Dido’s Ambiguous Depictions: Powerless or Empowered?

Picture mimicking Dido, the Queen of Carthage’s, suicide in Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid, Henry Fuseli

Dido’s Ambiguous Depictions: Powerless or Empowered?

By Caroline Pantzer



Did Roman audiences view powerful female characters of myth and literature in a dismissive, simplistic manner? Or did they understand and appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of such figures? In writing the Aeneid between 30–19 BC, Vergil places himself as an author within the epic tradition’s pre-existing “literary canon” of powerful, intelligent female characters.1 Vergil was writing in the fast-paced years of early Augustan Rome. Shedding the name Octavian and the bloody civil wars with which he effectively terminated the Roman Republic, Augustus Caesar commissioned Vergil to write the Aeneid in hopes that the poem would help legitimize Augustus’s power as the new emperor of Rome.2

Book 4 of Vergil’s poem largely concerns itself with the depiction of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, an area on the coast of North Africa (modern-day Tunisia). In the beginning of the book, Dido has power and commands her city; however, as the book progresses, her power slowly diminishes due to her intense love for Aeneas. The depiction of Dido has on the one hand been read simplistically—Dido as the antithesis of the Roman ideal woman—but on the other, it is clear that Vergil leaves many of his passages ambiguous, with multiple ways to read each scene. The traditional interpretation reads Aeneas as the Roman cultural hero, an ancestor whose descendants would come to found the Augustan principate; it was thought that Augustus established the Julio-Claudian dynasty.3 However, this interpretation is too simplistic, as Vergil is deliberate in his narrative. Thus, another interesting way of reading the poem is instead a critique of Aeneas and Augustan Rome, in particular the perils and ignoble nature of imperial rule. Therefore, it is important to question what message Vergil tries to convey, giving modern-day readers insight into how people at the time viewed women with such complicated yet intriguing depictions. Dido provides a fascinating case study.

In his portrayal of Dido, Vergil was not writing in a vacuum; he was surrounded by a world of Trojan War epics in which there were many examples of female characters with colorful, powerful portraits. For example, in Homer’s Odyssey, we encounter two strikingly powerful figures, Circe and Helen, who have full command of the narrative. In Book 4 of the Odyssey, Helen takes control by drugging her guests’ drinks to help her husband, Menelaus, and Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, stop grieving about the war. Helen explains how she was the only person who could see Odysseus inside of Troy through his disguised character and comforted him while he lamented.4 Helen was cunning as she bathed Odysseus and extracted the Greek war strategy from him and also when she later circled the Trojan horse and imitated the voices of the Greek warriors’ wives. As a result, Helen is trustworthy to Odysseus but also extremely deceptive and intelligent. Similarly, in Book 10 of the Odyssey, Circe controls the narrative and is notorious for her power and trickery. The narrator and other characters fear her power as Circe delays Odysseus and his troops from returning home, transforms his mates into pigs, and turns Odysseus into her lover (Od. 11). Helen, Circe, and other female characters in the Trojan War epic, are cunning and deceptive. Vergil places Dido as another female character in this succession of powerful epic figures. Although the Odyssey was written down almost 800 years before the Aeneid, by referencing Homer’s characters in Dido’s portrayal, Vergil mirrors Homer’s style and content while also creating unique Vergilian scenes. Specifically, this paper shows how Vergil follows Homer’s template for narrating Aeneas’ journey to the Underworld; as discussed below, Vergil here models Dido’s presence off of Homer’s Ajax. However, Vergil changes Homer’s narrative in significant ways that compensate for Dido’s suffering, inherently changing the model from which he drew to cast Dido’s final depiction in a positive light. It is here that Vergil can be seen to present his audience with a respectable, empowered Dido, redeeming the lovelorn heroine of Book 4. 


