Medea and Dido’s Power and Tragic Downfall: Cautionary Tales of Female Empowerment
By Katie McCurrie
Adapted from Germán Hernández Amores, Medea, con los hijos muertos, huye de Corinto en un carro
Ancient Greek and Roman societies were highly patriarchal. Women lacked power, belonged to the domestic sphere of life, and were overly emotional. Beauty, seduction, and emotional upheaval were their most distinctive virtues. To contrast, men were at the center of the public sphere, and earned the title and fame of heroes.
Ancient Greek and Roman narrative texts confirm and further reinforce this pattern by consistently celebrating men’s power and heroism. The most famous heroes display either “military” or “founder” heroism. The first ideal consists of a combination of divine favor, fame, and power; Achilles from Homer’s Iliad is its quintessential example, since he is favored by the goddess Athena, marked by glory and fame, and demonstrates tremendous prowess in battle. “Founder heroism” consists of a combination of leadership, destiny, and reverence for the gods; Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid fully embodies this ideal, since he leads his people away from Troy to found Rome, in close obedience to the gods’ will.
In reflection of this societal pattern, ancient Greek and Roman texts rarely present female heroines, and when they do, they introduce women who obtain power by fully embodying male ideals and renouncing their femininity, as we see in the Amazons, the famous race of warlike women noted for their fighting skills and their renunciation of marriage and motherhood. Through characters like them, ancient Greeks and Romans were not intending to give power to women, but rather to confirm that women could not play an essential role in the ancient Greek and Roman public sphere, unless they stopped being women, which is possible in literature but not in real life.
On close examination, there are two exceptions to this consistent pattern. Both Medea and Dido, two female characters from ancient Greek and Roman epic poems, manage to acquire power and heroic status by simultaneously embodying male ideals and keeping their femininity. This paper explores these two heroines’ lives and discusses whether their presence was meant to challenge the societal pattern and introduce a new way to perceive the role of women in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Despite their exceptionality, this paper concludes that neither Medea nor Dido truly introduce a new approach to female power, since their heroic feats are stopped by the gods’ interventions, which lead both heroines to experience tragic downfalls. In light of this downfall, these stories can be read as cautionary tales about female empowerment, which paradoxically reinforce the patriarchal system characteristic of ancient Greece and Rome.
Medea’s story is narrated in two different works: Euripides’s Medea (fifth century BCE) and Apollonius of Rhodes’s Jason and the Golden Fleece (third century BCE). Medea, a foreigner princess who lives far away from Greece, falls in love with the Greek hero Jason and decides to leave her homeland to help him in his quest for the Golden Fleece. Jason, however, despite having promised to marry Medea, later abandons her and their two children for a new wife. Enraged, Medea gets revenge against Jason by murdering her father, his new wife, and the children she and Jason share. Throughout her life, Medea displays features of “military heroism,” especially through her revenge, and maintains traits of her femininity such as seduction and charm.
Dido’s story is told in Virgil’s Aeneid (first century BCE). Dido is the widow and queen of Carthage who falls in love with Aeneas when he comes to Carthage on his journey from Troy to Italy. After sharing love for a short period and celebrating their marriage, however, Aeneas decides to leave Dido in obedience to his “founder heroism,” namely his divinely-inspired desire to found a new nation in Italy. As Dido finds out about Aeneas’s flight, she is emotionally ruined and commits suicide. Throughout her life, Dido exhibits traits of a “founder heroism” like Aeneas in that she is responsible for the foundation of Carthage, and she does so in obedience to the gods’ will. Moreover, like Medea, Dido maintains her femininity, as is especially suggested by her oath of fidelity to her first dead husband.
The first section of this paper analyzes the military and founder heroisms which Medea and Dido respectively display. The second section examines how both heroines lose their heroism and experience a downfall during their lives. The third section analyzes the major factor leading to their downfall, Eros, who was considered an emotional force targeting women; Eros’s major culpability, which consists of making Medea and Dido as fully emotional as only women could be, further emphasizes the incompatibility between ancient femininity and power.
