Virgil Had A Pussy and I’ll Prove It

As you may have gleaned from the title of this article, I am not a classicist. One time, in college, I signed up for an Intro to Latin class, but I dropped out three weeks into the course after pulling an all nighter in Robarts making vocab flash cards right before our first quiz and was thus so tired for said quiz that I lost consciousness halfway through and just started writing out the plot of an episode of Breaking Bad on the multiple-choice sheet in all-caps block letters. That is not a joke or an exaggeration. I literally blinked and looked down and saw, like:

4. Translate “caveat emptor.”

a) Seize the day
b) Time flies                    HANK IN THE DESERT AND
c) Buyer beware
d) To be or not to be

I dropped Latin shortly afterward. I never pulled an all-nighter ever again; that’s how badly the incident spooked me. Part of me does long to feel as passionate about anything as I apparently felt about Breaking Bad in the fall of 2013. Will I ever again approach the high of watching Ozymandias for the first time on my elderly roommate’s tiny analog television and being so moved by Hank’s heroic death that it penetrated my very being on a subconscious level?

But I digress. I’m not here to talk about Breaking Bad. I’m here to talk about Virgil. And though I don’t have any classics education to speak of, and my entire understanding of Virgil’s biography comes from his Wikipedia page, and I don’t know jack about shit, I’m confident that I am unquestionably correct in everything I am about to say.

Virgil_Virgil, also known as Publius Virgilius Maro, the ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period, was possessed of a vagina. Yeah, homeboy right there on the left. That laurel crown might as well be a pussyhat. I was going to make another joke about vaginas — because I’m trans, and I’ve suffered through enough doctor’s appointments about my stupid vagina that I’ve earned the right to joke about it — but I made the mistake, just now, of searching “vagina” on Wikipedia, and the featured image on that Wikipedia page is a person spreading open a vagina with two fingers and all the discrete parts of the vagina are labeled with little numbers, and it was a lot.

I’m uncomfortable. You’re uncomfortable! Welcome to Discomfort City, population you, me, and Publius Virgilius Maro.

Now, I bet you have questions. Chief among them: what the fuck? And, furthermore, why the fuck? Why was this article written? Why are you reading it? Why would anyone care whether or not Virgil had — to put it in a coy, RuPaulian way — charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent?

To answer those questions, I gotta backtrack. Last winter, as I was flying home for Christmas, I was biding my time on the plane reading a New Yorker article about The Aeneid. And I know that sentence makes me sound like an insufferable shitbag, and I won’t dispute that assumption, but I will ask you to stay with me here. The article recounted a portion of the Aeneid (pronounced, bee-tee-dubs, uh-KNEE-id) where the protagonist, Aeneas, an insufferable shitbag himself, abandons his wife, Dido, the Queen of Carthage, so that he might swing his dick around on a battefield in Italy:

After the gods order Aeneas to abandon Dido and leave Carthage—he mustn’t, after all, end up like Antony, the love slave of an African queen—he prepares to sneak away. But Dido finds him out and, in a furious tirade, lambastes the man she considers to be her husband for his craven evasion of a kind of responsibility—emotional, ethical—quite unlike the political dutifulness that has driven him from the start:

What shall I say? What is there for me to say? . . .
There is nowhere where faith is kept; not anywhere.
He was stranded on the beach, a castaway,
With nothing. I made him welcome.

In uttering these words, Dido becomes the Aeneid’s most eloquent voice of moral outrage at the promises that always get broken by men with a mission; in killing herself, she becomes a heartbreaking symbol of the collateral damage that “empire” leaves in its wake.

Aeneas’s reaction to her tirade is telling. Unable to bring himself to look her in the eye, he looks instead “at the future / He was required to look at”:

Pious Aeneas, groaning and sighing, and shaken
In his very self in his great love for her,
And longing to find the words that might assuage
Her grief over what is being done to her,
Nevertheless obeyed the divine command
And went back to his fleet. 

When I first read this passage, the air went out of my lungs. As soon as I landed, I took my phone off airplane mode and navigated to Google Books and read as much of David Ferry’s translation as I could, like I was emerging from a desert and chugging cold, clear water, greedy and desperate and astonished at being so deeply understood.

If it’s not obvious, I was Going Through Some Shit at the time, lost in the throes of boy_problems-carly_rae_jepsen.mp3. In this excerpt of the Aeneid, I saw Dido’s vivid heartbreak and Aeneas’s cruel, cowardly apathy rendered with all the care and colour of the fall of Troy. Her anger and sorrow are given the same dignified treatment as any sprawling, epic battlefield scene. I’ve now read the Aeneid all the way through, cover to cover, and the collapse of Dido and Aeneas’s marriage is without question the most stunning and captivating moment in the saga. I also really like the part where Camilla the Warrior Virgin annihilates a bunch of Aeneas’s soldiers with one titty out, but let’s stay focused here.

