Dido and the Gynaecologia

Minna Canton Duchovnay

This paper suggests that Vergil’s formulation of Dido was dependent on an understanding of women’s gynecological diseases as postulated in the Hippocratic treatises, in particular, Diseases of Women, I and IIBy doing a close reading of the Aeneid through the lens of the Hippocratic gynecological corpus, I will demonstrate that Vergil was familiar with then prevailing medical concepts about women’s illnesses and that these medical concepts would have been understood by his audience as well.

When Vergil first describes Dido, it is with two defining epithets, magno miserae…amore (1.344) and aegram…amentem (1.351).  These two descriptions of Dido are in close association and serve to introduce Dido to Vergil’s contemporaries as sick and miserable and to associate her as such in his audience’s minds.  At times, Vergil is direct in his use of medical terms that relate to illness, sickness, and wounding; at other times he uses poetic imagery to describe conditions of illness that affect the characters in the Aeneid.

I will provide a brief review of the ailments generally associated with widowhood and childlessness as expounded by the Hippocratic treatises (Hanson, Dean-Jones) and relate them to Vergil’s descriptions of Dido.  By tracing the relationship between Dido’s illnesses to the basic gyneaecological material, I expect to provide an understanding of

Dido that has its basis in a different construct than hitherto seen – one that is inevitable and inescapable in her role in the story of Aeneas.

These ailments will then be discussed in relation to Aeneas’ first view of Dido, when he and Achates arrive in Carthage, and then to Vergil’s subsequent descriptions of her as a woman who suffers from the sickness of love, [at regina gravi iamdudum saucia cura volnus…(4.2)], a woman who ultimately will be abandoned.

A handout will be provided.

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