1) Embodiment of Both Military and Founder Heroisms, and Femininity
Medea and Dido are two female characters who exceptionally display power and heroism, and they do so by maintaining their femininity. The former displays the divine favor and power characteristic of military heroism, while the latter embodies the “founder heroism” through her leadership and reverence to the gods’ will.
Medea’s name and glorious reputation are such that the Greek Argonauts know of her before meeting her. In Jason and the Golden Fleece, Argos describes Medea to the crew as “a young girl who lives in Aietes’s palace; the goddess Hekate has taught her extraordinary skills in handling all the drugs which the dry land and the boundless waters produce. With these she charms the blasts of unwearying fire, stops still the flow of crashing rivers, and puts bonds on the stars and the holy paths of the moon” (Apollonius 3.78). Hekate’s divine favor has given Medea superhuman skills. This favor, combined with her glory and power, characterize her as a “military hero” as is proper of men in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Medea is not only at the center of the public sphere, but she even dominates it in a way that is traditionally reserved to male heroes, since she enables Jason, the male and weak hero, to embody “military heroism.” Her crafty advice and her drugs help him in his tasks: “burning heat enveloped Jason, striking him like the lightning bolt; but the maiden’s drugs protected him” (Apollonius 3.96). Medea’s proud Iliadic heroism is so strong that she manages to transfer it onto Jason.
Yet, on close examination, in all these characterizations she is referred to as “a young girl” or a “maiden.” While embodying features of male heroism, Medea maintains her femininity, especially by means of seduction, as she manipulates those around her with drugs or incantations. In her attempt to help Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, Medea faces a dragon while Jason cowers behind her: “As it rolled towards them, the maiden fixed it in the eye and called in a lovely voice upon Sleep, the helper, the highest of the gods, to bewitch the beast; she invoked too the queen, the night-wanderer, the infernal, the kindly one, to grant success to their enterprise” (Apollonius 4.102). Medea’s power in this scene stems from her “lovely voice” and ability to charm divine beings and subsequently the dragon. Medea shows her power again when she kills Talos by calling upon divine help with incantations of spirits: “that man, bronze though he was, yielded to destruction through the grim power of Medea, mistress of drugs” (Apollonius 4.138). Medea’s characterization as “mistress” further highlights her seduction and charm by means of manipulation.
Dido’s characterization is similar. At an early stage of her life, she displays “founder heroism,” a characteristic of men, when she obeys her dead husband’s dreamlike call to leave her homeland of Tyre occupied by her dangerous brother to find a new city named Carthage. In Virgil’s Aeneid we thus read: “Dido prepared for flight, joined by others | Who either feared or hated the cruel tyrant [her brother]. | They commandeered ships, loaded them with gold...” (Virgil 1.442-445). By performing this traditionally male task, Dido is helping her people to build a better life away from Tyre. Moreover, after the foundation of Carthage, Dido shows reverence to the gods by offering hospitality to Aeneas and his men despite their status as strangers. Dido thus explains to Aeneas her desire to welcome him and his men: “My fortune too has long been adverse | But at last has allowed me to rest in this land. | My own acquaintance with suffering | Has taught me to aid others in need” (Virgil 1.768-771).
Dido serves as a leader of her people, but she is still a woman and is often referred to as “queen.” More precisely, with concern to her dead husband, she displays both modesty and chastity by swearing an oath of fidelity to him. In a proleptic speech, after meeting Aeneas, Dido laments to her sister:
If I were not unshakable in my vow
Never to pledge myself in marriage again
After death stole my first love away—
If the mere thought of marriage did not leave me cold,
I might perhaps have succumbed this once. (Virgil 4.18-22).
Here Virgil describes Dido’s virtuous attitude by means of allusions to Penelope, the exemplary wife from Homer’s Odyssey. Thus, through this Penelopean fidelity, Dido retains her femininity while embodying various elements of the traditionally male “founder heroism.”
