Although her relationship with Aeneas spans only this one book of the Aeneid, Dido has become a literary icon for the tragic lover, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Though at times Aeneas’s happiness in his love for Dido seems to equal hers, it is with considerably less grief and anxiety that he is able to leave her in Carthage and go back about the business of bringing the survivors of Troy to Italy and founding Rome. Whereas Dido not only loves Aeneas but hopes he and his warriors will strengthen her city, Aeneas’s actions are the result of a momentary abandonment of his true duties and responsibilities. He indulges temporarily in romance and the pleasures of the flesh, but when Jupiter, through Mercury, reminds Aeneas of his destiny, he is dutiful and ready to resume his mission.
When Aeneas says good-bye to Dido, we see two sides to the hero as in Book I, when he hides his worries to appear brave before his crew. Aeneas’s statement that he is forced to sail to Italy and Virgil’s remark that Aeneas “struggle[s] with desire to calm and comfort [Dido] in all her pain” demonstrate Aeneas’s conflicted nature (IV.546–547). He piously carries out the duties allotted him by fate; though he feels emotions and experiences desires, he is powerless to act on them. From Virgil’s perspective, Aeneas is not heartless, as Dido thinks him, but merely capable of subordinating matters of the heart to the demands of duty. Aeneas’s reminder to Dido that they were never officially married suggests, somewhat dubiously, that had they entered into such an ordained commitment he would not leave. But, he argues, without a true marriage, he is sacrificing only his own desires by leaving Dido.
Virgil treats love as he treats the gods—as an outside force acting upon mortals, not a function of the individual’s free will or innate identity. He does not idealize love; rather, he associates it with imagery linked to madness, fire, or disease, presenting love as a force that acts on Dido with a violence that is made literal by the end of Book IV in her suicide. Virgil’s language in the first lines of the book indicates that Dido’s emotions corrode her self-control; he describes her love as “inward fire eating her away” (IV.3). Later, Dido’s decision to have a funeral pyre erected and then kill herself upon it returns to this imagery, and Virgil compares Dido’s suicide to a city taken over by enemies, “As though . . . / . . . / Flames billowed on the roofs of men and gods” (IV.927–929). Cupid’s arrow, shot to promote love between Aeneas and Dido, causes hatred, death, and destruction.
Love is at odds with law and fate, as it distracts its victims from their responsibilities. While with Aeneas, Dido abandons her construction of Carthage. She even admits to Aeneas that her own subjects have grown to hate her because of her selfish actions. Aeneas, too, must move on because the time he spends with Dido only keeps him from his selfless task of founding an empire.
In the Aeneid, civic responsibility resides with the male. An attitude that might be termed misogynistic seeps into Virgil’s descriptions of Juno and even Dido. Aeneas’s dream-vision of Mercury articulates this sentiment: “woman’s a thing / forever fitful and forever changing” (IV.792–793). Virgil clearly enjoys making Juno look foolish, and he also likes to depict Juno’s vain efforts in comic terms as a domestic quarrel—a battle of wills between husband and wife played out before an audience that knows Jupiter has the power in the divine family. Dido also shows herself to be less responsible than her partner. Whereas Dido kills herself for love, leaving the city she founded without a leader, Aeneas returns to his course, guiding the refugees of a lost city to the foundation of a new city.