Text of the Poem
Aeneas, who is the son of the goddess Venus and is the greatest of the Trojan warriors to survive the fall of Troy, is leading a band of Trojan refugees in search of a new home in Italy. He is cast ashore on the coast of northern Africa and seeks refuge in the newly built city of Carthage. Dido is the ruler of Carthage, and she and her people are also refugees: her brother, the king of Tyre, killed her husband, and she and her followers fled from Tyre to found Carthage. She welcomes Aeneas and his men into her city. Then, because of the meddling of two goddesses (Juno and Venus), she falls madly in love with Aeneas. The two of them have a sexual affair, and Dido considers them married; she offers to let Aeneas be the king of Carthage. The god Mercury, however, warns Aeneas that he must be on his way--his destiny is not to rule Carthage, but to found Rome. Aeneas reluctantly makes ready for departure. Dido is mad with love and grief at this point. She has a funeral pyre prepared and then commits suicide upon it with a sword which Aeneas had given her. She writes to Aeneas just before her suicide, proclaiming the depth of her love for him, reproaching him for leaving her, and begging him to stay.
We have to begin with the Trojan War. Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, had been kidnapped by (or had eloped with) Paris, the son of the king of Troy. In order to bring Helen back, the kings of Greece assembled a vast alliance and laid siege to Troy. The siege lasted for ten years, with many casualties on both sides; in the tenth year, the Greeks used a trick (the Trojan horse) to get their soldiers inside the city. They then looted and burned Troy, killing most of its inhabitants.
However, not all the Trojans were killed. Aeneas, who was related to the Trojan royal family on his father's side, and whose mother was the goddess Venus, was one of the survivors. He had fought bravely throughout the war, and when the Greeks entered the city, he fought on against hopeless odds. But with Troy in flames, he was ordered by the gods to flee--his destiny was to lead the other Trojan survivors across the sea and found an even greater nation, the city of Rome. So Aeneas left Troy, carrying his aged father and his household gods upon his shoulders, and leading his son, Ascanius (also called "Iulus"), by the hand. His wife, Creusa, accompanied him also, but she became separated from him in the confusion. When he discovered her disappearance, he immediately started back to search for her, but her ghost appeared to him, telling him that his search was useless and urging him to continue to lead his people out of Troy.
For the next seven years, Aeneas and his followers wandered across the Mediterranean in search of their new home. The goddess Juno was bitterly opposed to them and put constant obstacles in their way, causing great suffering to the Trojan refugees. Finally she arranged for a terrible storm to disrupt the fleet. Aeneas, with seven ships, became separated from the others. He landed on the coast of Africa and made his way to the nearest city, Carthage. There he discovered that the rest of the Trojans had survived the storm and were being graciously welcomed into the city by its queen, Dido. Aeneas then revealed himself and was received by Dido as an honored guest.
To give Dido's background, we must go back a number of years and shift our scene to the eastern Mediterranean, in the Phoenician city of Tyre. Dido was the daughter of the king of Tyre. When her father died, her brother, Pygmalion, became king. Pygmalion was not the best of brothers. He murdered Dido's husband, Sychaeus, and Dido's own life was in peril. Sychaeus' ghost appeared to Dido, telling her that she must flee the city and showing her where to find a store of hidden treasure to finance her expedition. Dido and a group of followers then headed west across the Mediterranean. They settled on the north African coast. Here they ran into trouble once again. The local ruler said that he would sell them only as much land as could be enclosed by a bull's hide--just about enough for a burial plot, in fact. Dido accepted his offer, and then had the bull's hide cut into very small strips; she used the strips to outline an area large enough to build a fortress, thus forming the nucleus of the future city of Carthage.
The new community prospered, and Dido began building a beautiful city. The nearby kingdoms remained hostile, though, and the Phoenician refugees were constantly threatened by war. A number of the native rulers wanted to marry Dido, and she was under pressure to take advantage of the alliances that marriage would offer. But Dido remained firmly faithful to her dead husband, Sychaeus, swearing that she would never marry another. It was at this point, with the city half-built and enemies on all sides, that Aeneas and his Trojans arrived on the scene.