I read the chapter about Dido, and I thought, This is one of the most profound and fully realized conveyances of what it means to be a woman that I have ever encountered anywhere. And then I thought, not entirely seriously, What are the odds that Virgil was actually a woman and a bunch of clueless dipshit historians just assumed he was a dude? That happens a lot, right?

And then I went to Virgil’s Wikipedia page, and I read the following:

Although the commentaries no doubt record much factual information about Virgil, some of their evidence can be shown to rely on inferences made from his poetry and allegorizing; thus, Virgil’s biographical tradition remains problematic.

So, okay, right off the bat: we don’t really know jack shit about Virgil. Lotta inferences in the historical record. Interesting. Okay. Let’s continue.

Relatively little is known about the family of Virgil. Among thousands of surviving ancient inscriptions from this region, there are only 8 or 9 mentions of individuals called “Vergilius” (masculine) or “Vergilia” (feminine). Out of these mentions, three appear in inscriptions from Verona, and one in an inscription from Calvisano. Conway theorized that the inscription from Calvisano had to do with a kinswoman of Virgil. 

Now, as I said, I’m not a classicist, but let me tell you what I’m getting from this: virtually  the only archaeological evidence of Virgil’s existence is a single inscription that said “Vergilia,” and Robert Seymour Conway, the 19th century classics scholar who dug it up and wrote about it, was like, “Ahh, yes, this must be a reference to Virgil’s, like, sister, or his mom, or maybe his aunt or something,” and for centuries, literally everybody was like, “Sure, yeah, that checks out.”

So my jaw was on the floor at this point, but I kept reading, and then, and then, and then: 

According to Servius, schoolmates considered Virgil extremely shy and reserved, and he was nicknamed “Parthenias” [virgin] or “maiden” because of his social aloofness.

LIKE. OKAY. RIGHT. OKAY. OKAY. YES. OKAY. OKAY. YEAH. OKAY. OKAY. OKAY. OKAY. RIGHT. SURE. HE WAS “SHY” AND “RESERVED” AND HE NEVER SPOKE TO ANY OF HIS MALE CLASSMATES AND THEY ALL CALLED HIM “VIRGIN” AND “MAIDEN,” AND ROBERT SEYMOUR CONWAY HELD UP THAT “VERGILIA” INSCRIPTION AND SAID, “OH SWEET I NEVER KNEW THAT VIRGIL HAD A SISTER” AND OHHHHHHHHHHHH MY GOD OKAY.

Now, again, I am not a classicist, merely some dipshit who read a Wikipedia page, but… come on. Something is definitely fishy here. (Ha! Get it? Fishy?) Moving on!

Most scholars agree that Virgil was likely homosexual; Donatus wrote that Virgil’s libido was “more inclined to boys.” None of this information, mind you, is incompatible with Virgil potentially having had a pussy. My only question is this: if Virgil did, in fact, have a pussy… was this, like, a Mulan type of situation? Where Virgil was a woman and she had to disguise herself in order to obtain an education and advance in the ranks of the great poets? And she was aloof and shy and feigned illness in an effort to keep people from learning her terrible, terrible secret?

Or — and I like this one better — was Virgil a trans guy?

To support this hypothesis, I’d like to cite the truly galaxy-brained classics scholar Marilynn Desmond, who, in her 1994 book “Reading Dido,” uncovered a metric fucking ton of trans subtext in the Aeneid. In a chapter titled “Christine de Pizan’s Feminist Self-Fashioning and the Invention of Dido,” Desmond quotes the medieval author Christine de Pizan as saying:

I will tell you who I am, who speak, who from female became male by fortune, who willed it so; she changed me, both body and will into a perfect natural man, and I am made a man who once was a woman. I do not lie.

At the age of twenty-five, Christine de Pizan’s husband died, leaving her a widow, and, in Desmond’s words:

…thrust upon her a set of responsibilities that ostensibly made a man out of her; most specifically, her widowhood made it necessary for her to support herself, and to that end, she turned to writing and the patronage it offered.

Christine de Pizan wrote often about the Aeneid, and about Dido, and the various representations of the Queen of Carthage in different legendary traditions:

As poet and clerk, Christine repeatedly encountered medieval versions of the Aeneid story and the contradictory figure of Dido, whose presence in medieval texts—whether as queen and virago, as chaste victim of Iarbas, or victim of her own desire for Aeneas—challenges any fixed categories of gender.

