The Story of Dido, Queen of Ancient Carthage

Dido's Story Has Been Told Throughout History.

Dido And Aeneas
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Dido (pronounced Die-doh) is known best as the mythical queen of Carthage who died for love of Aeneas, according to the Aeneid of Vergil (Virgil). Dido was the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre. Her Phoenician name was Elissa, but she was later given the name Dido, meaning "wanderer."

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 as 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 Virgil’s Aeneid.

The Legend of Dido

The legend tells us that when the king died, Dido's brother, Pygmalion, killed Dido's wealthy husband, Sychaeus. Then the ghost of Sychaeus revealed to Dido what had happened to him. He also told Dido where he had hidden his treasure. Dido, knowing how dangerous Tyre was with her brother still alive, took the treasure, fled, and wound up in 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. When they 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. Dido then ruled Carthage as queen.

The Trojan prince Aeneas met Dido on his way from Troy to Lavinium. He wooed Dido who resisted him until 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.

The Legacy of Dido

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.

While Dido is a unique and intriguing character, it is unlikely that there was a historical Queen of Carthage. Recent archaeology, however, suggests that the founding dates suggested in historical documents could well be correct. The person named as her brother, Pygmalion, certainly did exist. If she were a real person based on this evidence, however, she could not possibly have met Aeneas, who would have been old enough to be her grandfather.