Both groups of refugees--Phoenicians and Trojans--had powerful protectors among the gods. Venus (the goddess of love) was Aeneas' mother, and she was determined to see to it that her son was safe and that he fulfilled his destiny of founding Rome. Juno (the wife of Jove, king of the gods) was unswervingly devoted to the welfare of Carthage; she knew that if Aeneas succeeded in founding Rome, his descendants would one day destroy Carthage. When Aeneas arrived in Carthage, the two goddesses formed an unlikely alliance--they resolved to make Dido and Aeneas fall in love. Venus believed that Aeneas would be safe while he was in Carthage if Dido were in love with him. Juno hoped that, if Aeneas married Dido, he would stay in Carthage and never found Rome.
After Aeneas' arrival in Carthage, Dido invited him to a grand dinner. At the dinner, she asked him to tell the tale of his adventures. He recounted the tragic events of the fall of Troy, and narrated the many perils and triumphs that had occurred in the seven years since then. While he was talking, Dido held his son, Ascanius (or Iulus), in her lap. What neither she nor Aeneas knew was that Venus, with Juno's agreement, had hidden the real Ascanius away, and replaced him with her own son, the young god Cupid. Cupid nestled in Dido's arms and proceeded to infect her with a burning love for Aeneas. That night, Dido was torn between her growing love for this newly-arrived Trojan hero and her allegiance to her first husband, Sychaeus. She consulted her sister, Anna, who advised her to embrace the new love and pursue her own happiness. Thenceforth, Dido spent all her time with Aeneas, and the affection between the two of them grew.
Some time later, when Dido and Aeneas were out hunting together, the two goddesses decided it was time for the next stage of the romance. Juno sent a sudden storm. Dido and Aeneas became separated from the rest of their party and took refuge in a cave. In the cave, their love became sexual for the first time. Dido considered herself married at this point, and she began to treat Aeneas as her husband.
But other deities were interested in Aeneas' fate, as well. Jove, the king of the gods, feared that Aeneas was lingering in Carthage too long, and endangering his destiny to found Rome. So he sent the god Mercury to Aeneas in a dream, ordering Aeneas to leave Dido and set sail immediately for Italy. Aeneas, torn between his duty to the gods and his love for Dido, reluctantly began to make preparations for departure.
Dido learned of Aeneas' impending desertion of her and fell into a frenzy of grief and rage. She confronted Aeneas, alternately cursing him and expressing her love for him. Rapidly descending into madness, she ordered a funeral pyre prepared, telling her sister that she intended to burn everything that reminded her of Aeneas. She then took a sword that Aeneas had given her and climbed atop the funeral pyre. With one last despairing speech, she killed herself with the sword. From the sea, Aeneas could see the rising flames of the funeral pyre.
In later years, Rome and Carthage did become bitter enemies. They fought three major wars (the Punic Wars). Although Rome won all three wars, it was an often desperate struggle. In the second war, the Carthaginian general Hannibal laid waste to Italy and threatened Rome itself. Rome finally destroyed Carthage in the third Punic War, leaving only uninhabited ruins on the site of the city.
Dido writes her letter as she stands on her funeral pyre, just before killing herself with Aeneas' sword.
Lines 1-2: These two lines form a sort of preface to the letter. The swan, ordinarily mute, was supposed to sing a single song in the moments before its death. Dido uses this myth to indicate that this letter is her final utterance before her own death.
Lines 3-6: This section opens the main body of the letter with a tone of despair. Dido rejects all hope that she can influence Aeneas' decision to leave. She laments the loss of her reputation and her virtue, and resolves to speak because, having lost everything else, "to lose words is a small thing."
Lines 7-22: Dido opens this section by reproaching Aeneas for betraying her ("will the same winds bear away your sails and your faith?"). She spends the rest of the section pointing out all the things that Aeneas is giving up in order to pursue an uncertain hope. He does not even know where these "kingdoms of Italy" are, and he could stay and rule in Carthage. Even if he finds Italy, she says, what prospect of success will he have there--"Who will give his fields to a stranger to hold?" She admits that he may find another love, "another Dido," but says that he will betray the new wife too, "having given another promise." Finally, she questions whether he will be able to "found a city as great as Carthage," and denies that he will ever find another wife to love him as much as she does.