Dido’s Life and Death in Carthage

Toward the beginning of Book 4, before Dido’s and Aeneas’s relationship intensifies, Vergil includes a simile that focuses on a comparison between Dido and a deer that was shot with an arrow. The deer is described as incautam, unsuspecting—a signal and symbol of how Dido does not realize her extreme love for Aeneas and her forthcoming death (Aen. 4.70). The word incautam also connotes and suggests the deer’s innocence. As a result, although Dido previously implied that she is to blame for her love, in this simile, Vergil hints at her innocence, suggesting to readers that she does not have control over the situation and her unbearable love. Roger A. Hornsby suggests that “it is really [Dido’s] own passion, her own desires, which have caused her to suffer.”5 However, it is important to recall that Dido’s intense love was a result of the gods’ intervention: Venus sent Cupid disguised as Ascanius to breathe fire into Dido and make her fall in love with Aeneas—Dido had no power over it (Aen. 1.695-722). Additionally, in the simile, the deer does not die immediately but is rather shot on her side (laterī)  by a shepherd and it experiences immense pain before finally, belaboredly, passing into death. (Aen. 4.73). Similarly, Dido experiences immense pain because of her love for Aeneas and suffers for a long time before her eventual death, also a painful and prolonged experience, as I discuss below. 

Although Vergil grants some ambiguity to the identity of the shepherd, we can see some of Aeneas and his actions in the herdsman as Vergil uses the word nescius, ignorant or unaware, to describe him and frequently that word is associated with Aeneas (Aen. 4.72). Readers thus do not know how to read the scene and might ask whether Vergil intended to paint Aeneas in a negative light. He gives Aeneas agency as the one whose hand directly caused the death of the deer and Dido; as a result, these parallels allow us, in a subversive reading, to view Aeneas as a killer. Additionally, it is interesting to note that this simile is presented long before Dido’s death and Aeneas’s departure from Carthage. Vergil foreshadows the conclusion of Book 4 and informs readers of the course that their relationship will take and Dido’s lack of control.

Since this simile foreshadows Dido’s future and not her present, ironically, right afterwards, Vergil makes an effort to establish her power. As the Queen of Carthage, Dido is the respected and competent ruler of a flourishing new city like the one Aeneas himself must build. Dido leads (dūcit) Aeneas into her city, showing off (ostentat) her resources and well-maintained city (Aen. 4.74-75). Interestingly, Vergil uses the word dūcit to describe Dido leading Aeneas through her city although dūcit usually has male subjects. Notably, Dido is founding a new city just as Aeneas ought to be doing. Instead, he is playing spectator in Dido’s city: he marvels at Carthage. Dido is a reminder that Aeneas is neglecting his duties as well as being an exemplar of a true leader, someone who has overseen the construction of her city, from its walls to its temples. In these ways, Vergil deliberately includes role reversal and gender inversions of traditional masculine and feminine characters. By showing Dido leading her city like Aeneas should lead his, her power is emphasized and made clear to the reader, making it nearly impossible to not sympathize with Dido when it is completely lost.

The cave scene, representing Dido’s and Aeneas’s so-called marriage, is a moment where Dido’s power begins to decline and becomes ambiguous. When the Trojans and Carthaginians go hunting and a violent storm sweeps in, Dīdō dux et Troiānus arrive at the same cave (Aen. 4.165). Interestingly, the word dux could grammatically agree with either Dīdō or Troiānus; Vergil leaves it to the reader to determine whether Dido or Aeneas is the leader. The ambiguity of this word suggests that Dido’s power and role as a leader are becoming vulnerable: she is unable to love and devote time to Aeneas whilst simultaneously keeping her city functioning. It is also during this scene that the narrator becomes biased against Dido. After implying that Dido does not care about her fame and reputation, Vergil attempts to put himself into Dido’s mind. He suggests that she conceals her guilt of being with someone else after her previous husband died by calling their relationship a marriage (Aen. 4.170-172). The narrator does not think Dido and Aeneas are married, yet he uses the language of Roman weddings and marriages to show the complexity and ambiguity of the situation. Vergil calls this scene a cōnūbiīs, a word that has multiple definitions: marriage, the right to marry, a marriage ceremony, or just a sexual union or intercourse (Aen. 4.168). In this alleged cōnūbiīs, Vergil includes fires representing the groom’s party with torches (ignēs), an ether representing a witness (aethēr), a sign representing the arrival of the bride (signum), and a shout by women representing the bride being taken from the groom (ululārunt), all symbolic parts of a traditional Roman wedding (Aen. 4.167-168). Therefore, Roman audiences would have read this scene as a marriage. However, the lack of an “official” legal marriage is later used to criticize Dido when she loses her sanity.

