Queen Dido: The Legendary Founder of the City of Carthage

Legend has it that Dido, who was a princess of Tyre, fled her home to establish her own city named Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) around 814/3 BC. Apart from being the first ruler of Carthage, she is known for her tragic love story with the Trojan Prince Aeneas, as retold beautifully in “Aeneid”, the famous epic poem by Augustan era poet Virgil.

Dido and Aeneas’ story served as the backstory to Carthage’s future rivalry and war against the Roman Empire. The Carthaginian queen herself would become the subject for many writers in history.

Who was Dido?

Dido is a legendary queen who is credited with the founding of Carthage. Image: Dido, a painting by Italian painter Dosso Dossi.

Dido was the daughter of King Belus, who was the ruler of Tyre (located in modern-day Lebanon). She had a brother called Pygmalion.

Tyre was a city state in Phoenicia. It’s said that her Phoenician name was Elissa. She was later renamed Dido, which means “wanderer”, a befitting name for a woman who wandered many parts of the Mediterranean before finally settling in North Africa.

Meanwhile, Dido married a wealthy man called Acerbas (also known as Sychaeus). Sadly, her father passed away. Upon his death, Belus remained hopeful that Tyre would be divided between his two children. But Pygmalion refused to fulfill his father’s wish and took full control of the kingdom. He also killed Acerbas out of jealousy and desire for his brother-in-law’s wealth.

Later on, the ghost of Acerbas visited Dido in a dream, where he informed her of the location of his hidden wealth. He also revealed to her that it was Pygmalion that had killed him and told her to leave Tyre, as she was likely going to become his next victim.

Dido listened to her husband’s ghost, located the treasures, and left Tyre with a band of supporters. Many of these supporters were subjects displeased with Pygmalion’s reign.

The City of Carthage

Dido first arrived in Cyprus. While there, she met a priest called Astarte and convinced him to join her on her quest to establish a new colony. She promised Astarte that he would serve as her new colony’s High Priest. Together with 80 maidens, who were given to Dido’s supporters as brides, the group set sail for North Africa.

They settled in an area in North Africa to start a new colony and initially received aid from the people of Utica. They also traded with the Libyan locals and entered an agreement to rent land. Part of the agreement terms set by the locals was that Dido and her settlers could have any piece of land that they could cover with ox-hide.

But Dido was smart and decided to cut the hide into strips, which she used to form a half circle around a hill that bordered the sea. Eventually, that hill became known as Byrsa Hill and served as the city’s citadel. This transaction birthed the city of Carthage. Due to her quick-thinking, Carthage quickly became an important location for scholarship, commerce and trade. The city’s proximity to the sea turned it into a vibrant transit point for traders sailing along the Mediterranean.

Dido’s Reign in Carthage

Under Dido’s reign, Carthage grew to become a thriving and prosperous city. Acerbas’s death had left her a widow and not much was known about her romantic life during her journey to Carthage.

According to one legend, a man named Iarbas proposed to Dido but she rejected his proposal, as she had chosen to remain faithful to Acerbas. In the account, Iarbas, who was described as the son of the Roman god Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology), didn’t take the rejection well and vowed to destroy Carthage. In response, Dido decided to kill herself. She either stabbed herself while burning on a funeral pyre or threw herself into the flames of the pyre.

READ MORE: Roman Gods vs. Greek Gods

Queen Dido and the Trojan hero Aeneas

In a different account, however, ancient Roman poet Virgil’s “Aeneid” tells of how Dido fell in love with a man named Aeneas.

Aeneas was a Trojan warrior who was found wandering around the early settlement of Carthage after fleeing Troy, the city that had been overrun by the Greeks (the Achaeans) during the Trojan War. Aeneas is believed to have fought alongside other brave Trojan warriors like Prince Hector, Prince Paris, Sarpedon, and Phorkys.

Virgil states that Queen Dido initially rejected Aeneas, however, that all changed after the Carthaginian queen she was struck by Cupid’s arrow.

While it’s not known if they were married, they lived together in Carthage as man and wife. However, when Iarbas heard the news, he was furious. He prayed to his father against the new relationship. Jupiter heard his son’s prayers and sent his messenger Mercury (Hermes in Greek mythology) to remind Aeneas of his life’s mission and help him prepare. Aeneas was meant to be the founder of Rome, and him settling in Carthage with Dido had thrown his destiny off course.

Reminded of his life’s mission, Aeneas gathered the Trojans and quietly left Carthage under the cover of darkness. Dido was inconsolable when she found out about her lover’s betrayal. Consumed by angst, the Carthaginian is believed to have cursed the Trojans. This act set the tone for the future Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome.

In Virgil’s book the Aeneid, the Roman author focuses on last few days of the sack of Troy, as well as how Trojan hero Aeneas fled the burning city with a number of Trojans to establish the city of Rome. Virgil describes Aeneas as the first true hero of Rome. Image: Queen Dido and Aeneas, from a Roman fresco, Pompeian Third Style (10 BC – 45 AD), Pompeii, Italy

Death of Dido

Queen Dido then arranged for a pyre to be constructed, which she used to destroy Aeneas’ belongings. But she threw herself into the fire and stabbed herself with a sword he’d given to her. According to “Aeneid”, the couple later met in the Underworld.

Queen Dido of Carthage killed herself after she was abandoned by her lover Aeneas, who sailed to the Italian peninsula to found the city of Rome. She is one of the most famous abandoned heroines in Greek mythology.Image: Death of Dido, by Italian Baroque painter Guercino, AD 1631.

Did Dido Exist?

Dido’s existence as the Queen of Carthage has long been a subject of debate for many years. However in 1894, explorers found a gold chain at Carthage, which had a six-line inscription that mentioned Dido’s brother, Pygmalion. It was also dated 814 BC, which corresponded with the birth of Carthage.

But if Dido had truly existed, it’s very unlikely that she and Aeneas would later meet as Aeneas would have been extremely old.

Queen Dido’s Legacy

The Trojan hero and refugee Aeneas tells Queen Dido of the Trojan War. Painting by French painter Guérin, 1815.

The story of Dido is one that has intrigued many people throughout history and certainly left her mark. The following are some other interesting things about the Carthaginian queen:

  • Queen Dido’s character featured heavily in the writings of many famous ancient writers, including Ovid, Tertullian, Petrarch, and Chaucer.
  • She appeared in Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” in Hell’s second circle. He described her as a lustful woman. Her story also served as the inspiration for Christopher Marlowe’s play “Dido, Queen of Carthage.”
  • Queen Dido also appeared in several of William Shakespeare plays, including “The Tempest”, “Titus Andronicus”, “Hamlet”, and “The Merchant of Venice” among many others.
  • Dido’s love story with Aeneas was the subject of many operas in the Post-Renaissance era, including “Didone abbandonata”, which inspired many future composers from the 1600s to the 2000s.
  • The Queen of Carthage also appeared in the video games, “Civilization II” and “Civilization V” as Carthage’s ruler. She also appeared in the sixth installment of the game in 2019.
  • The asteroid 209 Dido was named after her in 1879. Mount Dido, located in Antarctica, was named in her honor.

Did you know?

The word “dido” in the English language means a mischievous action or a prank

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