Dido: Virgil’s Cleopatra


Among the many intricacies in the political dynamics of Virgil's Aeneid, the symbolism of Dido stands out as one of the most important. Many are the instances where the Virgilian reader is reminded of Roman politico-historical symbols, themes and narratives, and his Aeneid and its close relation with the events of the civil war after the Second Triumvirate is one of the clearest examples. Hidden behind his highly sophisticated verses, Virgil shows an unacknowledged political commentary on the events of the second half of the first century BCE, and in the epic, Dido is not only reminiscent of Cleopatra VII, but intentionally parallel to her [1].

The heroine is an accurate, albeit literary, depiction of Cleopatra. Although it might seem a hindrance, it is in fact, the literary nature of the character that allows Virgil to properly represent -to do justice to - the historical figure of the Egyptian queen. The poetical language and the mythological storytelling empower the Roman poet with the tools to present a nuanced image of Dido: an image that fits the kaleidoscopic personality of Cleopatra. This is one of the beautiful paradoxes of art: how poetry, although arising from the subjectivity of the author, can create a vivid reality as objective and complete as the world around us. Art is far from static scientific descriptions. It is an image that is alive, and so by its very living nature is nuanced and subject to interpretation and change-just as reality itself. In the words of A. H. Gosling, "a myth is not a static, established thing, but a vital, creative force" [2]. Thus, Virgil makes use of this 'artistic nuance', so to speak, to create a credible-a real-image of Cleopatra that conforms to the historical.

As an artist, and one who has been deeply influenced by the Callimachian principles of Hellenistic poetry, Virgil is far from simplicity and straightforwardness [3]. He creates such nuanced characters that it is impossible to reduce his work to a mere statement of political propaganda in favor of Augustus. Just as Horace - who was also part of Augustus' imperial court -, Virgil does not promote the new regime in a naïve and full - hearted way. He takes an artistic freedom to opine on-and even correct - the emperor. Thus, in his Aeneid, and particularly in the characterization of Dido as parallel to Cleopatra, Virgil surprises the reader with a mature and multifaceted political commentary that goes beyond what might have been expected of a poet in an authoritarian regime. Virgil is in this sense similar to Horace. Virgil's discourse on Cleopatra through the character of Dido resembles Horace's Odes I.37 in as much as they both - to some extent at least-sympathize with the Egyptian queen and portray her as a heroine. This important observation should lead the Virgilian reader to consider the author's sources when commenting on Cleopatra. Although Plutarch-our main biographic source for Cleopatra - is much later than the Augustan poet, it must be assumed that the events narrated by the Greek historian were probably known in Virgil's time, given that he was a contemporary of the civil wars. Furthermore, some scholars have argued - quite persuasively in my opinion - that Virgil composed the character of Dido from the Horatian ode, which had been published in 23 BCE [4]. This could have been very well the case, and it would explain how and why both poets share a tragic sympathy for Cleopatra, even though they do not legitimize her, of course. This is indeed an important caveat, since, although they admire some aspects of Cleopatra, Horace and Virgil still, as Pietrusiński affirms, "s'efforcent d'établir la suprématie d'Auguste, champion de la virtus romaine" [5]

Apart, of course, from her royal status as queen and her gender as woman, the first characteristic in Dido that suggests an identification with Cleopatra is her origin. Both women are queens of North African kingdoms, and given the Phoenician ancestry of Carthage, both are considered eastern queens to the Roman public. This evokes a certain exoticism and sophistication in the Latin mind through their foreign gods, customs, and riches. It is a common Roman stereotype that combines both fascination for the fantastic lands of the east-or any foreign country for that matter-, and disdain for the excessive luxuries and immoderate lives of their peoples [6]. The Romans, following the example of the earlier Greeks who saw in the Achaemenid Empire their archenemy, generally accused the eastern peoples of effeminacy, in line with their manly-perhaps misogynous to the modern eye-concept of virtus. This manliness, combined with the Roman aversion towards monarchy, made the fact of a woman being queen a hard reality to digest. This was evidently shown in the political rhetoric of Augustus during the war against Mark Antony, and in the case of Virgil's Aeneid, the hero is also reprimanded by Mercury for staying in Carthage "as servant to a woman" [7]. Thus, in the relationship between Dido and Aeneas, Virgil is building a parallel with Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Just as Antony with Cleopatra, Aeneas too was distracted of his mission and was forgetful of his national identity when staying with Dido in Carthage.

