Examine the story of Dido and Pygmalion. How does this brief passage illuminate the poem’s major themes?
The story of Pygmalion in Virgil’s Aeneid presents a conflict between one man’s desire for personal advancement and his duties to the people he loves, and suggests that career interests can be a far more powerful force than moral obligations. Like Pygmalion, the human characters in the Aeneid frequently sacrifice one another in the quest for glory and wealth. Virgil suggests that self-serving treachery is endemic, for even the gods brutalize their loved ones to shore up their own claims to power and status. Virgil thus uses the story of Pygmalion to highlight the collateral damage that accumulates when characters succumb to the single-minded pursuit of their own grand ambitions.
Pygmalion’s story dramatizes a conflict between material lust and one’s duties to family and friends. Pygmalion could honor his sister, Dido, and Sychaeus on their wedding day, but he recognizes an opportunity for personal advancement in killing Sychaeus and seizing his gold. Pygmalion could then attempt to make amends by confessing to Dido and accepting responsibility for his crime, but he instead dishonors her further (and thus preserves his own wealth) by lying to her about the nature of her husband’s death. Virgil states that Pygmalion is deaf to the basic needs of his sister, blinded by his desire for wealth, and reduced to the status of a monster, barely worthy of the label “human being.” The urge to shore up his material wealth dehumanizes and desensitizes him, and the lust for power triumphs over his fraternal responsibilities (which he does not even seem to recognize in his quest for self-advancement).
Just as Pygmalion values his security over his family ties, so Aeneas and other human characters frequently express their willingness to sacrifice loved ones in their quests for personal advancement. After Pygmalion brutalizes Dido, Aeneas does further damage to her by abandoning their bed and setting off for riches and fame in Italy. Rome’s foundational myth, cited by Jove in Book I, involves a similar act of treachery, for Romulus murders his own twin brother for the opportunity to serve as the first governor of Rome. Having earlier mourned the loss of some comrades on the high seas, Aeneas makes the startling offer of human sacrifices in exchange for some geographical information from a mysterious nymph. Each of these disquieting moments recalls Pygmalion’s horrific decision to murder his own brother-in-law in the interest of personal status.
Panning outward, Virgil implies that blinding self-interest is a universal issue, for the gods are just as ruthless in their self-serving schemes as the humans Pygmalion and Romulus are. Juno disobeys her husband and endangers the lives of scores of sailors simply to enlarge and fortify her domain. (Virgil makes an implicit link between Juno and Pygmalion for, like Pygmalion, Juno is interested in protecting Tyrian land.) Venus ensnares Dido in the love plot that will ultimately result in Dido’s suicide in order to spite her rival and fellow goddess, Juno. Aeolus unleashes the winds that torment Aeneas and his crew for the shameful reason that Juno has promised him fourteen beautiful nymphs to impregnate and enjoy. Like the humans, the gods who rule the world are willing to overlook thorny moral questions in their attempts to increase their own glory and power.
The story of Pygmalion thus introduces and powerfully summarizes the theme of treachery that will run throughout the Aeneid. Despite his ties to his sister, Pygmalion murders Sychaeus to acquire more gold. Likewise, Virgil’s more prominent human characters cause one another unspeakable suffering in the pursuit of fame and material wealth. On a cosmic scale, even the gods are willing to put aside questions of ethics so that they can advance their own petty causes and redress the smallest grievances. In Pygmalion’s brief, horrifying story, Virgil suggests that lust, lies, and corruption are the forces that govern the Aeneid’s richly imagined and frightening world.