Unhappy Dido and the Aeneid’s Conquest of the Feminine Past

In the imagination of the Vergilian epic, the warring forces of chaos and order are at least cursorily gendered feminine and masculine, respectively.  The female jurisdiction over the past and what is primal often degenerates into obsessions over old wrongs, old cities and old loves, and must be overcome by a self-mastered, forward-thinking masculine authority that moves towards the actualization of fate.  Dido, a widow who remains faithful to the memory of her dead husband and yet has become the sovereign queen of a burgeoning city, seems to be a peculiar hybrid of these forces—too peculiar, perhaps, to remain unchecked.  As her love affair with Aeneas progresses, she is steered towards the comfortable role of the Vergilian female adversary—unrestrained and resistant to the future—that culminates in her suicide.  This metamorphosis of the chaste Carthaginian ruler into a monstrous figure seemingly removes Dido as a threat to the Roman project and the overall masculine authority behind the narrative.  Yet upon ending her life and submitting to the irrational and backwards-looking aspects of her persona, Dido deploys a masculine understanding of the import of the future as she condemns Aeneas’ descendants to a femininely anchored repetition of the past.  The queen of Carthage is a wonderfully complex character who, at every turn, resists normalization by the polarized and gendered forces of the poem.

As pointed out by S. Georgia Nugent, the Aeneid’s most memorable women share one crucial trait: they refuse to subordinate themselves to the roles that masculine authority would see them play.1  They refuse, also, to recognize the legitimacy and inevitability of a promised future that the poem alternatively suggests to be Fate beyond divine jurisdiction,2 or Jupiter’s will (I.378, XII.677–80, X.11, and X.20–21).  Regardless, because the vision of Rome’s imperial future proves triumphant, the female forces undercutting the poem are rebellious, resisting, trouble making, and, ultimately, defeated. For example, Juno, the archetype of Vergil’s feminine foe, is introduced as embittered by a “sharp / and savage hurt [that] had not yet left her spirit” (I.38–9) and perhaps never will: she hates the Trojans because of the relatively recent judgment of Paris and Jove’s not-so recent ravishment of Ganymede (I.40–5).  Furthermore, her efforts to impede the Trojan settlement in Italy are doomed from the start—and she knows it (X.57).

Juno’s stubborn opposition to the inevitable epitomizes the irrationality of the female venture, its rootedness in the past, and its determination to put forward as many obstacles as possible before ceding defeat.  Juno’s first act in the Aeneid is the introduction of an element of disorder that will need to be overcome by a male force—in this case, Poseidon—for the narrative to proceed (I.75–130).  Other women play similar roles in temporarily hindering the Rome’s imperial future: the Trojan matrons attempt to burn down their own ships (V.813–96), Amata leads her people to civil war over the marriage of her daughter to Aeneas (VII.471–541), and Juturna obstinately attempts to delay his brother’s inevitable death until Turnus himself must beg her to allow him to face his fate (XII.900–906).  As Ellen Oliensis notes, the only unproblematic women of the Aeneid are those who submit to masculine authority by either allowing themselves to be buried with the past, like Creusa, or employed for the cementing of the future, like Lavinia.3

Dido defies the rather black and white pigeonholing that can be applied to the rest of the Aeneid’s female characters, however.  “Dido, ignorant of destiny” (I.422) is the way Jove first refers to the Queen of Carthage, placing her in opposition to the forward-moving forces of male authority.  Even after listening to Aeneas’ story and his divinely sanctioned duty to sail to the ancient Dardanian fatherland, Dido neglects to acknowledge the inevitability of this promised future, due to the love with which Cupid inflames her.  Indeed, as she makes offerings to the gods so she might win their endorsement of her passion for the Trojan chieftain, the Vergilian narrator suggests the futility of her enterprise: “But oh the ignorance of augurs! How /can vows and altars help one wild with love?” (IV.86–7).  Rather than bemoaning the inadequacy of an augur’s prophetic abilities, these lines seem to hint at the inability (or unwillingness) of love-stricken Dido to see what lies before her.  In this way, upon learning of Aeneas’ impending departure, she still inquires, “Can nothing hold you back?” (IV.412), despite the fact that she ought to know by now that, in fact, nothing can.  While Dido has willfully chosen—perhaps under Amor’s coercion—to take a doomed stand against the inevitable victory of the masculine authority of the epic, Aeneas has already submitted to it, and to the Fates’ project, at the outset of the poem.

