By Meghan Reedy
Since he first saw Carthage back in line 420, Aeneas has been gawking at everything, one marvel distracting him from the last only to be pushed out of his mind by the next. But what does he really notice?
He marveled at the buildings and the building-work, miratur … miratur (421–2) as he moved through the city. When he got to the middle, he marveled at the work that went into the temple to Juno, singula templo … artificumque manus inter se operumque laborem miratur (453–6)—and while he was marveling at that, he saw something else—the pictures of the Trojan war caught and kept his attention, … dum miratur, videt Iliacas … pugnas (456). He marveled at the city, but he saw the temple’s depiction of the Trojan war.
Then, while he is caught up in the pictures, Dido comes in: dum Dardanio Aeneae miranda videntur, dum stupet obtutuque haeret defixus in uno, regina ad templum … Dido incessit (494–6). Dido’s entrance is fantastic; she walks like the goddess Diana surrounded by lesser nymphs (498–502), and like a goddess too she gladly occupies the center of the crowd, talis erat Dido, talem se laeta ferebat per medios (504), and moves to the very center of the temple at the center of her city, media testudine templi (505). She makes rulings and gives orders and assigns tasks (507–8). All this is happening when Aeneas suddenly sees Trojans he’d thought drowned walk in: … cum subito Aeneas … accedere … Anthea Sergestumque videt … Teucrorumque alios (509–11). He is bowled over, obstipuit ipse (513). To recap, then: while he was fixated on the pictures (dum miranda videntur, dum stupet … haeret defixus, 494–5), Dido came in (incessit, 497) and did all sorts of things up to and including assigning tasks by lot if need be (laborem partibus aequabat iustis aut sorte trahebat, 508), when suddenly (cum subito, 509) Aeneas saw (videt, 510) and was bowled over by (obstipuit, 513) the entrance of his comrades. It would seem that he did not notice Dido at all.
Can that be so? Vergil certainly drew our attention to her entrance … but he gives no indication, does he, that Aeneas ever looked away from his own city’s war and saw her. No videt … no miratur …
Once his friends walk in, though, he fixates on them, and even silent Achates—mentioned now for the first time since Aeneas said his name in 459—is struck through with strong, conflicting emotions: obstipuit ipse, simul percussus Achates laetitiaque metuque (513–14). They are both burning with the desire to approach their friends and clasp hands, avidi coniungere dextras ardebant (514–15), but the uncertainty of the situation unsettles them, sed res animos incognita turbat (515). Their reaction to seeing these friends they had thought dead is understandably strong—but something in the way it is expressed also nudges us to notice that Aeneas (and, I suppose, Achates) have been entirely unmoved by Dido’s presence.
So many of the terms here are used particularly easily about romantic, erotic love: being struck dumb at the sight of the beloved, obstipuit; being hit by emotion, percussus (as by the arrow of love); the mixture of happiness and concern, laetitiaque metuque; the feeling of burning, and especially burning to join with the beloved, avidi coniungere ardebant. For example, that word, coniungere, “to join with,” is also a word for marriage—hence coniunx, spouse. And leaping ahead to when—through the collusion of Juno and Venus, and the cooperation of Cupid—Dido falls in love, she burns in 713. Perhaps especially telling in the current discussion is that she burns to see what she loves, ardescit tuendo Phoenissa (713). I call attention to all this because after Dido’s glamorous entrance, after the way Aeneas has already heard from his mother about Dido and the depth of her amor, we might have expected at least a twinge of admiration for her—and the erotic terms that crop up in the description of Aeneas’ emotional response to his friends calls attention to how our expectation that Aeneas might fall in love with Dido at first sight has not been met at all.
Throughout the next several lines, 516–19, Aeneas and Achates continue to focus entirely on their shipmates, speculantur … quae fortuna viris, classem quo litore linquant, quid veniant; cunctis nam lecti navibus ibant orantes veniam et templum clamore petebant. They watch them, speculantur, in order to see if they can find out what has happened, where they washed up. (And we are reminded, incidentally, as we were in 439–40, that they are still invisible, looking out from inside a cloak of cloud: dissimulant et nube cava speculantur amicti 516.)
Why mention this at all then?
Because it matters that in this scene everything is working cleanly, easily. Everyone is behaving with the utmost appropriateness. In fact, they are both behaving with an appropriateness, a rightness, that is in keeping with what Venus said of Dido in the glade outside the city, and with what Aeneas said there of himself. Venus did mention amor several times (344, 350, 352); she did even call Dido “lovesick” (miserae, 344; aegram, 351)—and being in love or lovesick is a kind of irrational excess that is not considered appropriate in a good leader. And yet, even in Venus’ description of her, Dido’s excessive love (magno miserae … amore, 344) was all within bounds; she loved her husband this way. Moreover, after his awful murder by her duplicitous brother, Venus tells us this: dux femina facti (364). She becomes a female commander, and there thereafter Venus does not bring up love. “Female commander,” dux femina, is her role when she walks in to her temple in 496–7. It is significant too that Dido is compared to Diana—a virgin goddess, entirely uninterested in, even antithetical to, love.
Diana is so uninterested in men that it can be dangerous for them even to look at her. Of course Dido isn’t Diana, and she works easily and effectively with the men around her to run the massive project that is building a city from scratch. But the comparison of Dido to Diana hints that there is an appropriateness in the way Aeneas doesn’t even see her. His not looking at her is in keeping with his pietas, his respectful treatment of the gods … here even of people who seem, in the right light, for a moment, like gods.
The rest of the scene corroborates this feeling of appropriateness. The Trojans’ first approach to Dido is pitch perfect: Ilioneus speaks calmly, placido…pectore (521), and states their identity and their aims and their needs clearly and courteously. Dido’s reply is likewise pitch perfect: she responds briefly (breviter, 561) and with confident generosity (solvite corde metum, 562).
The way Dido rules happily and fairly and effectively; the way Aeneas saves all of his attention, and all of his emotional investment, for his fellow Trojans and their joint adventure: this is Dido and Aeneas before Juno (goddess of marriage) and Venus (goddess of love) interfere.
Cairns, F. 1989. Virgil’s Augustan Epic, 29–57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Gordon, P. 1998. “Phaeacian Dido: Lost Pleasures of an Epicurean Intertext.” Classical Antiquity 17: 188–211.
Hexter, R. 1992. “Sidonian Dido.” In Innovations of Antiquity, eds. R. Hexter and D. Selden, 332–384. London: Routledge.
Nelis, D. 2001. Vergil’s Aeneid and Apollonius’ Argonautica, 82–93. Leeds: Francis Cairns.
Reed, J.D. 2007. Virgil’s Gaze: Nation and Poetry in the Aeneid, 89–95. Princeton: Princeton University Press.