Dido >:O

A Romp through the early books of the Aeneid

And the hall falls hushed as Dido lifts a prayer:
“Jupiter, you, they say, are the gods who grants
the laws of host and guest. May this day be one
of joy for Tyrians here and exiles come from Troy,
a day our sons will long remember. Bacchus,
giver of bliss, and Juno, generous Juno,
bless us now. And come, my people, celebrate
with all the good will this feast that makes us one!”
— Aeneid 1:874-880

With these words, Dido, the queen of Carthage in Libya, both welcomes Aeneas and his fellow Trojan War refugees to her city and makes the first mortal prayer1 in Virgil’s fan-fiction sequel to the Iliad epic Roman foundation myth.

Piety #1

I was surprised Virgil chose to give Dido the first prayer to the gods.

Throughout the Aeneid, Aeneas is held up as pious, full of devotion to the gods (both Olympian and domestic), honoring his ancestors, and attentive to the stories and rites of old (8:366-9) — yet by that point in book 1, he and his crew of Trojan refugees have been caught by sea storms (from which Neptune himself saves them), achieved safe landing, and hunted successfully for food, all without prayer either beforehand (to ask for help) or afterward (to give thanks). This stands out: in later books, Aeneas is quick to offer libations and sacrifices to the divine in similar situations, and (as the end of Dido’s story shows) to obediently bend his will to Olympus. It’s only in the first book that he’s silent.

What might we make of Virgil’s decision to write the story this way?

N.B. We can’t be certain this is what Publius Vergilius Maro ultimately intended — he had just begun three years of planned revisions on the Aeneid when he died, so it’s always possible that he would have changed this. Still, we have to go with the text we have. To speculate on what otherwise might have been written, well: as the introduction to my copy of the Iliad puts it, “that way madness lies”2. This is about the text as we have it.

Divine Favor plz

In the Roman universe of the Aeneid, the gods enjoy (indeed, demand) such respect and in turn actively reward it, a principle embodied by the Roman religious concept of do ut des: I give that you may give. Thus we might reasonably expect that Dido’s devotion, given such prominent placement by Virgil, would be looked on favorably.

Divine help is, of course, not automatic, in either the Roman or Greek universes3: the Trojan women’s offerings to Athena in the Iliad fall on deaf ears (Iliad 6:311). Still, such denial is rare in these epics, clearly explained (Troy is doomed) and explicitly called out. Most of the time, the gods are quick to assist those who pray to them, all the way down to boat races (5:267-272).


That’s why I was jarred when I read that the gods not only ignore Queen Dido’s pray for goodwill, one of them (the goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother) actively marks her out for doom. As the feast is being prepared, the goddess “is mulling over some new schemes, new intrigues” (1:782-3):

No doubt Venus fears that treacherous house
and the Tyrians’ forked tongues
— 1:787-788

“No doubt” is a hesitant way for an omniscient poet to describe the motivation of a wise and powerful goddess. Virgil could well have chosen this unusually ambiguous phrase because there’s simply no evidence that Dido and her people mean the Trojans ill4. Though Venus, Virgil-the-narrator, and Aeneas’ dead father all repeat this calumny about Carthaginian hostility, the facts (as Virgil himself describes them) don’t back it up:

  • Jupiter, the king of the gods, has already sent down Mercury to spread a “spirit of peace and warm good will” (1:366) among the Trojans and Carthaginians.
  • Dido, an exile herself, shows sympathy for the refugees’ condition (1:749-1:752) and acts accordingly.
  • The people of Carthage took no part in the Trojan war (4:534-8) and hence had no historical reason for to hate the remnants of Troy.
  • The Carthaginians, surrounded by more settled and powerful peoples, had much to gain by an alliance (indeed, a merger) with the Trojans and much to lose by turning on them, surrounded as Carthage were by hostile peoples (4:50-64).
  • Aeneas himself later mentions that “many people have urged us, strongly, to join them as allies” (7:274-5). The word “many” is only meaningful if it includes the Carthaginians (who explicitly sought such an alliance), since the Trojans only encounter three other friendly peoples (3:98, 3:359, 5:44) over the course of their journey.

So the idea of Carthaginian treachery is BS.

A bit of chronology

It’s worth calling out a slight of hand on Virgil’s part here. The poet writes the Libyan interlude as if it plays out over a few days — Dido and Aeneas both lose their senses, fall for each other in dereliction of their duties, the Trojan is woken up by the gods, follows his the divine command, and the queen loses it. In actuality, though, the Trojans spent close to a year on the Libyan coast (3:820-6 + 5:56-7). Mercury finds Aeneas wearing local clothes (that Dido made for him!) as he helped build the city (4:325-332) — he was settled5 and he didn’t want to leave (6:535).