The risk of stagnating and past-obsessing femininity seems to be present in Dido before the Trojans arrive to her shores.  In conversation with her sister Anna, she reveals that until Aeneas’ arrival she considered her dead husband Sychaeus to be her love’s “guardian within the grave” (IV.35), and refused to “know sweet children or the soft / rewards of Venus” (IV.41) with any of her African suitors (IV.43–6).4  It is true that Dido’s surrender to the love of the Trojan hero, engineered by the latter’s mother and brother, proves fatal, and indeed, the Aeneid seems to present passionate heterosexual love between equals as a hindrance to the empire-building project.  Yet this is also a remarkably generationally oriented poem; Italy must be won for Ascanius, and Lavinia must become pregnant by Aeneas for the future of Rome to be assured.

Under this rubric, in rejecting marital alliances that could provide her nation with a firmly cemented lineage of Punic rulers, Dido is neglecting her country’s future.  It is furthermore significant that her motivation for remaining chaste is not the continued political independence of her people—as it was for the historical Queen Dido of Carthage—but rather the honoring of a past love.  Dido, Vergil reveals, had even built a temple for her late husband within her palace (IV.629–633), and in this, she can be likened to the heartbreaking figure of Andromache, whom Aeneas encounters in Epirus as she futilely summons Hector’s shade (III.380–409).  Andromache has come to rule with her new husband Helenus over a miniature replica of the fallen Troy, and lives in perpetual stagnation in the past of the defeated.  For Dido, the state of the Trojan couple ought to be a cautionary tale of what the Aeneid depicts as a female inability to let go of the old in pursuit of a brighter future.

Yet the figure of Andromache does not exhaust the complexities of Dido.  After all, while she may mindful of the memory of her late husband, the queen is knee-deep in the project of founding a wonderfully prosperous city when the Trojans first seek her aid.  Aeneas, indeed, first encounters Dido “in her joy […] / urg[ing] along the work of her coming kingdom” (I.710–11), where “the eager men of Tyre work steadily” (I.601) under her rule.  Immediately following this scene of optimistic, forward-thinking activity, Dido sits on a throne “dealing judgments to her people / and giving laws” (I.715–16).  Here, the Carthaginian queen certainly looks more like a cheerful version of Aeneas, who bears his traumatic past manfully and pulls forward for the welfare of his people, than like the mournful Andromache who exists solely to pay tribute to a long-lost past.  Furthermore, in her initial offer to both provide safe passage to the Trojans and allow them to settle in her kingdom (I.803–7), Vergil props her up as a parallel to the Homeric King Alkinoös of Phaiakia and his wife Arete, who make a similar offer to Odysseus,5 and facilitate his arrival to Ithaka.

It is Dido’s Cupid-induced love for Aeneas that saps her leadership abilities, and steers her, first towards immobility, and, ultimately, to self-defeating action.  Inflamed by love, the once rational, law-giving Dido who is compared to the huntress goddess Diana at the outset of the story (I.700–11) is now likened to a hunted deer as she “wanders [her city] in her frenzy” (IV.91).  Her pain no longer borne with stoicism and dignity, love-struck Dido, like other Virgilian women, reflects her torments onto her community:

Her towers rise no more; the young of Carthage
No longer exercise at arms or build
Their harbors or sure battlements for war (IV.113–8)

As Dido abandons her concerns about future safety and prosperity of her people, no longer does a linear, upwards-and-forwards tending energy drive the young city and its queen.  Instead, the Carthaginians’ “works are idle, broken off; the massive, / menacing rampart walls, even the crane, / defier of the sky, now lie neglected” (IV.112–117).

