Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Legend of Dido

"Malgernus, King of Tyre, died, leaving behind him a son, Pygmalion, and a daughter, Elissa or Dido, a maiden of singular beauty. Pygmalion, though he was yet but a boy, the Tyrians made their king. Elissa married Acerbas, whom some also call Sichaus, her mother's brother, and priest of Hercules. Among the Tyrians the priest of Hercules was counted next in honour to the king. Acerbas had great wealth, which he was at much pains to hide, so that, fearing the king, he put it away, not in his dwelling, but in the earth. Nevertheless the thing became commonly known. Thereupon King Pygmalion, being filled with covetousness, and heeding not the laws of man, and having no respect to natural affection, slew Acerbas, though he was brother to his mother and husband to his sister. Elissa for many days turned away her face from her brother, but at last, putting on a cheerful countenance, feigned to be reconciled to him. And this she did, not because she hated him the less, but because she thought to fly from the country, in which counsel she had for abettors many nobles of the city, who also were greatly displeased at the king. With this purpose she spake to Pygmalion, saying, 'I have had enough of sorrow. Let me come and dwell in thy house, that I be no more reminded of my troubles.' This the king heard with great joy, thinking that with his sister there would also come into his hands all the treasures of Acerbas. But when he sent his servants to bring his sister's possessions to his palace she won them over to herself, so that they became partakers of her flight. Having thus put all her riches upon shipboard, and taking with her also such of the citizens as favoured her, she set sail, first duly performing sacrifice to Hercules. And first she voyaged to Cyprus, where the priest of Jupiter, being warned of the gods, offered himself as a sharer of her enterprise on this condition, that he and his posterity should hold the high priesthood forever in the city which she should found. From Cyprus also she carried off a company of maidens, that they might be wives for her people. Now when Pygmalion knew that his sister had fled he was very wroth, and would have pursued after her and slain her. Nevertheless, being overcome by the entreaties of his mother, and yet more by fear of vengeance from the gods, he let her go, for the prophets prophesied, 'It will go ill with thee, if thou hinder the founding of that which shall be the most fortunate city in the whole world.'

"After these things Queen Elissa came to Africa, and finding that the people of those parts were well affected to strangers, and had a special liking for buying and selling, she made a covenant with them, buying a piece of land, so much as could be covered with the hide of an ox, that she might thereon refresh her companions, who were now greatly wearied with their voyage. This hide she cut into small strips that she might thus enclose a larger piece. And afterwards the place was called Byrsa, which is, being interpreted, the Hide.

"To this place came many of the people of the land, bringing merchandize for sale; and in no great space of time there grew up a notable town. The people of Utica also, which city had been before founded by the men of Tyre, sent ambassadors, claiming kindred with these new comers, and bidding them fix their abode in the same place where they themselves dwelt. But the barbarous people were not willing that they should depart from among them. Therefore, by common consent of all, there was built a fair city, to which the builders gave the name of Carthage; and it was agreed between Elissa and the people of the land that she should pay for the ground on which the said city was founded a certain tribute by the year. In the first place where they were minded to lay the foundations of the city there was found the head of an ox. Of this the soothsayers gave this interpretation, saying, 'This signifieth a fruitful land, but one that is full of labour, and a city that shall ever be a servant to others.' Therefore the city was moved to another place, where, when they began to dig foundations again, there was found the head of a horse. Thereupon the prophets prophesied again: 'This shall be a powerful nation, great in war, and this foundation augureth of victory.'

"After these things, the city greatly flourishing and the beauty of Queen Elissa (for she was very fair) being spread abroad, Iarbas, King of the Moors, sent for the chief men of Carthage to come to him; and when they were come he said, 'Go back to the Queen, and say that I demand her hand in marriage; and if she be not willing, then I will make war upon her and her city.' These men, fearing to tell the matter plainly to the Queen, conceived a crafty device.

King Iarbas,' said they, 'desireth to find someone who shall teach his people a more gentle manner of life; but who shall be found that will leave his own kinsfolk and go to a barbarous people that are as the beasts of the field?' The Queen reproved them, saying,

No man should refuse to endure hardness of life if it be for his country's sake; nay, he must give to it his very life, if need be.' Then said the messengers, 'Thou art judged out of thine own mouth, O Queen. What therefore thou counsellest to others do thyself, if thou wouldst serve thy country.' By this subtlety she was entrapped, which when she had perceived, first she called with much lamentations and many tears on the name of her husband Acerbas, and then affirmed that she was ready to do that which the will of the gods had laid upon her. 'But first,' she said, 'give me the space of three months that I may lament my former estate.' This being granted to her, she built, in the furthest part of the city, a great pyre, whereupon she might offer sacrifices to the dead, and appease the shade of Acerbas before that she took to herself another husband. Upon this pyre, having first offered many sheep and oxen, she herself mounted, having a sword in her hand. Then looking upon the people that was gathered about the pyre, she said, 'Ye bid me go to my husband. See then, for I go.' Thereupon she drave the sword into her heart, and so fell dead."

Such was the legend of the founding of Carthage as Virgil found it when he was writing his great poem, the Aeneid. He took it, and boldly shaped it to suit his own purposes. This is how he tells it.

"Aeneas, saved by the gods from the ruin of Troy to be the founder of Rome, comes after many wanderings to the island of Sicily, and thence sets sails for Italy, the land which has been promised to him. But Juno, who cannot forget her wrath against the sons of Troy, raises a great storm, which falls upon his fleet and scatters it, sinking some of the ships, and driving the rest upon the shore of Africa, near to the place where Elissa, who is also called Dido, had newly founded her city of Carthage. By her he and his companions are hospitably received. But this is not enough for Venus, his mother. 'For,' says she to herself, 'haply the mind of the Queen and her people will change concerning my son, and they will deal unfriendly with him and the men of Troy.' Thereupon she devises this device. She causes her son Cupid, or Love, to take upon him the shape of Ascanius, the young son of Aeneas; but Ascanius himself she carries to her own bower in Cyprus, and there lulls him to sleep. Meanwhile Aeneas is entertained by the Queen at a great banquet, and tells the story of the fall of Troy and of his wanderings; and as he tells it, the false Ascanius sits in the Queen's lap, and breathes into her heart the spirit of love. After this comes Juno to Venus, and says to her: 'Why should there be enmity between me and thee? I love Carthage, and thou lovest the men of Troy. Let us make an agreement that these two may join together in one city; and to this end let Dido take Aeneas for her husband.' To this Venus gave her assent; and so it was contrived.

"But the thing pleased not Jupiter that Aeneas should so forget the greatness to which he was called. Therefore he called Mercury, that was his messenger, and said to him: 'Go to the Trojan chief where he now lingers at Carthage, forgetting the city which he must build in Italy, and tell him that he must make ready to depart.' So Mercury bore the message to Aeneas; and Aeneas knew that the will of the gods was that he should depart, and bade his companions forthwith make ready the ships. This they did; and when the time came, though it was sorely against his will, Aeneas departed, knowing that he could not resist the will of the gods. And when Dido saw that he was gone, she bade them build a great pyre of wood, and mounting upon it, slew herself with the very sword which Aeneas had left in her chamber."