Critics have noted Heinrich von Kleist's strong reliance on the Iliad in composing his tragic play Penthesilea (Angress 101, Mahlendorf 252). Roger Paulin has also noted the parallels between the climax of Penthesilea, in which Penthesilea kills and partially devours Achilles, and the Pentheus myth, wherein Pentheus' mother, Agave, in a Dionysian frenzy, mistakes him for a lion and dismembers him (44-45). I suggest that the play also has important parallels with the Aeneid. Both works apply traditions regarding Amazons to some of their characters; both address the relationship between love and violent frenzy; both treat the founding of a state as, at least in part, an act of frenzy; and both make their characters choose between matriarchal and patriarchal states.

Amazon Traditions in the Aeneid and Penthesilea

          Kleist's heroine Penthesilea shares common roots with Virgil's Dido and Camilla: the Amazons of Greek mythology. Since Penthesilea focuses on the Amazons and the Aeneid only refers to them in passing, Kleist includes more of the ancient traditions regarding the Amazons than does Virgil. Although both writers refer to the Amazons' home on the Thermodon River, only Kleist adds a reference to their traditional capital, Themiscyra (Virgil 11. 659; Kleist 17. 2281, 2285-2286; Apollodorus 2. 5. 9).

          Kleist also adopts and extends an Amazonian custom developed from one ancient popular etymology of the term ̓Αμαζών (Amazon). Diodorus Siculus is one of the sources for this etymology, which is based on the alpha privitive:

τν δὲ γεννωμένων . . . τν δὲ θηλυτερν τὸν δεξιὸν μαστὸν ἐπέκαον, ἵνα μὴ κατὰ τὰς ἀκμὰς τν σωμάτων ἐπαιρόμενος ἐνοχλ· ἀφ̓ ς αἰτίας συμβναι τὸ ἔθνος τν ̓Αμαζόνων ταύτης τυχεν τς προσηγορίας. (Diodorus 2. 45. 3)


They seared the right breast of the female children lest it should grow into a hindrance as their bodies matured. It was from this source that the nation of the Amazons received its name.

Popular etymologies often derived ̓Αμαζών (Amazon) from ἀ-μαζός (a-mazos), meaning "lacking a breast" (Roscher 271; Magee 30). Kleist follows the etymology and the tradition that the Amazons removed a breast so they would be better archers. The founding queen Tanaïs initiated the practice by ripping off her right breast and dubbing the new nation "the Amazons or breastless ones" (Die Amazonen oder Busenlosen; Kleist 15. 1989). Her descendants hope the practice will not only make them better archers, they also hope (vainly as it turns out) that having the breast removed will free them from passion and protect them from the love god Amor (Cupid) by denying him a target for his arrows (7. 1081-1085).

          Blok observes that neither ancient nor modern etymologies have successfully determined the origin of the word. Such etymologies have added new elements to the myth rather than uncovering previously-existing elements (Blok 24). For example, no ancient statues or vases show Amazons lacking a breast, nor does Virgil in his ecphrasis Footnote of the depiction of Penthesilea and her Amazons in the temple of Juno (1. 491-493). "It should be noted that these representations of the Amazons, for example as women lacking one or both breasts . . . are the result of the etymology, not vice versa" (24; Magee 32-33).

          Kleist derives the mating rituals for his Amazons from a model that was very popular in the late ancient era and thereafter. According to the model, the Amazons lived separately from the Gargarians, an all-male tribe. For two months in the spring, the two tribes met in the mountain that separated them. During this time the men and women mated anonymously with whomever they met in the dark. The Amazons kept the female children, and they distributed the male children randomly among the Gargarians because no one knew who any boy's father was (Mayor and Ober 73; Strabo 11. 5. 1; Magee 26). Kleist alters this pattern by having the Amazons capture their temporary mates through military raids──it is such a raid that brings the Amazons into contact with the Trojan war. This element seems to be loosely based on Herodotus' description of the Sauromatians, a tribe descended from Amazons and Scythians. No Sauromatian virgin could marry until she had killed one of the enemy. The women were equal to the men, dressing like them, hunting with their men or alone, and even fighting in wars (Herodotus 4. 110-117; Magee 27-28). Kleist does preserve the traditional anonymity of Amazon mating rituals by having his Amazons take as mates whomever they capture in battle. They can thereby see themselves as brides of Mars rather than as brides of a specific man (Kleist 15. 2033-2088, 2145-2149).

          Penthesilea's pursuit of Achilles as an individual is contrary to the anonymous mating law as Kleist describes it, but it does accord well with one of the more notorious Amazon stories: the Thalestris-Alexander incident. Plutarch lists fourteen sources that mention this rumored incident (Alexander 46). According to Diodorus, Thalestris came to Alexander in Hyrcania. When Alexander asked why she was there, she revealed that she had come so they could "make a baby" (παιδοποιία), for he was the greatest man of that day and she the most distinguished woman. Alexander was exceedingly pleased (πέρας ἡσθεὶς) at this suggestion, and he spent thirteen days having an affair (συμπεριφέρω Footnote ) with the queen (Diodorus 17. 77. 1-3). Plutarch dismisses this account as spurious, basing his judgment on the response of Alexander's general Lysimachus when he heard the story. According to Plutarch, when Lysimachus heard this story from Onesicritus, he smiled and asked, "And where was I then?" ("Καὶ πο," φάναι, "τότε ἤμην ἐγώ;" 46; Magee 25-26). Like Thalestris, Kleist's Penthesilea wants to have a superlative mate. Like Alexander, Kleist's Achilles is exceedingly pleased at the prospect.

