Perhaps the biggest criticism anyone could make of The Aeneid is how the love story between Aeneas and Dido ends. It’s easy to blame Aeneas for his desertion.
Fair enough. Greek mythology alone has dozens of stories of women being maltreated by their male counterparts. But this is a Roman epic poem, so while it’s based on Greek mythology, this is one development that is all Virgil’s imagination. And there’s more than just a woman being mistreated by a man.
I would argue that if that’s all we see of the story of Dido, then we’re looking in entirely the wrong place. Because above all, the story of Dido is a story of selfhood and what happens when we abandon it.
A little extra background information for those who perhaps don’t know their ancient history.
The Aeneid begins with a crash-landing on Libyan shores. Aeneas goes to Carthage, prompted by Venus, to seek aid for his people and help in repairing his ships. I should point out that Dido and the Carthaginians are Phoenician by descent, which means that ethnically, she and Aeneas are from similar, Near Eastern stock.
Biblical scholars will probably recognize the terms “Tyre” and “Sidon” from the poem. These were city-states in Phoenicia, which is in present-day Lebanon and were just north of the Biblical Philistines. And south of where the historic Troy lay.
Fans of Epcot’s classic “Spaceship Earth” rejoice.
Anyway, to return to Aeneas and Dido. Dido was at one time a refugee, too. Her brother, Pygmalion, killed her husband, Sychaeus, and forced her to flee with her followers. They sailed away and also crash-landed on Libya, where they’ve been ever since.
In the meantime, Dido has repulsed advances from neighboring kings, like Iarbus, because she claims she’s still in mourning for her husband.
When Aeneas arrives, the city is being built and the city also has a marvelous reputation in the surrounding territories. Everything is in hand, the city is prospering, and Dido is well-respected as a ruler in her own right. Everything is going swimmingly.
Until she sees Aeneas and gets a massive crush on him. Of course, part of this is thanks to Cupid’s arrow. Literally. But, instead of actually looking for ways to make a potential relationship work, she goes to her sister, Anna, and asks for advice. Anna’s advice is to indulge herself. And that’s when things start to go downhill.
Juno and Venus make a back alley deal to “marry” Dido to Aeneas, but it’s a sham wedding–there are no witnesses, no formality. It’s not even a union that has been thoroughly discussed between the two parties themselves.
Once the deed is done, however, Dido slips further and further into idleness. Carthage no longer thrives, no longer is busy with building and growing, and, worst of all, their reputation suffers. Remember Iarbus? Well, he’s mightily offended that Dido repulsed his advances, but falls head over heels for Aeneas.
While this is the stuff of erotic romance novels, it’s no way to run a country. When you have at least two kings who could easily wipe your people off the face of the planet.
But Dido doesn’t care one whit for any of it unit the object of her desire is removed and she descends into madness and kills herself.
Blame Aeneas all you want, but he doesn’t even realize what happened until he visits the underworld and finds Dido’s spirit there. All he knows is that Jove commanded him to leave Carthage in a dream and he had to obey. One does not disobey Jove without severe consequences, after all.
Towers, half-built rose
No father; men no longer trained in arms
Or toiled to make harbors and battlements
Impregnable: Projects were broken off
Laid over, and menacing huge walls
With cranes unmoving stood against the sky.Vigil
Dido forgets who and what she is and that is her undoing.
The problem with Dido is that she forgets duty in favor of indulging herself in her lover. She even forgets that Aeneas has already told her of his own mission and destiny. She doesn’t care. It’s a selfish infatuation she has–not love. If it were love, she wouldn’t keep Aeneas from his destiny, or try to keep his mind on the past sorrows he experienced during the Trojan War.
With great privilege comes greater responsibility. Or so the saying goes. Dido is no different. She was a queen, responsible for the happiness and well-being of an entire city. As I’m sure most leaders, especially ones who are so by birth, that means it is part of your identity whether you want it to be.
It also means that you cannot have everything your own way and that the good of the nation must come before your own personal comfort. The late Elizabeth II perhaps embodied this best even if it was still imperfect. She was a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother, yes. But she was the Queen.
We like to glamorize royalty as getting everything you want, of living a life free of care, of getting the glitz, glam and adoration which few might hope to enjoy in their lives. But that shouldn’t be the case. And often isn’t.
