Musings on The Aeneid – II: Carthage, Dido and Empire

Ostensibly, The Aeneid is a paean to the Roman Empire, a triumphant celebration of Roman overlordship over the known world, and a joyous vindication of Roman virtues. What, then, are we to make of Book IV, and the encounter between Aeneas and Dido, Queen of Carthage? In brief: Aeneas lands upon Carthage, and is warmly received by Dido who, herself originally a refugee, is now engaged in building a great city. By the machinations of Venus and the arrows of Cupid, Dido is made to fall passionately and irrevocably in love with Aeneas. During a hunt, they shelter in the same cave from a ferocious storm, and something – we are never told what – happens between them. Subsequently, Dido believes they are married; Aeneas’ own actions, in adopting the Carthaginian dress and customs, and himself overseeing the building of the city, suggests nothing to the contrary. Until Mercury, sent down by Jove, sternly comes to Aeneas and reminds him of his heaven-decreed mission – the founding of Rome. Struck by remorse, Aeneas determines to promptly set sail. All of Dido’s entreaties are in vain. Aeneas, courteous but firm, leaves; and Dido commits suicide by throwing herself on a funeral pyre and burning to death.

Maurice Bowra, in his From Virgil to Milton, has a straightforward explanation. The story is a synecdochic representation of the inevitable advance of Roman civilisation and Roman virtue, and the corresponding yielding of the “barbaric”. Dido, it is to be noted, is a classically Homeric character (much like Turnus, who also dies at the end of The Aeneid). Strong-willed, highly individualistic, uncontrollably passionate – all qualities that would have stood her in good stead in The Iliad or the The Odyssey, built as they are on the cult of larger-than-life individual heroes. But the Roman world, with its focus on duty, self-control and the priority of Rome over the individual, simply has no place for Homeric – barbarian – characters, and the fate of Dido is simply an inevitable – if sad – corollary to that undeniable truth.

And yet, as ever, in The Aeneid, things aren’t quite so simple. In my earlier post, I wrote about Parry’s description of the two “voices” of The Aeneid – the “public voice”, that is, the glorification of Empire – and the “private voice” that, side by side, casts doubt upon and subverts the public. In Book IV, the private voice, I think, is at its strongest.

To start with, recall who Dido is. She is the Queen of Carthage, Rome’s fiercest, deadliest and most implacable historical enemy. During the three Punic Wars, Rome came as near to its destruction as it ever during its history. Hannibal marched his army right up to the gates of the Eternal City, and it is said that even at the time of Virgil and Augustus, Roman mothers would frighten their children with tales of Hannibal. We know of Cato’s delenda est Carthago to the Senate, and we know that at the end of the third Punic War, the Romans furrowed the Carthaginian soil and sprinkled salt over it to signal their determination that Carthage would never be allowed to rise again.

With all that in the background, note lines 12 and 13 of Book I:

urbs antiqua fuit (Tyrii tenuere coloni)
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe

That is, “an ancient city there was, named Carthage/ inhabited by a colony of Tyrians.”

What is crucial to observe here is that the very first time “city” is mentioned in The Aeneid, a poem presumably about the city of Rome, it is Rome’s greatest enemy, Carthage, and what’s more, this comes immediately after Virgil’s invocation of the Muse! This, it would seem, would have had a profoundly destablising effect upon the Roman reader. And this is continued later in Book I, where the description of Carthage closely matches that of Rome. There are “marvelous buildings, gateways, cobbled ways“; there is the “din of wagons“; the building of citadels, the enactment of laws, the choosing of magistrates, and of a senate, the dredging of harbours, the building of a theater – the entire scene is compared to that of a hive of bees, and it could not be more Roman in character. Dido herself welcomes Aeneas’ company, and invites them to live in Carthage “on equal terms” with her own Tyrians. Remarking on this entire scene, Davidson puts the point beautifully:

“Virgil’s punic passages, in short, provide a perfect opportunity for the discourse of orientalism. Confronted with Carthage Flaubert comes up with Salammbo and Petrarch with his epic Africa, two monuments of Western discourse of the Eastern Other, but Virgil misses his appointment with anti-Semitism. Why isn’t Rome’s greatest enemy a cruel and foreign nation? Why isn’t Juno Tanit? Why don’t the Carthaginians practice human sacrifice? Why aren’t the Carthaginians more Carthaginian?” 

(And this is especially fascinating when one considers that historically, one of the grounds for the Roman claim of cultural superiority over Carthage was the continuing Carthaginian practice of human sacrifice.)

And if Carthage is like a Rome, then logically, Dido, as its leader and governor, exhibits quintessentially Roman virtues (until the gods intervene). She is kind and hospitable to the Trojans, and she acts in every way a ruler should – comforting them and providing them refuge. And she is also a ruler in a more general sense, as the entire building of Carthage is taking place under her supervision – she is, essentially, an ideal Roman administrator! The character of Dido is fascinating – despite being female and Carthaginian, she is depicted as a ruler, as well as possessing a strong character. In other words, she is the precise opposite of the passive vessel that is Lavinia, but neither is she villainous, like Turnus becomes, at a certain point.