          Ancient narratives and works of art provided more background to the representations of Virgil and Kleist. Traditionally Penthesilea had arrived after the death of Hector to lift the siege at Troy. Achilles killed her in combat and then killed Thersites, who was mocking him for supposedly loving Penthesilea. Of the authors who treated this event, Arctinus apparently made this love a slander invented by Thersites (Proclus ii), but Apollodorus (5. 1) and Quintus Smyrnaeus (1. 671-674) report that Achilles' love was real (Magee 25). Further, a painting by Panaenus in the temple of Zeus at Olympia depicted Achilles supporting (ἀνέχων) the dying Penthesilea, supporting the tradition that Achilles loved her (Pausanias 5. 11. 6). A painting by Polygnotus in the Lesche at Delphi showed Penthesilea looking contemptuously at the beardless, therefore effeminate Paris, who was clapping his hands at her like a "country bumpkin" (ἀνδρὸς ἀγροίκου, Pausanias 10. 31. 8). Like Polygnotus' Penthesilea, Kleist's heroine despises men she sees as weak, seeking instead a real hero, Achilles (Kleist 5. 650-837). Virgil's Camilla also resembles Polygnotus' Penthesilea; Polygnotus' Penthesilea dressed in a leopard skin, and Camilla had worn a tiger skin as a child (Virgil 11. 576-577; Pausanias 10. 31. 8). In his ecphrasis of the temple of Juno at Carthage, Virgil depicts Penthesilea in her glory before her inevitable defeat.

ducit Amazonidum lunatis agmina peltis

Penthesilea furens mediisque in milibus ardet,

aurea subnectens exsertae cingula mammae,

bellatrix, audetque viris concurrere virgo. (Virgil 1. 490-493)

The raging Penthesilea leads the Amazonian ranks with their moon-shaped shields and burns in the midst of thousands, a golden belt binding her exposed breast. The maiden, a woman warrior, dares fight with men.

Kleist's greatest change to the basic narrative involves the climax of the confrontation between Penthesilea furens and Achilles; instead of Achilles killing Penthesilea, Kleist has Penthesilea kill and partially eat Achilles in her frenzy (22. 2591-2674).

          Figure 1. Reconstruction of the shield of Athena Parthenos, Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. (Leipen 91)

          Virgil's treatment of the Amazon myth is more traditional. His initial description of Camilla does not specifically mention the Amazons, but it could apply equally well to one.

Bellatrix, non illa colo calathisve Minervae

femineas adsueta manus, sed proelia virgo

dura pati cursuque pedum praevertere ventos. (Virgil 7. 805-807)


A woman warrior, she had not accustomed her female hands to the distaff or the sewing-basket of Minerva, but a maiden hardy to endure battle and to outstrip the wind in her course.

When Camilla enters the fray in the penultimate battle, Virgil makes the analogy between her and the Amazons explicit.

          At medias inter caedes exsultat Amazon,

unum exserta latus pugnae, pharetrata Camilla. (Aeneid 11. 648-649)


          But in the midst of the carnage rages an Amazon, one breast bared for battle, the quiver-wearing Camilla.

          The tradition of the Amazon fighting with one breast exposed, one element of Virgil's description of both Camilla and Penthesilea, comes not so much from the literary tradition as it does from artistic depictions of Amazons. For example, the Royal Ontario Museum reconstruction of the shield of Athena Parthenos shows several Amazons with "one breast bared for battle." These may be seen most clearly at the three o'clock, five o'clock, and nine through eleven o'clock positions of the shield (figure 1). In constructing his ecphrasis of Juno's temple, Virgil draws from the traditional method of depicting Amazons in monuments. He then applies a similar description to his Amazonian Camilla.

          Virgil also accentuates the similarities between Penthesilea and Dido, making Dido an Amazonian figure (Boyd 215). Dido's arrival interrupts Aeneas' inspection of the images inscribed on the temple Juno just as he gazes at the depiction of Penthesilea and her forces. Virgil immediately compares Dido to Diana (the patron of the Amazons) Footnote carrying a quiver (the weapon of the Amazons) (Virgil 1. 490-504). When Dido later rides with Aeneas on the hunt, she herself carries a golden quiver (4. 138). Furthermore, Dido, like Penthesilea, is a dux femina (female leader), and the well-known fate of Penthesilea "adumbrates the future of Dido's passion for Aeneas" (Boyd 226).

          Why would Virgil make Dido similar to the Amazons and create the Amazonian Camilla to oppose Aeneas? In part, he was using the device developed by Herodotus of marking barbarity through the inversion of common social structures (Boyd 215). Thus Camilla cannot be a true Amazon, for the Amazons had been allies of the Trojans. Because of the Trojan alliance with the Amazons, Virgil has Aeneas exhibit some gratitude to and esteem for the Amazons for supporting Troy in the Trojan War, with Aeneas weeping over the images of Penthesilea and other dead comrades portrayed on the temple at Carthage (Virgil, Aeneid 1. 464-465, 490-493) and giving an Amazonian quiver from his former allies as second-place prize in a race (5. 311-314). However, for the most part even the Romans, including Virgil, identified with the heroes who subdued the Amazons (Kleinbaum 34-36; Magee 48-49).

          Kleist presents an extreme example of the tendency of men to identify themelves as the opponents of the Amazons by having Penthesilea and her troops simultaneously attack both the Trojans and the Greeks when they arrive at Troy (Penthesilea Scene 1). Identifying with the heroes who crush the Amazons enables the men who make this identification to view themselves as those heroes. Kleinbaum sees the widespread use of depictions of battles with Amazons, called Amazonomachies, on Roman sarcophagi as an example of such identification with Roman men seeking a kind of transcendence through defeating Amazons (1, 34-36; Magee 48-49). "To win an Amazon, either through arms or through love or, even better, through both, is to be certified as a hero" (Kleinbaum 1). In Kleist's Penthesilea, Achilles shares such a motive when he obsessively pursues Penthesilea against Agamemnon's orders (4. 566-616).

Nichte ehr zu meinen Freunden will ich lenken,

Ich schwör's, und Pergamos nicht wiedersehn,

Als bis ich sie zu meiner Braut gemacht,

Und sie, die Stirn bekränzt mit Tedeswunden,

Kann durch die Straßen häuptlings mit mir schleifen. (4. 611-615)


I will never drive back to my friends,

I swear, nor will I see Pergamon again,

Until I have made her my bride,

And she, her brow wreathed with deadly wounds,

Can slide head first through the streets by me.

Achilles plans to conquer Penthesilea militarily and sexually, in accord with the myth's typical plot stucture. He wishes to prove his heroism through the death and desecration of Penthesilea: his heroism and his manhood. The others can behave like eunuchs (Verschnittnen); he will behave the way he has since his beard began to sprout (mir der Bart gekeimt; 4. 586, 599).

