Camilla: Influences and Inspirations

This week, we’re going to look at some possible influences in Virgil’s design of Camilla. This includes both fictional and historical figures.

We know that there is no evidence of Camilla before she was written by Virgil, and no source afterwards disputes this. As his original character, he drew inspiration from many sources. She seems to be a combination of several archetypes: the ‘female warrior’ (or bellatrix), the ‘maiden huntress’, and the ‘foreign queen’. Putting these together sure has some interesting consequences.

There are four figures that I’m going to explore here today as influences for Camilla’s character: Penthesilea, Cleopatra, Harpalyce, and Dido.


An immediate character that we are reminded of by Camilla is the amazon Penthesilea, who fought the hero Achilles in the Iliad. Her imagery, fighting with a spear on the battlefield with one breast exposed, among other female warriors, is fairly straightforward. Aeneas is also comparable to Achilles, insofar as the epic format – they were both children of divine mothers and human fathers, both wear armour given to them by the gods, and of course both are the focus of epic poems. If we acknowledge that Virgil let Achilles be influential on the design of Aeneas (there’s lots of scholarly material on this if you are interested) then it is not unsurprising when we find that there is a Penthesilea figure opposing him in the story.

While the story of the amazon is not given in the Iliad, other sources are happy to provide it, and no doubt Virgil knew it, too. If we look at some depictions of Penthesilea, we may be reminded of certain passages about Camilla. In Pausanias’ Descriptions of Greece 10.31.8, examining a painting of the underworld at Delphoi, Penthesilea is depicted with the appearance of “a maiden, carrying a bow like Skythian bows, and wearing a leopard’s skin on her shoulders”. This sounds pretty familiar to the description of Camilla given by Diana, “As soon as the infant had taken her first steps, [Metabus] placed a sharp lance in her hands, and hung bow and quiver on the little one’s shoulder. A tiger’s pelt hung over head and down her back”. Visually they are both given the iconography of a huntress, with the tools of the hunt and the skin of a wild animal.

Death of Penthesilea, J. H. Tischbein
Death of Penthesilea, J. H. Tischbein

Their performance in battle is also similar. “Slayer of men” is used to refer to Penthesilea in many texts; fighting alongside the Trojans, she shows great prowess, and rages on the battlefield before her death. This too sounds not far off from the scene of Camilla fighting against the Trojans, and the long list of warriors she fells before her own defeat. Right in the text of the Aeneid we also hear mention of Penthesilea. In book one, Aeneas looks at the frieze in Carthage right before encountering Dido for the first time. The last image he looks at is of “Raging Penthesilea”, where she “leads the file of Amazons, with crescent shields, and shines out among her thousands, her golden girdle fastened beneath her exposed breasts, a virgin warrior daring to fight with men”. With the introduction of Dido following so closely after, it is very tempting to associate this image with her, particularly when she is compared to the huntress goddess Diana, carrying a quiver. But considering this short description of the amazon, who does it sound more like? We next see mention of Penthesilea in a passage in book eleven, during the battle in which Camilla fights. “An Amazon exulted in the midst of the slaughter, with one breast bared for battle: Camilla, armed with her quiver” fights with her maiden companions around her — they are described as similar to the Amazons as Thrace, “fighting with ornate weapons around Hippolyte, or when Penthesilea returned, in her chariot, and the ranks of women with crescent shields exulted.” Virgil purposely includes a direct reference to the amazon queen in this scene of high action and bloodshed. It seems that his “virgin warrior daring to fight with men” has been reincarnated.


Not far removed from the Roman’s cultural memory at the time of writing the Aeneid, the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra cannot be ignored in the context of the epic. Quite obviously, the reader is reminded of the historic figure early on by the Tyrian Dido; both are foreign, female rulers in positions of significant power, both exist across the sea from Italy and Rome, both experience loves that lead to their own deaths.

Cleopatra and Caesar, Jean Leon Gerome
Cleopatra and Caesar, Jean Leon Gerome

But it is not unreasonable to see some of these parallels in Camilla, too. In juxtaposition with Aeneas, she is a foreign queen too, ruling her people in Italy. Her homeland is technically foreign to the hero, as well. She leads her people in war, though in a more direct and involved way than Cleopatra did in Actium, for example. It could even be argued that it is Camilla’s love and devotion to her people and homeland that led to her defeat — Diana herself says that Camilla could have been spared, had she not taken up arms.

