Dido Myth before Vergil
by Jack Galuchie

            In his epic poem, the Aeneid, Vergil uses the history and mythology behind the character of Dido for his own means.  After the Aeneid, Vergil’s version of Dido’s mythology became the generally accepted rendition, although the previous renderings of the Dido myth were appreciably different from his.

            Vergil’s account of the Dido myth begins with Dido welcoming Aeneas and his Trojan followers into her city of Carthage.  At some point, Dido, through the intervention of the gods, falls in love with Aeneas.  Aeneas and his companions, following a diving vision, leave Carthage and Dido without any notice.  Dido, torn apart by lovesick rage and embittered by her fate, falls on the the sword given to her by Aeneas, taking her own life.  But before she dies, Dido curses Aeneas, his family, the Trojan followers and what will become the city of Rome.  This is the Dido myth as told by Vergil, with Aeneas and an ill-begotten love added to increase the romantic and tragic element in his epic poem.

            Carthage was founded about a century before its two main rivals, Syracuse and Rome.  Traditionally, it was founded by a feminine figure called Dido.  The name Dido comes from a Semitic word that means “wanderer”.  Dido was either a woman or a local goddess.  James Davidson, in his essay Domesticating Dido: History and Historicity, writes,

            She has been a founder, a martyr, a goddess, a refugee, an abandonnata, a national hero, a luxury hotel, a trickster, a dupe, an invader, a model for rituals of human sacrifice and a paragon of fidelity. (Burden, A Woman Scorn’d: Responses to the Dido Myth, pg. 65).

To the Carthaginians, Dido was all of these things and more.  It was only after Vergil that people began to think of Dido as the abandoned lover of Aeneas and the beginning of the rivalry and hatred between Rome and Carthage.

            The first source of the pre-Vergil Dido myth is Justin, who’ in his Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, writes about the mythical founder-queen.  Justin writes that Dido’s name was originally Elissa and that “Dido” was a title added onto her name.  The name Dido is the Punic word for “virago, -inis,” which means “female warrior or heroine”.  She was bestowed with the name “Dido” posthumously because, according to Justin, preferred death to marriage with Hiarbus or Iarbus, the King of Gaetulia, a city in northern Africa.  Iarbus originally sold Dido the land that became Carthage and later courted her.   A myth is attatched to the sale of Carthage to Dido.  Iarbus, after receiving money from Dido, gave her a ox hide.  He told her that she could have all the land that could fit inside of the ox hide.  Rather than fall victim to his scheming, Dido decided to trick Iarbus himself.  She cut the ox hide into very small strips and laid them out around a large area of land.  Under their agreement, Iarbus had to give Dido all the land that fit within the ox hide.  After the death of Dido’s husband Sychaeus, Iarbus courted Dido until the time of her unfortunate death.

            According to Justin, Dido was the sister of Pygmalion, a Tyrian king.  After Pygmalion became king, Dido was wed to their uncle, Sychaeus.  Sychaeus was murdered by Pygmalion, who discovered that Sychaeus had much wealth that he hidden from Dido and Pygmalion.  Sychaeus came to Dido in a dream and told her that he had been murdered by his nephew, her brother the king.  The ghost then told Dido to leave Tyre.  After gathering her possessions and loyal citizens, Dido set sail in search of a new home.  They sailed to Cyprus, where Dido sought audience with a priest of Juno.  From Cyprus, Dido and her followers sailed to what is now the Libyan coast of North Africa.  Once there, Dido proceeded to purchase land for her followers and herself.  Once she had bought enough land for a town citadel, Dido and her followers began work on what would become Carthage.

            As Carthage grew and flourished as a city, the local kings and nobles began to grow weary.  King Iarbus then proceeded to force the Phoenician nobles to persuade Dido to marry him.  Iarbus also threatened to overrun Carthage if Dido refused his proposal of marriage.  Knowing that he city would be laid to waste if she refused, Dido consented to marry Iarbus.  But first, she asked the Phoenician nobles to allow her time to build a pyre which she would utilize in a ritual to accept the marriage proposal of Iarbus.  The pyre was built, but at the last minute, Dido, unwilling to wed Iarbus, threw herself on the  enflamed pyre, taking her own life.  In this version, Dido is a model of pure fidelity, a tradition that survived after Vergil utilized Dido as a tragic heroine of passion.  Justin also writes that Carthage was founded at least a century before the traditional date of 814/13 BC.

