Death and the City:
Euripides' Alcestis and Vergil's Dido

Vassiliki Panoussi

Williams College

No other Roman heroine resembles more clearly a protagonist of tragedy than does the Dido of the Aeneid. Since the time of Servius her tragic pedigree has been acknowledged and analyzed. She is at once a Medea, an Ajax, a Phaedra, and a Deianeira. Book 4 has been examined in terms of dramatic structure (Quinn 1968) or Aristotelian notions of tragic characterization (Moles 1984); it has also been viewed as a lens for focusing the construction of a Roman civic identity (Panoussi 2002). In this paper, I shall consider Dido's actions and ultimate death in light of Euripides' Alcestis, and in particular the notions of substitution and exchange operative therein. After briefly discussing the textual links between Euripides' Alcestis and the Dido episode in the Aeneid, I argue that the connection of the two tragic heroines legitimizes Dido's claims as a wife to Aeneas and underscores the fact that her death occurs in exchange, as it were, for Aeneas' (and Rome's) ultimate survival and prosperity. At the same time, Dido's public persona, like that of Alcestis, depicts woman as subject and agent. Both Dido and Alcestis, however, ultimately control only their own death and both make a 'return' that silences and objectifies them. Yet despite their objectification they also represent a model of superior moral behavior, whose loss is not without consequences for the patriarchal order that required their death.

The connection of Euripides' Alcestis and Dido is forged in the very last scene of Book 4, when Iris, at the request of Juno, descends from Olympus to collect a lock of hair from the dying queen (693-705).  Both Servius (on Aeneid 3.46) and Macrobius (Saturnalia 5.19.2) note that these lines look back to the words of Thanatos in Euripides' Alcestis (73-76).  I argue that the linking of Dido to Alcestis at the end of Book 4 is not all that coincidental. As we reflect on the portrayal of the Carthaginian queen in light of her shared final moment with Alcestis, we see that both women emerge as powerful matriarchs, whose domestic affairs affect the prosperity of their city. As they face their death, they both address their marriage bed and revisit their life choices. In both cases, their final moments reveal that they view their public and private lives as inextricably linked.

The tragic notions of substitution and exchange that define the plot of Alcestis are also operative in the Aeneid. Although Dido's death may doom her city, it ensures the birth of another. Through her death she saves, as it were, Aeneas for Rome.  Yet Dido, as Alcestis, resists the objectification that this exchange imposes on her. Both women take their fate into their own hands, and thus both assert their subjectivity. Both highly successful matriarchs, they face their death with determination and bravery, and present a model of leadership for the men. At the same time, their loss, with its devastating consequences for the people around them, serves as an implicit critique of the order that dictated their destruction.

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