Skip to Content

Dr. Joseph Hattrup, “Queen Dido: The Heart of Fire”

Posted: February 29, 2016

A Tutor Talk by Dr. Joseph P. Hattrup

Note: Periodically members of the Thomas Aquinas College teaching faculty or chaplaincy present informal lectures, followed by question-and-answer sessions, on campus. These late-afternoon gatherings afford an opportunity for speakers to discuss topics of great interest to them and to share their thoughts with other members of the community. Dr. Joseph P. Hattrup delivered the following talk on February 24, 2016:



Dido, the queen of Carthage, refugee from the Kingdom of Tyre on the borders of the Holy Land, stands at the center of the tale told by Virgil’s Aeneid. And yet, the part she has to play in that tale is difficult to understand. In many ways, she seems like a distraction, a dodge from the main action of the poem. During his sea voyage from Troy, Aeneas discovers, in the land of Epirus, the new kingdom of little Troy established by Helenus, one of the sons of Priam, who has married the widow of Hector, Andromache. Helenus is a prophet of Apollo, and he foretells to Aeneas the chief stages that remain of the voyage of the Trojans to Italy. Everything in this prophecy proceeds in a straight line; there are no reversals predicted. And yet, when Aeneas reaches the west point of Sicily, poised to accomplish the short last stage of the voyage to the mouth of the Tiber River, everything changes. Anchises, Aeneas’ father, dies. It is hard to overstate the devastation wrought in Aeneas by this death. Half his heart goes into the underworld with the spirit of Anchises, and so only a half-hearted launch is effected from Sicily’s shores. Now, at this critical moment, Juno comes down in her wrath to destroy the Trojan fleet in a violent tempest, and Aeneas’ folk, instead of north to Italy, are driven south, down to the bottom of the world, down to Libya and Carthage.

Why? Why this unproclaimed, dampened, doomed meeting between Father Aeneas and Queen Dido? What does it mean for these two, and for the Tyrian and Trojan peoples? The answer lies in a golden apple and a wooden horse.

Last year, I undertook to show that in the Aeneid Virgil simulates, in their entirety, the plots of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura. My particular focus was to show the presence of all of the chief elements of Lucretius’ poem in Book 1 of the Aeneid. Now I want to further that project by showing that Lucretius’ poem besieges the character of Dido in Books 1 through 4 of the Aeneid and that this siege goes some way toward explaining the strife that necessarily erupts between the golden queen and Father Aeneas. To this end, I will give the sketch of an idea pertaining to the importance of Dido for the quest for Italy, and along the way I will introduce another author that I have just discovered to have had an enormous influence on the Aeneid, namely, Apollonius of Rhodes. A final goal that I have in meditating on the role of Dido in the Aeneid is to better articulate some of the central themes and characters in western literature in the 2000 years following Virgil. For example, the Dido story goes a long way in linking the actions of Part I of Don Quixote. Also, Adam and Eve in Milton’s Paradise Lost are modeled off of Aeneas and Dido. The central theme that I will bring forward in this talk, namely, the Tree of the Golden Bough standing at the entrance of the underworld, goes a long way in making this connection, and, indeed, we could say that the very notion of epic heroism is at stake, as it goes on developing in western literature.

We must first recognize that both Aeneas and Dido simulate all at once many characters in the lliad and the Odyssey. In the action at Carthage, Aeneas begins as a new Odysseus, but as the tale unfolds, he becomes a new Paris. Dido undergoes transformations that align with this change in Aeneas. When we first meet her, she is Nausikaa, the daughter of Alkinoos, king of the Phaiakians. Virgil describes her as follows:

The queen paced toward the temple in her beauty,
Dido, with a throng of men behind.
As on Eurotas Bank or Cynthus ridge
Diana trains her dancers, and behind her
On every hand the mountain nymphs appear,
A myriad converging; with her quiver
Slung on her shoulders, in her stride she seems
The tallest, taller by a head than any,
And joy pervades Latona’s quiet heart:
So Dido seemed, in such delight she moved
Amid her people, cheering on the toil
Of a kingdom in the making.

