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"Imperial Venus Venatrix in the Aeneid”

David West

Ashland University

In this paper, I argue that Venus’s concern in the Aeneid for the survival of Ascanius’s line and the Trojan people arises not simply from her status as a concerned mother (Wlosok 1967, Austin 1971, Highet 1972), but principally from her drive for the honor that will accrue to her as mother of the imperial Roman descendants of the Trojans.  Moreover, while scholars usually concentrate on the power struggle between Jupiter and Juno (e.g. Feeney 1991) or the imperial ambitions of Jupiter (Hejduk 2009), I will demonstrate that the poem displays a recurring pattern in which Venus is pitted against Juno in a continual struggle by proxy for the honor associated with empire.  Vergil also construes Venus as a violent imperialist by portraying her as venatrix, associating her with the poem’s violent hunting images (Dunkle 1973, Wilhelm 1987), but in particular with those in Book 12 that concern Turnus; Venus is shown attempting to destroy the Latins in Book 10 by fomenting love for Pallas in Aeneas, a love that Putnam (1995) has persuasively argued lies behind the rage that seals Turnus’s fate.

Just as Venus gained a total triumph over Juno in terms of the honor gained from the recognition of her superior beauty in the judgment of Paris, so in the Aeneid she strives to outmaneuver Juno to establish Trojan (she hopes) over Punic or Latin imperium and thereby maintain her status as the more honored of the two goddesses.  Juno foments a storm that blows the Trojans off course, after which the first divinity to express concern for Aeneas’s honos and sceptra is not Jupiter, but Venus (1.253).  Juno makes Venus a sly offer of joint rule, but in a narrative passage evidently focalized through Venus, she is at pains to counter what she recognizes as a trick to turn away her son from his regnum in Italy (4.105-06; cf. the deceptive Venus at 10.42-43; cf. Venus vs. Juturna/Juno [12.783-87; cf. 12.798-99]).

The epiphany of Venus as a Spartan or Thracian venatrix (1.314-320) already suggests that she is bent on the violent destruction of those who represent an obstacle to the attainment of her son’s regnum.  Vergil has engaged in etymological wordplay (cf. venor in Vaan 2008; Weiden-Boyd 2014) to suggest that it is of the essence of Venus to be a hunter.  In Book 12, Venus venatrix is echoed by the venantes who wound the Punic lion Turnus (12.4-8), identified with Dido, herself a Venus victim; another simile has Turnus as a stag pursued by a venator canis (12.749-51).  The hunter by proxy is Aeneas, whose arms had been provided to him by Venus along with an express mention of Turnus (8.614).

Venus uses her powers of love to pursue imperium.  Venus endows Pallas with her special favor to make him more beautiful to Aeneas, as the morning star simile suggests (8.589-91; Jenkyns 1998: 548; cf. Wlosok 1967: 80-81, Gransden 1976, Fratantuono and Smith 2018) in conjunction with the poet’s associations of Pallas with Dido (cf. Putnam 1995).  But Venus does not use her favor to save Pallas; consequently, Aeneas, with a rage born of love, mercilessly mows down countless Latins.  Thus Jupiter’s comment that Venus is doing everything on the battlefield and not Trojan virtue (10.606-10), usually interpreted as ironic (Harrison 1991, Hejduk 2009: 303), should be read as a metapoetic signpost that Venus’s influence is indeed at work.  Venus further pursues Latin annihilation by planting a suggestion in Aeneas’s mind to destroy the city of Latinus (12.554-56).  Aeneas reneges on his earlier promise that the Latins would not be subject to the Trojans (12.568; Tarrant 2012: 235).  Vergil’s depiction of Venus as goddess of love who aims to establish an exclusively Trojan regnum in Italy offers another perspective from which to view the appropriateness of Vergil’s invocation of Erato in the second proem to recount the war and violence of the poem’s second half.

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Imperial Virgil

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