Dido vs. Aeneas: Who’s The Most Pious One of All?

Another sampling of my academic writing!


Dido vs. Aeneas: Who’s The Most Pious One of All?

            One of the most common themes cited in Virgil’s The Aeneid is piety, specifically piety in terms of dutiful obedience to the gods’ will. Many scholars would argue that Aeneas’ greatest character trait is his duty, cited frequently in Virgil’s recurring epithet, but I argue that Dido, the Carthaginian queen, was actually more obedient to the greater purpose she served. While I agree there are frequent instances of Aeneas bowing his will to serve the gods throughout the text, there are multiple instances where his natural inclination is to wish to be freed from his commitment, to move in opposition to his duty, or to momentarily forget his purpose altogether. In contrast, Dido remains steadfast to her commitment to building Carthage, to honoring her murdered husband, and to protecting her people from enemy forces, and she only fails in accomplishing these tasks due to direct interference from the gods. Within this essay, I will illustrate how Aeneas was impious to his duty on occasion, and I will point out textual evidence of Dido’s superior piety and the divine meddling that must occur to steer her off course.

The first instance of Aeneas straying from his duty to the gods is seen almost immediately in Virgil’s text, as Aeneas and his men try to escape the burning Troy by sea. When Aeolus stirs up a severe storm at Juno’s bidding and their ships encounter tragedy, Aeneas “at once . . . cries out, ‘Three, four times blest, my comrades lucky to die beneath the soaring walls of Troy–before their parents’ eyes! If only I’d gone down under your right hand’” (I.111-116). In the face of death and the loss of his men, Aeneas bemoaned his failure to die on the battlefield, and displayed fear and remorse at embarking to sea on his mission to found the new Trojan city. In a moment of fear, Aeneas did not pray for safekeeping or protection to ensure his survival and the fulfillment of his duty, but rather expressed remorse he had not died prior to its assignment. In his moment of terror, Aeneas had forgotten his purpose and obligation to the gods.

Dido, in contrast, is introduced immediately as strong-willed, and Jupiter must send Mercury down to protect Aeneas’ men by instilling “a spirit of peace and goodwill” to Queen Dido, as she and the Carthaginians would otherwise greet the Trojans with a “fiery temper” in an effort to protect Carthage (I.358-364). Dido’s commitment to the construction of Carthage is stressed multiple times by Virgil, comparing her to Diana, as she spurs “on the work of their kingdom still to come” while refusing the offers of marriage from King Iarbas and other suitors (I.607). Dido welcomes the Trojans, offering them escort to the place of their choosing, or a home of peace with her people, but this hospitality is not enough to satisfy Venus, who conspires to infect Dido with love to ensure Aeneas’ protection. Through divine manipulation, “tragic Dido” finds her memories of Sychaeus forgotten as Cupid, disguised as Aeneas’ son, “dooms [her] to a plague about to strike” (I.850). While some scholars would argue that Cupid is a metaphor for the natural process of falling in love, I argue that Virgil emphasized that Dido was “doomed . . . as she drank long draughts of love,” and that her commitment to her husband’s memory could only be swayed by divine intervention, unlike Aeneas who was frequently in doubt of his mission when fearful or unsure (I.897-899). Dido was manipulated by love, a divine force, and not by her mortal emotions.

Despite Cupid’s influence, Dido fought against the influence of the gods, determined to hold her husband’s memory and commitment to their love, begging the earth to “gape deep enough to take me down” or for “the almighty Father blast me with one bolt to the shades” to prevent her giving in to the weakness of love (IV.31-33). While scholars point to the suspended work in Carthage –“the towers of Carthage, half built, rise no more” (IV.107)– as evidence that Dido’s will was weakening to the “frenzy deep in her bones,” it was not until Juno conspired with Venus to trap the queen and Aeneas in a cave that Dido succumbed to her attraction (IV.127). I argue that Aeneas, not infected with Cupid’s curse, was an eager participant in this sordid affair–“even now they warm the winter . . . with obscene desire, oblivious to their kingdoms”–whereas divine influence, and not her will, caused Dido’s participation. For Aeneas, the affair was a conscious choice, but for Dido, it was a curse from Juno and Venus to serve their personal agendas.

Despite the affair with Aeneas, incited by divine persuasion, Dido remained dutiful to her secondary commitment: the construction and preservation of Carthage. Aeneas, on the other hand, had fully abandoned his divine duty to found a new city for Troy, and had actually committed himself to Dido’s will: helping to build homes in her city. Some scholars may argue that Virgil never identifies how long Aeneas is in Carthage­–perhaps merely a brief sabbatical on his journey–but I argue that Aeneas had completely forgotten his mission, and it took Jupiter’s anger to incite him to return. In fact, when Mercury came to deliver Jove’s message, he discovered Aeneas “founding the city fortifications,” carrying Carthaginian weaponry and wearing “a cloak of glowing Tyrian purple . . . a gift that the wealthy queen had made herself” (IV.325-329). Aeneas was, by his own admission, so in love with the queen–“Dido who means the world to him”–he would have given up the entirety of his duty to remain with her in Carthage had Jupiter not intervened (IV.360). While Dido may have been under Cupid’s spell, Aeneas acted of his own free will until Jove’s messenger caused his “hackles [to] bristle with fear,” bringing Ascanius’ Fortune into play to provoke the Trojan to return to his mission. Aeneas had not only forgotten his duty, he had forsaken it out of love for Dido.

While Virgil frequently refers to Aeneas as pious throughout the text, the protagonist is frequently doubtful of his mission, bemoaning his Fortune, or easily thrown off track by hurdles or disturbances throughout the early books of the epic. It takes divine intervention to restore his piety. Dido, in contrast, is on a committed and resolute mission to honor her husband’s memory and found the city of Carthage, and is only swayed from her duty by direct influence from the Gods, which included infecting her heart with a false love and erasing memories of her husband. Contrary to Aeneas, it takes divine intervention to break Dido’s piety. Aeneas disobeyed his orders from the gods when he began his affair with Dido, whereas Dido, unable to control the love she felt because of Cupid’s septic influence, continued to honor her secondary duty of protecting her people, soliciting Aeneas’ help in the construction of her city. Though Virgil awarded the epithet of “pious” to Aeneas, Dido proved herself to be more resolute and dutiful leader in the text, failing only when the gods meddled with her heart.
Word Count: 1206

Works Cited

Fagles, Robert. The Aeneid. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.


Thank you for reading!

~ Victoria Elizabeth




2 thoughts on “Dido vs. Aeneas: Who’s The Most Pious One of All?

  1. Pingback: Saturn | Earthpages.ca

  2. Pingback: Saturn, Christmas and child sacrifice | Earthpages.ca

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