Compare this description to the description of Nausikaa, as Homer portrays her when she is first observed by Odysseus:

But when she and her maids had taken their pleasure in eating,
they all threw off their veils for a game of ball, and among them
it was Nausikaa of the white arms who led in the dancing;
and as Artemis, who showers arrows, moves on the mountains
either along Taygetos or on high-towering
Erymanthos, delighting in boars and deer in their running,
and along with her the nymphs, daughters of Zeus of the aegis,
range in the wilds and play, and the heart of Leto is gladdened,
for the head and the brows of Artemis are above all the others,
and she is easily marked among them, though all are lovely,
so this one shone among her handmaidens, a virgin unwedded.

But right away she becomes Arete, the mother of Nausikaa and the wife of Alkinoos. For as the mist hiding Aeneas dissipates and he is revealed to those present he appeals to Dido’s goodness and places his trust in her for good treatment. Odysseus appeals to Arete in this fashion. Finally, Dido transforms into Alkinoos, the host of the feast and the one who pours the libation to the gods. In this swift series of transformations we see Aeneas standing toward Dido as guest to host, but we also have present many subtle themes. First, Dido is the wise, godlike ruler of a people. But second, she is also a young marriageable woman. And so the question is immediately raised, How ought Aeneas to stand before her? Odysseus refuses marriage with Nausikaa. Aeneas also refuses marriage with Dido, but only after committing sins of lust with her. This state of affairs introduces the second set of transformations through which Dido passes.

Once Dido has been inflamed with love for Aeneas by Cupid she takes on three more roles. First, she becomes Circe, the witch-queen of the isle of Aiaia. What exactly is the comparison? Just as Circe entices Odysseus away from the quest for his home-coming, keeping Odysseus inert for a whole year, so Dido entices Aeneas away from his quest for Italy, a quest for the Trojan home-land. There is also the suggestion in this comparison that Aeneas is reduced to the life of a beast as long as he remains in Carthage. Second, Dido becomes the nymph Calypso, who “marries” Odysseus in a cave and holds him prisoner when he has manifested a strong will to return to his home. So also, Dido “marries” Aeneas in a cave and resists his sailing once he has manifested the will to leave, with speeches that are modeled on the speeches of Calypso in the Odyssey. Finally, Dido becomes Queen Helen of Sparta, the bone of contention in the Trojan War. It is in this role that she instigates, through her curse of Aeneas, the famous Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The Punic Wars, as Virgil describes them, are a new Trojan War, a continuation of the struggle between the world’s super powers.

But there is one further role that Dido plays at this point that is in some ways the most interesting of them all, partly because it is not altogether Homeric. After these two threesomes I have just enumerated, there are some questions left over concerning Dido’s character. She endures a darkness that completely overwhelms the aforementioned archetypes. First, she is an abandoned mortal bride. Calypso was abandoned by Odysseus, but not with anything like the devastation that Dido experiences. This is because of Dido’s mortality. As Juno poignantly puts it to Venus:

Covered yourself with glory, have you not,
You and your boy, and won such prizes, too.
Divine power is something to remember
If by collusion of two gods one mortal
Woman is brought low.

Second, like Circe, she is a witch; but whereas Circe is a goddess witch who seems to practice her charms by her own power, Dido is a mortal witch who must therefore practice her magic under the tutelage of some divine power, in this case the goddess Hecate, warden of infernal spirits:

The priestess,
Hair unbound, called in a voice of thunder
Upon three hundred gods, on Erebus,
On Chaos, and on triple Hecate,
Three-faced Diana. Then she sprinkled drops
Purportedly from the fountain of Avernus.
Rare herbs were brought out, reaped at the new moon
By scythes of bronze, and juicy with a milk
Of dusky venom; then the rare love-charm
Or caul torn from the brow of a birthing foal
And snatched away before the mother found it.

Finally, like Helen, Dido becomes a golden apple of discord between two great people destined to go to war; but unlike Helen she does not cause this war by abandoning her people and sailing away with the foreigners. Rather, she is left behind to curse her Paris for his infidelity to her. In this way she actually takes on the role of Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon who was sacrificed so that the Greek fleet could sail for Troy.

All of these differences between Dido and the people she represents point to a final character, a final role that she fills in Virgil’s great poem, a role with a name attached to it that is dark indeed: the name of Medea. But one cannot speak the name Medea without immediately hearing another alongside it, namely, Jason. So I will take a moment to recall the significance of these two names.

