In Greek and Roman sources Elissa or Dido appears as the founder and first Queen of Carthage in Tunisia. She is best known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid.
The person of Elissa can be traced back at least to lost writings of the historian Timaeus of Tauromenium in Sicily (c. 356–260 BC) as referred to and used by later sources. Timaeus dated the foundation of Carthage to 814 BC (or 813 BC) but he also placed the founding of Rome in the same year which suggests legend had been at work.
Other historians gave other dates, both for the foundation of Carthage and the foundation of Rome. Appian in the beginning of his Punic Wars claims that Carthage was founded by a certain Zorus and Carchedon (but Zorus looks like an alternate transliteration of the city name Tyre and Carchedon is just the Greek form of Carthage.) Timaeus made his Elissa the sister of King Pygmalion of Tyre and modern scholars still put Pygmalion (Pumayyaton) on the throne at that time so Timaeus' date usually appears in modern chronologies as the normal dubious and legendary date for the founding of Carthage. Yet archaelogy has yet to find any evidence of settlement on the site of Carthage before the last quarter of the 8th century BC. So the whole story might be legendary or the synchronism between Elissa and Pygmalion might be legendary or archaelogists may have as yet missed important evidence for earlier settlement.
That the city is named Qart-hadasht "New City" at least indicates it was a colony. (There is another Qart-hadasht in Cyprus). The name Elissa is probably a Greek rendering of Phoenician Elishat.
The only full account that has survives before Virgil's treatment is that of Virgil's contemporary Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus in his Philippic histories as rendered in a digest or eptome made by Justin two hundred years later.
According to Justin (18.4–6), a king of Tyre whom Justin does not name made his very beautiful daughter Elissa and son Pygmalion his joint heirs. But on his death the people took Pygmalion alone as their ruler though Pygmalion was yet still a boy. Elissa married Acerbas her uncle who as priest of Hercules [that is, ] was second in power to King Pygmalion. Rumor truthfully told how Acerbas had much wealth secretly buried and King Pygmalion had Acerbas murdered in hopes of gaining the wealth. Elissa, desiring to escape Tyre, pretended to wish to move into Pygmalion's palace. But then Elissa ordered the attendants whom Pgymalion sent to aid in the move to throw all Acerbas' bags of gold into the sea as an offering to his spirit, or so it seemed. In fact the bags contained only sand. Then Elissa persuaded the attendants to join her in flight to another land rather than face Pygmalion's anger when he discovered what had supposedly become of Acerbas' wealth. Some senators also joined her.
The party arrived at Cyprus where the priest of Jupiter joined the expedition. There the exiles also seized about 80 young women who were prostituting themselves on the shore in order to provide wives for the men in the party.
Eventually Elissa and her followers arrived in Libya where Elissa asked the local inhabitants for a small bit of land for a temporary refuge until she could continue her journeying, only as much land as could be encompassed by an oxhide. They agreed. Elissa cut the oxhide into fine strips so that she had enough to use it to surround an entire nearby hill, which was therefore aftewards named Byrsa "hide". That would become their new home. Many of the locals joined the settlement and both locals and envoys from the nearby Phoenician city of Utica urged the building of a city. In digging the foundations an ox's head was found, indicating a city that would be wealthy but subject to others. Accordingly another area of the hill was dug instead where a horse's head was found, indicating that the city would be powerful in war.
But when the new city of Carthage had been established and become prosperous, Hiarbas, a native king of the Maxitani or Mauritani (mansucripts differ), demanded Elissa become his wife or he would make war on Carthage. Elissa's envoys, fearing Hiarbas, told Elissa only that Hiarbas' terms for peace were that someone from Carthage must dwell permanently with him to teach Phoenician ways and they added that of course no Carthaginian would agree to dwell with such savages. Elissa condemned any who would feel that way when they should indeed give their lives for the city if necessary. Elissa's envoys then explained that Hiarbas had specifically requested Elissa as wife. Elissa was trapped by her words. But Elissa preferred to stay faithful to her first husband and after creating a ceremonial funeral pyre and sacrificing many victims to his spirit in pretense that this was a final honoring of her first husband in preparation for marriage to Hiarbas, Elissa ascended the pyre, announced that she would go to her husband as they desired, and then slew herself with her sword. After this self-sacrifice Elissa was deified and was worshipped as long as Carthage endured. The foundation of Carthage occurred 72 years before the foundation of Rome.
Servius in his commentary on Virgil's Aeneid gives Sicharbas as the name of Elissa's husband in early tradition.
The oxhide story which explains the name of the hill must be of Greek origin since Byrsa means "oxhide" in Greek, not in Punic. The name of the hill in Punic was probably just a derivation from Semitic brt "fortified place". But that does not prevent other details in the story from being Carthaginian tradition though still not necessarily historical. Michael Grant in Roman Myths (1973) claims:
- That is to say, Dido-Elissa was originally a goddess.
- It has been conjectured that she was first converted from a goddess into a human queen in some Greek work of the later fifth century B.C.
But others conjecture that Elissa was indeed historical.
The name Dido used mostly by Latin writers seems to be a Phoenician form meaning "Wanderer" and was perhaps the name under which Elissa was most familiarly known in Carthage.
