The Tragedy of the Phoenician Queen Dido in "The Aeneid" by Virgil
The Tragedy of Dido's Furor
Dido, the Phoenician Queen in Virgil's The Aeneid, is a tragic character who is a victim of the will of the gods. Enchanted by the god Amor, Dido becomes hopelessly enamored with Aeneas and abandons all else in her great passion. Her former pietas disappears as she thinks only of her husband and lets her city stand in disarray, allowing her great love to consume her every thought. When the gods again intervene and command Aeneas to continue his quest, Dido, who sacrificed her pietas and reputation for love of Aeneas, turns into a figure of fury as she realizes Aeneas has to desert her. By the will of the gods Dido, the former epitome of admirable pietas, loses all in her passion and becomes a figure maddened with great and self-destructive fury.
When Aeneas first happens upon Carthage, his mother the goddess Venus tells him of the queen of the land, the Phoenician Queen Dido. Chased from her homeland by a murderous brother who killed her husband, Dido "laid her plans/to get away and to equip her company" (1.490-1), which consisted of those who also wished to escape her brother's rule. Dido organized the journey and led her people to Carthage, where they founded a new city. She became the leader of Carthage, a city which embodies law and order: "Laws were being enacted,/magistrates and a sacred senate chosen" (1.582-3), ensuring that her citizens live in a just and lawful society. Dido shows reverence to the gods as well, erecting sacred temples in the city walls: "being built by the Sidonian queen/was a great temple planned in Juno's honor,/rich in offerings and a godhead there" (1.605-7).
Not only is Dido a strong and respected ruler, with a reverence for law and order as well as the gods, she is also empathetic and kind to Aneneas and his men. When they come upon her, she is justly dealing with matters of state, assigning tasks to her citizens: "She began to give them/judgments and rulings, to apportion work/with fairness, or assign some tasks by lot" (1.690-2). She bestows this same kindness upon the lost Trojans, telling them that she will assist them in any way possible, or even offer them a place in her city: "Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms?" (1.777), granting Aeneas and his men the same rights and privileges as her own citizens, although they are strangers.
However, Venus worries about the extent of Dido's welcome, and that her kind and generous nature towards Aeneas may change upon the influence of the rival goddess Juno. Determined to secure Dido's support and assistance, Venus commissions the god Amor to enchant Dido and make her fall hopelessly in love with Aeneas. Disguised as Aeneas' son, Amor sits in Dido's lap and seeks "to waken with new love, a living love,/her long settled mind and dormant heart" (1.984-5). A victim of the god's spell, Dido is consumed with passion, and she "ached/with longing that her heart's blood fed, a wound/or inward fire eating her away" (4.1-2). Her great strength and sense of duty disappear when Dido submits to this one weakness, as she tells her sister: "I could perhaps give way in this one case/to frailty" (4.26).
Dido surrenders to emotion and wanders around aimlessly, preoccupied by her passions and desires: "Unlucky Dido, burning in her madness/roamed through all the city" (4.95-6). Her position as the great ruler in control of her city is abandoned, as she now wanders without direction in her quest for love. Her duties are neglected due to this new preoccupation, and "towers, half-built, rose/no farther; men no longer trained in arms/or toiled to make harbors and battlements impregnable" (4.121-4). All her past accomplishments are forgotten, and Dido is no longer the great and admirable queen of the past. Rumors begin to spread of her neglect of the city, "her reputation/standing no longer in the way of passion" (4.128-9)
Her great wanderings end when Dido and Aeneas wed in a ceremony devised by the gods, "high heaven became witness to the marriage,/and nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top" (231-2), a ceremony that is as wild and passionate as Dido has become. Having finally secured Aeneas for her own, Dido lives only for his love, and they both "reveled all winter long/unmindful of the realm, prisoners of lust" (4.264-5). However, their great moments must come to an end when the gods demand that Aeneas abandon Dido and return to his quest and duties. Rumors of his departure soon reach Dido, and "she traversed the whole city, all aflame/with rage, like a Bacchante driven wild" (4.430-1).
Whereas she had formerly forgotten all her duties and given herself completely to her newfound love, Dido is now consumed with bitter and uncontrollable anger at Aeneas' abandonment. She tells him of the great sacrifices she has made on behalf of her love, saying to Aeneas: "Because of you, I lost my integrity/and that admired name by which alone/I made my way once toward the stars" (4.440-2). Dido recognizes that she has lost the independence and control that she once possessed, and she cannot bear the thought of losing Aeneas' love as well. However, Aeneas is unmoved by her pleas and is determined to leave her island and Dido behind. No longer in control of her mind, driven mad by her unreturned passion, Dido seeks to end her life: "so broken in mind by suffering, Dido caught/her fatal madness and resolved to die" (4.656-57).
Seeing Aeneas sailing out to sea, this madness consumes her entirely and makes her insane with rage. She no longer has any control over her actions or words: "What am I saying? Where am I? What madness/takes me out of myself?" (4.825-6). Unable to forgive Aeneas for causing her all this pain, Dido curses him in her crazed need for revenge, calling on the gods:
"Let him beg assistance,
let him see the unmerited deaths of those
around and with him, and accepting peace,
on unjust terms, let him not, even so,
enjoy his kingdom or the life he longs for,
but fall in battle before his time and lie
unburied on the sand!" (4.857-63).
Her unrelenting rage is so great that she is not satisfied with cursing Aeneas alone, but extends her wrath to all his men and their future descendants throughout time. She calls for war between her people and the Trojans, for "coast with coast/in conflict, I implore, and sea with sea/arms with arms: may they contend in war,/themselves and all the children of their children!" ( 4.873-5)
In this heated frenzy, Dido resolves to kill herself, and "at her passion's height/she climbed the pyre and bared the Dardan sword" (4.987-8). Her last words are of the glory of her past life ruled by pietas and order, before she was consumed with passion and fury: "I built a famous town, saw my great walls,/avenged my husband, made my hostile brother/pay for his crime" (4.910-2). But in the end her passion prevails, as she stabs herself to death upon a pyre. Her sister laments Dido's death and realizes that it means an end for the Phoenicians. Blind to her duty till the very end, Dido dies abandoning her duties to her citizens and city, and her sister tells the dying queen: "You have put to death/yourself and me, the people and the fathers/bred in Sidon, and your own new city" (943-5).
Dido, the Phoenician Queen, who built Carthage and introduced law and order and a reverence for the gods to the city, died "not at her fated span/nor as she merited, but before her time/enflamed and driven mad" (4.963-5), a victim of fated love. With the influence of the gods Dido became ruled by her passions, first by love and then by revenge. Ultimately she is a tragic figure, whose accomplishments are destroyed by her uncontrolled emotions; a benefactress of her city and subjects who ultimately destroys herself and them by uncontrolled love and hate.