Everyone has heard of Jason and his quest for the golden fleece, but most people don’t know the whole story. It is reported in great detail in the epic poem, the Argonautica, written by Apollonius of Rhodes in the third century B.C. This poem was familiar to Virgil, and he borrows from it liberally in the first four books of the Aeneid. Actually, I would go so far as to say that this amounts to a fourth poem that Virgil simulates in its entirety. Further, just as with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the De Rerum Natura, Virgil simulates the Argonautica in reverse.

But however that may be, here is a summary of the Argonautica. Jason is a descendant of Aeolus. He is the son of Aeson, the rightful king of Iolcus in Thessaly, but Jason’s uncle Pelias, the half-brother of Aeson, has usurped the throne. In order to establish his right to rule, and to regain the throne of his father, Jason goes on his epic quest, sailing with roughly fifty of the greatest heroes in all the lore of Greece in the ship called the Argo, to obtain the fleece of a golden ram that was kept in the far eastern kingdom of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea. After a series of Odyssey-like adventures, Jason finally arrives in Colchis, but he is forced to steal the fleece since the King of Colchis, Aeetes, will not give it up. In order to do this, Jason enlists the help of Aeetes’ daughter, Medea.

The golden fleece is kept in a place called the Grove of Ares. It is spread out on an ancient oak tree, and it is guarded by a huge serpent that twines itself about the bole of the tree. It is sleepless, and so no approach to the fleece is possible except by Aeetes himself. But Medea is a witch. She puts the serpent to sleep with a sleeping potion, and Jason is able to seize the fleece. After this there are intrigues, wanderings, and battles until Jason finally brings the fleece home to Iolcus.

Now, can we manifest that Dido is a type of Medea? I think we easily can. First, we must point out three aspects of Medea in Apollonius’ Argonautica:

1) First: Venus, through her son Cupid, makes Medea to fall in love with Jason so that she will assist him in stealing the fleece. This is done at Juno’s bidding; indeed, the whole of Jason’s quest is under Juno’s peculiar patronage.

2) Second: Medea is a witch, practicing her magic arts by the power of the goddess Hecate. Indeed, since her father Aeetes is the son of Helios, the sun god, he is the brother of Circe, the daughter of the sun, and so Medea is a close relation of Circe’s. This fact is actually critical to the poem as the Argonautica proceeds.

3) Third: In order to engage her help in acquiring the fleece, Jason agrees to marry Medea, and he takes her with him when he flees her homeland.

In these marks, we see an archetype according to which Dido is fashioned by Virgil. He imitates Medea’s history, but at each step he imitates it in reverse:

1) First: Venus, through her son Cupid, makes Dido to fall in love with Aeneas so that she will assist him in his quest rather than destroy him. And here some passages will serve to reinforce the likeness. In the Argonautica we read:

“Meanwhile Eros, passing through the clear air, had arrived unseen and bent on mischief, like a gadfly setting out to plague the grazing heifers, the fly that cowherds call the breese. In the porch, under the lintel of the door, he quickly strung his bow and from his quiver took a new arrow, fraught with pain. Still unobserved, he ran across the threshold glancing around him sharply. Then he crouched low at Jason’s feet, fitted the notch to the middle of the string, and drawing the bow as far as his hands would stretch, shot at Medea. And her heart stood still.

“With a happy laugh Eros sped out of the high-roofed hall on his way back, leaving his shaft deep in the girl’s breast, hot as fire. Time and again she darted a bright glance at Jason. All else was forgotten. Her heart, brimful of this new agony, throbbed within her and overflowed with the sweetness of the pain.”

Compare this passage with the following from Book 4 of the Aeneid:

The queen for her part, all that evening ached
With longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound
Or inward fire eating her away.
The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her time and again; his looks,
His words remained in her breast to haunt her mind,
And desire for him gave her no rest.

And a little later:

Unlucky Dido, burning, in her madness
Roamed through all the city, like a doe
Hit by an arrow shot from far away
By a shepherd hunting in the Cretan woods-
Hit by surprise, nor could the hunter see
His flying steel had fixed itself in her;
But though she runs for life through copse and glade
The fatal shaft clings to her side.

