Wisdom of the Ancients: Aeneas Sees Dido for the First Time

While reading through The Aeneid this time around, I found myself struck by the way Virgil weaves foreshadowing into the passage where Aeneas sees Dido for the first time.  Aided by a mist thrown about him by his mother Venus, Aeneas has just been able to do a full inspection of Carthage.  The Carthaginians were busy building up the city, and Aeneas has just gazed upon some artwork describing the Trojan War when Dido appears on the scene.

Dido receives Aeneas

Haec dum Dardanio Aeneae miranda videntur,
dum stupet, obtutuque haeret defixus in uno,
regina ad templum, forma pulcherrima Dido,
incessit magna iuvenum stipante caterva.
Qualis in Eurotae ripis aut per iuga Cynthi
exercet Diana choros, quam mille secutae
hinc atque hinc glomerantur oreades; illa pharetram
fert umero, gradiensque deas supereminet omnis:
(Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus):
talis erat Dido, talem se laeta ferebat
per medios, instans operi regnisque futuris. (Book I, 494-504)

Aeneas at Carthage

While these marvels are viewed by the Dardanian Aeneas,

While he is astounded and fixed upon one vision, he is stuck to the spot.

The queen, Dido of beautiful curves, to the temple

strides with a great crowd of young men thronging her.

As if Diana training her chorus on the banks of the Eurota

or through the passes of Cynthus, one whom a thousand attendant

mountain nymphs gather about on this side and that; she bears

a quiver on her shoulder–stepping forward, she stands above all the goddesses.

(Rejoicings master the silent breast of Latona):

Such a woman was Dido, the happy woman bore herself so

through the middle of them, devoting herself to the work and the future kingdom.


Well, I know that I generally dislike translations of the Aeneid, and I doubt that mine is much better than what professional translators have accomplished.  But, it does the job.

While reading this passage a few interesting thoughts came to my mind.  Aeneas has been examining a procession of wonders after his advent in Carthage, which stupefy him (stupet); yet, he now sees one wonder to top them all: the goddess-like Dido.  Though Dido is compared to a goddess, she is oddly compared to the goddess Diana.  This seems disconcerting: Diana is a virgin, and none of the men she associates with meet a happy fate. Aeneas’ stupefaction on seeing her recalls how Actaeon caught sight of the goddess Diana naked, whose beauty, no doubt, stunned him.  For this mistake, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag and has him torn apart by hounds.  However, The Aeneid relates a story where the Diana meets an unlucky end instead.

Also, being compared to a god or goddess can often be a bad thing, because the Greek gods were so easily moved to jealousy.  Misfortune often happens to people who excel in talent or beauty.  A little more foreshadowing that Aeneas and Dido will not have a happy romance.

Suicide of Queen Dido

Interestingly, the crowd of young men thronging her indicate that Dido has a ton of admirers, so there is no need for her to take an interest in the foreigner Aeneas.  As a matter of fact, the last two lines along with her comparison to Diana indicate that Dido would have been happiest dedicating herself to the building of her kingdom.  Of course, her efforts at building Carthage into a brilliant city or even an empire (the plural form regnis futuris suggests an especially great kingdom) cause Aeneas to identify with her.  This no doubt featured as part of their attraction, though Virgil shows Cupid as inspiring Dido with love later on in the story.

But, line 492 reveals the great genius of Virgil: Latonae tacitum pertemptant gaudia pectus.  A five word line with the verb in the center and surrounded by a chiasmus or interlocking word order is known as a golden line.  And Virgil could have made line 492 a golden line had he wished; yet, he declines to do so.  The reason for this lies in that he meant this line to foreshadow the way Dido met her end.  It suggests “Didonis tacitum pertemptat gladius pectus“–“The sword of Dido masters her silent breast.”  (Of course, gladius does not fit the fifth foot of dactylic hexameter, but gaudia and gladius strike one as very similar in appearance.)  His refusal to make this line golden points to the tragic nature of Dido’s death, which is pretty cool.  Not something an English reader is going to see!

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