Res dura et regni novitas: Dido's Colonization Narrative

Shari Nakata

The Aeneid, taken in its entirety, comprises the long colonization narrative of Aeneas and his fellow Trojans, a narrative that follows in the tradition of Greek colonization narratives.  Present within the poem, moreover, are many other examples of colonization narratives in this tradition, both Trojan (e.g. those of Antenor, Helenus, and Acestes) as well as Greek (e.g. those of Salaminian Teucer, Evander, and Diomedes), some appearing only by way of allusion, others told more extensively. An additional narrative in the tradition is that of Tyrian Dido, who founds the city of Carthage in North Africa.  Dido's narrative appears at first to offer a colonizing model for Aeneas that is worth emulating, but one of her colonizing strategies turns out not to be in the best interests of Carthage--and it is a strategy that, significantly, is not employed by Aeneas when he reaches Italy at the end of his own journey.

Allusion is first made to Dido's colonization narrative at the beginning of Book 1, when Carthage is first described as a colony of Tyre (1.12-13).  Venus later outlines for Aeneas, newly shipwrecked in the vicinity of Carthage, Dido’s narrative (1.338-68), one that interestingly parallels Aeneas’ own narrative.  Dido was forced to flee Tyre in the midst of a crisis, when her brother Pygmalion murdered her husband Sychaeus (1.348-50).  Sychaeus’ ghost thereafter provided Dido with supernatural guidance for her journey (1.353-59), thus prompting her to gather a group of supporters who followed her into exile, in search of a new home (1.360-64).  At the site of what would become Carthage, an ingenious interpretation of the terms of a land offer—in effect, the solution of what is conveniently read as a riddle—enabled Dido to obtain land for her new city (1.365-68).

Omissions from Venus' narrative proper are revealed elsewhere: that divine guidance for the colonists has come from Juno, who as their patron goddess (1.15-18) showed them where they should build their city (1.443-45); that Carthage is already wealthy and of no small repute militarily (1.14); and, perhaps most significant of all, that although she has settled in unfamiliar and hostile territory, Dido has repeatedly refused offers of personal and political alliances with the leaders of indigenous peoples in the area (4.35-43).  Alliances with these powerful leaders would seem to be advantageous to the Carthaginian newcomers, but such indigenous peoples are uncivilized and barbaric in Dido's eyes and hence unworthy--to her--as allies.  She looks instead to Aeneas and the now indigent Trojans, who have a proud history in their former city, Troy, which was once an imperial power itself, and their cultural superiority alone (vis-à-vis the indigenous peoples surrounding Carthage) guarantees them an alliance with the Carthaginians and a share in the new colony on equal terms (1.565-74).

Practically speaking, such an alliance proves not to be the right choice: with the Trojans' departure, Carthage is isolated and its immediate future is uncertain in the face of alienated and even more hostile neighbors.  Aeneas and the Trojans do not repeat this mistake in Italy, for one of their first acts upon arriving in Latium, even as they prepare to build walls for their new settlement, is to try to secure an alliance with the local king, Latinus.  Although this unexpectedly precipitates war rather than prevent it, other alliances secured by the Trojans constitute for them an effective power base from which to operate and with which they can establish their presence in Italy.

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