Regarding Dido's character, she does not differ much from the personality of Cleopatra that is depicted for us in the ancient sources. Both are queens, and so they have a certain leadership drive, noble demeanor, and royal grace. In the Aeneid, it is simply a literary choice of the author -probably to fit the tone of the epic -, but in the case of Cleopatra we cannot be sure whether she was truly the person that our sources describe, or rather she was mythologized after the events. Although this is a major problem in any discussion about Cleopatra - namely, where to draw the line between legend and history - in the case of her personality it is reasonable to assume, given her long-lasting political success and diplomatic exchanges, that she must have been an outstanding woman - to say the least. Both Dido and Cleopatra are characters that take upon themselves the responsibility of driving their nation forward. In her best - seller biography, Stacy Schiff describes the leadership of the Egyptian queen in the following words: "A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine" [8]. Duane W. Roller too in his book Cleopatra, a Biography, discusses this aspect of Cleopatra and describes her as "an accomplished diplomat, naval commander, administrator, linguist, and author, who skillfully managed her kingdom in the face of a deteriorating political situation and increasing Roman involvement" [9]. Unlike Cleopatra in Plutarch's biography, of whom the historian says that "in itself her beauty was not absolutely without parallel" [10], in the Aeneid, Dido is portrayed as exceedingly beautiful. Moreover, so beautiful is she that Virgil creates a simile in which he compares the Carthaginian queen to Diana, the Roman goddess of hunting and the Moon [11]. This creates a direct parallel between the heroine and Cleopatra, since the Egyptian queen used to portray herself as Isis [12], the Egyptian goddess who is oftentimes syncretized with - among others - Diana [13].

The graciousness or attractiveness of Cleopatra was of a moral nature, rather than mere physical beauty. Plutarch describes her in the following words:

"[H]er presence exerted an inevitable fascination, and her physical attractions, combined with the persuasive charm of her conversation and the aura she somehow projected around herself in company, did have a certain ability to stimulate" [14].

This magical 'aura' around her was also enhanced by her intellectual brilliance. We have all the reasons, including the academic wealth of Egypt at that time and her successful political career, to assume that Cleopatra received an exceptional education. And the ancient sources confirm it. Especially notable is the passage where Plutarch describes her gift of tongues:

"The sound of her voice was also charming and she had a facility with languages that enabled her to turn her tongue, like a many-stringed instrument, to any language she wanted, with the result that it was extremely rare for her to need a translator in her meetings with foreigners" [15].

Beyond her traditional epic nobility and her foreign exoticism, there is not much personal charm surrounding Dido in the Aeneid. Nonetheless, the Carthaginian queen does stand out as very well-spoken, just as Cleopatra. In book IV of the Aeneid, in fact, Dido gives the longest series of speeches in the whole of Latin literature, with an amazing display of rhetoric pathos.

Both Dido and Cleopatra engage in their love affairs with Aeneas and Antony respectively for the sake of their nation: the former to ensure its birth, and the latter to prevent its ruin. They both saw on the male heroes an opportunity to protect their kingdoms - mainly from usurpers (Dido from her brother and Cleopatra from her fellow Egyptians) - and they relied on them so much that when Aeneas and Antony were gone, they too died along with their hopes by committing suicide.

Despite these similarities, their love relationships, however, are somewhat different. On the one hand, most of the ancient sources emphasize Cleopatra's charm and vilify her by portraying the queen as a seductress that 'enchanted' Antony. Plutarch tries, in fact, to remove the blame from Antony by describing the affair with expressions such as "he was caught" [16], or "[i]t awoke a number of feelings that had previously been lying quietly buried in him" [17]. The historian emphasizes the manly Roman virtues in Antony, and describes his love for Cleopatra as an unfortunate defeat under the woman's wit and power of persuasion. This attitude surely agrees with the Roman approach towards the civil war in putting the whole blame on Cleopatra [18].

Virgil, on the other hand, portrays the love affair as reciprocal: Aeneas and Dido are genuinely in love. This surprising choice from the poet may very well be a matter of aesthetics for the sake of romance in the story, but I believe it was intentional. It springs from Virgil not wanting to focus on the moral decadence or the evil nature of Dido-Cleopatra, but on how it was not fated that Aeneas-Antony lose their Roman identity in favor of a foreign nation (Carthage-Egypt). It seems as if Mercury appeared and cried out to Antony too: "Are you forgetful of what is your own kingdom, your own fate?" [19].

