ElAnt v4n1 - Ambiguity and the Female Warrior: Vergil's Camilla

Volume 4, Number 1
August 1997


Trudy Harrington Becker ,
Classical Studies Program,
Center for Interdisciplinary Studies,
Virginia Tech,
Virginia 24061-0227,
e-mail: thbecker@vt.edu

In Book 7 of Vergil's Aeneid , the maiden warrior Camilla leads her people to join the forces of Turnus, who prepares for battle against his fated adversary, the Trojan Aeneas. Camilla occupies a place of no little significance in the catalogue of Turnus' allies: she appears last, a position usually reserved in epic for a warrior of great merit and reputation. She is not, however, the traditional epic hero, as her gender sets her apart. Unlike other women in the Aeneid , she rejects the appropriate roles and actions of women, behaves more like a man, and presents to the readers a paradox. Upon first meeting Camilla, the reader is struck by an incongruity: she is both experienced warrior and female. Among mortal female characters in the Aeneid , she stands apart.

Vergil's female warrior, Camilla, is a different sort of character, and purposefully so. I would like to go a step further than noting her ambiguity. What needs more elucidation is the very purpose of her ambiguity, and I would like to propose an answer: that the character of Camilla neatly expresses not just her ambiguity but the ambiguity of the Aeneid as a whole. (1) An analogy might be made between her ambiguity and the overall tone of Vergil's epic; her character mimics and encapsulates its uneasiness. I will look at the many sources of her ambiguity: her placement in Book 7's catalogue, and the disparities and similarities Vergil creates between Camilla and mortal women, Camilla and non-mortal women, and Camilla and male warriors. These numerous instances show that there are many layers to Camilla's ambiguity, her gender, her actions and her role, and reactions to her, and that these result in Camilla as a cumulative force--her character resonates with many Vergilian figures and Vergilian themes of heroism and sacrifice. She is like many characters in the Aeneid , and unlike many; she is troublesome to understand and complex, like the Aeneid itself, and purposefully so.


I like to describe Camilla as marginal, on the fringes of society. Our first meeting with Camilla in Book 7 at the end of the catalogue of Turnus' allies confirms this description. Riding in, leading a host of Volscian soldiers, she is dura virgo (a hard maiden) and proelia pati (inured to battle, 7.806-7). At least in the text she is on the very edge, tagged on, almost appendix-like. Appendix-like, because the credible antagonist to Aeneas, Turnus, appears just before Camilla is introduced; surely he might have come last, rather than some renegade female warrior.

Camilla's placement in the catalogue is the first among many purposefully ambiguous descriptions of Camilla by Vergil. Why last? The answers posed have ranged from the plausible to the unsatisfying. Some have suggested that Camilla is analogous to female warriors in other catalogues and epics, particularly Artemisia in Herodotus' Histories . Camilla also mirrors Penthesilea's placement as last among the scenes described by Vergil as adorning the temple in Carthage in Book 1. Vergil's locating Camilla at the end of the catalogue parallels the placement of aliens and women in other catalogues to suggest inferiority of one group to another, and thus hints at doom to come. (2) Certainly one of the prevailing characteristics of Camilla is the foreshadowing of doom, both hers and the Italians.

Camilla's catalogue appearance is layered with resonances, including similarities to other catalogue-closers, and similarities to other Vergilian figures, which are on the whole disconcerting. I would like to examine only one of these similarities, a relationship drawn out in the catalogue between Turnus and Camilla, which might explain Camilla's placement and its intentional effect. As the closer, Camilla effectively undercuts the grandeur accorded to Turnus; she deprives him of the position of honor. Furthermore, Vergil's ecphrastic description of her explicitly points to the effect the sight of Camilla has on others, attonitis inhians animis , (gaping at her, with minds stunned, 7. 814), and thus Vergil privileges her over Turnus, the magnificent Rutulian hero.

Turnus appears in Book 7's catalogue just prior to Camilla, and like her, an ecphrasis helps to describe him. In Book 7, line 789, Turnus shoulders a levem clipeum , a light shield, emblazoned with the figure of Io done up in gold, and on it too Argus protecting her, and her father Inachus pouring out a stream from an urn caelata (engraved). Yet the words Vergil uses to depict this shield draw attention to its "shield-ness"; it's in gold, and engraved. With this ecphrastic technique Vergil invites the reader to examine the shield, surely a knock-off of Aeneas' shield, in all its splendor. The ecphrasis emphasizes Turnus' trappings, not his skills or abilities.

Ecphrasis can work differently, however. (3) Rather than just leading the viewer to an image, ecphrasis can also suggest an appropriate reaction we might take, by supplying a concurrent reaction in a different viewer, usually the narrator or a participant in the scene. And that is what Vergil does in his description of Camilla at the end of Book 7. Vergil creates here the image of a strong and different kind of woman. Our first glimpse of Camilla is heady and powerful.