So there is a strong likeness between the descriptions of the loves of Medea and Dido. Both are wounds, both are fires, and both are inflicted in order to forward the plans of Venus. But the reversal in Virgil’s version comes in Juno’s role. In the Argonautica Juno is forwarding the quest of Jason and effecting his safety. But in the Aeneid Juno is Aeneas’ sworn enemy. In Apollonius’ poem Juno puts Venus on to the work; in the Aeneid she mocks Venus for it.

2) As regards the second point, namely, Medea’s witchery, I have already pointed out that Dido takes on the character of a witch, under the power of Hecate. But again, some texts serve to show just how strong a likeness Virgil intends to draw. In Book 4 of the Aeneid we encounter an intensely interesting passage:

So broken in mind by suffering, Dido caught
Her fatal madness and resolved to die.
She pondered time and means, then visiting
Her mournful sister, covered up her plan
With a calm look, a clear and hopeful brow.
Sister, be glad for me! I’ve found a way
To bring him back or free me of desire.
Near to the Ocean boundary, near sundown,
The Aethiops’ farthest territory lies,
There giant Atlas turns the sphere of heaven
Studded with burning stars. From there
A priestess of Massylian stock has come;
She had been pointed out to me: custodian
Of that shrine named for daughters of the west,
Hesperides; and it is she who fed
The dragon, guarding well the holy boughs
With honey dripping slow and drowsy poppy.
Chanting her spells she undertakes to free
What hearts she wills, but to inflict on others
Duress of sad desires; to arrest
The flow of rivers, make the stars move backward,
Call up the spirits of deep Night. You’ll see
Earth shift and rumble underfoot and ash trees
Walk down mountainsides. Dearest, I swear
Before the gods and by your own sweet self,
It is against my will that I resort
For weaponry to magic powers.

Now, notice the presence of the dragon, or the serpent in this passage. We are told that in the far west of Africa, where Mount Atlas stands, can be found the garden of the Hesperides. Here are the trees that bear golden apples that can bestow immortality on those who eat of them. They are the trees of Juno, given to her at her marriage to Jupiter. But these trees are guarded by a great serpent, thus preventing access to them. All of these elements belong to the ancient tradition regarding the garden of the Hesperides. In fact, they all appear in the legend of the eleventh labor of Hercules. In the eleventh labor, Hercules is commanded to go to the garden and steal the golden apples. He accomplishes this task by slaying the serpent with poisoned arrows. I will come back to this episode later. But for now, consider another element of Dido’s description of the place. She says that she found there a priestess, one who practices magic arts by which she lulls the serpent to sleep. As far as I can find, there is no mention of such a priestess in the legends that Virgil would have received concerning this garden. She is, therefore, a rogue element in Dido’s account. But where does she come from? Now consider this passage from the Argonautica:

“Jason and Medea reached their goal at that late hour of night when the hunter, cutting short his sleep, sallies with his trusty hound before the glaring light of dawn can mar the quarry’s trail and spoil the scent. They landed on a lawn called the Ram’s Bed, as it was there that the ram that carried Minyan Phrixus on his back first flexed his weary knees. Near by, begrimed with smoke, was the base of the altar that Phrixus had set up to Zeus, the friend of fugitives, when he sacrificed the golden wonder, as Hermes had bidden him to do when he met him on the way. Here then, under Argus’s direction, the crew set the pair ashore.

“A path led them to the sacred wood, where they were making for the huge oak on which the fleece was hung, bright as a cloud incarnadined by the fiery beams of the rising Sun. But the serpent with his sharp unsleeping eyes had seen them coming and now confronted them, stretching out his long neck and hissing terribly. The high banks of the river and the deep recesses of the wood threw back the sound, and far away from Titanian Aea it reached the ears of Colchians living by the outfall of Lycus, the river that parts from the loud waters of Araxes to unite his sacred stream with that of Phasis and flow in company with him till both debouch into the Caucasian Sea. Babies sleeping in their mother’s arms were startled by the hiss, and their anxious mothers waking in alarm hugged them closer to their breasts.

