Virgil, Aeneid
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5. Interpretative Essays

5.1 Content and Form

Virgil’s genius manifests itself not least (some would argue: above all) in his supreme mastery of his chosen metre and, especially, in how he uses metre and formal aspects of his poetry more generally to enhance his thematic concerns. Much of Virgil’s sophistication in interrelating content and form eludes the casual reader, and even scholars in their commentaries frequently do little more than scratch the surface of what can be discovered. This is curious: unlike other aspects of Virgil’s poetry, the appreciation of formal artistry requires comparatively little prior knowledge; it is more a matter of sensibility and imagination. All you need to do is to take a good hard look at the text (which includes scanning the hexameters) and to ponder how the design reinforces theme. Just Do It! (As Nike would put it.) There is a lot to be noticed and enjoyed.

To give you some idea of the returns that sustained attention to Virgil’s poetry at the formal level (metre, verse design, lexical choices, syntax) can yield, I here offer discussions of two passages, one from Book 1, the other from Book 6. They are meant as illustrations of what a close reading of Virgil’s poetry can unearth and as encouragement to subject the verses from Aeneid 4 to similar scrutiny (or, as the case may be, interpretative overkill).

Aeneid 1.52–59: The Cave of the Winds

The first scene of actual narrative in the Aeneid, which kicks in after the extensive proem (Aen. 1.1–33), features Aeneas and his men setting out from Sicily for the Italian mainland. The sight of Aeneas about to reach his destination, however, mightily displeases Juno who sees her divinity under threat if one of her adversaries were to succeed in his quest against her wishes. So she decides to interfere. Determined to sink Aeneas’ fleet, she pays a visit to Aeolia, where the wind-god Aeolus resides, ruling the storms, which are imprisoned in a cave. Virgil’s description of the ‘Cave of the Winds’ includes the following line (Aen. 1.53):

luctantis uentos tempestatesque sonoras

– – | – – | – – | – – | – u u | – –

[The struggling winds and the noisy storms]

Here is Austin’s comment:259

A fine line, showing metrically and linguistically the noise and straining of the imprisoned winds:

•    the massive spondees (the maximum number possible),

•    the struggle of ictus and word-accent,260

•    the huge stretch of tempestatesque from the third to the fifth foot,

•    the highly charged epithet sonoras ending the line

—all combine to form a memorable sound-picture.

This is not a bad trawl of observations. But the first principle of reading Virgil holds that there is always more to see. It would indeed not be difficult to add further points:

(a) The first word of the line, i.e. luctantis (‘struggling’), contains a hint of enactment within itself: in the way Virgil has positioned luctantis within the verse, the word does exactly what it means: it struggles. The ‘struggling winds’ are thus a particularly striking contribution to the ‘struggle between ictus and word-accent’ spotted by Austin.

(b) The line is chiastic in design: attribute (luctantis) noun (uentos) noun (tempestates) attribute (sonoras).

(c) The opening phrase luctantis uentos contains all five vowels of the alphabet in topsy-turvy sequence: u, a, i, e, o. This enacts on the atomistic level of the individual letter the notion that the winds are forces of chaos—a point that acquires further depth if we recall the powerful reminiscences of Lucretius that Virgil has built into this passage.261 For Lucretius operates with a conception of the universe as consisting of elementary particles; his poem De Rerum Natura correlates the construction of the world out of atoms and the construction of poetry out of letters on a grand scale.

But this is by no means the end of the matter. The full picture only comes into view once we consider the line as part of the larger block of verses to which it belongs. Here is Virgil’s description of the Cave of the Winds in its entirety—and how it scans (Aen. 1.52–59):


[Aeoliam uenit.] hic uasto rex Aeolus antro

– uu | – uu | ]|[ – – | – – | – uu | – x


luctantis uentos tempestatesque sonoras

– – | – – | – ][ – | – – | – uu | – x


imperio premit ac uinclis et carcere frenat.

– uu | – uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x


illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis

– – | – – | – ][ – | – – | – uu | – x


circum claustra fremunt; celsa sedet Aeolus arce

– – | – uu | – ]|[ – | – uu | – uu | – x


sceptra tenens mollitque animos et temperat iras.

– uu | – ][ – | – uu | – ][ – | – uu | – x


ni faciat, maria ac terras caelumque profundum

– uu | – ][ uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x


quippe ferant rapidi secum uerrantque per auras.

– uu | – uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x

Key to scanning symbols:
– = Syllables scanning long
u = Syllables scanning short
x = The last syllable of the hexameter, which can be either short or long (anceps)
| = Demarcating the six feet of the hexameter
][ = Weak break in sense, whether caesura (in the middle of a foot) or diaeresis (at the end of a foot)
]|[ = Strong break in sense, whether caesura (in the middle of a foot) or diaeresis (at the end of a foot)


She [sc. Juno] came to Aeolia. Here in a vast cavern, king Aeolus keeps under his command the struggling winds and the roaring storms, and binds them with fetters and prison. They, in their anger, with mighty moans of the mountain, bluster around their enclosure. Aeolus sits in his high citadel, holding his sceptre, soothing their passions and tempering their rage. If he did not, they would surely carry off in utmost speed the seas and lands and the high heaven, and carry them through the air.

Virgil’s description of the cave of the wind begins after the strong diaeresis at the end of the second foot in line 52: there is a marked break between Aeoliam uenit and the subsequent excursus of interest to us here, which begins with hic in 52 and ends with auras in 59. The first thing to note is that the eight lines that partake in the description fall into four pairs of corresponding verses:

•    the second half of 52 (hic uasto rex Aeolus antro) correlates with the second half of 56 (celsa sedet Aeolus arce)

•    53 correlates with 55

•    54 correlates with 57

•    58 correlates with 59

This leaves only the first half of 56, i.e. circum claustra fremunt, without a counterpart. (There is a good reason for this: see below.) Let’s take a look at each of the pairs in turn:

(a) 52b and 56b:

The second half of line 52 (… uasto rex Aeolus antro) correlates with the second half of line 56 (… celsa sedet Aeolus arce) in both content and metrical design. In both lines, Aeolus appears in the same position, occupying the fifth foot of the verse by himself. Each time he is framed by an ablative phrase, with the attribute bridging the third and fourth foot (uasto, celsa) and modifying a noun in the sixth foot (arce, antro)—a correspondence enhanced by the fact that arce and antro are linked by alliteration and what could be called ‘topographical antithesis’: they relate to each other as polar opposites, housing, as they do, the contrary forces of cosmos (Aeolus on his citadel, celsa arx) and chaos (the winds in their cave, uastum antrum).

(b) 53 and 55:

luctantis uentos tempestatesque sonoras (53)

illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis (55)

Both lines scan exactly the same, with a weak caesura in the third foot (the technical term is ‘penthemimeres’):

– – | – – | – ][ – | – – | – uu | – x

This is again thematically fitting: both lines are about the same subject matter, namely the winds that strain in the cave, struggling to break free. Indeed, 55 is in many ways an elaboration on 53. Thus indignantes picks up luctantes: present participles both, luctantes describes the physical effort of the winds, whereas indignantes refers to their mindset. Virgil thereby supplies first an objective, and then a subjective, perspective on these natural forces, increasing the sense of personification and also providing a reason for why they struggle: indignantur ergo luctantur. Just as luctantes, indignantes features a clash between ictus and word accent (the ictus falling on -dig- and -tes, the accent on -nan-); and in stretching across three feet (first, second, beginning of third), an effect enhanced by elision with illi, the four syllable word recalls a similar verbal monstrosity in line 53, i.e. tempestatesque. Likewise, sonoras finds further articulation in magno cum murmure montis: both the attribute and the ablative phrase refer to the clamour caused by the winds. In all, then, line 55 is a magnificent continuation of the sound- picture initiated in line 53, especially in the combination of m-alliteration with assonance (ma-, -um, mur-, -mur-, mon-).262

(c) 54 and 57:

imperio premit ac vinclis et carcere frenat (54)

sceptra tenens mollitque animos et temperat iras (57)

– uu | – uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x (54)

– uu | – ][ – | – uu | – ][ – | – uu | – x (57)

While the lines do not scan exactly the same, they are still very much alike from a metrical point of view. The only differences are: (a) 54 is spondaic in the third foot, whereas 57 is spondaic in the second foot; and (b) 57 has two weak caesuras: in the second foot (after sceptra tenens) and the fourth foot (after animos).263 In both lines, the fourth, fifth, and sixth foot scan identically, and both lines, in their mixture of dactylic and spondaic feet (3:2, not counting the anceps) contrast sharply with the pair of 53 and 55 where the correlation is distinctly different: one dactylic foot (the fifth) to four spondaic ones. This contrastive correspondence on the level of metrical design has a correspondence on the thematic level: the spondaic pair of 53 and 55 is all about the winds, building up anger and energy as they strain against their prison (hence spondees are fitting, conveying a sense of the angry straining); 54 and 57 is all about Aeolus, as he controls and calms down the winds (hence dactyls suit, conveying a sense of the resolution of the penned-up energy and anger).

A sense of resolution also operates in 54 and 57 on the levels of sound and syntax. The defining feature is parallelism: in 54, we get two syntactical units in which a phrase in the instrumental ablative (imperio; vinclis et carcere) is followed by the verb (premit; frenat); in 57, we get two syntactical units in which the verb (mollit; temperat) is followed by the accusative object (animos; iras). (This leaves out sceptra tenens, to which I shall return shortly: it is the cherry of the line.) In all, the parallel design underscores the activity of Aeolus, which consists in defusing the violent uproar of the storms. The vowel pattern in mollitque animos et temperat iras, i.e., o - i - a - i - o and e - e - a, - i - a, enhance the effect in their symmetry and similarity, and so does the assonance in mol-, -mos and -rat, -ras. The two lines feature complementary approaches: 54 is all about physical force and the application of violent means of restraint (premere, frenare; uincla, carcer); 57 is all about affecting the mind-set of the storms, soothing their passions and adjusting their outlook (mollire, temperare). This pair of verses thus features a shift in emphasis that corresponds to the shift from an objective (53: luctantes) to a subjective (55: indignantes) perspective on the winds.

More generally, line 53 finds its resolution in 54 and 55 in 57: the chiastic-spondaic straining of 53 (luctantis uentos tempestatesque sonoras) yields to parallel constructions and the dactylic release of 54: imperio premit ac uinclis et carcere frenat (two units in which an instrumental ablative is followed by a verb); and the spondaic straining of 55 (illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis) yields to the dactylic release of 57: mollitque animos et temperat iras (two units in which a verb is followed by its accusative object, thus correlating chiastically with its ‘partner-verse’ 54).264 Moreover, the presence of the winds diminishes over the course of those five lines. In 53, the winds and storms are mentioned explicitly and come with modifying attributes (lucantis, sonoras); in 55, they are referred to with the demonstrative pronoun illi; and in 57 we only get a partial perspective of their mindset (animos) and their emotional state (iras), each without a modifier: the storms seem to lose their ferocity together with their attributes.

So far, we have left the opening of 57, i.e. sceptra tenens, out of consideration. To see what it is doing we need to get the entire sentence into view, beginning in the second half of 56:

… celsa sedet Aeolus arce (56)

sceptra tenens mollitque animos et temperat iras. (57)

The sentence consists of a tricolon: sedet, mollit (the -que after mollit links sedet and mollit) and temperat. The initial colon, from celsa to tenens, clearly stands apart in sense and syntax from the second and third (which are by and large identical in design). Yet overall it has the same arrangement of verb followed by noun (or here nouns: the subject Aeolus and the ablative of place arce) as mollitque animos et temperat iras. But it also contains the participle phrase sceptra tenens, which inverts this pattern: here we get the noun (the accusative object sceptra) first and the verb second (the present participle tenens). In terms of syntactic order, sceptra tenens is thus set apart from the rest of the sentence, an effect enhanced by the metre: sceptra tenens forms a metrical unit all its own, a so-called choriambus (– u u –). Significantly, the other line in the pair (i.e. 54) opens with a word, imperio, that by itself also scans as a choriambus: im- is long by position, -per- and -i- are short, and the final -o is again long. By metrical design Virgil thus suggests an affinity between imperio and sceptra tenens. This is again borne out on the thematic level: the word imperio (an ablative of means or instrument: ‘by his power of command’) and the phrase sceptra tenens (‘holding the sceptre’, as the symbol of his power of command) are virtual synonyms of one another.

Virtual, but not precise synonyms: for imperium is just as quintessentially Roman as sceptra is quintessentially Greek. Imperium, from which the English ‘empire’ derives, initially signified the right and power of the Roman magistrate to issue orders and to enforce obedience (during the late republic and early principate it then acquired the geographical meaning of empire, i.e. the region over which Rome exercised the right and power of command). The imperium wielded by the high magistrate of the res publica in the field epitomizes the Roman politics of power. The term notably recurs in the famous ‘mission statement’ in Aeneid 6.851–53 (Anchises speaking to his son, but here addressing his son’s ‘race’, the Romans, in their entirety):

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

[you, Roman, be mindful to rule the peoples with the power to command (these shall be your arts), to impose traditional order upon peace, to spare the vanquished, and to war down the proud.]

In contrast, sceptra is a loanword in Latin, deriving from the Greek skêptron. Virgil seems to have been the first Latin poet to use it. The most famous sceptre in all of Greek literature is the sceptre of Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad, which can boast of an exceedingly illustrious pedigree provided by Homer himself when he mentions the sceptre for the first time: Hephaestus wrought the sceptre for Zeus, but Zeus passed it on to Hermes (Mercurius in Latin), Hermes to Pelops, Pelops to Atreus, Atreus to Thyestes, and Thyestes to Agamemnon (Iliad 2.100–09). It is surely the sceptre of Zeus that Virgil wishes to evoke, especially since Aeolus was put in charge of the winds by Jupiter: see 1.60–63, cited below. One may note in passing that the Homeric-Odyssean counterpart of Virgil’s Aeolus, while also being put in charge of the winds by Zeus, does not wield a sceptre at all: see Odyssey 10.1–27. In all, then, Virgil associates Aeolus with the exercise of power, drawing on both Greek and Roman concepts, symbols, and traditions of rule.

(d) 58 and 59

ni faciat, maria ac terras caelumque profundum

quippe ferant rapidi secum uerrantque per auras.

– uu | – ][ uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x

– uu | – uu | – – | – – | – uu | – x

With the three previous pairings (52 ~ 56; 53 ~ 55; 54 ~ 57) at least one line from another pair intervened. With the two concluding lines Virgil discontinues this pattern, not least to achieve a sense of closure. There are two further changes: a switch from indicative to subjunctive; and the first instance of hypotaxis in the passage, the conditional sequence introduced by ni. Aeolus’ presence in these two concluding verses is reduced to the opening two words ni faciat; but the protasis exercises control over the magnificent apodosis that follows. Metre again enhances theme: ni faciat is a choriambus, and thus recalls imperio in 54 and sceptra tenens in 57: indeed ni faciat refers to the exercise of the power he wields, which finds (symbolic) articulation in his imperium and his holding of the sceptre. After the trithemimeres it is all over to the winds who are counterfactually imagined to sweep chaotically through the cosmos the way they sweep through the two lines: without break.

After this detailed analysis of the four line-pairings, we can now put the entire passage back together and see how the individual components work as a whole. What should already be self-evident is that the prevailing theme of the passage consists in the uneasy relation between Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, and the winds, his unruly subjects. Here are the verses again, with those parts highlighted in bold that concern Aeolus and those in italics that concern the winds:

hic uasto rex Aeolus antro


luctantis uentos tempestatesque sonoras


imperio premit ac uinclis et carcere frenat.


illi indignantes magno cum murmure montis


circum claustra fremunt; celsa sedet Aeolus arce


sceptra tenens mollitque animos et temperat iras.


ni faciat, maria ac terras caelumque profundum


quippe ferant rapidi secum uerrantque per auras




In quantitative terms, the distribution of verse-time given to Aeolus and the winds is fairly balanced. 53 is entirely devoted to the winds, 54 entirely to Aeolus; one-and-a-half verses devoted to the winds follow (55–56a), followed by one-and-a-half verses devoted to showing Aeolus forcing the winds into submission (56b–57). The final two lines, however, are almost entirely given over to the winds—but they describe a counterfactual scenario. Overall Aeolus does come out on top, but he is almost blown away. He gets additional attention in line 52, which also functions as the keynote, and this ensures that Aeolus dominates both the beginning and the end of the first six lines dedicated to description, in a structural enactment of the relationship that applies between him and the winds: he sits on top and controls the end, whereas the winds are imprisoned in the middle. The overall architecture of this block of verses (and the metaphor from the sphere of the visual arts seems entirely appropriate here) thus reflects the fetters (vincla) and the cave (antrum) that function as prison (carcer) of the winds, giving special prominence to who is in charge.