Hos super advenit Volsca de gente Camilla          803
agmen agens equitum et florentis aere catervas
bellatrix, non illa colo calathisve Minervae
femineas adsueta manus, sed proelia virgo
dura pati cursuque pedum praevertere ventos.
illa vel intactae segetis per summa volares
gramina nec teneras cursu laesisset aristas,
vel mare per medium fluctu suspensa tumenti        810
ferret iter celeris nec tingeret aeqore plantas.
illam omnis tectis agrisque effusa iuventus
turbaque miratur matrum et prospectat euntem,
attonitis inhians animis ut regius ostro
velet honos levis umeros, ut fibula crinem         815
auro internectat, Lyciam ut gerat ipsa pharetram
et pastoralem praefixa cuspide myrtum.

Besides all these there came from the Volscian nation Camilla
Leading a cavalry army, squadrons petalled with bronze;
A warrior maid, her woman's hands unaccustomed to womanly
Tasks--to the distaff, the basket of wool; a girl, but hardy
To face the horrors of battle and to catch up with the winds.
She could have skimmed along the blades of an unmown corn-crop
Without so much as bruising their tender ears as she ran:
She could have flitted over the waves of a swelling sea
Without so much as wetting the quicksilver soles of her feet.
From field and cottage the young came running, the housewives 
To stare at this Camilla and marvel as she went by,
Gaping, struck with amazement to see how nobly sat
The cloak of royal crimson on her smmoth shoulders--see
The gold clasp in her hair, the Lycian quiver she carried
And the spear-shaft of country myrtle with its warhead.
                        (C. Day Lewis)

We see Camilla outstripping the winds and floating over the tips of the grain, but more importantly, we see, and are told, how others react to her; mothers and young gape at and marvel at her (812-3). By providing in the text one audience's reaction to Camilla, Vergil encourages a similar one in us. With Turnus, the reader is caught up in the business of examining his golden and engraved shield and its physical aspects. With Camilla, however, Vergil desires that the reader pay attention to her, and directs us to look at her by demonstrating her effect upon others. Vergil supplies this for us: Camilla's onlookers marvel and gape at her, they wonder and are amazed, they recognize her as different. (4)

Camilla's appearance in the catalogue showcases Vergil's use of her intentional ambiguity; through the implicit comparison of her and Turnus, he uses her to question characters and themes. Through his ecphrastic handling of these two Italian heroes, he purposefully creates a comparison between the two in which Camilla appears the winner. In this first meeting with Camilla, Vergil makes her both superior to and similar to Turnus; both are heroic, tragic, and bigger than life, and both are doomed. Camilla is emphasized instead of the expected hero, and the irony foretells misgivings, her doom foreshadows his, and her death will precede his. Vergil predicts that all their heroism and valor will not stand either one of them well, because, in fact, this kind of heroic behavior will not stand anyone well. (5)


In her role as marginal, Camilla is analogous to no other women, mortal at least, in the Aeneid . Superficially, however, she and the unmarried women of the Aeneid , such as Lavinia, have something in common. Camilla is a virgo , a maiden, and she, like Lavinia, is intemerata , untouched (11.584). But the similarities between her and Lavinia end there. Lavinia, the cause of so much evil ( causa mali tanti , 11.480), is an entirely passive character; she does not speak at all in the epic, her virginity is only temporary and she awaits the typically feminine role of wife and mother. (6) Camilla is the antithesis of Lavinia. Her virginity is of an entirely different sort. Her committment to a celibate life is the result, and her lifestyle as hunter and devotee of Diana assures that Camilla will never be like the other virgines (maidens). (7)

Vergil's use of the term miratur (is amazed at) in Book 7, line 813 demonstrates too that Camilla is unlike other mortal women. Versions of the word miratur appear commonly in Vergil, some forty-eight times, to indicate something that ought to be marvelled at or held in awe. The word reminds us and is of course related to the phrase mirabile dictu (amazing to say), and mirabile visu (amazing to see), both of which phrases suggest a sight which can scarcely well be expressed in words. (8) Miratur and its variants imply something out of the ordinary and worthy of attention. That is precisely the case with Camilla. Unlike other mortal women, despite the common denominator of virginity, Camilla is something to wonder at, an item deserving a second look. She is woman as other, as different, and so her onlookers gape at her. (9)

In another way, Vergil points out the discrepancy between Camilla and mortal women, and continues to cast her as ambiguous. He does this by paralleling Camilla to non-mortal women, divine and mythical. Vergil uses language to describe her which is more reminiscent of that used for these women. For instance, Camilla is horrenda (awesome, terrifying, 11.507) like the Sibyl (6.10) and like Juno (7.323). She is also, like Juno, aspera (1.279-Juno, 11.664-Camilla), harsh or fierce. In the Aeneid Vergil uses the word aspera mainly to describe inanimate forces such as nature or war, and some extraordinary characters. Camilla, when described as aspera , finds herself in non-mortal company; among females, only Allecto and Juno are so called. If we consider men who are so described, we can include Turnus and Mezentius in this not particulary savory or lady-like company. (10) Vergil even goes so far as to call Camilla, a mortal woman, dia or godlike(11.657).

