Dido prepared for flight, and chose
Companions. All assembled who were led
By hatred of the tyrant or fear.
They seized upon some ships, ready by change,
And loaded them with treasure; and the wealth
Of covetous Pygmalion was conveyed
Away across the sea. A woman led
A disguised Venus relates Dido’s bitter history to Aeneas. Pygmalion, Dido’s brother-in-law, killed her husband for his wealth, but Dido took the treasure and fled from home to establish the city of Carthage. Dido’s actions show her to be a courageous, independent woman. After her husband died, instead of giving up or letting herself be married to Pygmalion, she drew upon her own resources and emerged even stronger.
While rapture fills Latona’s silent breast:
Such Dido was, as radiantly as she stood
Amid the throng, her mind bent on affairs,
And busy with her future sovereignty.
Then in the temple’s sacred gates, beneath
The vaulted roof, her armèd bands around,
And raised upon a lofty throne, she sat,
To administer the laws and rights to all,
And by division just to equalize them by lot—
Virgil presents Dido as a capable, fair leader—which she is until Aeneas upends her life. Here, the reader sees a strong woman and understands the values she holds dear and instills in her people. This portrayal makes even more disturbing Dido’s descent into a lovesick suicide. The fact that the gods allow Dido to be forfeited to fulfill Aeneas’s fate underscores that men held far more value than women, even a successful queen, in ancient times.
“. . . this one alone has stirred
My feelings, and impressed my wavering mind.
I see the traces of my earlier flame.
But I would rather that the steadfast earth
Should yawn beneath me, from its lowest depths,
Or the Omnipotent Father hurl me down
With thunder to the shades, the pallid shades
Of Erebus, and night profound, before you,
O sacred shame, I violate, or break
Your laws. He who first joined me to himself
Took away all my love. Let him still hold
And guard it in his sepulchre.”
Dido confesses her love for Aeneas to her sister Anna and the conflict this emotion creates. Dido vowed fidelity to her murdered husband, and her internal struggle implicitly suggests to the reader the limits of Venus’s power. Dido, harnessing her strong will and sense of honor, is on the cusp of sublimating her feelings for Aeneas until Anna encourages her to love once again. Dido’s trust in Anna’s opinion inadvertently aids Venus’s aim.
“For you I braved the Libyan people’s hate;
For you, the tyrants of Numidia spurned;
The Tyrians I have angered. For your sake
My honor has been lost, and that fair name
I held in earlier days, by which alone
I was ascending to the very stars.”
Upon learning of the Trojans’ plans to leave Carthage, Dido enumerates to Aeneas all that she has sacrificed in order to be with him. She angered her people and neighboring kingdoms and lost her reputation. While she hopes an appeal to Aeneas’s sense of compassion will keep him with her, her effort fails. In the end, her speech mainly makes the once powerful queen appear a pitiable figure.
Then, terrified by her fates, the unhappy queen
Prays for death, weary of the overarching skies.
Then, as she seeks how best she may pursue
That purpose, and may quit this light of life,—
When on the incense-burning altars laid
Her offerings she would give, she sees a sight
Of horror: for the sacred liquors change
To black, and the poured out wine is turned to blood
As Aeneas readies to leave Carthage, Dido receives what she believes to be signs that she should commit suicide. While she could be imagining the water turning black and the wine to blood, that she interprets the signs in this manner shows she is looking for validation for taking her own life. Dido has surrendered her very being. This loss of such a strong woman is devastating both within the context of the narrative and for the reader.
“And could I not have torn him limb from limb,
And thrown him to the waves? And could I not
Have killed his comrades, and Ascanius
Himself, and on the tables of his sire
Served for a banquet?”
Upon seeing Aeneas’s ship set sail, Dido flies into a rage, imagining all the ways she could have revenged herself upon Aeneas. Her words echo mythological horrors—Medea who dismembered her brother and Thyestes who fed his son to his brother. While Dido has tapped into a renewed spirit, she is still impotent. She can’t stop Aeneas from leaving nor can she harm him. Instead, she has given birth to a murderous drive that has nowhere to go but inward.
“O, may some avenger rise
From out of my ashes, who with fire and sword
Shall chase these Dardan settlers, now, and in
The coming time, wherever strength is given;
Shores with shores fighting, wave with waves, and arms
With arms—they are their last posterity!”
Before committing suicide, Dido curses Aeneas and his descendants to a future filled with war and death. She calls upon her people to rise against Aeneas, thus setting up Carthage and Rome as eternal enemies. Dido’s words have more significance than giving voice to her personal grief and rage, however: They foreshadow the Punic Wars, which ended with Rome’s conquest of Carthage in 146 B.C. The warfare that dominates The Aeneidwill continue.
But Dido, trembling, wild with brooding over
Her dread design, rolling her blood-shot eyes,
Her quivering cheeks suffused with spots, bursts through
The inner threshold of the house, and mounts
With frantic look the lofty funeral pile[.]
After Aeneas has left Carthage, Dido prepares for her suicide. The words that Virgil uses to describe Dido—trembling, wild, and frantic—indicate that Dido has been pushed to the edge of her sanity by her love for Aeneas. Ironically, this “love” did not bloom of its own accord but was placed within her by the gods. Between her loss of self and loss of sound mind, Queen Dido no longer exists.
“I have lived,
And have achieved the course that fortune gave.
And now of me the queenly shade shall pass
Beneath the earth. A city of high renown
I have founded and have seen my walls ascend;
Avenged my husband; for my brother’s crime
Requital seen—happy; too happy alas,
Had the Dardanian fleet never touched my shores!”
About to commit suicide, Dido recounts her numerous accomplishments. This reiteration underscores what a loss her death truly represents for Carthage. Her people will no longer profit from having a strong, capable protector. Dido’s words also remind the reader that she did not deserve this inglorious end. The gods used her for their own purposes, emphasizing both that fate is immutable and that the gods can’t be trusted.
She hurried, with defiance in her look,
And hid amid the shadows of the woods.
There, with Sycaeus, her first spouse, she finds
Responsive sympathy and equal love.
When Aeneas visits the underworld, he finds Dido and attempts to explain that his departure was the gods’ fault, but she ignores him. Now it is Dido’s turn to reject Aeneas and take charge of her own fortune. She gains strength from the companionship of her husband, who remains devoted to her despite her inconstancy in the mortal world. Dido, now dead and free from the gods’ control, once again flexes her free will.