This structural enactment finds further amplification if we expand our analysis beyond purely quantitative considerations and bring considerations of quality into play. For while the winds get almost as much verse-time as Aeolus, that does not mean that they are his equals in terms of grammar and syntax. On the contrary: while Aeolus, when present, is present only in the subject position, the position of the winds alternates: initially, they are objects (53); then they become subjects (55–56b); but ultimately end up as objects again (57). Extrapolated, this distribution of subject and object positions assumed by Aeolus and the winds looks as follows:

52b: Aeolus (subject)
53: The winds (direct object)
54: Aeolus (subject)
55: The winds (subject)
56: The winds (subject) and Aeolus (subject)
57: Aeolus (subject) and the winds (direct object)
58: Aeolus (subject of ni-clause) and the winds (subject of main clause)
59: The winds (continuing subject of main clause)

Presented like this, the most interesting line is 56. Here, exceptionally, both the winds and Aeolus feature as subjects of a main clause: Virgil stages a moment of struggle in which the winds and Aeolus clash head-on. Two formal features reinforce the confrontation: as you will recall, the first half of 56 (circum claustra fremunt) is the only portion of the entire passage that is not tied into a correlation: it stands out and apart, unfettered if you will, and this is exactly the location in the overall design where the winds assert themselves most forcefully in their quest for freedom. And right after fremunt, we get the only truly strong caesura in the entire passage—Virgil, in other words, has inserted the most dramatic break at the metrical level at the most dramatic moment: will the winds break out, one is forced to ponder during the milli-second of suspense generated by the powerful penthemimeres, before one reads on and receives reassurance that Aeolus continues to succeed in holding the winds in check, suppressing the uproar, calming down the destructive emotions, and, in general, returning the winds from agents of their own to the status of (accusative) objects.

Still, those one-and-a-half lines of syntactical empowerment that Virgil grants the winds (as well as the level of attention they receive, which is almost equal to that of Aeolus) is typical of the Aeneid more generally and Virgil’s other poetry as well. He here offers a vignette of a pattern that shapes and recurs throughout the entire narrative, with a force of chaos challenging and threatening to overpower—always almost but never quite succeeding—a force of cosmos. Aeolus and the winds thus have counterparts in Jupiter and Juno, Aeneas and Dido, Aeneas and Turnus, Hercules and Cacus, or Apollo and the monstrous Egyptian divinities as well as Octavian and Cleopatra as depicted on the shield of Aeneas in Book 8. Virgil operates with a typological view of the world that has affinities with Manichean thought or the Chinese concept of yin and yang—though one should avoid oversimplification: the description of the cave of the winds precedes the successful bullying with bribery of Aeolus by Juno, who induces the wind-warden to unleash his charges from their prison to wreak havoc on Aeneas and his fleet.265

Still, in the end, cosmos comes out on top (this time). But make no mistake: those winds are powerful and their control requires constant effort and vigilance. Again, Virgil’s syntax enacts both aspects. The power of the winds rattles the mountain, which manifests itself in the ambiguity of reference: the genitive montis at the end of line 55 could go either with magno cum murmure in 55 or circum claustra in 56. It is perhaps best construed as belonging to both, a position of apo koinou that hints at the way the mountain groans and rattles under the impact of the straining winds enclosed therein. As for the effort: lines 52–57 contain one finite verb of which the winds are subject: fremunt (56). In contrast, Aeolus is the subject of five finite verbs: premit (54), frenat (54), sedet (56), mollit (57), temperat (57): keeping those winds in check takes some doing!266 And our final image, if in a hypothetical scenario, is of the winds returning the cosmos to chaos. Ultimately, what keeps them in check is not Aeolus at all, a minor divinity of the pantheon: it is Jupiter himself, the omnipotent divinity to rule them all and bind them all. And so the subsequent four verses are dedicated to his overlordship (Aen. 1.60–63):

sed pater omnipotens speluncis abdidit atris,
hoc metuens, molemque et montis insuper altos
imposuit regemque dedit, qui foedere certo
et premere et laxas sciret dare iussus habenas.

[But the omnipotent father hid them in dark caves, fearful of this, and piled high mountains on top of them and established a king who, under fixed contract, knew how to tighten and let loose the reins at command.]

The Cave of the Winds thus emblematically encapsulates the poetic vision (and the poetics) that informs the Aeneid as a whole. In Virgil’s literary cosmos the forces of chaos constantly lurk under the surface and strive to assert themselves, frequently succeed in doing so, but are ultimately forced into submission again in indignant defeat. Indeed, a striking lexical reminiscence links the cave of the winds to the very last line of the epic. The portrayal of the winds as indignantes subtly prefigures the death of Turnus at 12.951–52:

ast illi soluuntur frigore membra

uitaque cum gemitu fugit indignata sub umbras.

The last line scans – uu | – uu | – uu | – – | – uu | – –, with the spondaic fourth foot (indig-, with the word continuing with a third long syllable -na-) enacting the momentary struggle of Turnus to cling to life before he breathes his last. But whereas in indignantes the clash between ictus (-dig-, -tes) and word-accent (-nan-) is absolute, the same is not the case with indignata: true, the ictus on in- is out of line with the accent, but in the case of -na- ictus and word-accent mercifully coincide. The energy of the epic is finally spent—though very little is truly resolved.

Aeneid 6.5–12: The leader and the led, or Aeneas and his men at Cumae267

Aeneid 6 opens with the arrival of the Trojan fleet on the Italian shore, in the vicinity of Cumae, a Greek settlement to the northwest of Naples, famous for its legendary oracle. At this point Aeneas and his crew part company. Virgil first lingers on the crew (A. 6.5–8):

iuuenum manus emicat ardens
litus in Hesperium; quaerit pars semina flammae
abstrusa in uenis silicis, pars densa ferarum
tecta rapit siluas inuentaque flumina monstrat.

[The band of young men darts eagerly onto the Hesperian shore; some seek the seeds of fire hidden in veins of flint; some ravish the woods, the thick homes of wild beasts, and point out newly-discovered streams.]

The lines invoke a charming scene of buzzing excitement: the young men jump onto the land, fetch wood and water, light fires and marvel at the landscape. Note how Virgil breaks down the crowd:

(a) we first get the collective: iuuenum manus emicat

(b) this manus is broken down into two parts: parspars

(c) but Virgil uses a tricolon to describe the activities of the two partes: quaerit parspars rapit (et) monstrat (the design between the first and the second and third colon is chiastic: verb—subject: subject—verb(s).

The emphasis is on proliferation and differentiation of groups of individuals who remain entirely faceless. The activities the men engage in are utterly banal, concerning the basic needs of daily life. The quotidian and unremarkable efforts have their counterpart in the indeterminate geography: the woods and rivers that form the backdrop to their doings remain unnamed. Virgil has chosen plain paratactic syntax to describe their hustle: emicat - quaerit - rapit - monstrat. What is almost entirely absent from these lines is alliteration. This makes sense: alliteration links words and phrases and underscores thematic coherence by means of stylistic coherence. But Aeneas’ crew-members are all over the place as they rove through the landscape and chatter excitedly. In this light, his use of recherché images to describe the objects of their attention resonates with good-humoured irony:

(a) semina flammae abstrusa in uenis silicis

(b) densa ferarum tecta, siluas

The phrase inuentaque flumina monstrat brings the excitement to a close by means of a descending number of syllables 4 (inuentaque), 3 (flumina), 2 (siluas).268 The note of closure sets the scene for a switch in focus (A. 6.9-12):

at pius Aeneas arces quibus altus Apollo
praesidet horrendaeque procul secreta Sibyllae,
antrum immane, petit, magnam cui mentem animumque
Delius inspirat uates aperitque futura.

[But faithful Aeneas heads for the citadel over which high Apollo presides and the distant and secluded recess—a vast cave—of the dread Sibyl, into whom the Delian seer breathes an enlarged mind and soul and reveals the future.]

The opening at sets up a contrast between these four lines and the previous ones that operates on several levels. To begin with, there is the distinction between Aeneas in the resplendent glory of his epic epithet pius and his faceless men. While they collectively go on a random ramble through the indistinct landscape of Italy, taking care of subsistence with practical skills, Aeneas’ movements are oriented towards a higher goal. With purpose he seeks out (petit) a specific location of supreme religious import, the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae. Later on in the text it becomes clear that Aeneas is not alone in his quest, but Virgil for the time being chooses to suppress his entourage.269 What we get is (regal) power in search of (divine) knowledge.

Virgil underscores the distinction between the leader and the led through a variety of stylistic devices. The horizontal topography mapped out in the previous lines yields to vertical imagery that functions both on the literal and the metaphorical level. Terms such as arces, altus, praesidet and antrum suggest, not unlike the Cave of the Winds, which also features the contrast of arx and antrum, a natural architecture that stretches from the top to the bottom of the universe. This architecture finds its social correlative in hierarchies of power, especially the power Apollo wields over the Sibyl. In terms of syntax, there is a switch from parataxis to hypotaxis. In contrast to the sequence of four main verbs used of the crew, Virgil uses only one verb with reference to Aeneas—petit—perfectly suited to convey a clear sense of purpose and direction; yet this main clause is embedded within a hypotactic environment. The plain subject—object formations Virgil used of the crew give way to an elaborate construction dominated by two subordinate clauses that specify complex relationships of domination as well as the existence of something above ordinary human experience: the cave of the Sibyl belongs into the world of the gods. a- and -p-alliteration (Aeneas, arces, altus, Apollo, antrum; pius, praesidet, procul, petit) as well as m- and n-assonance (antrum, immane, magnam, mentem, animum) reinforce the thematic concerns on the acoustic level.

In all, the design of the verses devoted to Aeneas reinforces issues of power and knowledge, hierarchy and order, participation in divine wisdom and orientation in time and space—the building blocks, in short, of a political theology in which two figures assume positions of special prominence: the king, a privileged representative of his community; and the prophet, who functions as intermediary between the human and the divine sphere. The characters who take up these positions in the poem, namely Aeneas and the Sibyl, have counterparts outside the text: Augustus and Virgil.

5.2 Historiographical Dido

It is a sober truth: most of the literary production of Greek and Roman antiquity has vanished beyond recovery. Before the advent of printing and the possibility of mass production or, more recently, the IT-revolution and the attendant explosion in storage capacity, the transmission of a Greek or Latin text depended on its being painstakingly transcribed by hand, word for word, copy for copy. The labour-intensity of this process entailed a high degree of discrimination: premodern cultures picked and chose those texts for copying and transmission that they wished to preserve and cultivate for a particular purpose, consigning others, which they considered less important, to the margins. Copies of those works that did not attract continuous attention mouldered away in libraries or private collections before eventually disappearing altogether. Canons, like our canon of classical texts, are thus invariably selective. As a result, those texts that have survived in full exercise a special power over our minds and imagination. They continue to speak loud and clear—indeed often louder and clearer than they did initially since alternative voices that once challenged or even contradicted them have long since been silenced.

Canonical texts frequently determine which mythic variant or interpretation of a legendary figure enjoy hegemonic status within a cultural tradition—even when the version they broadcast constituted, at the time of composition, a sharp departure from orthodoxy. It is of course the case that the ‘correct’ version of a traditional story does not exist: authors working with legendary tales had sufficient creative license to give their subject matter the spin and imprint that suited their purpose. Yet despite the fact that myth-historical material offers a fluid medium for the literary imagination at play, authors frequently endowed their literary works with a claim to (some kind of) truth. Virgil is no exception: the Aeneid presents itself as (a version of) history—articulated of course by means of the conventions of the genre, i.e. epic. The chosen genre meant, for instance, that Virgil could include anthropomorphic divinities among his cast of characters without raising the eyebrows of his audience: the Olympic gods are a conventional feature of the epic genre after all, and for his early readers their appearance as such did not necessarily compromise the historical or referential value of his narrative. But ancient commentators considered other aspects of his literary world profoundly problematic precisely because the Aeneid operates under the pretense of presenting a historical account. The fourth-century commentator Servius, for instance, rebuked Virgil for including episodes—such as the transformation of Aeneas’ ships into sea-nymphs at Aeneid 9.77–122—that blatantly defy basic principles of empirical plausibility and are thus evidently bogus. Unlike anthropomorphic divinities, marvellous metamorphoses, at least according to some readers, violated the historical decorum of the epic genre. (This is part of the reason why Ovid’s decision to write an entire epic entitled Metamorphoses, which postures as a world history from the beginnings of the universe down to his own times, is so outrageous.)

Criticisms such as Servius’s drives home the point that the Aeneid was expected to conform to certain standards of empiricism and veracity. And in practice Virgil’s epic taught generations of Roman school children (something about) their history: a repository of facts and figures about the Roman past, idiosyncratically plotted, to be sure, but of (some) historical value.270 This, one could be forgiven to assume, holds especially true of the Dido episode. In Book 4, after all, Virgil offers a mythic aetiology (‘an explanation of the causes’) of indisputably historical events: Rome’s enmity with Carthage and the protracted struggle between the two cities over supremacy in the Western Mediterranean in the third and second century BC. This struggle produced one of the most lethal foes Rome ever had to face: Hannibal. He is the avenger whom Dido conjures as part of her suicide curse at Aeneid 4.607–29. The meeting between Dido and Aeneas thus prefigures and explains important events in Roman history and therefore, by implication, stakes a claim to historical truth. But if one sniffs around in the margins of the canonical mainstream, it is still just possible to discover an alternative tradition—a tradition, in fact, that claims that Virgil made this part of his epic all up, in defiance of the truth. What I would like to do in this essay is to look at some little-read authors (some of whom have only survived in fragments or later summaries), who allow us to get a sense of this alternative tradition. Not all of them are easy to get hold of, and I have therefore cited the key texts or passages both in the original and in translation to facilitate further engagement with this fascinating if obscure material.271

Let us begin with Macrobius, an intellectual snob from late antiquity, and author of the Saturnalia, ‘an encyclopedic compilation quarried from mostly unnamed sources… and cast as a dialogue that gathers together members of the Roman aristocracy prominent in the late fourth century, along with their learned entourage, to discuss matters ridiculous and sublime, and above all the poetry the Virgil.’272 Eustathius, one of the speakers in the dialogue, has the following to say about Virgil’s account of Dido (Saturnalia 5.17.4–6):273

… bene in rem suam vertit quidquid ubicumque invenit imitandum; adeo ut de Argonauticorum quarto, quorum scriptor est Apollonius, librum Aeneidos suae quartum totum paene formaverit, ad Didonem vel Aenean amatoriam incontinentiam Medeae circa Iasonem transferendo. quod ita elegantius auctore digessit, ut fabula lascivientis Didonis, quam falsam novit universitas, per tot tamen saecula speciem veritatis obtineat et ita pro vero per ora omnium volitet, ut pictores fictoresque et qui figmentis liciorum contextas imitantur effigies, hac materia vel maxime in effigiandis simulacris tamquam unico argumento decoris utantur, nec minus histrionum perpetuis et gestibus et cantibus celebretur. tantum valuit pulchritudo narrandi ut omnes Phoenissae castitatis conscii, nec ignari manum sibi iniecisse reginam, ne pateretur damnum pudoris, coniveant tamen fabulae, et intra conscientiam veri fidem prementes malint pro vero celebrari quod pectoribus humanis dulcedo fingentis infudit.