In fact, Camilla herself is extraordinary in that she is a creation of Vergil, unknown before him and unattested after. (11) Vergil creates a woman who is unlike other women in the Aeneid , but is rather a compilation of different types of unorthodox women. Camilla is a conflation of the virginal huntress and the warrior princess. In the Aeneid , Vergil draws connections between both of these kinds of mythical women and Camilla; the first of these types is drawn out in the mythical Thracian Harpalyce. Harpalyce, like Camilla, enjoyed a rural upbringing, was motherless, was an outcast of sorts from civilized life due to her father's 'ostracism' by his people, was a venatrix (female hunter), bore virginal arms, and preferred to roam the forests hunting until her death. (12)

The paradigm for the second of these types of unorthodox women, the warrior princess, is Penthesilea, and Vergil overtly creates similarities between Camilla and her in several instances. (13) In Book 1, when Aeneas views the decorated walls of the temple in Carthage, he see on it Penthesilea, bellatrix, audetque viris concurrere virgo (a female warrior, a maiden who dared to join in battle with men, 1.493); she carries weapons, she dresses differently, and fights alongside female troops as Camilla will. Later, in Book 11 both Camilla and her women are explicitly described as Amazon-like: at medias inter caedes exsultat Amazon (in the middle of the slaughter she exulted like an Amazon, 11.648), and pictis bellantur Amazones armis (with ornamented weapons they wage war like Amazons, 11.660). Vergil's description of the Volscian followers of Camilla asserts that Camilla's women behave as Hippolyta and Penthesilea do in battle (11.659-663), and Vergil reuses phrases which earlier described Penthesilea in Book 1. (14)

Not only is Camilla unlike mortal women in the Aeneid , she also eschews proper roles for mortal women: wife and mother. Limited by her celibacy, she will not bear nor raise children, nor will she take a husband. Such devotion to a life of celibacy prompts foreboding comparisons to at least two other figures: Hippolytus (of Euripides) and Penthesilea. Hippolytus was the doomed and angry son of Theseus whose insistence on chastity spelled his death at the hands of Aphrodite. Camilla lacks the anger and hostility of Hippolytus, regarding her chastity, yet a lingering hint of doom still prevails, particularly since Hippolytus' son (in an engineered coincidence) directly precedes Turnus in the catalogue of allies in book 7 (line 761). There the story of Hippolytus and Phaedra is only cursorily mentioned in little more than two lines (7.765-6), yet these lines emphasize the horrible punishment and death of Hippolytus. (15) Camilla's chosen chastity and its resonance with both Hippolytus and the maiden Penthesilea foreshadows her death. Penthesilea's death at the hands of Achilles, who falls in love with her at the inopportune moment of her dying, was not portrayed by Vergil, yet the scene was a popular and common one, and the story well known. Unlike her counterpart, however, Camilla's death will display no elegance, only tragic pathos.

Camilla's rejection of appropriate roles of wife and mother marks her most clearly as different; not only does she choose chastity, but she chooses the chastity of a venatrix devoted to Diana. By forsaking typical feminine duties, she becomes non illa colo calathisve Minervae/femineas adsueta manus (her womanly hands not accustomed to the distaff and wool-basket of Minerva, 7.805-7). By this crucial measure alone, she is outside the boundaries of society. (16) Her dissimilarities with other mortal women, and her untraditional role are all facets which contribute to Camilla's ambiguity, and create an unsettling character.


If Camilla's actions and her role are ambiguous, or at least not typically feminine, perhaps they are more like those of the male warriors of this story. Camilla is a woman of action-- she runs, she fights, she leads and commands, she devises strategy and she conquers. These are all commendable attributes of a man, even a hero perhaps. She is interrita (11.711), unafraid and frightening, she is a bellatrix (7.805), a warrior who is female. (17) Only one other female in the Aeneid is so called, and that is Penthesilea (1.493). Among other individuals in the Aeneid who receive the apellation bellator are Mars and Turnus, thus casting Camilla securely in the role of fighter.

When we meet Camilla in Book 11, she dares (in line 502), to propose to Turnus a strategy in which she and her followers would play the prominent role, an offensive and daring tactical manouever which would in turn leave Turnus guarding the walls, a less than noble undertaking for him. Turnus in gratitude accepts her help, and a version of this offer, calling her decus Italiae virgo , virgin maiden and glory of Italy, a suitable pairing for Camilla who embodies both female virginity and the more masculine desire for glory. Moreover, Turnus agrees that she should mecum partire laborem (share the work with me [Turnus], 11.510), as kind of a co-commander, at least for this phase of the battle. Ducis , "you lead", he says, and lead too the forces he offers to supplement hers. What's striking are the reactions to her plan: first Turnus' ready agreement, indicating a high level of trust and confidence in her, and secondly, silence on the part of those whom Camilla would lead in the place of Turnus. Nowhere does Vergil imply that Camilla as leader is unwelcome or unfit. Vergil does not depict Camilla as a dux femina , a term used by some Roman authors to indicate the female ruler, a barbarian institution which signified a society gone awry. Other Roman authors considered a female ruler and female general, dux femina , to be un-Roman, and expressly to be avoided. The female general served as an indicator of female usurpation of male power, and thus a sign of a serious malady in society. Vergil instead reserves that term for Aeneas' doomed lover and queen of Carthage, Dido (1.364). Camilla is to be admired for her martial prowess rather than feared as an example of a woman out of control. (18)

When Vergil asks at line 664, Book 11: quem telo primum, quem postremum, aspera virgo/deicis (whom first and whom last, harsh maiden, did you hurl down with your spear), the reader recognizes that Camilla is qualified, prepared for battle, and successful as well. This resonant line elicits many thoughts. First, Vergil connects Camilla's actions in battle with Turnus' similar actions: Vergil begins to recount each catalogue of victims in a similar fashion. (19) Also, line 664 is reminiscent of Homer's Iliad (Bk 16. 92-93), when Homer asks for assistance from the Muses to elaborate on the conquests of Patroclus in battle. The implication is that Camilla is as good a warrior as these best heroes of epic.