From there, Desmond gets deeply, deeply real, and I’m going to have to quote her at length:

Boccaccio’s Dido has some attractive features for the context of the ‘Cite des dames.’ She is initially identified as a wise, powerful city builder —a woman who possesses masculine qualities and strengths—a figure much like the author Christine constructs in the ‘Mutacion’: a widow whose widowhood turns her into a man. Had Christine’s immersion in a medieval humanistic tradition that privileged the Virgilian version of the Dido story not been so complete, she might have simply presented her invention of the Boccaccian Dido as a straightforward exemplum. However, given her own experience of the Virgilian version of the Dido story—which she had frequently rehearsed in her own writing—she clearly had to reconcile the Dido Boccaccio provides her with the more traditional one she already knew.

…The most synthetic statement made about Dido’s character in Boccaccio’s version [was] the assertion that occurs early in the exemplum that Dido puts aside her feminine nature… and takes on the power and force of a man. In Christine’s text, this assertion is positioned at the end of the exemplum, where it acquires the force of a conclusion: “She was spoken of only in terms of her outstanding strength, courage, and her bold undertaking. Because of her prudent government, they changed her name and called her Dido, which is the equivalent of saying virago in Latin, which means ‘the woman who has the strength and force of a man.’

So, let’s unpack all of this for just a second. When Christine de Pizan’s husband died, he left her a widow at age 25, and he saddled her with all the attendant responsibilities of being a breadwinner, the “man” of the household. Christine wrote that these fateful events “changed me, both body and will into a perfect natural man, and I am made a man who once was a woman.” In the legend of Dido, a woman who was widowed at a young age and became the sovereign of Carthage, Christine de Pizan found a kindred spirit.

There are a few different versions of Dido’s story, Virgil’s being the best-known. Marilynn Desmond makes the argument that Boccaccio’s rendering of Dido, in focusing on Dido’s rise to power and her construction of Carthage from nothing, is more gender fuck-y than the Dido of the Aeneid. And that may well be: like, the Aeneid is mostly, regrettably, Aeneas’s show, and we therefore don’t get much insight into how Dido came to be widowed, or how she came to be queen — or, to use Christine de Pizan’s phrasing, the events that would have changed Dido “both body and will into a perfect natural man” and “made a man who once was a woman.”

But I don’t think the Aeneid paints as traditionally feminine a picture of Dido as Desmond says it does. This could be, I’ll admit, because I read the David Ferry translation first. Ferry’s version was published in 2017, and is in both form (iambic pentameter instead of dactylic hexameter) and content (Ferry was an English professor at Wellesley for many years, so he, like, understands that women are people, and it shows) a radical departure from previous translations. I went to the Toronto Reference Library and found the shelf with all the different Aeneids, and I went through each one, finding the scene where Dido learns of Aeneas’s betrayal and tells him off, and… Jesus tap-dancing Christ. I don’t have any specific examples at hand right now, but I can guarantee you that every single one of them was like, “And thus bitchy, insane, hysterical Dido doth freaked the fuck out at Aeneas’s eminently reasonable proposition that they take a break and see other people for a while, what a dumb flut,” like you know how they write the instead of in old-ass manuscripts? Like:

Screen Shot 2019-06-08 at 9.03.59 AM

So I feel like, whether you think the Dido of the Aeneid is a transgressive or a traditional figure, we can probably all agree that she’s been a victim of bad, misogynistic translation. And I also feel like your view of Dido is indelibly coloured by which translation you read. And in the Ferry translation, we don’t see the early steps of her transition from a female role to a male one — that is, becoming a wife, becoming a widow, becoming a city-builder and a sovereign ruler. But we do see her, firmly established in the role of a man, catching romantic feelings for Aeneas and worrying that these feelings will weaken her, fuck with her ability to govern Carthage properly, and render her less of a “natural man” in the eyes of her citizens.

This is, I think, part of what so gripped me about Dido’s story, and what I didn’t fully realize until I read Desmond’s essay: Dido is not a woman. Not really. She has, to again use Christine de Pizan’s phrasing, from female become male by fortune. A widow, a sovereign ruler, she neither occupies the traditional narrative role of a woman nor comports herself like other women in the story. When Aeneas arrives in her life, she holds far greater power than he does. She gets to decide whether he lives or dies. And her chief concern after falling in love with him is: will this weaken me? When the asshole does decide to dip, she says:

He was stranded on the beach, a castaway,
With nothing. I made him welcome. Insanely, I
Gave him a place beside me on my throne.

This is the line that breaks me, every time: Insanely, I / Gave him a place beside me on my throne. After her first husband’s death, she resolved to never marry again, to focus all her energy on governing Carthage. And just when she thinks she can allow herself to love again, just when she’s convinced herself that accepting love does not mean compromising herself, just when she decides to elevate this nothing-man to status as her equal… he decides to leave without saying goodbye.