We do not know who first combined the story of Elissa with the tradition that connected Aeneas either with Rome or with earlier settlements from which Rome traced its origin.
A fragment of an epic poem by Gnaeus Naevius who died at Utica in 201 BC includes a passage which might or might not be part of a conversation between Aeneas and Dido. Servius in his commentary (4.682; 5.4) cites Varro (1st century BC) for a version in which Dido's sister Anna killed herself for love of Aeneas.
Virgil's back-references in his Aeneid generally agree with what Justin recorded. Virgil names Dido's father as Belus, this Belus sometimes being called Belus II by later commentators to distinguish him from Belus son of Poseidon and Libya in earlier Greek mythology. If the story of Elissa/Dido has a factual basis and is synchronized properly with history then this Belus stands for Mattan I who was father of the historical Pygmalion.
Virgil (1.746f) adds that the marriage between Dido/Elissa and Sychaeus, as Virgil calls Dido's husband, occurred while her father was still alive, that Pygmalion slew Sychaeus secretly and that Sychaeus appeared in a dream to Dido in which he told the truth about her death, urged her to flee the country, and revealed to her where his gold was buried. None of these details contradict Justin's account. Indeed they clarify it and are likely enough to have been part of the tale Justin was abridging.
But Virgil very much changes the import and many details of the story when he brings Aeneas and his followers to Carthage.
(1.657f) Dido and Aeneas fall in love by the management of Juno and Venus together for different reasons. (4.198f) When the rumour of the love affair comes to King Iarbas the Gaetulian, "a son of Jupter Ammon by a raped Garamantian nymph", Iarbas prays to his father, blaming Dido who has scorned marriage with him yet now takes Aeneas into the country as her lord. (4.222f) Jupiter dispatches Mercury to send Aeneas on his way and the pious Aeneas sadly obeys.
(4.450f) Dido can no longer bear to live. (4.474) Dido has her sister Anna build her a pyre under the pretence of burning all that reminded her of Aeneas, including weapons and clothes that Aeneas had left behind and their bridal bed. (4.584f) When Dido sees Aeneas' fleet leaving she curses him and his Trojans and proclaims endless hate between Carthage and the descendants of Troy. (4.642) Dido ascends the pyre, lies again on the couch which she had shared with Aeneas, and then falls on a sword that Aeneas had given her. (4.666) Those watching let out a cry; Anna rushes in and embraces her dying sister; Juno sends Iris from heaven to release Dido's spirit from her body. (5.1) From their ships, Aeneas and his crew see the glow of Dido's burning funeral pyre and suspect what has happened.
(6.450f) During his journey in the underworld Aeneas meets Dido and tries to excuse himself but Dido does not answer him. Instead she turns away from Aeneas to a grove where her former husband Sychaeus waits.
Virgil has included most of the motifs from the original: Hierbas/Jarbas who desires Dido against her will, a deceitful explanation for the building of the pyre, and Elissa/Dido's final suicide. In both versions Elissa/Dido is loyal to her original husband in the end. But whereas the earlier Elissa remained always loyal to her husband's memory, Virgil's Dido dies as a tortured and repentant woman who has fallen away from that loyalty.
Later Roman tradition
Letter 8 of Ovid's Heroides is a letter from Dido to Aeneas written just before she ascends the pyre. The situation is as in Virgil's Aeneid except that Ovid's Dido is pregnant by Aeneas. In Ovid's Fasti (3.545f) Ovid introduced a kind of sequel involving Aeneas and Dido's sister Anna. See Anna Perenna.
The Barcids, the family to which Hannibal belonged, claimed descent from a younger brother of Dido according to Silius Italicus in his Punica (1.71–7).
The Augustan History ("Tyrrani Triginta" 27, 30) claims that Zenobia queen of Palmyra in the late 3rd century AD was descended from Cleopatra, Dido and Semiramis.
In the Divine Comedy Dante sees the shade of Dido in the second circle of Hell, where she is condemned (on account of her consuming lust) to be blasted for eternity in a fierce whirlwind.
The story of Dido and Aeneas remained popular throughout the post-Renaissance era, and was the basis for the eponymous 1689 opera by Henry Purcell.
Remembrance of the story of the bull's hide and the foundation of Carthage is preserved in mathematics in connection with the Isoperimetric problem which is sometimes called Dido's Problem (and similarly the Isoperimetric theorem is sometimes called Dido's Theorem). It is sometimes stated in such discussion that Dido caused her thong to be placed as a half circle touching the sea coast at each end (which would add greatly to the perimeter) but the sources mention the thong only and say nothing about the sea.
Carthage was republican Rome's greatest rival and enemy and Virgil's Dido in part symbolises this. Even though no Rome existed in her day, Virgil's Dido curses the future progeny of the Trojans. In Italy, during the fascist Regime, her figure was demonized, perhaps not only as an anti-Roman figure but because she represented together at least three other unpleasant qualities: feminine virtue, Semitic ethnic origin, and African civilization. Her name and her memory were very feared.
As an innocuous example: when Mussolini's regime named the streets of new quarters in Rome with the characters of Virgil's Aeneid, only the name Dido did not appear.
