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.