            Servius also adds to the pre-Vergil legend of Dido. According to him, Dido was a Phoenician word meaning ‘brave maiden’ and that the name was given to her posthumously.  Servius also writes that Dido’s given name, Elissa, is a form of the name Elath.  The name Elath is a word of Semitic origin.  Elath is also the feminine aspect of the Semitic deity, El, which means ‘Lord or god’.  Servius also points out why the Dido myth always ended with Dido throwing herself on a burning pyre.  In some traditions, Dido was partially a fertility goddess.  In Libya, fertility kings and queens were sacrificed by being placed on a burning pyre.

            The two sources for the Dido myth before Vergil are Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus and Timaeus’ Geography of the Western World.  Justin’s discourse contains crucial sections of Pompeius Trogus’ now lost Philippic History.  Both accounts tell the tale of a Tyrian princess, who after marrying her uncle Sychaeus, fell afoul of Pygmalion, the king of Tyre and her brother, was made an unhappy widow by Pygmalion.  Soon after, the ghost of Sychaeus visited Dido in a dream and told her the identity of his murderer and told her to leave Tyre before she herself was made a victim.  Justin and Timaeus both write that Dido, whom they both call Elissa, gathered her possessions and loyal Tyrian citizens who were fed up with Pygmalion’s rule.  Elissa and her followers left Tyre, sailed to the island of Cyprus and then to the north African coast.  Elissa then made a deal with the local tribe that to purchase all the land that a ox hide could encompass.  Elissa cut up the ox hide into very thin strips and tied them end to end.  This area would become the Carthaginian citadel.  As Carthage grew in importance, a local King named Iarbus forced some Phoenician nobles to help persuade Elissa to marry him.  Acting for the good of her city and as a model for fidelity, Elissa accepted the offer, but requested that a pyre be built for her to make a sacrifice in honor of the marriage.  But instead, Elissa threw herself on the burning pyre, keeping the honor of her husband Sychaeus.

            Before Vergil, the Dido myth depicts a woman that equals Lucretia in womanly value.  Dido is faithful, brave and honorable.   She chooses death over infidelity, even though her husband is deceased.  Vergil turned Dido into a heroine of passion.  Under Vergil, Dido unleashed the fury that led to the hatred and rivalry between Rome and Carthage.  Before Vergil, Dido, never fell in love with, married nor killed herself because of the Trojan prince Aeneas.  She was a hero to the Carthaginians for founding their city.  Interestingly enough, Dido was also a model for human sacrifice.  She taught by example by hurling herself onto a burning pyre, becoming a human sacrifice advocating fidelity.  In Vergil’s Aeneid, Dido does not become a martyr when she throws herself onto the burning pyre, but a tragic heroine, who cannot bear the shame of her supposed husband leaving.  In The Meridian Handbook of Classical Mythology,  Edward Tripp states that , “ Dido is a famous tragic heroine almost exclusively as a result of her sympathetic treatment by Vergil in the Aeneid,” (Tripp, pg. 201).  Before this, she was a model for women, with her chastity, fidelity and leadership.  Vergil erased all of this with his treatment of Dido in his Aeneid.

            Dido was many things before Vergil’s Aeneid.  First, her name was Elissa and she was bestowed the name Dido, which means “wanderer”, “feminine warrior or heroine”, “brave maiden, or “lord or god”.  She was either a mortal woman or a goddess, but always the founder-queen of Carthage.  In all traditions, she was the brother of Pygmalion, king of Tyre, and the widowed wife of Sychaeus, who was forced to leave her home land.  Settling in North Africa,  she bought enough land to build a citadel and eventually a city.  She then fended off the marriage proposal of Iarbus, a local king, until she could not hold out any longer.  It is at this point in the chronology of Dido that Vergil differs from the myths written out by Servius, Timaeus and Justin.  In Vergil, Dido kills herself because Aeneas, a prince on a journey to found Rome, leaves her without a word.  In all the other previous traditions, Dido killed herself rather than accept the marriage proposal of Iarbus.  At this point, Dido becomes a tragic heroine instead of a martyr.




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