In tragic compensation (in a sadly curious way), the British Royal Navy employed Dido-class cruisers against Italian objectives during the Second World War, seemingly a devastating justification of fascist fears.
An alternative viewpoint
An alternative viewpoint, based on Gerhard Herm’s interpretation (Die Phönizier), supported by qualified classic sources (Virgil, Ovid, Silius Italicus, Trebellius Pollio), and considering notorious weakness of Timaeus’ defamatory story, conducts to a slightly different historiographical outline (main changes on italic, followed by references):
Dido, or Elisha/Elissa, was a Phoenician Queen, founder of Carthage (a. 840–a. 760 B.C.). First-born from King of Tyre, her succession was struggled from the minor brother, Pumayyaton/Pygmalion, who murdered her husband and imposed his tyranny. Probably to avoid a civil war, she left Tyre with a large following, starting a long voyage; main stages were Cyprus and Malta [Ovid, Fasti 3.567f].
Landing on Libyan coasts, about 814 B.C., she chose a place to found a new capital city for Phoenician people: Carthage. She peacefully obtained the land by an ingenious agreement with the local Lord, today known as "Theorem of Dido". During her widowhood, she was consistently proposed by local kings; however she married again, probably with a loyal Tyrian follower, from the Barca family [Silius Italicus, Punica 1.71f, 2.239].
Dido promoted a significant religious reform (in such way analogous to Christian one, according to G. Herm), and after a long and prosperous reign, she favored the formation of a Republic [Virgil, Aeneis 1.426]; After her death, she was deified by her people with the name of Tanit and like impersonification of Great Goddess Astarte (Roman Juno) [Virgil, Aeneis 1.446f, Silius Italicus, Punica 1.81f; and among others, G. De Sanctis, Storia dei Romani].
The great Latin writer, Virgil, introduced her figure in "western" culture, through his "double writing" system (the first, more superficial, writing was intended for a national audience and viewing by Octavius Augustus, while the second one, deeper and hidden, reflecting his personal point of view and his historical reconstruction).
The cult of Tanit survived beyond Carthage's destruction by Romans, and it was introduced to Rome itself by Emperor Septimius Severus, himself born in North Africa. It was extinguished completely with the later barbaric invasions. Hannibal Barca was probably a direct descendant of Dido, and also Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, 1,000 years later, declared herself descendant and political heir of Dido [Trebellius Pollio, Tyranni Triginta 27.1, 30.2].
- H. Akbar Khan, "Doctissima Dido": Etymology, Hospitality and the Construction of a Civilized Identity, 2002.
- E.B. Atwood, Two Alterations of Virgil in Chaucer’s Dido, 1938.
- S. Conte, Dido sine veste, 2005.
- R.S. Conway, The Place of Dido in History, 1920.
- F. Della Corte, La Iuno-Astarte virgiliana, 1983.
- G. De Sanctis, Storia dei Romani, 1916.
- M. Fantar, Carthage, la prestigieuse cité d'Elissa, 1970.
- L. Foucher, Les Phéniciens à Carthage ou la geste d'Elissa, 1978.
- Michael Grant, Roman Myths, 1973.
- M. Gras/P. Rouillard/J. Teixidor, L'univers phénicien, 1995.
- H.D. Gray, Did Shakespeare write a tragedy of Dido?, 1920.
- G. Herm, Die Phönizier, 1974.
- T. Kailuweit, Dido - Didon - Didone. Eine kommentierte Bibliographie zum Dido-Mythos in Literatur und Musik, 2005.
- R.C. Ketterer, The perils of Dido: sorcery and melodrama in Vergil’s Aeneid IV and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, 1992.
- R.H. Klausen, Aeneas und die Penaten, 1839.
- G. Kowalski, De Didone graeca et latina, 1929.
- F.N. Lees, Dido Queen of Carthage and The Tempest, 1964.
- J.-Y. Maleuvre, Contre-Enquête sur la mort de Didon, 2003.
- J.-Y. Maleuvre, La mort de Virgile d’après Horace et Ovide, 1993;
- L. Mangiacapre, Didone non è morta, 1990.
- P.E. McLane, The Death of a Queen: Spencer's Dido as Elizabeth, 1954.
- O. Meltzer, Geschichte der Karthager, 1879.
- A. Michel, Virgile et la politique impériale: un courtisan ou un philosophe?, 1971.
- S. Moscati, Chi furono i Fenici. Identità storica e culturale di un popolo protagonista dell'antico mondo mediterraneo, 1992.
- R. Neuse, Book VI as Conclusion to The Faerie Queene, 1968.
- A. Parry, The Two Voices of Virgil's Aeneid, 1963.
- G.K. Paster, Montaigne, Dido and The Tempest: “How Came That Widow In?, 1984.
- B. Schmitz, Ovide, In Ibin: un oiseau impérial, 2004;
- E. Stampini, Alcune osservazioni sulla leggenda di Enea e Didone nella letteratura romana, 1893.
Selected English texts (Alternate links found in Wikipedia entries for the respective authors.)
Last updated: 10-21-2005 22:42:44