Aeneas Tells Dido the Misfortunes of the Trojan City by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1815.
Often overlooked by history, Dido of Carthage was a true heroine of the ancient times. In her reign a new age of civilization dawned, with figures such as the great general Hannibal who led his mighty war elephants across the Alps, and Sophonisba, the noblewoman who sacrificed herself rather than face the humiliation of a Roman victory.
Most of what is currently known about Carthage’s founder and queen comes to us from historians and writers such as Virgil, Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus, and Juniaus Justinus.
Dido (sometimes known as Elissa) was born in 839 BCE, in Tyre. She was the daughter of Mattan I (who ruled Tyre from 840 to 832 BCE), and sister of Pygmalion (ruler of Tyre from 831 to 785 BCE).
Prior to his death, King Mattan I declared that his children were to be joint heirs to the throne. However, when the king passed, the people of Tyre accepted only Pygmalion as their ruler, though he was only 10-12 years old at the time.
Several years later, Dido married her uncle Acerbas, a priest of Melqart and second in line to the throne. After hearing the rumor that Acerbas had hidden a vast amount of his fortune, King Pygmalion had him murdered so that he could attain the wealth. As an act of defiance, Dido had some of the King’s servants throw bags of sand into the sea so that Pygmalion would believe it to be bags of Acerbas’ gold.
Next, she persuaded her followers to join her in search of new land to settle in. During their journey they stopped in Cyprus, where 80 women and the priest of Jupiter joined the settlers.
Upon arriving in the new land, Dido was met by the Berber King Iarbas, whom she asked for permission to briefly stay before she and her settlers continued on their voyage. The King agreed to give her as much land as could be encompassed by an ox’s hyde. Cunningly, she had the hyde cut into the thinnest pieces and spread over a vast area of land, which was to be the great city of Carthage.
Aided by some Berbers and people of Utica (a nearby city belonging to the Phoenicians), Carthage rapidly grew into a powerful city state, with a a grand port in the center containing powerful warships. While digging in the area, workers found both the head of an ox and the head of a horse, which the settlers interpreted as meaning that the new city would hold wealth and power in war.
Dido Building Carthage or Rise of the Carthaginian Empire by J.M.W. Turner, 1815
Eventually, Dido’s end came when the King Iarbas, whom she paid an annual land tax, asked for her hand in marriage. If she declined, he would wage war on Carthage. Urged by her advisors to decline and risk war in order to teach the savage Berbers about the Phoenician glory, Dido was conflicted. She was aware that if King Iarbas declared war, her beloved Carthage would be annexed by their greater armies and generals, however she was still loyal to her late husband.
Therefore, she prepared a pyre with the public’s understanding that she would sacrifice slaves in honor of her husband before she agreed to marry King Iarbas. Suddenly, standing on the pyre, she drew her sword and announced that she would go with her husband, and stabbed herself in the heart.
Today, Dido’s life and legend lives on with Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe’s play Dido, Queen of Carthage (which was first performed in 1593 and is still popular today), and as a leader in Sid Meier's Civilization V.