Phthia Versus Themiscyra

          The desire to defeat a superlative opponent is not the only reason for adding an Amazonian figure, especially when we consider the correlation between Camilla and Dido. Regarding Camilla's advent, Boyd states, "In this context, the naming of a female as last among the leaders is ominous, with its overtones of abnormality and weakness: a woman's leadership has already once in the Aeneid been proven problematic" (214-215). Camilla and Dido represent the danger of powerful women. This was a common theme of the amazonomachies evoked in the Aeneid. The Parthenon supplies a good example of this theme. According to Tyrrell, Athena in the Parthenon "symbolizes the triumph of civilization over wanton violence" (20). The Gigantomachy, the Centauromachy, the Amazonomachy, and the scene from the Trojan War all carry this message in one form or another. The victory of barbarian over Greek, animal over human, and woman over man would result in chaos. The Gigantomachy established the supremacy of the Olympian gods over chthonic ones. Theseus' victory over the centaurs, depicted on the back of Athena's shield, demonstrated human superiority over the bestial. The Trojan battle showed the victory of Greek over oriental, and the Amazonomachy on the front of Athena's shield (fig. 1) signified both the victory of men over women and the victory of Greek over barbarian (Tyrrell 20). Such depictions function to purify the motives of Athenian aggression in this period. Athens was not fighting merely for power; it was fighting for civilization and order against anomie and chaos (Magee 72-73).

          An analogous process takes place in the Aeneid, signified by another shield──the shield of Aeneas. Vulcan makes Aeneas' shield according to the pattern Homer established in Hephaestus' construction of Achilles' shield (Iliad 18. 478-605; Virgil 11. 438-440). In his ecphrasis of Aeneas' shield, Virgil does not copy the image on Achilles' shield, which had focused on the cycle of life in peace and war. Instead, Virgil has Vulcan depict the history of Rome, a history which lies in Virgil's past but Aeneas' future.

          At the center of Aeneas' shield is the climax of Roman history to Virgil and his patron, Octavian: the battle of Actium (Aeneid 8. 675-716). Octavian represents Roman patriarchal values: " his father's star is exposed on his head" (patriumque aperitur vertice sidus; 8. 681). In contrast, Mark Antony approaches with "barbaric force" (ope barbarica) drawn from eastern lands, such as Egypt and Bactra (8. 685-688). Virgil closes his description of the arrayed forces with the ultimate proof of Mark Antony's fall: "His Egyptian wife (horrible!) follows" (sequiturque [nefas] Aegyptia coniunx; 688). Antony has succumbed to the domination of a woman: Cleopatra. The conflict is not just between Octavius and Antony; it is one between east and west, barbarity and civilization, patriarchy and matriarchy. Octavian is accompanied by his father's star; Antony by his shameful wife. "His defeat at Augustus' hands preserves and justifies the Roman ideals of frugality, perseverance, devotion to the Olympian gods, male sovereignty, and female subjection" (Watkins 9). Like the shield of Athena, Aeneas' shield displays the defeat of matriarchy──with the ironic twist that it is the Hellenistic heirs to the Greeks who are now portrayed as the barbaric, effeminate forces that must be defeated.

          Dido poses a danger to Aeneas parallel to that which Cleopatra posed to Antony. When Mercury finds Aeneas to tell him to leave Dido and go to Italy, he finds Aeneas bedecked in eastern splendor and decadence, with a bejeweled sword and a cloak of purple and gold (Virgil 4. 261-264). Dido is the one who has dressed him this way. Mercury accuses him of being uxorius.

                     "tu nunc Karthaginis altae

fundamenta locas pulcramque uxorius urbem

exstruis? . . .


"si te nulla movet tantarum gloria rerum

nec super ipse tua moliris laude laborem,

Ascanium surgentem et spes heredis Iuli

respice, cui regnum Italiae Romanaque tellus

debentur." (4. 265-267, 272-276)


"Are you now laying the foundations of towering Troy and building a beautiful city, obeying your wife? . . .


"If now the glory of such events does not move you nor will you shoulder the burden on behalf of your own fame, at least look upon the growing Ascanius and the hope for your heir Iulus, to whom are owed the kingdom of Italy and the Roman soil."

Without making an explicit decision (nec coniugis umquam / praetendi taedas aut haec in faedera veni; 4. 338-339), uxorius Aeneas has slipped into a relationship as a woman's subordinate. He has become the effeminate subordinate of a woman ruler. Furthermore, he is forgetting his patriarchal duty to his son. It is time for him to remember his patriarchal obligations and free himself from his uxoriousness.

          Camilla is a parallel danger; hers is a corrosive presence. When she offers to lead her cavalry into battle, Turnus acquiesces and even makes her the leader (dux) and goes off to ambush Aeneas (Virgil 11. 498-521), calling his masculinity into question. While Camilla is routing the Trojans and their allies in the initial attack, Tarchon upbraids his men for letting a woman defeat them (Virgil 11. 732-740). Their defeat at the hands of a woman would symbolize not just the loss of a battle but also the loss of their manhood. Indeed, Camilla soon thereafter spies just such an unmanly man, a Trojan who is new to the story: Chloreus, priest to Cybele (sacer Cybelo Chloreus; 768). Grace West points out that as a priest to Cybele, Chloreus would have been a eunuch, and that his gaudy armor emphasizes his effeminacy (22-23). Although West does not mention it, the tradition that the Amazons removed one of their breasts is also in the background of the scene. Thus a woman similar to the Amazons who sacrificed much of their womanhood was chasing a man "who sacrificed his manhood to the goddess" (West 23). Both Camilla and Chloreus must die so that "no vestige of either weakness will remain to taint the Trojan contribution to the founding of Rome" (West 28). At this point, the Aeneid tends to support the agenda of Caesar Augustus. Both powerful women and effeminate men represented the kind of decadence that Augustus was careful to oppose. He justified his power and his own innovations by presenting "himself as the defender of Republican values against foreign decadence" (Watkins 10).

          Camilla also has a dangerous effect on the women in the Aeneid. When she arrives with her forces, "a throng of women marvels and gazes at her progress" (turbaque miratur matrum et prospectat euntem; Virgil 7. 813). She brings with her women who fight by her side, a group Virgil compares to the "Amazons of Thrace" (Threiciae . . . Amazones; 11. 655-663). Camilla's inchoate matriarchy begins to exert an influence on the women of Latium. Virgil stresses that they saw Camilla and then followed her example in defending the walls, taking the roles of men. "They before anybody burn to die on the walls" (primaeque mori pro moenibus ardent; 11. 891-895). Camilla, like Dido before her, must be excised before Aeneas can fulfill his patriarchal destiny.