And Dido is undone by this, but not because she’s a hysterical nymphomaniac harpy shrew who craves Aeneas’s fat cock so much that she’ll simply die without it, or whatever the fuck Friar Jeremiah came up with when he was translating the Aeneid from the original Latin back in the Middle Ages. No, Aeneas’s betrayal wrecks her because he’s made a mockery of her manhood. Her name at birth was Elissa; “because of her prudent government,” remember, Christine de Pizan wrote, “they changed her name and called her Dido, which is the equivalent of saying virago in Latin, which means the woman who has the strength and force of a man.” In surviving widowhood, through sheer skill and fortitude, she was made a man who was once a woman. As a sovereign ruler, she allowed a man to become her equal, and in one fell swoop, he punted her right back to where she began. Is she really virago if she has neither the strength nor the force to make him stay? To make him love her? To make him, minimally, respect her enough to be honest with her?

There’s a scene later on in the Aeneid, in which Aeneas visits the underworld. He stumbles upon Dido and gives her one of those, “Babe, I’m soooooo sorry, it totally wasn’t even my choice to leave Carthage, I love you, babe, you gotta believe me. Babe, babe, look at me, I’m crying, babe.” And I’d been waiting for this part. I knew that Aeneas was going to find Dido in the afterlife, and I was so, so looking forward to seeing how she’d verbally eviscerate him.

But, in the end, Dido looks Aeneas up and down, and she says… nothing. Not a word.

She fixed her gaze upon the ground, and turned
Away, and nothing was changed in her countenance,
As if it were set in stone or Marpesian rock.
Abruptly, then, she tore herself away,
And went, his enemy, back to the shady grove,
In which Sychaeus, the lord of her marriage, was,
responding to her cares with equal love.

The phrasing here — responding to her cares with equal love — is a fist to the gut. It is a full indictment of Aeneas, the total opposite of Insanely, I / Gave him a place beside me on my throne. In the afterlife, Dido is reunited with her first husband, but their relationship in the shady grove is not what it was before her death, before his. It is equal. He responds to her cares with equal love. I’m iffy on the description of Sychaeus as “the lord of her marriage,” but I don’t think it necessarily implies inequality; this translation interprets the same line as:

Her first spouse, Sichaeus, with her tears
Mingled his own in mutual love and true.

There’s recognition here that Dido has been on a journey, that she is no longer Elissa, the woman she was at birth, but Dido, virago, an equal, now, of Sychaeus, and inestimably greater in spirit than the craven Aeneas. I’ve quoted Christine de Pizan at great length in this article, but I think Dido’s transformation here is best summarized by another French transmasc named Christine:

She’s a man now
She’s a man now
And there’s nothing we can do to make her change her mind
She’s a man now

Now, if you’re reading this, and you’re thinking, “Wait a tick, Peyton – did you just make a bunch of wild claims about the historicity of Virgil and his authorial intent in having Dido go full beyonce_sorry.mp3 on Aeneas’s ass in the underworld solely to justify the fact that you, a transmasc, related to the Aeneid an embarrassing amount?” And to that accusation, I say: yes. That is exactly what I have done. But also, I honestly feel that it’s plausible that Virgil might have had a vagina, and the scholars tasked with investigating such things just never considered that as a possibility. And I do think, obviously, that there is a serious case to be made for a trans reading of the Aeneid. 

If you take one thing away from this article, though, let it be this: Dido is pegging Sychaeus in heaven, right now, as we speak, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

8 thoughts on “Virgil Had A Pussy and I’ll Prove It

  1. caratullus says:

    im a classics grad student & as soon as i saw the title of this article i knew everything i would read for the next 15 mins would be 100% correct and it was. thank you so much

    Like

  2. Lo says:

    this is the best thing i’ve ever read i’ve sent it to like 3 ppl (including my dad who still hasn’t recovered from that p&p with gritty instead of darcy post. and he loves classics and everything to do with gender and queer theory and also swearing so i think this post is officially going to End him)

    Like

  3. pv says:

    As a classics student, I can’t wait to talk about this theory next year to see my Greek professor love it and everyone else wreck me for it

    Like

  4. Nescire says:

    Galaxy-brain take, top notch, love it. My take on Dido is 3 years out of date and it’s focused on Dido getting the shit end of the stick from everyone involved rather than getting into gender stuff but I think the indignation will be validating anyway (https://executeness.tumblr.com/post/143652481803/quousque-executeness-quousque)

    Also if you’re now invested in the classics like. At all. I’m begging you to read the Chilliad aka the Iliad if Greece and Troy were frat houses having a prank war and Homer was a blind guy recounting the events leading to a frat house catching fire in excessive detail to stall for time while in police custody. Patroclus and Achilles are extremely gay goofballs and Sappho is there to be Helen’s best friend b/c the author is bi and she said so.

    Like

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