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  • Helen of Rome? Helen in Vergil’s Aeneid
  • Meredith Prince (bio)

Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, abandoned her country and family for a foreign lover, caused the Trojan War, brought death and destruction to Trojans and Greeks alike, and yet returned home after the war, un-divorced, unscathed, unpunished. Held to varying degrees of responsibility for her adultery and the war, this paradox of a woman proved both fascinating and problematic to ancient writers. In Homer’s Iliad, Helen weaves, appears on the walls of Troy, and converses with Priam. She has a love-hate relationship with Aphrodite. She rebukes Paris, but makes love to him. She laments the death of Hector. With the notable exception of herself, others mostly place the onus of the Trojan War elsewhere, on Paris or the gods. Although Helen suggests that some Trojans may not have been too friendly toward her, both Greeks and Trojans exculpate her from bringing death and destruction to so many. As Ruby Blondell (2010, 6) recently has argued, since both sides need to be fighting and dying for a worthy goal, “Blame would compromise Helen’s value, contaminating her reputation. . . . Why would anyone in his right mind fight to regain such a woman? Helen must be worth it.”1 Tragedy, however, reverses this picture. Numerous characters, especially in Euripides’ tragedies, condemn her, blame her for the war, or attribute individual events or deaths to her. Often presented within the context of war’s effects on individuals, families, and communities, the Helen of tragedy is a manipulative, arrogant, wicked, or hated woman.2

In the post-Trojan War world of Vergil’s Aeneid, which chronicles the journey of Aeneas and his fellow Trojan refugees from a ruined Troy to the foreign land of Italy, what role does Helen play? At first glance, she does not factor into Aeneas’s mission. The war has ended, Troy has fallen, and Helen has returned to Greece with her husband Menelaus. Directed by the gods and fate, Aeneas must wage war in Italy, defeat the natives, and establish there the remnants of Troy, where his descendants eventually will found the mighty city of Rome. Since Rome will rise, Aeneas must forget the past and focus on the future. In contrast to the Helen of the Iliad, the Helen of the Aeneid, for the most part, has been silenced and removed from view, as she figures most prominently in an [End Page 187] episode in which she has hidden herself and whose authenticity is debated. As Sharon James (2002, 139–40) has noted, Aeneas “is restrained by his mother from killing Helen, who then vanishes from his sight and the reader’s.” Yet just as Helen lurks in the shadows of Vesta’s temple during the fall of Troy, she lingers in the background of the Aeneid and Rome’s founding and never completely disappears.3 Regardless of Helen’s agency or accountability, would the Trojan War, the fall of Troy, or Aeneas’s journey to Italy have happened without her? Perhaps they would have, considering that fate has a mind of its own.4 Yet as Helen (of Sparta, of Troy, of Rome?) resurfaces at several points throughout the poem and Aeneas’s journey, Vergil reminds the reader of her importance to the fall of Troy and the establishment of Rome.

Scholarship on Helen in the Aeneid has focused primarily on the authenticity of the Helen episode in Book 2 and, to a lesser degree, on its sources.5 Scholars also have attempted to reconcile the inconsistencies between Aeneas’s Helen of Book 2 and Deiphobus’s Helen of Book 6, emphasizing the verbal and/or thematic parallels between them.6 Yet little attention has been paid to how Vergil (re)constructs Helen, in all her appearances, throughout the Aeneid.7 How do Vergil and different characters view, judge, and construct her, and what purpose(s) does she serve within the poem? Furthermore, in a period headed toward legislation criminalizing adultery and touting the Trojan origins of Rome, how does Vergil handle her? Does he draw on Homer’s depiction of Helen as a sympathetic and self-chastising pawn...


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pp. 187-214
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