          Penthesilea also presents a choice between matriarchy and patriarchy, between Amazon and Greek societies and cultures. During one pause in the battle, Achilles and Penthesilea have their only real discussion. Each one attempts to talk the other into going to their respective homes, yielding to the other person and the other social system. Penthesilea urges Achilles to take part in the festival of roses, the Amazonian mating ritual, in her home, Themiscyra. Achilles counters with the proposition that Penthesilea to return to Phthia as his queen (meiner Königin, 13. 1524, emphasis added). As the battle approaches them again, their discussion deteriorates into them calling out the names of their cities to each other (Magee 216-217).

Penthesilea: Du willst mir nicht nach Themiscyra folgen? . .


Achilles: Nach Phtia, Kön'gin.

Penthesilea: Oh!──Nach Themiscyra!

Oh! Freund! Nach Themiscyra, sag ich dir. (17. 2281, 2285-2286)


Penthesilea: Will you not follow me to Themiscyra? . . .


Achilles: To Phthia, Queen.

Penthesilea: Oh!──To Themiscyra!

Oh, Friend! To Themiscyra, I tell you.

These cities are metonymic for the type of society located there: the matriarchal Themiscyra contrasts with the patriarchal Phthia, like the contrast between Carthage and Rome in Virgil. Such metonymies remain common; thus the global struggle of the Cold War was frequently summarized by the phrase, "Washington versus Moscow."

          After the confusion of the battle has parted them, Achilles and Penthesilea begin to consider submission to the other one. Penthesilea is enraged that her troops have rescued her from Achilles, as that constitutes a transgression of the rules of chivalry (Rittersitte, 19. 2298-2308). Her real objection is to being separated from Achilles. For his part, Achilles concocts an ill-advised plan to face her in a sham duel. He plans to "lose" and go to the festival of roses in Themiscyra, after which he still plans to take her to Phthia (21. 2447-2488). His "submission" to her is thus a pretext to allow him something of a romantic holiday in Amazonia. The flaw in his plan is that Penthesilea does not understand that the duel is a pretense (Magee 216-217).

          One traditional approach to matriarchal systems is to regard them as unreasonable and unnatural. Despite the Aeneid's somewhat sympathetic portrayals of Dido, Camilla, and Penthesilea, fate and duty clearly favor the establishment of Roman patriarchy. Similarly, Kleist's Greeks make the usual statements about the Amazon society being contrary to nature and good sense. Here, however, Kleist departs from the tradition. His the Amazons have rational motives; they are collecting men for their mating rituals. Their effort is hardly less rational than, or even all that different from, the Greeks and Trojans fighting for Helen (Mahlendorf 255), or the Greeks' own internal conflicts over Chryseïs and Briseïs (Homer, Iliad 1. 1-187). The Amazons may distract the Greeks and Trojans from their own conflict, but the Amazonian state is as rational within its cultural context as Greek state in its context (Magee 219).

The fact that Odysseus equates natural law and the customs of his nation and that he does so from ignorance of other customs should make us hesitate before we speak of what is "natürlich" and "unnatürlich" in this drama. (Angress 122)

          Kleist derives his Amazons and Greeks from Greek mythology, but the competing states he depicts follow Enlightment paradigms. As the more familiar society, the Greeks do not have to explain their social system in detail. Within the story, Penthesilea has heard of the Greeks and their deeds, so she needs no explanation of their society (Kleist 15. 2097-2140). Achilles, like the other Greeks, is mystified by the Amazonian society, so Penthesilea explains the origins and customs of their state. According to her account, based on ancient versions of the myth, her people were descended from Scythian women whose husbands had died fighting Ethiopians. Rather than submit to such men as husbands, the women killed the men on their wedding night (15. 1911-2005), much as forty-nine of Danaus' fifty daughters had killed their bridegrooms, the sons of Egyptus, on their wedding night (Virgil 10. 496-499, cf. Apollodorus 2. 1. 5). Their queen Tanaïs led them in the revolt and in forming a new state independent of all men. Tanaïs founded the state by ripping off her right breast in a frenzy, with the other women following her lead (15. 1911-2005; Magee 219-220). Subsequent generations have maintained their freedom from men by not marrying. Instead, they mate anonymously and briefly with men they defeat in battle. Much of Penthesilea's account is derived from traditional Amazon lore, but the ideology and rhetoric were from Kleist's own age.

The foundation myth of the Amazons in fact tells of an evidently "modern" revolt against social and sexual oppression, which is put forward as a rational act of self-defense and self-emancipation, justified, like the democratic revolutions of England and, more recently, America and France, by appeal to "natural right." (Rigby 327)

          The universe of the Enlightenment did not lend the same support to the state that it once had. The theory of natural rights or natural law posits that the universe "is governed by laws which exhibit rationality" which humans should try to discover and follow (Wollheim 451). One chief critic of this approach during the Enlightenment was the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (A.D. 1748-1832). The problem with natural law is that it is subjective (Johnson 4).

A great multitude of people are continually talking of the Law of Nature; and then they go on giving you their sentiments about what is right and what is wrong: and these sentiments, you are to understand, are so many chapters, and sections of the Law of Nature. (Bentham, An Introduction 9)

Thus a society based on such a system cannot make a defensible claim to being absolute. A social contract between the subjects and the ruler does not carry the degree the authorization for the ruler that comes when the ruler is divinely ordained. Nor does it imply an imutabile the social system; societies can be restructured if the members so desire. Greeks and Amazons do have concepts of right and wrong, but the Enlightenment's divorce of fact from value (which Kleist projects back onto the two cultures) makes impossible an objective decision that one of these cultures is natural and the other unnatural. Odysseus' and Achilles' protestations aside, the Amazon society is no longer contrary to nature but merely an alternate social contract arising from another social context (Magee 220).

          The Amazon state is both independent and rational; Penthesilea is quite capable of explaining their social structure and its advantages for them (15. 1874-2222). Nevertheless, maintaining their independence exacts a high price from the women. The physical mutilition of the Amazon's breast signified her denial of her own femininity, her social and emotional mutilation. The excision of her breast symbolizes the excision of men from her society (15. 1953-1967) and love from her heart (7. 1081-1085).