As part of this assimilation of Dido into the archetype of the female adversary, the queen begins to show personal evidence of an inability to follow things through, and we see her for the first time associated with the waste of time.  Indeed, as she shows Aeneas the Eastern wealth of her city, “she starts to speak, then falters / and stops midspeech.  Now day glides away” (IV.100–101).  Virgil also associates the queen with lethargic indolence and idle vanity as she prepares at length to go hunting with her Trojan beloved.  Ominously, there is a political connotation to her belatedness in this case, for the “chieftains / of Carthage wait at Dido’s threshold” (IV.177–8) while she “still lingers in her room” (IV.179, emphasis mine), a place associated with the feminine private, vanity, sloth and sexuality.  In her interaction with Aeneas, Dido further exhibits signs of the neurotic compulsive repetitions with which the past-obsessed female forces threaten the epic:

Again, insane, she seeks out that same banquet,
Again she prays to hear the trials of Troy,
Again she hangs upon the teller’s lips (IV.100–104, emphasis mine)

Like Andromache and Juno, Dido has been infected with the tendency to relive the past instead of working towards a new future.  She has become, like the Homeric Circe and Calypso, a threat to the hero she loves, whom she might likewise make  “forgetful of what is [his] own kingdom, [his] own fate” (IV.356–57).

In the Odyssey, Calypso receives a visit from Hermes and ultimately obeys Zeus’ will, freeing her captive lover.  Dido receives no such forewarning when the divine works to separate her and Aeneas, going as far as to “make deaf the hero’s / kind ears” to her pleas (IV.606–7).  She thus never knowingly resists nor upholds the will of the gods, but, rather, sarcastically questions Aeneas’ claim that his departure has been divinely ordained (IV.514–21).  In this way, the poem associates Dido once again with feminine forces of resistance against Rome’s fated future, and her subsequent vitriol against the hero likens her to wrathful Juno, and the primal, avenging Furies themselves (IV.522–32).  Shockingly, Dido goes as far as to wish that she had “dragged [Aeneas’] body off, and scattered him piecemeal upon the waters […] or butchered all his comrades, even served / Ascanius himself as banquet dish / upon his fathers table” (IV.827–31).  At this point, the queen of Carthage seems to have undergone a psychological metamorphosis similar to that of Procne, who murders and feeds her son to her husband in retribution for the rape and mutilation of her sister, and whose figure—as well as that of Medea, who scatters the limbs of her brother Absyrtus on the sea as she flees her homeland with her lover Jason—mediates the reader’s reception of Dido.

This moment is one of the most visible markers of Dido’s transformation into an adversary figure of the kind of monstrous Polyphemus, whom—it must be noted—the Trojans had just left behind before arriving on Carthaginian shores (III.849–861).  As pointed out by David Quint, the parallel between Dido and the Polyphemus—and the danger they pose to the Trojan refugees—is further emphasized by the repetition of the urgent act of cutting the anchor cables of their ships upon leaving the Cyclops’ shores (III.828–29) and, later, Dido’s realm (IV.795).6  The moment in which the Carthaginian queen most closely echoes the actions of the Odyssean Polyphemus is, however, in her curse of Aeneas and his “race to come” (IV.859).  Just as the Cyclops asks his divine father to avenge him, Dido calls on the Sun, Juno, Hecate and the Furies to “take up [her] prayers” (IV.8.38–46).  Both Dido and Polyphemus furthermore concede that the hero who has wronged them might achieve his goal, and yet demand that they suffer certain misfortunes that shall qualify and unsettle the resolution of the epic (Quint 106–11).

First, it points out that if Aeneas “end is fixed” and he is to arrive to Italy, it is because “the fates of Jove / demand” it (IV.847–8), inviting speculation about the different fates willed by other gods.  This suggestion challenges the very idea that the masculine force of the poem advocates for an unchangeable destiny, which its feminine foil merely delays.  When interpreted in light of the fame-obsessed behavior that Jove exhibits throughout the poem, this observation suggests that the god’s plans are no more rational or justified than Juno’s.  Perhaps, as Dido puts it, the Roman “Fate” in the Aeneid is merely Jove’s fate, which overcomes others for no reason other than the greater strength that backs it up.

