The Reading Room
The Birth of English (and Roman) Tragedy: Camilla, Diana, and The Aeneid
A few weeks ago we were all witnesses to history when we watched the longest heir-to-the-throne-in-waiting in British history finally ascend the throne in his seventy-fourth year of life. But it wasn’t only King Charles III who made history. So did his wife, Queen Camilla, who at age 75 became the oldest queen consort in British history as well.
Camilla’s assumption of queenship is no less of a story of perseverance than is Charles’s assumption of kingship. As royal watchers know, although Camilla was raised in upper-crust British society and although her parents saw fit that her education would allow her to become a member of modern-day English aristocracy, she never exactly had any pretensions about wanting to become Queen, even after meeting Charles. Indeed, as even non-royal watchers know, while it was the people who craved for a Queen Diana, the once and future king himself longed for none other than a Queen Camilla.
Princess Diana was hardly mentioned at all during Charles’s coronation—and perhaps rightly so, so as not to detract from the attention that was due that day to new king. But while seeing Camilla by his side and watching her become crowned along with Charles, it was hard not to think about “the people’s princess”—Diana—and the tragic circumstances that led to Camilla having this moment rather than Diana. Witnessing Diana’s son Prince William—now the current heir to the throne—pledge an oath of loyalty to his father and whisper something in his ear that made him smile while it was not Diana but Camilla who was wearing the Crown of Queen Mary could not but have conjured memories of Diana’s infamous “there are three of us in this marriage” remark, and the way in which Camilla and Diana were perpetually—and likely always will be—inexorably intertwined in our collective memory as well as in British monarchical history.
But it is not only in British monarchical history that Diana and Camilla are irrevocably linked. Their connection goes back even further—all the way to the dawn of Western Civilization itself.
The origin of the name “Camilla” lies in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, in which the first-century Roman poet tells the story of the founding of Rome in verse. Relying on legends about the birth of the Roman nation, one such story that Virgil retells is the chronicle of the war between the Trojans (the people that would found the Roman republic, according to the legend), led by Aeneas (one of the Trojan heroes who survived the fall of Troy), and the local Latins and Etruscans, led by the Rutulian warrior Turnus. One of the principal players in this cast is a local Italic warrior named Camilla, who loses her life while fighting against the Trojans. According to Roman mythology Camilla’s father, unable to look after her because he was being hunted by enemies, left her in the forest and prayed to the goddess Diana to guard her. Diana did so—but only up to a point. Diana ensured that Camilla would grow up in the forest in peace, but when Camilla later willingly entered into battle against the Trojans, Diana was no longer able to protect her. It is Camilla’s death, in Virgil’s narrative, that sets into the motion the events that lead to Aeneas’s defeat of the Latins and the beginning of a new era in human history.
In our era it was Diana who died the tragic death while the woman with whom she would be forever interlaced, Camilla, lived on; in Virgil’s time it was Camilla who died the tragic death while her guardian goddess Diana lived on. The intertwining of Camilla and Diana—both in our time and in Virgil’s—serves as a reminder that history is all too often born in tragedy.
Virgil, in a possible attempt to offer his audience some consolation for this tragedy, used his poetic gifts to memorialize the sacrifice of Camilla. Time will tell if a great writer of our epoch will do the same for Diana.