even Aeneas, sailing away from Carthage, sees the flickering red dot. These comparisons provide that first, the Roman-portrayed woman, Dido, is more in control of her fate than the Greek-portrayed woman, Calypso, since the former can even choose to die while the latter is only bound to commands. Secondly, they illustrate that the range of emotions women could express grew from the two-dimensional version of the Greeks, in which emotions stayed rather primitive and simple, to the three-dimensional version of the Romans, in which women were depicted as the complicated beings they truly are. In conclusion, the Roman society granted much more freedom to women to truly find themselves, to have passion for what they have found and to express that passion, than the restricted Greek society that only calculated and limited what the ideal women could feel and express.

V. The Status of Women in Greek and Roman Society

            References about the classical world should always be approached with caution. Even the Odyssey and the Aeneid are biased references, written by men who were single-mindedly interested in warfare, the ruling class and the prosperity of their nations. The only other method to make knowledge of the classical culture, then, is to study archeological finds : the grave inscriptions, burial artifacts and fresco paintings etc. Accompanied with such additional information, the Greek woman and the Roman woman emerge, once again, shockingly distinguishing themselves with their limitations and freedom.
The Greek woman lived in Peter Pan's Neverland, never growing up from the girl and forever staying, figuratively and legally, a minor all her life. Women were confined to their own quarters, strictly forbidden to take part in social affairs and naturally excluded from important activities such as athletics, politics, drinking parties and intellectual discussions. Even in their homes, which were always considered their fathers' or husbands' house and never theirs, they were restricted to their separate quarters with the children. The less a woman displayed her existence, the more was her honor. Only the hetarirai, or the prostitutes, were free from these limitations. Additionally, the royal womenĄŻs daily tasks were equal to those of the female slaves. Only the choice to work distinguished the classes. The white-armed figures in frescoes indicate that women were mostly engaged in indoor activities such as clothing production - spinning and weaving - and furnishing bathes - bathing and anointing - for the men. The latter activity was not reserved for slave women or for females who had intimate relationship with the men they bathed. As an illustration, when Odysseus lands on Scheria, Princess Nausicaa presents him clothing, which is later identified by the Queen as clothing produced in her own home. Also, a young, virginal princess bathes and anoints Telemachus when he is on his journey to seek the whereabouts of his father; similarly, Helen, during her captivation in Troy, bathes and anoints the disguised Odysseus. Moreover, some other examples of women's chores were fetching water and grinding corn. Furthermore, concubines were considered desirable in the Greek society; friendship and homosexuality between men were considered far nobler and spiritually satisfying than a relationship between man and wife. The sole purpose of a wife - frequently begotten through capture, contest and purchase - was to produce a legitimate heir. Socrates had the ability to, and did, dismiss his wife, Xanthippe, from his deathbed, preferring to die with his male companions. Aristotle later declared that a relationship between a man and his wife was inherently unequal, and thus, women had to depend entirely on men. Finally, instead of considering this inhumane treatment of women as a problem, it was seen as nothing more than a topic for a good comedy in the Greek world. In Aristophanes' Lysistrata, laughter arose at the sight of women threatening men by denying sexual pleasures.
Meanwhile, the Roman woman, despite the existence of paterfamilias - or fathers who were the center of domestic and public life - enjoyed great freedom and privileges. Although most marriages were arranged, mothers and daughters could, and most often did, influence the final decisions. Moreover, divorce was already introduced in the 2nd century B.C. and was relatively easy to obtain; naturally, remarriage - after the death of a husband or wife, or after divorce - was also common. Specifically, Tullia, the daughter of the Roman orator Cicero, married at the age of sixteen and was widowed by twenty-two, then she married again at twenty-three, divorced at twenty-eight and married for the last time at twenty-nine, only to be divorced at thirty-three; she died thirty-four years old. Most importantly, however, was the fact that women were not segregated in the Roman society. Instead, they led a very visible existence, talking in public, visiting shops, attending games, visiting temples and theaters etc. Wives were actually appreciated as enjoyable company and were the center of social life in the household. Women could not partake in public life, only in name, because their function was to reach motherhood, which in turn existed for the sole purpose of shaping the moral outlook of the children, the future Romans. In reality, however, women - especially the upper-class women of the early empire - had the rights to acquire, control and inherit property. Some were even brave enough to own and operate business in shipping and trade. Furthermore, although women could not participate in politics, they could forcibly influence their husbands, as shown by the wives of the Roman emperors: most notably, Augustus' Livia and Trajan's Plotina. Again, in reality, there was so much freedom in the Roman women's hands that the birth rate dropped significantly; women were choosing to enjoy their own lives instead of spending their time on reaping children. Once, the constantly dropping population growth rate was such a major problem for the empire that imperial laws were made to require parents to raise more children, and birth controls - the mostly ineffective formulas, potions, oils, amulets and the expensive condoms made from the bladder of a goat - had to be discouraged.

To summarize, the power, position and passion of women experienced a great ascent from the Greek society to the Roman society, clearly illustrated by the portrayals in the Odyssey and the Aeneid, and the characterizations of the classical cultures. Because literature always reflects the society of its time, Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid - created at different times for different purposes - become the perfect objects of examination. Similarly, the unbiased sources of the Greek and Roman cultures from archeological finds provide strong arguments that, compared to the Greek women- who were portrayed as insignificant and were mistreated so - the Roman women - who experienced the emergence of their existence and were portrayed on a nearly parallel basis as the men - led revolutionary lives, possibly, for the better of the future world.

VI. Bibliography

1.      Boardman, Griffin, Murray. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Roman World. (1986) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
2.      Cross, Suzanne. "Feminae Romanae: The Women of Ancient Rome". 2005
3.      Hamilton, Edith. Mythology. (1942) New York: Warner Books, 1999.
4.      Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. George H. Palmer. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2003.
5.      Kreis, Steven. "Lecture 13: A Brief Social History of the Roman Empire". 13 May 2004; posted at History Guide
6.      McArver, Charles. "The Mycenaean Civilization", URL
7.      SparkNotes LLC. "SparkNotes: The Aeneid". 2005.
8.      SparkNotes LLC. "SparkNotes: The Odyssey". 2005
9.      Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Patrick Dickinson. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc, 1961.
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