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Vergil’s use of Medea as a model for his Dido.

It is understandable that Vergil would have wanted to model his Dido Queen of Carthage on a strong and powerful figure from myth. The Medea of Apollonius’ Argonautica whilst providing this also has vulnerabilities which create a more realistic character which Vergil could make use of; for example in considering aspects of love and relationships. However, it is clear that Medea is not the only influence drawn upon by Vergil as there are indications of Homeric characters such as Nausicaa. This essay argues that, notwithstanding other influences, Vergil primarily draws upon comparisons with the figure of Medea. The analysis will focus on three particular areas the first meeting of Dido and Aeneas, the cave marriage scene and language used by Dido after Aeneas leaves Carthage.

The influence of Medea on Vergil’s representation of Dido commences at an early stage within the Aeneid. Aeneas comes to Carthage shrouded in a mist that ensures he is protected from harm; a scene reminiscent of Jason’s arrival at Colchis in Apollonius’ Argonautica which in turn recalls Homer’s Odyssey[1]. The imagery used creates a link for the audience between the Argonautica and Aeneid. This is seemingly intended by Vergil to draw similarities between the figures of Medea and Dido. This connection is enhanced during the first encounter of Dido and Aeneas through the intervention of Cupid who ensures she falls in love with him. Love is used as some form of protection for the hero; Medea aids Jason in his quest and Dido’s love protects Aeneas from Juno’s wrath[2]. This scene recalls the first meeting of Jason and Aeetes during which Medea is struck by the arrow of Eros[3]. As Spence suggests, ‘Vergil’s use of Apollonius’ Argonautica…is… important in establishing the tragic context’[4]. Vergil’s choice to include the intervention of the god of love within the opening book of his epic arguably prepares his audience for the future doomed relationship of Dido and Aeneas. Dido is described as ‘growing more grievously lovesick, Feeding the wound with her life-blood, the fire biting within her’[5]. Comparison may be drawn with the descriptions of the passions of Medea and Phaedra. Phaedra’s heart is ‘seized’ and Medea is ‘smitten’ with love for Jason[6]. The language used by these characters has strong parallels with the description of the ‘fire biting’ Dido’s heart. The language used also creates images that the audience would have connected with the suffering of the Carthaginian queen. Particularly as the tragic consequences of love influenced by the gods within myth, violence and death, would have been well known to Vergil’s audience.

Though comparisons can be drawn with Medea it has been argued that there are Homeric influences within Vergil’s representation of Dido, and at first she is presented as a Nausicaa like figure[7]. This is borne out through imagery such as the assistance of the shipwrecked hero, the banquet for Aeneas and the Phaeacian representation of Dido’s palace[8]. Though evidence such as this supports the comparison it is difficult to ignore the clear dissimilarities between the characters. Nausicaa is unmarried, a virgin and a princess. On the other hand Dido is not a virgin, widowed and queen[9]. Nappa in considering the comparison of Nausicaa and Dido concludes that although such associations have been made between them, unlike Nausicaa, Dido is forced to feel and act on passion. This marks a clear distinction between the two figures and would indicate that the arguments for a character model based on Medea are more appropriate.

Vergil appears, to a certain extent, to recreate Apollonius’ marriage scene of Medea and Jason within the Aeneid. However, unlike the Apollonian scene Vergil’s description of the marriage is brief. Dido considers herself and Aeneas married following the scene and Juno acknowledges the union with a sign; ‘fires flashed in Heaven, the witness to their bridal’[10]. Though recognised by the gods the legitimacy of such a marriage might indeed be questioned as it is undertaken outside of civilisation, in the wild. Dido refers to herself as wishing that she could live outside of wedlock like a wild animal following her discovery of Aeneas’ plan to leave[11]. Ogle and Pease suggest that this section refers to Dido’s ‘own self-reproach, since wild animals do not have legitimate wedlock, only promiscuous passion’[12]. It might be argued that the union was not legitimate as they were driven by such passion and as such Vergil’s Roman audience would not have seen this as a marriage. This argument is supported by Fantham et al who consider that Romans would see the marriage as ‘unofficial and unsanctioned love’[13]. When compared with the union of Medea and Jason the scene within the Aeneid appears somewhat lacking in ceremonial trappings. In Apollonius’ marriage scene there is a ‘bowl to the blessed ones, as is right’, a bridal couch, sheep are sacrificed and the scene is blessed by the presence of nymphs[14]. The legitimacy of Jason and Medea’s union may also be questioned as they are forced to marry outside of the desired location of his father’s hall and also out of necessity to protect her from being returned to the Colchians[15]. Furthermore, Jason in part justifies his marriage to Creusa by reminding Medea of her barbarian origins[16]. Seemingly it was Vergil’s intention to use this scene to limit the possibility of marriage legitimacy in order to ensure that Aeneas could leave Dido. The question of legitimacy may also be considered within the political sphere of Rome. Barrett proposes that Vergil’s reference to Dido’s desire for Aeneas to father her child at Aeneid 4.327-30 is intended to draw a comparison between the couple and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar[17]. Cleopatra is said to have claimed that Caesar was the father of her child Caesarion [18]. It is argued by Barrett that Vergil through drawing these comparisons is claiming that like Aeneas Caesar did not father a child by a foreign mistress. These claims are supported by the analysis of Eidinow who through examining the use of language within Dido’s speech concludes that it brings to mind Caesarion[19]. Though Caesarion may have been executed by the time the Aeneid was published knowledge of Cleopatra’s claim may not have been forgotten. The literary comparison may have been intended by Vergil to dispel the idea[20].