The Carthaginian Queen’s curse is also distinctive in that it at least partially appropriates the forward-looking, historical aspect of the force she has come to resist.  Polyphemus’ curse conditions Odysseus’ homecoming and poses a challenge to his happiness, but Dido’s goes beyond the realms of the personal, or, rather, makes the personal, political.  While she immediately dooms the Trojans to the “war and struggles” (IV.850) they will undergo in Italy, and Aeneas to premature death (IV.855–6), she also calls on her people to avenge her death by warring against “all his sons and race to come […] now and in the future” (IV.858–864).  In this way, Dido prophesies the three Punic wars in which Carthage will twice rise from defeat to challenge Rome.  Fittingly, the scene of Dido’s death evokes the myth of the self-immolation and rebirth of the immortal Phoenix by juxtaposing Dido’s suicide upon her own funerary pyre with language and acts of unfastening and loosening of knots (IV.715–18, 970) that are suggestive of childbirth and delivery (Quint 111).  Finally, her prayer that “an avenger rise up from [her] bones” (IV.862) seems to prefigure the great Punic general Hannibal as the offspring of her wrath—a military leader who will enact vengeance in the much-anticipated masculine future, on behalf of the unforgettable wounds of the feminine past.

This resistant gendered duality in Dido is present in her death as well.  On the one hand, she commits suicide, which is consistent with the female pole of self-defeating action and aligns her with Queen Amata, another suicide (XII.798–810).  Furthermore, her death is in itself a rebellion against the forces of order, since she willfully chooses “a death that was not merited or fated” (IV.958–9).  Yet Dido’s suicidal technique itself—letting herself fall on the sword gifted by an enemy (IV.915)—is perhaps the most masculine form of self-killing, reminiscent of the suicide of Sophocles’ Ajax, who takes his life with the sword Hector once gave him.  The Carthaginian queen’s dreams the night before she dies further reveal this bundling of gender dualities in death.  In Dido’s nightmare, Aeneas “drives her to insanity” (IV.641) just as “Pentheus, when he is sized by a frenzy […] sees files of Furies […] or when / Orestes […] flees from his mother armed / with torches and black serpents” (IV.647–52).  The epic simile thus directly identifies Dido with men under female attack.  More broadly, however, the queen’s state is compared to the entire scene of crazed pursuit; she is both the rational male-gendered victim, and the female victimizer, and she fittingly finds death at her own hand.

But does Dido—resistant as she is to assimilation by the female adversarial force—manage to unsettle the story’s resolution beyond blurring the lines of fairly reductive dichotomies?  She certainly unsettles her former lover, who mourns her loss, and whom she dooms to suffer much unhappiness and an early death.  Yet Aeneas is not the center of the Aeneid’s project in the way that Odysseus is the center of the Odyssey; his will and story are wholly in the service of the future of his son Ascanius and the nascent Roman Empire.  While the second, forward-thinking part of Dido’s curse might seem to perturb this ending as well, an interpretation of her prayer and the poem’s resolution in light of a deceptively understated passage hint at her ultimate failure.

As the reader may or may not remember, as Ascanius hunts alongside his father and Dido at the beginning of Book IV, he yearns for a more formidable foe than “the lazy herds” (IV.209) that surround him.  Specifically, “his prayer is for a foaming boar or that / golden lion come down from the mountain” (IV.210–11).  The Trojan boy here essentially wishes for a worthy enemy that he might heroically defeat, and this is what the poem grants him.  Had Aeneas stayed in Carthage, Ascanius would not have had the opportunity to face the Latins in the second half of the epic, where the Trojan refugees reenact and rewrite their former defeat into a victory.  It is significant, in light of the quarries for which Ascanius prays, that in the Italian war his father faces and slays Mezentius, Turnus’ second-in-command—who is likened to a ferocious hunted boar (X.970-85) and a starving lion (X.989–99).  The battle—and, indeed, the Aeneid itself—furthermore concludes with Aeneas’ killing of Turnus, who is himself compared to a lion as he charges against Pallas—and not just any lion, but, specifically, a lion rushing down “from some high point” (X.630), such as a mountain.