So why?

To kick off and perhaps to justify the gods’ intervention, Virgil conjures up an African king of alleged great devotion, hundreds of altars, flames never boiling out, “earth…rich with the blood of slaughtered herds and the temple doorways wreathed with riots of flowers” (4:254-5), blah blah bah. (Total fig leaf: Venus moved against Dido as soon as the Trojans arrived, well before Iarbus flits across the picture.) This guy whinges to Jove, and down Mercury comes with a command: “Navigat!” — “Let him set sail!” (4:296). And thus pious Aeneas goes, breaking Dido’s heart; thus abandoned, Dido chooses to kill herself rather than living on and ruling her people.6

Venus’ enmity to Dido is based solely on the risk that the queen might persuade Aeneas to settle in Carthage rather than continue on to found Rome. The goddess of desire has big plans for her half-mortal son (1:277-280), and she’s not going to let anything like true love (6:520-542) stand in her way. (That Venus’ divine rival, Juno, supports Carthage couldn’t have helped either.)

But if that’s the case, why have the Trojans visit Carthage at all? After they leave those Libyan shores, the Trojans pass by Circe’s island, and the gods decide “to spare the loyal Trojans such a monstrous fate…Neptune swelled their sails with following winds and gave them a swift escape” (7:23-26)7. Instead of condemning the pious Dido to an ill fate, why didn’t Olympus just forward the Trojan fleet past Libya to nearby Sicily, ruled by a friendly king (5:35-37)? Surely that would have been a better fate for all involved. Or if they had to stop there, why not just let the Trojans camp out a bit, engage in friendly commerce, and move on?

From Virgil’s perspective, the answer is clear: to set up the eternal hatred between Carthage and Rome, a big part of the Roman world whose origins Virgil was building. (A secondary motive, depending on Roman custom, might have been to fill a year since Aeneas’ father died so that they can hold the funeral games.8).

I totally understand the necessity of the Carthage visit for the author — no self-respecting Roman foundation myth could skip Carthage9 — but there’s simply no narrative necessity for Dido’s tragedy…and tragedy it is.

La Tragedia de Dido

Virgil himself uses that powerful term, tragedy, to describe Dido’s fate (1:850, the title of book 4, and again when Aeneas visits Dido in the land of the dead at 6:528). Actually, fate’s the wrong word, because it wasn’t destiny: Dido simply should not have died then. Her death was brought on by the meddling of the gods in the intended course of human affairs, so much so that Dido, not being appointed to die at that hour, couldn’t immediately pass on when she killed herself10 (4:866-876).

I’m not widely read in ancient tragedies, but when I recall other stories, one fact sets Dido apart — unlike the tragedy of Troy (brought on by Paris’ snub of Athena11 and Hera12) or Oedepus (killing a stranger on the road), Dido has no tragic flaw that leads to her downfall13. She is betrayed and dies for no necessary reason14.

Host and Guest

But wait! There’s more. It gets better. The agent of this destruction is Venus’ son Cupid, (half-)brother to Aeneas. Love himself turns out to be rather gruesome: Dido is fired to madness (1:785), “doomed to a plague” (1:850), and besieged by flames (1:804).

That’s not the real surprise, though: what to me was the real shocker was that Cupid attacks Dido while a guest in her house. Not just that, he attacks her at the very same reception where Dido prays to Jupiter for peace (the quote above). At his divine mother’s bidding, Cupid disguises himself as Aeneas’ son, enters the palace, gives Dido beautiful gifts, and then poisons her (1:850-864). (While it’s not a literal poison — rather a furious, burning love that causes her to temporarily neglect her duties (4:107-111) and to wed Aeneas (4:209-212), Virgil makes it clear as crystal that Cupid’s is a hostile action.)

I know from the Iliad, the Odyssey especially, and Genesis15 that the ancient laws of guests and hosts were a grave and serious matter. Still, I’m no expert — I don’t know whether the ancients would have considered those rules to apply to divine visitors: whether Cupid, having entered Dido’s house and eaten her bread (1:837), would be bound by those laws of host and guest. And our cultural context and views of guests and of divinity are totally different today.

Still: a god deceitfully entering someone’s home as a guest and proceeding to work an unmerited and unnecessary ill on them — I don’t like it. Even if it’s for the (to Virgil) worthy and required end of getting Aeneas to Italy to found Rome, it’s sketchy and it feels wrong.