When Aeneas leaves Carthage to continue his journey to Italy, the narrator portrays Dido in a negative light by emphasizing her powerlessness. When Dido suspects Aeneas’s departure, the narrator describes her as inops animī, suggesting she lacks the resources and strength of rational thinking. She is “needy of” the ability to control her mind and thoughts (Aen. 4.300). Dido is described as incēnsa, as she is metaphorically burning on fire due to her love and anger (Aen. 4.300). The narrator further describes Dido as bacchātur, thereby comparing her to a volatile female worshiper of Bacchus. The idol-follower relationship of Bacchus and his worshiper resembles that of Aeneas and Dido. The narrator likens Dido to a woman who becomes frenzied, unable to control herself, and even insane, due to excessive love and devotion to a male figure. For Dido, becoming insane means losing her power over not only her leadership of Carthage and the respect that she once commanded but also her relationships, emotions, and rationality.

Dido’s complete loss of control over her emotions is evident in her speech to Aeneas. Dido asks a series of short questions signifying her extreme anger; she cannot even speak fluently because her mind is occupied by confusion and frustration. In the speech, Dido leaves the verb posse until a whole line after its complementary infinitive, dissimulāre (Aen. 4.305-306). However, in subsequent lines, she speaks with perfect word order in an ascending tricolon, emphasizing her heightened emotion. Dido asks Aeneas, nec tē noster amor nec tē data dextra quondam nec moritūra tenet crūdēlī fūnere Dīdō: “And does our love not hold you? Does neither my right hand having been given not hold you, nor does Dido, about to die by a bloody funeral, not hold you?” (Aen. 4.307-308). Dido speaks in an ascending tricolon as she uses three parallel words (nec) and each clause after the nec is slightly longer than the one preceding it. Dido can not control herself as she screams at Aeneas and references her future death—she already knows she is about to die and does not give Aeneas time to explain himself. She automatically accuses Aeneas and cannot speak in a civilized manner or engage in dialogue: she only can understand her side of the story. She further pleads that Aeneas pity the falling house (miserēre domūs lābentis), representing the Carthaginian empire (Aen. 4.318). The status of the empire reflects the status of its royalty; thus, Dido admits her degrading power as the queen. By emphasizing the strength of the empire at the beginning of the book and comparing it to the destruction of the empire toward the middle, Vergil makes it clear to readers that Dido has lost her authority and legitimacy as queen. Dido claims, on account of Aeneas, her pudor, shame, and fāma, reputation, has been extīnctus, extinguished (Aen. 4.322-323).

Dido’s power has diminished so much that by the end of the book, she has lost everything and wants to die. Dido groans, ingemuit, when she sees the light, implying that she is angry that she is still alive (Aen. 4.696). Vergil highlights how Dido dies even though she was not fated to die: she is dying ante diem, before her day (Aen. 4.697). This wording echoes the language of synchronous Roman tombstones and grave epitaphs for children and women who died before their time. As much as she wanted to die, she physically could not until Juno sent down Iris to let Dido finally extinguish and kill herself. Dido’s death scene is extremely emotional, especially considering the role played by Anna, her sister. When Dido decides to commit suicide, she tricks Anna into believing that she has found a way to free herself from her love for Aeneas and tells Anna to build a pyre to burn the remnants Aeneas left behind—one of which is his sword. Instead of burning the relics, Dido stabs herself with his sword until she dies (Aen. 4.630-705). As a result, the torment of this scene is distressing, and Roman audiences would have been, at least in some sense, sympathetic to Dido’s death. Perhaps Vergil suggests that Dido was blowing her situation out of proportion: if she was not fated to die, she should not have killed herself out of anger and frustration. Or perhaps, Vergil suggests to readers that it is Aeneas’s fault that he made her die before her day—maybe it is too reductive to blame Dido and believe that as a female ruler, she was an example of a bad woman. 