Camilla's conquests and her victories on the field are to be couched in language used to describe Aeneas and Turnus, and in the very same type of language of that most martial epic, the Iliad . Camilla is a soldier, and Vergil describes her in the terms of a fighter with masculine attributes, skills, and even weapons, as she uses a spear rather than the more womanly bow and arrow. Camilla resorts to insulting and mocking her victims, just as Aeneas and Turnus do. Aeneas' comment to the dying Lausus (10.829-30) is recalled by Camilla (11.689), when she taunts her victim: telo cecidisse Camillae (you have fallen by the spear of Camilla). Turnus speaks similarly (9.742). The emphasis by all three is on the enduring fame attached to their name, male or female.

In other ways Camilla behaves as a soldier in battle. While she taunts some, she is goaded by others, and her pride, a suitable male attribute, compels her to take on the biggest foe and greatest challenge. And so, when the son of Aunus presses her to engage in hand to hand battle rather than from a horse, she seethes in anger and takes up the challenge (11.705). (20) Her punishment of him which follows is brutal, yet reminiscent of epic battle. Vergil uses the simile of a hawk killing a dove, the hawk being a hunter by nature like Camilla herself, who "holds it and rips out its entrails with hooked claws while blood and torn feathers float down from the sky" (11.721-4). What exactly Camilla does to this son of Aunus is not expressed, but Vergil's description of Camilla's style of warfare conforms to the conventions of epic. Homer uses the simile of a hawk and a dove to describe Achilles' pursuit of Hector, who in that scene eludes the hawk. (21) Not so here, Camilla's arrogance was goaded, and she retaliates in good epic fashion. Not for her the loom and distaff.

Camilla fights like a man: she jabs and stabs and thrusts and blood pours forth, she is triumphant like them, she is furens (mad- crazy, 11.709) like both Aeneas and Turnus. Similarities to Turnus and Aeneas appear relentlessly in her actions in battle. (22) Even in death Camilla appears like one of them: her death and Turnus' death are described by the very same line, the line which closes the whole Aeneid : vitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras (with a groan her undeserving spirit fled to the shades, 11.831 and 12.952). Rather than symbolizing closure, this line serves to signify loss. Vergil pointedly uses Camilla to question the glories touted in epic battle, to remind us of the lost hopes, the loss of a heroic warrior in Camilla, the loss of Turnus to come, a focus on griefs and the exacting cost of final victory for Aeneas and Rome.

Yet throughout much of Book 11 when Camilla engages in battle, signs mark her as female, if not necessarily feminine. Over and over again, Vergil reminds the reader carefully that Camilla is a woman, not a man at all. She is called virgo (virgin or maiden) or adjectival versions of that some 14 times in book 11, a word declaring a stereotypical female virtue. She lives undefiled and preserves a love for her chastity (11.584-5), which is of significance chiefly for women. Her weapons are virginal (11.808), and even her blood, when it drains from her at death, is virginal (11.804). The goddess Diana prophesies and promises death to that one whoever would violate her sacred body, with a wound (11.591), but suggestive still of violating her chastity, reminding us again that Camilla is female. (23)

Perhaps one of the most intriguing phrases used to create a portrait of Camilla in Book 11 is one that clearly marks her as woman. In the middle of Diana's account of Camilla's early years, Vergils throws out this line: 'many Etruscan mothers desired in vain her for a daughter-in-law' (11.581-2). Why would any Etruscan mother desire Camilla as a daughter-in-law? The daughter of a cruel outcast despot, raised in the wilds, given to whirling the sling round her head at swans, dressed in a tiger skin, this woman demonstrated no respectable and expected feminine skills. More relevant is the question: why does Vergil say this? Perhaps he is suggesting that Etruscan mothers prefer more independent daughters-in-law (!), or perhaps he is recognizing that Etruscan women enjoyed more freedoms than women of his day. Or, is this praise--as in the greatest praise for a woman was to be desired as a wife and then mother? Is he ironic, proposing that Camilla's skills are more useful, at least in civil war, than those of the socially trained Roman wife? Or ironic, in that this line mimics a similar line in Catullus's marriage poem 62 (l. 42), an epithalamium, a kind of song which Camilla will never use? The conjectures are numerous, but each unsatisfying. The implication is clear, however, that Camilla is a woman, and viewed by some as such; her most appropriate role may still be marriage, but her realized role is not.

