In literature, the feats of a main character are defined by the sacrifices he/she makes with respect to those he/she holds dear. In this way, loved ones are woven into the story to give perspective; they multiply the joys as well as the sorrows, allowing the protagonist to experience a wide range of emotions. In Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic narrative about the legendary founding of Rome, Dido is present to strengthen the character of the protagonist, Aeneas. Many tragedies befall her throughout the work, especially in Book IV, which initially evoke sympathy in the reader. However, upon further inspection, the reader understands the importance of Dido for developing and defining Aeneas’ character, and therefore does not pity her. Nor does the reader condemn Virgil as treating Dido grossly, because he really does care about her as a character, so much so that he consents to allowing her to experience tragedy. Dido’s misfortunes, and the love she inspires in Aeneas, are necessary in order to create an honorable and revered hero as well as a powerful literary work.
Although she is initially presented as a strong and capable ruler of Carthage, Dido’s heart has been wounded in the past. She has built up walls in order to protect herself from further pains. Indeed, she has sworn never to love another man after the death of her husband Sychaeus: “For he who first united me with him took all love out of my life; and so it is he who should keep it close to his heart and guard it even in the grave” (97). She vows to remain loyal to her dead husband by not remarrying. It is in this light that Virgil appears to treat her grossly, because he forces her to break this vow and therefore betray herself and her love. Furthermore, Dido experiences much personal tragedy because her own brother murders her husband. Virgil further creates a tragic situation for Dido; her next misfortune is being struck by Cupid’s arrow, which takes away her rationale and reason, and transforms her into an unruly, helpless woman that is guided by her most carnal desires. What is more, no one is on her side. Her own sister, Anna, betrays her trust by encouraging a union with Aeneas, “And, Dido, only imagine, if you make this splendid marriage, what a great future lies in store for our city and our realm!” (98). This “gave new hope to tempt her wavering intention, and broke down her scruples” (98). The goddesses, Venus and Juno, conspire to pair up Dido and Aeneas by initiating a storm that would corner them into a cave of commitment: “On that day were sown the seeds of suffering and death” (102). Here, Dido unwillingly betrays herself and her vows; this makes the reader feel sorry for her because her character is weakening. Indeed, Dido begins to care less about her city and more about her passion; both Dido and Aeneas become “caught in the snare of shameful passion, with never a thought of their royal duty” (102).
The love affair,...