Dido, Queen of Carthage, coin
Dido, queen of Carthage, engraved by Alessandro Cesati, called Il Grechetto, c. 1560. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Samuel H. Kress Collection / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0) and Hachette et Cie, Paris / Wikimedia

The fabled queen of Carthage gets freed from her captivity in the cage created by the great Roman poet, Virgil.

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— Something Different —

Arma virumque cano,” Virgil began his Aeneid, the epic telling the story of the founding and glorious history of Rome: “Arms and the man, I sing.” 

The man. Of course. Rome was all about manly virtues — war, conquest, rape, enslavement, and “patriotic” assassinations galore. And Virgil, the state poet of Rome, sang of them all.

Today, as we observe International Women’s Day, let’s hear what a woman — Dido, fabled queen of ancient Carthage, eventually to become Rome’s great superpower rival — might have said about all that manly virtue, albeit channeled through the imagination of, yes, a man. Should anyone wish to turn me in to the cultural appropriation police, they’ll know where to find me. 

The central irony of the monologue that follows turns on Virgil’s treatment of Dido in his rendition of Rome’s founding story. Under contract to the Emperor Augustus, the poet needed to “explain” the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome, whitewash Rome’s bloody history, justify its imperial ambitions, and glorify the various Roman “virtues” — in sharp contrast, of course, to the depravity of the rest of the world, over which Rome would extend its bloody Pax Romana.

Virgil, poem

The Aeneid’s opening lines. Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from geralt / Pixabay

It was a tall order, but in the quasi-mythological tale of fierce Queen Dido and her entanglement with a Trojan prince named Aeneas, who had fled with his followers from the ruins of Troy, Virgil had his whole storyline: The “tempest-tossed” Aeneas is blown by the scheming gods over to Carthage in North Africa; there, he is saved by Dido, who, manipulated by the same scheming gods — Cupid shoots her with one of those little arrows — falls in love with him.

Aeneas likes his new digs and main squeeze and gets cozy, so the gods gently remind him that he has work to do and Rome to found, and had better make a new plan, Stan.

And so he leaves Dido, and she — being a woman and subject to such un-Romanly passions as grief — immolates herself on a great pyre as his ships sail for Italy. 

Thus, nicely sourced, we have the eternal enmity between Rome (First World) and Carthage (Third World), which resulted in the utter destruction of the latter. And thus we have the official creation tale of a great nation — sound familiar?

In the poem I offer here, Dido is freed from her captivity in the rhetorical cage fashioned by Rome’s great poet. She burns, of course, but gets to tell her story and question the sanity of the human perpetual growth project, as conceived by “strong” men (with a little anticipatory nod to Elon Musk and Space-X thrown in).


Arma virumque cano…  – Virgil, The Aeneid 

The curse of prophecy is mine tonight:
I knew that you would sail without a word.
This city that has slept our long love through
Arose; I heard upon the silent night
The silence of a thousand breaths held fast.
I know the call you heed — I followed it
Myself to this bare strip of land. I from
Phoenicia, you from burning Troy, we fled
Who had no other choice, and here tonight
We meet and choose.

                                      I see a god with one
Hand on your shoulder, grey stones in the hand
Hung at his side, counting out the time
In pebbles dropping one by one until
Our hour is past. You hear, and speak of gods,
The censure you received. You talk of themes,
Yours more rugged, more complete. You give
Advice, suggest that I renew the life
I had before you came; you turn your back
And swear that this is but an episode,
A snare to catch us up and cheat the gods
Their time-won chance to burn a perfect age
Into the minds of men. There will be peace
You swear, and there among its slow-drawn nights
A time for love. And quiet would I die
Unloved to grant that peace. But by the stars
You swear, Aeneas, and forget our Earth,
Her undulating seas of days that rise
To swallow cities, nations, ages whole:
Like mighty ships grown old they sink, bearing
Their treasures down in bulging caskets. No,
The loss of knowledge, like the loss of gold,
Has but this one effect upon the world:
We measure what remains as more. 

                                                             By war
Your age of gold shall come; decay and war
Shall bury it. The intervening flash
Shall show your children, brutal in their fear,
Hurling justice like a spear. Your Zeus
Would then be proud, your mission quite fulfilled.

But Zeus will perish, men will rearrange
The stars and, Heaven buckling like Troy,
The men will touch the stars and call the Moon
Their own: our midnight’s warless, loveless bride.
Regard her quiet face and know it too
Shall launch a thousand angry ships. For when
The conquerors and refugees have filled
The world and mapped its last grey mile, they shall
Begin the great celestial crawl. The time
For love will never, never come. 

                                                     We are
Alone, Aeneas: If we love, the Moon
Will neither laugh nor rage; the winds will be
No madder than they are. I speak against
Your god — the stones all drop, you turn away.

There is no destiny, no place for us
In tragic tales! Shall we be called a myth?
Shall I be acted out to illustrate
The madness of the heart? And you redrawn
To glorify some emperor at his own
Command? Let’s tread our measure now, at last
The music of this life is sweet to me —
Pretend we’re unimportant, for we are!
We’ve suffered much — here’s victory! Come,
This is our fortune, ours the memory
Of war, and ours the right to choose this love,
This home. Drop your eyes down from the stars,
Unclench your heart, Aeneas; take my hand —

The eloquence of silence? Speak — you are
Yet here. 

                Your voice a tool, your heart a slave,
What good to hold you prisoner as I might?
I let you go, Aeneas: Take away
Your gods and their grim dream. And I? Shall I
Destroy myself on your account? We queens
Make history and I have much to do —
The future raves with madness unforetold:
The clouds wheel faster than the stars, the wind
Uplifts your sails and men cry out the time
Is nearly past. 

                        Escape — a fire in
The night shall guide your ships! Aeneas look,
My city sleeps. Tomorrow it shall rise
Anew, a hammersong upon the air.

Jonathan D. Simon is a senior editor at WhoWhatWhy.

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