With attention to Dido’s death, Vergil sends a message about how women in Augustan Rome should behave. According to Kenneth McLeish, Dido would have been read by a Roman audience as “probably nothing more than an unbalanced barbarian queen, a definite encumbrance in Aeneas’s way.”6 Vergil emphasizes how she is “unbalanced” by indicating that everything about how Dido acts after she meets Aeneas is not how the Roman woman should behave; she should not lose control over her life, city, and relationship. However, Vergil also prolongs her death scene, making it almost impossible for readers to not care about nor sympathize with Dido. Vergil thus continues on his path of ambiguity: in one sense, readers might think that Dido is overreacting and unable to control her emotions, and in another sense, readers might be sympathetic as she had such a painful ending to her life, thereby not solely considering her an “encumbrance.” We ought to question whether Dido’s brutal death scene was meant to be critical of the actions and consequences of the reputed pius Aenēās, loyal Aeneas (Aen. 4.393). If so, Vergil’s writing could also be read as a subversive text rather than one solely designed to legitimize Augustus’s power in ushering in a whole new world order and eradicating the Roman Republic.


Dido in the Underworld

While Dido and her death scene is Vergil’s creation, his Underworld is very much modeled off of the greatest predecessor of his time: Homer.7 Vergil and most people in Augustan Rome who would be reading his poem were familiar with Homer’s writing and mythological stories. Knowing Homer’s story of Odysseus going to the Underworld allowed Vergil to mimic the scene while also adding his flair. Both Aeneas and Odysseus visit the Underworld looking for “next steps” in their journeys: Odysseus gets advice and hears about his fate from the blind prophet, Tiresias, and Aeneas learns about his destiny from his prophetic father. 

If Vergil was simply writing for Augustan propaganda, readers would not encounter the sympathetic Dido again in a scene of Book 6 where she claims power. Vergil models Aeneas’s journey to the Underworld in Book 6 off of Odysseus’s journey to the Underworld in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, particularly in the scene where Aeneas sees Dido. Vergil gives Dido the role of Ajax, one of the best Greek heroes who helped destroy Troy, and another infamous mythical suicide who took his life out of shame and public disrepute.8 As readers of Vergil, we can have some insight into how he thinks about Dido by considering how he causes this scene to diverge from Homer’s account. 

On their course to the Underworld, Aeneas and Odysseus encounter various people; when Aeneas sees Dido and when Odysseus sees Ajax, both stop to speak. Aeneas and Odysseus begin their speeches in similar manners and blame the Gods for the situation that led to the death of their companions. Odysseus asserts that the only blame should be on Ζεùς while Aeneas claims that he was ordered by the gods (deum) to leave Carthage (Od. 11. 560. Aen. 6.461). When confronted by Dido and Ajax, Aeneas and Odysseus attempt to paint themselves in a better light as they believe it was not their fault for these deaths. Ajax stands away from (νόσφιν) Odysseus while he speaks, and does not engage (Od. 11. 543). Similarly, instead of speaking to Aeneas, Dido keeps her eyes on the ground (solō fīxōs oculōs āversa), turns away from him, and is unmoved by his words as if her face were made of Marpesian rock (Marpēsia cautēs) (Aen. 6.469-471). Contrastingly, Ajax does show emotion as he described with a perfect participle as being full of wrath (κεχολωμένη) (Od. 11.543). In comparison to Ajax, Dido does not show her anger toward Aeneas; as a result, it is evident that she has reclaimed the ability to control her emotions, something she lost in Book 4.