[… he nicely adapted to his own purposes whatever he found that was worth imitating, from any and every source, going so far as to virtually shape the whole of the Aeneid’s fourth book on the model of Book 4 of the Argonautica by Apollonius, assigning to Dido or Aeneas the unrestrained love that Medea bore for Jason. Our author treated that theme so subtly that the story of Dido lost in passion, which everyone knows is not true, has for so many generations now maintained the appearance of truth, and so flits about on the lips of men as though it were true, that painters and sculptors and the weavers of tapestries use this above all as their raw material in fashioning their images, as though it were the unique pattern of beauty, and it is no less constantly celebrated in the gestures and songs of actors. The story’s beauty has had such power that though everyone knows of the Phoenician queen’s chastity and is aware that she took her own life to avoid the loss of her honor, they nonetheless wink at the tale, keep their loyalty to the truth to themselves, and prefer to celebrate as true the sweetness that the artist instilled in human hearts.]

This remarkable text voices pronounced anti-Virgilian sentiments while acknowledging the well-nigh irresistible power and beauty of his poetry: Macrobius’ character begins by blaming Virgil with a large-scale act of ‘plagiarism’: the poet, he claims, modeled his Dido episode on Apollonius Rhodius’ account of Jason and Medea in Argonautica 4. (The Greek poet lived in the first half of the third century BC.) This, to be sure, is standard fare in ancient literary criticism. According to Donatus’ Life of Virgil 46, detractors accused the poet already during his lifetime of thieving from Homer. (Virgil is said to have rebutted such charges of literary theft by claiming that it is easier to steal the club of Hercules than a line from Homer.) But then Macrobius’ speaker ups the ante. In construing the encounter between Dido and Aeneas in analogy to Medea and Jason, Virgil, he submits, showed a brazen disregard for historical truth. What is more: everyone (he claims) knows that Virgil’s version does not correspond to the facts and is, indeed, a fraudulent fiction. Switching to a ‘reader-response’ perspective, Macrobius’ character proceeds to comment on the seductive allure that Virgil’s poetry exercises over the minds of those who get swept away in his narrative. The Aeneid (and Aeneid 4 in particular) is so sweet and compelling from a human-interest point of view that readers gladly connive in Virgil’s distortions of the truth. Against their better judgment and knowledge, they suspend their commitment to historical veracity, preferring instead to celebrate as true what is mere invention.

Virgil, according to Macrobius, is thus little better than his figure of Fama. In fact, the formulation that Virgil’s made-up story pro vero per ora omnium volitet (‘flits about on the lips of men as though it were true’) recalls Virgil’s characterization of Fama as ‘clinging to the false and wrong, yet heralding truth’ (Aeneid 4.188: tam ficti prauique tenax quam nuntia ueri) and Aeneid 4.195: haec passim dea foeda uirum diffundit in ora (‘these things the foul goddess spreads everywhere upon the lips of men’).274 Still, both for readers weaned on Virgil or for us who are fully aware of the great pliability of myth, the idiom of truth in the cited passage may well baffle. As Kaster quite rightly remarks in a footnote of his Loeb edition, Macrobius here ‘speaks, a bit oddly, as though there were a “true” story of Dido independent of the poetic version.’275

Intriguingly, however, there arguably was—at least for some readers. A contemporary of Macrobius, the church father Jerome (347–420), gives us a hint of this alternative tradition, which preserved the ‘true’ story of Dido. In his treatise Against Iovinianus, he has the following to say about the foundress of Carthage (Adversus Iovinianum 1.43 = Patrologia Latina 23. 310):

Dido, soror Pygmalionis, multo auri et argenti pondere congregato, in Africam navigavit, ibique urbem Carthaginem condidit, et cum ab Jarba rege Libyae in conjugium peteretur, paulisper distulit nuptias, donec conderet civitatem. Nec multo post exstructa in memoriam mariti quondam Sichaei pyra, maluit ardere quam nubere. Casta mulier Carthaginem condidit…

[After Dido, sister of Pygmalion, had collected a great weight of gold and silver, she sailed to Africa and there founded the city of Carthage. When she was sought in marriage by Iarbas, king of Libya, she put off the wedding for a little while until she had founded her city. Not long after, having erected a pyre to the memory of her former husband Sychaeus, she preferred ‘to burn rather than to marry.’ A chaste woman founded Carthage…]

Many of the plot elements will be familiar to readers of Virgil. In both authors, Dido is the sister of Pygmalion and the former wife of the deceased Sychaeus, arrives in Africa on ships laden with riches (in particular gold), founds the city of Carthage, is wooed by the local king Iarbas, and ends up committing suicide after erecting a pyre under false pretense. But Jerome’s version of course features a glaring absence. Where in the world is Aeneas in his story? How could Jerome pass over the Virgilian protagonist in complete silence? Why is he not even worth a mention? And doesn’t Dido’s erotic escapade with the Trojan prince fatally compromise her reputation as a ‘chaste woman’ (casta mulier)? Jerome, clearly, neither cares for the Aeneid nor seems to be worried about upsetting readers familiar with Virgil’s version of Dido. His heroine dies without having met Aeneas and with her reputation and sense of shame intact. Indeed, according to Jerome, Dido committed suicide not because she lost her pudor, in an act of wrathful vengeance, madness, and regret, but in order to preserve her chastity and to remain loyal to her dead husband.276

Jerome—he, that is, who carried his library of pagan classics with him on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem and suffered from nightmares in which he saw himself getting whipped by Christ for the inordinate pleasure he took in Cicero’s prose style (‘You are a Ciceronian, not a Christian’, the son of God rebukes him while administering the punishment, combining the whipping with a good tongue-lashing)—Jerome of course knew his Virgil inside out.277 The fact that he could conceive of Dido as a casta mulier, a model of chastity, in the teeth of Aeneid 4 is remarkable. It demonstrates that he considered an alternative variant of the Dido-story more plausible, more historical, more serious than the one we find in Virgil.

Jerome’s rejection of Virgil’s Dido in the Adversus-Iovinianum passage works by implication only. He just ignores Aeneid 4 as if it had never been written, much less enshrined in the Roman school curriculum. The anonymous author of the following epigram from the so-called Appendix Planudea is less reticent (= Anthologia Graeca 16.151):278

Ἀρχέτυπον Διδοῦς ἐρικυδέος, ὦ ξένε, λεύσσεις,


   εἰκόνα θεσπεσίῳ κάλλεϊ λαμπομένην.


τοίη καὶ γενόμην, ἀλλ’ οὐ νόον, οἷον ἀκούεις,


   ἔσχον ἐπ’ εὐφήμοις δόξαν ἐνεγκαμένη.


οὐδὲ γὰρ Αἰνείαν ποτ’ ἐσέδρακον, οὐδὲ χρόνοισι


   Τροίης περθομένης ἤλυθον ἐς Λιβύην.


ἀλλὰ βίας φεύγουσα Ἰαρβαίων ὑμεναίων


   πῆξα κατὰ κραδίης φάσγανον ἀμφίτομον.


Πιερίδες, τί μοι αἰνὸν ἐφωπλίσσασθε Μάρωνα;


   οἷα καθ’ ἡμετέρης ψεύσατο σωφροσύνης.


[You see, traveler, the original portrait of famous Dido, an image gleaming with divine beauty. And such a one I was, and did not have the mind of which you hear, having attained a good reputation on account of honourable deeds. For I never laid eyes on Aeneas, and I did not come to Libya at the time Troy was sacked. Rather, to eschew an enforced marriage with Iarbas I stuck the double-bladed sword through my heart. Muses, why did you equip dread Virgil with weapons against me? How he has lied about my prudence!]

The poem imagines a scenario in which a traveler comes by a visual representation of Dido (a statue or painting) that portrays her as she really was (that seems to be the meaning of the Greek Ἀρχέτυπον, from which the English word ‘archetype’ derives). The portrait then begins to address the viewer in Dido’s voice, claiming for her(self) an unblemished reputation, on the grounds that she committed suicide to avoid being wedded by force to her African suitor Iarbas. In essence, we here have the same variant that Jerome, too, endorses. But in our epigram, Dido does not simply assert an alternative truth; she also aggressively defends herself against perceived Virgilian slander. What we read in the Aeneid, she points out, is all wrong: on simple chronological grounds, she could never have met the Trojan hero. In lines that are reminiscent of Macrobius’ point that Virgil’s poetry is emotionally and aesthetically so compelling that readers are willing to take his malignant inventions for the truth, the speaking portrait ends with blaming the Muses for aiding Virgil in his smear campaign. Virgil, in short, is a seductively persuasive liar!

An anonymous author rendered a version of this Greek epigram into Latin. The translation was at some point ascribed to the poet Ausonius (c. 310-395 AD) and transmitted as part of his oeuvre (hence pseudo-Ausonius, Epigrams 118):279

ILLA ego sum Dido, uultu quem conspicis, hospes,


   assimilata modis pulcraque mirificis.


talis eram, sed non Maro quam mihi finxit erat mens


   uita nec incestis laesa cupidinibus.


namque nec Aeneas uidit me Troïus umquam


   nec Libyam aduenit classibus Iliacis,


sed furias fugiens atque arma procacis Hiarbae


   seruaui, fateor, morte pudicitiam,


pectore transfixo, castus quod perculit ensis,


   non furor aut laeso crudus amore dolor.


sic cecidisse iuuat: uixi sine uulnere famae,


   ulta uirum positis moenibus oppetii.


inuida, cur in me stimulasti, Musa, Maronem.


   fingeret ut nostrae damna pudicitiae?


uos magis historicis, lectores, credite de me


   quam qui furta deum concubitusque canunt


falsidici uates, temerant qui carmine uerum


   humanisque deos assimilant uitiis.


[That one, which you look at, traveler, am I, Dido, reproduced in wonderful ways and beautiful. I was such a person, and did not possess the mind that Maro [sc. Virgil] invented for me nor was my life tarnished by illicit desires.280 For Trojan Aeneas never saw me nor reached Libya with his Trojan fleet, but fleeing the furies and the arms of pushy Iarbas, I preserved—I confess—my sense of shame through death, with my heart stabbed through, which a chaste sword struck, not madness or raw grief after my love suffered harm. Thus it pleases to have fallen: I lived without any damage to my reputation, and having exacted revenge, after construction of the walls, met my death.

Jealous Muse, why did you goad on Virgil against me so that he invented damages to my sense of shame? You, readers, believe rather the historians about me than the lying poets who sing of secret affairs and the sexual liaisons of the gods, who besmear the truth in their poems and assimilate the gods to human sins.]

This Latin translation follows the Greek original fairly closely, but concludes with an interesting elaboration (put in italics): Dido pleads with us readers to believe the story that the historians tell about her and not the one promulgated by ‘the lying poets’. She uses a generic plural and generalizes in what amounts to a wholesale condemnation of the poetic—and in particular epic—tradition of anthropomorphic divinities, but pointedly uses the term for poets that Virgil used of himself, i.e. uatis. Indeed, the phrase falsidici uates (‘lying poets’) is a malicious transmogrification of the Virgilian phrase fatidici uates (‘poet-prophets of historical destiny’) at Aeneid 8.340.

Who, exactly, are the historians we are supposed to consult? A passage in an anonymous treatise that we are unable to date with precision entitled De Mulieribus (‘On Powerful Women’) contains a decisive piece of information:281

Θειοσσώ. ταύτην φησὶ Τίμαιος κατὰ μὲν τὴν Φοινίκων γλώσσαν ᾽Ελίσσαν καλεῖσθαι, ἀδελφὴν δὲ εἶναι Πυγμαλίωνος τοῦ Τυρίων βασιλέως, ὑφ᾽ ἧς φησι τὴν Καρχηδόνα τὴν ἐν Λιβύηι κτισθῆναι· τοῦ γὰρ ἀνδρὸς αὐτῆς ὑπὸ τοῦ Πυγμαλίωνος ἀναιρεθέντος, ἐνθεμένη τὰ χρήματα εἰς σκάφας μετά τινων πολιτῶν ἔφευγε, καὶ πολλὰ κακοπαθήσασα τῆι Λιβύηι προσηνέχθη, καὶ ὑπὸ τῶν Λιβύων διὰ τὴν πολλὴν αὐτῆς πλάνην Δειδὼ προσηγορεύθη ἐπιχωρίως. κτίσασα δὲ τὴν προειρημένην πόλιν, τοῦ τῶν Λιβύων βασιλέως θέλοντος αὐτὴν γῆμαι, αὐτὴ μὲν ἀντέλεγεν, ὑπὸ δὲ τῶν πολιτῶν συναναγκαζομένη, σκηψαμένη τελετήν τινα πρὸς ἀνάλυσιν ὅρκων ἐπιτελέσειν, πυρὰν μεγίστην ἐγγὺς τοῦ οἴκου κατασκευάσασα καὶ ἅψασα, ἀπὸ τοῦ δώματος αὑτὴν εἰς τὴν πυρὰν ἔρριψεν

[Theiosso: Timaios says this was what Elissa was called in Phoenician—she being the sister of Pygmalion, king of Tyre. And he says that she founded Carthage in Libya. When her husband was killed by Pygmalion, she put her possessions on shipboard and fled with some of the citizens, coming to Libya after great hardship. Because of her extensive wanderings, she was called ‘Deido’ by the Libyans in their local language. Once she had founded the aforementioned city, the king of Libya desired her as wife, but she refused him. She was, however, pressured by her citizens. On a pretext of performing a ritual to free herself from her oaths (not to marry), she constructed a large pyre by her house; when it had been lighted, she threw herself from her abode onto the pyre.]

With Timaios (or, in Latin spelling, Timaeus), we are leaving behind the world of late antiquity. The Greek historiographer lived from 356-260 BC, i.e. about three hundred years before Virgil! And his account of the Dido story clearly stands behind, but in essential details differs radically from, the one we find in the Aeneid. In both authors Dido is also known as Elissa; in both authors, she lived in the city of Tyre in Phoenicia; in both authors, she is the sister of Pygmalion; in both authors, Pygmalion killed her husband; in both authors, she collected possessions and assembled a group of citizens after the killing, fleeing her hometown and arriving as an exile in Libya; in both authors, she founded the city of Carthage; in both authors, a local king desired her to be his wife; in both authors, she refused to yield; in both authors, she decided to commit suicide; in both authors, she concealed her purpose behind fake-preparation for a magic ritual that involved construction of a pyre. But here the parallels end: in Timaeus, she commits suicide because she is determined to preserve her oath of chastity to her murdered husband; in Virgil, she commits suicide at least in part because she violated her oath of chastity to her murdered husband. Accordingly, in Timaeus the pretext for building the pyre consists in the apparent need to perform a ritual that would have freed her from the obligations of her oaths not ever to remarry, whereas in Virgil it is to rid herself of her fateful love for Aeneas.

One may legitimately wonder: what about Aeneas? Why doesn’t Timaeus mention him? For those steeped in the chronology of Greek myth that Timaeus presupposes the answer is straightforward: Dido and Aeneas could not have met since they lived about three centuries apart! The best evidence for this salient detail comes from another obscure and difficult source, the Philippic History of the first-century BC historian Pompeius Trogus, a contemporary of Virgil’s, which has only survived in the form of extracts by Justin (who may have lived in the late second century AD) entitled Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus. At 18.4.1–6.8, Justin recounts the story of Dido, in the Timaean tradition, according to the following chronology:282

1195 BC:

The founding of Tyre

1194 BC:

The fall of Troy; Aeneas travels West

c. 830 BC:

King Mutto of Tyre dies, having appointed as his heirs his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissa (a.k.a. Dido); Pygmalion becomes sole king and murders Elissa’s husband (their uncle) Acherbas because of his wealth

c. 815 BC:

Elissa/ Dido flees Tyre with Acherbas’ riches and reaches Libya

814 BC:

The founding of Carthage

753 BC:

The founding of Rome

According to this timeline, Aeneas had long traveled past the African shores before Dido ever set foot on them. In order for the two to meet, Virgil had to predate her arrival in Libya by roughly four centuries! Here we have the final piece of evidence we need to put Virgil in the dock for theft and slander—or to use a literary-critical, rather than legal idiom, cooption and correction, appropriation and adaptation. Perhaps following Naevius (c. 270–201 BC), who wrote a poem about Rome’s first war with Carthage, the Bellum Punicum, which might have included a meeting between Dido and Aeneas, Virgil took over the basic plot of the Dido story from the Greek myth-historical tradition represented by Timaeus and adjusted orthodox chronology so he could engineer a love affair between Dido and Aeneas, thereby turning the traditional reputation of the queen, who was renowned for her unconditional loyalty and chastity, on its head.283

It is time to summarize the most important of our findings so as to set the stage for further discussion:

1.  Besides Virgil’s account of Dido another, older version of her story circulated in antiquity, which can be traced back to the Greek historiographer Timaeus who wrote in the third century BC.

