14 November 2013

Aeneas, Dido, and Ahab

One of the most famous love stories in all literature is that of Dido and Aeneas from Virgil’s Aeneid. In his Confessions, Augustine even tells of how this particular story was used as part of his rhetorical education, as the students were taught how to read the story of Dido and make themselves weep. Unfortunately, those people who like to imagine a historic basis for their legends are out of luck on this one. Dido, the founding Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the fugitive from Troy’s destruction, could never have met. The traditional date for the founding of Carthage, derived from the Greek historian Timaeus, is 814 B.C. The date of the Trojan War is either 1250 B.C. (according to Herodotus) or around 1184 B.C. (according to Eratosthenes). So unless Aeneas wandered the Mediterranean for about 400 years, there was no chance that he ever met up with Dido.

Why then were the two connected? We have the poet Virgil to thank for that. He was tasked with writing an epic poem to support Augustus Caesar’s unprecedented reign over the Roman government, by giving a mythological history of Rome. However, he also wanted to set the stage for a number of things in Roman history leading up to Augustus. So how did he do this? Well, boys and girls, he used what those in the business like to call, retconning. That is, he took some stories that were already vaguely in existence and some historic events unrelated to his story, and wove them together to serve his purpose.


First, there’s the story of Aeneas. Aeneas is mentioned as one of the warriors on the Trojan side in Homer’s Iliad. When he has a confrontation with Achilles, he is swooshed out of the battle by the god Poseidon, who says that he must survive the Trojan War because he has another destiny. Now, of course, Homer could not have been referring to the founding of Rome, as The Iliad was written before Rome was even founded. According to Malcom Willcock in his book A Companion to the Iliad, most scholars believe that there might have been a king in Anatolia, contemporary to Homer, who claimed descent from Aeneas. Adding this nod to Aeneas in The Iliad would have been a way to ensure the good will of the king and guarantee a good paycheck for Homer himself. In any case, Virgil seized the opportunity to declare that Aeneas’s greater destiny referred to here was actually that he was to move to Italy and become the ancestor of Romulus, the founders of Rome.


Now, as any student of Rome’s history knows, Rome did not rise to international prominence until it had been around for about 500 years. Prior to that, it was a power only on the Italian peninsula. So how did Rome become the international power that we know it as? It accomplished this by defeating the greatest naval power of the Mediterranean, Carthage. Carthage was Rome’s arch enemy from 264 – 146 B.C. over the course of three Punic Wars. So it was natural for Virgil to want to include some allusion to these past (for him) or future (for his character Aeneas) wars. So, he had Aeneas meet the founder and first Queen of Carthage, Dido. Aeneas and Dido meet and have a fiery love affair that ends with Dido’s suicide. No better way to set up a future enmity between two countries. Of course, as I’ve pointed out before, whatever happened at Troy that became, in legend, the Trojan War was about 400 years before the founding of Carthage. So this meeting is technically impossible.

Well, You’re No Fun Anymore

So what does that leave us with? Well, The Aeneid is certainly a great, epic story even if it is political propaganda with no historic basis. However, I can give you a fun, interesting, and historic connection for Dido of Carthage. As I said previously, Carthage was founded around 814 B.C. The Jewish historian Josephus in his work Against Apion, quotes a lost work by Menander of Ephesus about the history of Tyre. Discussing the kings of the city of Tyre, he writes:
“Ithobalus, the priest of Astarte…reigned thirty-two years, and lived sixty-eight years: he was succeeded by his son Badezorus, who lived forty-five years, and reigned six years: he was succeeded by Matgenus his son; he lived thirty-two years, and reigned nine years: Pygmalion succeeded him; he lived fifty-six years, and reigned forty-seven years. Now in the seventh year of his reign, his sister fled away from him, and built the city Carthage in Libya.” (Josephus, Against Apion 1.18)
So we can construct a family tree something like this:

Remember, though, I told you I had a fun, interesting connection for you? Here it is. Ithobaal/Ethbaal was a usurper. He was a priest who killed the king and started a new dynasty. Naturally he would want to ally himself with his neighbors to cement his reign. At the time, one powerful southern neighbor was Israel. King Ahab of Israel (874 – 853) was particularly militaristic and strong. As an aside, we know from other historical records that when Shalmaneser III of Assyria tried to push west, he was opposed by a coalition of twelve kings, which included Ahab. Ahab brought the strongest military force of all the kings, numbering 2,000 chariots and 10,000 infantry. So Ithobaal married his daughter off to Ahab of Israel as we read in 1 Kings 16:31, “…he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians…”

So let’s update our family tree a bit shall we?


So, in case you haven’t been keeping up, the whole Dido and Aeneas thing is pure fiction with no historical basis whatever: a nice story, but nothing more. However, Dido, founder of Carthage, did have another famous connection, her great-aunt Jezebel of Biblical fame. And if you’re like me, you find that “It’s a Small World After All” vibe to be pretty cool.

1 comment:

Jackie Lynn said...

wow, Talk about a "long-distance" relationship?