          As Penthesilea describes Amazon history and customs, Achilles interjects with such adjectives as "unwomanly" (unweiblich), "unnatural" (unnatürlich), "impossible" (unmöglich), "inhuman" (unmenschlich), "criminal" (frevelhaft), and, of course, "barbaric" (barbarisch; 15. 1902, 2005, 2011 2014). However, the Greek state in the play is scarcely more "natural" than the Amazon state (Magee 221). The Greeks could appeal to Nature and natural law, but as Bentham noted in his 1802 critique of natural law, "What are these natural laws, which nobody has made, and which everybody supposes at his fancy?" (Bentham, General View 157). The Amazons could appeal to "nature" and "natural law" just as easily as the Greeks. Indeed, the Amazons had asserted in their "constitutional convention" (Rat des Volks, 15. 1953) that it was the men who were "savage" (wild, 15. 1967). Just as the American Declaration of Independence had declared independence from "the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States," the Amazons declared their independence from "the tyrant's kiss" (der Tyrannen Kuß 15. 1966). The United States Constitution established "a more perfect Union"; the Amazons "established a state, mature, a women's state" (Ein Staat, ein mündiger, sei aufgestellt, / Ein Frauenstaat, 15. 1957-1958).

          The principles underlying the birth of the Amazon state also resemble some of those of the French Revolution, which affected Kleist more directly (Damrosch 299). Article 2 of the French "Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen" asserts:

Le but de toute association politique est la conservation des droits naturels et imprescriptibles de l'homme. Ces droits sont la liberté, la propriété, la sureté, et la résistance á l'óppression. ("Déclaration")


The end in view of every political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression. (Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies 500)

In similar fashion, the Amazon assembly had not only proclaimed liberty from men; it had also mandated legal and defense systems to protect their freedom.

Der das Gesetz sich würdig selber gebe,

Sich selbst gehorche, selber auch beschütze:

Und Tanaïs sei seine Königin. (15. 1960-1962)


[A state] that gives itself worthy laws,

that obeys itself, that defends itself:

and Tanais will be its Queen.

Like the revolutions of Kleist's time, the Amazon state was the product of rebellion against perceived injustice and of the radical rethinking of legal and social structures. What had been natural, like kings and husbands, could now be questioned and even changed.

          Since the Amazon and Greek states are the products of historical forces, their opposition is between two different societies, not between a natural and an unnatural one. In the world of the Aeneid, Aeneas had the advantage of being guided by fate and of having a mandate to build a society that matched the structure of the universe. Juppiter, the pater omnipotens (omnipotent father, 1. 60), commands Aeneas to leave Carthage and set up in Italy a society that fulfills his patriarchal obligations to his son Ascanius (4. 219-237), a society that parallels the divine patriarchy over which Juppiter presides. Indeed, Aeneas is unable to complete his mission by subduing Turnus until Juppiter exercises his omnipotence over his own wife, commanding her to cease opposing Aeneas (12. 791-806). Thus the proper earthly society has an objective model in the divine one. The theory of natural law or natural societies provides no objective basis for settling differences of opinion about just what the law of nature is or what a society modeled on natural law should be.

Bentham's main complaint about natural law thinking is that, if your opponent disagrees with your intuitions, there is no public, objective standard to which everyone can appeal as a way of settling the dispute without coercion. The matter then becomes a contest of wills rather than an appeal to reason. (Johnson 4)

This is precisely what happens in Penthesilea: Achilles and Penthesilea cannot resolve their conflict by shouting "Phthia" and "Themiscyra." Instead, they must duel to determine which system will pervail.

In Penthesilea there is ample scope for perceiving the Hegelian conflict of two forces which have apparently equal and absolute justification but which can only assert themselves as "negation and transgression of the other." (Stephens, "Illusion" 198)

          Far from being a simple negation of each other, the Amazon and Greek cultures are alike in being aggressive, violent, sexually segregated societies (Angress 117, Mahlendorf 255). Each society regards its own values as valid. Furthermore, the value system of each society is internally consistent, even though the two seem mutually exclusive. In the world of the play, the two societies do not present a dichotomy of human and unhuman, natural and monstrous. Instead, each state is a dehumanizing machine (Rigby 323). This view of the state matches Kleist's experience. He opposed the French incursions into German territories and wrote much of Penthesilea while under arrest by the French on the charge of spying (Damrosch 299). Like Penthesilea and Achilles, Kleist had trouble living in the enlightened state. When traditional accounts of the Amazons described the removal of a breast, they tended to emphasize the effect that this ritual had on men. Thus the accounts detail how the Amazons refused to rear male children, to marry men, or to serve as a link whereby fathers and sons could know one another. Kleist preserves these traditions by having Penthesilea tell Achilles that the Amazons had resolved to be independent from men, to kill men who ventured into realm, and to drown any sons born to them (Kleist 15. 1953-1967). Unlike earlier treatments of the myth, Kleist also emphasizes the cost of the Amazonian traditions to the Amazons themselves. Thus Penthesilea notes that when Tanaïs, their founding queen, ripped off her right breast, she fell into a faint (Kleist 15. 1988). Achilles thinks it barbarisch that the Amazons have turned her frenzied act into a national sacrament, a universal rite of passage (Magee 220-221). Kleist keeps the traditional motive for the mastectomy as enabling the women to be better archers, but he adds a new motive: the hope that the removal of the breast would prevent the women from feeling passion (Kleist 7. 1081-1085). The lack of a socially approved outlet for her passion (Kleist 15. 1886-1900) stirs Penthesilea into her frenzy (Magee 220-221).

          Penthesilea tries to meet her emotional needs in a culture that makes no allowances for those needs, that denies the possibility that those needs still exist (Kleist 7. 1081-1085). She thinks Achilles can meet those needs; she is attracted to the man who successfully defied the Greek state. In the Iliad, he refused orders, threats, bribes, and appeals to patriotism; he finally acted when he chose to (Iliad 1, 9, 18, 19). Thus when Achilles rejected attempts to persuade him to return to the fray, Diomedes stated: "He will fight when the wrath in his heart commands him and a god rouses him" ("τότε δ̓ ατε μαχήσεται, ὁππότε κέν μιν / θυμὸς ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἀνώγῃ καὶ θεὸς ὄρσῃ": 9. 702-703; Magee 222).

