It is Day 5 of my Twelve Days of Reading The Aeneid.
I’m lugging my old Latin text everywhere, translating on bicycling breaks, surreptitiously glancing at it at Starbucks (not wanting to look radically pro-print when everybody else is technological), and at a friend’s house while she watches reruns of Sex and the City.
Aeneid Book IV fits in with Sex and the City. It is the story of Dido’s love affair with Aeneas, and their working together to build the city of Carthage until Mercury reminds Aeneas that he is fated to found Rome. Hence, Sex and the City.
Below are my notes for a class I taught on Book IV. I used to be a Latin teacher.
The tension between furor (madness) and pietas (duty) dominates Book IV as it does the earlier books of the Aeneid. If Dido represents furor, tormented by love in the forms of a flame (flamma) and a wound (vulnus), then Aeneas is pietas. When Aeneas “is buffeted by a gale of pleas” to remain in Carthage, he is compared ( IV.441 Latin, p. 111 Fitzgerald translation) to “an oaktree hale with age.” Dido, on the other hand, is compared to a deer struck by an unwitting hunter.
But is furor or pietas more sympathetic? Many believe that Dido/furor is sympathetic, and that Aeneas/pietas is a betrayor. And it is true that Aeneas does not come off well here. His speech to Dido is cold, an unfeeling response to Dido’s. Is Virgil questioning the achievements of Rome and the teaching that Venus/love is subservient to Mars and duty? Is Aeneas, as Venus’ son, conflicted?
Many read Book IV as a tragedy within the structure of an epic. There are references to two Greek versions of the Medea, Euripides’ play, and Apollonius of Rhodes’s The Argonautica, an epyllion. In Euripides’s tragedy, Medea is a witch who kills her children and her husband Jason’s new bride in revenge for Jason’s deserting her for a younger women. Her love for Jason is as strong as Dido’s for Aeneas, and Jason is as obnoxiously logical as Aeneas when he explains he has to marry for power. Apollonius’s epyllion follows a similar path. Some of Dido’s speeches come directly from Apollonius.
Some of the primary elements of a tragedy are:
exposition (the set-up)
agon (struggle, conflict)
catastrophe (change of fortune)
peripeteia (reversal of circumstances or intention)
hamartia (caused by a tragic character flaw or mistake)
Protagonist brings about downfall through a mistake, not because he is evil, but because he doesn’t know enough.
anagorisis: a discovery [hinges on surprise)
suffering occasioned by discovery
catharsis (for audience)
There is also a historical context for Book IV. No Roman could have read Book IV without thinking of two historical events:
Carthage, one of Rome’s greatest rivals and brutal enemies, was destroyed in 149 B.C. during the Third Punic War. Virgil’s legend explains the enmity in terms of the love affair between Dido and Aeneas. Carthage, Rome’s great rival, was destroyed in the third of the Punic Wars. Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”), or a similar sentence was said to be uttered by Cato the Elder at the end of his speeches, 149 B.C.. Virgil celebrates Augustus and Rome through these allusions.
But more immediately would have been the Romans’ memory of the doomed “marriage” between Antony and Cleopatra. At the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. Octavian/Augustus Caesar defeats Antony. Some consider the reference in Virgil a replay of the Punic Wars, with Augustus/Rome coming out ahead over the exotic east. Cleopatra, of course, commits suicide, traditionally from an asp’s bite (Plutarch’s story), as Dido does, perhaps more gorily, with a sword. But Dido is portrayed as a romantic, doomed figure from the beginning, and because she in traditionally interpreted as more sympathetic than Aeneas with all his pietas, it causes us to question Virgil’s own interpretation of events. Dido represents Carthage, Aeneas Rome, and the doomed love affair appalls us. Virgil may be questioning empire. (You can find evidence for both sides.)
SUMMARY OF BOOK IV: Aeneas and Dido, queen of Carthage, begin their love affair. They take refuge in a cave during a storm and “the high sky bears witness to their wedding” (Fagles’s translation). Dido considers them married; Aeneas does not. But he stays the winter with Dido, helping her build Carthage (Dido is a refugee from Tyre). Mercury descends from Olympus to remind him of his fate and that he must build his own city in Italy. Afraid to tell Dido, he prepares his ships, and she confronts him. When he leaves, she commits suicide.