Somewhat an aside, but it is interesting to speculate who in the story is representative of Antony. Sometimes Mezentius or Turnus are suggested. Interesting to think about!


The short mention we find of a character named Harpalyce in the Aeneid comes in the very first book, as Venus was disguising herself as a maiden “with the face and appearance of a virgin, and a virgin’s weapons, a Spartan girl, or such as Harpalyce of Thrace, who wearies horses, and outdoes winged Hebrus in flight”. We are only given a few facts about the character here: she is a virgin huntress, from Thrace, and very fast.

Further elaboration on this character comes from Servius, in his commentary on the Aeneid. He says that Harpalyce rescued her father Harpalycus, king of the Thracian tribe of Amymonians, when he was captured. He compares her relationship to her father to Camilla with Metabus. He says after her father was driven out by the citizens because of his savagery, Harpalyce fled into the woods and lived in the wild, relying on hunting and theft to survive. Sources of this character outside of Virgil and Servius is rather scarce, so we don’t know exactly where Servius got this story. She is mentioned briefly in Hyginus’ Fabulae, as having been nursed on the milk of a heifer and a mare as a baby (note that there are other figures by the same name, but we are specifically talking about the Harpalyce that is the daughter of Harpalycus).

In particular Harpalyce is interesting because it is the only other reference to a nearly supernatural speed which Camilla is said to possess. Where Harpalyce “wearies horses” with her foot speed, we see Camilla in action: “like lightening she intercepted the horse’s path, on swift feet, and seizing the reins from in front tackled [the son of Aunus]”. Back in book seven, we were also told that Camilla “with her quickness of foot out-strip the winds. She might have skimmed the tips of the stalks of uncut corn, and not bruised their delicate ears with her running: or, hanging above the swelling waves, taken her path through the heart of the deep, and not dipped her quick feet in the sea”. It seems that Virgil is telling us that she can not only walk on top of grain fields without disturbing the plants, but can even walk on water (reminding me of Lord of the Rings, where Legolas walks on top of the snow!)

Camilla’s unusual speed and lightness of foot is certainly one of the more curious aspects given to her by Virgil. He seems to have taken whatever notion of Harpalyce and her speed that existed and amped it up considerably for his new character. Even more interesting is that as far as we are told, she is of no divine parentage, so her abilities are even more unexplainable. But, I digress.


Last, but not least, we must consider the ways in which Virgil’s portrayal of Queen Dido influenced the design of Camilla. Some scholars like to argue about the order in which the Aeneid was written, and therefore some would have you believe that Camilla’s chapter was written before he got to writing about Dido. Considering the fact that she was not an original character, I think it is safe to not worry too much about order for our purposes.

Much like our interpretation of Cleopatra, Dido is a woman in a position of power, and we see how that goes wrong in all sorts of ways. The overarching theme between Camilla and Dido’s stories is the flaw of female leadership, and the ways in which a woman in power is a corrupt thing. Dido is distracted and led astray by her passion (despite the fact it was a result of the gods’ interference), showing women as too emotionally volatile to lead. Camilla is a flawed combination of huntress and warrior, and in her final moments is distracted by Chloreus’ fine equipment “with a feminine desire for prizes and spoil”. This stops her from performing effectively as a military leader, and she is soon killed.

The death of Dido, Heinrich Friedrich
The death of Dido, Heinrich Friedrich

Virgil certainly seems to be making a statement here. I think it’s done with the purpose of reinforcing the divine/natural right of the Roman empire, and perhaps giving an extra nudge to the reader at how ‘lucky’ they were for Augustus saving the Romans from the debauchery of Cleopatra. Just a thought, anyways.

I hope this post has given you some food for thought on where Virgil’s inspiration for Camilla may have come from. The four characters I have touched on here are the most obvious choices, but I think there are cases for other figures, as well. What do you think? Are there any historical or literary figures that remind you of Camilla?

Thanks for reading, as always!

** Sorry I didn’t provide line citations for this one. I’ll hopefully go back at some point and add them. The text I was using didn’t have line references!


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