2.  Virgil crafted his figure of Dido with the Timaean version in mind, but altered it (perhaps following Naevius) in such a way that Dido could welcome Aeneas at Carthage and fall madly in love with him: instead of a queen who prefers to burn rather than marry, we get a woman on fire with love who throws oaths and caution to the wind in succumbing to illicit sexual desires.

3.  Virgil’s radical revision of the Dido-myth eventually came to eclipse the original variant, owing to the tremendous success enjoyed by the Aeneid from the day it was first published until today. But some readers in antiquity resisted the allure of Virgil’s poetry. And with a bit of sleuthing and rummaging around in the debris of literary history, we are still able to recover a Dido untainted by Virgil’s lurid imagination. It is a Dido that appealed to a range of authors who considered the Timaean variant to be historically accurate, indeed true—as opposed to Virgil’s account, which they dismissed as freely invented.

4.  No one, however, disputes that Aeneid 4 offers extraordinary poetry of tremendous power and appeal. Virgil’s transformation of a Dido renowned for exceptional chastity into a Dido who (momentarily) lost her sense of shame is masterful (if ‘untrue’). Arguably, knowledge of the Timaean tradition makes the text even more fascinating: part of Dido’s mental struggle against the temptation that Aeneas presents can be read as an attempt to resist what Virgil is doing to her: she clings with all her might to her previous identity and unblemished reputation, but ultimately can’t but yield to the poet and his hero.

5.  The recovery of the ‘historical’ Dido raises complex issues worth exploring further, revolving around (changing) notions of historical veracity, poetic license, the power of canonical texts, the seductive allure of great poetry, the question of historical justice for legendary characters, and the potential opposition of truth and beauty. Let the debate begin!

5.3 Allusion

Literary texts point beyond themselves in ways intimately related to how language works more generally. Any use of language is to some extent a re-use: ‘Whenever we describe the world, consciously or unconsciously we measure our descriptions against previous descriptions of the world. The words which we use have always been used before; we never have a monopoly on their contexts and connotations.’284 This does not mean that we simply have to re-mouth what others have mouthed before. In creative literature especially, the inevitability of having to rely on already established linguistic and literary conventions ‘is complicated by a high level of linguistic and literary self-awareness on the part of the individual language-user—in texts and traditions in which authors and readers, not content to be acted upon passively by tradition, seek to shape and define it to their own specifications.’ Tradition may stifle as well as enable originality.

In various ways, literary texts that belong to the same cultural tradition are in conversation with each other. They draw on, and in turn contribute to, a stock of linguistic conventions, widely shared commonplaces (so-called topoi), and ideas. Then again, authors may enter into allusive dialogue with specific predecessors, in a process that involves both imitation (imitatio) and emulation (aemulatio)—and in turn become subject to the same procedure at the hands of their successors. For the literary critic, it sometimes proves difficult to decide whether the simultaneous presence of a given formulation, image, or idea in two authors evinces allusive dialogue or rather betokens an independent tabbing of a common repository of poetic idiom and imagery.

Various modes of intertextual sharing characterize all literary traditions. But in the quality and density of its allusive texture, Latin literature stands apart. One of the reasons is its pronounced bi-cultural outlook. From the start, authors composing literary texts in Latin (a practice that started in earnest in the third-century BC—i.e. very late: half a millennium after the Homeric poems were codified in writing) participated in the creative negotiation and transformation of two cultural traditions—the Greek and the Roman. (Yes, there was Roman culture before there was Latin literature.) In the not-too-distant past, many classicists tended to consider the reliance of Latin authors on Greek models a deficiency and looked down upon their texts as derivative and second-rate. This overlooks the fact that the very process of domesticating and transforming the literary heritage of another culture in Latin was an unprecedented phenomenon of signal importance. As Denis Feeney puts this absolutely essential point: ‘In creating a national literature in the vernacular on the model of another national literature, these denizens of the overlapping cultures of central and southern Italy were engaged in an undertaking which no one in the Mediterranean had ever contemplated before, but which became a paradigm for later literary history. The invention of Roman literature is one of the most extraordinary events in history….’285

Because of its inherently dialogic nature, some of the finest Roman poetry resembles a palimpsest, i.e. a manuscript that has been written on more than once, with the earlier writing incompletely erased and often legible underneath the new text, or, to use another (and better) metaphor, a symphony. In addition to the poet’s own voice, the voices of predecessors (Greek as well as Roman) frequently resonate in a Latin poem. Whether they are present subliminally or invoked explicitly (perhaps only to be silenced), such further voices have the potential to enrich the meaning of a text immeasurably. And there are few texts in which the presence of allusive voices is quite so prominent as the Aeneid.

Virgil’s epic constitutes a watershed in Latin literary history. The Aeneid subsumes the entire previous tradition of Greek and Latin literature. Conversely, as a text that acquired quasi-canonical status while still in the making and became an instant classic upon its posthumous publication, it exercised a profound influence on all contemporary and subsequent poets.286 Most obviously, Virgil’s epic is a rewriting, in Latin, of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Virgil ‘footnotes’ both Homeric epics in his opening phrase Arma uirumque cano. Arma (‘arms’) recalls the battlefields of the Iliad, whereas uirum (‘man’, in the accusative) ‘translates’ the first word of the Odyssey, i.e. Ἄνδρα/ Andra (‘man’, also in the accusative)—though Arma also picks up Andra via assonance, whereas the entire phrase arma uirumque cano (‘of arms and the man I sing’) metrically mirrors the opening imperative of the Iliad, i.e. Mῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ (Mênin aeide thea; ‘Of the wrath sing, goddess’). Built into this mirror effect, however, is also a Virgilian assertion of difference, and perhaps even a claim to superiority: Homer calls upon a goddess, a Muse, to sing, thus turning himself into a mouthpiece of the divinity; in contrast, Virgil states that he is doing the singing (cano). The switch from the imperative in Homer to the indicative in Virgil signals a significant difference in the authorial persona adopted by the two poets. ‘Virgil’ is far more ‘present’ in his narrative than ‘Homer’. True, a few lines later he too musters the help of the Muse (1.8: Musa, mihi causas memora…). But even here Virgil foregrounds his own role as poet to a far greater degree than the poet of the Iliad: the Muse is ordered to remind him (mihi) and he tells us.287

Virgil’s reworking of Homer operates at various levels, from the large- scale to the minute. It involves structural parallels in the overall design, but never without complications. Virgil, for instance, systematically undoes the separation of ‘war in a foreign country’ (Iliad) and ‘homecoming’ (Odyssey) achieved by the Homeric epics and conflates the two in what amounts to a programmatic mess. An example: for Turnus, what transpires in the second half of the Aeneid is an Iliadic invasion (with Aeneas and his Trojans playing the role of the Greeks); for Aeneas, in contrast, it is an Odyssean homecoming (with Turnus and the Latins playing the role of Penelope’s presumptuous suitors, trying to prevent him from claiming his birthright, land, bride, and all).288

Then there are typological affinities between Homeric and Virgilian figures. Many characters in Virgil resemble, though never fully replicate, one or more characters in Homer. Aeneas both is, and is not (like) Achilles and Odysseus. Turnus both is and is not (like) Hector. And Dido brings to mind an entire host of Homeric predecessors, in particular Calypso, Nausicaa, and Circe. (And as we shall see, other women from myth and history join those from Homer in Virgil’s mirror cabinet, refracting Dido one way or another.) Then again, one and the same Homeric character may function as an archetype for more than one figure in Virgil. For example: in different ways, both Aeneas and Turnus recall Achilles.

Virgil’s engagement with Homer further involves the repetition of so-called ‘type-scenes’—scenes that recur with a certain frequency and often follow an established pattern. A good example from the set passage is Mercury’s descent from Mt. Olympus to carry out some business of Jupiter’s in the human sphere. We get such a descent at Iliad 24.339–48, Odyssey 5.43–54, Aeneid 1.297-304, and Aeneid 4.238–58, with the last one unfolding against the horizon of the earlier three.289

Then again the presence of Homer in Virgil may manifest itself in the recurrence of a specific word or phrase that adds unexpected colour and complexity. An intriguing instance from the set passage occurs at Aeneid 4.149, in the simile that compares Aeneas to Apollo. The phrase tela sonant umeris (‘arrows rattle on [Apollo’s] shoulders’) arguably recalls Homer’s description of Apollo at the outset of the Iliad, where the deity, who knows how to make an entry, takes wrathful strides down from the peaks of Olympus while ‘the arrows rattled on the shoulders of the angry god, as he moved’: Iliad 1.46–7). What happens if we read the Aeneid passage with the Iliad passage in mind? In Homer, the arrows of Apollo will bring the plague upon the Greeks. Does that turn Aeneas—whom the simile compares to the (Homeric?) Apollo—into a bringer of plague as well?290

Homer, then, is Virgil’s most important interlocutor. But he is by no means the only Greek author whose presence is felt in the text. In Aeneid 4, Greek tragedy (and its Latin adaptation by Roman republican playwrights) resonates with particular force, both on the general level of genre and in terms of allusions to specific plays.291 And as the late-antique commentator Servius has it, in what amounts to a ham-fisted hyperbole, ‘all of Aeneid 4 is based on Book 3 of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica’, where a youthful Medea is made to fall madly in love with Jason.292 While Servius’ comment is in various ways misguided—much of what happens in Argonautica 3, for instance, such as the stealth-attack by Eros/ Cupid, finds a rerun already in Aeneid 1, and much of what happens in Aeneid 4 (such as the ‘marriage’ in the cave) is in part modelled on events in Argonautica 4—the Medea of Argonautica 3 is an important point of reference for the Dido of Aeneid 4.

The imagery Apollonius uses to explore the consequences of Eros’ assault on Medea stands behind Virgil’s idiom at the beginning of the book. ‘The arrow burned deep in the girl’s heart, like flame’, writes Apollonius, (3.286–87: βέλος δ’ ἐνεδαίετο κούρῃ/ νέρθεν ὑπὸ κραδίῃ φλογὶ εἴκελον) and compares the way Medea flares up in love to a woman who kindles a fire at night—’such was the destructive love which coiled around her heart and burnt there in secret’ (3.296–97: τοῖος ὑπὸ κραδίῃ εἰλυμένος αἴθετο λάθρῃ/ οὖλος ἔρως). For readers familiar with Apollonius, Virgil’s scenario of a heroine being stricken (4.1: saucia, 4.2: uulnus, 4.4: infixi) by Cupid beneath the heart (4.4: pectore) that kindles fires of love (4.2: igni) which burn away in secret (4.2: uenis; caeco) has the unmistakable ring of a déjà vu—and reinforces the intertextual relationship between Apollonius’ Medea and Virgil’s Dido.

Apollonius’ contemporary and rival Callimachus plays a more oblique, but equally important role in the allusive symphony of Aeneid 4. His presence is often ‘mediated’ by Catullus’ earlier engagement with Callimachus. Thus, throughout the Dido episode Virgil repeatedly gestures to Catullus 66 and, via Catullus 66, to Callimachus. Catullus 66 ‘translates’ into Latin the so-called ‘Lock of Berenice’ (or, in Latin, Coma Berenices) by Callimachus, which is the climactic finale to Callimachus’ most influential poetry book entitled Aetia (‘Origins’). It offers a commentary on the marriage between King Ptolemy II Philadelphus and his sister Berenice (Callimachus’ very own queen) from the point of view of a lock of the queen’s hair: for shortly after their wedding, Ptolemy had to absent himself in warfare and the forlorn newly-wed decided to vow to sacrifice one of her locks should her husband return safe and sound. This lock, once dedicated to the gods, disappeared and was later spotted by the astronomer Conon as a constellation in the sky. (Yes, those Alexandrian poets liked it contrived: their playful sophistication is an acquired taste.)

From the very beginning of his career as a poet, Virgil took a keen interest in Callimachus’ Lock of Berenice (and its rendition into Latin by Catullus). And allusions to Catullus 66, which is a poem about sex (lawful and illicit), marriage, faithful spousal devotion, and the abomination of adultery, but rehearses these themes within wider historical and cosmic settings, and with specific reference to an African queen, recur throughout the story of Dido and Aeneas. Here is the evidence:

(i) From the Eclogues to the Georgics to the Aeneid (and beyond):

‘In narrating the death and catasterism of Julius Caesar in Metamorphoses 15, Ovid alludes to the Callimachean Lock of Berenice… But the conversion of the Lock of Berenice into the sidus Iulium is not an Ovidian innovation. Jeff Wills points to the parallels between the opening of Catullus 66 and the sudden appearance to the stargazing Daphnis of the Caesaris astrum at Eclogue 9.46–8. At the beginning of the Georgics the poet [sc. Virgil] foresees the possibility of a catasterism of Octavian himself, a nouum sidus that likewise alludes to the Coma Berenices. When in Aeneid i Jupiter reassures Venus that she will carry Aeneas “sublimen… ad sidera caeli (i.259–60), this will be a repetition of what she had previously done for the Lock of Berenice (Cat. 66.63–4.).’293

(ii) Aeneid 4.8: unanimam… sororem:

At the opening of Aeneid 4, Dido visits her sister Anna, her ‘other half’. Virgil uses the striking attribute unanimus to characterize the close relationship of the two sisters, before narrating their conversation, which revolves, centrally, around the question as to whether Dido ought to stay faithful to her deceased first husband or pursue a marriage with Aeneas. Compare Catullus 66.79-86 (the speaker is the lock of hair, giving advice to recently married girls and sharing thoughts on adultery—in parallel to Dido’s self- imprecation should she become unfaithful to her deceased husband):294

nunc vos, optato quas iunxit lumine taeda,
   non prius unanimis corpora coniugibus
tradite nudantes reiecta ueste papillas,
   quam iucunda mihi munera libet onyx –
vester onyx, casto colitis quae iura cubili.
   sed quae se impuro dedit adulterio,
illius – a! – mala dona levis bibat irrita pulvis:
   namque ego ab indignis praemia nulla peto.

[You, whom the wedding-torch has joined with its longed-for light, do not now surrender your bodies to your concordant spouses casting aside your clothes and baring your nipples, before the onyx [a type of vase used to store ointments, in this case for hair] pours pleasing gifts to me, the onyx belonging to you who observe the laws in chaste marriage. But as for the woman who has given herself to filthy adultery, let the powdery dusk drink up her evil gifts—ah!—and render them futile.]

The fact that unanimus in Catullus refers specifically to a couple of ‘sibling spouses’ would seem to make it an appropriate point of reference for a passage in which siblings (Anna and Dido) argue about spouses—especially in light of the fact that the notion of legitimate sex between a married couple is shortly afterwards followed with a curse on those who commit adultery, in parallel to Dido’s self-imprecation should she become unfaithful to her deceased husband.

(iii) Aeneid 4.66–67: est mollis flamma medullas/ interea et tacitum uiuit sub pectore uulnus:

If the previous instance could perhaps be dismissed as a lexical accident, these lines quite forcefully recall Catullus 66.23–24 (the Lock speaking, commenting on the separation of her mistress from her beloved husband):

quam penitus maestas exedit cura medullas!
   ut tibi tunc toto pectore sollicitae
sensibus ereptis mens excidit!

