Dido is Roman epic’s most tragic female character. She first appears in the Aeneid, Virgil’s epic about the founding of Rome by the Trojan hero Aeneas. Dido is the founder and first Queen of Carthage, having fled from her homeland after her husband’s death. She is driven mad by love for Aeneas when he washes up on her shore, and in a frenzied passion commits suicide when the hero continues his journey to Italy. Her portrayal has been much debated, but whether she is the mad and dangerous foreigner, or the wretched and pitiable woman, there is no denying the beauty and tragedy of Virgil’s poetry.
We first see Dido in Book 1. Here she is the dignified queen, beautiful and wealthy, presiding over the building of her great city. This city is Carthage, which will one day be Rome’s great enemy. By Virgil’s time Rome has fought three wars against Carthage, the most famous culminating in 218 BC when Hannibal led an army of elephants through the Alps to surprise the Romans. In 146 BC the Romans won a decisive victory and burned Carthage to the ground, ending the conflict once and for all.
When we first meet Dido however there is no animosity. She is generous and kind, and even speaks of a union between Aeneas’ Trojans and her people, the Tyrians.
Then, Dido, spoke briefly, with lowered eyes:
‘Trojans, free your hearts of fear: dispel your cares.
Harsh events and the newness of the kingdom force me to effect
such things, and protect my borders with guards on all sides.
Who doesn’t know of Aeneas’s race, and the city of Troy,
the bravery, the men, or so great a blaze of warfare,
indeed, we Phoenicians don’t possess unfeeling hearts,
the sun doesn’t harness his horses that far from this Tyrian city.
Whether you opt for mighty Hesperia, and Saturn’s fields,
or the summit of Eryx, and Acestes for king,
I’ll see you safely escorted, and help you with my wealth.
Or do you wish to settle here with me, as equals in my kingdom?
The city I build is yours: beach your ships:
Trojans and Tyrians will be treated by me without distinction.’
Dido and Aeneas are not so different at this point. Both are generous leaders, exiles, widow(er)s, and both have been forced to assume leadership under circumstances beyond their control. They are also both now in the process of founding new cities. There is every reason for sympathy between the two, and so the depiction of Dido is a promising one. She is a parallel to Aeneas, an industrious and inspiring leader of her people.
I have included the above passage because it shows Dido before she is driven mad by the gods. Juno, protector of the Carthaginians, wants to delay Aeneas and keep him from founding Rome, the city that one day will burn her beloved Carthage. To do this she enlists Cupid to fill Dido’s mind with a great passion for the Trojan hero. Her portrayal in Book 1 is why we cannot simply write Dido off as unbalanced and over-emotional. Before the gods intervene she is an impressive figure. She is even like Aeneas, Rome’s great hero. However, Cupid’s power is devastating and the dignified queen is transformed into a wounded animal:
Wretched Dido burns, and wanders frenzied through the city,
like an unwary deer struck by an arrow, that a shepherd hunting
with his bow has fired at from a distance, in the Cretan woods,
leaving the winged steel in her, without knowing.
She runs through the woods and glades of Dicte:
the lethal shaft hangs in her side.
Dido has lost all her former control and composure, and is now the victim. The metaphorical wound of her love tragically foreshadows the very real wound that eventually kill her. Aeneas is the hunter, unaware of his shaft that has found its mark. Dido’s role is now passive. She is at the mercy of the gods.
It is interesting that we do not get a clear statement of Aeneas’ feelings in this Book. It is never explicitly said whether or not he returns Dido’s love. However he does seem to follow where Dido leads, and at one point he is described as overseeing the building of the city dressed in clothes the queen has woven for him. Is his lack of protest, when he knows it is not his destiny to stay in Carthage a sign callousness or ignorance? Maybe he quite happy to court the beautiful queen and does not care about her sufferings. Or maybe he is just a bit dense and hasn’t noticed the queen’s anguish. I do not think these are likely options. Rather I think that Aeneas, as Dido in Book 1, sees the potential for an alliance between the two, perhaps even as a result of his own love for the queen. It would be out of character for the great stoic hero to profusely profess his love, and so Virgil keeps him quiet.
Whatever hopes the two might have for a shared future, they are short-lived. Jupiter intervenes, instructing Aeneas to leave Carthage immediately and fulfil his fate as founder of the city of Rome. Dido is impeding his fated destiny. As Virgil’s audience knows, Rome must be founded and Carthage must be destroyed.
On hearing the news that Aeneas is leaving Dido is driven to despair and resolves to die. She orders for a pyre to be built, and curses Romans and Carthaginians to forever be enemies, thus engendering the fatal hatred that will eventually bring about her city’s doom.
The Book closes with some of Virgil’s most beautiful poetry. In a contrast to her desperate curses and rages, Dido’s life ends in a moment of complete calm. She stabs herself on funeral pyre, mourning the happiness that could have been hers had Aeneas never come to Carthage. Juno, finally feeling pity for the woman she has destroyed, brings her suffering to a quiet end.
Dido tried to lift her heavy eyelids again, but failed:
and the deep wound hissed in her breast.
Lifting herself three times, she struggled to rise on her elbow:
three times she fell back onto the bed, searching for light in
the depths of heaven, with wandering eyes, and, finding it, sighed.
Then all-powerful Juno, pitying the long suffering
of her difficult death, sent Iris from Olympus, to release
the struggling spirit, and captive body. For since
she had not died through fate, or by a well-earned death,
but wretchedly, before her time, inflamed with sudden madness,
Proserpine had not yet taken a lock of golden hair
from her head, or condemned her soul to Stygian Orcus.
So dew-wet Iris flew down through the sky, on saffron wings,
trailing a thousand shifting colours across the sun,
and hovered over her head. “ I take this offering, sacred to Dis,
as commanded, and release you from the body that was yours.”
So she spoke, and cut the lock of hair with her right hand.
All the warmth ebbed at once, and life vanished on the breeze.
Iris, goddess of the rainbow, appears in a stream of bright colours. Her touch is gentle, and she ritually cuts the lock of hair due to Dis and Proserpine, god and goddess of the underworld. The image is terrible in its simplicity and its contrast to Dido’s struggling body, her hissing wound. It is also beautiful in its calm, in the gentle touch of bright Isis that frees the queen. With a sigh and a breeze her soul is carried into the light.
Discussion of Dido and Aeneas often focusses on the concept of blame. Is all this Dido’s fault for her over-emotional passion? Or is Aeneas to blame for his cold-hearted stoicism. Ultimately however the gods are our main culprits. It is their intervention which turns Dido from a proud queen into a desperate animal. It is they who command Aeneas to leave Carthage and silently bear whatever feelings he might have had for her. The gods of epic are terrible in their carelessness. Mortals are their helpless playthings. Contrast the beauty and serenity of goddess Isis’ intervention to the desperate sufferings of Dido’s mortal body. Juno may feel pity at Dido’s last breath, but there is no remorse. The gods are immortal and invulnerable. It is only humans who suffer the awful consequences of their play.
Translations by A.S. Kline (2002)