Material Girls Living in a Material World: 
The Wealth of Dido and Circe in the Aeneid

Generosa Sangco-Jackson

University of Florida

This paper will present a close critical examination of Circe and Dido as figures whose actions and associations provide a context and setting for evaluation of the Golden Age values presented in the Aeneid.  Both women rule rich, powerful kingdoms, and they commit their wealth (dives) and the gold (aurum) in the form of gifts for Aeneas.  The associations of Carthage, Aeaea, and gold contribute to Vergil's development of his representation of the Golden Age.  I will argue that the material wealth of both Dido and Circe affect the completion of Aeneas' labor as well as further Vergil's interpretation and redefinition of an ideal Golden Age.  Labor, or a lack of it, is a key concept in Vergil's conception of the Saturnian Golden Age, and it also plays a central role in the societies of both Circe and Dido. 

It has been argued by Yarnall that the role of the Odyssean Circe has been distributed among many women of the Aeneid, particularly Dido, though many of Vergil's references to Circe seem to be his own inventions (1994).  Segal and Putnam view Circe as a negative character who fosters the bestial natures men that participate in warfare (1968 and 1970).  Yet, her character plays a necessary role in Aeneas' success because she is included as one of the conditions that Helenus prophesizes which will end Aeneas' labor (3.381-87).  Circe is traditionally associated with the Saturnian Golden Age, which is characterized by a lack of labor, because her beasts, formerly men, do not work in her kingdom (Plu. Mor. 985D).  She is called dives in her most lengthy appearance in the Aeneid, yet according to mythology, she may have lived during the "actual" Golden Age, so her kingdom should lack the golden luxuries which Dido's had.  Her luxurious possessions, which include an aurea virga and fire breathing horses (7.189-91 and 7.274-85), help Aeneas establish himself in Italy.

Dido's Carthage has some significant similarities to Rome, where the community in the time of Augustus saw models of a renewed Golden Age, with the idea that the city was experiencing a renaissance through labor, conquest, and material wealth (Barker, 1996).  Dido's wealth has precisely the opposite effect on Aeneas' labor, because the golden luxury (splendida luxu...in auro) of her palace hinders Aeneas' journey, his form of labor for the first six books (Stachniw, 1974).  Though her city seems like a plausible representation of the Augustan Golden Age, since it is being successfully established after a conflict, the city is only developing because of labor, a feature that the Saturnian Golden Age distinctly lacked (Perkell, 2002).  After Aeneas arrives, Dido refocuses her wealth on gifts for him, thus halting Carthage's labor.  Once the labor in her city stops, her city fails and she dies.  But the gifts she made to Aeneas and Iulus, these representations of her wealth, appear later in the Aeneid, and they are represented as being useful to Aeneas' efforts (5.570-4, 9.263-6, 11.72-5).

In the Aeneid, the cyclical nature of wealth driving labor is parallel to the cycle of the Golden Age, since this age in Augustus' time can only be established after much effort in war and conquest (Smolenaars, 1987).  Yet once a Golden Age is established, it will fail due to wealth and greed.  References to aureus in Dido's Carthage may construct the city as a literally golden one, but its development does not lack toil and greed in the same way that a society in the Saturnian Golden Age should.  Circe, by the position of her appearance in book 7, seems to be waiting for her own part in the development of Aeneas' labor of war and cycle of change (Hardie, 1992).  The Aeneid ends at the culmination of the labor of war, but in the confines of the text, Aeneas never founds his city.  The reader cannot know if Aeneas has a Golden Age without toil, and is left to compare the societies of Dido and Circe.  However one desires to read these women and their roles, Dido and Circe represent the momentum of the Golden Age cycle within the structure of the Aeneid

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