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Inverting Empire: Amazons, Motherhood, and the Barren Future

Jessica Blum-Sorensen

University of San Francisco

For the ancient world, no more potent image of the “other” existed than the Amazons, the fabled warrior-women dwelling on the fringes of the world. Their matrilineal society—a society “inimical to civilisation” (Deacy 1997)—offered an inverse of the Roman ideal celebrated in epic, in which masculine virtus was continually passed down from father to son. But as urbs became orbis, and Republic became Empire, the boundaries between center and periphery became increasingly blurred. This paper traces the figure of the Amazon through Vergil and his successors, arguing that the Amazons represent Roman fears about the impact of powerful women on the patrilineal inheritance of the imperial center.

In the inaugural epic journey, Homer’s Odyssey sets up a contest between the hero’s quest to reestablish his oikos and the female characters who attempt to coopt him into their own. Likewise, the Aeneid pits the royal houses of Dido and Aeneas against one another in a zero-sum game of epic foundation and biological inheritance. Vergil’s alignment of Dido with Penthesilea presents her as a worthy rival to the male hero, while her desire to keep Aeneas as a father for her family line threatens to undo the Roman inheritance reaching from Ascanius to Augustus—to silence his story so that hers may be told. In contrast, in Georgics 4 Orpheus is torn apart for his refusal to marry as he ventures into the barren fields of the north (4.518: arva…uiduata): because he opts out of the biological continuum, Orpheus’ voice is fractured and silenced. In all of these works, the success of the hero’s journey—both spatial and historical—depends on his successful journey from matrilineal periphery to patrilineal center.

With the advent of empire, this gendered opposition between center and periphery collapses. Flipping the direction of the hero’s journey to, rather than away from, the matrilineal hinterland, Seneca and Valerius Flaccus explore what happens when Amazonian inversion is brought to the imperial center. Seneca associates the Amazons’ husbandlessness with Medea’s abandonment by Jason and her destruction of his family line (Boyle 2014). So too in the Argonautica, where the Argonauts continually reach foreign lands peopled by murderous, matrilineal societies that adumbrate Medea’s future vengeance: the man-slaying Lemnians, who welcome the Argonauts to their barren homes (VF. 2.397: vidui tecti), and attempt in Dido-like fashion to use them to repopulate an island bereft of men, and the Amazons themselves, who soon appear on yet more horrenda litora (VF. 4.606), a challenge that Jason must avoid to make it home. The list culminates with Medea herself, a horrenda virgo whose presence destabilizes the epic ship, and whose filicide both secures her own legacy and ruins Jason’s (Boyd 2019).

Where Odysseus and Aeneas had reified the dominance of the male line through their successful homecoming, by bringing Medea back to Greece Jason turns epic nostos into tragic destruction, overwriting his legacy with Medea’s barren triumph. Through the advent of epic Amazons, the imperial center becomes a tragic domus marked by dynastic discontinuity.

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Hybrid Epicenters: Peripheral Adaptation in Flavian Literature

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