          In Penthesilea, the revolt of Penthesilea and Achilles from their respective societies is tragic rather than liberating. In the Iliad, the narcissistic Achilles was eventually integrated into the larger community (Mahlendorf 259). No such integration occurs in Penthesilea. The two rebels cannot make a real connection because each one's fantasy obliterates the other. When she meets Achilles, Penthesilea does not see the work of Hephaestus depicting life in human community; instead, she sees her own reflection.

Ist das die Siegerin, die schreckliche,

Der Amazonen stolze Königin,

Die seines Busen erzne Rüstung mir,

Wenn sich mein Fuß ihm naht, zurücke spiegelt?

(Kleist 5. 642-645)


Is that the victor, the frightening,

The proud Queen of the Amazons

Who is reflected back to me in his bronze breast-plate

When I meet him face to face?

In their attempt to escape an overly rational world, Penthesilea and Achilles become solipsistic (Stephens 200). Neither Penthesilea nor the Aeneid offer much liberation through love.

Omnia Vincit Amor

          Both the Aeneid and Penthesilea follow the tradition that regards love as a powerful force that can drive people to distraction.

ἠδ̓ ῎Ερος, ὃς κάλλιστος ἐν ἀθανάτοισι θεοσι,

λυσιμελής, πάντων δὲ θεν πάντων τ̓ ἀνθρώπων

δάμναται ἐν στήθεσσι νόον καὶ ἐπίφρονα βουλήν. (Hesiod, Theogony 120-122)


And Eros, most beautiful of the immortal gods,

loosening the limbs and overpowering in their hearts the minds and wise plans of all gods and all people.

Both works portray love as a violent passion that needs to be carefully circumscribed; they also both seem pessimistic about the possibility of doing so. In the tenth Eclogue, Virgil's Gallus complains that he is unable to find a "cure for the fury" of love (medicina furoris) and concludes that "love conquers all" (omnia vincit Amor; Eclogue 10. 60, 69). By this Gallus means, not that love overcomes all problems (one common understanding of the saying), but that love is a problem that cannot be overcome.

          In his analysis of the Aeneid, Putnam argues that there is "a strand of eroticism that runs carefully through the poem," an eroticism closely related to fury (29-31). Juno is emblematic of this relationship. Putnam notes that when Virgil considers Juno and the causae irarum saevique dolores ("the causes of her wrath and fierce sorrows," 1. 25), he lists Paris' selection of Venus over her, her hatred of the whole race because they descended from Electra, one of Jupiter's loves, and Juno's anger that the Trojan Ganymede was selected to be cupbearer to the gods, replacing her daughter Hebe (1. 25-28, Putnam 32). These examples "turn on the notion of privation, with implicit or explicit sexual innuendo, and in each case loss breeds a serious reaction" (Putnam 32).

          Dido, Juno's devotee, exhibits love, fury, and madness in her passion for Aeneas. Venus, Aeneas' mother, has her other son Cupid impersonate Aeneas' son Ascanius (Virgil 1. 657-722). She tells him that when Dido embraces him in his disguise, he should "inspire a hidden fire and deceive her with poison" (occultum inspires ignem fallasque veneno; Virgil 1. 688), which he does (1. 715-722). By the time that the banquet Dido gives is over and Aeneas' story of his adventures is complete, love has conquered Dido.

At regina gravi iamdumdum saucia cura

volnus alit venis et caeco carpitur igni. (Virgil 4. 1-2)


But the queen, long since smitten with a grave pang,

feeds the wound from her veins and is consumed with a hidden fire.

This hidden fire causes Dido to "wander the whole city raving, like a deer shot by an arrow" (totaque vagatur / urbe furens, qualis coniecta cerva sagitta; 4. 68-69). Virgil's reference to arrows parallels the account of his major source for the construction of the Dido incident, the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes. Virgil patterns Dido's love for Aeneas on Apollonius' depiction of Medea's love for Jason (Servius 4. Praef.). Medea saw the arrival of Jason at her father's court and was smitten by the arrow of Eros. τοος ὑπὸ κραδίῃ εἰλυμένος αἴθετο λάθρῃ

ολος ῎Ερως· (Apollonius 3. 296-297)


Thus coiling around her heart, in secret burnt Love the destroyer.

          Love the destroyer also burns secretly in Dido, but not for long. Soon, unmindful of her reputation, she is involved in an affair with Aeneas, which she calls a marriage (Virgil, Aeneid 4. 170-172). Even worse, when Aeneas leaves Carthage, Dido completely loses her composure. Her secret, emotional burning will soon become all to open and physical. Building a pyre with all of the reminders of Aeneas on top, she climbs to the top and falls on the sword Aeneas had given her (4. 504-521, 641-705).

           Love, either for something lost or something not yet gained, is the driving force behind the furors in the Aeneid (Putnam 31-32). Desire for something not yet gained is Aeolus' motive for unleashing the storm at the beginning of the Aeneid. Juno bribes him with her most beautiful (pulcherrima) nymph Deiopea as his reward for causing the storm (1. 65-75). John Watkins compares the Aeolus episode in the Aeneid to the parallel Aiolos episode in the Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Aiolos' island is a place of fertility (he has twelve children) and feasting (Homer, Odyssey 10. 1-12). In this context, Aiolos' sexuality is not threatening; rather, it is "synecdochic of the general abundance that he shares with the weary voyager who strays onto his shores" (Watkins 13). When Juno visits Aeolus in the Aeneid, she arrives not at an island of plenty, but in a cave where the chaotic winds are barely restrained.

In the Aeneid, frenzy supplants the Odyssey's serenity of erotic experience. Whereas Homer associated procreation with generosity, Virgil links it to primal, inherently anarchic impulses by figuring Aeolia not as an island but as a womb-like cave "pregnant with the raging southwinds" (feta furentibus Austris). (Watkins 14)

Watkins argues that in the Aeneid, sex is "a physical, moral, or political threat" and must "be suppressed to preserve the social order" (15). Indeed, the furious fires unleashed by the passions of Juno and Aeolus are also unleashed by the passions of Dido, Amata, Turnus, and finally Aeneas, fires that singe not only Lavinia (7. 72-77), but everything they touch.

          Like Virgil, Kleist begins his work with a storm, a storm that combines elements of the storms of Aeolus, Dido, and Camilla. In the first scene, Odysseus reports to Antilochus that he had led a division of Greeks to interpose themselves between the approaching Amazons and the Trojan contingent that had gone to meet them. The Greeks arrive too late to keep the Amazon and Trojan forces apart, but when they arrive, they cannot believe what they see.