“The monster in his sheath of horny scales rolled forward his interminable coils, like the eddies of black smoke that spring from smouldering logs and chase each other from below in endless convolutions. But as he writhed he saw the maiden take her stand, and heard her in her sweet voice invoking Sleep, the conqueror of the gods, to charm him. She also called on the night-wandering Queen of the world below to countenance her efforts. Jason from behind looked on in terror. But the giant snake, enchanted by her song, was soon relaxing the whole length of his serrated spine and smoothing out his multitudinous undulations, like a dark and silent swell rolling across a sluggish sea. Yet his grim head still hovered over them and the cruel jaws threatened to snap them up. But Medea, chanting a spell, dipped a fresh sprig of juniper in her brew and sprinkled his eyes with her most potent drug; and as the all-pervading magic scent spread round his head, sleep fell on him. Stirring no more, he let his jaw sink to the ground, and his innumerable coils lay stretched out far behind, spanning the deep wood. Media called to Jason and he snatched the golden fleece from the oak. But she herself stayed where she was, smearing the wild one’s head with a magic salve, till Jason urged her to come back to the ship and she left the sombre grove of Ares.”

Medea is the priestess that Dido is referring to, who puts the serpent to sleep indeed, but not in the Garden of the Hesperides in the far west of the world, the sunset lands, but in the Grove of Ares in the far east of the world, the lands of sunrise. And so there is here an identification, a kinship, drawn between Medea and Dido. Another passage confirms this identification. Recall these words spoken by Dido:

Chanting her spells she undertakes to free
What hearts she wills, but to inflict on others
Duress of sad desires; to arrest
The flow of rivers, make the stars move backward,
Call up the spirits of deep Night.

Here is the correlative passage from the Argonautica. In this passage, Argus, the son of Phrixus, advises Jason to seek Medea’s help in obtaining the fleece:

“There is a girl living in Aeetes’ palace whom the goddess Hecate has taught to handle with extraordinary skill all the magic herbs that grow on dry land or in running water. With these she can put out a raging fire, she can stop rivers as they roar in spate, arrest a star, and check the movement of the sacred moon.”

So it seems clear to me that we are meant to identify Dido as a sorceress not only with Circe but also with Medea. But, as we will see, this is a horrifying idea.

3) Third, and finally, we have Medea’s running away from her homeland with Jason and his people. Here, too, we have a corresponding series of acts in Dido, but we also have the most obvious reversal in Virgil’s simulation. In this sequence, we first have Dido’s flight from Tyre, her original homeland, and, second, her determination not to fly with Aeneas from Carthage. In both of these decisions of Dido, we find Medea in reverse.

The most obvious reversal is that Dido does not go with Aeneas, while Medea had gone with Jason. But Dido’s flight from Tyre is also modeled after Medea’s flight from Colchis. After the Argo sails with both Medea and the golden fleece on board, the Colchian fleet pursues them across the Black Sea, until they come to the mouth of the Danube River, called in the Argonautica the Ister. Here the Colchians get ahead of the Greeks and barricade their escape route, demanding the return of Medea. The fleet is commanded by Aeetes’ son, Apsyrtus, who is therefore also Medea’s brother.

Now we must remember that in Dido’s story, she flees Tyre from her wicked brother, Pygmalion. Pygmalion has committed a signal crime by murdering Dido’s husband Sychaeus at the altar. In the whole of the Aeneid there is hardly a crime worse than this, the murdering of a man upon the altars of the gods. The worst criminals commit this crime, with Pyrrhus in Book 2 leading the pack by killing Priam himself on the altar of the hearth gods of Troy. Worse, Pygmalion kills Sychaeus for his wealth. But before he can get it, the spirit of Sychaeus appears to Dido in a dream revealing where the gold is hidden. She takes it with a following of her people and sails as a refugee until she comes to Libya and founds Carthage.

So here it is critical to see that Dido has fled from a brother because of an act of murder committed at the altar of her household gods. In Medea’s case, the situation is reversed. Medea discovers that Jason is bargaining with her brother Apsyrtus, considering, apparently, the possibility of handing Medea over to him. Medea flies into a rage. It is interesting that her language in her speech to Jason is very like Dido’s language to Aeneas when she discovers that he is leaving her. Medea reminds Jason of the help she had rendered him in acquiring the fleece, without which he could never have accomplished the task. She goes on to prophecy that her Furies will follow him, and to pray to Juno that she will never let him reach his homeland. But then she goes on to reveal a scheme to Jason by which they might still flee together. She has a message sent to Apsyrtus requesting a private meeting with him in the middle of the night at the nearby temple of Diana. Apsyrtus comes, and Jason kills him in cold blood in the midst of the temple. With this act the Colchians are scattered, and the Argo is able to make its escape.

