Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dido at the Extremes: Vergil's Tragic Heroine as Victim of and Threat to Rome

In the scholarship of Vergil’s The Aeneid, Dido is a bit of a divisive character. Scholars are all over the map in their interpretations of this first queen of Carthage, a woman whose intimate relationship with the Trojan hero Aeneas delays, for a full year, his journey to Italy and the inevitable founding of Rome. Some understand Dido as a Vergilian Cleopatra, a vagina détente of sorts that must be fought off in order for Aeneas to successfully fulfill his destiny. Others see her as a representation of Epicureanism, a mode of thought that Aeneas has to reject in favor of the popular Roman ideology of Stoicism. Still others perceive Dido as a tragic figure, a woman who falls deeply in love with a man who genuinely loves her in return and pursues a relationship with him despite both of their knowledge that he is destined for another fate. I argue that Dido is a victim caught in the crossfire of two goddesses: Juno, who has it out for Aeneas and would like for the queen to refuse him help when he lands on the shores of Carthage, and Venus, Aeneas’s mother, who ensures that Dido will aid in Aeneas’s mission by causing her to fall for the Trojan hero. In the end, Dido is collateral damage, sadly—but necessarily—destroyed in order to ensure the success of Aeneas’s imperialistic charge.

There are lots of ways that Vergil demonstrates his sympathy for Dido’s plight and thus paints her as a victim. The author portrays Dido as wise and cautious, but also generous and fair, in her initial dealings with Aeneas and his men: “’Ease your hearts, Trojans, put away your fears. / The threats to my new kingdom here have forced me / To carefully place guards on all the borders. / Who hasn’t heard about Aeneas’s family, / Or Troy—those brave men and the flames of war? / . . . / I’ll send you off secure and well-supplied” (17). Vergil also allows us insight into Dido’s heartbroken and humiliated consciousness when Aeneas prepares to leave Carthage a year later, in over 10 pages of the queen’s cursing herself for her foolishness to believe in Aeneas’s love and her shame in abandoning the memory of her first husband before she finally takes her own life. Most of all, Vergil depicts Dido as an ideal potential wife—at least within the context of first-century Roman culture that valued familial devotion and a patriarchal family structure.

My most persuasive bit of evidence for this claim is that Dido comes to love Aeneas through his child, Ascanius, and is therefore positioned, first and foremost, as a good potential mother. Venus gains access to Dido’s emotions by sending Cupid in the form of Ascanius to a banquet given in Aeneas’s honor soon after he lands in Carthage. Disguised as Aeneas’s son, Cupid crawls into Dido’s lap and easily captures her heart; Dido looks on Ascanius “with hunger in her heart” and is “enchanted” by the little boy (21). As was Venus’s plan all along, “unlucky Dido” then transfers her love for Ascanius to Aeneas himself (22). Had Venus hired one, a modern-day efficiency consultant would certainly have here pointed out that she could have skipped a whole step if only she had only charged Cupid to take the form of Aeneas instead of Ascanius. Or, she could have just given Aeneas a divine glow, as Athena grants to Odysseus before he meets Nausicaa (a scene that is frequently compared to Aeneas’s initial encounter with Dido, not incidentally). Desperate to protect her own child, though, Venus seems to recognize Dido’s maternal instinct as her biggest vulnerability and plans her course of action accordingly. In this way, of course, Dido is an ideal potential Roman matron, devoted to her would-be child as well as his father.

Besides loving Aeneas’s small son, Dido proves her worth as an ideal Roman wife in other ways. First of all, as any proper wife should, she expresses reluctance to abandon the memory of her dead first husband instead of carelessly entering into a relationship with Aeneas right away; as she considers a future with Aeneas, Dido suffers “an unseen flame [that] gnawed at her hour on hour” (71). Once Dido gives in to her passion for Aeneas, though, she centers her world on this would-be second husband, even neglecting her professional duties as a queen to act as a wife to Aeneas. Indeed, it seems that Dido desires for Aeneas to serve as a co-ruler of Carthage, to perhaps take over the projects that she formerly headed up, as she presents him with a visible symbol of Punic royalty, “a purple cloak with think gold stripes” (78) so like her own “purple robe,” “edged with rich embroidery” (74). Dido is clearly willing to allow Aeneas a kingship and to take her traditionally female place as second-in-command.

Portraying Dido as a potentially ideal wife who is victimized by the gods and by fate heightens the tragedy of this story, an epic which details the sacrifices and death required for the founding of an Empire and, indeed, seems in parts to question the overall worth of this venture. In this way, all of the various scholarly perceptions of Dido carry some validity. She is both a tragic figure and representative of a sort of Epicureanism, a self-indulgence unbecoming of and impractical for a man as politically important as Aeneas. And, in some ways, Dido is also a figure of the castrating bitch type, a stand-in for Cleopatra who perhaps nearly caused the downfall of Rome. Although Vergil characterizes Dido as a potentially loving and devoted mother and wife, she is also a sexually attractive and aggressive woman, and, as such, she is also a potential trap, a danger to Aeneas and, by extension, to Rome. Indeed, Aeneas must pry open the vagina détente and abandon Dido’s hold on his heart in order to reach his full potential as a true man of Rome.

Works Cited

Vergil. The Aeneid. Trans. Sarah Ruden. New Haven: Yale UP, 2008.

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