Lines 23-34: In this section, Dido turns from Aeneas' circumstances to her own emotions. She describes her love in desperate terms ("I burn, like waxen torches covered with sulfur"), and says that Aeneas "is always in my heart." She proclaims his ingratitude, but says that she still cannot hate him, "however ill he thinks of me," and however unfaithful he has been. She appeals to Aeneas' mother, the goddess Venus, and to his brother, Cupid ("brother Love"), to soften Aeneas' heart. She ends the section by asking to be allowed at least to love Aeneas and keep him, even if he will not love her.
Lines 35-44: In this section, Dido attacks Aeneas again, saying that she was deluded and that "His nature is opposed to his mother's." She compares him to the ferocity of nature, saying he was born of "rocks and mountains," or "savage beasts," or the stormy sea. The mention of the sea draws her back to Aeneas' impending journey. The sea is stormy now, she says, and she urges him to wait for calmer weather--the sea, she says is "more just than your spirit," because it will keep Aeneas with her.
Lines 45-60: Here Dido continues elaborating on the dangers of the sea, but her emotions shift from attack to self-abasement. She is not "worth enough," she says, for Aeneas "to perish fleeing from me across the long waves." He should wait for better weather, since "soon the winds will calm." She interjects another complaint against him, wishing that he too "were changeable with the winds," and comparing his hardness to the oak tree. She then spends several lines asking why he should trust his life to the perilous and unreliable sea. She moves once more into accusation at the end of the section, reminding him that the sea "exacts penalties for treachery"; it is especially dangerous for those who have sinned against love, she says, for Venus--the goddess of love and Aeneas' own mother--is said to have been born from the sea.
Lines 61-72: In the previous sections, Dido has veered between complaint and self-blame, between accusation of Aeneas and concern for his safety. She sums up her ambivalent feelings in the first lines of this section: "Destroyed, I fear lest I destroy; wounded, I fear lest I wound--/Lest my enemy, shipwrecked, drink the waters of the sea." She then broaches the topic of her own suicide--her revenge will be for Aeneas to be blamed as "the cause of my death." She says that if he is beset by storms at sea, he will remember his betrayal of her and the her image will appear to him, "Sad and bloody, with streaming hair." Then, when it is too late, he will be sorry, with even the gods hurling thunderbolts at him for his crime.
Lines 73-86: In this section, Dido returns to the topic of delay, which she had raised two sections before, pleading with Aeneas to wait for calmer weather. She urges him at least to be concerned for the safety of his son (called both Iulus and Ascanius in this section) and of his household gods (Penates), both of whom he had saved from the fires of Troy. Then her emotions veer into attack again, and she accuses him of never having saved them at all--"you lie about everything." She brings up Creusa, Aeneas' first wife, who "died, left alone by her harsh husband," and says that she herself deserves to "burn" since she let herself be deceived by him.
Lines 87-96: She continues her attack in this section, saying that even "your gods condemn you," since they have let him wander for seven years. She reminds him of the services she rendered him: "a safe abode," and even "my throne." She then wishes that she had not gone even farther and shared a bed with him, and she curses the "sudden rain" that drove them into a cave together. She ends the section ominously, saying that even at the time she heard a voice--the dreaded Furies (Eumenides) "giving warning of my fate."
Lines 97-110: In this section, Dido for the first time brings up her former husband, Sychaeus, and the sense of her own impending death becomes more prominent. She begins by saying that she will be going to him "full of shame." She speaks of his shrine, and says that she has heard his voice calling to her from it. (The voice uses Dido's other name, "Elissa.") Then she says that she is coming to join her dead husband. The element of self-blame that appeared two sections before comes through more strongly here, and she asks Sychaeus to "give pardon" to her for being unfaithful to him. She then goes on to mitigate her fault by elaborating on its cause--Aeneas. He was "a worthy agent," with "a divine mother and aged father," and she hoped that "he would remain my rightful husband." She ends the section by saying that "there would be no cause for regret" if Aeneas had not betrayed her.
