Virgil’s Aeneid gives the poetic account of the journey of Aeneas, a Trojan soldier escaping the destruction of that war. It ends with Aeneas founding Rome; but before that, it recounts an encounter between the Queen of Carthage.
This tale reads like a Roman defense for a very bloody battle that occurred between 149–146 BC. Called the Third Punic wars, Roman forces burned Carthage to the ground. Those who survived were sold into slavery, and city was completely leveled.
Virgil’s finished manuscript was completed over a century later, in 19 B.C.
So what connects this epic poem with the barbarity the Romans showed to the Carthaginians?
Perhaps all it took was one short section of the Aeneid – the tale of Dido, the founding Queen of Carthage.
As the story goes, Aeneas landed in Carthage. Upon his arrival, Queen Dido and the brave Trojan warrior Aeneas fell in love.
However, the gods had other plans for Aeneas, as they often do. His mother was the goddess Venus/Aphrodite, and the gods had decreed his fate – the fate to found Rome.
A distraught Aeneas set sail.
Dido didn’t take it very well.
She had a funeral pyre lit, grabbed Aeneas’ sword, and plunged herself on it.
However, in classic Greek fashion, she had the last word:
She predicted eternal strife between Rome and Carthage.
She pronounced this curse:
“rise up from my bones, avenging spirit” (4.625, trans. Fitzgerald).
With those words, the fate of Carthage was sealed.
Words that may or not have ever been uttered.
Either way, Carthage’s historic days were numbered. Rome and Carthage had been declared mortal enemies.
Looking back to the shore, Aeneas saw the pyre…
He knew what had happened.
But the damage was done, and he sailed away on his quest to found Rome.
Before the start of the Punic Wars, Carthage was an unrivaled sea-fairing city, controlling the waters of the Mediterranean.
Master ship builders, the Carthaginian’s building speed was unparalleled. While they didn’t have ground forces, like the Roman legion, they were reliant on the superiority of their navy.
But by the beginning the Third Punic war, the Roman’s had reverse engineered their ship designs, giving Rome the upper-hand in both naval force and land power.
Dido had summoned Strife.
Strife was on its way.
There is a relationship between war and mythology.
Of course, the tales of lore were constructed by poets and priests.
The myths of today are constructed by politicians, media spin rooms and corporate focus groups.
They can humanize or demonize entire groups of people.
Virgil seems to blame the destruction of Carthage on the angry rage of Dido, not on the machinations of the Roman Imperial war machine.
This dismissal of Dido, be she real or mythical, suggests the Carthaginians earned their just desserts: the annihilation of their city, the massacre of their population
At least, that’s how the Romans read it.
This demonization of Dido never left Roman culture.
Dante places her in the second circle of his Inferno. Her crime: passionate lust.
Her punishment: eternal wandering through a howling vortex.
Even as recently as the 20th century, this disrespect for Dido, and by extension, justification of what Rome did to Carthage, continued. Under Benito Mussolini’s regime, all of the streets in the new quarters of Rome were named after characters from the Aeneid.
All, save one: Dido.
So, was there a real Dido?
The jury is still out, but there is some compelling evidence. Her brother, Pygmalion and their grandfather, Balazeros, both show up in historic lists of the Kings of Tyre, a city in Lebanon. According to some mythic accounts, she fled for her life from Tyre, and wound up in the future site of Carthage.
In a probably more mythic narrative, she founded the city by asking a local ruler for a plot of land no larger than an ox’s hide. She then cut the hide into strips, and encircled a nearby hill by placing the strips around its base. The hill was known as Byrsa, the Greek word for Ox.
(In modern mathematics, this is commonly referred to as the “Dido problem”; how to enclose the most space within the smallest perimeter.)
So, what of Dido and Aeneas?
Could these star-crossed lovers – assuming they were real – actually have met each other?
The problem with this idea is that the destruction of Troy would have taken place long before the establishment of Carthage. Even the most generous estimates would have made Aeneas an old, old man.
So, there’s betting money on Dido, less on Aeneas, and the odds of them having been lovers are remote at best.
But that hasn’t made their story go away.
Once again, there is a relationship between war and mythology.
The tale of Dido and Aeneas makes this clear.
The Roman interpretation is equally clear.
But no matter how the Romans read it, one thing is certain;
Oppressed people the world over should consider this story in very a different light:
It’s a cautionary tale about the weaponization of mythology.
Something that is far more relevant today, far more so than it has been in a while.
Luckily, Trump isn’t Virgil,
So hopefully, his impact will be forgotten long before the Aeneid…
Author’s note: this article first appeared as “The Destruction of Carthage and the Weaponization of Mythology: Dido and Aeneas” on the Groovy-Historian website. Originally published on August 23th, 2017, this version reflects some slight modifications.