[How deep did emotion eat out the sad marrow of your bones! How then when you were troubled with all your heart you lost your senses and fell unconscious!]

Virgil’s est mollis flamma medullas reworks Catullus’ maestas exedit cura medullas in allusive variation: the verb is the same, though Virgil uses the simple rather than the composite. flamma and cura are virtually synonymous (especially in the light of Aen. 4.1–2 where Dido is said to be afflicted by the cura and the caecus ignis in her veins) and occur in the same metrical position. And mollis… medullas recalls maestas… medullas (same case, same metrical position of medullas at the end of the line), with Virgil retaining the soft and plangent m-alliteration. (Virgil also keeps Catullus’ emphasis on sadness in Catullus’ maestas, which he initially loses with his choice of mollis as attribute of medullas, by endowing Dido with her standard epithet infelix in line 68.)

(iv) Aeneid 4.321–33 (Dido speaking): te propter eundem/ exstinctus pudor et, qua sola sidera adibam,/ fama prior (‘because of you my sense of shame has been lost and that prior stellar reputation by which alone I was approaching the stars’):
Dido here holds Aeneas’ accountable for destroying her only hope of undergoing a notional ‘catasterism’, i.e. the metamorphosis of a human being into a heavenly body. The somewhat baffling formulation qua sola sidera adibam resonates powerfully if we set this desire in the context of other such ascents or apotheoses: that of Berenice’s lock, that of Caesar, that of Aeneas, that of Augustus…

(v) Aeneid 4.357 (Aeneas speaking in his address to Dido in which he tries to justify his departure): testor utrumque caput (‘I swear by both our lives’):
utrumque is most likely to be understood as meum et tuum. It recalls Catullus 66.40: adiuro teque tuumque caput (‘I swear by you and by your head’). As Lyne comments: ‘At a morally crucial juncture Aeneas has appealed to Dido’s head; and the appeal is quietly but (as will emerge) importantly intertextual with Catullus.’295

(vi) Aeneid 4.492–93 (Dido speaking to Anna): testor, cara, deos et te, germana, tuumque/ dulce caput (‘I call the gods to witness and you, dear sister, and your dear life’):
This, again, recalls Catullus 66.40: adiuro teque tuumque caput.

(vii) The pattern culminates in 4.693–705, the very end of the Book, where Dido, too, has a lock of hair severed:

Tum Iuno omnipotens longum miserata dolorem


difficilisque obitus Irim demisit Olympo


quae luctantem animam nexosque resolueret artus.


nam quia nec fato merita nec morte peribat,


sed misera ante diem subitoque accensa furore,


nondum illi flauum Proserpina uertice crinem


abstulerat Stygioque caput damnauerat Orco.


ergo Iris […]


deuolat et supra caput astitit. ‘hunc ego Diti


sacrum iussa fero teque isto corpore soluo’:


sic ait et dextra crinem secat, omnis et una


dilapsus calor atque in uentos uita recessit.


[Then almighty Juno, taking pity on Dido’s drawn-out agony and painful dying, sent Iris down from Olympus to release her struggling soul and the bonds of her limbs. For since she perished neither according to fate for by a death she deserved, but wretchedly before her day and in the heat of a sudden frenzy, Proserpina had not yet taken from her head the golden lock and consigned her life to the Stygian Underworld. Therefore Iris […] flew down and halted above her head. ‘This offering, sacred to Dis I take as bidden and release you from this body’: so she spoke and severs the lock with her hand, and all the warmth dissipated all at once and her life vanished into the winds.]

As Lyne notes, comparing Aeneid 4.698 with Catullus 66.62: deuotae flaui uerticis exuuiae (‘the votive spoil of a blonde head’), ‘both Berenice and Dido are not only blondes but “flauae”.’296 He offers the following overall interpretation of the pattern, which sets up a family-resemblance between Dido and Berenice, the wife of Ptolemy, both royalty from Africa (191–92): ‘The magnificent Queen of Aen. Book 1 is reduced to death agonies. Venus is causally involved in her death, as imagery, if nothing else, tells us. In these death agonies a lock of Dido’s fair hair has to be cut from her head and devoted to the god of Death, Dis, and thus and then she can die. Now consider the fate of her intertextual counterpart, Berenice. A lock of her fair hair is also cut, but it is honoured by Venus, it is placed in the bosom of Venus (66.56, ‘et Veneris casto collocat in gremio’), and it is made a star in heaven by, if the text is correctly emended, the direct agency of Venus. 66.59–62:

inde Venus uario ne solum in lumine caeli
   ex Ariadnaeis aurea temporibus
fixa corona foret, sed nos quoque fulgeremus
   deuotae flaui uerticis exuuiae…

Then Venus, lest alone in the varied light of heaven the golden crown from Ariadne’s temples should find a place, but that we also might shine forth, the votive spoil of a blonde head…

And the catasterized lock tells of all this fantastic felicity to the living and reigning Queen Berenice. The courtly dazzle of the intertext, Berenice’s and her lock’s magnificent triumph, the honouring of Berenice by Venus, underscores the tragedy of Dido’s text, Dido destroyed by Venus, and the text of her death-dedicated lock; the intertext works here in a way comparable to a Homeric “contrast simile”.’

(viii) There is a sequel in Aeneid 6, when Aeneas meets Dido in the Underworld. At this moment, Virgil makes him ‘quote’ Catullus 66. Compare Catullus 66.39–40 (the Lock speaking):

invita, o regina, tuo de vertice cessi,
   invita: adiuro teque tuumque caput.

[O queen, against my will I left your head, against my will: I swear by you and by your had.]

with Aeneid 6.458–60 (Aeneas speaking):

                 per sidera iuro,
per superos et si qua fides tellure sub ima est,
inuitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi.

[By the stars I swear, by the gods above and if there is any honesty under the earth below, against my will, queen, I left your shores.]

inuitus, regina, tuo de litore cessi replicates almost verbatim inuita, o regina, tuo de uertice cessi. The only differences are the switch in gender (the Lock is feminine, hence inuita; Aeneas is male, hence inuitus) and the shift in location from uertice to litore. Yet both uertice and litore are ablatives of separation with cessi, are identical from the point of view of prosody, and occur in the same position in the verse. Moreover, whereas the Lock, now a ‘new star’ (sidus nouum: 66.64) swears by her former owner and place of residence (adiuro teque tuumque caput), Virgil makes Aeneas swear, first and foremost, ‘by the stars’ (per sidera iuro), that is, the kind of object that the Lock of Berenice has turned into. Here is Susan Skulsky’s take on this remarkable passage: ‘We have been told that Aeneas’ Roman mission will result in his ascent to the stars; Jupiter assures Venus: “sublimen… feres ad sidera caeli/ magnanimum Aenean” (1.259f.). Dido had told Aeneas that because of her affair with him she could no longer look forward to the astral immortality of the virtuous: “exstinctus pudor et, qua sola sidera adibam, fama prior” (4.322 f.). Now, attempting to reassure Dido as he swears by the stars (6.458) and uses the words of the constellation Coma Berenices, he instead unwittingly emphasizes the contrast between his success and her ruination.’297 Moreover, Callimachus’ queen is the distant ancestor of Cleopatra. The allusive dialogue thus also sustains a typological relationship between the mythic Dido and the historical Cleopatra, who figures prominently on the shield of Aeneas in Book 8 and is another femme fatale out of Africa, who committed suicide.

As for Latin authors: apart from Catullus, the other Latin poet of special importance for Aeneid 4 is Lucretius—as Philip Hardie above all has worked out in a series of incisive studies, spanning by now over a quarter of a century.298 More generally, the Aeneid also engages, subsumes, and marginalizes Roman republican epic, most of which is now lost to us.299

* * *

As the previous pages ought to have shown, a rich network of allusions to Greek and Roman predecessors renders Virgil’s poetry vibrant with meaning for those familiar with his models and sources. Unfortunately, Virgil made little allowance for the restrictions of a modern school syllabus. To appreciate the intertextual dimension of the Aeneid requires a certain willingness to read around in unassigned authors and see how they figure in Virgil’s text. To go in search of allusions is not unlike a treasure hunt—one can end up empty-handed (grasping at straws) or discover richly rewarding intertexts. For those tempted to embark on allusive adventures traditional commentaries offer good starting points, by way of what we may call ‘cf.-gestures.’ Cf. is short for confer, i.e. the second person singular present imperative active of confero, conferre, ‘bring together’, ‘to compare.’ These commands to compare tend to be followed by a list of references and sound bites. In the second part of this essay, I want to illustrate what sort of thing one can discover if one follows the lead of such a commentary entry, in the spirit of a ‘Do-It-Yourself Guide’ to intertextual reading. Our point of departure is the comment by Pease on saucia in Aeneid 4.1–2: At regina graui iamdudum saucia cura/ uulnus alit uenis…:300

With this use of saucia cf. also Enn. Med. 254: Medea animo aegro amore saevo saucia; Catull. 64, 250: multiplices animo volvebat saucia curas; Lucr. 4, 1048: mens unde est saucia amore; Tib. 2, 5, 109: iaceo cum saucius; Ov. H. 5, 152: e nostro saucius igne fuit; 12, 57: ut positum tetigi thalamo male saucia lectum; Sil. 2, 422: ipsa pyram super ingentem stans saucia Dido.

Step 1: Decode the information

Before we can act on the instruction to compare, we need to know what Pease would like us to compare Virgil’s use of saucia with. If we unpack his information, here is what we get:

(i) Enn. Med. 254: Medea animo aegro amore saevo saucia (‘Medea, sick at heart, wounded by savage love’)

Enn. = Quintus Ennius (c. 239–169 BC)
Med. = His tragedy Medea, which has only survived in fragments.
254 = the number of the fragment in the edition of Ennius by J. Vahlen: Ennianae poesis reliquiae: iteratis curis recensuit Ioannes Vahlen, Leipzig 1903. Since this is a fragment from one of Ennius’ tragedies, it also appears in the frequently cited edition of the fragmentary Roman playwrights by O. Ribbeck: Scaenicae Romanorum poesis fragmenta: tertiis curis recognouit Otto Ribbeck: vol. 1: tragicorum fragmenta, Leipzig 1897, in which it is number 213. But the standard edition of Ennius’ tragic fragments is now the one by H. D. Jocelyn: The Tragedies of Ennius: The Fragments edited with an Introduction and Commentary, Cambridge 1967, in which this line is numbered 216.

(ii) Catull. 64, 250: multiplices animo volvebat saucia curas (‘she kept turning over in her heart her manifold worries, stricken’)

Catull. = Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84–c. 54 BC)
64, 250 = A reference to his Poem 64, verse 250. 64, Catullus’ longest poem, is a so-called ‘epyllion’ (‘a little epic in the polished, Alexandrian manner’)

(iii) Lucr. 4, 1048: mens unde est saucia amore (‘whence the mind is wounded with love’)

Lucr. = Titus Lucretius Carus (c. 99–c. 55 BC)
4, 1048 = A reference to Book 4, verse 1048 of his only surviving work, the didactic epic in six books on the philosophy of Epicurus entitled De Rerum Natura (‘On the Nature of Things’)

(iv) Tib. 2, 5, 109: iaceo cum saucius (‘when I lie wounded…’)

Tib. = Albius Tibullus (c. 55–19 BC)
2, 5, 109 = The reference is to Book 2, Poem 5, verse 109 of his collection of love elegies

(v) Ov. H. 5, 152: e nostro saucius igne fuit (‘he was wounded from our fire’); 12, 57: ut positum tetigi thalamo male saucia lectum (‘… when I touched the prepared bed in my chamber, badly wounded…’)

Ov. = Publius Ovidius Naso (20 March 43 BC–17/18 AD)
H. = Heroides, a collection of fictional letters by abandoned heroines from myth (with the exception of Letter 15, which is by ‘Sappho’ to Phaon), written in elegiac couplets. Scholars have found it impossible to reach an agreement on the precise dating of individual poems; the first collection may have appeared around 15 BC. The references are to Letter 5 (Oenone to Paris), though modern editors consider the couplet 151–52 spurious, and Letter 12 (Medea to Jason).301

(vi) Sil. 2, 422: ipsa pyram super ingentem stans saucia Dido (‘wounded Dido herself standing on top of an enormous pyre…’)

Sil. = Silius Italicus (c. 28–103 AD)
2, 422 = The reference is to Book 2, verse 422 of his epic poem Punica. Silius’ theme is the Second Punic War, with a special focus on the two generals Hannibal and Scipio Africanus.

As it turns out, then, Pease instructs us to look (selectively, to be sure) at nothing less than the entire history of Latin literature from archaic times (Ennius) till the imperial age (Silius). His passages come from more than two centuries worth of Latin poetry. Some of his authors preceded Virgil (Ennius, Catullus, Lucretius); some were his contemporaries (Tibullus, Ovid); one came after (Silius Italicus). With reference to the second category, it is unclear whether the texts by Tibullus and Ovid were already in circulation by the time Virgil wrote the opening line of Aeneid 4—which complicates any argument about influence either way. The generic spectrum is equally impressive: Pease’s passages come from tragedy, neoteric epyllion, didactic poetry, love elegy, fictional letters, and epic. These are already interesting results: the survey of authors and texts shows that Virgil shared his idiom of erotic passion with other poets across a wide chronological and generic range. But there is more to be discovered. Determined intertextualists will sleuth a bit further.

Step 2: Check out the texts

(i) Ennius: The line from Ennius’ tragedy Medea, which is a Latin adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, comes from the famous proem in which Medea’s nurse laments the voyage of the Argo and the mission of the Argonauts to bring the Golden Fleece to Greece. It ended up in disaster for her mistress (Ennius, fr. 208–16 Jocelyn):302

utinam ne in nemore Pelio securibus
caesa accidisset abiegna ad terram trabes,
neue inde nauis inchoandi exordium
cepisset, quae nunc nominatur nomine
Argo, quia Argiui in ea delecti uiri
uecti petebant pellem inauratam arietis
Colchis, imperio regis Peliae, per dolum.
nam numquam era errans mea domo efferret pedem
Medea animo aegro amore saeuo saucia

[If only in Pelion’s woods the firewood timbers, cut down by axes, had not fallen to the ground and from there the undertaking had not begun to begin the ship, which now is named Argo, because sailing in it chosen Argive men were seeking the golden fleece of the ram from the Colchians, at the command of King Pelias, through guile. For then never would my mistress, misguided, have set foot away from home—Medea sick at heart, wounded by savage love.]

(ii) Catullus: carmen 64 is an epyllion on the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, including an extended ecphrasis (‘the description of an image in words’) of the figure of Ariadne, shortly after she had been abandoned by Theseus (64.249–50):

quae tum aspectans cedentem maesta carinam
multiplices animo volvebat saucia curas

[She meanwhile, gazing sadly out at the departing ship, kept turning over in her heart her manifold worries, stricken.]

(iii) Lucretius: in his didactic epic De Rerum Natura, Lucretius gives an account of the world from the point of view of Epicurean physics, which includes a diatribe against the foolishness of love as opposed to the (intensely pleasurable) physics of sex. Our line comes from a passage where Lucretius describes the physiology of sexual desire at the onset of puberty. After some comments on wet dreams (1030–36), he moves on to what amounts to the first surviving description of an erection and ejaculation in Latin (4.1037–48):303

Sollicitatur id <in> nobis, quod diximus ante,


semen, adulta aetas cum primum roborat artus.


namque alias aliud res commovet atque lacessit;


ex homine humanum semen ciet una hominis vis.


quod simul atque suis eiectum sedibus exit,


per membra atque artus decedit corpore toto


in loca conveniens nervorum certa cietque


continuo partis genitalis corporis ipsas.


irritata tument loca semine fitque voluntas


eicere id quo se contendit dira libido,


idque petit corpus, mens unde est saucia amore.


[That seed is stirred in us whereof I spoke before, when first the age of manhood strengthens our limbs. For one cause moves and rouses one thing, a different cause another; from a human being only a human’s influence stirs human seed. And as soon as it issues, roused from its abode, it makes its way from out the whole body through the limbs and frame, coming together into fixed places, and straightway rouses at last the reproductive parts of the body; these places are stirred and swell with seed and there arises the desire to expel the seed towards the object to which fierce passion is moved and the body seeks that body, by which the mind is smitten with love.]

