I abandoned your shores, Empress, against my will. ~ Aeneid, Book 6
Aeneas was a Trojan hero who was at the fall of Troy. Devastated and heart-broken, he gathers some of his remaining friends and trusted men and sets sail away from his lost home. Before long, a massive sea storm assaults his small fleet and Aeneas and his friends Achates are washed onto an African shore near a city being built. The city is Carthage and its Queen is Dido.
Aeneas and his buddy use magic to make themselves invisible (think cloaking device or an invisibility cloak like Harry Potter’s) and steal into the city to check it out. This Queen they hear of is ambitious and it is apparent in this newly formed city. She is building a gorgeous place, raising temples, supporting small businesses (with major tax cuts), building schools and a gem-filled theater because she knows the arts are important baby! The people are busy…busy and happy and Aeneas and Achates are impressed, but not as impressed as they are when they see Dido herself appear in town with her entourage. Aeneas sort of stalks her, watches her unfairly when she can’t see him, under the guise of protecting himself. She is radiant in beauty, a generous soul within shines without. She is a woman of commanding strength, for she hides well the pain of tremendous loss. Her loss of love. She grieves yet for her young husband who has died suddenly, and fiercely passionate as she is she has pledged that:
He who first wedded me took with him when he died,
My right to love: let him keep it, there, in the tomb, for ever.
“For ever” is a very long time.
Dido is approached by visitors. While the cloaked Aeneas and Achates watch close by, the rest of Aeneas’s men have made it to the city. With reverence they bow before Dido and ask for shelter and the means to repair their storm-shattered ships. They also say that they have lost two of their greatest companions and hope to search for them as well. Dido is moved by their pleas and welcomes them whole-heartedly. She understands their loss and will do anything to help, generous as she is, and she also wishes that they find their lost comrades as well. Upon hearing these words Aeneas and Achates decide to reveal themselves:
The words were hardly spoken, when in a flash the cloud-cloak
They wore was shredded and purged away into pure air.
Aeneas was standing there in an aura of brilliant light,
Godlike of face and figure: for Venus herself had breathed
His manhood and a gallant light into his eyes…
Aeneas says: “I am here, before you, the one you look for…”
Now, Dido wasn’t looking for anyone. She’d given her love to a man in a grave, but seeing Aeneas in all his glorious Venus-blessed embodiment woke up a darkened flame of love within her. Not only does Dido find him physically appealing, but his tales of his war, of his loss, and the stories of the sea enchant her disenchanted heart. She is smitten. Plus, they have a few things in common. They are both royalty…and they have both suffered.
I too have gone through much; like you, have been roughly handled
By fortune, But now at last it has willed me to settle here.
Being acquainted with grief, I am learning to help the unlucky.
Dido gives Aeneas’s men hundreds of cattle, sheep, swine, and the best materials that can be found to rebuild their ships. She privately has dinner with Aeneas, and soon they are “dating.” She tells him he can stay as long as he wishes. Without meaning to, she has fallen deeply in love. She becomes “a woman wild with passion…” She thinks about him all the time. She cannot sleep. (Can anyone relate to this?)
Aeneas, too, has fallen in the same way. After a day of hunting together, a storm forces the young couple, alone, to seek shelter in a cave. The cave.
There, they make love (aka: fuck their brains out) and exchange vows and promises of love. To Dido, it is like a pledge of marriage. They experience a luxuriant period of marital bliss and life with each other becomes perfect. Happiness threatens to overwhelm them.
But the Gods have other plans for Aeneas. They haven’t forgotten him. A strong warrior cannot be left to wallow his life away with love and happiness. He is ordered to return to Italy, to build a new city in his lost homeland. It is his duty. His fate.
Aeneas is torn between his love for Dido and his duty, but duty, of course, always wins. And no matter how strong the bugger claims to be, or appears to be, Aeneas is a coward. He plans to sneak away with his men in the middle of the night, leaving Dido behind to just figure it out. (Maybe he’d leave her a note: “Sorry, can’t do this anymore”. “It’s not you, it’s me.” “The Gods have ordered it. I have no choice.” He blocks her on Twitter and Instagram. “Block me too, so I won’t be tempted to come back…” etc.)
But Dido has many loyal ears in her house, her city, and the rumor of her lover’s plans reaches her. She becomes unbalanced with grief, grief so powerful, she wonders what she can do, what she could have done differently, to change his mind. After her first husband died, she had gone into hibernation; she had buried her heart. Aeneas, with is love, his kind words, had resurfaced it. He had made her feel alive again in a way that only a lover can do. And now he was burying her heart again.
In her anguish, Dido implores him to stay. And, though we don’t want her to, a regal Queen begs:
By these tears, by the hand you gave me-
They are all I have left, to-day, in my misery – I implore you,
And by our union of hearts, by our marriage hardly begun,
If I have ever helped you at all, if anything
About me pleases you, be sad for our broken home, forego
Your purpose, I beg you, unless it’s too late for prayers of mine!
Because of you, the Libyan tribes and the Nomad chieftains
Hate me, the Tyrians are hostile: because of you I have lost
My old reputation for faithfulness- the one thing that could have made me
Immortal. Oh, I am dying! To what, my guest, are you leaving me?
None of her pleas moves him. Aeneas gathers his men and even though his heart breaks for her, he leaves her. But not before Dido slips from her devastation and sorrow and becomes angry. She curses him. She wishes him ill fortune, bad seas, and endless, and I mean endless misery. (Fucking Royal Bastard!)
She takes the bed they had shared, gathers all his belongings that he hadn’t picked up yet – all the presents she gave him, including a sword,and his clothing – and drags them to courtyard where she builds a bonfire.
Climbing to the top, she takes the sword falls upon it, and dies, knowing that he will see her funeral pyre from his ship as he leaves. (We wish she could have found a way out of this misery. We wish she could have been stronger, but classic literature always knows how to write women fucked up by men.)
Later, in the Aeneid, Aeneas is granted safe passage in the underworld to visit his dead father…While he is there, he see Dido wandering in the woods, a wispy, ghostly figure. He is so filled with pity, and remorse, upon seeing her, he approaches her and begs her forgiveness.
I abandoned your shores, Empress, against my will.
He swears that it wasn’t his will to abandon her but the iron will of the Gods, the heavenly commands that he was powerless to disobey. He speaks tenderly to her spirit, “trying to soften the wild-eyed/Passionate-hearted ghost” who remains “stubborn to his appeal.” Dido must have looked at him long, so beautiful, full of lovely words. But she finally rushes away, (her final “Fuck you”) without saying a word, without forgiving him, “hating him still.”
Text inspiration is from The History of Love by Diane Ackerman
The beautiful images are from the Sasha Waltz production of Purcell’s classic opera Dido & Aeneas
Photos by Sebastian Bolesch