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Dido, Epigram, and Authorship, before and after the Aeneid

Michael Tueller

In her final speech to Aeneas in Aeneid 4, Dido threatens never to leave him alone—while alive she will pursue him despite her own absence, and in death she will nevertheless be present (Aeneid 4.384–386). The literary tradition surrounding Dido has borne out her threat: beginning already in Aeneid 6, and continued by Ovid and others, her replies to Aeneas have secured her place in his story. My paper focuses on two lesser-known epigrams in Dido’s post-Virgilian legacy: Palatine Anthology 16.151 and Epigrammata Bobiensia 45, which imitates and expands it. As a foundation for its investigation of these epigrams, it also explores epigrammatic allusions in Aeneid 6.450–476. In these texts, Dido emerges as an authorial figure who threatens to displace Virgil himself.

In Aeneid 6, the emotional impact of Dido’s silence is accentuated by the epigrammatic features of Aeneas’s speech. Two features must suffice here. First, Aeneas speaks in the language of sepulchral epigram. He begins by assuming the role of the epigrammatic passerby, weeping and speaking Dido’s name as if he were by her tomb; but his role gradually shifts, and by the end of his short speech, he has prominently placed himself in the position of the deceased—imploring the passerby not to move on, and uttering last words cut short by fate. Aeneas’s words most closely parallel Damagetus AP 7.735.1–2—an epigram whose “last words” feature a woman proclaiming her unhappiness that her bedmate has sailed across the sea and left her to her death. If we are to imagine that Aeneas is conscious of this allusion, it defeats his claim that he was uncertain about whether Dido had died. Additionally, by adopting the position of the deceased, Aeneas invites Dido to play the role of the passerby; but she refuses to stop and speak, denying Aeneas the measure of κλέος entailed by shedding a tear and speaking his name.

Second, in Aeneid 6.458–9, Aeneas swears by both celestial and infernal divinities, paralleling Aeschrion AP 7.345.5, an epigram in which Philaenis protests the falsehood of her characterization in a sex manual circulated under her name, claiming that the shamelessness of the book should be attributed rather to its real author, Polycrates. The Aeschrion epigram, invoked by allusion, thus destabilizes both text and authorship in the Aeneid, and strongly criticizes the way that women are depicted in text.

It is perhaps this reference that leads to the composition of AP 16.151, which joins the epigram series begun by Aeschrion. This anonymous epigram, in which Dido blames Virgil for an undeserved attack on her chastity, bases its claims on a historical fact: Dido was not even alive at the time of the sack of Troy. In a departure from previous epigrams in the series, this epigram also allies itself with epigrams about resemblance, notably emphasizing that, in this case, the form of the visible image is exact, but the character is wrong.

Epigrammata Bobiensia 45 reproduces AP 16.151, but it adds a few elements that do not merely refute, but go so far as to displace, Virgil. First, expanding AP 16.151.5–6’s brief reference to chronology, it recommends (lines 15–18) that readers turn to historians rather than relying on poets who lie about the gods. And second, at its very beginning, Dido asserts her identity with startling clarity: illa ego sum Dido vultu, quam conspicis, she says, reminding every reader of the quasi-epigrammatic “preface” to the Aeneid, ille ego qui.... By paralleling this beginning, in which Virgil speaks in his own voice, she claims the right to be read in his place, speaking the truth, and asserting her authority to be trusted beyond the work that brought her fame.

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Vergil, Elegy, and Epigram

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