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

March 22, 2015

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


From → Mythical Figures

One Comment
  1. Happy to see you back in my reader. I shall have to take some time for your longer essay on Medea that you linked in your previous post too.

    And in just an indulgence of personal trivia, I’m always happy also to see a reference to Phaedra, which you’ve woven into this piece nicely. Phaedra was my mother’s name. I guess I’m a bit sentimental.

    Nice post.

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