Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid presents one of the most famous (and tragic) love stories in the history of literature. Dido, queen of Carthage falls madly in love with the story’s hero, Aeneas. As the two give themselves over to each other, Aeneas is called back to his duty to found the Roman people. In fit of rage and despair, Dido throws herself on Aeneas’ sword and commits suicide rather than live without him. Famously, St. Augustine recorded in his Confessions that, as a boy reading The Aeneid, he had wept over the death of Dido. This later caused him to reflect on his own lack of self-knowledge: “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for you, my God…” (Augustine Confessions 1.13). Yet I would argue that we should not weep for Dido. That, while Dido’s story is sad, she is not suffering at the hands of the gods or fates; that she is not treated unfairly, but rather, she is a victim of her own lack of self-control and wisdom.
From the beginning of Book 4, Vergil describes Dido as a woman enslaved to her passions. Though we see no indication of this while Aeneas is recounting his journey from Troy to Carthage, once he’s finished, Dido is completely beside herself with love for Aeneas. “Now the queen’s lifeblood fed her grievous love wound / An unseen flame gnawed at her hour on hour” (Vergil The Aeneid Bk. 4.1-2). The two dominant metaphors Vergil uses to describe Dido are fire and sickness: She is “stricken Dido” (4.8), her passions “blaze” (4.54), she suffers from “madness” (4.65), a “flame devoured her tender marrow” (4.66-67), “Dido burned” (4.68), and love-sickness “gripped the queen” (4.90). This is hardly a list attributes to admire!
Given this “love-sick” condition, it is not surprising that Dido is consumed in thought and deed for Aeneas. She “fixates” on Aeneas (4.78). She creates excuses, sometimes with the help of Juno, for the two of them to be together (4.129-165). She plays with Iulus, Aeneas’ son, because he is “so like his father” (4.83). While doing all this, she completely abandons her duties to Carthage:
The towers she started do not rise. The young men
No longer drill or build defending ramparts
Or ports. The work stalls, halfway done—the menace
Of high walls, and the cranes as tall as heaven. (4.85-89)
So, Dido has completely lost herself in her passion for Aeneas. She has “let her folly outrun her good name” (4.90-91). These are not the attributes of someone we should emulate or admire, and Vergil rightly calls it folly.
Perhaps out of pity for Dido, Juno arranges for Dido and Aeneas to be together. During one of their outings, Juno uses a storm to bring Dido and Aeneas together in a cave, and there the two give themselves over to passion. Though there is some ambiguity as to whether Juno thinks she has bound the two in marriage, it is clear from the text that no marriage ever took place, and the two of them knew this:
From this day came catastrophe and death.
No thought of public scandal or of hiding
Her passion troubled Dido any longer.
She called it marriage, to conceal her shame. (4.169-172)
Dido knows quite well that this sexual relationship with Aeneas is “shameful,” so she must pretend it is a marriage, and it is this double-dealing that will lead to her ruin. While in this relationship, the lovers show no better common sense than before it. They flaunt their love before the city and live openly in their shame. Jove looks down on “the lovers who’d forgotten all decorum” (4.221) and decides it is time for Aeneas to leave Carthage. Aeneas can leave Dido without contradicting his duty precisely because there was no marriage covenant between he and Dido. Had Dido first bound herself in marriage (as she ought) to Aeneas before their carnal relationship began, all of her misery could have been avoided, but passion led her instead of wisdom.
Furthermore, once Dido discovers Aeneas’ plan to leave, she reveals herself to be one who does not love Aeneas so much as one who wants to possess Aeneas. That is, she is not interested in what is best for Aeneas, but rather she wants to consume Aeneas. When Aeneas refuses to stay, Dido immediately lashes out at him, turns on him, and views him as an object of hate rather than love. This is precisely because he is keeping her from getting what she wants. There is no thought for Aeneas himself. Her irrational passions rear up again and she “raved all through” (4.300), “madness and grief filled her defeated heart” (4.474), and “her love ran wild” (4.531). She even admits, “hot madness drives me” (4.376). When Aeneas tries to explain himself to her, she calls him names (a sure sign that one has been defeated with reason or argument): “monster” (4.309), “traitor” (4.365), “sharp-rocked Caucasus gave birth to you” (4.366-67), “Hyrcanian tigers nursed you” (4.367), “my proud enemy” (4.424), “criminal” (4.498). Such flattery would hardly induce Aeneas to remain. Dido again presents herself as a concupiscent, irrational woman.
Counter to all this, an argument might be made that Dido is treated rather unfairly by Aeneas. After all, Dido did not have this relationship by herself. Aeneas was right there the whole time, and gave every indication that he was as much in love with Dido as she was with him. Vergil even says that Aeneas was “deeply lovesick” (4.396) over Dido. So, she had every indication that Aeneas would remain with her forever. When he decides to leave Carthage, it is a betrayal of their love, a betrayal that will end in Dido’s suicide. It is not that Dido cannot have what she wants and so kills herself, but rather that she has been betrayed by her great love and despairs.
However, the text simply does not bears this out. As was pointed out, there was no marriage between Aeneas and Dido, and therefore, Aeneas has no duty or obligation to stay with her. Vergil describes Aeneas as the “right-thinking hero” (4.393) who honors duty above personal interest. In fact, The Aeneid might be seen as a series of personal sacrifices on the part of Aeneas for the sake of duty. While Dido attempts to guilt Aeneas into staying by making reference to a marriage, Aeneas reminds her: “I never made a pact of marriage with you” (4.393). If he had, then Aeneas would be torn by duty to marriage and duty to his ancestors. But as no such pact was made, he does not have to face this dilemma. Dido herself finally admits that there was no marriage, and therefore she has no means by which to demand Aeneas stay: “I could not live a blameless life, unmarried, like a wild thing, and be spared this agony” (4.550-551).
So, we have no cause to weep for Dido. She is a victim of herself and nothing more. She is a woman ruled by her passions, who comes to ruin because she cannot have what she wants. At most, we might pity her for her condition as a love-sick woman, but not because of the end of an ill-conceived love-affair. Furthermore, there is a lesson here against “co-habitation,” people living together without the pact of marriage. When a person enters into an immoral relationship with another, they cannot complain of being “cheated” out of it. Without the covenant of marriage, there is no duty that keeps one person bound to the other. So, there can be no violation of duty if one person simply decides to leave. In fact, it is an act of duty to leave.