The flame of love for Aeneas that Cupid has lit in Dido’s heart only grows while she listens to his sorrowful tale. She hesitates, though, because after the death of her husband, Sychaeus, she swore that she would never marry again. On the other hand, as her sister Anna counsels her, by marrying Aeneas she would increase the might of Carthage, because many Trojan warriors follow Aeneas. For the moment, consumed by love, Dido allows the work of city building to fall by the wayside.
Juno sees Dido’s love for Aeneas as a way to keep Aeneas from going to Italy. Pretending to make a peace offering, Juno suggests to Venus that they find a way to get Dido and Aeneas alone together. If they marry, Juno suggests, the Trojans and the Tyrians would be at peace, and she and Venus would end their feud. Venus knows Juno is just trying to keep the Trojans from Italy but allows Juno to go ahead anyway.
One day when Dido, her court, and Aeneas are out hunting, Juno brings a storm down upon them to send the group scrambling for shelter and arranges for Aeneas and Dido to wind up in a cave by themselves. They make love in the cave and live openly as lovers when they return to Carthage. Dido considers them to be married though the union has yet to be consecrated in ceremony. Anxious rumors spread that Dido and Aeneas have surrendered themselves entirely to lust and have begun to neglect their responsibilities as rulers.
When Jupiter learns of Dido and Aeneas’s affair, he dispatches Mercury to Carthage to remind Aeneas that his destiny lies elsewhere and that he must leave for Italy. This message shocks Aeneas—he must obey, but he does not know how to tell Dido of his departure. He tries to prepare his fleet to set sail in secret, but the queen suspects his ploy and confronts him. In a rage, she insults him and accuses him of stealing her honor. While Aeneas pities her, he maintains that he has no choice but to follow the will of the gods: “I sail for Italy not of my own free will” (IV.499). As a last effort, Dido sends Anna to try to persuade the Trojan hero to stay, but to no avail.
Dido writhes between fierce love and bitter anger. Suddenly, she appears calm and instructs Anna to build a great fire in the courtyard. There, Dido says, she can rid Aeneas from her mind by burning all the clothes and weapons he has left behind and even the bed they slept on. Anna obeys, not realizing that Dido is in fact planning her own death—by making the fire her own funeral pyre. As night falls, Dido’s grief leaves her sleepless. Aeneas does sleep, but in his dreams, Mercury visits him again to tell him that he has delayed too long already and must leave at once. Aeneas awakens and calls his men to the ships, and they set sail.
Dido sees the fleet leaving and falls into her final despair. She can no longer bear to live. Running out to the courtyard, she climbs upon the pyre and unsheathes a sword Aeneas has left behind. She throws herself upon the blade and with her last words curses her absent lover. As Anna and the servants run up to the dying queen, Juno takes pity on Dido and ends her suffering and her life.