Aeneas doesn’t get to stay in Carthage, he reveals in Book VI when he sees Dido’s shade in the Underworld that he didn’t want to leave her and returned her love. He especially hurt that his destiny was her undoing.
But it wasn’t. She was her own undoing because she forgot who she was. And no longer cared.
What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers!
The inward fear eats the soft marrow away,
And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.Vigil
Love isn’t always enough in the real world.
We like to think that love is enough. Very often it is, if both people will put in the effort and work. But too often, that falls apart when one person tires of working all the time, or there’s too much against both parties to continue.
For Dido, she feel in love with a man who had a destiny that would lead him away from Carthage. What exactly did she expect would happen? Was he going to give up a commission from the gods just to be with her? We’d like to yell “yes” at the top of our lungs, but that isn’t often the case. Not in the ancient world and not in such precarious circumstances.
In a modern world, Dido could probably have found a solution to the problem–by training up someone else to rule while Aeneas got established and then joining him. Or, they could have joined forces and united their kingdoms once Aeneas had achieved his destiny. But that wasn’t to be. They weren’t to be.
You cannot deny who you are just to please someone else, however hard you try. Eventually it will catch up with you and when that day comes, the relationship almost always ends.
Never hero-worship your partner, however wonderful or noble they seem.
For modern women this perhaps is a no-brainer. For most modern men too. But in every age, there is going to be someone who forgets, or who doesn’t care to remember this rule. Dido is proof of that, and undoubtedly, there are others we could name for the same mistake.
Ultimately, hero-worshiping your partner, only weakens you and the relationship overall. You don’t acknowledge your partner’s faults and you don’t even acknowledge their experience of reality may be different from your own. So, when in Dido’s case, Aeneas puts duty to the gods and his people before his love for her, she can’t handle it.
She can’t live without him because he has become her everything. No one person should ever be your everything.
Why does Dido so easily forget her own status, her rank, and even her identity? The easy answer is to say that Venus made Cupid shoot an arrow at her and that’s the only reason for her downfall. This is entirely possible, if we are to take Virgil’s poem at face-value. But then, what are we to do about the fact that she’s not Elysium with the blessed but in the Underworld with the damned?
Is it misogyny? If we’re to stick with shallow meanings, then you could say that. Personally, I think we are dealing with a Shakespearean identity crisis here. In Shakespeare’s tragedies, there is a common theme of tragic figures forgetting their identity, or suffering a divided identity. It always ends in disaster.
That is what I think we’re dealing with in Dido’s character. She’s already forgotten she is a queen and has responsibilities to her people, but she’s also forgotten herself. She’s forgotten the precarious position the Carthaginians are in and she’s completely forgotten that Aeneas himself has told her his ultimate mission.
Remember who you are and hold to that.
The crux of the love story between Aeneas and Dido is that one of them remembers who they are and the other doesn’t. We may blame Aeneas for deserting Dido, for being a “wimp” and listening to the commands of a god before his own heart. But ultimately, Aeneas doesn’t lose his sense of self.
And that is ultimately what a good, healthy relationship is about–not losing yourself and amplifying your partner for who they are. Not what you want them to be.
Dido’s the one who loses her selfhood and replaces it with a fantasy that could never last. Not once did she even try to reconcile her own situation with Aeneas’ destiny, although she’s clearly more than capable of doing so. She doesn’t communicate with her beloved, she doesn’t even lay her cards on the table. She expects everything to happen according to her fantasy.
Everything she does to advance the relationship is done either in secret or slyly. She dotes on Ascanius, Aeneas’ son, she asked Aeneas for the story of his escape over and over again, even though it undoubtedly gave him pain to tell the story. She isn’t even honest with herself about what a romance with Aeneas would mean.
There’s more to their story. They appear again in The Divine Comedy. Know where? Let me know in the comments below!
Quotes are taken from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of The Aeneid, published by Everyman’s Library in 1992. It’s a good, translation, by the way, and more understandable for a modern audience, if John Dryden’s excellent (and highly regarded) translation is not available.
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2 thoughts on “Selfhood and the Love Between Dido and Aeneas”
Very well thought out, Kathleen (as usual). Gary
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