By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The tragic love story of Dido and Aeneas has been told numerous times, and Henry Purcell famously turned it into one of the first English operas in the late seventeenth century. Dido’s lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a wonderful piece of music, powerful and moving: you can listen to it here.
But unlike many other famous stories from classical mythology, the tragic tale of Dido and Aeneas was largely the work of a Roman poet, rather than earlier, anonymous Greek writers (or, as is the case with many myths, an evolving oral tradition handed from generation to generation). It was the Roman poet Virgil, in his Aeneid, who provided the definitive story of Dido’s doomed love affair with the Trojan prince Aeneas.
Before we offer an analysis of this myth, let’s recap the plot of Dido and Aeneas’ love story.
Dido and Aeneas myth: summary
In Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, the tragic denouement of the Dido and Aeneas story is found in Book IV, although the setting of the first few books of Virgil’s poem (disregarding ‘flashbacks’ is Carthage. In the course of his journey from Troy to Italy, where he will help to found to city of Rome, Aeneas’ ship is blown off-course by a storm, and ends up taking refuge in the city of Carthage, the city Dido had founded.
Dido welcomes Aeneas and his crew, putting on a lavish banquet for her guest. In return, Aeneas regaled the Queen of Carthage with tales of his exploits in the Trojan Wars. The two of them grow close, which angers King Iarbus, king of a neighbouring kingdom, who had designs on Dido himself, and doesn’t like seeing her rebuff him in favour of some Trojan stranger instead.
Iarbus asked Jupiter to order Aeneas to leave. Jupiter heard the King’s request and granted it, since the god was aware that it was Aeneas’ fate to establish the city of Rome and he therefore couldn’t remain at Carthage enjoying himself with Dido forever.
Aeneas was reluctant to leave, but knew he couldn’t disobey a god’s command. So he left Dido and continued on his way towards Italy. When Dido realised he had abandoned her, she built her own funeral pure and took her own life on it.
Dido and Aeneas myth: analysis
The story of Dido and Aeneas shows the determination of both Aeneas, and Jupiter, in ensuring that the Trojan hero fulfils his destiny and founds Rome. Alexander Pope famously described Virgil’s Aeneid as a ‘political puff’, written to praise the Roman Empire under the emperor Augustus.
Virgil depicts Dido’s deep and devoted love for Aeneas in order to show how important it was that Aeneas founded Rome: he was prepared to sacrifice the love of a beautiful queen to ensure that he fulfilled his fate.
Dido is not some weak-headed slip of a girl, either: she is a queen of a vast kingdom which she herself founded, mirroring (or rather prefiguring) Aeneas’ role in founding Rome (a city which, it’s worth noting, would become a great trade rival against Carthage by the time Virgil came to write the Aeneid). She’s been married before, but her husband, Sychaeus, was murdered by her own brother, Pygmalion. She’s lived, suffered, loved, and lost, overcoming hardship to become a powerful ruler, all before Aeneas arrives in her life.
The task that Virgil faced as an artist was making Dido’s transformation from strong-headed queen into love-smitten woman seem both swift and believable to readers. Luckily, the Romans had an answer ready-made at hand: Cupid’s arrow, the dart from the cherubic god of love which could render the strongest and grandest into blabbering and besotted lovers.
But there’s another detail which makes the stakes even higher for Dido: her dead husband, whose memory she has been honouring. She has refused to entertain Iarbus’ proposal of marriage because she is mourning Sychaeus. But her loyalty to Sychaeus’ memory is compromised when she falls for Aeneas and takes him as her lover.
To many of her hitherto loyal subjects, Dido’s passionate love affair with this Trojan prince seems heady and foolish. She has also compromised her loyalty to her kingdom, by neglecting her responsibilities as ruler in favour of Aeneas.
Her fling with Aeneas also has political ramifications: as long as Iarbus thought there was a chance of marrying Dido and creating a union between Carthage and his kingdom, peace could be preserved between the various kingdoms. In short, she loses everything – kingdom, support, and her lover – through her doomed love affair with Aeneas.
Aeneas’ attitude to his love affair with Dido can be contrasted with her own attitude. Whereas Dido chooses love over duty (to her kingdom and her people), Aeneas honours his duty over all else – even his love for Dido. He must do the gods’ bidding, and they command him to leave her behind so he can continue on his journey towards founding Rome.
Although he leaves Dido reluctantly, in the last analysis there was never any doubt that he would choose to depart from Carthage and continue in his quest. It may have been fate that made him fall in love with Dido (and she with him), but a higher fate is calling him.
About Greek mythology
The Greek myths are over two thousand years old – and perhaps, in their earliest forms, much older – and yet many stories from Greek mythology, and phrases derived from those stories, are part of our everyday speech. So we describe somebody’s weakness as their Achilles heel, or we talk about the dangers of opening up Pandora’s box. We describe a challenging undertaking as a Herculean task, and speak of somebody who enjoys great success as having the Midas touch.
However, as this last example shows, we often employ these myths in ways which run quite contrary to the moral messages the original myths impart. The moral of King Midas, of course, was not that he was famed for his wealth and success, but that his greed for gold was his undoing: the story, if anything, is a warning about the dangers of corruption that money and riches can bring. (Or, as the Bible bluntly puts it, the love of money is the root of all evil.)
And this points up an important fact about the Greek myths, which is that, like Aesop’s fables which date from a similar time and also have their roots in classical Greek culture, many of these stories evolved as moral fables or tales designed to warn Greek citizens of the dangers of hubris, greed, lust, or some other sin or characteristic. The messages they impart are therefore timeless and universal, and this helps to explain why, more than two millennia after they were first written down, they remain such an important influence on Western culture.