The composition of the Dido episode in the Aeneid is a remarkable aspect of this great epic, revealing Virgil’s originality in depicting this central woman character. Virgil is greatly influenced by Homer, no doubt, but Homer’s passive and unromantic attitude to Helen has left no impact on Virgil, while Homer depicts Helen as a symbol of evil and disaster, Virgil depicts Dido as a symbol of beauty.
An analysis of the Dido episode reveals that it is the most crucial event in the plot structure. Dido is presented in the opening book with all her majestic charm and beauty. She is compared to Goddess Diana, though her sad predicament makes everyone sad. Like Helen, she has experienced love with its fatal consequences. As a maiden, she fell in love with Sychaeus and later married him. But her happiness came to a sudden end-owing to her brother’s lust for wealth. Pygmalion murdered Sychaeus for the sake of wealth and the ghost of Sychaeus appeared before Dido in a dream and recounted this whole incident. The ghost urged upon her to leave home once and for all, having taken possession of vast treasure of the underground. Following the instructions, Dido fled to Carthage and started building a city there. Here she experienced her second love, contrived by the divinity Aeneas, a prince of Troy, who set out his voyage after the destruction of Troy, arrived at Carthage. They had to suffer a lot of hardships and, Venus, the mother of Aeneas complained the Jupiter about it. In order to end their sufferings, Jupiter arranged for a cordial welcome at Carthage. Protected by a shield of invisibility, Aeneas and Anchises entered the city and came upon the queen who looked as charming as Goddess Diana. They were astonished to see their missing sailors in her court, appealing, she also praised their leader, Aeneas in glowing terms. At this point, the protective could vanish and Aeneas appeared at the court before Dido. A banquet was arranged in his honor and Aeneas asked his son Anchises to carry gifts for the gorgeous queen from the ship. Venus had different plans and before the arrival of Anchises, she put cupid in his place to plant the seeds of love for Aeneas in Dido’s heart. During the banquet, Dido was overpowered by a profound love for Aeneas. In order to enjoy the company of Aeneas for a long period of time, she requested the Trojan leader to recount the tale of the fall of Troy, including his voyages. Despite his initial disapproval, Aeneas decided to please the hospitable queen and started his tale.
Book IV of the Aeneid has been described as the tragic romance of Aeneas and Dido. The episode reveals how Dido fell madly in love with Aeneas confiding her passions to her sister Anna. She was greatly confused for she took an oath of fidelity to the memory of her dead husband. Encouraged by Anna, Dido started meeting him more and more frequently and passionately. She started neglecting her responsibilities and construction work of the city slowed down. Dido became so much involved emotionally that she imagined having seen and listened to him though he was actually out of her sight. She started liking Anchises more and more mainly on account of his great resemblance to his father. The divine intervention at this point aimed at having a union between Aeneas and Dido. During a hunting expedition, Juno caused a sudden thunderstorm and member of the hunting party scattered. Aeneas and Dido met in a secluded cave and consummated their love under the divine influence. After this incident, Dido started living openly with Aeneas as if he were her husband.
Meanwhile, Jupiter was informed of these developments and he sent a message to Aeneas to sail for Italy, reminding him of his divine mission and destiny to find a new and great nation for his people. Like the typical hero of the literary epic, Aeneas subordinated his personal passions to his great national task. Dido was overwhelmed with great shock and called him a traitor for deserting her while admitting his profound gratitude for her hospitality. Aeneas insisted to stick to his plans, explaining his predicament. Dido requested him to reconsider his plan recounting how she earned everybody’s hatred for his sake. By virtue of her dignity and reputation, she would be immortal, but she sacrificed it for her love for Aeneas. She most passionately tells Aeneas that she would not feel so neglected and deserted if she had a son by him. A little Aeneas resembling his father would move about and she would discover Aeneas in him.
The last meeting between Aeneas and Dido is a scene of the great emotional crisis, making the episode as the most decisive one in the plot. It presents the last contemplation for Aeneas to neglect his divine duty, but the hero is transformed into a being unlike Achilles, who subordinated his national cause to his personal dignity. The episode also reveals Dido not only as a passionate woman but also as a vindictive one. Having failed in her attempts to stop Aeneas, she cursed the hero and his descendants, predicting eternal war between his own people and the people of Aeneas. She ordered her navy to peruse to Trojan ships and finally killed herself with the knife that Aeneas offered her as a humble gift. Virgil has given a picturesque description of the scene of her suicide. It is full of pathos and we feel for her sincere feelings. Later in the underworld when Aeneas came across the ghost of Dido, she remained unchanged in her vindictive attitude and avoided the presence of the hero. The dido episode is central in the plot structure and transformation of Aeneas from a Trojan to a Roman is conducted in this episode.