Virgil’s Aeneid, written between 26 and 19 B.C., is Rome’s national epic. It tells how a band of Trojans, commanded by Aeneas, escapes by sea after the bloody Trojan War; the descendants of these men are the founders of Rome. The Aeneid also tells of the nearly simultaneous founding of Carthage and of Aeneas’s brief sojourn there, in the arms of Queen Dido.

Aeneas and his men sail west, encounter a furious storm and wash up on the shores of Africa. Aeneas’s tutelary goddess (and mother), Venus, then appears before the men in the guise of a huntress and tells them where they have foundered:

”You see a Punic country, men of Tyre …

Our ruler here is Dido, she who left

her city when she had to flee her brother …

Her husband was Sychaeus: the wealthiest

landowner in Phoenicia. For her father

had given her, a virgin, to Sychaeus

and joined them with the omens of first marriage.

Unhappy Dido loved him with much passion.

Pygmalion, her brother, held the kingdom

of Tyre; beyond all men he was a monster

in crime. Between Sychaeus and her brother

dividing fury came. Pygmalion—

unholy, blind with lust for gold—in secret

now catches Dido’s husband off his guard

and cuts him down by sword before the altars,

heedless of his own sister’s love …

And Dido, moved by this, prepared her flight

and her companions. Now there come together

both those who felt fierce hatred for the tyrant

and those who felt harsh fear. They seize the ships

that happen to be ready, loading them

with gold. The wealth of covetous Pygmalion

is carried overseas. A woman leads.

They landed at the place where now you see

the citadel and high walls of new Carthage

rising; and then they bought the land called Byrsa,

‘The Hide,’ after the name of that transaction

(they got what they were able to enclose

inside a bull’s skin).”

(Book 1, 477–522)

Queen Dido welcomes the exhausted refugees to Carthage, for she has heard of the “acts and heroes” of the Trojan War. Still, to ensure that the men remain unharmed, Venus causes Dido to fall in love with Aeneas, who then helps Dido build Carthage. The god Jupiter, however, becomes angry that Aeneas is dallying with Dido; he sends Mercury down to remind the Trojan leader that his destiny is to found Rome. Mercury finds Aeneas dressed in a Tyrian purple cloak woven for him by Dido and tells the Trojan leader that he must fulfill the fate ordained by the gods. Aeneas, dazed, now “burns to flee from Carthage.” When Dido finds out that he plans to leave, she becomes mad with rage: ”‘Seek out your kingdom overseas; indeed, / if there be pious powers still, I hope / that you will drink your torments to the lees / among sea rocks and, drowning, often cry / the name of Dido‘” (Book IV, 521–525). Dido then turns her rage upon herself:

But Dido, desperate, beside herself,

with awful undertakings, eyes bloodshot …

mounts in madness that high pyre, unsheathes

the Dardan sword, a gift not sought for such

an end. And when she saw the Trojan’s clothes

and her familiar bed, she checked her thought

and tears a little, lay upon the couch

and spoke her final words: “O relics, dear

while fate and god allowed, receive my spirit

and free me from these cares; for I have lived

and journeyed through the course assigned by fortune …

I shall die unavenged, but I shall die,”

she says. “Thus, thus, I gladly go below

to shadows. May the savage Dardan drink

with his own eyes this fire from the deep

and take with him the omen of my death.”

Then Dido’s words were done, and her companions

can see her fallen on the sword; the blade

is foaming with her blood, her hands are bloodstained.

(Book IV, 888–913)

Aeneas, having sailed for Italy, is unaware that Dido has killed herself, though he later hears rumors. But the two meet up again, when Aeneas journeys to the Underworld to speak to his father, Anchises, one last time. There he encounters a “forest of shadows”:

Among them, wandering in that great forest,

and with her wound still fresh: Phoenician Dido.

And when the Trojan hero recognized her

dim shape among the shadows (just as one

who either sees or thinks he sees among

the cloud banks, when the month is young, the moon

rising), he wept and said with tender love:

“Unhappy Dido, then the word I had

was true? That you were dead? That you pursued

your final moment with the sword? Did I

bring only death to you? Queen, I swear by

the stars, the gods above, and any trust

that may be in this underearth, I was

unwilling when I had to leave your shores.

But those same orders of the gods that now

urge on my journey through the shadows, through

abandoned, thorny lands and deepest night,

drove me by their decrees. And I could not

believe that with my going I should bring

so great a grief as this. But stay your steps.

Do not retreat from me. Whom do you flee?

This is the last time fate will let us speak.”

These were the words Aeneas, weeping, used,

trying to soothe the burning, fierce-eyed Shade.

She turned away, eyes to the ground, her face

no more moved by his speech than if she stood

as stubborn flint or some Marpessan crag.

At last she tore herself away; she fled—

and still his enemy—into the forest.

(Book VI, 593–622)

From The Aeneid of Virgil, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Books, 1971).