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Aeneas is horrified that he has forgotten his duty to his country and to his son, and he decides to leave for Italy as soon as possible. But he has one big problem: how will he break the news to Dido? He can't think of anything, so he delays, hoping that the right moment will arise. In the meantime he orders his men to ready the fleet.
Dido sees all the hustle and bustle in the harbor and guesses the truth. She's had no warning and becomes hysterical. Before Aeneas has a chance to explain himself, she accuses him of betraying her and trying to sneak away like a coward.
Aeneas has a hard time deciding what to say. When he finally says something, it's just the opposite of Dido's passionate outburst. He says that they weren't really married, and he explains that he must leave because the fates tell him to. While he says that he has great respect for Dido, he never says that he loves her or wishes he could stay.
Dido watches him out of the corner of her eyes, hoping for some hint of emotion. When she sees nothing, she goes into a frenzy of despair and decides to kill herself. Her servants carry her away.
Virgil tells us that Aeneas really is very upset, but that as leader of his people he feels he must do what fate and the gods tell him to do. His sense of duty is stronger than his love. He swallows his feelings and deals with Dido in a purely rational way. Some readers think this is a cold and heartless way to behave. Others believe Aeneas' self-control is heroic. Which interpretation seems right to you?
Imagine that you're going steady with someone a year or two younger than you are. You are accepted into college far away from home. What do you do? Stay at home with the person you love or go away to college? If you go, how do you break the news?
Even if you decide that Aeneas did the right thing by leaving, that doesn't mean that he was right to get involved with Dido in the first place. Because he knew he had to reach Italy, his actions were rather careless. (Remember that careless hunter at the beginning of this book?) You begin to see that Carthage, where Aeneas became involved with Dido, is a mistake just like all the places in Book III where the Trojans tried to settle.
What about Dido? We've already seen that in many ways she's not to blame for what happened. Venus made her fall in love. And she is also a victim of Aeneas' fate that he must reach Italy. On the other hand, some readers feel that Dido contributes to her own tragedy because she forgets her responsibility as queen. She recklessly "marries" Aeneas without considering her reputation and the effect the marriage will have on her authority. While she is distracted by love, all the work in Carthage comes to a halt.
After Dido is carried out, Aeneas returns to his ships. Dido, watching from her window, bursts into tears and sends Anna to beg Aeneas to stay just a little while longer for Dido's sake. But Aeneas has made up his mind and nothing can change it. In one of Virgil's most beautiful epic similes, Virgil compares Aeneas to a giant oak tree that no wind or storm can knock down.
Aeneas has changed since the earlier books where he was never sure what to do or where to go. This simile tells us what Virgil thinks a good Roman leader should be. Once he decides what's right, he has to be able to stick to his decision, regardless of how people try to dissuade him.
Dido builds a funeral pyre, decorates it with garlands, and drapes it with Aeneas' armor and sword. All night she tosses and turns with grief, regret, and guilt. At dawn, she looks out her window and discovers that the Trojans have already left!
She curses Aeneas and vows that the Carthaginian people will always hate the Romans, and that a great man will arise to avenge the wrong Aeneas did to her. (Dido's curse comes true. Romans of Virgil's time would understand that this curse referred to the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome and that the great avenger would be Hannibal, a Carthaginian general who almost conquered Rome.) Then, trembling in frenzy, Dido climbs the funeral pyre, throws herself on Aeneas' sword, and dies.
Dido is a very real and convincing character. You feel sorry for what happens to her. If this Book of the Aeneid is your favorite, you'll be happy to know that many other people agree with you. This realistic depiction of a woman and a passionate love affair is the first of its kind in Western literature. It's been imitated, discussed, and argued about ever since it was written.
As you think about how the Aeneid relates to Rome at the time Virgil was writing, you should know that Dido may represent Cleopatra. Like Dido, Cleopatra was the queen of an African country. Like Dido, she was loved by one of the great Roman leaders, Marc Antony. Antony and Cleopatra wanted to combine Egypt and the Roman Empire and rule together, but Augustus defeated them at Actium in 31 B.C. and Cleopatra committed suicide. While Aeneas is "wasting time" in Carthage, Romans of the day probably would have compared him to Marc Antony. After Aeneas leaves, he must have seemed more like the cool, clear-headed Augustus, whom Cleopatra had once tried to seduce.