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Persian Dido

Elena Giusti

Just as Virgil’s orientalizing Carthage displays more than one Persian feature, both Atossa queen of the Persians and Medea as ancestor of the Persians stand as significant models for Dido. This paper investigates Carthage’s and Dido’s Persian features, arguing that they point to a degree of continuity between the ideology of the Punic Wars and the Greek ‘invention’ of the barbarian Other. Yet, in Virgil’s times, when Persians and Parthians had long been equated, such features also establish a direct link between Carthaginians and Parthians: the arch-enemies of Republican Rome and those of Augustus’ principate.

Classical scholars have long been familiar with the notion of oriental women causing and embodying the great clashes between Europe and Asia. The ‘Helen model’ which lurks behind Herodotus’ historical Atossa (Asheri) or Apollonius’ mythical Medea (Hunter) casts both stories as aetiological fabulae for the outbreak of international conflicts, and such barbarian women become the pivot around which myth, history and politics rotate. Both Helen (Krummen) and Medea have been recognized as major models for Virgil’s mytho-historical Dido, but their role in shaping the Carthaginian episode as the historical aition for a conflict which is similarly envisaged as a clash between two continents has been left surprisingly underdeveloped. Furthermore, while both Apollonius’ Medea and tragic Medea have been carefully analyzed as models for Dido (Nelis and Schiesaro), the Persian aftermath of Euripides’ heroine has curiously failed to attract the attention of Virgil’s critics.

This paper aims at rehabilitating the story of Medea’s attempt to poison Theseus and her later flight to Persia, where she became ancestor of the Medes, as a significant intertext for Dido, since this was very likely the plot staged by Ennius in one Medea and by Pacuvius in his Medus. The relevance, for Dido, of a legend which was probably created in the fifth century as a mythological prefiguration of the Persian Wars (Sourvinou-Inwood), will be interpreted in conjunction with the recognition of Persian features in the Carthaginian episode, where echoes of Aeschylus’ Persians are accompanied by reminiscences of Herodotus’ Persian stories. Such features extend from orientalizing traits of luxury and lust accompanied by military aggressiveness to the shaping of Sychaeus’ story on the model of the murderuous intrigues of ancient royal houses such as those of Cambyses II. As for Atossa, she is for Dido the paradigmatic model of any oriental queen. In Aeschylus’ play, Atossa embodies the figure of the woman ‘yoked alone’ and left behind which is representative of entire Persia, whose kenandria, ‘emptiness of men’ is continuously emphasized (Hall, Harrison). Like the Persian queen, Dido will understand, in the middle of her nightmares, that she is also a woman ‘yoked alone’ and abandoned in her empty Asiatic land (A. 4.466-8), and not even the ghost of her dead husband, recalled through rituals at his tomb like Darius by Atossa, will suffice to console her. At Dido’s death, together with a more explicit parallel between Carthage and Troy, the image of Susa the ‘empy of men’ will surface again, when the palace of Carthage is described as ‘shivering with lamentation, sobbing and womanly howling’ (A. 4.667).

The connections with Atossa and Medea situate Dido in direct continuity with the ‘Helen Model,’ and suggest that the ideology of the Punic Wars might have developed in continuity with the Athenian ideology of the Persian ones. In the Augustan age, however, such Persian features also bring the Parthians in the picture, reminding of the wars that Augustus should wage against foreign enemies and warding off the danger of further civil wars through the evocation of metus hostilis. Thus, the Persian-Carthaginian parallel bolsters a feeling of Roman national identity in cultural continuity with the Greeks, alongside the recognition of the Romans’ superior military achievements, since they have managed to conquer and destroy Carthage, and will eventually conquer and destroy the new Persians, the Parthians.

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Vergil’s Aeneid

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