Most importantly, however, had Aeneas chosen to remain in Africa, the Roman race would have lost its historic nemesis in Carthage, and the “writing of such treaties” is not something that Jove or Vergil tolerates (IV.148–9).  Indeed, Aeneas’s decision to leave the Libyan shores is spurred in great part by his fear of cheating his son a splendid destiny (IV.311–4, 365–9 and 481–4) grounded on warfare.  By abandoning the queen, the Trojan figuratively impregnates Dido with hatred, resulting in her prophetic delivery of a future avenger, Hannibal, moments before committing suicide.  Yet Hannibal Barca was one of four brothers known as the “lion’s brood,”7 and famously invaded Rome by marching an army over the Alps—he might also represent the “lion come down from the mountain” that Ascanius wishes to face.  Furthermore, since the boy’s prayer immediately precedes the consummation of Dido and Aeneas’ love, the affair and the age-enduring enmity that ensues from it can be structurally read as an answer to the boy’s yearning.  In this way, Vergil reduces one of Rome’s greatest threats to the satisfaction of an adolescent whim—a whim, however, that figuratively carries the import of the Aeneid’s account of the rise of an empire that would one day subdue the peoples of the earth.

As a corollary of this interpretation, Dido’s very curse upon the Trojans seems necessary for the creation of the glorious Roman Empire.  This assimilation of the Carthaginian Phoenix-like, ever-enduring resentment into the larger forward-moving and telos-seeking history of Rome is itself a defeat both of the African queen’s hope of vindication, and the narrative’s backwards-looking feminine force.  Under this reading, Vergil’s Dido dies as “unavenged” (IV.909) as she claims she will, forcibly incorporated into the poem’s pole of the defeated feminine forces of the past, despite the evidence of her character’s enduring gender hybridity.  And yet Dido, the oft-sympathetic and multifaceted adversary to the Aeneid’s empire-building project, remains—as famously stated by the classicist Richard Heinze—“the only character created by a Roman poet to pass into world literature.”8  While there is no political victory in store for the Carthaginian queen in the history that lies ahead, we might discover literary triumph for her in the poem that Vergil writes about the past.

  1. S. Georgia Nugent, “The Women of the Aeneid” in Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: An Interpretive Guide, ed. Christine Perkell (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999), 260.
  2. Vergil, The Aeneid, ed. Allen Mandelbaum (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2007), I.57 and I.364.  All quotations are taken from this edition and cited by book and line number.
  3. Ellen Oliensis, “Sons and Lovers” in The Cambridge Companion to Vergil, ed. Charles Martindale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 303.
  4. Even if Dido’s devotion to her late husband’s memory awards her the status of a univira, valued in Roman culture, the Aeneid can nonetheless call it into question.  Furthermore, our understanding of the evolution of the term problematizes its applicability to Dido.  Virgil’s Rome seems to have celebrated univirae as fortunate women who had never suffered divorce or the death of their husbands; the concept of univira was not applied to chaste widowhood until Rome’s Christianization.  Majorie Lightman and William Zeisel, “Univira: An Example of Continuity and Change in Roman Society,” Church History 46(1) (1977): 19-32.
  5. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Richmond Lattimore (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), VII.309-328.  All quotations are taken from this edition and cited by book and line number.
  6. David Quint, Epic and Empire: Politics and Generic Form from Vergil to Milton, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 109.  All quotations are taken from this edition and cited by page number.
  7. The origin of the phrase is attributed to a famous Roman anecdote claiming that Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal’s father, referred to his infant sons as “the lion cubs that (he was) rearing for the destruction of Rome.”  Admittedly, our reception of the anecdote comes from its collection by Roman historian Valerius Maximus in his Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX, which was written in 30 or 31 AD—at least 39 years after Vergil purportedly finished the Aeneid in 19 BC.  Maximus tells the story in Book IX, chapter 3, ext. 2 of his works, and the translation above is Henry John Walker’s:  Valerius Maximus, Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds And Sayings; One Thousand Tales From Ancient Rome, trans. Henry John Walker (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 322.
  8. Richard Heinze, Vergil’s Epic Technique, trans. Hazel Harvey (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 133.