Vergil also takes great pains to describe Camilla in Book 11 through words (rather than by name) which are expressly female, such as femina (woman), regina (queen), and bellatrix (female warrior). Camilla herself reminds her intended victims that she is a woman, and that she will bring them down, muliebribus armis (with womanly arms, 11.687). Tarchon rouses his frightened allies with the remonstrance that a woman, not named, just a femina , has turned them back (11.734).

Lastly, it is an explicitly womanly desire which distracts Camilla's attention from the battle, and which provides Arruns with the opportunity to dispatch her. We are told that Camilla followed the priest Chloreus either to affix his gold and armor to the temple of Diana, or to wear it when hunting, or femineo praedae et spoliorum ardebat amore (she burned with a womanly love for booty and spoils, 11.782). Perhaps Camilla seeks Chloreus' gold because she wears gold (7.816). (24) In the Aeneid other liminal characters sport gold too, for example, the barbarian Gauls on the shield of Aeneas (8.659-62). The Trojans wear gold. Penthesilea does as well, Dido too. But Vergil emphasizes not Camilla's pursuit of gold, but her desire for booty and spoils. There are two issues at work here: first, Vergil's condemnation of Camilla's desire for spoils which will eventually kill her, and secondly, Vergil's curious comment about her womanly desire for these spoils. Vergil's implicit condemnation of Camilla's yearning for booty echoes his earlier disapproval of heroes who long for spoils, and then are ruined by them. Among those who perish thus are Turnus and Euryalus. Vergil entered the text previously to offer a condemnation of Turnus greed for Pallas' belt (10.502) and Euryalus (9.365 and 9.373), and 'prospectively, Camilla is also condemned' and 'the poet enters the text to condemn her'. (25) Vergil has earlier come down heavily on the excesses of booty, and he may be doing so again here.

But why the use of the term femineo (womanly) ? Does Vergil mean this as a condemnation of Camilla, of women? Is desire for booty and spoils a womanly desire? Not according to epic conventions; a hero rightly seeks these rewards of battle, an entirely masculine exploit. How are we to explain this turn of phrase, as another in a string of ambivalent portrayals of Camilla? Does femineo mean foolish, or risky? Apparently, according to Servius, who glosses femineo as irrationabili (irrational) and inpatienti (not steadfast). G. Williams also equates femineo with foolish (trivial, giddy) as in her lust for gold which ultimately destroys her. (26) While Vergil's women may be passionate, they are, however, far from foolish. (27)

Additionally, had Vergil wanted to condemn her as a woman, he might have explicitly done so by deriding her unfeminine behavior, which he never does. He might have condemned her as a woman by emphasizing some failing, rather than her heroic pursuit of booty. He draws our attention again to the paradox of Camilla; she is womanly, yet she is heroic, she is a hero and yet her heroic actions cause her death. Vergil takes the opportunity not to idict women, but to descry the heroic code of behavior which prides itself on glory and booty. (28) This is what Vergil is intending us to see. Ironically, some lines later (11.892), Vergil uses Camilla as the supreme example of patriotism: a true love of country drives her actions. Not gold at all, nor womanly desires. And yet, whether Camilla behaves like a man or a woman, her ambiguity continues to perplex the reader, who mourns her death yet recognizes that it is necessary for Aeneas' destiny. She remains above all inscrutable.


What may be most troublesome about Camilla are reactions to her, though some reactions to Camilla are ambiguous, others not at all. The Trojans' reactions to her are never ambiguous--they fear her and appreciate her martial abilities. Camilla's own people do not react ambiguously to her--they follow her, follow her lead, cherish and love her, they mourn her death. Camilla's allies, particularly Turnus, respect her and praise her. 'We still have Camilla', Turnus tells his forces to rally their spirits (11.432). And after her death when the city is being besieged, even mothers pitch in to fight, amor verus patriae, ut videre Camillam (with a true love of country, as they saw Camilla, 11.892). It is the reactions of outsiders, or even readers, however, which remain ambiguous. I would like to point out one episode which serves to express well one source of our confused reactions to her, and perhaps clarifies Vergil's purpose for Camilla's cumulative ambiguity.

The episode in Book 11 tells the graphic story of Camilla's victims. A closer look at these lines shows Vergil's expert handling of the text to create a tone of chaos, confusion, and ambiguity centered on Camilla. In these lines, Vergil creates a pattern of victim, battle and death, and only then the identity of the victor. He creates battle scenes in which he buries the identity of Camilla, only to, every ten lines or so, reveal her by the use of a feminine word. The overall result of this technique is to highlight the confusion and unmitigating circumstances of warfare. (29) A reader can only react with uncertainty.

Eunaeum Clytio primum patre, cuius apertum
adversi longa transverberat abiete pectus.
sanguinis ille vomens rivos cadit atque cruentam
mandit humum moriensque suo se in vulnere versat.
tum Lirim Pagasumque super, quorum alter habenas     670
suffuso revolutus equo dum colligit, alter
dum subit ac dextram labenti tendit inermem
praecipites pariterque ruunt.  his addit Amastrum
Hippotaden, sequiturque incumbens eminus hasta
Tereaque Harpalycumque et Demophoonta Chromimque;
quotque emissa manu contorsit spicula virgo          676
tot Phrygii cecidere viri.

