Virgil and the Male
I’ve been meaning to get a few thoughts down that I had last year. I’ve finally found a free moment and I thought I’d give it a shot.
I haven’t read much scholarly work on Virgil or The Aeneid, so it’s quite possible that I’m just rehashing the usual or that I’m completely out to lunch. That said, it struck me last spring when I was teaching through the story that one of the central themes is that of masculinity. At least one of the questions that he is attempting to tackle is ‘What does it mean to be a man?’
My thesis is that for Virgil, and perhaps most Romans, the answer was that a man was one who found his identity -as a man- alongside other men, particularly the warlike. Aeneas loses his wife to the flames of Troy, but he finds strength in the wisdom and direction of his father. It is only when his father dies, that he becomes distracted by the wiles of Dido. And this is just as much a commentary on what is feminine. Throughout the story, the goddess Juno is the one harassing Aeneas and bringing trouble and hardship to him. She is the ultimate personification of ‘furor’, full of irrational and emotionally driven angst. She struggles against Fate, which by this time, seems even more powerful than the king of the gods himself. Consequently, Aeneas must learn ‘pietas’, that is, true piety which is submission to the impersonal and distant decrees of Fate. Zeus is the god who has the most weight to throw around, but he seems to be in submission to Fate himself. Thus with the matter of Dido, Aeneas is not only ridding himself of ‘furor’ and submitting to Fate, but he is ridding himself of the feminine and thus becoming more of a man (and godlike). It is only as Aeneas leaves Dido and finds guidance from his Father (in a vision) that he is able to pursue the course set out by Fate. The only other prominent woman in the story is Camilla, the Amazon warrior girl. She is praised and honored, though not surprisingly, because she is a warrior. She fights like a man and dies like one too.
My point being that the pattern of masculinity in the Aeneid is almost the mirror opposite of the pattern given in Scripture. Aeneas leaves the woman that thinks she is his wife and cleaves to his father. It is in this cleaving that he is able to embrace his calling as a warrior and eventual founder of a great city. As a husband he thwarts the fates and is idle and unproductive. True manhood, true masculinity, it would seem, is cleaving to men and finding strength through submission to Fate and swinging a sword. But the Creation pattern paints the picture differently. Men are not good alone, rather they find their fullness in leaving father and mother and cleaving to their wife. This is not to say that some have not been called to celibacy, but the normal pattern is that of a man with his bride. This is true masculinity. Not only is the Aeneid a slap in the face of the high calling given to women, it (again, not surprisingly) falls short of the glory of the gospel. The Son left his Father, and though he has returned, has not returned empty handed, having squandered time and energy for nothing. We have no need to build a funeral pyre, scream curses at our savior, and commit suicide. He has married us and is bringing us into fellowship with His Father. And it is through us that He is building his eternal city.
Finally, it is not surprising that Virgil would have expressed this pattern elsewhere. In his eighth Eclogue, Virgil records two shepherds lamenting the loss of their lovers. The first sings of how the woman he loved left him and will probably never return. The song ends in despair, as he contemplates suicide. The proverbs of Virgil would say that the way of any woman is death. The following song, is said by Virgil to be a reply. At any rate, the second fellow sings of his lover who has “changed his mind”, but this shepherd’s reaction is not despair but rather that of a magic spell and prayers to the gods. Through the course of this short ballad we learn that the lover who has gone is male, and he, whether in response to the charms or not, returns to his lover at the end of the song. It’s quite possible that I’m wrong about my interpretation of this eclogue, maybe there’s a better way to read it. But it does not seem out of place for a Roman to be insinuating the “glory” of male lovers, nor does it seem unfitting for Virgil. The logic of the Aeneid seems to demand homosexuality as true masculinity. The shepherd, like Aeneas, submits to the gods and finds love and manhood in other men.