Meredith Prince, “Helen of Rome? Helen in Vergil’s Aeneid”

tl;dr version: a straightforward study of the depiction of Helen in the Aeneid focusing on the differences among different characters’ views of her, concluding that the portrait overall is negative and ambivalently links Rome’s foundation to the evils of adultery.

undergrads could read this but might not find it very exciting/helpful

theoretical foundation: narratology/deJong’s work on focalization (but completely accessible without this)

stakes: not clear

Of the four articles in this issue of Helios, this is by far the most traditional in approach, and offers basically a close reading of all mentions of Helen in Vergil’s Aeneid. In addition to the famous Helen episode in Book 2, these comprise the narrator’s description of Aeneas’ gifts to Dido in Book 1, Deiphobus’ account of his own death in Book 6, Andromache’s (non) reference in Book 3, and Amata’s allusions in Book 7.

Prince’s goal is to complicate somewhat the notion (expressed, e.g., by Highet 1972) that Vergil’s portrait of Helen is purely evil, in contrast to Homer’s more sympathetic depictions. She shows how Venus and Amata have personal agendas that require viewing Helen as an innocent victim, in contrast to the Trojan view of her as guilty in their destruction and deserving of punishment. Somewhat oddly she organizes her paper as if gender is a significant factor, even though by her own account it is ethnicity that determines characters’ stances: the Trojan view (Aeneas, Deiphobus and Andromache) is uniformly negative while the divine and non-Trojan view emphasizes forces at play other than Helen’s agency.

She succeeds in showing how even among the negative views emphasis shifts from figure to figure depending on their concerns. Andromache, focused on motherhood, erases Helen altogether from her mention of Hermione, thus denying motherhood to the woman who abandoned her daughter. Aeneas’ account emphasizes her guilt and the terrible public repercussions of her adultery, while Deiphobus’ focuses on her treachery, eliding the concept of adultery that would make him also guilty and their marriage illegitimate. Venus, on the other hand, deflects blame for Troy’s fall to the anger of the gods; Amata, in casting Aeneas as a new Paris, throws the blame to Trojan men for abducting women. Finally, the poet himself uses Helen (through his description of the gifts Aeneas offers Dido) as a warning to Dido on the dangers of rupturing loyalty to her first husband.

Most interesting to me was the notion of Helen’s adultery and its consequences in relation to the (future) Augustan moral legislation. Prince argues that Helen’s significant occurrences in the epic tie Troy’s past to Rome’s future, serving as hinge between the backward glance at the burning city and Aeneas’ focus on his father, both in book 2, where Venus stops him from killing Helen and reminds him of his father, and in book 6, where his encounter with Deiphobus precedes his conversation with Anchises in the underworld. Prince is never explicit in what she means by “reconciling” Helen’s adultery with the foundation of Rome (p. 199, 205), but her observations on the public and private repercussions of adultery are suggestive.

Overall clear and accessible, if perhaps underwhelming in its conclusions.