Dido and Aeneas

Dido, Queen of the (Phonecian) colony of Carthage — now the city of Tunis — and Aeneas, the Trojan who, according to legend, founded the Latin people from whom Rome arose, figure in one of the most enduring tragic love stores in Western literature.

It was created by the Roman poet P. Virgilus Maro (“Virgil”) for his great latin epic The Aeneid, where it takes up all of the Fourth (of twelve) books: about 700 lines of latin hexameter poetry. I’ve made a translation of Book IV, with facing Latin and English language versions, that you can dowload here.

Click to download (3.9 MB)

Precisely why Virgil decided to create a powerful love story between the founders of two nations that, in subsequent history, would be the most bitter enemies is not clear. After all, Virigil’s aim — in which he was completely successful — was to create in the Aeneid an Epic that would celebrate the triumph of Rome, Roman civilzation and, espeically the conservative values of his patron the first Emperor of Rome, Augustus. It becomes still less clear to modern readers (and to many of the ancient audience) when you discover that the story is, in several ways, a disturbing criticism of the personality and faithfulness of Virgil’s epic hero. It even hints that Aeneas’ characteristic values of ‘piety’, duty, and steadfastness might not have been sufficient to make him an admirable or even completly trustworthy man.

This story is high-romance, but it is not a fairy-tale by any means. Dido, the Cartaginian queen — chased from her home in Tyre by a murderous brother — has against great odds carved a royal home for herself and her followers out of a hostile territory in North Africa. Lonley and passionate, she falls completely for the handsome and noble Trojan warrior who is shipwrecked on her coast and whose heroic deeds in the Trojan war years earlier is already known around the Mediterranean. Somewhat against her feelings of duty to her people and her memory of an earlier lover (killed by her brother), she courts Aeneas and, sheltering in a cave from a storm on a hunting expedition, makes love to him. She believes he has committed himself to her and she showers him with gifts and even offers him joint regency in Carthage.

Carthage, 4th C BCE — centuries after Dido before the Romans wiped it out

But Aeneas deserts her, saying only, when she confronts him at the port, that he has been commanded by the Gods to get on with his journey to Italy and the fulfillment of his ‘destiny’ as the founder of Latium. He feels really bad about this, honestly.

Dido angrily retorts that he has betrayed her and that she has betrayed herself, her dreams and her people. She curses Aeneas and his progeny (with deadly accuracy but, as is often the case with prophecy, with not quite the results she wants). Then she suicides (by knife, not by immolation) on top of a bonfire she has build in the courtyard of her own palace, bleeding-out at last on the the bed that they shared together.

It’s no wonder this story has become one of the most often re-told in poetry, music (Opera) and art in the history of Western Culture.

My translation also includes a poem from the book Heroines (“Heroides”) by P. Ovidius Naso (“Ovid”) written not many years after the appearance of the Aeneid. It’s an imaginary letter from Dido to Aeneas written just before her death. Ovid’s poem, which takes it’s clues from Virgil’s work, is a much more brutal treatment of Aeneas from Dido’s pen that spares nothing in her attach on the Trojan and ends with a bitter — and politically risky — taunt in the form of Dido’s own epitaph. It’s fascinating that Ovid entices us to sympathise with Didos’ rant without, however, quite loosing our perspective of her passion.

This was my first substantial effort at translation (June, 2021). I hope you enjoy it.

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