Who was Dido, Queen & Founder of Carthage?

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Dido was the queen and founder of Carthage. Can there really be much more to say about her? Yes. In this lesson, we'll explore the full legend of Dido, and see how that story varied depending on who was telling it.

Dido

In the ancient Mediterranean world, great cities were symbols of power and sophistication. So, it's not too surprising that these cities tended to have some pretty great stories about their founding. One of the most famous of these legends comes from the North African city of Carthage, today in Tunisia. Carthage eventually rose to become most powerful city in the Mediterranean, but it didn't start that way. It was founded by a powerful and clever woman named Dido, a royal refugee who would end up creating one of the greatest powers in the world.

Dido, seated on a throne in a Roman fresco
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The Grain of Salt

What we'll be discussing today is not a matter of history. It's also not a matter of mythology. It's somewhere right in the middle. According to tradition, Carthage was founded by Dido around 813 BCE. But who was Dido? Dido, also known as Elissa, was the queen of Tyre, a city in Lebanon. Dido and her people were Phoenicians, an ethnic group who founded the first maritime trading empire of the Mediterranean. When Dido's husband Pygmalion was murdered by her brother in a power struggle, she was forced to flee Tyre and eventually founded Carthage.

So, what's so controversial about this? The story of Dido is one that we largely know from European sources, who had a complicated relationship with Carthage. Some people claim that Carthage wasn't founded until centuries later. On the other hand, excavations at Carthage have uncovered Greek pottery dating back to the 8th century BCE, which strongly suggest that Phoenician traders were operating out of this city by that date.

To most people, Dido is still recognized as the founder of Carthage. Still, we do have to acknowledge that the oldest accounts we have of Dido's journey come not from Tunisia but the 4th century BCE Greek historian Timaeus. In these stories, Dido was said to have fled Tyre with her supporters and sailed to the Phoenician city of Utica. They rested there while Dido negotiated renting land for her own city from the Libyan King Hiarbas.

According to legend, the king told Dido she could have as much land as fit under an ox hide. So, Dido cut an ox hide into extremely fine strips and encircled an entire hill. Carthage was founded, and soon became a very important trading center for Phoenician merchants. Its power would only grow from there.

Dido and Aeneas

The most famous version of Dido's story, however, was told centuries later. The 1st century CE Roman poet Virgil recorded the best known of the Dido legends in his epic story the Aeneid. The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, a mythical hero of Greece's famous Trojan War. When his home city of Troy is destroyed, Aeneas leaves to sail to Italy with other cast-out Trojans. Blown off course by his mother (the deity of love, Venus), he lands instead in Carthage. Dido, Queen of Carthage, was famed for her beauty but rejected every suitor, until she meets the heroic Aeneas. The two fall in love and prepare to be married, resettling the Trojan society in Carthage, but the gods prompt Aeneas to continue his journey and fulfill his destiny in Italy. The heartbroken Dido places a curse on the descendants of the Trojans and throws herself on a funeral pyre, committing suicide.

Dido and Aeneas hunting together in a Roman mosaic
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What's interesting is that Virgil's story places the founding of Carthage 300-400 years earlier than the tradition date of 813 BCE held by the Greeks. Why? The answer is in the relationship between Rome and Carthage. In the Aeneid, Aeneas finally makes it to Italy after leaving Carthage, where he interacts with the Latin and Etruscan people. His direct descendants, Romulus and Remus, are the mythical founders of Rome, making Aeneas the progenitor of Roman civilization.

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