2) Tragic Downfall and Loss of Heroism, Power and Femininity
No matter how strongly Medea and Dido embody power and heroism without renouncing their femininity, they are both unable to display this power until the end of their lives; rather, they undergo a tragic downfall that highlights their heroic failure and includes the loss of specific aspects of femininity.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Medea’s decision to help Jason implies the flight from her own house. Her time with Jason, however, progressively undermines her “military heroism” and power. In the midst of her journey with Jason, Medea aids him to kill her brother by stabbing him in the back. And yet, at this precise moment, Medea’s attitude turns from active to passive: “The maiden turned her eyes away and covered her face with her veil so that she should not have to look upon the blood which marked her brother’s death by the sword-blow” (Apollonius. 4.109-110). In this passage, by averting her eyes, Medea displays a helplessness that reveals how her feelings for Jason have overpowered every other aspect of her life and herself. As a result, the glory of her “military heroism” is overshadowed by her helplessness. Moreover, from now onwards, helplessness prevents Medea from displaying her feminine seduction by means of manipulation.
Fig. 1. Germán Hernández Amores, Medea, con los hijos muertos, huye de Corinto en un carro tirado por dragones, painting, c.1887, Museo del Prado.
In the tragedy Medea, this helplessness turns into downfall as a result of Jason’s decision to abandon Medea to start a new family. From then onwards, Medea progressively loses her previous self, and out of revenge decides to murder Jason’s new bride, his new father-in-law, and her own sons. Before she does so, she is very insecure and again displays helplessness. Medea thus laments, “I cannot do it. Goodbye to those earlier plans of mine. I’ll take my children from this country. Why harm them as a way to hurt their father and have to suffer twice his pain myself? No, I won’t do that. And so farewell to what I planned before” (Euripides 1227-1233). At first, Medea resists the murderous course of action, but then she reaches a point of desperation leading her to kill her sons. The murder of her own children highlights Medea’s loss of any feminine quality, including her status as mother
A similar trajectory concerns Dido. By deciding to marry Aeneas, a hero coming from abroad, Dido distances herself from her role as protectress of the Tyrian race, and she feels to have betrayed her own fellow Tyrians and her previous “founder heroism”:
It is because of you
The Libyan warlords hate me and my own Tyrians
Abhor me. Because of you that my honor
Has been snuffed out, the good name I once had,
My only hope to ascend to the stars. (Virgil 4.361-365)
Here Dido acknowledges that she is losing her heroic status, “the good name [she] once had,” and shows her awareness of having betrayed her former husband, which points to her loss of the feminine aspect characteristic of her past, namely her conjugal fidelity. As a result of this loss, Dido is helpless to her fate, and she argues weakly with herself against committing suicide:
Should I entertain once more
My former suitors—and hear them laugh at me?
Go begging for a marriage among the Nomads,
After scorning their proposals time and again?
Shall I follow the Trojans’ fleet and be subject
To their every command? (Virgil 4.622-627)
Dido concludes that she is out of options.
In light of this helplessness, Dido views death as her only escape from the misery awaiting her in life. Referring to her thought process, she exclaims, “We will die unavenged, but we will die. | This is how I want to pass into the dark below. | The cruel Trojan will watch the fire from the sea | And carry with him the omens of my death” (Virgil 4.765-768). Then, Dido curses Aeneas before she kills herself in one final act of revenge. Her helplessness and suicide highlight the complexity and depth of her downfall. Her attempt at embodying founder heroism has failed.
3) Downfall through Eros’s intervention: Subtle Criticism of Femininity
Both Medea and Dido’s downfalls are not only similar for their effect upon their heroisms, but also because of their origin, which lies in the god Eros, Aphrodite’s son, who intervenes and transforms Medea and Dido from rational women capable of great feats of heroism into women overcome by passion. After having lost specific aspects of their femininity, the god Eros makes Medea and Dido gain other feminine aspects which highlight their weakness. In this way, the discussed ancient texts further highlight the incompatibility between femininity and power.