So it seems clear that Dido’s acts are modeled off of Medea’s. But Medea is a sorceress and a murderess, and so the likeness is deeply unsettling. But why the reversals in Virgil’s simulation? Is it not in Dido’s favor that she is fleeing from a murderer, rather than being a murderer herself? There are two reasons for the reversals. First, Dido is not wholly Medea, and this is indeed in her favor in the beginning. However, she is falling into Medea, and this is one of the principle things that terrifies us on her behalf. Of course, this claim assumes that Virgil’s audience is familiar with the Argonautica, but I think this is virtually certain, at least of Virgil’s contemporary audience. I am also arguing in this talk that if one familiarizes himself with Apollonius’ Argonautica, Virgil’s Dido story takes on an intensity that it would not otherwise do, and this is, of course, of interest in fully experiencing the tragedy. Let me just say finally that it seems to me that Dido does finally fall into Medea, when she takes her own life on the pyre that she has built in the midst of her house, a pyre that forcefully brings back to our minds both the altar on which Priam was killed and the Trojan horse itself that stands in the midst of Troy give birth to blood and death.

But what does all this have to do with Aeneas? The question with which we were concerned in the beginning was what part Dido has to play in Aeneas’ voyage as a whole. I will now consider the implications of all I have said about Dido for Aeneas and his quest for Italy. Here we must remember what is at stake in Aeneas’ coming to Italy and founding Rome: the golden age of man. Rome is called to give birth eternally to a rule of justice and mercy for the benefit of the whole world. Dido proposes to Aeneas another version of the golden age, a version that tempts him but that he must ultimately reject. This version of the golden age is rule by power based on wealth. Let us gather our images together.

Dido has brought a priestess into her court whose task is to free her of her love. The priestess comes from both the garden of the Hesperides to the far west and from the grove of Ares in the far east. Her function is to put the dragon to sleep, that is, to make the golden apples of the garden and golden fleece of the grove available to the man for whose sake she does this. If Aeneas plucks the apple he is Paris, the one who steals Helen from her homeland and begins the Trojan War. If he takes the fleece he is Jason, the one who commits murder in the temple to secure political power. The temptation to Aeneas, therefore, is to grab at the golden thing, which in this story is Dido herself. His mission is to turn away from it in order to complete his homecoming and to fulfill the will of God.

Dido as the golden apple on the one hand and the golden fleece on the other is revealed by a number of texts. First, this text from Book 1:

Soon then the godling, doing as she wished,
Happily following where Achates led,
Carried the royal gifts to the Tyrians.
He found the queen amid magnificence
Of tapestries, where she had placed herself
In the very center, on a golden couch.
Then Father Aeneas and the Trojan company
Came in to take their ease on crimson cloth.

Here we have an image of gold surrounded by crimson. It calls to mind the passage in Book 2 when Aeneas discovers Helen surrounded by the fires of Troy. Another text, now from Book 4:

Alighting tiptoe
On the first hutments, there he found Aeneas
Laying foundations for new towers and homes.
He noted well the sword hilt the man wore,
Adorned with yellow jasper; and the cloak
Aglow with Tyrian dye upon his shoulders-
Gifts of the wealthy queen, who had inwoven
Gold thread in the fabric.

Here we have the gold and crimson again, but now they are wrapped around Aeneas. In the former passage we had a kind of preview of what was going to happen to Dido because of her consuming lust. Dido the golden lady is seated in the midst of flames. So will she appear in the last scene of Book 4 as she dies upon her pyre. But in this latter text we see the theme woven into the person of Aeneas himself. Famously, Mercury blames and exhorts him, and, importantly, Aeneas listens. He turns his back on the Carthaginian life, and reconfirms himself in his quest for his homeland. Now, a third text:

The ruler here is Dido, of Tyre city,
In flight here from her brother - a long tale
Of wrong endured, mysterious and long.
But let me tell the main events in order.
Her husband was Sychaeus, of all Phoenicians
Richest in land, and greatly loved by her,
Ill-fated woman. Her father had given her,
A virgin still, in marriage, her first rite.
Her brother, though, held power in Tyre - Pygmalion,
A monster of wickedness beyond all others.
Between the two men furious hate arose,
And sacrilegiously before the altars,
Driven by a blind lust for gold, Pygmalion
Took Sychaeus by surprise and killed him
With a dagger blow in secret, undeterred
By any thought of Dido’s love. He hid
What he had done for a long time, cozening her,
Deluding the sick woman with false hope.
But the true form of her unburied husband
Came in a dream: lifting his pallid face
Before her strangely, he made visible
The cruel altars and his body pierced,
Uncovering all the dark crime of the house.
He urged her then to make haste and take flight,
Leaving her fatherland, and to assist the journey
Revealed a buried treasure of old time,
Unknown to any, a weight of gold and silver.

This passage we must read along with a brother passage in Book 2:

That time of night it was when the first sleep,
Gift of the gods, begins for ill mankind,
Arriving gradually, delicious rest.
In sleep, in dream, Hector appeared to me,
Gaunt with sorrow, streaming tears, all torn -
As by the violent car on his death day -
And black with bloody dust,
His puffed-out feet cut by the rawhide thongs...
He wasted no reply on my poor questions
But heaved a great sigh from his chest and said:
‘Ai! Give up and go, child of the goddess,
Save yourself, out of these flames. The enemy
Holds the city walls, and from her height
Troy falls in ruin. Fatherland and Priam
Have their due; if by one hand our towers
Could be defended, by this hand, my own,
They would have been. Her holy things, her gods
Of hearth and household Troy commends to you.
Accept them as companions of your days;
Go find for them the great walls that one day
You’ll dedicate, when you have roamed the sea.

Notice the close parallel between Dido and Aeneas in these passages. Both are driven from their cities by violence. Both are forced to undergo a long sea voyage into foreign lands to found new cities. Both are given commissioning dreams. But whereas Aeneas is charged to take the household gods of Troy and to found a city on them, Dido is charged to take her husband’s gold and to build a city on it. Finally, one more text, the most intense of them all:

Now she had climbed
The topmost steps and took her dying sister
Into her arms to cherish, with a sob,
Using her dress to stanch the dark blood flow.
But Dido trying to lift her heavy eyes
Fainted again. Her chest-wound whistled air.
Three times she struggled up on one elbow
And each time fell back on the bed. Her gaze
Went wavering as she looked for heaven’s light
And groaned at finding it. Almighty Juno,
Filled with pity for this long ordeal
And difficult passage, now sent Iris down
Out of Olympus to set free
The wrestling spirit from the body’s hold.
For since she died, not at her fated span
Nor as she merited, but before her time
Enflamed and driven mad, Prosperina
Had not yet plucked from her the golden hair,
Delivering her to Orcus of the Styx.
So humid Iris through bright heaven flew
On saffron-yellow wings, and in her train
A thousand hues shimmered before the sun,
At Dido’s head she came to rest. ‘This token
Sacred to Dis I bear away as bidden
And free you from your body.’ Saying this,
She cut a lock of hair. Along with it
Her body’s warmth fell into dissolution,
And out into the winds her life withdrew.

Notice how in Dido’s death scene the gift of gold for Prosperina is taken from her very substance, her hair. This scene is a foretaste of that very famous scene in Book 6 when Aeneas plucks the golden bough as a gift for Prosperina in order to enter the underworld to speak to his father, Anchises.

So I conclude that, through Dido’s associations with the trees of the golden apples in the garden of the Hesperides and with the oak tree in the grove of Ares, we are to see her in her own person as the golden thing tempting Aeneas to seize and to pluck. His taking Dido, to the degree that he does, makes him into a new Paris and so generates a new Trojan War, the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. But his turning at the last second, as it were, away from the seizing of the golden fleece, and his leaving Medea behind, determines the future of Rome.

 Joseph P. Hattrup
Isabella Hsu (’18) on discussion method

“In our classroom discussions, we are responsible for our own education. We have to get our hands dirty, to figure out the material, to let it become part of us and make us better people. That is real learning.”

– Isabella Hsu (’18)

Redondo Beach, California

“The Catholic Church may be justly proud of this unique college of Saint Thomas Aquinas on account of the high quality of its professors and its cultural contribution through philosophy and theology.”

– Giovanni Cardinal Lajolo

President Emeritus of the Governatorate

Vatican City State