Tag Archives: aeneid 4

Dido, Queen of Carthage

I have the privilege this semester of teaching Virgil’s Aeneid (on which I’ve blogged here) in English (translation by Frederick Ahl). Last week, we covered Book 4. This is the section of the Aeneid in which Aeneas and Dido have an affair that Dido considers marriage, and in the end, Dido kills herself on a pyre of her stuff, after raging through the streets of Carthage like a bacchante.

In his Confessions, Augustine admits to weeping at Aeneid 4 as a boy.

Normally, when we read the tragedy of Dido, we cannot help feel for her as a woman maltreated by a man. Servius, the fourth-century commentator on Virgil, says that Virgil modelled Dido on Apollonius of Rhodes’ account of Jason and Medea — a love story that, had Apollonius got to the end, closes with the woman abandoned by the man and getting violent revenge. Another parallel, perhaps, is Theseus abandoning Ariadne on Naxos, as recounted in one of Virgil’s intertexts, Catullus 64, a mini-epic about the marriage of Peleus and Thetis.

Elaine Fantham says that Dido is more like Hypsipyle than Medea, of all of Jason’s women, and perhaps even more like Phaedra in Euripides’ Hippolytus — a woman driven to love by scheming divinities whose real target is a man.

Fantham, in her introduction to Ahl’s translation, makes an important point about our reading of Dido:

‘Rather than relive Dido’s sufferings, we must note that she stands for the future of her city. When Dido stabs herself upon the funeral pyre Rumour, the same destructive spirit that precipitated the lovers’ separation, now raves through the city as if all Carthage (like Troy) was falling to enemy occupation and being consumed by flames. The greatest wrong done by Dido’s love for Aeneas was arguably to her own people. –Introduction, xxvii

Normally, we see Dido as a poor woman who has fallen for and succumbed to her womanly passions. I think we should, rather, see Dido as a queen, who has been targeted by Venus and Juno for their own ends, leading to disaster.

We do not, for example, read Turnus the way we read Dido. When he calls for war and rages against the Trojans, we do not say that he has succumbed to his manly passions for war and violence. We rightly acknowledge the role that the Fury Allecto has in Turnus’ turning.

Dido, who first appears being likened to the Goddess Diana and is seen as a self-strong, self-assured political player in Africa who has rejected marriage not only out of loyalty to her dead husband but out of political shrewdness for the future of Carthage, should not simply be reduced to a woman succumbing to the passions of romantic love. She should be seen as a character and a player in her own right.

This changes it. She becomes like Turnus, a victim of Venus and Cupid, and then also of Juno, who meant to favour her. Her wrong, her culpa, also shifts from the private to the public. Dido has not merely had an affair but has endangered the entire Carthaginian enterprise.

In a poem full of political players, this should not be lost.

“Bacchus who sets us free”

Thus writes Robert Fagles at Aeneid 4.73.  Although Virgil’s Latin (at 4.58) merely says, “patrique Lyaeo” — “and to Father Lyaeus”, one of the names of Dionysus — this phrase makes me ponder, “How does Bacchus set us free?”  Could one, perhaps, through an examination of ancient texts, produce a Dionysian Liberation Theology?*

Bacchus (or Dionysus), if you were wondering, is the god of the ancient pantheon associated with ekstasis — standing outside of oneself — which takes madness as one of its main forms, as we see in Fagles’ translation of Aen. 4.300ff (his 4.373):*

She rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through
the entire city, raving like some Maenad
driven wild when the women shake the sacred emblems,
when the cyclic orgy, shouts of “Bacchus!” fire her on
and Cithaeron echoes round with maddened midnight cries.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dido “rages in helpless frenzy” (my trans.).  And then she “bacchatur” through the whole city (4.301).  What is there of freedom in someone who rages, is helpless, raves, is driven wild, whose actions madden Mt. Cithaeron?

Consider, if you will, the life of an upper-class woman in the Graeco-Roman world.  She sits in the back row at the amphitheatre.  She spends most of her life indoors doing as little work as possible.  She shrouds her head in public.  Her first marriage is probably arranged by her father or some other powerful male relative.  She also has access to education, parties, chariot races, the right to divorce her husband, exotic foods, alcohol in moderation, and so forth.

However, in a world of clearly defined roles and strong, sturdy ideals of pietas — duty to the gods, duty to the family, duty to the country, duty to one’s honour — for both men and women, how does madness not set people free?

A Bacchante, as seen in The Bacchae by Euripides, has the opportunity to dance like a wild woman, to shake the thyrsus (Bacchus’ holy staff), to shake her wild her, to abandon the city and dance on the hills.  She is freed from the need to be decorous, she can live by the motto “Dignity Is for Chumps” as a Bacchante, she is freed from the inhibitions placed on her by herself and her society.  For a time, she is freed from her womanly duties and responsibilities without becoming impia.

Bacchus sets us free.  Father Liber (another name; this one is Roman) is also the god of wine, a substance that has its own dis-inhibiting effect upon people, making it similar to madness.  And since Liber is, himself a lover — “he himself is warmed” by the flame of love (Ovid, Ars Amatoria 1.525) — he helps lovers in their quest for the beloved.  I reckon Ovid recommends the use of wine in the pursuit of one’s beloved, and that Bacchus who sets us free will join in the fight.  It’s not necessarily advice I would give, but there it is in one of our texts.  We are set free by wine — by Father Liber — to find somebody to love.  And since scholars think that Bacchus was originally a fertility god, this only makes sense.

Bacchus sets us free.  Dionysus is also the god of the theatre — hence the City Dionysia in Athens, the great theatre festival whence we gain Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes.  In the theatre, you are freed from your very self.  Standing on the stage, looking out in the crowd of thousands of people, you are not Thespis anymore.  With the mask covering your face, you are an ancient hero, or a slave, or a god, or an aristocratic lady.  You can take the words of the playwright, words wrought to make people think about current affairs, words brought to bring about catharsis, and you can speak them into peoples souls from behind that mask.  And it is not Thespis speaking but another.  You, Thespis, are free, for you are not Thespis.

For us in the modern world, there is much to be liberated from.  And while Bacchus was fake at best and a demon at worst (to take the ancient Christian take on pagan gods), a bit of the Dionysian spirit should hopefully be good for us and set us free.  Freedom from inhibitions.  Freedom from feeling constrained by the necessities of life around us.  Freedom from decorum.  Freedom from lovelessness.  Freedom to be a little crazy.

To quote a non-classical source, “A little madness in the spring is healthy even for the king.” (Emily Dickinson)

*The ancient texts will serve, to some degree, a similar role to that of the Bible in Christian Liberation Theology.