Classics and Feminism: thoughts on Virgil’s Dido

Mosiac of Dido and Aeneas embracing
Why Dido is nude, I do not know. Image credit.

This semester at uni, I fell in love with Virgil. I can’t profess knowledge of the entire Aeneid, but after thirteen weeks pouring over the Latin text of Book IV, weeping with Dido in her empty halls, cursing Aeneas with every bit of invective my mind could think up, and feeling my soul being lifted into the winds alongside the Carthaginian queen’s, I can at least say that a part of the book has been permanently etched into my memory.

Those Latin classes were some of my favourite classes at uni so far, with their scansion, unreal conditional clauses, pluperfect iussive subjunctives and other grammatical delights. We had a lovely group of students and an inspiring teacher. I could continue, but the thing that fascinated me the most was the story of Book IV, and the character of infelix Dido.

For those unfamiliar with the story: The Aeneid follows the travels of Aeneas, exile from Troy after its sack by the Achaeans in Homer’s Illiad. Despised and shipwrecked by the Goddess Juno, he is washed ashore at Carthage, where the queen, Dido, takes him in and falls in passionate, but coerced, love with him. But Aeneas is destined to leave Carthage to found the city of Rome in Italy, leaving Dido behind. She curses him and his race – foreshadowing the long conflict between Rome and Carthage during the Punic wars of the 3rd and 2nd century BC – before killing herself with his sword atop a funeral pyre.

The love story between Dido and Aeneas is engrained in the western literary tradition, and yet it is a love story that is deeply unnerving. There is a tendency is classical scholarship and in popular perception to read Dido as  – to put it bluntly – whiny and irrational. In a way, Dido represents the ultimate foil to the Roman idea of virtuous masculinity and order: the dangerous, sexual, irrational feminine. But to see Dido as purely this is not in line with Virgil’s portrayal of her at all.

When I first thought of looking at Dido through a feminist lens, I was told that the idea was rubbish. How can you look at a text so distinctly about masculine power and identity, so inherently patriarchal, with feminist eyes? But of course, a feminist reading of a text doesn’t simply mean trying to re-write the female characters as feminists – to do so would be ridiculous and unethical. Instead, feminist criticism looks at how gender operates in a text, how it shapes the characters and narratives, and how masculinity and femininity are performed and valued. And Dido is a perfect character to analyse in these terms. That said, a proper analysis of gender in Book IV would be the topic of a PhD thesis, and not a blog post, so I’m just going to share a few of my thoughts on Dido, as a feminist (and I mean with me as a feminist, not Dido – that sentence would be so much less ambiguous in Latin).

In my reading of the text, Virgil is quite sympathetic to Dido. She is not simply a wailing woman, but a legitimate queen and ruler, establishing her own city, leading her people justly and decisively (1.507-508). In one of the only feminist scholarly readings of the Aeneid I have found, Barbara McManus (1997) describes Dido’s position as a ‘transgendered moment’ – where women occupy masculine space or take on masculine roles while retaining their identity as women, in a legitimate capacity. All this ends rather quickly, though, when Dido becomes caught up in Juno and Venus’ scheme to keep Aeneas in Cartharge, and is coerced by divine intervention to fall in love with Aeneas, like a deer wounded by a hunter’s arrow (4.69-74).

Book IV is called a love story, but I find it disturbing to think of it as such. Dido’s love isn’t her own, her rage and her burning desire are forced upon her and she cannot shake them off. Often in class we’d have lively discussions as to who was most wronged in this story, who suffered more, who was more cruel. Our teacher was firmly in camp Aeneas, as many are – it is Aeneas, after all, whom the work is named after, and who is driven by fate to leave and found the most glorious empire of the world. It is easy to see Dido as a vengeful, over-emotional spirit with illusions of legitimate marriage, attempting to turn Aeneas away from his fate and deny him his kingdom. It is just as easy to see Dido as a hapless victim, dragged along by a cruel and selfish Aeneas who uses her and then abandons her.

But it would be a mistake for me to take either of these views. What this whole story became for me is purely tragedy, and a moral dilemma. Book IV is the story of two people who are both denied agency over their actions and their fates. Dido is forced to fall in love with Aeneas, abandoning the building of her city, reduced to rage and passion and madness. Aeneas fares better, but only slightly better – he falls in love with Dido of his own accord, but still has no choice but to leave her in pursuit of Italy. It is impossible to come down on one side or another, or even to specify sides. From the moment Dido sets eyes of Aeneas, her heartbreak and death is inevitable, as Dido herself recognises:

felix, heu nimium felix, si litora tantum

numquam Dardaniae tetigissent nostra carinae.

