In the first lines of the Aeneid, Virgil brings his Greek models, the Iliad and Odyssey, together by defining the parameters of heroic epic as arma virumque cano, ‘‘I sing of arms and the man.’’ If the real subject of heroic epic is ‘‘kings and battles’’ (Virg., Ecl. 6.3) and more generally how to face life and death as a man and member of a community (army, band of heroes, city-state, republic, or empire) defined and dominated by men, where do women fit in? Roman poetry often creates an explicit contradiction between women and epic by insisting on the masculinity of epic as a genre in contrast to the focus on erotic and feminine matters in elegy, and then including these very erotic topics (especially women in love and male conflicts over women) in epic itself.
Yet ancient epics in fact contain a much broader range of important female figures, even if they must often act and speak from the margins of the male community. Women are both the passive and, in the case of Roman epic, increasingly the active cause of wars as well as its carefully delineated, sometimes explicitly sacrificial victims. Women play a critical role as objects of exchange between men for the purpose of procreation, pleasure, and alliance; at the same time, a woman imported from another household or country can prove unfaithful or untrustworthy. As keepers of men’s households who can make decisions in their absence, wives in particular wield a dangerous power over men if they do not serve their husbands’ interests or if they step out of designated female roles. Mothers, on the other hand, are often powerful supporters of their sons, serving as prophets, mediators, and sources of wisdom. As prominent mourners of the dead, women can mark the losses that men’s heroic actions inflict on the community and provide a form of closure; indeed, although women tend to speak back to heroic values above all in this particular role as mourners, epic can endow them with other sorts of resisting or supporting voices as well. When a hero travels into the wider world beyond his community on a journey or quest, female figures play a major role as dangerous sexual predators and blockers, but also as necessary helpers, prophets, workers of magic, and forces of civilization. Goddesses are ubiquitous in similar roles within the male community as well. Unusual women warriors such as the barbarian Amazons actually make brilliant if shortlived forays into the battlefield itself. Occasionally women serve as significant leaders or even epic narrators.
This essay will select from a limited number of epics in order to delineate briefly some of the major roles of women in heroic epic and how they evolved over time, including
Gilgamesh, the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, Apollonius Rhodius’ Hellenistic Argonautica, Virgil’s Aeneid, and its successors under the Roman empire, Lucan’s On the Civil War, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica, Statius’ Thebaid and Achilleid, and Silius Italicus’ Punica. These Greek and Roman epics, whether myth - or history-based, represent a continuous tradition focusing on the feats of kings and heroes. Given limits of space, I omit a large body of works in hexameter verse that the ancients would regard as epic poetry, such as the ‘‘Homeric’’ and other Hymns, the didactic and cosmological poems of Hesiod or Lucretius, or Ovid’s mixed-genre Metamorphoses.