In Jason and the Golden Fleece, Eros shoots Medea with his bow and makes her fall in love with Jason: “Eros darted back out of the high-roofed palace with a mocking laugh, but his arrow burned deep in the girl’s heart like a flame. Full at Jason her glances shot, and the wearying pain scattered all prudent thoughts from her chest; she could think of nothing else, and her spirit was flooded with a sweet aching” (Apollonius 3.72). This description of Eros as “mocking” Medea and of his arrow as “burning like a flame” contributes to a destructive characterization of him as a god acting upon and transforming Medea.
In his influential work, James J. Clauss highlights Eros’s primary responsibility in Medea’s downfall: “As the daughter of Aeetes and priestess of Hecate, Medea possesses the ability to create a Heracles or destroy a man of bronze. Yet she would not have lost her soul, together with her shame, if she had never known such an all-consuming, self-destructive passion” (Clauss 176).
Moreover, in the text itself, the goddess Moon speaks to Medea as a victim of Eros: “But now you yourself, it would seem, are a victim of a madness like mine; a cruel god has given you Jason to cause you grief and pain. Be off then and for all your cleverness learn to put up with a misery that will bring you much lamentation” (Apollonius 4.100). In this passage, the Moon links Medea’s downfall (“misery”) with the “madness” of “a cruel god.” It is through Eros, a god traditionally affecting women, that Medea has transformed from a hero into a disempowered “victim” who strongly represents women’s emotional and powerless status in antiquity.
Similarly, Eros takes advantage of an unsuspecting Dido. Aphrodite commands Eros:
For a single night, no more, feign his looks.
Boy that you are, wear the boy’s familiar face.
And when amid the royal feast and flowing wine
Dido, her joy knowing no bounds, takes you
Onto her lap, embraces you and plants
Sweet kisses on your mouth, breathe into her
Your secret fire and poison her unobserved. (Virgil 1.835-841)
Eros is both deceptive and deadly, and Dido falls for his tricks and is thus “poisoned” with love for Aeneas. Dido’s love is described as a wound, “But the Queen, long sick with Eros, | Nurses her heart’s deep wound | With her pounding blood” (Virgil 4.1-3), and as fire: “Dido is burning. | She wanders all through the city in her misery, | Raving mad.” (Virgil 4.80-82)
In this final quote, Dido is described as “mad” in the same way Medea was. The effect of Eros upon her shows that she has become lost in her emotions. Her wandering in misery causes her to neglect her male heroic duties; her return to a purely female status further proves the ancient heroines’ distance from embracing power and heroism in the public sphere.
In ancient Greece and Rome, women, unlike their male counterparts, did not have any power, and ancient literature traditionally confirmed and reinforced this pattern. Dido and Medea, however, represent a striking exception, since they display military and founder heroisms that are typical of male heroes, while preserving aspects of their femininity. And yet, as their lives develop, both Dido and Medea’s performance of power and femininity is interrupted by Eros’s intervention imposing a disempowering love upon them. This intervention restores in Dido and Medea’s lives the traditional pattern of subordination typical of ancient Greek and Roman women.
Why did these ancient authors decide to introduce such extraordinary examples of female power only to limit their exceptionality immediately afterwards? In the short space of this conclusion, I suggest that the quoted Greek and Roman authors may have constructed these stories of female empowerment as cautionary tales, within which the gods’ interventions by bringing power back to men further stress the existence of the patriarchal system.
Moreover, it is relevant that divine intervention is introduced by Eros. Eros, the god of love, is at the origin of a series of experiences that can be associated with femininity, such as passion, lovesickness, and seduction. On the other hand, masculinity traditionally capitalizes on strength, independence, power, and leadership. Recognizing this juxtaposition, not only Dido and Medea’s downfall, but also the way in which this downfall happens serve as warnings of the pointlessness of trying to embrace both femininity and power. In the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, these two elements could not and ought not be combined.