After considering in somewhat of broad terms - for indeed it would take a much longer analysis to account for all of them - the similarities between Dido and Cleopatra, it is important to reiterate why Virgil chose to emphasize these points and not others. He is creating a nuanced image of a Cleopatra that is far from a rush vilification or simple moral judgement. By commenting on Antony through Aeneas' mistake in remaining at Carthage, and by praising Augustus' integrity through Aeneas' docility to the gods in defending the foundation of Rome, Virgil is indeed using Dido as the villain. Nonetheless, he still defends the nobility of her character and the legitimacy of her claims by making the reader sympathize with her tragic fate of suicide. The parallelism Dido-Cleopatra, thus, goes beyond a mere political game. Rather, it gets to the roots of literary choice and artistic freedom [20]


[1] This theory has been advanced by multiple scholars since the beginning of the XX century, among whom it is important to underline D.L. Drew: "Dido is, on the one side, Cleopatra-the foreign woman doomed to a tragic end by suicide, ruler of a nation, at once strong and weak in her femininity. The hero is seduced from his piety; he turns eastern sultan (as if he were already a Roman) under her influence." (D.L. Drew, The Allegory of the Aeneid [Oxford, 1927], p. 82f). Other important commentaries on the parallelism between Dido and Cleopatra include W. Warde Fowler, The Religious Experience of the Roman People: From the Earliest Times to the Age of Augustus (London, 1911), pp. 414-416; Arthur Stanley Pease, Publi Vergili Maronis Aeneidos Liber Quartus (Cambridge, 1935), pp. 24-28; Kenneth Quinn, Latin Explorations: Critical Studies in Latin Literature (London, 1963), p. 35; Jacques Perret, Virgile, l'homme et l'oeuvre (Paris, 1952); W. A. Camps, An Introduction to Virgil's Aeneid (Oxford, 1969), p. 29; Kasper Griffin, Latin Poets and Roman Life (London, 1985), p. 194; Antonio La Penna, "Didone," in F. Della Corte, ed., Enciclopedia Vergiliana, v. 2 (Rome, 1985), p. 54; Francis Cairns, Virgil's Augustan Epic (Cambridge, 1989), p. 57.

[2] A. H. Gosling, "Amabilis insania: the imagery of poetic inspiration in Horace's Odes", Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, No. 50 (May 1978), p. 27.

[3] Cf. D. O'Rourke, "Hospitality narratives in Virgil and Callimachus: the ideology of reception," The Cambridge Classical Journal, No. 63 (2017), pp. 118-142.

[4] Cf. J. M. Benario, "Dido and Cleopatra", Vergilius, No. 16 (1970), p. 5; K. Galinsky, 2003, "Greek and Roman Drama and the Aeneid," in Myth, History and Culture in Republican Rome, eds. D. Braund & C.J. Gill (Liverpool University Press: 2003), pp. 275-294.

[5] D. Pietrusiński, abstract of "Apothéose d' Auguste par la comparaison avec les héros grecs chez Horace et Virgile," Eos: Commentarii Societatis Philologae Polonorum, Volume LXVI (1978), pp. 249-266. Translation: 'strive to establish the supremacy of Augustus, champion of the Roman virtus'.

[6] This last element is particularly exemplified in Satire 15 by Juvenal.

[7] Virgil, Aeneid, trans. Allen Mandelbaum (New York: Bantam Classic, 1981), p. 88 (Book IV, v. 355).

[8] Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: a Life (New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2010), p. 2

[9] Duane W. Roller, Cleopatra, a Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 1

[10] Plutarch, Roman Lives, trans. Robin Waterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 384(Antony, 27).

[11] Cf. Virgil, Aeneid, op. cit., p. 18 (Book I, vv. 702-711).

[12] Cf. Plutarch, Roman Lives, op. cit., p. 406 (Antony, 54).

[13] Cf. Diana Delia, "Isis, or the Moon," in Egyptian Religion: The Last Thousand Years: Studies Dedicated to the Memory of Jan Quaegebeur, eds. Willy Clarysse, Antoon Schoors, Harco Willemseds (Leuven: Peeters, 1998), pp. 539-550.

[14] Plutarch, Roman Lives, op. cit., p. 384 (Antony, 27).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Plutarch, Roman Lives, op. cit., p. 382 (Antony, 25).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Note that in the year 32 BCE, the Roman Senate officially declared war on Cleopatra, not Mark Antony.

[19] Virgil, Aeneid, op. cit., p. 88 (Book IV, vv. 356-357).

[20] Note that it would be a mistake to expect Virgil's Dido to conform to Cleopatra in a direct parallelism, since the poet is engaging in a much broader game of literature. He is reacting to-almost rewriting-the everlasting Homeric epics of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and he uses the Carthaginian queen not only as a symbol to comment on the contemporary political crisis, but also as an impersonation of the new Hellen for Paris, and the new Calypso or Circe for Odysseus.


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