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Dido: Queen and Lover in the Aeneid and the Heroides - by Mansi Dhokia

The renowned poets Virgil and Ovid both write about the mythological character Dido, queen and founder of Carthage, in two different poetic styles. Whilst the core elements of Dido’s character remain the same throughout the two narratives, Virgil’s Aeneid is an epic poem focusing on Aeneas as the hero and so Dido only has a small part to play in the narrative, whilst Ovid chooses Dido as the protagonist of Heroides 7, part of a collection of elegiac (love) poems framed as love letters from aggrieved mythological women to their lovers. Thus, the centre of the poem is Dido lamenting that Aeneas is leaving her and foretelling her doomed fate.

Dido existed in legend as the founder and queen of Carthage, and it is Virgil’s account of her encounter with Aeneas that solidified their canonical relationship. Virgil writes ostensibly from an impartial third-person perspective; however, Dido herself is at the forefront of the narrative and we see insights into her psyche. In particular, Virgil’s use of speeches paints Dido as a sympathetic character who is ultimately collateral damage from Aeneas’ mission. Dido is an exemplification of the ‘other’ in the Aeneid: fundamentally opposite to the male, proto-Roman hero Aeneas. Thus, she challenges the notions of epic as well as the patriarchal Roman society it was written in. She is a paradox to core Roman values, both a queen and a lover simultaneously as demonstrated in the quote “But the queen – who can deceive a lover?”, showing her dual function within the poem. In contrast, Romans expected their leaders to be akin to Aeneas or Augustus: male, pious and dutiful, placing the state before personal emotions; therefore, Dido is immediately signalled to a Roman readership to be subversive and perhaps dangerous.


Ovid, on the other hand, narrates his poem from the first person, and thus privileges Dido’s viewpoint solely. Heroides 7 is modelled upon Virgil’s account but with Ovid’s own innovations. Ovid chooses to set his poem before Aeneas has left Carthage, but when Dido knows that nothing she does will convince him to stay. This gives the poem a sense of hopelessness as Dido is on the precipice of life and death: “You will think of me and your false tongue / you will think of Dido forced to die because / one from Phrygia was unfaithful”. Ovid deliberately depicts a doomed love story. It gives a much narrower snapshot than the epic Aeneid, focusing solely on her pain of losing Aeneas and her damned fate. It is poignant and tragic as the reader knows the context of her story and how it will inevitably end. By framing his poem as a letter to her lover, Ovid transforms Dido into an elegiac lover whilst still preserving the mythological grounding present in Virgil’s account.



As a depiction of an unmarried woman with independent power, Dido does not fit the morality standard of Augustan Rome in either of her portrayals. She is deliberately portrayed as a mythological woman who is not Roman at all and so does not adhere to the confines of Roman morality; this makes her dangerous to Aeneas and unnerving to a Roman audience. Additionally, she engages in a sexual relationship outside of an official marriage with Aeneas, an act that would have been condemned by Augustus’ administration. Whilst it could be read as empowering through a feminist lens to see Dido blatantly act against the stereotypes of women in the ancient world, it is nevertheless true that she is textually punished for her actions. Her sexual relationship with Aeneas directly correlates to her downfall, especially in the Aeneid. Dido is ultimately punished within the text for displaying a version of femininity that wasn’t acceptable to the Roman authority of the state and Augustus.


As well as serving a literary function in both texts, Dido’s characterisation as a woman is ultimately rooted in the realities of the historical era in which she was written. Particularly in the Aeneid, Dido’s role as a foreign queen who threatens Rome closely aligns with the historical monarch Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra was an intimidating figure to Rome, not only because of her power as the ruler of Egypt but also because she was a woman. Cleopatra’s threat to Rome was linked to her feminine sexual prowess in seducing Julius Caesar and Mark Antony as well as the military and social threat that Egypt posed to Rome. Similarly, Dido’s affair with a powerful pseudo-Roman man threatened his mission and led to the threat of vengeance foreshadowing the Punic Wars and the rise of Hannibal (“Let there be war between the nations and between their sons forever”). Both women also commit suicide when it becomes clear that they cannot win against Rome and its ideals. Cleopatra’s legacy was recent history at the time Virgil was writing the Aeneid, and the echoes of her linger on in his portrayal of a foreigner, a queen, and a lover.


Dido’s function in the Aeneid is primarily as an obstacle and distraction for Aeneas, similarly to Circe and Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey. His abandonment of her serves to emphasise the importance of his goal of founding a new city as it eclipses his romantic and sexual feelings. However, she transgresses the norms of epic poetry by being a compelling character within her own right, unlike other epic women who lack character development beyond their relationships with men. Virgil implies that before Aeneas came to Carthage, Dido had her own goals and aspirations of founding a new city that were not based on her interactions with Aeneas and Carthage is prospering under her command (“The Tyrians were working with a will…they were like bees at the beginning of summer”). Dido becomes a victim of the gods when Venus makes her fall in love with Aeneas, and only then are her goals for Carthage abandoned. This is epitomised in the lines “I have founded a glorious city and lived to see the building of my own walls…I would have been happy, more than happy, if only the Trojan keels had never grounded on our shores”, which emphasise that it is Aeneas and the meddling of the gods that have ruined Dido’s life and aspirations. She is certainly the most prominent mortal female character to be featured in the Aeneid: other mortal female characters such as Camilla and Amata are side characters without a clear character arc, and Lavinia, Aeneas’ eventual wife, has no speaking lines in the poem. However, the narrative of the Aeneid showcases the ultimate patriarchal nature of, not only Roman society but epic as a genre. Aeneas is ultimately the only character whose plight matters in the narrative of the Aeneid, thus limiting the roles of all women in the epic poem, including Dido herself.


The Heroides differ greatly from the Aeneid and also from the preceding love poetry of Tibullus and Propertius, and from Ovid’s other collections, as they are written solely from a female perspective about mythological lovers. However, the themes of the Heroides still closely align with the genre of elegy and the poems are written in the elegiac metre. Dido’s narrative in Ovid’s poem is confined to a specific moment in time as she waits for Aeneas to leave Carthage and for her own death and focuses less on her demise from a respected queen but instead on her feminine sensibilities as a jilted lover. Dido transgresses the boundaries of a woman in love elegy as she is the one writing the poem rather than being an object of desire: Ovid places hyperbolic language typical of elegy in Dido’s mouth such as “I am burning with love: all day long and all night / I desire nothing but Aeneas”. Whilst Dido may not be a typical elegiac female character, she is nonetheless confined to topics of love within the poem, and her feminine desire towards Aeneas is still filtered through the perspective of the male poet Ovid.


Overall, Dido’s portrayal by both Virgil and Ovid within a contemporary period of history is fascinating and complex. She is a character that should not have been sympathetic to a Roman audience: a foreign woman who rules alone over a successful city who threatens the Roman foundation myth by beginning an affair with Aeneas. Whilst the morals of Augustan Rome would have condemned her, and indeed she is punished by her own suicide, Dido is given prominence in both the Aeneid and the Heroides to express her emotions, lending a tragic tone to her characterisation in both poems. The fundamental difference between Virgil’s and Ovid’s Dido is the priorities of the genres of epic and elegy. Her portrayal by both authors is steeped with comments on gender and rich intertextuality, leading to a deep and sympathetic portrayal. At the same time, she is a product of the Roman ideals and culture that Virgil and Ovid were writing in, leading to fascinating depictions of one character by two very different authors.


Sources:

Ovid. (1990) Heroides. Translated by H. Isbell. London: Penguin Books

Virgil. (1990) The Aeneid. Translated by D. West. London: Penguin Books.

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