In his commentary on the passage, R. D. Brown postulates that with the ‘trenchant phrase’ saucia amore Lucretius recalls the fragment from Ennius’ Medea that we just considered but at the same time ‘pointedly applies the image to love in general rather than to tragic or unrequited love, which is its usual application.’304 In what is otherwise a passage characterized by an arch-clinical tone, the poetic metaphor provides an unexpected climax to the account of the physiological processes triggered by sexual desire. Lucretius’ purpose is to cure the mind from love—and his sly reuse of tragic diction is a pointed reminder that what is, from his point of view, romantic rubbish, can have dire consequences.

(iv) Tibullus: Elegy 2.5, designed as a hymn to Apollo, celebrates the induction of the son of Tibullus’ patron Messalla into the priesthood responsible for the preservation and exegesis of the Sibylline Books, the so-called quindecimuiri sacris faciundis. The poem includes quotations from a prophecy by the Sibyl, in which she foretells the story of Rome. The subject matter, then, could not be more Virgilian, and the Aeneid beckons in the background of this poem, even though chronological difficulties arise. As Maltby explains: ‘The arrival of Aeneas in Italy and the early origins of Rome were of course also the subject of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. This was not published in its final form until 16 BC, three years after Virgil’s death. Tib. is known to have died shortly after Virgil and certainly before 16 BC… Similarities between the two treatments nevertheless suggest that Tib. could have heard pre-publication recitations of parts of the work.’305 In essence, the work is a version of the story of Aeneas from the point of view of elegy and written for someone who did not belong to the circle around Augustus and his ‘patron of the arts’ Maecenas. Dido does not make an appearance, even though Tibullus refers to ‘resolute Aeneas’ as ‘flitting Love’s brother’ (39–40: Impiger Aenea, uolitantis frater Amoris,/ Troica qui profugis sacra uehis ratibus….; ‘Flitting Love’s brother, resolute Aeneas, whose nomadic boat transported Trojan relics…’).306 And towards the end of the poem, Tibullus makes a pitch for general disarmament, in which our phrase occurs (2.5.105–10):307

pace tua pereant arcus pereantque sagittae,
   Phoebe, modo in terris erret inermis Amor.
ars bona: sed postquam sumpsit sibi tela Cupido,
   eu heu quam multis ars dedit ista malum!
   et mihi praecipue, iaceo cum saucius annum
et (faueo morbo cum iuuat ipse dolor).

[With your consent may bows be banned and arrows banned,
   Phoebus, so Love may wander Earth unarmed.
Skill’s fine, but after Cupid took up arms himself,
   alas that skill produced such punishment—
and mostly mine—while wounded I have lain a year
   and clung to sickness while my pain was joy.]

(vi) Ovid: I’ll set aside the passage from Letter 5 as most likely an interpolation. Conversely, for his Letter 12 from Medea to Jason, Ovid has picked a critical moment: when penning the epistle Medea has already been ditched by Jason, so he could marry Creusa, the daughter of king Creon of Corinth, but has not yet committed infanticide. In our passage, Medea recalls how she felt about the Greek hero after the meeting in which Aeëtes has challenged Jason to embark upon a mission impossible to secure the golden fleece, much to the grief of his daughter (Heroides 12.55–58):308

quam tibi tunc longe regnum dotale Creusae
   et socer et magni nata Creontis erat!
tristis abis; oculis abeuntem prosequor udis,
   et dixit tenui murmure lingua: ‘uale!’
ut positum tetigi thalamo male saucia lectum,
   acta est per lacrimas nox mihi, quanta fuit.

[How far away then from your thought were Creusa’s dowry-realm, and the daughter of great Creon, and Creon the father of your bride! With foreboding you depart; and as you go my moist eyes follow you, and in faint murmur comes from my tongue: ‘Fare well!’ Laying myself on the ordered couch within my chamber, grievously wounded, in tears I passed the whole night long.]

In intertextual terms, this passage gestures to both Medea’s youthful past (as recounted by Apollonius Rhodius in Argonautica 3) and her criminal future (as dramatized by Euripides in his tragedy Medea, a play in which she visits gruesome retribution on Jason, Creusa and Creon). As such, it bears a striking resemblance to the situation of Dido at the opening of Aeneid 4: she, too, is rendered sleepless by love (like the youthful Medea of Apollonius), but will soon turn her mind to exacting revenge along the lines of the mature Euripidean Medea.

(vii) Finally, Silius Italicus. The passage comes from the description of the ‘Shield of Hannibal’, which is modelled on Virgil’s description of the Shield of Aeneas in Aeneid 8 and contains, among other things, a rewrite of Aeneid 4—from a Carthaginian point of view! (Silius Italicus, Punica 2.406–25):309

Condebat primae Dido Carthaginis arces,


instabatque operi subducta classe iuventus.


molibus hi claudunt portus, his tecta domosque


partiris, iustae Bitia venerande senectae.


ostentant caput effossa tellure repertum


bellatoris equi atque omen clamore salutant.


has inter species orbatum classe suisque


Aenean pulsum pelago dextraque precantem


cernere erat. fronte hunc avide regina serena


infelix ac iam vultu spectabat amico.


hinc et speluncam furtivaque foedera amantum


Callaicae fecere manus; it clamor ad auras


latratusque canum, subitoque exterrita nimbo


occultant alae venantum corpora silvis.


nec procul Aeneadum vacuo iam litore classis


aequora nequicquam revocante petebat Elissa.


ipsa, pyram super ingentem stans, saucia Dido


mandabat Tyriis ultricia bella futuris;


ardentemque rogum media spectabat ab unda


Dardanus et magnis pandebat carbasa fatis.


[Dido was shown building the city of infant Carthage; her men had beached their ships and were busily engaged. Some were enclosing a harbour with piers; to others dwellings were assigned by Bitias, a righteous and venerable old man. Men pointed to the head of a warhorse which they had found in the soil when digging, and hailed the omen with a shout. Amid these scenes Aeneas was shown, robbed of his ships and men and cast up by the sea; with his right hand he made supplication. The hapless queen looked eagerly upon him with unclouded brow and with looks already friendly. Next, the art of Gallicia had fashioned the cave and the secret tryst of the lovers; high rose the shouting and the baying of hounds; and the mounted huntsmen, alarmed by a sudden rainfall, took shelter in the forest. Not far away, the fleet of the Aeneadae had left the shore and was making for the open sea, while Elissa was calling them back in vain. Then Dido by herself was standing wounded on a huge pyre, and charging a later generation of Tyrians to avenge her by war; and the Dardan, out at sea, was watching the blazing pile and spreading his sails for his high destiny.]

Visiting the works from which Pease gleaned his parallels produces pleasing results: all have some pertinence for our appreciation of the figure of Dido in Aeneid 4. Several of the texts employ the image of being stricken by love with reference to an abandoned heroine (Medea in the case of Ennius and Ovid, Ariadne in the case of Catullus), whose mythic CV boast striking parallels to that of Dido. The exceptions are Lucretius (but he at least gestures to Ennius’ Medea by his use of tragic idiom) and Tibullus (who applies the image to his own, elegiac self in what emerges as an act of intertextual emasculation, in light of the fact that the metaphor elsewhere applies to women). In a final step, we can now ask what each of these authors may contribute to our appreciation of Aeneid 4 if we elevate them to the status of voices in or on Virgil’s poetry.

Step 3: Interpret the texts as being in dialogue with one another

What do we gain by ‘activating’ Virgil’s predecessors Ennius, Catullus, and Lucretius in our reading of Aeneid 4.1–2? We can formulate this question in terms of authorial intent, assuming that Virgil alludes to all three passages. (This is tantamount to saying that he would like to encourage his audience (us) to read his text with these earlier passages in mind.) But we don’t have to. We can pose the question without the need to posit authorial intent by asking, simply, whether our understanding of Virgil’s text is enriched if we recall comparable uses of saucius as a term to signify ‘stricken with love’ in earlier authors. And if we approach this question from our perspective as readers, we can easily extend our intertextual range to Virgil’s contemporaries and successors as well. Virgil himself could not have alluded to them, of course, but their poetry may nevertheless help to illuminate his, not least because they may allude to him and thereby offer a comment on the Aeneid.

Now as we have seen in the first half of this essay, Virgil models the opening of Aeneid 4 on Apollonius Rhodius’ treatment of Medea in Book 3 of his epic Argonautica. An allusion to the opening of Ennius’ tragedy Medea would thus strengthen the presence of this mythic figure in the opening verses and reinforce the sense that Virgil assimilates Dido to Medea. She is (as it were) present, via Apollonius, in her epic incarnation as a youthful maiden madly in love and, via Ennius, in her tragic incarnation as a bitter and abandoned wife, full of hatred and set on revenge. The double allusion thus elegantly and with supreme economy prefigures what will happen to Dido in the course of Aeneid 4. Just like Medea, she will turn from someone smitten in love under the compulsion of Eros/ Cupid into a disillusioned femme fatale out to exact retribution from the lover who dumped her. The implications are ominous. Suddenly, the prospect of murder is in the air. Medea, after all, first slaughtered her brother to aid the escape of the Argonauts from Colchis and then, once her relationship with Jason soured, the children they had in common. It is significant (and strengthens the case of an allusion to Ennius at the outset of the book) that Dido moots precisely such atrocities as a missed opportunity later on (Aeneid 4.600–02):

non potui abreptum diuellere corpus et undis
spargere? non socios, non ipsum absumere ferro
Ascanium patriisque epulandum ponere mensis?

[Could I not have seized him, torn him limb from limb, and scattered the pieces on the waves? Could I not have put his comrades to the sword, and Ascanius himself, and served him up as a meal at his father’s table?]

The sparagmos of Aeneas that Dido here envisages evokes Medea’s murder and dismemberment of her brother Apsyrtus (as well as sparagmoi from tragedy, such as that of Pentheus by his mother Agave and her fellow maenads). Notoriously Medea threw the skewered limbs of Apsyrtus into the sea bit by gory bit on the Argonauts homeward journey to slow down the pursuers. The most prominent model here is Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica 4. The murder of Ascanius that Dido here imagines recalls Euripides’ and Ennius’ Medea, who killed her children by Jason in an act of vengeance—like another homicidal mother of Greek myth, Procne, who serves as mythic model for the final brutality: Procne slaughtered her son Itys and dished him up to his father Tereus, to avenge the rape her husband had perpetrated on her sister Philomela. An allusion to Medea’s criminal record as archived in Apollonius, Euripides, and Ennius at the beginning of Aeneid 4 thus emerges as a programmatic invocation of a mythic role-model for Dido that later in the book finds more explicit recognition.

The reference to the epic and tragic Medea built into the opening lines of Aeneid 4 thus functions like an intertextual risk alert, putting the reader on guard that the love plot may take a tragic, even murderous turn. The allusion to Catullus 64 works in similar fashion. Again, we are pointed to a heroine, Ariadne, whose story evinces intriguing points of contact with that of Dido. But if we recall Catullus 64.249–50 when reading Aeneid 4.1–2 we get an instant glimpse not of how it could end (as with Medea) but how it actually will end. Catullus here describes Ariadne gazing after the departing ships of her former lover Theseus, whom she once rescued from mortal danger. This of course is exactly the situation Dido will find herself in towards the end of Aeneid 4. And we may recall that Ariadne in Catullus 64 sends a vicious curse after Theseus as punishment for his treachery (189–201), which, like the curse Dido calls down on Aeneas, turns out to be efficacious, resulting in the death of his father Aegeus. Again, an allusion to Catullus 64 and the figure of Ariadne at the outset of Aeneid 4 foreshadows the terms of the book’s tragic end and its unfortunate consequences.

Via Ennius and Catullus, then, we can add the tragic figures of Medea and Ariadne to the host of intertextual ghosts from Greek and Latin literature that haunt Virgil’s figure of Dido. They join Calypso, Nausikaa, and Circe from the Odyssey, the youthful epic Medea of Apollonius Rhodius’ Argonautica, and the historical Queen Berenice (from Callimachus via Catullus) as well as her distant ancestor Cleopatra as points of comparison and contrast. And we may well put Dido in front of further intertextual mirrors. As Alessandro Schiesaro puts it:310

More space for Euripides’ Medea among Dido’s intertextual ancestors is surely needed. But there are in fact more than two texts at stake: if Dido’s (literary) family-tree is to be investigated thoroughly in search of connections with Medea, both ascendants and descendants must be included. As we have seen, it is important both to analyze the Medeas who offer Dido a model—Euripides’, Apollonius’, Ennius’—and those who recognize Dido as a model, Seneca’s, but especially Ovid’s (nor should Hosidius Geta and Dracontius be ignored). The heuristic value of this retroactive form of intertextuality will be no less noteworthy, for it may well show that such exceptional readers of Virgil were disposed to acknowledge the similarities between the two characters.

Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65), Hosidius Geta (late 2nd-early 3rd century AD), and Dracontius (c. 455–c. 505) all composed plays or poems about Medea, but did so with explicit or implicit reference to Virgil’s Dido, offering a retrospective commentary—a tradition that begins in earnest with Ovid’s Heroides.

The same applies to Tibullus 2.5 and, especially, Silius Italicus. On the level of diction, his line ipsa, pyram super ingentem stans, saucia Dido (‘Then Dido by herself was standing wounded on a huge pyre’) refers to Virgil’s metaphorical use of saucius in the opening line of Aeneid 4; but the scene depicted on Hannibal’s Shield comes from the end of Aeneid 4, when Dido is also literally wounded. Silius thus neatly captures, in one line, the programmatic transformation of metaphor into reality, of mythic love into historical hatred, that unfolds in the course of Virgil’s epic. Pointedly, he inscribes a re-run of the entire Dido episode on the shield of Hannibal, the nameless avenger whom Dido conjures in a horrifying curse before committing suicide. Silius’ Punica thus emerges as the sequel to the Aeneid, along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back. And just as Hannibal challenges the descendants of Aeneas on the historical battlefield, Silius throws down the gauntlet to Virgil in the arena of epic poetry. (We all know, of course, which city ultimately ended up in ashes and which poet has retained a stranglehold on school syllabuses—but Hannibal gave the Romans a good innings…)

Lucretius, finally, works differently. If we want to activate the wider context in which he uses saucius in the De Rerum Natura, one could argue that the opening line of Aeneid 4, read intertextually with Lucretius, points to the fatal dynamic of love which culminates in the sexual encounter in the cave. Yet perhaps more importantly, he offers an ‘alternative voice’: Epicurean philosophy offers a ‘scientific’ explanation of love and sex, designed to help us combat irrational desires and emotions (as opposed to the natural enjoyment of sex and the impulse to procreate)—in other words, an antidote to the experience at the very heart of the lives of Ennius’ Medea, Catullus’ Ariadne, and Virgil’s Dido (among others). But it is an alternative voice, evoked, it seems, only to be silenced as irrelevant.

I have not even begun to explore all possible variations. Whatever we make of this symphony of allusions (if allusions they are), of further voices and interpretive possibilities, the foregoing should have illustrated that Virgil’s Aeneid exists within a wider literary universe. His poetry invites rides on the intertextual roller-coaster, which, it is true, can have a dizzying effect. At times it becomes difficult to know when to stop, and after a few rounds of heady exhilaration that sick feeling in the stomach kicks in when one has gone a loop too far. So let’s break right here (for now) before we spin entirely out of control…

5.4 Religion

The Aeneid is chockfull of religious images and ideas. In the course of the epic, we encounter the anthropomorphic divinities of Greek and Roman myth as well as deified concepts; reflections on the ethics (or lack thereof) of divine behaviour; various types of religious practices or speech-acts (rituals, sacrifices, modes of divination; prayers, curses, oaths); priests, prophets, and other religious functionaries like entrail-inspectors; numinous spaces, buildings, or objects (landscapes, sites, temples, altars); concepts to do with the supernatural organization of history and time (fatum, fortuna); and glimpses of the beyond, in particular the otherworldly topography that dominates the central Book 6, which features Aeneas’ descent into the Underworld. Yet arguably in no other book, with the possible exception of Aeneid 6, does religion play such a prominent and complex role as in Aeneid 4. Religious subject matter is ubiquitous here, both in the passage assigned in Latin (4.1–299) and the rest of the book (which is to be read in English). But to come to critical terms with this aspect of Virgil’s text is not easy. At first sight, the religious dimension of Aeneid 4 may well seem to resemble a dog’s breakfast. Virgil brings into play ideas from different spheres of thought and experience, both Greek and Roman, some with a primarily literary pedigree, some firmly grounded in cult practice and the civic religion of the Roman commonwealth. Each of these spheres operates according to its specific cultural logic. And frequently the logic of one sphere is incommensurate with, or even contradicts, that of another. It is hence not instantly obvious how the different elements cohere (if they do so at all).

