Aeneas, Virgil's Aeneid, Greece, Rome
Elissa (Dido) Legend
Elissa and the Founding of Carthage
(Dido Building Carthage)
by J. M. W. Turner
The legend of Elissa, a Phoenician princess from Tyre, tells how she created the great city of Carthage on the coast of North Africa. Surprisingly enough, much of this story turns out to be historically accurate. Unfortunately this legend was recorded by Greek and Roman writers, whose lands fought long wars with the Phoenicians. That led to a bitter description of the king of Tyre, a boy only eleven years of age, who could hardly have done many things told in the story.
Nevertheless, the legend is fascinating. Here it is relayed by the Roman poet Virgil. He uses Roman names in the poem: Aphrodite is called Venus, Elissa is Dido, Acherbas is Sychaeus, and Africa is Libya. Aphrodite tells the story to Aeneas as he arrives on the shore near Carthage.
that thou seest is [Carthage's] land, by Tyrians peopled;
is Agenor’s town; fierce Libyans harass our borders;
is queen of the realm; she abandoned her Tyrian city
her brother; —but long are her woes, too long their recital;
in its broader lines, I will follow her story.
was the bride of Sychaeus, a man who was counted the richest
of land in Tyre, and devotedly loved by poor Dido,
in her maidenly bloom, her father had pledged in betrothal:
of marriage were bright; but over the Tyrian people
her own brother Pygmalion as king, —a monster of evil.
dissension arose in the home, and by avarice blinded,
his sister’s love, and defiant of Heaven,
at the altar he stealthily slew unwatchful Sychaeus.
he concealed the deed, and, imagining many a pretext,
deceived and encouraged the hope of his heart-broken sister.
in her slumbers the spirit itself of her husband unburied
and uplifting a face of strange and unnatural pallor,
her the blood-stained shrine, and his breast transfixed by the dagger,
disclosing the secret disgrace of her home and her brother.
he adjured her to hasten her flight, and escape from the country,
of treasure long hid in the earth, to aid her departure,
unreckoned in weight, and silver unmeasured in value.
alarmed by the dream, made ready her flight and her comrades;
all those to her side who detested the merciless tyrant,
who were moved by fear. Then, a vessel that chanced in the harbor
they freighted with gold, and sordid Pygmalion’s treasure
away on the sea; —and this was the deed of a woman!
to this place they came, where soon you will see the majestic
and rising towers of the new-born city of Carthage.
they purchased a site, called Byrsa because of their bargain;
so much could be bought as their wit could surround by a bull’s hide.
Elissa and Aeneas go on to have a love affair which ends tragically when he leaves her to continue his journey.
In real life, Carthage arose because of changes in Phoenician society which occurred before the creation of this great city in 814 BC. The amazing history of Carthage's growth to lead an empire of many rich colonies, and her tumultuous relationship with Greece and Rome, are explored in Chapters 17 – 22 of Phoenician Secrets: Exploring the Ancient Mediterranean.
Dido (Elissa) and Aeneas
by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin
© 2006-2012 Sanford Holst