Interestingly, although the majority of these scenes in the Underworld are similar, Ajax’s and Dido’s departures from Odysseus and Aeneas are different. Ajax goes εἰς ᾽Έρεβος, into the darkness of the Underworld, with no one to help him (Od. 11.564). All Homer mentions are anonymous ψυχάς—souls—something that feels more distressing and haunting than comforting. (Od. 11.564). Contrastingly, Dido goes back to Sychaeus, her former husband, who sympathizes (respondet) with her and matches (aequat) her love (Aen. 6.474). Since Vergil chooses not to have Dido recede into the black depths of the Underworld alone, he signals to readers a nuanced and more positive ending for Dido. By contrasting the ambiguity of the souls for Ajax with the clearness and personal comfort of Sychaeus, Virgil adds consolation for Dido in the Underworld that Ajax did not have. Why does he give Dido a happier ending than Homer gave Ajax? It would have been easy for Vergil to continue mirroring Homer’s scene; however, he deliberately gives Dido someone who will help repair her pain, thus restoring her “heroic persona.”9 Ultimately, the easy answer of Dido as a bad example of a female ruler is too simplistic because otherwise, Vergil would not have given her a redemption arc by adding this significant departure from the storyline of the Odyssey. Therefore, it is important to ask whether Vergil intended to encourage his readers to sympathize with Dido and realize that she was not such a terrible or crazy person, thereby demanding his readers to again consider whether the Augustan cultural hero, Aeneas, was so “pious” after all.

Although these scenes end differently, it is still significant that Dido is compared to one of the best Greek warriors to fight in the Trojan War. Ironically, if anything, Dido was the opposite of a warrior by the end of Book 4 since she was utterly powerless. However, Vergil empowers Dido in this underworld scene, granting her the opportunity to control her emotions and actions while also giving her someone who will sympathize with her. Odysseus won a victory over Ajax in a similar way that Aeneas won a victory over Dido, and so too will Aeneas’s Roman descendants win a victory over the Carthaginians in the Punic wars. Even after Aeneas’s “victory” over Dido—her shaming that led to suicide—Vergil still makes an effort to veer away from Homer’s model and have a more positive ending for Dido; rather than making her death her last appearance in the poem, Vergil adds depth to Dido’s character by reintroducing her in Book 6 and allowing her to reclaim some of the power that she lost in Book 4. As a result, Dido fits in the realm of colorful portraits of women. Her portrayal encourages readers to analyze the Aeneid deeper than the Augustan propaganda model would suggest, thus making Romans question their initial and perhaps instinctive views on women in epic literature and mythology.


Caroline Pantzer is a junior at Trinity School in New York City and studies Latin and Ancient Greek.



  1. Joseph Farell, “The Virgilian Intertext,” The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, (1997), 1, https://www.academia.edu/4217101/The_Virgilian_Intertext
  2. Sabine Grebe, “Augustus’ Divine Authority and Vergil’s ‘Aeneid,’” Vergilius (1959) 50 (2004): 36-37, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41587284
  3. Ibid.
  4. Robert Fitzgerald, The Odyssey (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1961), 4.230-280.
  5. Roger A. Hornsby, “The Vergilian Simile as Means of Judgment,” The Classical Journal 60, no. 8 (1965): 339, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294256
  6. Kenneth McLeish, “Dido, Aeneas, and the Concept of ‘Pietas,’” Greece & Rome 19, no. 2 (1972): 127–128, http://www.jstor.org/stable/642667
  7. Vassiliki Panoussi, “Vergil’s Ajax: Allusion, Tragedy, and Heroic Identity in the Aeneid,” Classical Antiquity, vol. 21, no 1, 2022, 95-96, https://doi.org/10.1525/ca.2002.21.1.95
  8. Ibid, 103. 
  9. Ibid, 115. 



Farrell, Joseph. “The Virgilian Intertext .” The Cambridge Companion to Virgil, 1997. https://www.academia.edu/4217101/The_Virgilian_Intertext

Fitzgerald, Robert. The Odyssey. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1961.

Grebe, Sabine. “Augustus’ Divine Authority and Vergil’s ‘Aeneid.’” Vergilius (1959-) 50 (2004): 35–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41587284

Hornsby, Roger A. “The Vergilian Simile as Means of Judgment.” The Classical Journal 60, no. 8 (1965): 337–44. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294256

McLeish, Kenneth. “Dido, Aeneas, and the Concept of ‘Pietas.’” Greece & Rome 19, no. 2 (1972): 127–35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/642667

Panoussi, Vassiliki. “Vergil’s Ajax: Allusion, Tragedy, and Heroic Identity in the Aeneid.” Classical Antiquity 21, no. 1 (2002): 95–134. https://doi.org/10.1525/ca.2002.21.1.95