Eunaeus, son of Clytius was the first.  When he stood face to face 
her and she drove the long pine shaft of her spear 
through his unprotected chest, he vomited rivers of blood
and champed the gory earth with his teeth, twisting himself
round his wound as he died.  Then she brought down Liris
and Pagasus on top of him: Liris when he was trying to
collect the reins after his wounded horse had reared and 
thrown him, Pagasus when he came and stretched out an
undefended right hand to support Liris as he fell; but they
both went flying head over heels.  Then she sent Amastrus,
the son of Hippotas, to join them, and raced after Tereus
and Harpalycus, Demophoon and Chromis, pressing them
hard even at long range with her spear, and for every dart
that the maiden flew from her hand, a Trojan hero fell.
                        (David West, adapted)

In lines 666-676, for example, Camilla lays low her victims, yet the language avoids any mention of her name, even of gender. We read only that someone [in the 3rd person singular] fights; the emphasis is on those killed. This conquering hero could very well be a he, even ought to be a he. The subject of this particular 10 line episode is left in the background; these lines could work well for any fighter. Only when we reach line 676 does a reader learn that Camilla is the subject: Vergil calls her not by name there, but emphasizes her gender and calls her virgo . This pattern is repeated in lines 677 through 687, yet slightly modified by the inclusion of one word hinting at Camilla. Here again first a Trojan is described, whom 'someone' pursues; 10 lines later the reader begins to hear the conqueror's words, and only at the next line (687) does the reader understand it to be Camilla as signalled not by her name, but by the phrase muliebribus armis (with womanly arms); the name Camilla is not mentioned until two lines later. Lines 690-705 echo this pattern as well: victim or victims, pursuit and death of enemy, and finally, many lines later, the signal that a woman was performing these deeds. The hint here is the term reginam (queen), not her name.

Vergil's concealing and then revealing the identity and gender of the victorious warrior serves to create an atmosphere mimicking that of warfare, the confusion and horror. This is ambiguity's purpose here. An emphasis on victims, the difficulty in identifying the victorious, and the result of warfare suggests less than glorious achievements. Camilla is a salient example of the uneasiness about warfare which pervades the epic.


Vergil's creation of Camilla as different but assimilating the characteristics of so many provides him the opportunity to bring together layers and resonances of many typical Vergilian themes: virginity, doom, aristeia , valor, heroism. Vergil both praises Camilla's work--it is heroic and emulates the heroic behavior of Aeneas and Turnus--and decries it. What is disconcerting throughout is not only reactions to Camilla or even her gender or role, but her identity; yet all these are inconsequential compared to a more important theme, that of the consequences of warfare, particularly civil war. Whether the perpetrator is male or female, enemy or ally, the work of the battlefield is unilaterally unglorious.

What is ambiguous about Camilla is that some of us, Vergil perhaps and her onlookers and readers, know not how to react to her; we are left, like them, attonitis , our minds stunned and awhirl, and inhians , our mouths hanging open. Camilla is female, but not quite like other women; a warrior, but not like other male warriors. Camilla's ambiguity is often predicated on her gender, and ambiguity allows her, a literary figure, to escape the stereotypes and traditional roles prescribed for Roman women. Her ambiguity is cumulative, resonates on many different layers, and troubles the reader, and may be emblematic of the Aeneid as a whole: the enemy is often sympathetic, familiar roles and stereotypes often fail, one's allegiance is divided, and there is no secure place for the audience to stand.


(1) Recent Vergilian scholarship abounds with those who have jumped on the bandwagon of ambiguity-- that is, ambiguity as a central and provocative thesis or useful tool in reading the Aeneid . Like many, I too champion ambiguity as a motivating force (for us) in recognizing layers and perspectives and multiples readings. For me, ambiguity means complexity and intensity and the surfeit of meaning, creating a feeling of uneasiness in the audience. It is a rich word, assumes a rich experience with the text and is therefore in this article a positive term. Except where noted, all translations are my own. For the two longer passages I have quoted, I have chosen the translation of C. Day Lewis ( The Eclogues, Georgics and Aeneid of Virgil , Oxford University Press, 1966) for the first (the description of Camilla in the catalogue) because of its poetic rhythm and translations of reactions to Camilla, and the translation of David West for the second passage (Book 11) for its literal translation of phrases which are necessary for my argument ( Virgil, the Aeneid, a New Prose Translation , Penguin Books, 1991).

(2) Among many who have published on the catalogue, see Williams, R.D., 'The Function and Structure of Virgil's Catalogue in Aeneid 7', CQ 11: (1961), pp. 146-153; E. Frankel, 'Some Aspects of the Structure of the Aeneid ', JRS 35 (1945), 1-14; Courtney, E., 'Vergils' Military Catalogues and their Antecedents', Vergilius 34 (1988), 3-8. Barbara Weiden Boyd, 'Virgil's Camilla and the Traditions of Catalogue and Ecphrasis' AJP 113 (1992), pp. 213-234, summarizes some of these; her treatment of Camilla rests on Vergil's use of the ethnographic tradition and ecphrasis to explain her catalogue placement; she also compares Camilla and Artemisia. On Penthesilea's placement in the art 'catalogue', see R. G. Austin , Aeneidos:Liber Primus , (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), p. 165, note to l. 493; Boyd (1992), p. 225-6; and K. Stanley, 'Irony and Foreshadowing in Aeneid 1.462', AJP 86 (1965), p. 275-6. For Artemisia, see Herodotus, Histories VII.99.

