Dido (fl. 800 BCE)

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Dido (fl. 800 bce)

Phoenician princess. Name variations: Elissa. Flourished 800 bce; daughter of Belus, king of Tyre; sister of Pygmalion; married Sychaeus also known as Acerbas.

Daughter of Belus, king of the Phoenician city of Tyre, Dido allegedly founded the city of Carthage. While the accuracy of this claim is not confirmable, we do know that Tyre did found Carthage ("New City") on the north African coast near modern Tunis about 800 bce. If there is any truth to the myths about Dido as reported by the Greeks and Romans hundreds of years after her day, she originally was called "Elissa" and only received her famous name upon arriving in north Africa, apparently in honor of her success there after having been exiled from her native city of Tyre. (Dido perhaps means "the Wanderer.")

As most versions of her story run, Dido's brother Pygmalion succeeded their father as the king of Tyre. Thereafter, his envy over the wealth and influence of Dido's husband Sychaeus (or Acerbas, depending on what version of the myth is followed) led Pygmalion to murder his brother-in-law. As a result, Dido is reported to have fled Tyre with a body of supporters and, after landing on the African coast of the Mediterranean, founded the city of Carthage. It is possible this event meets with a moment of historical truth, for political and financial rivalries in ancient cities led with some frequency to factional conflicts which resulted in one party's expulsion into colonial activity. If something along these lines did indeed lead to Carthage's foundation, apparently the colonists transcended their initial animosity for Tyre, for the two cities maintained lucrative trading ties for centuries.

After founding Carthage, Dido is said to have met with a tragic end. In an early version of her story, she surrendered herself to flames rather than marry a Libyan king. Later, it was believed that she committed suicide when abandoned by the Trojan hero Aeneas. As this second, better known version of Dido's story has it (thanks to Virgil's Aeneid), the Trojan hero Aeneas and his band (fleeing their native city upon its destruction at the hands of the Greeks led by Agamemnon, c. 1180 bce), found themselves storm swept onto the African coast near Carthage where they went to seek sanctuary from Dido. At Carthage, in order to ensure a friendly reception for her son, the goddess Venus made Dido fall in love with Aeneas, despite Dido's previous pledge that she would ever remain faithful to her murdered first husband. For a while, as the Trojans recovered from their trials, Aeneas lived with Dido (she thought in a state of marriage) and there helped her to construct her famous city. After a time, however, propelled by the gods to abandon the woman he now loved in order to travel to Italy where he was intended to play a role in the foundation of Rome, Aeneas left Carthage and Dido without a word of explanation. (Presumably, a final confrontation with Dido would have been too painful for the dutiful Aeneas to bear.) Feeling betrayed by the lover she had saved from the sea, Dido is said thereafter to have quickly committed suicide, but not before she cursed Aeneas and his line (the eventual Romans) as her most hated enemies.

Whatever historical kernel gave rise to the Dido stories (it is particularly difficult to rationalize the 12th century bce date of Aeneas with the 9th century date of Dido), her importance as a literary figure was manifest by the mid-2nd century bce, when her curse was credited as the main cause of the Punic Wars (First 264–241, Second 218–201, and Third 148–146): Republican Rome's most traumatic conflicts, ending only with Carthage's absolute destruction. By Virgil's time (1st century bce), Dido was recognized as Rome's ultimate archenemy. As such, she represented not only the cause of the Punic Wars, but also became useful in the propaganda of Caesar Augustus, Virgil's contemporary and quasi-patron. In this latter manifestation, Aeneas (Augustus' mythological ancestor) stood for Augustus, while Dido stood for Cleopatra VII of Egypt, the enemy (along with her Roman lover, Marc Antony) overcome by Augustus whose defeat was necessary for Rome to be "refounded" as a prosperous and successful state.

William Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California