The language used by Dido following her abandonment by Aeneas recalls the anger and wrath of Medea within Euripides’ Medea[21]. This section can also be compared with the distress expressed by Medea in book four of Argonautica. Medea speaks to Jason ‘seething with grim anger’ and longs ‘to set fire to the ship, to destroy everything before their eyes, and then throw herself into the consuming flames’[22]. Dido similarly expresses such anguish, anger and distress over Aeneas’ departure[23]. However, whereas Medea secures Jason’s temporary reassurance, Aeneas abandons Dido who subsequently commits suicide; though the ending of the Argonautica is not the end of Jason and Medea’s story. It is proposed by Spence that if Dido commences the story as Nausicaa she ends it as Medea and like both is destined to ‘be disappointed by a stranger with whom she has fallen in love’[24]. This certainly appears the case. Particularly, as through the well-known myth of Medea and Jason Vergil’s audience witness the tragic consequences of love and experience the pity and fear of a tragic performance as described by Aristotle[25].

In such a short piece it is difficult to consider every aspect of the Dido’s character. However, it is apparent that Vergil’s Dido is primarily modelled on Apollonius’ Medea. However, it cannot be discounted that figures such as Homer’s Nausicaa and Cleopatra also influenced the representation. Through the use of Medea Vergil is able to present a complex character within a traditional tragic persona. Vergil achieves this by using similar plot devices to that of Apollonius; the action of Cupid, the cave scene and language used. The similarity of the cave marriage scenes and questions regarding the legitimacy of the union allow Vergil to justify the departure of Aeneas. Furthermore, the audience through witnessing the arrival of Aeneas, the actions of the gods and rising passion of Dido fully appreciate from the beginning how Dido and Aeneas’ love will play out; as it follows the path set out by Medea and Jason’s relationship in Apollonius’ Argonautica and Euripides Medea. This assessment is best summarised through a statement made by Dido to Aeneas,

Unfaithful man, did you think you could do such a dreadful thing and keep it dark? Yes, skulk from my land without one word? Our love, the vows you made me – do these not give you pause, Nor even the thought of Dido meeting a painful death?[26]

The anguish, wrath and passion of Dido here is a clear indication of her having been modelled on Apollonius’ Medea.



Apollonius Jason and the Golden Fleece (The Argonautica), Translated by R. Hunter, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Aristotle Poetics – Aristotle in 23 Volumes¸ Loeb Classical Library Vol. 23, Translated by Fyfe, W.H. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed: 5 December 2014]

Cassius Dio Roman History, Loeb Classical Library Vol. 5, Translated by Cary, E. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955. Perseus Digital Library*.html [Accessed: 5 December 2014]

Euripides Medea – Euripides, Loeb Classical Library Vol.1. Translated by Kovacs, D. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1994. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed:  4 December 2014]

Euripides Hippolytus – Euripides Loeb Classical Library Vol. 2, Translated by Kovacs, D. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed: 4 December 2014]

Plutarch Antony - Plutarch’s Lives Translated by Perrin, B. (1920) Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed: 4 December 2014]

Vergil The Aeneid, Translated by C. Day Lewis, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Eidinow, J.S.C. ‘Dido, Aeneas, and Iulus: Heirship and Obligation in Aeneid 4’, in CQ 53, 2003, 260-267. Available at: [Accessed: 5 December 2014]

Fantham et al Women in the Classical World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Gordon, P. ‘Phaeacian Dido: Lost Pleasures of an Epicurean Intertext’, CA 17, 1998, 188-211. Available at: [Accessed: 5 December 2014]

Nappa, C. ‘Unmarried Dido: Aeneid 4.550-52′, Hermes 135, 2007, 301-313. Available at: [Accessed: 5 December 2014]

Spence, S. ‘Varium et Mutabile: Voices of Authority in Aeneid 4’, in C. G. Perkell (ed.)

