The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage

Dido's Story Has Been Told Throughout History.

Dido And Aeneas
Kean Collection / Getty Images

Dido (pronounced Die-doh) is known best as the mythical queen of Carthage who died for love of Aeneas, according to "The Aeneid" of the Roman poet Vergil (Virgil). Dido was the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre, and her Phoenician name was Elissa, but she was later given the name Dido, meaning "wanderer." Dido was also the name of a Phoenician deity named Astarte.

Who Wrote About Dido?

The earliest known person to have written about Dido was the Greek historian Timaeus of Taormina (c. 350–260 BCE). While Timaeus's writing did not survive, he is referenced by later writers. According to Timaeus, Dido founded Carthage in either 814 or 813 BCE. A later source is the first-century historian Josephus whose writings mention an Elissa who founded Carthage during the rule of Menandros of Ephesus. Most people, however, know about the story of Dido from its telling in Viergil’s Aeneid.

The Legend

Dido was the daughter of the Tyrian king Mutto (also known as Belus or Agenor), and she was the sister of Pygmalion, who succeeded to the throne of Tyre when his father died. Dido married Acerbas (or Sychaeus), who was a priest of Hercules and a man of immense wealth; Pygmalion, jealous of his treasures, murdered him.

The ghost of Sychaeus revealed to Dido what had happened to him and told her where he had hidden his treasure. Dido, knowing how dangerous Tyre was with her brother still alive, took the treasure, and secretly sailed from Tyre accompanied by some noble Tyrians who were dissatisfied with Pygmalion's rule.

Dido landed in Cyprus, where she carried off 80 maidens to provide the Tyrians with brides, and then crossed the Mediterranean to Carthage, in what is now modern Tunisia. Dido bartered with the locals, offering a substantial amount of wealth in exchange for what she could contain within the skin of a bull. After they had agreed to what seemed an exchange greatly to their advantage, Dido showed how clever she really was. She cut the hide into strips and laid it out in a semi-circle around a strategically placed hill with the sea forming the other side. There, Dido founded the city of Carthage and ruled it as queen.

According to the "Aeneid," the Trojan prince Aeneas met Dido on his way from Troy to Lavinium. He stumbled on the beginnings of the city where he had expected to find only a desert, including a temple to Juno and an amphitheater, both under construction. He wooed Dido who resisted him until she was struck by an arrow of Cupid. When he left her to fulfill his destiny, Dido was devastated and committed suicide. Aeneas saw her again, in the Underworld in Book VI of the "Aeneid." An earlier ending of Dido's story omits Aeneas and reports that she committed suicide rather than marry a neighboring king.

Dido's Legacy

While Dido is a unique and intriguing character, it is unclear whether there was a historical Queen of Carthage. In 1894, a small gold pendant was found in the 6th–7th century Douïmès cemetery at Carthage that was inscribed with a six-line epigraph that mentioned Pygmalion (Pummay) and provided a date of 814 BCE. That suggests that the founding dates listed in historical documents could well be correct. Pygmalion may reference a known king of Tyre (Pummay) in the 9th century BCE, or perhaps a Cypriot god associated with Astarte.

But if Dido and Aeneas were real people, they could not have met: he would have been old enough to be her grandfather.

Dido's story was engaging enough to become a focus for many later writers including the Romans Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) and Tertullian (c. 160–c. 240 CE), and medieval writers Petrarch and Chaucer. Later, she became the title character in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz's Les Troyennes.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Diskin, Clay. "The Archaeology of the Temple to Juno in Carthage (Aen. 1. 446-93)." Classical Philology 83.3 (1988): 195–205. Print.
  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. Print.
  • Krahmalkov, Charles R. "The Foundation of Carthage, 814 B.C. The Douïmès Pendant Inscription." Journal of Semitic Studies 26.2 (1981): 177–91. Print.
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
  • Pilkington, Nathan. "An Archaeological History of Carthaginian Imperialism." Columbia University, 2013. Print.
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography." London: John Murray, 1904. Print. 
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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).