Lines 111-132: In this section, Dido laments the course of her life and the misfortunes that have attended it. Her husband was killed by her brother, and she was "driven into exile." She purchased land and founded a city, "arousing jealousy in neighboring kingdoms"; she emphasizes her vulnerability by referring to herself as "a woman and a foreigner," who was "assailed by wars." She mentions the "thousand suitors" who wanted to marry her, and the resentment she aroused by choosing "some stranger" (Aeneas) instead. She quickly moves into attacking Aeneas again, asking him why he does not "deliver me, bound, to Gaetulian Iarbas" (one of her chief suitors), or even to her brother, who wants to kill her. She ends the section by attacking Aeneas' piety, saying that he "profanes" his gods by touching them, and that the "gods regret that they escaped the fires" of Troy from which he rescued them.
Lines 133-138: In this section, she returns to the theme of her own coming death, but she adds an additional element by suggesting that she may be pregnant with Aeneas' child. She blames Aeneas for being not only the cause of her death, but the cause of the death of Iulus' (Ascanius') unborn brother, as well.
Lines 139-148: Here Dido returns to Aeneas' "destiny," and speaks of it with bitter irony. She questions the "god" who has commanded Aeneas to depart, and asks if it is the same god who has guided him while he has wandered for so long, "driven by hostile winds." She says that it would have been easier to go all the way back to Troy (Pergamum), and evokes Troy's days of greatness by mentioning Hector (the greatest of the Trojan heroes) rather than Aeneas; she compares the Troy of the past with a possible future Rome by naming their rivers-- Simois for Troy and Tiber for Rome. Once again, she points out that he will be a "stranger" if he ever does find his new home, and mockingly tells him that, at the rate he has been going, he will be an old man before he gets there, if he reaches it at all.
Lines 149-168: In this section, Dido shifts to pleading with Aeneas to stay. She points out all that he will gain if he gives up his "wandering" and stays with her. Her "dowry" will include the people of Carthage and the wealth of her brother, Pygmalion. He can bring Troy ("Ilion") to Carthage ("the Tyrian city") and rule as its king. If he seeks war, or if his son (called "Iulus" here) wants to become a great warrior, there are plenty of enemies round about. She brings her plea to a climax with a prayer. She invokes Aeneas' mother (Venus), his brother's (Cupid's) arrows, and the Penates ("gods sacred to Dardanus") which he carried out of Troy. She appeals to the welfare of the refugees who survived the fall of Troy and the happiness of Aeneas' son (called "Ascanius" this time), as well as the final rest of his deceased father ("Anchises"). After this long preamble, she asks only that he "spare" her own "house." She points out that she is not Greek ("Phthia" was the home of the Greek hero Achilles, and "Mycenae" was ruled by Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief), and that her family had not "stood against you." She ends the section by offering to give up even the title of "bride" and simply be his "hostess" or guest-friend if only he will stay with her.
Lines 169-180: In this section, Dido continues to plead with Aeneas, but now she returns to a simple request for delay. She urges her own knowledge of the conditions of the seas off the African coast; she says that she will tell him when the weather is right ("trust me to watch the weather"), and even that she "will not let you stay" when it is safe to go. She points out that "your comrades also ask for rest," and that the ships are only half-repaired. All she asks for is "a little time" for both the sea and her emotions to calm down.
Lines 181-190: In this next-to-last section, she returns to the topic of suicide. If Aeneas refuses her request, she says, she will kill herself, so that "you cannot be cruel to me any longer." She then gives a vivid portrait of herself as she writes the letter. Aeneas' sword lies in her lap; her tears run over it, but soon it will be wet with her blood. She points out the irony of his gift of a sword, and compares this "weapon" to "the wound of fierce love."
Lines 191-96: She closes the letter with an appeal to her sister, Anna, who will soon "give the last gift to my ashes." She directs that her epitaph be, not "Elissa, wife of Sychaeus," but two lines of verse which blame Aeneas for driving her to suicide.
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