Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Real Dido

Aeneas tells Dido the misfortunes of the Trojan city by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin
In modern day Tunisia, once a powerful city stands. The city of Carthage was a Mediterranean superpower before it was eclipse by the glory of Rome. The Carthaginian Empire was a maritime nation, founded by the legacy of its ancestors - Phoenician. According to legend the city of Carthage was founded by a Phoenician princess named Elissa, but she is more popularly known as Dido.

Dido was the founder and Queen of Carthage. She is well-known as the woman left by Aeneas in the Roman Virgil's epic the Aeneid. She was depicted as a woman crazily in love to the hero Aeneas and committed suicide as her lover leaves her without saying good bye.

But the Aeneid has a basis for the character Dido. The legend of the foundation of Carthage depicted a cunning, faithful, and thoughtful woman. The story of Dido begins in a city state that lies in the east ends of the Mediterranean Sea. The city of Tyre was a buzzing Phoenician city. It had a wealth made from maritime trade with various lands that surrounds the vast sea. Dido was born as Elissa. She was the daughter of the ruler of Tyre, Malgernus. She was later married to her uncle in the maternal side. Her husband, Acherbas, was the high priest of the city. Other than that, he was also the wealthiest man in the city, only next to the King. When Malgernus died, Dido's brother, Pygmalion, rose to the throne.

The city of Carthage was founded from tragedy and jealousy. The new King felt threatened and jealous of the wealth and power of Acherbas. He wanted to take the wealth of his brother-in-law in order for his fears to reside. And so, he ordered the killing of Ancherbas. What was only left between his desired treasure was her sister, Elissa. Elissa, on the other hand escaped with the wealth of his deceased husband. She, along with other noble fearing the King, took a ship and sailed to the nearby island of Cyprus. Meanwhile, King Pygmalion wanted to chase her sister. However, he was warned by his oracles that if he would catch his sister, misfortune would befall into him. And so he decided not to do so. 

The quest of Elissa for a new safe haven began with her escape from Tyre. With her ship, she sought temporary refuge for supplies and additional manpower on the nearby island of Cyprus. In the island, the high priest that ruled from the area would only join Elissa on one condition: his family would forever hold the position of high priest on the city she would established. Elissa agreed. Besides taking the priest, Elissa also took eighty virgins with her. From these eighty virgins would gave birth to the next generation of the city she would found. As she continued to sailed, Elissa changed her name to Dido for unknown reasons.

After sailing for several days, they found a suitable land to found the city that would be Carthage. In the coast of modern day Tunisia, they found a peninsula. The peninsula provided a beautiful harbor. Their also existed two lagoons and three nearby hills that would provide fresh water and good defense. As their party landed, the Berbers settling in the area opposed the new settlers. Dido challenged the leader of the area. She proposed a challenge to the Berbers. She dared that she would be allowed to occupy the land that would be covered by the skin of an ox. The Bebers, being confident that it would be small, agreed. But Dido was a very cunning woman. In order to cover a huge area, she finely and thinly skinned the ox. The skin was laid and covered the area that Dido wanted. The Berbers kept their word. To commemorate this event, the hill on the nearby coast was named Byrsa, which meant ox hide. A settlement was then erected. Palisades surrounded the city and a port was opened to welcome new arrivals and traders.

Carthage grew from a small settlement into a city. Its influence and name grew as time passed by. The rise of Carthage then caught the eye of a Berber king, Iarbas. Iarbas wanted to secure an alliance with the Carthaginians with marriage. She offered his hands to Dido. Dido did not wanted to marry anymore, especially after the tragic death of her spouse. But if she would decline the hand of the King in marriage, a war would break out and the city that she founded would be pushed back to the sea. She decided to take a third option. She decided to build a pyre to the Gods and planned to offer sacrifices. When the pyre's flames grew large, Queen Dido stepped into the pyre and stabbed herself to heart. She decided that death would save her city and herself from an unwanted marriage.

From the story of the foundation of Carthage, a very different Dido could be seen. She was not a woman who insanely loved a man that she would kill herself because of separation. On contrasts she killed herself in respect of her former husband and for the security of her people. She was a cunning and smart woman, capable of taking what she wants. Queen Dido was an extraordinary woman of her time.

Church, A. The Story of the Nations: Carthage. New York: G. P. Putnam's Son, 1886. 

Hall, J. North Africa. United States: Chelsea House Publishers, 2003. 

Salisbury, J. Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2001.

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