The story of Dido, the founding queen of Carthage (current day Tunisia) dates back farther than any other women that I’ll feature this month, and as such is almost as much legend as anything else. She is best known through the works of the Roman poet Virgil from his work Aeneid in which he outlines her story of founding Carthage, the role she played in the eventual founding of Rome, and how her words helped carry Carthage to military prominence hundreds of years later, under the leadership of another famous military leader of Carthage: Hannibal.
Both Virgil and Roman historian “Justin” agree when it comes to the first half of Dido’s life. Dido was born around 840 BC, historians believe as the daughter of Mattan I, King of Tyre (one of the oldest kingdoms in the world), and that her brother was Pygmalion, King of Tyre from 831 BC to 785 BC. She was married to her uncle-second in power only to Pygmalion-while her father was still alive. Her uncle Acerbas (aka Sicharbas, Zacharbas) was a very wealthy man, and shortly after their marriage Pygmalion killed him in order to steal his wealth. Fearing her brother, Dido fled the city, ending up on the northern coast of Africa with several followers who shared her fear of Pygmalion. While no specifics are given, the account leads you to believe several hundred at least followed.
Upon her arrival on the northern coast of Africa, Dido asked the king of the Berber people for some land for her and her people. She proposed to take “only as much land as could be encompassed by an ox hide”. They agreed, and Dido promptly cut the ox hide into very thin strips, encircling a nearby hill entirely from which her city would be built. This is where the stories of Dido between these two well known and ancient historians begin to take different paths…
Justin contends that this local chief requested Dido be his wife, in exchange for allowing her and her followers’ presence there. Dido however, felt a great sense of loyalty to her first husband, and rather than betray him-even after his death-she killed herself with her own sword, earning the unending respect of the citizens of Carthage with her ultimate self-sacrifice for the sake of virtue.
Virgil on the other hand, tells a very different account of Dido’s end, although according to Virgil, she still takes her own life. According to Virgil, after founding Carthage in about the year 814 BC (a date that is disputed by some historians) Dido fell deeply in love with Aeneas, allegedly one of the few Trojans who were not killed in the fall of Troy. Aeneas and his followers were passing through, and Romans believed that Mercury was sent to remind him of his purpose, so Aeneas moved on despite the love Dido felt for him and the child she carried of his. Upon hearing that he had left, Dido cursed the relations of Carthage and the people of Aeneas (who later founded Rome) forever, setting the stage for a centuries long struggle between the two powers.
No matter which version you believe, Dido was certainly a powerful woman, who founded one of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world, and allegedly had a part in the story of the founding or formation of the Roman civilization, perhaps the most powerful civilization ever. Whether she took her own life out of love or loyalty, as an act of defiance or despair, Dido struggled through a lot, and ended up giving everything she had for what she believed in, setting the sta