Duty, Desire and Destiny form the cornerstone on which Dido’s story rests in Virgil’s Aeneid.
This brief note uses these three markers to analyse the personal and the political aspect of Dido’s character and argues that her suicide is not only that of a spurned lover but also of a defeated monarch who dies a destined death.
Duty is a strong propeller of actions of many characters in The Aeneid. Whether its Aeneas’s duty towards his people or his family. Similarly Dido, the Queen of Carthage is no exception.
Dido is presented as a responsible queen and a dutiful widow who is dutiful to the gods, her ancestors and most importantly, towards her people . She had been at the helm of affairs in Carthage ever seen her husband has died. Ever watchful of her city’s safety, she busies herself strengthening the defences. The first glimpse the readers get of the queen is when she is busy constructing the walls of Carthage to repulse any future attack and secure the safety of her kingdom and its subjects.
Duty however, is soon subverted by the presence of Desire. Queen Dido been an object of desire for numerous suitors. Conversely, her desire for love and motherhood , though repressed , finds an object in Aeneas.
Despite the God of Love himself being involved to help Desire trump over Duty when Dido meets Aeneas and make the memory of her husband fade, Amor (the god of love) is still unable to win her over by Desire alone. In fact, he sister Anna’s only argument that makes her acknowledge her affection for Aeneas actually appeals to her sense of duty: that of strengthening Carthage with the help of Trojans.
While it is true that Dido only needed an excuse as some critics have pointed out, it would nevertheless be wrong to completely dismiss the political element in her decision, especially when we consider that had Dido had forwarded the proposal of an alliance with the Trojans even before she had met Aeneas.
Nevertheless, this concoction of Duty and Desire finally dooms her because Dido is the body-politic of Carthage and her personal decisions necessarily have political ramifications.
Similarly, Dido’s childlessness is also the story of an absent heir which creates uncertainty in the political order . One might take Dido’s wish to have a “little one” as a purely maternal request. However, it becomes clear that it is not the case when one looks at the preceding lines which betray her political insecurity.
Being the ruler of a nascent state, Dido had consolidated her power by the goodwill of both the people and the surrounding rulers. This delicate political state of Carthage is highlighted by Anna when she says:
“Have you not considered in whose lands you settled here? “
She then describes the dangers surrounding them in the form of Numidians, Barcaeans, the Gaetulans and her own brother Pygmalion.
Following Aeneas’ rejection, Dido once again becomes vulnerable against her brother, incurs the fury of Iarbas and even loses the goodwill of her populace that had been her greatest strength as a ruler. There is no way out for the monarch and under such circumstances, choosing an honourable death is the most rational step that she can. Her suicide is predestined but is at the same time, a premeditated political action and not just a passionate step of a spurned lover. Indeed her words “I die unvenged …”but let die “ sets the tone of bitter rivalry between Rome and Carthage during the Punic Wars
The manner of her suicide carries phallic symbolism when she uses the naked sword of Aeneas to pierce herself, an act in which Duty, Desire and Destiny combine and culminate in a fateful climax which forever parts the personal and the political.
This is a rather nuanced understanding of Dido. Thoroughly enjoyed the read!