Reading Vergil’s Aeneid: an Interpretive Guide. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. [e-book] Available at [Accessed: 4 December 2014]

[1] Apollonius 3.210-3; Vergil Aeneid 1.413-5; Homer Odyssey 7.14-8

[2] Apollonius 3.83-9; Vergil Aeneid 1.660-3

[3] Apollonius 3.275-88; Vergil Aeneid 1.718-22

[4] Spence, 1999:87

[5] Vergil Aeneid 4.1-4

[6] Euripides Medea 8; Euripides Hippolytus 27-9

[7] Nappa, 2007:311; Spence, 1999:88

[8] Gordon, 1998:198-9

[9] Nappa, 2007:312

[10] Vergil Aeneid 4.160-73

[11] Vergil Aeneid 4.550-2

[12] Ogle and Pease (1925) cited in Nappa, 2007:305

[13] Fantham et al, 1994:298

[14] Apolloniuis 4.1128-1169

[15] Apolloniuis 4.1160-1169

[16] Euripides Medea 536-9

[17] Barrett (1973) cited in Eidinow, 2003:264-5

[18] Cassius Dio 47.31.5

[19] Eidinow, 2003:265

[20] Plutarch Antony 81-2

[21] Euripides Medea 465-519

[22] Apollonius 4.350-92

[23] Vergil Aeneid 4.584-629

[24] Spence, 1999:88

[25] Spence, 1999:88; Aristotle Poetics 1449b

[26] Vergil Aeneid 4.305-7

Medea in Apollonius Rhodius and Euripides

Due to various reasons it has been an exceptionally long time since I have published on my blog. I am happy to finally be back and able to return to it on a more regular basis. Today I have published my recent essay on the representation of Medea in Apollonius Rhodius and Euripides:

How and why does the characterisation of Medea in Apollonius Rhodius draw on the characterisation of the Euripidean Medea.

I hope you enjoy reading this work and feel free to comment and/or make suggestions.

Poseidon and Polybotis

According to Hesiod (Theogony 184-5) and Apollodorus (Library 1.6.1) the giants were born from Gaia and Uranus. Apollodorus recounts that Gaia, frustrated on behalf of the Titans, instigated a war between the giants and the gods. However, the battle resulted in the destruction of the giants (Apollodorus Library 1.6.1). This piece represents one of the battles of the war, the one between Poseidon and the giant Polybotis.

Poseidon and Polybotis

Poseidon pursued Polybotis across the ocean to Cos. In order to stop the giant from escaping Poseidon struck the island with his trident and then used the rock that broke off to crush him (Apollodorus Library 1.6.1 and Strabo Geography 10.5.16). The island created is called Nisyros but in ancient times it was named Porphyris.

It is possible that the myth could be considered a tale of the success of Greek culture over other primitive societies. The Greek gods were born of the Titans whereas the giants are brought forth directly from the earth (Gaia), a primitive form of creation. Therefore, it might be argued that the gods represent the Greeks and the giants the other barbaric peoples of the Greek world. Furthermore, Poseidon’s action of crushing the giant with a piece of a Greek island could be viewed as another act of domination.

The Attic black figure band cup was discovered in grave number one in the cemetery of Ancient Thera. It dates to the third quarter of the sixth century BC. Poseidon is represented in godly form and the giant in hoplite armour. This scene can be seen in other works such as the Louvre Amphora and the Vatican Amphora. It might be argued that the use of the hoplite armour presents the giant as a mortal subject to the power of the god.


Apollodorus Library Translated by Frazer, J. G. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1921. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 25 August 2014]

Hesiod Theogony in The Homeric Hymns and Homerica Translated by H.G. Evelyn-White London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1914. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 25 August 2014]

Strabo GeographyThe Geography of Strabo Translated by Jones, H.L. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed 25 August 2014]

Archaic Gorgon Paros Archaeological Museum

One of my favourite mythological creatures has always been the Gorgon Medusa. I was pleasantly surprised walking into one of the rooms of the Paros Archaeological Museum to discover a beautiful statue of her in front of me. Unfortunately it has been ravaged slightly over time but it is still magnificent to behold.