1.Taking stock

A first step towards trying to make sense of the text is to identify (and differentiate between) the diverse spheres of religious thought and practice on which Virgil draws and to take stock of where and how religion—here loosely defined as any figure of thought that implies the existence of supernatural beings or forces—surfaces in the narrative. Roughly, and with due awareness of inevitable overlap, we could distinguish the following:

A: The divine machinery of the literary imagination (especially Greek epic and tragedy):

A1: Gods appearing as agents in the narrative

A2: Reference to their mortal offspring (heroes)

A3: Allusions to Olympian divinities on the part of the poet (e.g. in similes or allusions)311

A4: Personifications of natural phenomena or concepts; references to mythic cosmology

B: Religious beliefs, modes of worship, and other forms of religious communication entertained or practiced by humans

B1: References to household gods or shades of the deceased

B2: References to religious functionaries, temples, ritual occasions or speech-acts that involve the supernatural sphere (sacrifices, wedding ceremonies, funerary rites; prayers, curses, oaths)

B3: Belief in the divine guardianship of justice

B4: Commitment to pietas (and be it via the epithet pius)

C: Idiom that alludes to the civic religion of Roman republican/ early imperial society

D: Anticipation of the future: practices of divination, figures endowed with knowledge of things to come, unsolicited signs that forebode future events

E: Theological figures of thought that organize historical time (fatum, fortuna)

F: Philosophical theology (e.g. Epicureanism)

G: Magic

Re-reading Aeneid 4 with this rough-and-ready grid in mind, we can pick out the following verses as involving or implying a supernatural sphere:


The appearance of Aurora signals daybreak. [A4]


Dido believes in Aeneas’ divine lineage. [A2]


Dido sympathizes with the travails imposed upon Aeneas by the fata. [E]


Reference to the household gods (Penates) that resided in the home Dido shared with Sychaeus. [B1]


Dido calls down divine punishment upon her should she violate her oath of loyalty to Sychaeus (this includes being swallowed up by the earth and being struck by Jupiter with lightning). [B2]


Anna dismisses the notion that Sychaeus’ shades (manes) take any interest in what Dido is doing. [B1/F]


Anna proclaims that Aeneas arrived at Carthage owing to divine favour and Juno’s aid (dis auspicibus, Iunone secunda). [C]


Anna and Dido perform prayers and sacrifices to solicit the favour of the gods. [C]


Dido performs further rites and engages in extispicy to divine the future. [B2/C/D]


Virgil, in an authorial exclamation, refers to prophets (uates) and follows this up with two rhetorical questions about the futility of uota and delubra. [B2/C/D]


Interlude in Heaven: Juno accosts Venus to arrange a marriage between Aeneas and Dido. [A1]


Aurora appears. [A4]


Simile comparing Aeneas to Apollo with oblique allusions to Dionysus. [A3]


The encounter in the cave, witnessed by Tellus, Juno Pronuba, Aether, and Nymphs. [A1/ A4/ B2]


Fama, her nature, genealogy (offspring of Terra), and intervention in the case at hand. [A4]


Iarbas’ parents (Jupiter and a Garamantian nymph) [A2]


Description of Iarbas’ 100 altars dedicated to his father Ammon (a.k.a. Jupiter) and prayer to Jupiter, which ends in a quasi- Epicurean questioning of divine efficaciousness. [B2/F]


Jupiter’s reaction to Iarbas’ prayer and his order to Mercury. [A1]


Mercury gets himself ready and flies to Carthage, via the man- mountain Atlas. [A1/ A4]


Theophany of Mercury before Aeneas and delivery of the message from Jupiter. [A1]


Aeneas is stricken by the imperium deorum. [A]


Fama brings Dido the news of the Trojans’ preparation to leave. [A4]


A simile compares Dido’s raging through Carthage to a Maenad on Mt. Cithaeron under the influence of Bacchus. [A3]


Under the impact of Jupiter’s commands (Iouis monitis), Aeneas remains committed to his plan to depart despite Dido’s desperate appeal. [A/ B]


Aeneas refers to the fata as the force that drives him against his will. [E]


Aeneas recalls Grynean Apollo and the Lycian oracles (of Apollo) bidding him to seek Italy. [D]


Aeneas appeals to fas (divine law). [C]


Aeneas claims to be haunted at night by the troubled ghost of his father Anchises. [B1]


Aeneas refers to Italy as fatalia arua. [E]


Aeneas recounts the theophany of Mercury and the orders of Jupiter. [A]


Dido denies Aeneas’ divine lineage (nec tibi diua parens). [A2]


Dido denies that maxima Iuno or Jupiter could possibly approve of Aeneas’ demeanor. [B3]


Dido scornfully quotes Aeneas’ religious justification for leaving Carthage back at him: with reference to augur Apollo, Lyciae sortes, and Jupiter’s messenger Mercury, she mockingly dismisses the idea that gods get involved in human affairs, in proto-Epicurean fashion. [C/D/ F]


Dido articulates the wish that Aeneas will suffer shipwreck—si quid pia numina possunt. [B2/ B3]


Dido threatens Aeneas that after her death, her shade will haunt him wherever he goes to avenge the injustice [dabis, improbe, poenas]; she will take delight in hearing of Aeneas’ punishment when the report reaches the Underworld. [B1/ B2/ B3]


Aeneas is called pius. [B4]


Despite his wish to linger with Dido, Aeneas is mindful of the iussa diuum and returns to his fleet. [A/ B]


The narrator addresses Amor in an authorial comment on Dido’s disturbed frame of mind when she watches the preparations of the Trojans to leave (improbe Amor, quid non mortalia pectora cogis!). [A1]


Dido, speaking to Anna, denies that she ever unsettled the Shades of Anchises or committed any other hostile act towards Aeneas, in the context of wondering why he proves so intractable. [B1]


Aeneas remains unmoved by the pleading of Anna on behalf of her sister because of the fates and a god: fata obstant, placidasque uiri deus obstruit auris. [E/ A]


Simile of the oak tree, the roots of which reach down into Tartarus. [A4]


Virgil refers to Aeneas as heros. [A2]


Dido begins to pray for death fatis exterrita. [E]


During sacrifice some dreadful omens occur: as Dido puts her offerings on the altar, the holy water darkens and the poured wine changes into loathsome gore. [C/ D]


Dido has dreadful visions: at night, she hears her husband calling; an ill-boding owl settles on the housetops; many old prophesies of uates terrify her; while asleep, Aeneas appears in her nightmares. [B1/ D]


Simile that compares Dido to Pentheus in the thralls of Bacchus- induced insanity and Orestes, after the matricide, who is hounded by the Furies and the ghost of his mother, while avenging fiends (Dirae) crouch on the threshold. [A3]


Dido tells Anna of an encounter with a priestess (sacerdos) who guards the garden of the Hesperides, who is skilled in magic, above all in how to rid oneself of, or induce, erotic attraction, but also in meddling with nature and ghostly or unnatural phenomena more generally; as if following the priestess’ instructions she asks Anna to construct a pyre. [B2/ G]


Once the pyre is in place, surrounded by altars, Dido, whom Virgil now also designates as ‘priestess’ (sacerdos), calls in a thundering voice upon three hundred gods, specifically Erebus, Chaos, threefold Hecate, and triple-faced Diana; she also wields the paraphernalia of magic rites: water, venomous herbs collected by moonlight with brazen sickles, and a love charm from the brow of a newly born colt. The passage ends with her again calling on the gods and the stars as witnesses of her doom and praying ‘to whatever power, righteous and mindful, watches over lovers unjustly allied’ (tum, si quod non aequo foedere amantis/ curae numen habet iustumque memorque, precatur). [A/ B2/ B3/ C/ G]


While Aeneas slumbers on his ships (which are ready to depart), he has a vision of a god who resembles Mercury in every respect; the divinity calls him mad to put off his departure while the winds are favourable and warns him of Dido (his speech contains the memorable sexist phrase uarium et mutabile semper/ femina; ‘A fickle and changeful thing ever is—woman’). [A1]


Aeneas exhorts his men with reference to his vision of deus aethere missus ab alto (‘a god sent from high heaven’) adding sequimur te, sancte deorum,/ quisquis es, imperioque iterum paremus ouantes (‘We follow you, holy among gods, whoever you are, and again joyfully obey your command’) and asking him for succour during the voyage. [A1/ B2]


Dawn (Aurora) rises again, leaving the bed of Tithonus. [A4]


Dido becomes aware of the fact that Aeneas has left and exclaims ‘pro Iuppiter!’ [B2]


Dido asks herself whether her impious deeds (facta impia) are catching up with her. [B3]


A scornful reference to the trustworthiness of Aeneas and his alleged transport of patrios Penates. [B1]


Dido utters a horrific curse that begins with the invocation of various divinities: Sol, Juno, Hecate, the Avenging Furies (Dirae ultrices), and the gods of Elissa dying (di morientis Elissae). She asks them to turn their divine power and attention (numen) to the evils she has suffered and to visit as much ill-luck upon the accursed head of Aeneas (infandum caput) as the ordinances of Jupiter (fata Iouis) allow. Dido then invokes eternal hatred between the people of Carthage and of Aeneas (i.e. the Romans) and prays for an avenger to rise from her ashes (a prophetic anticipation of Hannibal). (From the point of view of efficacious communication with supernatural powers, it is important to note that both parts of her curse—that concerning the destiny of Aeneas in the rest of Virgil’s poem as well as that concerning Roman history—are fulfilled.) [B2/ B3/ E]


Dido proceeds with her scheme of suicide; in her address to Barce, the nurse of Sychaeus, she asks her to tell Anna to purify herself ritually with river water and to bring sacrificial victims and offerings ordained for atonement. Barce, too, is asked to veil her temples with a pure chaplet (pia uitta) since Dido is now minded to carry out the rites of Stygian Jupiter. [B2/B4]


At the opening of her suicide speech Dido recalls happier times dum fata deusque sinebat (‘while the fates and god allowed’). She then calls her life over—having finished the course granted by Fortune, the goddess of happenstance (quem dederat cursum Fortuna, peregi)—and anticipates her majestic shade to travel beneath the earth (et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago). [E/ B1]


At the conclusion of her suicide speech, Dido refers to the light of her funeral pyre, which Aeneas will behold from the sea, as omina (omens) of her death. [C/ D]


After Dido has stabbed herself, Fama rages through the stricken city (concussam bacchatur Fama per urbem). [A4]


The raving of Fama is compared to an army that is sacking a city and setting it afire so that the flames engulf the houses of men and the temples of the gods (culmina… deorum). [A/ B2]


Anna exclaims that Dido should have shared her suicide plans with her, so she could have joined her sister in death (eadem me ad fata uocasses). [B1]


Anna recalls how she herself has built the pyre and called upon the paternal divinities (patriosque uocaui/ uoce deos). [B2]


Despite being mortally wounded, Dido is unable to die owing to a religious law: since she is perishing neither by fate nor by a death she had earned (nec fato, merita nec morte peribat), but rather prematurely in a sudden fit of furor, Proserpina, the queen of the Underworld, refuses to take a golden lock off her, as a ritual prerequisite of consigning her head to the Stygian Orcus. Accordingly, Dido’s struggling soul is unable to free itself from her body. Eventually, Juno takes pity on her protégé and sends down Iris, who cuts the lock and consecrates it to Dis, the god of the Underworld. This sets Dido’s soul free from her body, and her life vanishes into the winds.312 [A/B1/E]

2. The supernatural coordinates of Virgil’s literary cosmos

One popular move in religious studies is to differentiate between various discursive spheres or systems of thought. Virgil’s contemporary Marcus Terentius Varro (116–27 BC), for instance, used the notion of a theologia tripartita (‘tripartite theology’) to distinguish the mythical theology of the poets from the natural theology of the philosophers and the civil theology of the people. Each, he claimed, had its own protocols of how to conceive of (and represent) the supernatural sphere and its divine inhabitants. This approach may be useful at times. But it does not really help us here. For Virgil clearly combines elements from all of these systems of thought or belief, as well as several others besides. What Varro, for one, tried to keep tidily distinct, Virgil cheerfully commingles. What we need is a perspective that enables us to come to critical terms with a literary world in which logically frequently incompatible ideas about the divine co-exist side by side.

Now the purpose of much religious effort concerns the position of the individual or the civic community in time and space. Human beings have only limited (if any) control over the future and their environment more generally—though we like to think that we can make provisions for the future, even while we remain acutely aware of the fact that ‘tomorrow’ may turn out to be ghastly, whatever our precautions. The next accident, the next human-made disaster, the next defeat in war, the next natural catastrophe is sure to happen—we just do not know when. To deal with this condition of uncertainty, which is a human universal, many cultures in history have posited the existence of supernatural agents or forces to whom they ascribe some control over the future. If such agents are willing to engage with mortals meaningfully (listening to their prayers, paying attention to their sacrifices), the future becomes open to a certain amount of purposeful planning and management. Even if the supernatural agents are taken to be disinterested in interaction with mortals (or as actively causing havoc in the human sphere), their existence imposes some kind of form upon an otherwise amorphous domain of risk and uncertainty, rendering it more intelligible if not more manageable.

The possibility of destructive divinities, who are driven by spiteful emotions or pursue their own selfish agendas, already points to the fact that the degree to which religious systems (are thought to) succeed in reducing contingency may differ significantly: it very much depends on the conception of the world and of the divine that they presuppose. Very schematically, we can posit the following spectrum of possibilities, which ranges from chaos at one extreme to the complete elimination of contingency on the other—with various stages in between:

Conception of the world/the gods

Degree of predictability

Degree of efficaciousness of religious efforts on the part of humans

A realm of chaos



A domain governed by Fortuna 1 (whimsical)/ by willful divinities pursuing their own agenda



A domain governed by Fortuna 2 (meritocratic)



A domain that offers the possibility to enter into quasi-contractual relationships with supernatural beings



A domain of predetermination in which everything is always already fixed

Absolute (with the requisite insight/ hindsight)


At one extreme, there is chaos—which is tantamount to a world without any pattern whatsoever, a world, in which anything may happen to you at any time. (It is a world, in other words, one cannot really live in.)

The second possibility—a world under the reign of fortuna (conceived as whimsical) or populated by divinities who do what they like and are liable to experience (and act on) unpredictable bouts of emotions (such as envy or hatred)—has some affinities with chaos. It is almost impossible for mortals to get whimsical fortune or egocentric divinities to enter into reliable relationships according to laws of reciprocity (worship, sacrifice, or obedience to divine law in return for supernatural support).

Matters improve if we conceive of fortuna not in terms of happenstance and luck, as a force, in other words, that distributes her gifts according to her whim and will, without any regard to merit, but as a divine agent who dispenses her favours to those who have earned them according to some criterion of merit. Consider, for instance, the adage fortuna fortes adiuuat—’fortune favours the brave.’ It implies a willingness on the part of fortuna to enter into a ‘cause-and-effect’ economy that gives us purchase on the future. If the condition applies that if one is brave, then fortune will lend her support, we are able to shape our destiny at least to some extent.

