There are a large number of Italic tribes mentioned in the Aeneid as they oppose or side with Aeneas and his Trojan troops. Aeneas allies himself with the Latins, and King Latinus, whose daughter Lavinia he marries after the conflict. He’s also allied with King Evander and the Arcadians, and is joined by his son and troops, and the Etruscans.
The main opponents to this force are Turnus, the king of the Rutulians (which seems to be a subsect of the Latins, but that is a post for another day), Mezentius (a deposed Etruscan king who was ejected for his cruelty and sought refuge with Turnus) and his son Lausus, and Camilla and her Volscian crew.
I have often wondered why Virgil chose to invent Camilla, and why he chose to make her Volscian. There must be a purpose for it, for it is so implicitly written.
The Volscian tribe is first mentioned by Virgil in Georgics 2, when discussing the great achievements of the Italian land. He writes “haec genus acre virus, Marsos pubemque Sabellam adsuetumque malo Ligurem Volscoque verities exulit“, “She raised this keen race of men, Marsians and Sabine men, Ligurians accustomed to hardship, and the Volscians armed with spears” (2.167-169). The Volscians are added here to the list of other tribes typified for their sturdiness and strength. King Evander takes comfort and joy in the fact that his son Pallas killed thousands of Volscians before he died (spoiler alert… find it at 11.166-168). Clearly Virgil regarded the Volscians as a strong foe, evidenced further by the history of Roman and Volscian conflicts over the Pontine Plain as told by Livy and Dionysius.
Virgil does not list off the names of Volscian cities, save for a brief mention of Privernum where Camilla’s father once ruled. As a reader, we are aware that these other cities must exist, for Camilla is queen of one (it is not mentioned which), but Virgil spends much more time describing the river Amasenus and the wilderness that makes up their territory. The cities seem but shadowy outliers from the more important rural aspects of the Volscian land. Camilla and her father Metabus, the exiled tyrant, lived apparently unchallenged for many years in the forest, though it does sound as if Camilla had some contact with settlements as they offered her much praise.
Also worth mentioning is the archaeological finds at the site of Satricum, where many Volscian graves have been found.** Livy says that Attius Tullius and Gnaeus Marcius turned over Satricum (and other cities) to the Volsci, ‘liberating’ and ‘recovering’ them. This implies a Volscian presence in the area even before this time (Liv. 2.39). The chief cult in Satricum is that of the Mater Matuta, a name inscribed in many places in the site and apparently quite important. The Mater Matuta, as the name suggests, was a maternal goddess of the native Italians. She was associated with childbirth and children in general, and also had a temple dedicated to her later in Rome.
So what does this tell us? Virgil, being a knowledgeable fellow, has three main facts about the Volscians to work with:
1. The Volscians are a strong, sturdy, and fearsome race.
2. The Volscians have a strong connection to the land and wilderness (in Virgil’s opinion, as derived from his writing).
3. There is a presence of a Mother Goddess central to Volscian culture.
These seem to be the building blocks for Camilla’s character. The choice to make her a woman is certainly worthy for debate, and there are many trains of thought that I would support on the matter. I will suggest here that it is a feminine aspect that best suits a character fitting into these points above, with the exception of the more neutral first point (either a female or male warrior could have suitably represented the Volscian’s fearsomeness and strength).
On a very basic level, Italy is identified as a feminine noun, Italia. A tribe that is connected with the wilderness and the land could understandably be represented with a female personification of this. Mother Goddesses often have female worshippers and priestesses, and Artemis/Diana would be a more relevant deity to the Roman readers of the Aeneid, with similar attributes (Artemis as a deity of childbirth is a topic I will write on later!) The followers of this goddess would adopt the huntress lifestyle, at least in a mythological setting.
Therefore we get Camilla. Her fearsomeness in battle is demonstrated amply in the battle scene of book eleven. She fights with the weapons of the hunt, unsuitable for war but nonetheless present. She is watched over and avenged by the goddess Diana, who expresses her deep sadness at the fate of her favourite mortal.
We can see some sense in what Virgil did in creating Camilla. In a way, she is representative of the more rural aspects of Italy. But why, then, does she die in battle? This question shall be answered soon! I hope you enjoyed this segment. As always, comments and tweets are welcome!
** I am not an archaeologist and base my information about this site on literary research. If you have any information about it or know differently than I wrote please let me know! It was one of the harder parts to find information on and I would love contributions.