Odysseus. Mit des Deiphobus Iliern im Kampf

Die Amazonen sehn! Penthesilea,

Wie Sturmwind ein zerrissenes Gewölk,

Weht der Trojaner Reihen vor sich her,

Als gält es, übern Hellespont hinaus

Hinweg vom Rund der Erde sie zu blasen. (1. 33-38)


Odysseus. We saw in battle with Deiphobus' Trojans──the Amazons! Penthesilea, as a gale the tattered clouds, scatters the Trojan ranks before her as if she wished to blast them across the Hellespont right off of the surface of the Earth.

Penthesilea the Sturmwind drives the Trojans before her like Aeolus and Juno, like the Greeks, Camilla, and Turnus in the Aeneid. Yet she is no windfall for the Greeks; she and her Amazons attack both sides at the same time, much to the mystification of Odysseus.

Odysseus. Sie muß, beim Hades! diese Jungfrau, doch,

Die wie vom Himmel plötlich, kampfgerüstet,

In unsern Streit fällt, sich darin zu mischen,

Sie muß zu einer der Partein sich schlagen. (1. 50-53)


Odysseus. She must, by Hades, this battle-framed maiden who suddenly falls from heaven in our conflict to mix herself in it, she must fight for one of the parties.

          To Odysseus, the Amazons symbolize chaos. They disrupt his neat binary world, driving Greek and Trojan together in defense against this common enemy, like fire and water somehow joining (1. 122-138). He can only speculate that Penthesilea is motivated by a special hatred of Achilles, making him her particular target on battlefield (1. 160-170). Penthesilea's pursuit of Achilles parallels the Amazonian Camilla's pursuit of Chloreus in the Aeneid (Virgil 11. 768-782). Yet Virgil makes Camilla's motives clear; she was chasing him for his glorious armor because "she burned with a female's passion for booty and spoils" femineo praedae et spoliorum ardebat amore (11. 782). Nevertheless, like Camilla, Penthesilea is motivated by amor, which she reveals as the play progresses. Upon seeing Achilles during the first parley between the Amazons and the Greeks, Penthesilea blurts out, "Such a man, o Prothoe!" (solch einem Mann, o Prothoe 1. 89).

          Penthesilea's pursuit of Achilles conflicts with the Amazons' law of temporary, anonymous mating with whomever they catch in battle. The Amazons fighting according to their precepts had no difficulty in killing the individual warriors they faced; there would always be more men for mates. Because she wants a particular man, Achilles, Penthesilea is fearful of sending him down to the Orcus, a river in Hades (Kleist 9. 1187-1192). She gives the rash command that prohibits her comrade from attacking him, with the result that Achilles' forces kill them with impunity even as he himself flirts with them (Kleist 10. 1396-11. 1446).

Achilles: Ich fühle mich im Innersten getroffen,

Und ein Entwaffneter, in jedem Sinne,

Leg ich zu euren kleinen Füßen mich.

Die fünfte Amazone von einem Spieß hinter der Szene hervor getroffen: Ihr guten Götter! Sie sinkt.

Die sechste ebenso: Weh mir! Sie sinkt.

Die siebente ebenso: Artemis! Sie sinkt. (11. 1416-1419)


Achilles: I feel myself struck to my inmost core,

And a disarmed man, in every sense,

I lay myself at your little feet.

The Fifth Amazon Struck by a spear from behind the scenes: The good gods! She falls.

The Sixth Likewise:           Alas for me! She falls.

The Seventh Likewise:                Oh Artemis! She falls.

Her passion has cost Penthesilea her ability to lead and protect her forces.

          Camilla and Dido likewise lose their ability to lead due to their passions. Camilla "burns with desire" (ardebat amore) for the armor of Chloreus, leading her to heedlessly (incauta) follow him through the battle (Aeneid 11. 781-782). She forgets to lead her forces and forgets to watch out for herself, giving Arruns the opportunity he needs to kill her (Aeneid 11. 783-831).

          Dido likewise loses her ability to lead because of passion. Her affair with Aeneas exposes her to the rumor, which was mixture of truth and lies, that she and Aeneas are regnorum immemores ("unmindful of their kingdoms") because they are indulging in their passion for each other (4. 191-197). However much of the rumor was merely slander, it was enough to breach her relationship with the neighboring King Iarbus. When she confronts Aeneas regarding his decision to leave, she refers to the loss of her status in the eyes of the surrounding kingdoms due to her relationship with him (4. 320-325). In the end, her passion and frenzy over her loss rob her of all ability to function, and she takes her own life (11. 651-705).

Founding Furies

          The opening storm sequences in the Aeneid and Penthesilea make the destructive potential of unleashed frenzy clear. Both Virgil and Kleist compare natural storms to social disorder. Kleist compares the raging Penthesilea to a Sturmwind (Kleist 1. 35), while Virgil compares the storm threating Aeneas' fleet to a mob rioting with torches and rocks (Virgil 1. 148-156). Neptune calms the stormy seas the way a respected commuity leader calms such a crowd, silencing them by his presence and calming them by his words (Virgil 1. 148-156). Thus Virgil at the outset portrays the passions of frenzy and fury as chaotic elements that must be calmed and controlled with reason. This process is fundamental to the establishing of civilization (Spence 15-16) and is the stated mission for Aeneas in the opening lines of the Aeneid, as he endures war and Juno's ire, ultimately to found a city in Latium (Virgil 1. 1-7). Although both the Aeneid and Penthesilea show the disorder that can arise from passion, neither work dismisses passion in favor of reason. Paradoxically, passion sometimes seems integral to the establishment of an orderly society.

          In the case of Dido, the case against passion is clear. With Dido dies any hope for Carthage, the city she founded. Her liaison with Aeneas leads to a break in relationships with the surrounding kings whom she had refused to marry, including King Iarbas (Virgil 4. 196-218, 305-330). Aeneas' abandonment of Dido is not only a personal loss for her; it is also a political loss for Carthage (Monti 58-61). Aeneas leaves her and her city in a position more precarious than he found them, in both the immediate and distant future. Dido's breach with Aeneas foreshadows the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage, which will end with the annihilation of Carthage (Virgil 1. 19-22). Thus Anna gives her dying sister Dido this prophetic rebuke:Exstinxti te meque, soror, populumque patresque

Sidonios urbemque tuam. (Virgil 4. 682-683)


You have destroyed yourself and me, o sister, the people and the Sidonian senate, and your city.