(3) On the ability of ecphrasis to suggest this, see A.S. Becker, The Shield of Achilles and the Poetics of Ekphrasis (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995), passim.

(4) Boyd (1992), passim, devotes a differently focused discussion to Vergil's ecphrastic description of Camilla.

(5) See further discussion below on other similarities between this pair.

(6) The typically feminine roles of wife and mother as prescibed for the Roman woman are laid out in a number of places now; for starters see Elaine Fantham et al., Women in the Classical World , (Oxford, 1994), p. 227. On Lavinia, see R. D. Williams, The Aeneid of Vergil, Books 7-12 , (St. Martin's Press, 1977), p. 171, note to Book 7, lines 52f.

(7) Camilla is like one other mortal woman in the Aeneid , Dido. The connections and pulls between Dido, Camilla, and Penthesilea are quite thick. Dido is virginal too by choice, is described as qeen as well, and, as leader of her people, assumes a masculine role. Like Camilla, she too dies tragically. On Camilla and Dido, refer to R.O.A.M. Lyne, Further Voices in Vergil's Aeneid , (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 136 and note 57. For more on Camilla and Dido, see Stanley (1965), pp. 275-6. The similarities between Penthesilea and Camilla are outlined below. The similarities between Pentheseleia and Dido are more subtle; after Aeneas views the temple in Carthage with its image of Penthesilea on it, he immediately sees the real Dido, who is described as like Diana (1.499) here and later when preparing for a hunt (4.133-39); see again Lyne (1987), p. 136, and M. Wilhelm, 'Venus, Diana, Dido and Camilla in the Aeneid ', Vergilius 33 (1987), pp. 43-48, and Boyd (1992), pp. 225-6.

(8) On the implications of mirabile visu , refer to Austin (1971), p. 61, note to Book 1, line 111.

(9) The phrase "woman as other" is an accepted terminology for the method used by countless authors to indicate women as different and out of the ordinary parameters of society, which of course would be male-dominated. On Camilla as other, see again Barbara Weiden Boyd (1992) whose argument focuses on the ethnographic tradition which Vergil relies on to produce a character who is alien and barbarian; Boyd too suggests that Vergil's use of ecphrasis causes both the onlookers and readers to stand in awe of her who symbolizes doom for those allied with her, p. 229.

(10) Turnus as asper , Bk 9.62; Mezentius, 7.647; Allecto, 7.505.

(11) See R.D. Williams (1977), p. 226, note to lines 803f.

(12) See Austin (1971), p. 118-9, note to Book 1, line 317; C. J. Fordyce, P. Vergili Maronis: Aeneidos , Libris VII-VIII , (Oxford, 1977), p. 201-2, notes to Book 7, lines 803ff.; R.D.Williams (1977), p. 422, note to Book 11, line 648f.

(13) See Austin (1971), p. 165, note to Book 1, line 493.

(14) For instance, lunatis agmina peltis (lines of battle with crescent-shaped shields, 11. 663 and 1.490).

(15) Vergil lays the blame for the death of Hippolytus not on Aphrodite but on Phaedra who is unnamed here, but responsible, arte novercae occiderit (he perished by the skills of his stepmother, 7. 765-766).

(16) Wool-working was the occupation of every respectable Roman woman, as evidenced by a variety of virtuous women such as the industrious Lucretia (Livy, History of Rome , 1.57.3-1.59.6) and the deceased woman described in an oft-cited epitaph: 'she kept the house and worked in wool' ( CIL VI.15346). In Book 8.409, Vergil depicts the Trojan women as weaving, Dido weaves too.

(17) Camilla is not, however, described as a virago (a man-like warrior maiden); Vergil uses this word to describe only Juturna (12.468).

(18) Francesca Santoro L'hoir, 'Tacitus and Women's Usurpation of Power', CW 88 (1994), pp. 5-26 neatly presents the topos of the dux femina .

(19) See line 525, bk 9: I pray to you Calliope, to breathe upon me as I sing of the death and destruction wrought by the sword of Turnus'.

(20) R.D. Williams (1977), p. 425, note to Book 11, lines 705-6, comments on the alliteration of the line: femina forti fidis equo (you, a woman, trust in a strong horse) as indicating sarcasm centered on femina : 'the point of the sarcasm is that to be a woman warrior is doubtless a remarkable thing, but not if you leave it all to your horse.' While the son of Aunus mocks her as a woman, she responds in anger like a man.

(21) Homer, Iliad 22. 139f.

(22) Cf. R.D. Williams (1977), p. 421, note to Book 11, lines 648f, on their matching heroism.

