Dido of Carthage, Mediterranean Princess Turned African Queen
Dido, known also as Elissa in some sources, is a legendary queen who is credited with the founding of Carthage. The legend of Queen Dido is found in Greek and Roman sources, the best-known of which being Virgil’s Aeneid. The legend in this epic poem takes the form of a tragedy, in which the queen commits suicide after her lover, Aeneas, leaves for the Italian Peninsula.
The name Dido is said to mean ‘wanderer’, which is appropriate, considering the story of how she arrived in Carthage. According to legend, Dido was a princess of Tyre, a Phoenician city state in present day Lebanon. According to Virgil, Dido’s father was Belus and her brother was Pygmalion. While she was still living in Tyre, Dido was married to a man named Sychaeus.
Dido Flees Her Homeland
Belus had hoped that after his death, the governance of Tyre would be divided equally between Dido and Pygmalion. This, however, was not to be. When the king died, Pygmalion immediately seized power and had Sychaeus murdered, as he desired his wealth. The ghost of Sychaeus appeared to Dido in a dream, told her the truth about his death, the hidden location of his wealth, and issued a warning to flee from Tyre as Pygmalion would surely kill her next. Therefore, Dido went to retrieve her dead husband’s wealth and fled from the city with her supporters.
Having fled from Tyre, Dido and her band of followers sailed across the Mediterranean and arrived on the coast of North Africa. The former Tyrian princess met a local ruler by the name of Iarbas, who agreed to sell her as much land as the hide of a bull could cover. Dido demonstrated her shrewdness by first cutting the hide into strips and then used it to encircle a large piece of land. It was here that the city of Carthage was founded, and Dido became its first ruler.
Queen Dido building Carthage and the rise of the Carthaginian Empire. (Soerfm / Public Domain)
Queen Dido’s Life in Carthage
In time, Carthage prospered and Iarbas sought Dido’s hand in marriage. The queen, however, declined as she was still faithful to her late husband and would not marry another man. In one version of the legend, Iarbas would not take no for an answer and threatened to destroy Carthage if the queen persisted in her refusal. As a result, Dido saw no other choice but to commit suicide, either by stabbing herself on a funeral pyre, or by throwing herself onto the pyre’s flames.
The better-known version of the Dido myth, however, involves her encounter with Aeneas, who was wandering around the Mediterranean following the fall of Troy. Aeneas arrives in Carthage as it was being built and meets Dido. The queen welcomed Aeneas and his men and allowed them to stay in Carthage. Although Aeneas tried to woo Dido, he was unsuccessful, as the queen remained steadfast to th’e memory of her late husband. It was only through the intervention of Venus (specifically an arrow ~]fired at Dido by Cupid) that Dido finally fell in love with the Trojan.
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Queen Dido and Aeneas, ancient Roman fresco. (Tetraktys / Public Domain)
In time, Aeneas and Dido began living together as husband and wife, and the Trojans would have settled down for good in Carthage. This news, however, reaches the ears of Iarbas. The king is said to be a demi-god, as his father was Jupiter, while his mother was a Garamantian nymph. Therefore, he prayed to his father to complain about Dido and Aeneas. Jupiter answers his son’s prayers by sending Mercury to remind Aeneas of his destiny and to prepare him for his journey.
Queen Dido Is Heartbroken
Aeneas and his men were compelled to leave Carthage in secret and when Dido learnt of this she was heartbroken. As she saw the Trojan ships sailing away, she laid a curse on them, vowing eternal enmity between her descendants and the descendants of Aeneas. This is seen as a prophecy for the rivalry between Carthage and Rome, as well as the Punic Wars that would be fought between the two powers. The queen then ordered a pyre to be prepared, so that she could burn all the things that Aeneas left behind. Once this was done, she got onto the pyre, laid on the couch she had shared with Aeneas, and killed herself with the sword he had given her.
The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire after Queen Dido’s death. (Alonso de Mendoza / Public Domain)
The story of Dido has captivated many generations. Her story has been represented not only by writers and poets of the Classical period, but also by artists from much later periods. As an example, many operas have been inspired by her story and she is often portrayed in artworks. On the other hand, she is placed by Dante in his Divine Comedy in the second circle of Hell, which is reserved for those consumed by lust during their lifetimes.
Top image: African queen (zea_lenanet / Adobe Stock).
By Wu Mingren
de Weever, J., 1996. Dido. [Online]
Available at: http://www.columbia.edu/dlc/garland/deweever/D/dido.htm
Gill, N. S., 2017. The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage. [Online]
Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/dido-queen-of-carthage-116949
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2014. Dido. [Online]
Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dido