‘Fortunate, but alas, too fortunate: if only the Trojan keels had never touched my shores!’ (4.657-658)

It’s debatable how sympathetic Virgil is to Dido’s loss of agency over her own life. He certainly empathises with her to some extent, setting her up as a legitimate, just ruler before the madness of love strikes her. Almost all of Book IV focuses on Dido; we hear very little of Aeneas’ own thoughts or perceptions. Part of me thinks this could be purposeful, to absolve of Aeneas of his role in the whole story by showing that it is Dido who drives its events. After all, this is not Aeneas’ finest moment either, and I feel that there is certainly a lapse of judgement on Aeneas’ part. Or perhaps the focus on Dido is simply to show sympathy for her predicament, and really highlight the reasons for the extraordinary enmity between Carthage and Rome.

Dido, despite the mad love that she is burdened with, is a formidable character, and I find that most interpretations of Book IV fail to do her justice. Whenever I reach her final speeches and her curse on Rome, I am utterly entranced. The visceral imagery, the powerful invective, the rage of her words holds me and makes my heart race. For a moment, it is as if Dido has woken from her coercion:

‘Let him plead for help, let him see the shameful deaths of his own people… let him not enjoy his kingdom or the peaceful life he has yearned for, but die before his day, and lie unburied in the midst of the wasteland (4.616-620).

One day I would like to write a re-imagined story of Dido, where sunlight catches on the blade of Aeneas’ sword and Dido suddenly sees everything clearly before her, without the mad fervour she never asked for. And then she would gracefully descend from the pyre, set it alight, take her sister’s hand and continue to build her city: content, powerful, and very much alive.

But even in the story in its original form, there is potential for feminist criticism.

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13 thoughts on “Classics and Feminism: thoughts on Virgil’s Dido

  1. I experienced a great deal of deja vu reading this (and had to double check that you are not a University of Toronto student!), because my undergraduate Latin Epics class was a similar experience for me. While the traditional interpretation seemed to be that Dido was some sort of obstacle standing between Aeneas and his Magical Destiny as the founder of the Roman people, it seemed totally unfair that such a capable woman (herself a reproach to Aeneas, as, until they met, she was doing a great job of founding a city, which he was supposed to be doing too) should be coopted by some vengeful gods as a plot device.

    It’s also interesting that Dido starts out doing “manly” things like running Carthage, but once she does the appropriately feminine thing, namely fall in love with the hero, it’s her downfall.

    On a related note, while I don’t know of any modern feminist retellings of the Dido and Aeneas story, Ursula Le Guin does have a fantastic book called Lavinia about (obviously) Lavinia and what happened after the action of the Aeneid.

    1. That is such an interesting point, helikonios – that Dido starts out in a masculine space and that becoming more feminine is her downfall. That probably has something to do with the whole Augustan context, and the role of femininity there as well. Those women, eh? I do think Dido’s character at the beginning still retains some elements of the feminine though, I’ve read her rule described as “compassionate rulership” rather than the whole detached-unemotional rulership thing.

      I adore Lavinia. That book has so much historiographical meta in it, my soul melts. 😀

  2. Hi! I know this is so random, but do you by any chance remember what title of the McManus 1997 book is? I’m writing a paper on a similar topic and I’m having trouble finding sources. Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Charley, the book is called ‘Classics and Feminism: gendering the classics’. Hope you can find a copy! What is the topic for your paper?

  3. Hi Jo,

    I really enjoyed reading your analysis of Book IV. I agree with you that when it comes to Vergil, going for a simplistic black or white answer is almost never the right path. Both Aeneas and Dido are very well-developed characters and it would not do the book justice to merely paint one as the victim in the narrative.
    I recently read a paper that I think you might find intriguing (if you haven’t already read it). It is a scholarly article by Stephen Farron that reads the Aeneas-Dido episode as Vergil’s attempt to deliberately portray Aeneas’ mission as a destructive one (mainly in the socio-political context of an imperial Rome and particularly in light of the Punic wars).

    Thanks:-)

    1. Hey, glad you liked the post and thanks for the paper recommendation! I haven’t seen it before (haven’t looked at Virgil scholarship in a while now, busy with other things), but it sounds very interesting. 🙂

  4. Very well written and thought out, I appreciate the attention to Dido and the overall complexity of the story. I wonder have you read Ovid’s Heroides? One is an imagined letter from Dido to Aeneas before climbing onto the pyre.

    1. I have indeed read (some of) the Heroides. Dido’s is particularly sad, and there are parts of Ovid’s interpretation that I really like. Dido is such a cool character, she gets used again and again in all sorts of literature, even Christian literature (Jerome likes using her, in particular).

  5. Hey, I thought this was a really good piece and really well written.
    On the terms of Virgil having built her up at the beginning.
    Do you think this could be perhaps to only see her fall further and demonstrate the awful effect that love and irrationality has. Virgil was a stoic after all and promoted reason over emotion so it may have been his own personal agenda seeping through.

    1. Glad you liked the post! (It’s been a while.) That’s certainly a possibility! It’s interesting that you don’t see much emotion on Aeneas side – perhaps that’s also Virgil’s way of giving him a bit more hero credibility, in line with Virgil’s stoic interests.

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