Gorgon 2

Medusa was one of the daughters of the sea deities Phorkys and Keto but unlike her two sisters she was mortal. The three Gorgons were born with a terrifying appearance that petrified those who looked upon them. They are usually depicted as having large, round and angry faces, bulging eyes, boar tusks for teeth, snakes for hair, a large lolling tongue and wings. It is impossible to confirm when but at some point another version of Medusa’s origin developed. Once a beautiful woman Medusa was punished by Athena for sleeping with Poseidon in her temple;

Beyond all others she was famed for beauty, and the envious hope of many suitors. Words would fail to tell the glory of her hair, most wonderful of all her charms—A friend declared to me he saw its lovely splendour. Fame declares the Sovereign of the Sea attained her love in chaste Minerva’s (Athena’s) temple. While enraged she turned her head away and held her shield before her eyes. To punish that great crime Minerva changed the Gorgon’s splendid hair to serpents horrible. And now to strike her foes with fear, she wears upon her breast those awful vipers—creatures of her rage.

(Ovid Metamorphoses 4)

Despite her origin Medusa’s fate is the same. Perseus was charged by Polydektes of Seriphos to retrieve the head of Medusa for him. Aided by Athena and Hermes Perseus succeeds in his quest. The head of Medusa is presented to Athena who placed it upon her aegis to terrify her enemies. The use of the Gorgon’s image as a means to frighten enemies is similarly seen on the shields of Greek warriors; for example the bronze ornamental shield displayed at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia.

Olympia Shiled

The image of the Gorgon is also seen on talismans, amulets and temples. One particularly good example is the representation of the Gorgon Medusa on The Temple of Artemis Corcyra (this links to a previous blog post of mine). Another is the head of the Gorgon on the exterior lintel of the doorway that enters the Heroon at Gjolbaschi-Trysa. It is possible that the image was used to ward off evil but it may have had other uses. Oberleitner (cited in Barringer, 2008:183) considers that the Gorgon on the Heroon is intended to watch over the ‘heroized dead and his family’. Barringer (2008:183) observes that no evidence is provided to support the argument. However, she does not present anything to reject Oberleitner’s claim. It has been argued that female creatures such as the Gorgon might be considered to represent the fear women inspired in men (Blundell, 1995:17). However, Blundell (1995:17) observes that it is worth noting that the representations can also be useful to keep enemies at bay. Blundell particularly notes the wide use of images of Gorgons for the decoration of temples suggesting that their function was to chase away evil spirits. It is reasonable to suggest that, as the image of the Gorgon was considered fearful, it was a commonly held belief that it could protect people and buildings from evil spirits.

The sculpture dates to the 6th century BC and was found in an unidentified structure; possibly a sanctuary or public building. The image has all of the terrifying features of a traditional Gorgon; large head, boar tusks, lolling tongue and bulging eyes.

Gorgon 3

However, there are some subtle differences such as the chiton covered in scales, tied at the waist by a snake belt. I would suggest that this was used to further demonise the representation of the Gorgon to make it more scary. The statue appears to be preparing to fly as the wings are closed at the back and her leg is bent as if she is about to launch into flight.

Gorgon 1

This certainly would have been a terrifying and awe-inspiring image.

Primary Sources

Ovid Metamorphoses Translated by More, B. Boston: Cornhill Publishing Co, 1922. Theoi [Accessed 27/07/2014]

Secondary Sources

Barringer, J. Art, Myth, and Ritual in Classical Greece Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Blundell, S. Women in Ancient Greece Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Mythological Sculpture of Albert Gilbert

Alfred Gilbert was an exceptional English sculptor who produced a vast amount of work some of which had a mythological theme. I have had the pleasure of seeing three pieces of Gilbert’s mythological work at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The pieces are kept under glass and as such the photographs are not particularly clear.


2013-09-28 16.01.07

The sculpture of Icarus represents ambition and desire. Icarus escaped from the labyrinth of the Minotaur using wax wings designed by his father Daedulus. However, he ignored his father’s warning and flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he plummeted to earth, drowning in the sea. It is possible that Icarus’ impending death is represented by the bird at the base devouring a snake.

Athlete Wrestling a Python

2013-09-28 16.01.29

This sculpture represents an athlete battling a python. However, it is possible that there are mythological influences within the piece. Within Greek mythology it is told that Apollo chased the serpent Python from Mount Parnassus to the Oracle at Delphi. Apollo having killed Python at Delphi became the patron of the sanctuary. It would appear that there are distinct similarities between the myth and the representation in this sculpture.

Perseus Arming

2013-09-28 16.01.47

Gilbert represents Perseus preparing for battle. It could be for one of his many mythological fights but I would suggest that he is preparing to travel to fight the Gorgon Medusa. Hermes lent his sandals to Perseus in order that he could travel to the island where Medusa resided and claim her head. It appears in the sculpture that Perseus is checking the sandals having just put them on.

These three pieces are exceptional and if you get the opportunity I would recommend visiting the museum to see them.


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