Dido, Queen of the Ancient Meltdown


by cheri block

The ancient poet Virgil, commissioned by his patron, Roman Emperor Augustus, to write an epic poem that would commemorate the founding of Rome, died before he finished his massive text, a work we know as The Aeneid. On his deathbed, he ordered his work of twelve years to be burned.

I find Virgil’s last wishes to be entirely in keeping with the fire of this poem.

One of the hot  books (chapters, if you will) is entitled The Passion of the Queen, which is a bit of an understatement.

It represents, perhaps, one of the greatest feminine meltdowns in all of ancient literature.

The queen is Dido, Queen of Carthage.

She is lonely, lustful, romantic, generous, conniving, and finally destructive.

In short, Dido is a young beautiful woman whose husband Sychaeus has died, leaving her to rule the city alone. Until the handsome Trojan warrior Aeneas arrives on the beaches of North Africa, with his ramshackle fleet of ships tossed and almost destroyed by the fury of the Goddess Juno (the Greek Hera), Dido had not considered remarriage.

Before the end of this book, Dido and Aeneas have had an affair in a cave and this sexual union Dido wrongly interprets as a marriage.

Aeneas forgets his mission—to found Rome—and spends his time completing Dido’s Honey Doo list, in addition to enjoying a fiery sexual relationship.

When his mother, the Goddess Venus (the Greek Aphrodite) sees that her son is off course, shall we say, she send the messenger god, Mercury (the Greek Hermes) to remind her son of his duty.

Aeneas decides to sneak away without telling Dido and for this slimy decision and her own impending love, sexual, and public loss, she will curse him and predict the Punic Wars that Rome will fight three times against Carthage.

In the end, Dido loses it, as we might say today.

Virgil’s description of her mindset, her manic energy, her Furor, her complete psychic meltdown is unparalleled in ancient literature.

Before we, the reader, tumble to Hades with Dido, she utters the following words:

“I die unavenged,” she said, “but let me die.

This way, this way, a blessed relief to go

Into the undergloom. Let the cold Trojan,

Far at sea, drink in this conflagration

And take with him the omen of my death!”

Then, crawling up to the top of a funeral pyre in a rant, wailing about Fate, she stabs herself to death with a steel blade.

Out in the sea, readying the ships for the trip to Latium (Italy), Aeneas sees the fire of the pyre.

But he is off to Italy.

About Cheri

Writer, photograph, artist, mother, grandmother and wife.
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10 Responses to Dido, Queen of the Ancient Meltdown

  1. Douglas says:

    Curious. Is it my own mind and the twist of wording? In your parenthetical references, you write “the Greek [whoever]”. But the name used is the Greek name for each deity. Then I thought that was perhaps your meaning. Dido was a mixture of myth and reality, I am led to believe, as much of Roman history is. I wonder, will that happen to our history some several hundred years in the future? Probably.

    • Cheri says:

      Some of us learned the names of the Greek gods and don’t always know their Roman names.

      I tend to think of Zeus, for example, rather than his Roman name, Jupiter.

      Same with his wife Hera (Juno)

      • Douglas says:

        Did not the Carthaginians have their own set of gods? Aeneas would have only referred to his (Greek) pantheon since the Romans had not yet adopted them. You do know the Romans idolized the Greeks and copied much of that civilization? Probably including its pantheon and renaming them.

  2. Cheri says:

    In referring to the plot of The Aeneid, I used the names of the gods as the Roman poet Virgil used them in the first century BCE. in his poem.

    I am not sure about the Gods of the Carthaginians.
    I am interested in knowing.
    If you are thinking about reading Virgil again,
    I recommend the Robert Fitzgerald translation.

  3. andreaskluth says:

    I can help a bit re those Carthaginia gods:

    The Carthaginians were Phoenicians (Dido was from Tyre in today’s Lebanon). So they had the Semitic gods of all the peoples the Jews fought AGAINST.

    The main ones were Ba’al and Melquart. One or the other was roughly analoguous to Zeus/Jupiter, ie the mightiest and the hurler of thunder bolts.

    The Carthaginians (unlike the Greeks and Romans) also named themselves after their gods.

    So the name Hannibal meant Han’Baal = Favorite of Baal. The name of Hannibal’s father Hamilcar meant Ha’Melquart = Favorite of Melquart.

    • Douglas says:

      Andreas, interesting about the naming. Did the Egyptians also do that? I had not known that about Hannibal.

      • andreaskluth says:

        I don’t know whether the Egyptians also did that, unfortunately. (I studied mainly Carthage and Rome for my book.)

        But I can tell you that the Egyptian kings and queens of that same time WERE gods. Meaning: They represented themselves to the population as such. Thus the queen (the last one being Cleopatra) was a living Isis, and the king a living Osiris. They then married each other. Ie, brothers and sisters (which led to notorious inbreeding–Cleo was one of the only Ptolemies not to be grotesquely fat or ugly or violent.)
        Further complicating this matter, of course, was that the Egyptian kings and queens at this time were Greek (ie, Macedonian) and spoke Greek, while ruling an Egyptian populace.

        Come to think of it, though, Antony and Cleopatra did name one of their children Helios (sun god) and a daughter Selene (moon).

  4. zeusiswatching says:

    I love Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” I saw a performance at the Folger Library in Washington many years ago. I’m looking around for (and might have decided upon) a good recording on DVD.

  5. Pingback: The unexpected page-turner: Virgil « The Hannibal Blog

  6. Pingback: Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me! « The Hannibal Blog

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