Beautiful and brainy, Queen Dido would have been a talk show favorite. Her brother Pygmalion seized the throne the siblings shared and murdered her husband. Forced to flee, she negotiated a land grab, then built and ruled the great city of Carthage. She had a second chance at a good life, but for the men. Prime among them was the poet Virgil, who, in the Aeneid, completed around 19 B.C.E., rewrote the Phoenician queen as a woman who loved too much, who, after a lusty fling with Aeneas, fresh from the Trojan War, set herself afire.
A different version of the Dido myth has her suiciding to avoid the advances of the chieftain Iarbus. He’d ruled the land which became Carthage. The story appears in an illuminated manuscript pictured below, Des cas des nobles hommes et femmes. French, 1413-1415. That’s Dido, stabbing herself.
Here she is (below), in charge, in Queen Dido founding Carthage, engraved by Matthäus Merian, Swiss, 1593-1650.
In the sculpture below, Dido is simply a queen, a ruler in contemplation. In a rare artistic move, sculptor Christine Jongen has her as other than European. Dido, bronze sculpture, Belgian, 2007-08.
This version of Dido meeting Aeneas shows a shade: a “before” Aeneas, hidden by a mist; her slain husband Sychaeus? a warning? Paul Cézanne, Aeneas Meeting Dido at Carthage, French, ca. 1875.
Below, she readies herself to die while pointing to Aeneas’ ship sailing off in The Death of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Joseph Stallaert, Belgian, 1872.
Music has likewise served the legend well. In 1668, English composer Henry Purcell told the story in his opera, Dido and Aeneas. If you would like to die and go to heaven right now, please listen to the astonishing Jessye Norman sing Dido’s lament, “When I Am Laid to Rest.”
This special report brought to you by multi-issue contributor Sarah Sarai.