Then again, some cultures developed belief-systems that posit the existence of divinities willing to enter into quasi-contractual relationships. The gods of Rome’s civic religion are a good example. In return for certain forms of religious observance, they lent their support to the civic community as it marched forward in time. The Romans invested a significant amount of effort in maintaining good relations with their divinities, keeping them benevolently prediposed towards their res publica—a condition they called pax deorum, i.e. ‘peace with the gods.’ It signified a state in which the divinities would not cause wilful havoc and disaster. This peace needed careful attention and cultivation and could of course break down at any time (through an involuntary slip in a ritual procedure, for instance), at which point the Roman gods tended to send warning signs that a potential disaster was afoot since the peace was broken. Rome’s civic religion thus enabled a certain amount of planning security for those involved in managing the affairs of the commonwealth.313

Intriguingly, Rome’s ritual repertory included ceremonies, which, once properly performed and executed, were thought to ensure divine support. A notable example is the deuotio, in which a Roman magistrate turned himself or a fellow-citizen into a sacrificial victim of sorts before going out to meet his death in battle: if the ritual was flawlessly executed and if the dedicatee actually got himself killed, then the assumption was that the gods would grant victory to the Roman army. It is useful to think of this ritual in economic terms. In return for what is a truly remarkable degree of divine support in as unpredictable a situation as a battle, (someone in) the civic community had to pay the ultimate price. (And nothing is more costly than a human life.) Divine support, and in particular predictable divine support, does not come cheap.

Finally, there is complete predetermination—a world in which everything is already fixed before it actually happens, without any freedom or contingency. (It is also a world impossible to live in since any meaningful concept of agency—or moral choice—would disappear on both the divine and the human level.) Since nothing can be altered in such a world, endeavours to enter into communication with the gods in an effort to shape the future are pointless. The degree of efficaciousness of religious efforts on the part of humans plummets back to zero. For in such a system, the gods too have become disenfranchised: they no longer are meaningful agents with the power to impact on how history unfolds.

Remarkably, the Aeneid explores the entire spectrum of possibilities sketched out in the table and several others besides. The epic features its fair share of whimsical divinities, in particular Juno, who pursues Aeneas with her wrath out of selfish motives, to the point of collapsing the cosmos back into chaos.314 At the same time, Virgil endorses a notion of predetermination. fatum (or, in the plural, fata), looked after by Jupiter, are at the heart of his theology of history. Large portions of the story that the Aeneid tells are already prescripted before they unfold. Virgil’s literary world thus combines chaotic unpredictability with predetermination, utimately subsuming the former under the latter. Juno and Jupiter complement each other: the plot of the Aeneid requires Juno’s futile struggles against what has been preordained, and the story not coincidentally ends when Jupiter manages to reconcile Juno with the impositions of fate. The inexorable unfolding of fate also aligns Virgil’s epic history with the reality of the Augustan principate, which is the ultimate historical telos of the narrative. The poet’s investment in destiny, it may be worth pointing out, is fundamentally alien to the civic religion and political culture of the Roman republic, which conceived of the future as contingent and of history as open-ended.315

In addition to operating with the notional extremes of utter chaos and absolute order, Virgil validates an intermediary domain of controlled contingency. Not everything in the history he tells has already been fixed in stone (or on the scrolls of fate). The moment in Aeneid 4 when this becomes most apparent is at the very end of the book, when Virgil explains why Dido suffered such a drawn-out death: Proserpina refused to welcome her in the Underworld since her suicide was not in accord with her destiny, apart from being unearned (696: nam quia nec fato, merita nec morte peribat…). It took pity on Juno’s part to end her struggles, as she sends down Iris to perform euthanasia. Dido’s relationship with Aeneas never had a future: it violated fate. But the death-scene suggests that the affair did not have to end in suicide. Virgil thereby validates the principles of independent agency and (moral) accountability at both the human and the divine level—within the severe restrictions imposed by historical necessity.

What has a fairly circumscribed presence in Virgil’s narrative is the conception of history as a realm of contingency over which divine beings exercise control—and which human beings have the power to shape at least to some extent by entering into efficacious interaction with the gods. But this conception of the world, which underwrote Rome’s civic religion and the political culture of the Roman republic, is not entirely absent either. Ironically, it informs the religious efforts of Anna and Dido at the beginning of Aeneid 4. Their visit to the temples, their investment in prayers and sacrifices, their attempt to solicit divine approval for their course of action and, more generally, Dido’s desire to divine what the future holds (and her endeavours to persuade the gods with lavish gifts to shape the future to her liking) match quite closely the actions that a magistrate of the Roman republic would have performed before a major decision (such as when to engage in battle). And Virgil seems to imply that the divinities with whom Dido interacts respond honestly to her enquiry, though they are (of course?) forced to give a negative answer.

Willful divinities, the inexorable unfolding of destiny, a precious margin of contingency in divine and human affairs, a brief recognition of the principle and protocols of the civic religion of the Roman republic (which just manages to underscore that this system of religious thought and practice has little relevance in Virgil’s epic world)—these, then, are the supernatural coordinates within which Virgil’s human characters are forced to operate.

3. Religious agency

They do so on very different terms and with varying degrees of insight and success. Take Aeneas, for example. Despite his pronounced pietas, he is the victim of divine persecution: Juno pursues him with her wrath. Paradoxically, he is also the carrier of fate. This has its advantages. When he loses the plot, Jupiter tends to sort matters out, to get him (and destiny) back on track. Aeneas is far from perfect as a religious agent, not least since at times (as in Carthage) he becomes oblivious to his preordained historical mission. Yet he is a privileged character nevertheless: whereas Dido has to browse through bloody entrails to figure out the will of the gods, Aeneas receives instructions of what to do straight from the boss, by special delivery. (Mercury provides the ancient equivalent of an airmail service.) Also elsewhere in the poem, Aeneas is the privileged beneficiary of divine insight and information, notably in Book 6.316 His understanding of fate and the divine remains partial and compromised; for instance, he does not comprehend the scenes from Roman history that Vulcan has fashioned on his shield: rerumque ignarus imagine gaudet (8.730). But it is still far superior to that of other characters.

Take Anna, for example. Her speech of advice to Dido at 4.31–53 evinces a shocking ignorance of the divine realities that apply in Virgil’s epic. Thus, in line 34, she dismisses the notion of a conscious afterlife in proto- Epicurean fashion, in an attempt to convince Dido to stop caring about her deceased husband Sychaeus and embrace life and love with Aeneas. And she follows this gaffe by proposing that Aeneas arrived in Africa dis auspicibus et Iunone secunda (45: ‘with the gods’ favour and Juno’s aid’). The phrases drip with unintended irony. Anna clearly hasn’t a clue what she is talking about. Juno had no intention whatsoever to blast Aeneas to Africa. She set out to sink his fleet. Aeneas’ arrival at Carthage is thus not at all the result of purposeful divine planning—unless we image that the fates had a hand in this. But Juno, at any rate, is here the exact opposite of auspex or secunda, and the tempest that brought Aeneas Dido’s way was not a favourable (in Latin: secundus, implied by Juno’s attribute) breeze, but a destructive storm—an ill wind that blew nobody any good.

Another example of a character with precious little insights into the workings of the divine is Iarbas. In his prayer to Jupiter at 4.206–28, he intends to bully his divine father into taking action. He posits that either Jupiter sees what is going on with Dido and Aeneas—or there is no point in worshipping him. But if Jupiter is aware of what is going on, so the implication, his inaction is disgracefully negligent given the dutiful veneration he receives from his son. Jupiter is thus placed in an impossible position: the way Iarbas frames his argument, the supreme divinity cannot plead ignorance and hence is undoubtedly guilty of negligence. That Jupiter has so far tolerated the love affair at Carthage without any sign of disapproval or intervention means for Iarbas that the economy of religious communication, which requires some divine support in return for dutiful human worship, has broken down. He suggests to Jupiter that it is in the god’s own interest to restore it. Jupiter’s reaction to Iarbas’ prayer is instructive. While his son’s pleading has alerted the god to the situation at Carthage, he pays no attention whatsoever to the complainant and his concerns. True, Iarbas gets what he prays for—a break up of the union between Dido and Aeneas—but perhaps also more than he bargained for, insofar as Dido proceeds to commit suicide. And Jupiter interferes not out of any consideration for his son and his hundred altars, but because he is committed to the fated plot. Put differently, Iarbas may well think that his prayer has been efficacious. But the reader realizes that the perceived efficaciousness of the religious speech-act is accidental. Iarbas gets his way not because Jupiter felt the urge to answer his prayer, but because he fortuitously happened to wish for something to which Jupiter was anyway already committed.

Then there is Dido. She is by far the most interesting and complex religious agent in Aeneid 4, in part since her religious outlook undergoes a development over the course of the book. This development involves three basic stages, which correspond roughly to the three sections of Aeneid 4 that Virgil marks with the opening phrase at regina (1–295, 296–503, 504–705).

As we already had occasion to note, at the beginning Dido, fuelled by misguided hope, pursues lines of communication with the gods reminiscent of Rome’s civic religion. Lines 54–64 show her visiting altars to beseech the gods, investing in repeated (and expensive) sacrifice to render them benevolent, and vetting the entrails of her victims for signs of divine approval. This approval appears not to be forthcoming; but that also means that the gods in charge of the signs prove reliable and honest partners in communication. What Dido asks for is in violation of fate, and she fatefully disregards the lack of divine sanction in how she proceeds. By calling Anna and Dido ignorant of the seers (65: heu, uatum ignarae mentes!), Virgil situates the religious endeavours of the two sisters within a universe, in which the efficaciousness of traditional religion (as practiced in Rome’s civic sphere during republican times) is sharply curtailed, owing to the fact that history is by and large predestined—and foretold as such by prophet-figures (uates). If the two sisters had had knowledge of what the uates were saying, they would have realized that all their efforts to solicit divine support for their plan would be to no avail. But they don’t—and pay the price: their hope is foolish, their actions are doomed to failure, and their lack of insight results in tragedy. The practices and institutions of civic religion (captured by the terms uota and delubra) have a strictly limited remit in Virgil’s literary universe.

The second stage kicks in after Dido finds out that Aeneas plans to leave her. It is marked by denial, confusion, and bouts of angst that gradually develop into genuine insight. Dido oscillates between a quasi-Epicurean attitude towards supernatural interferences in human affairs (i.e. dismissing them as figments of the imagination or outright lies) and terror at divine signs of her impending doom. Thus at Aeneid 4.376–80, she doubts the veracity of Aeneas’ claim that he was visited by Mercury in a theophany:

(heu furiis incensa feror!): nunc augur Apollo,
nunc Lyciae sortes, nunc et Ioue missus ab ipso
interpres diuum fert horrida iussa per auras.
scilicet is superis labor est, ea cura quietos

[Alas! I am whirled on the fires of frenzy. Now prophetic Apollo, now the Lycian oracles, now the messenger of the gods sent from Jove himself, brings through the air this dread command. For sure, this is work for gods, this is care to vex their peace!]

Dido here adopts a proto-Epicurean position, mocking the notion that gods would get involved in human affairs—as opposed to enjoying an existence free of all worries (as they do in Epicurean philosophy). The implication is that Aeneas is a liar when he ascribes his desire to depart to the need to follow a divine command. Conversely, slightly later on Dido sees and hears portents of her looming death that are of supernatural (or infernal) provenance after Aeneas has refused to slacken his resolve (Aeneid 4.450–55):

Tum uero infelix fatis exterrita Dido
mortem orat; taedet caeli conuexa tueri.
quo magis inceptum peragat lucemque relinquat,
uidit, turicremis cum dona imponeret aris,
(horrendum dictu) latices nigrescere sacros
fusaque in obscenum se uertere uina cruorem.

[Then, indeed, awed by her doom, luckless Dido prays for death; she is weary of gazing on the arch of heaven. And to make her more surely fulfil her purpose and leave the light, she saw, as she laid her gifts on the altars ablaze with incense—fearful to tell—the holy water darken and the outpoured wine change into loathsome gore.]

In addition to these ghastly prodigies and unsolicited omens of doom that adumbrate a dire future, Dido now also recalls the many sayings of seers of old (multa… uatum praedicta priorum) which terrify her with fearful foreboding (4.464–65). This stretch of religious terror results in the decision to commit suicide, which sets up the final stage in her development.

From the outset, stage 3 is marked by insightful determination (Aeneid 4.504–10):

At regina, pyra penetrali in sede sub auras


erecta ingenti taedis atque ilice secta,


intenditque locum sertis et fronde coronat


funerea; super exuuias ensemque relictum


effigiemque toro locat, haud ignara futuri.


stant arae circum et crinis effusa sacerdos


ter centum tonat ore deos…


[But the queen, when in the heart of her home the pyre rose heavenward, piled high with pine logs and hewn ilex, hangs the place with garlands and crowns it with funeral boughs. On top, upon the couch, she lays the dress he wore, the sword he left, and an image of him, knowing what was to come. Round about stand altars, and with streaming hair the priestess calls in thunder tones on thrice a hundred gods…]

Now Dido has sorted through her religious confusion. Now she is back in charge. Now she knows what the future holds. Now Virgil calls her priestess. Now she has gained insight into the constraints that the existence of historical destiny imposes upon conventional religious efforts. This insight empowers. In stage 2, she wished Aeneas to die in a shipwreck—a futile desire since it is contrary to fate.317 Now she utters a curse that operates within the parameters set by historical necessity (Aeneid 4.612–18):

‘… si tangere portus
infandum caput ac terris adnare necesse est,
et sic fata Iouis poscunt, hic terminus haeret,

at bello audacis populi uexatus et armis,


finibus extorris, complexu auulsus Iuli


auxilium imploret uideatque indigna suorum




[… If that accursed wretch must needs reach harbour and come to shore, if Jupiter’s ordinances so demand and this is the outcome fixed: yet even so, harassed in war by the arms of a fearless nation, expelled from his territory and torn from Iulus embrace, let him plead for aid and see his friends cruelly slaughtered!…]

Dido has now even cottoned on to the fact that her earlier hope of Aeneas’ dying in a shipwreck was misplaced. She has acquired a good sense of what the fata entail. She realizes that she cannot prevent Aeneas from reaching Italy and fulfilling his destiny. But outside these basic plot patterns she can contribute her share towards making his life and the lives of some of his descendants truly wretched. Her curse comes true.

The acuity of Dido’s theological reflection remains remarkably high right up to her suicide. At Aeneid 4.651–53, in an address to the clothing Aeneas left behind, she even recognizes herself as a figure of fortuna and Aeneas as a figure of fate:318

dulces exuuiae, dum fata deusque sinebat,
accipite hanc animam meque his exsoluite curis.
uixi et quem dederat cursum Fortuna peregi,
et nunc magna mei sub terras ibit imago.

[‘O relics once dear, while God and Fate allowed, take my spirit, and release me from my woes! My life is done and I have finished the course that Fortune gave; and now in majesty my shade shall pass beneath the earth.’]

In the context of her curse, which includes an invocation of the Underworld divinities, her suicide doubles as a literal self-sacrifice along the lines of the Roman deuotio, one of the most striking religious rituals of the Roman republic.319 The scene harks back to Virgil’s comments on Dido’s efforts to receive divine approval for a union with Aeneas in line 65–67. There the poet noted that, rather than seeking succour in conventional religious institutions and practices (delubra, uota) or tearing open the breasts of victims and inspecting animal entrails in order to figure out the future, Dido ought to consider what is eating away under her own breast, in her own innards. She herself, so Virgil intimates, is a sacrificial victim of sorts that contains within divine signs of events to come. In a perverse re-enactment of an animal sacrifice for the purpose of divination that also resembles the Roman deuotio-ritual, Dido finally opens herself up. Her suicide, which is preceded by a powerful invocation of the gods (not least those of the Underworld), countersigns her curse, and in and through her death she writes herself into the destiny of Aeneas and of Rome. Dido in and through her suicidal wrath thereby manages to shape the future in more powerful ways than she was ever able to accomplish with conventional prayers or sacrifices. In the end, then, she has come to understand, and accepts, the religious realities of Virgil’s brave new world as they are and becomes a frightfully efficacious agent within them.