But most starkly, perhaps, this sense of defamiliarisation is heightened further in the beginning of the famous cave scene:

Speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem deuenient...”

Ostensibly, this means “Dido and the Trojan leader to the cave came.” However, the word “dux” can apparently classify either “Dido” or “the Trojan”; in other words, another grammatically correct way of reading this line is “Dido the leader and the Trojan…” – and this has Dido, not only as a Carthaginian, but also as a woman, taking the lead in her interactions with Aeneas (see here for a nice analysis of the Latin grammar at issue).

So at this stage, we have Carthage, an almost Rome, and the queen, despite being Carthaginian and female, being a “leader”. The private voice is in full flow.

Not only that, Dido’s grief and fury at her abandonment by Aeneas is not simply the passion of a woman scorned. On learning that Mercury himself, at the behest of Jove, has commanded Aeneas to leave, she bursts out:

What fit employment/ For heaven’s high powers! What anxieties/ To plague serene immortals!

As this article, and many others, point out, this is not only a protest, it is a presentation of another worldview altogether, one which is opposed to the dominant theme of the Aeneid. What this suggests is the Epicurean idea of disinterested gods, who have far better things to do with their time than meddle in petty human affairs. Of course, throughout The Aeneid, on the other hand, it Aeneas’ mission is near-constantly referred to as being divinely-sanctioned and heaven-approved. While Dido’s death may represent Epicureanism’s defeat, just as it represents the defeat of the Homeric character, it is nonetheless an instance what D.P. Fowler calls “deviant focalisation” in the Aeneid – that is, the presentation of perspectives that are at variance with the narrator’s perspective, with Virgil’s perspective. To put it in a way that I think captures the issue, The Aeneid is extraordinarily susceptible to a resistant reading – or, more accurately, many resistant readings.

This is buttressed by what Feeney says, even more simply: that there is available in the Aenid, the material to construct an opposite kind of argument. A reading of Book IV will illustrate the point – Dido is far more eloquent than Aeneas. Perhaps it is now an inescapable modern sensibility speaking, a bondage within a Gadamer-esque horizon, but surely, Dido’s speeches are more convincing, more passionate, and far more beautifully spoken than Aeneas’ – whether it be about Epicureanism, or her own agony at being abandoned. So Virgil essentially gives the best lines to the very person who is supposedly destined to be pushed aside in a world that no longer has any use for her like, who is doomed from the start, whose entire raison d’etre is to only provide Aeneas with another barrier on his obstacle-laden quest for founding Rome.

And that, in summation, is why I enjoy reading The Aeneid so much, and why I think it absolutely must be on any list of great works of Western literature or, for that matter, on any to-read list. It is supposedly a song of Empire, but it makes the Empire’s greatest enemy hold up a mirror to itself. It is apparently the celebration of a man, the founder of Rome, a hero – but that man is anything but heroic, plagued as he is by self-doubt, and prone to committing morally dubious acts. It is meant to be a celebration of Roman virtues, but the so-called barbarians have the best and the most eloquent lines. And so on. The poem deals with themes crucial to the human condition, and even as it builds up one narrative, it simultaneously undermines it, directly at times, and subtly at times; perhaps Fowler exaggerates when he says that The Aeneid has as many ways of interpreting it as there are readers – but for me, that is, indeed, the core of its greatness – the multiplicity of meanings and ideas in the text, and the conflict that subsists between them, while all the time being acceptable readings and interpretations of the text itself, leaves one with no easy conclusions, and forces one to think about these things, afresh and deeply. And all the way, through the medium of unforgettable characters such as the likes of Dido, queen of Carthage. And not only this, it is especially instructive, I think, to think about how most Empire writing voluntarily or involuntarily, deliberately or reflexively, consciously or unconsciously, always casts the “Other” as fundamentally different and opposed, so that the self can be defined more sharply, more starkly, by the opposition. It is beautiful – and moving – to see how such definitions simply break down and dissolve in The Aeneid, the supposed archetype of Empire writing, how this trite, annoying play of opposites expands into something infinitely more subtle, more complex, and ultimately, non-judgmental. Like an impressionist painting, it is the reader who must complete, for himself, the full picture, from the brush-strokes and play of colours before him.

To end: some passages from Book IV, which is certainly my favourite part of The Aeneid.

Virgil on unspoken love:

Alas, what darkened minds have soothsayers!                                                                             What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers?                                                                 The inward fire eats the soft marrow away,                                                                                   And the internal wound bleeds on in silence.

Dido in agony:

“What shall I say first, with so much to say?”

She prayed then to whatever power may care                                                                                    In comprehending justice for the grief                                                                                                 Of lovers bound unequally by love.

It was not given to me to lead my life                                                                                                  Without new passion, innocently, the way                                                                                          Wild creatures live, and not to touch these depths.