Full circle

And that brings us back to the question of why Virgil portrays Dido so positively. He could have easily written her to be hostile, to deserve betrayal and death and the enmity of Aeneas’ Roman descendants, to fully justify the hostility between those ancient cities. He didn’t.

I can’t help but wonder whether Virgil intended to suggest that Dido’s fate was not just tragic but unjust. It’s only speculation — I don’t know what ancient traditions he had to work within, nor how Romans would have read his story — but it’s speculation based on a pattern in the book: writing in her piety before that of pious Aeneas, choosing a prayer for her that calls out her divine guest’s hostile actions, and making the Carthaginians so trustworthy in acts and deeds that they put lie to the gods’ speculation.

Either way, I as a modern reader feel her death was unjust. She did good, she honored the gods, she made no mistakes, and yet the gods drove her to an unnecessary death “not fated or deserved” (4:876).

Dido, you deserved better.

  1. Dido also gives the first implicit prayer, “announcing offerings in the gods’ high temples as she goes” to her throne room (1:754-5). Aeneas does earlier promise Venus-in-disguise offerings if she helps them (1:406-7), and asks for the blessings of the gods on Dido (1:720-724), but neither of those are actual prayers or offerings in honor and praise of the Olympian divinities.

  2. The Iliad of Homer, Lattimore, p. 24

  3. Treating Homer and Virgil as either fully compatible or representative of the Greeks and Romans as a whole is, of course, oversimplifying: while Homer was the great poet, the Greeks alone possessed and drew from a much larger set of stories about this world and these characters; and there are differences between the Romans and the Greeks.

  4. Yes, yes, except at the end of book 4 when Dido commands the Trojan ships to be burned after Aeneas — her husband — unceremoniously dumps her and flees. This fury of a lover betrayed could in no reasonable way be counted as evidence that the Carthaginians had previously plotted treachery against the Trojans.

  5. As, presumably, were his people. Virgil’s all “All shipmates snap to commands, glad to do his orders [to leave]”, “so keen to be gone” (4:365-6, 4:504), but I don’t buy it. Men and women who were stuck at sea for years, finally on land living for a year with people who share the same gods and language? Marriage and baby central, right?

    I’m similarly skeptical of Dido’s complaint that “even my own Tyrians rise against me” (4:399) — why would they not welcome an infusion of fresh and culturally similar blood against the “African tribes, Numidian warlords” (4:398) arrayed around them?

    Of course, both of these may be issues of ancient tribal identity that I, a modern American, simply can’t understand.

  6. Woman kills herself of a broken heart seems lame and vaguely sexist, but it might well have been meant as a parallel to Cleopatra’s suicide — recent history to Virgil’s audience — and I’m looking at it 2000 years later. All in all, I was impressed by Virgil’s mainly positive treatment of strong female leaders (Dido, Camilla).

  7. An implicit swipe at Odysseus as being not so favored by the gods, since no one intervenes to stop him from landing there. Virgil really doesn’t like Odysseus.

  8. In the Iliad, the games are held immediately afterward — in which case this isn’t a real reason to require the Trojans to go to Carthage — but maybe Roman custom was different.

  9. As I’m sure Cicero would have put it, you can’t spell ROME without FUCK CARTHAGE.

  10. The Queen of the Underworld hadn’t cut a lock of her hair, as apparently happens when one is due to die, and so Jove has to send his messenger down to release her soul.

  11. An event — the Judgment of Paris —, incidentally, that Homer never describes except in the most passing of passing references (The Iliad of Homer, Lattimore, p.23-24). Don’t confuse this with the other, more recent, and significantly tastier Judgment of Paris.

  12. Also, what was Paris supposed to do? No matter which of the three goddesses he chose as the prettiest, he was screwed, right?

  13. You could argue Dido’s tragic flaw is falling in love with Aeneas despite her vows to her dead husband to never remarry. Legit. I’d counter as follows: (1) she had no choice, as she was compelled by Venus and Cupid (1:856-863), and anyway (2) Virgil never describes this as blameworthy. The queen’s sister, in one of my favorite passages in the entire book (4:38-43), makes a compelling case for loving again; Juno, the Queen of Marriage, does the honor herself of making Aeneas and Dido as husband and wife (4:209-212); even Venus never brings it up. Dido, in a very human portrait of guilt and inner conflict, is the only one who feels she did wrong (see 4:208).

  14. Obviously this happens in the real world all the time, but this is epic storytelling in a world of gods and fates. Standards are different.

  15. The Odyssey is actually in many ways a story about guests and hosts. Additionally, without this context of guest/host relations, I think it’s impossible to properly understand all the gift-giving in Genesis.