Robin N. Mitchell-Boyask
Studies of the role of Greek tragedy in Vergilian intertexuality have tended to stress the influence of Euripidean tragedy, such as the Hippolytus in books 1 and 4 (Dyson, Harrison, Hardie 1997), and the role of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the Aeneid’s larger structure (Hardie 1991), while Sophoclean tragedy seems to play a less far-reaching but still important part, with Ajax shaping the end of the story of Dido (Lefevre, Lyne, Panoussi). This paper argues that the suicide of Heracles’ wife Deianeira in Sophocles’ Trachiniae figures at least as much in the representation of Dido’s death as does Ajax, with implications for the linkage of Aeneas to the tragic Heracles.
The suicide in Sophocles’ Ajax certainly shapes Vergil’s presentation of Dido. Both figures, deeply shamed over the results of their conduct, choose death over a reality that fails to line up with their visions of justice, cursing their former allies, now enemies, using swords that had been given to them as tokens of friendship and esteem. The Aeneid extends the comparison in book 6 when Dido’s silence before Aeneas clearly evokes the Homeric Ajax of the Nekuia. However, the primary tragic way of killing a woman is by hanging, as with Jocasta, Antigone and Phaedra, not by sword (Loraux), with the notable and singular exception of Deianeira, who kills herself with a sword Heracles had left behind after she realizes that her desire to control his sexual impulses towards his concubine Iolē has inadvertently killed him.
The main part of my analysis shows that the suicide by sword is the climax of a series of correspondences between the death scenes of Dido in book 4 of the Aeneid and of Deianeira in Sophocles’ Trachiniae. Both women are not young; Deianeira’s son is ephebic and Dido is long-widowed. Both react intensely to their husbands’ abandoning them for another–Heracles for Iolē, Aeneas for Rome–with the actions of each man driven by destiny. Vergil’s Dido then follows the same sequence of actions as Sophocles’ Deianeira, once each has finally lost her husband. Each deceives her closest surviving relative: Hyllus through Deianeira’s silence, Anna through Dido’s false plans. Both roam through their palace’s halls and visit altars (Trach. 900-05; Aen. 453-55). Both lament their childlessness (Trach. 911; Aen. 328). Deianeira enters her thalamos (Trach. 913; Aen. 495-96), and Dido has Anna fetch objects from her thalamos. Both address their bridal beds (Trach. 920; Aen. 328) and kill themselves on top of them. Both use a blade that is designated by its substance (σιδάρου, Trach. 886; ferro, Aen. 663) and as weapon (φασγάνῳ 930; Trach. 886; ensem, Aen. 646, 664). Female servants find each after first seeing them (ὁρῶμεν αὐτὴν, Trach. 950; aspiciunt comites, Aen. 664) and then lament their deaths, but are then lamented by the relative whom each deceived. And both are found with the weapon still in place in the same location of each corpse (πλευρὰν ὑφ᾽ ἧπαρ καὶ φρένας πεπληγμένην, Trach. 931; sub pectore, Aen. 689). Both deaths are linked to a Fury (ἐρινύν, Trach. 895; ultrices Dirae, Aen. 473 and 610). The narrative voice of both texts reacts to death by apostrophizing Love (improbe Amor, Aen. 412; Κύπρις, Trach. 860).
Dido’s Deianeirian death raises questions about Aeneas. While Aeneas certainly is not a hero destroyed by his inability to control his sexual urges and his violence, the Aeneid here seems to be putting into play the tragic Heracles, as opposed to the Augustan Hercules, much earlier than has been thought by scholars who have seen discordant elements in the representation of the Hercules of book 8 (Lyne, Putnam). Vergil evokes the tragic Heracles early in book 7, when Juno summons Allecto, recalling the mission of Iris and Lyssa in Euripides’ Heracles. The appearance of Iris at the end of Aeneid 4 might trigger this network of associations, when Juno sends her to release Dido’s spirit from her body.
Dido in and after Vergil