Dido's inability to cope with the loss of Aeneas leads not only to her death but also the destruction of her city.

          In the case of Penthesilea, the case against passion is not so clear. Her passion leads to her own destruction; however, her nation will continue in some form. Once she learns that she has eaten her lover, Penthesilea wills herself dead (24. 3025-3035). Despite this rather bizarre personal disintegration, Penthesilea's death does leave the door open for a social renewal. Tanaïs had marked the transition to a new social system through the frenzied act of ripping off her breast and fainting. The shocked High Priestess had dropped the sacred bow, which rocked three times before coming to rest (15. 1953-2001). In a stupor after killing Achilles and surrounded by horrified Amazons, Penthesilea again drops the great bow, which rocks three times "and dies, as it was born to Tanaïs" (Und stirbt, / Wie er der Tanaïs geboren ward; 24. 2771-2772). When Penthesilea returns to consciousness, she commands Prothoe, her second in command, to scatter the ashes of Tanaïs. These two actions symbolize the death of the old constitution. The Amazon nation will be transformed and reconstituted by this new action, just as it was by Tanaïs' action. How the Amazons will rationalize and integrate this new sacrament is unspecified; acts of frenzy have unpredictable results.

          Like Dido and Penthesilea, Aeneas succumbs to furor. Unlike Dido and Penthesilea, Aeneas neither loses his life nor his future state in the process. At the end of the Aeneid, Aeneas kills Turnus out of outrage over the loss of Pallas. Throughout the Aeneid, Vergil frequently looked to the future beyond this act; however, the narrative stops short of the bright future. Instead of ending with an event like the wedding of Aeneas and Lavinia, the work ends with Aeneas' frenzy and the death of Pallas. Like Dido, Turnus, Iarbas, Juno, and several other characters in the work, Aeneas is furiis accensus et ira / terribilis ("fired with fury and terrible in his wrath"; 12. 946-947). Terms that in the opening of the Aeneid applied to Juno, such as ira, furor, incensus, and saevus, now apply to Aeneas (Virgil 1. 1-33; 12. 887-952). Has Aeneas too lost his ability to lead through his loss of control over his emotions? This is the subject of much current scholarly debate. Putnam argues that according to the ethics of the work, Aeneas should have spared the fallen Turnus but succumbed to the same passion that overcame so many others. He thus failed "to spare the humbled" parcere subiectis (Putnam 42-43; Virgil 6. 853). If this is the case, then Juno has won; Aeneas has become like her.

          Karl Galinsky gives the most sustained response to this theory. He analyzes the ancient moral systems of the Academics, Peripatetics, and Epicureans and concludes that they would approve Aeneas' anger at Turnus (340). Likewise, the Roman legal system viewed anger in a judge as proper in the sentencing of criminals; not to be angry at a heinous crime would have seemed strange (326-327). The Roman practice of clementia specifically excluded those like Turnus, who was notable for his brutality, his stubbornness, and for breaking sacred agreements (Galinsky 323). For Aeneas not to kill him would be a failure "to vanquish the proud" (debellare superbos; Aeneid 6. 853). Furthermore, the world of the Aeneid was one in which political alliances were sealed in personal relationships. Aeneas owes it to his ally Evander to avenge the death of Evander's son Pallas by killing Turnus, to reward Evander's fides with his own (Monti 93-94). Only thus will the ground be cleared to found the new city; in this context Aeneas' violence can be seen as creative (Monte 93). The promise that Aeneas would "found a city" (dum conderet urbem; 1. 5) is realized in his last action, when he "buries the iron" (ferrum . . . condit; 12. 952) in Turnus' chest.

          Perhaps Aeneas here achieves an integration on the human level that Jupiter and Juno achieve on the divine level. Just as Juno must receive her due, so the characteristics she represents must have their place. Like Hippolytus (Euripides, Hippolytus 1-28), Penthesilea, Camilla and Dido try to declare their independence from passion and are accordingly destroyed by it. In the Eumenides, the Furies must be integrated into the Athenian judicial system if it is to work; a system based purely on the cerebrations of Apollo would be inadequate (Aeschylus 705-810). So too Aeneas must integrate passion with piety and balance one with the other.


          The Aeneid and Penthesilea both use the Amazon myth in their stories. Penthesilea is Kleist's treatment of the Penthesilea incident, wherein Penthesilea the Amazon queen dueled the Greek champion Achilles. Virgil used the Penthesilea incident as a point of departure, using the image of Penthesilea furens (Penthesilea raging) in the ecphrasis of Juno's temple to adumbrate the arrival, and fate, of Dido. As a women ruler, Dido──like the Amazons──raises questions about the ways men and women exercise power over each other, both on the personal and political levels. In order to establish the Roman patriarchal system, as he has been fated to do, Aeneas must first overcome the matriarchal threat represented by Dido, and later by Camilla.

          In Kleist's play, the patriarchal Greeks are not inherently superior to or inevitably triumphant over the matriarchal Amazons. Rather than represent the Amazons as irrational and the Greeks as rational, Kleist portrays each society as reasonable in its own terms. Ironically, neither of the champions of the two systems, Achilles and Penthesilea, can live according to the strictures of that system; they cannot fit into either the patriarchal or the matriarchal system and rebel against both. Carried away by the madness of love, they both die. Penthesileas death is not the end of the Amazons, however. Like the self-mutiliation of Tanaïs, her death provides the Amazon nation with a basis for social change and renewal, although the form this transformation will take is left undetermined in the play.

          Amor (love) is a deadly force in the Aeneid also. Dido kills herself in vexation over the loss of Aeneas; Camilla dies because she has been distracted by femineo . . . amore ("a feminine desire") for booty and spoils (11. 782). Aeneas himself ultimately gives in to a love-based rage, killing Turnus in revenge for the death of Aeneas' protégé, Pallas. Despite the apparent distrust of passion in the Aeneid, Aeneas' rage against Turnus appears to be necessary for Aeneas to lay the groundwork for the birth of Rome. Passion turns out to be too powerful to ignore or to suppress; Aeneas must incorporate it into the process of founding the future civilization.





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