Dido in the light of Livy
Virgil’s text has long made us attend to the uncovering of Dido’s Punic features. ‘Sidonian Dido’ (Hexter) is little more than a desperately evoked erasure in a poem that has made Carthage Roman before Rome even existed (Harrison). Only scattered stains of Punic memory survive from the carnage anticipated behind Dido’s death: among these are two mentions of ‘Punic huts’ (magalia), two hints at Carthage’s Punic name Qart hadašt, and the memory of the Barcids behind Sychaeus’ nurse Barce and the Barcaei. These do little justice to the transformation of Tanit and Ashtart into Juno and Diana, in a text which erases Carthage’s solar deities, Melqart and Baal-Hammon, to present the city as the domain of nocturnal female goddesses such as Hecate and Diana, to which Dido ‘the wanderer’ is explicitly compared (Gowers).
Clearly the erasure of Baal in favour of female goddesses fits the heroine destined to be coupled with oriental queens of history, from Atossa (Giusti) and Cleopatra (Hardie) up to Semiramis and the Queen of Sheba (in Dante’s and Turner’s visions). But readers willing to test Dido’s readings ‘in the light of history’ (Horsfall) would run into more specifically Carthaginian characters. The present paper looks at two such characters, Sophoniba (Saphanba’al) and Hannibal (Hanniba’al), through the filter of Livy’s Book 30, suggesting that their combined but sequential evocation may hint at the simultaneous and parallel unravelling of Livy’s historical account behind Virgil’s myth.
The parallel between Virgil’s Dido and the story of Sophoniba and Masinissa (Liv. 30.12-15) is so evident that it leads one to question whether Sophoniba may have featured in Ennius’ Annales (De Sanctis, Skutsch). Both episodes end with a Carthaginian queen who commits suicide after her second husband cannot keep his nuptial promise; one may add the military contexts of their marriages, the analogous roles played by Iarbas-Syphax and Mercury-Scipio, and the presentation of both women as furies. Livy’s emphasis on Sophoniba’s seductiveness and luxury, together with an intertextual echo of Horace’s C. 1.37 (Toppani), betrays her role as a double for Cleopatra (Haley, Martin, Kowalewski, Levene) in a similar way as Virgil’s Dido is. Moreover, Sophoniba will become Petrarch’s own Dido in Book 5 of the Africa, a hexametrical version of Livy’s episode in the language of Aeneid 4 (Bartuschat, Whittington, Hardie).
If Dido’s love story is closely associated with that of Sophoniba’s, her suicide evokes instead Carthage’s last woman: Hasdrubal’s wife, throwing herself in the flames of Eshmoun’s temple (Edgeworth). This shift towards 146 BCE had to pass through Hannibal, much more closely than the identification with Dido’s evoked avenger would suggest (4.625). Indeed, the famous simile of Carthage’s destruction finds a match in the Carthaginians reacting to the burning of their ships quam si ipsa Carthago arderet (Livy 30.43.12), a passage followed by Hannibal predicting a cause-and-effect connection between Punic and Civil Wars as Dido does in her curse (4.629 pugnent ipsi nepotesque, with Reeve). Moreover, there are uncanny similarities between the way Dido and Hannibal deplore the bad timing of the realisation of their misfortunes, and their inability to seize the moment when they both had victory almost in their grasp.
A side-by-side reading of Aeneid 4 and Livy’s Book 30, coupled with recognition of echoes of the first Punic war in Aeneid 1 (Goldschmidt), turns the Dido Books into the mythical version of a mini-history of the conflict between Rome and Carthage, further sealed by the ludi of Book 5, which I read as a triumphal re-enactment of episodes from the Punic Wars. If the echoes of Sophoniba (‘Baal has pronounced judgment’) may indicate that Baal has already doomed Dido and her city before they could ever get a chance, the shadow of Hannibal (‘the mercy of Baal’) in the second half of Aeneid 4 leaves us with the suggestion that the Barcids, in the future, may have more of a say.
Dido in and after Vergil