Filed under Empire, Epic, Virgil

5 responses to “Musings on The Aeneid – II: Carthage, Dido and Empire

  1. It has been a while since I read the Aeneid . Yet it is ineed Book IV and Dido that is still most prominant in my mind. The portrayal of the Carthaginian Queen is indeed extroudinary. I need to reread this work soon.

  2. She’s one of those characters that endure in your memory, isn’t she? I mean, Marlowe wrote an entire play about her!

  3. Nic

    Fascinating reading (or set of readings!). I adore the Aeneid, and your post is a good example of why – the closer you look, the more interesting it gets. It repays close attention so well.

    I think there’s an instructive parallel with Turnus – or more so with Aeneas’ conduct towards Turnus. It’s a long time since I last read the Aeneid, but I was left with the feeling that while the poem is certainly prepared to admit ambivalence with regards to Turnus’ death – that unflattering description of Aeneas’ rage (IIRC the term used is furor) when he kills him – it ultimately views the act as unpalatable but necessary. Rome comes at a cost, but it’s worth the cost. Perhaps. Your reading of Dido makes me want to revisit and question my sense of that, however.

    Re. Dido and Orientalism – again, it’s been a while so my memory is hazy. Am I right in thinking that the poem has Dido start to neglect her duty once she falls for Aeneas? Is this Virgil rewriting Antony and Cleopatra as a story of the Roman screwing things up for the perfectly sensible and competent southern Mediterranean woman ruler? 🙂 Where do you think the fact that Aeneas is, in some ways, from the ‘Orient’ fits into this?

    (ps. Thanks for your comment at EA, which I’ve only just seen, and replied to!)

  4. Thanks for stopping by.

    Actually, I plan to post about Turnus next. Many commentators – such as Bowra, for instance – tend to group Turnus and Dido into the same broad category of Homeric heroes who are pushed aside by the inevitable, fate-ordained advance of Rome. And the public voice – the voice that is most dominant on the first reading – certainly does suggest that. But one classic example of subversion, for instance, is Aeneas’ own conduct in the war – in particular, his performance of human sacrifices not only during the red mist of war, but *in cold blood*. This, I think, is subversive in two ways: first, the direct parallel with Achilles, who in the Iliad sacrifices some twelve youths to appease Patroclus’ shade (IIRC), which seems to suggest that Aeneas himself has precisely those characteristics that are fatal to Dido and Turnus. And secondly – and more importantly – the Romans – as I write in my post – expressly used human sacrifices as an example to prove their own superiority, as civilised beings, to the Carthaginians. Turnus himself is a beautifully complex character, and while his uncontrollable rage does tend to make (the modern?) reader often lose his sense of empathy with him, there are many instances where there’s a clear sense of a man justifiably engaged defending his homeland and his honour. I cannot recall the exact instances at the moment – hopefully, when I write about it.

    You’re right. The classic lines:

    “The towers she started no longer rise, the young men no longer
    carry out their drill, or work on the harbour and the battlements
    for defence in war: the interrupted work is left hanging,
    the huge threatening walls, the sky-reaching cranes.”

    Once again, the Bowra school of thought holds that as long as Dido is a competent, “Roman” ruler of men, there is a place for her in Virgil’s universe; but the moment she starts showing barbaric, or “womanly” qualities, such as falling in love without care for her city, it’s time for her to be justifiably sent packing from the story and the world. But again, it’s not so simple, because in Book IV, it’s so clear that the best arguments, and the best poetry, is given to Dido – as well as the fact that her falling for Aeneas is the direct work of Venus and Cupid, and so Dido isn’t really “at fault” (to the extent that the ancients had the concept of “fault”). I don’t know if I would go so far as to attribute elevated notions of sexual egalitarianism to Virgil (especially considering that line where Mercury calls women “fickle and ever-changeable”), but he clearly isn’t the misogynist that it would appear from the purely public voice of The Aeneid.

    That’s a fascinating point about Aeneas himself being from the Orient – in fact, some scholars argue that Aeneas’ description in Book IV – when he seems to have fallen for Dido himself – strongly resembles the popular picture of Antony in Egypt. This is the scene where Mercury comes down to Aeneas, and finds him dressed in costly garments, with various jewels, and all the trappings of “Oriental” ostentation and luxury, and severely rebukes him. From my reading of The Aeneid, this is the only point at which Aeneas’ “oriental” side is mentioned or described. The Antony and Cleopatera theme is quite prevalent throughout Book IV, as a kind of underlying, never-explicit idea. It is almost as if Virgil was aware that but for a twist of fortune at Actium, he could have been engaged in writing “The Antonae” instead of a paean to Augustus.

    Lastly, my sense is that the Romans didn’t quite consider Troy to be part of the “orient” – Asia Minor, yes, Asian, certainly, but not oriental in the sense of the Persians. I could be totally off here, though.

  5. Pingback: Thinking about the Mahabharata – I: Individual Heroes in Epics | anenduringromantic

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