(23) On violence and virginity in the Aeneid , see Robin Mitchell , 'The Violence of Virginity in the Aeneid ', Arethusa 24 (1991), pp. 219-238. Unfortunately, Mitchell does not discuss Camilla, but his argument that much violence in the Aeneid is sexual in nature could be applied to Camilla. On the importance on virginity, pudicitia , as the most appropriate female Roman virtue, see Livy's stories of Lucretia and Verginia (Livy, History of Rome 1.57.3-51.59.6 and 3.44.1-3.51.6). Their moral significance is laid out in Fantham (1994), p. 225-227.

(24) Vergil's descriptions of Camilla in Book 7 and 11 are inconsistent. In Book Seven, Camilla appears in her finery, gold fibula in her hair. We are told, however, in Book 11 that as a child Camilla wore a tiger skin in place of a golden headband, pro crinali auro (11.576). Fordyce (1977), p. 202, proffers the idea that the inconsistency here indicates an unfinished section of the Aeneid or at the least a draft of the Camilla story which Vergil worked into Book 11 without adjusting it to the context. Diana's story of Camilla implies that she is a newcomer to war in Book 11, but in Book Seven in the catalogue, Camilla is proelia virgo dura pati (a hard woman accustomed to battle).

(25) Gordon Williams, Techniques and Ideas in the Aeneid , (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 117. Also, Michael C.J. Putnam, Virgil's Aeneid : Interpretation and Influence , (Chapel Hill, 1995) likens Camilla to Euryalus and Turnus, p. 162; and R.D. Williams (1977) as well draws a comparison between Camilla and the unlucky Euryalus, p. 430, note to Book 11, line 782.

(26) G. Williams (1983), p. 117. K.W.Gransden , Virgil: Aeneid Book XI , (Cambridge, 1991) is more generous: 'Camilla's (or the implied author's) uncertainty as to her intention with regard to Chloreous' gear may perhaps illustrate her ambivalent role', p. 135, note to Book 11, line 778. On the other hand, Gransden suggests a translation of 'with the object of flaunting herself in captured gold' for captivo sive ut se ferret in auro venatrix ; Gransden uses the loaded word 'flaunt' for ferret se , which for women would be derogatory (showing off finery) and for men laudatory (as the wearing of spoils of war was, in fact, boasting on the part of the victor yet acceptable). G. Williams (1983) points out that it was 'normal heroic instinct to strip loot from a dead enemy as personal gain and adornment' p. 117. Gransden offers, as contrast to Camilla's behavior, the quick death of a priest by Aeneas (10.537-42); this priest, however, is not an equally bedecked priest. Aeneas then offers the armor as a tropaeum , which is what Camilla should have planned (at least according to Gransden, note to line 778, p. 135). Aeneas, of course, has the opportunity to do so because he is not killed. On spolia , see R.O.A.M. Lyne, 'Virgil and the Politics of War', CQ 33 (1983), pp. 193-203.

(27) The exception might be Amata, who, however, is driven to insanity. Other instances of foolish (and greedy) or irrational acts by woman are almost always instigated by the poor relationships between them and men, or by the gods, whether that is the Dido and Aeneas episode or the episode in which the women burn the ships (precipitated of course by divine interference), and so on.

(28) Cf. the similar and convincing argument in G.S. West, 'Chloreus and Camilla', Vergilius 31 (1985), pp. 23-25; she suggests that Camilla's love of booty (as well as Chloreus') trivializes the heroism which she stands for. Again, this perplexing phrasing returns us to the notion that perhaps booty and spoils are not heroic. Love of booty, womanly or otherwise, is, according to Vergil, irresponsible and costly, and Vergil's use of the term femineo jolts us to this one idea: excessive love of booty is out of place, is not part of the hero and virtus , and thus femineo .

(29) For another example of Vergil's use of this technique, see Book 12, lines 502-553. While here the participants, Aeneas and Turnus, are named, Vergil creates a scene in which the reader is unsure of who is victorious and when. He does this by alternating the actions of these heroes, first two lines on Aeneas, and then on Turnus. Vergil even at times does not name the hero but calls him hic or ille . The result is a picture of two men who are virtually the same; Vergil makes neither heroic, but instead questions the code which each has bought into.

I would like to acknowledge the help several colleagues offered me in their readings of this article: Terry Papillon, Linda Plaut, and Andrew Becker (chiefly), all of Virginia Tech. Thanks also to the anonymous referee of EA for comments. An earlier version of this paper was read at the 1996 Kentucky Foreign Languages Conference at a panel on Women in Antiquity organized by Ross Scaife; thanks go to him and to that audience as well for their comments. In addition, I thank an anonymous reader for suggestions, especially an approach which I have not focused on here: Camilla as archetypal hero, and her similarities especially to Achilles. The reader has noted that the hero is often characterized by separation and isolation and, 'in the fullest sense has to be marginal at least some time in his life to be a hero.'

Trudy Harrington Becker,
e-mail: thbecker@vt.edu

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Electronic Antiquity Vol. 4 Issue 1 - August 1997 edited by Peter Toohey and Ian Worthington antiquity-editor@classics.Server.edu.au ISSN 1320-3606