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Vergil’s Bacchae: Dido and Amata

Katherine M. Handloser

Unviersity of Texas

In the Aeneid, Vergil gives special attention to two particularly marginalized characters: that is, Dido and Amata, characters who are marginalized by their foreignness, their gender, and furthermore by their threat to the mission of Aeneas and, thus, the mission of Rome. There has been much treatment of Dido, as well as some regarding Amata, albeit less (e.g., Zarker 1969, Burke 1976). Beyond more immediately recognizable parallels between the two foreign queens, Vergil includes striking similarities between the two through the use of Bacchic language and imagery. This similarity has been noted before, and has received some treatment in terms of both women; however, previous scholarship has left much to be desired and explored.

Bacchus himself and Vergil’s use of Bacchus has, in similar ways as with Dido and Amata, received some attention, particularly his appearances in the Georgics and the Eclogues (Mac Góráin 2014; Smith 2007). There has also been some discussion regarding the Dionysian and Apollonian connotations of Aeneas and thus, by extension, Augustus (Weber 2002). Is Bacchus a hostile, indulgent deity; a gentle god of cultivation; or are these inseparable? Are we to consider the way in which Bacchus is a multifaceted god, no longer strictly defined by the excessive, provocative, scandalous nature of his cult as it was in the not-so-distant past?

Dido in Book 4 and Amata in Book 7 of the Aeneid both find themselves experiencing a Bacchic furor. Dido is described as …incensa per urbem / bacchatur, qualis commotis excita sacris / Thyias, ubi audito stimulant trieterica Baccho / orgia nocturnusque vocat clamore Cithaeron (4.298-303). Amata is described even more extensively, however, in 7.374-377 (paralleling Dido’s wanderings per urbem) and then shortly following in 7.385-405 in which she, simulato numine Bacchi (7.385), steals away with Lavinia to mountains and further rouses the matrons of the city, euhoe Bacche fremens (7.389). The passage continues to elaborate further Dionysian imagery in their dress and Bacchant-like behavior. Previous scholarship has argued that Amata’s frenzy is potentially insincere and appropriated (Burke 1976; see also Smith 2007). I argue that her furor is genuine, and this enables us—in fact compels us—to read the nature of her Dionysian intoxication and, as a result, her hostility or antagonism in the Aeneid differently.

There is much scholarship done on how we ought to read Dido in the Aeneid in terms of contemporary Augustan culture and historical context that needs no rehashing here. However, if we take Dido and her Bacchic representation in conjunction with that of an obvious parallel like Amata, how does this affect our overall reading of the Aeneid? Through looking at the Augustan contexts of the cult of Bacchus, as well as keeping in consideration the iconographic associations between him, Apollo, and Augustus, I intend to examine the implications in the Aeneid of the usage of Bacchic language and imagery in terms of Dido and Amata in particular.

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Virgil and Religion

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