Ancient History & Civilisation


At roughly the same time that Carthage was being rebuilt, the Italian poet Vergilius Maro had started to write his epic masterpiece, the Aeneid. Although Vergil was certainly not an uncritical supporter of the Augustan regime,50 a number of themes within his work nevertheless dovetailed with the propaganda which surrounded Augustus, for, as one who had lived through the horrors of war, he too must have longed for the new golden age that the regime trumpeted. 51 The Aeneid retold the familiar story of Aeneas’ turbulent journey from Troy to Italy, where he became the forefather of the Roman people. Within a few lines of the poem’s beginning, however, the audience is made aware that Carthage will play a far more important role in this version of the story than it had done previously:

There was an ancient city, Carthage (home of colonists from Tyre),
Over against Italy, and the Tiber’s mouth afar,
rich in wealth, and very stern in pursuit of war.
They say that Juno loved this land above all others,
even holding Samos less dear. Here was her armour
and here her chariot, and that here should be the capital
of the nations, should the fates allow it, was even then
the goddess’ aim and dearest aspiration.52

Although the Punic wars themselves receive very little attention in the Aeneid, the poem nevertheless self-consciously acts as the sequel (or perhaps prequel) to Ennius’ narrative of the conflict.53 As with the earlier epics of Naevius and Ennius, in the Aeneid the enmity between Carthage and Rome is divinely ordained, with each side having its immortal champion: Juno for the Carthaginians and Venus, the mother of Aeneas, for the Trojans. The Aeneid, however, was far more than a mere recapitulation of previous Roman poetry. Indeed, the work provided a new and dramatic pre-history for this famous enmity: a doomed love affair between Aeneas and Dido, the respective founders of the Roman and Carthaginian races. Although some kind of meeting between the two had taken place in Naevius’ epic, the idea of a romance was in itself a daring and provocative departure.

In the first book of the Aeneid, as the Trojan refugees travel away from their destroyed homeland, their ships are caught in a terrible storm instigated by their enemy, the goddess Juno. The survivors eventually wash up on the coast of North Africa, where they are given succour by another group of refugees from the East, the Carthaginians. Venus, fearing that the Carthaginians may do harm to her son, sends Cupid to Dido to ensure that the queen, who has previously resisted all approaches from suitors after the murder of her husband, falls passionately in love with Aeneas. Then Juno, who sees an opportunity to prevent Aeneas and the Trojans from fulfilling their destiny in Italy, suggests to Venus that some kind of marriage should be arranged between the prince and the Carthaginian queen:

It had not escaped me how, in fear of my city,
you’ve always held the dwellings of high Carthage
under suspicion. But what shall be the end?
What is the point of all this rivalry now?
Why do we not strive for everlasting peace
and a marriage alliance?54

Venus agrees to the scheme in order to secure the temporary safety of her son, although she already knows through a prophecy by Jupiter that Aeneas will eventually reach Italy and found the Roman race. Therefore, after the couple have been purposefully separated from the main party by a storm while out hunting, their love is consummated in a cave.

Throughout this episode, Vergil played with knowledge that his audience already possessed: that, despite the apparent amity of the cities’ great founders, great conflict would eventually break out between the Carthaginians and Romans. He therefore set up the ultimate ‘what if’ scenario: what if Aeneas and the Trojans had remained in Carthage and made it their city? Indeed, Vergil even treated his audience to the extraordinary sight of Rome’s proto-founder dressed in a cloak of Tyrian purple with gold inlay, and directing the building of that very city that would become Rome’s greatest enemy.55 The poet even ponders the possibility that Rome’s foundation will be prevented entirely by the contentment of its champion in North Africa:

It was he who was to rule Italy, a land engorged with empire,
and crying out for war, pass on a race of Teucer’s
noble blood, and bring the whole world under its laws.
If the glory of these things does not fire him up,
and for his own celebrity he does not exert himself,
does he begrudge the towers of Rome to Ascanius?
What is his plan? With what hopes does he tarry
among enemy people, forgetting Ausonia and the Lavinian fields?56

The reader knows, however, that Aeneas’ presence at Carthage cannot last. Beyond the knowledge of the enmity that existed between Rome and the city, Aeneas’ destiny has already been ordained. For him to compromise that destiny not only would be impossible, but would furthermore compromise the virtue of pietas, a tenet upon which the Roman character had been founded.

Eventually Jupiter sends Mercury, the messenger god, to persuade Aeneas to abandon Carthage. Realizing his inescapable destiny, and the duty which he owes both to the gods and to his (future) homeland, Aeneas gives orders to his men to set sail for Italy. As Aeneas secretly slips away, however, Vergil dramatically confronts his audience with the deserted queen’s desperate complaints and scorn. In the climax of the book, as she makes secret preparations for suicide, the grief-stricken Dido issues forth an electrifying curse that foretells the eventual coming of a Carthaginian avenger:

Then, do you, Tyrians, persecute with hatred his whole line
and all the race to come, and offer it as a tribute to my ashes.
Let no love or treaties unite our nations.
Arise some unknown avenger, from my dust, to harry
the Trojan settlers with fire and sword, now, or in the future
whenever might is granted to him.
I pray that shore be opposed to shore, water to wave, arms
with arms: war may they have, them and their children’s children.57

In the final bitter lament of an abandoned queen, the antiquity and intensity of the hatred that historically existed between Carthage and Rome is represented in uncompromising fashion. Even at the end of the work, when Juno finally accepts the foundation of the Roman race through the intermingling of the Trojans and the Latins, her grievance over Carthage is pointedly and ominously left unresolved.58

The Aeneid thus provided a powerful reminder of the intractable hatred between Carthage and Rome, while at the same time greatly extending the horizon of its antiquity. The poem, however, simultaneously pre-empted the Augustan revival of the city as the great final act of reconciliation. Indeed, the description of Aeneas’ first arrival in Carthage must have had a very particular and vivid resonance for the Augustan audience, for it vividly described the frenetic building activity taking place there:

Aeneas marvels at the massive buildings, mere huts once,
marvels at the gates, the noise and paved roads.
Eagerly the Tyrians press on, some to build walls,
to raise up the citadel, and roll stones up by hand,
some to chose a dwelling place and enclose it with a furrow.
Laws and magistrates they ordain, and a sacred senate.
Here some are digging harbours, here others lay
the deep foundations for their theatre and hew out of
the cliffs massive columns, fitting adornments for the stage.59

The resonance for an Augustan audience was thus produced not by an accurate description of the new colony at Carthage (or indeed of its Punic predecessor), but rather by the fact that its new institutions were unmistakably Roman.60

If the city which Aeneas helped construct at Carthage appeared conspicuously Roman for Vergil’s contemporary audience, then his behaviour there surely did not. While Aeneas’ departure from Carthage was immediately motivated by the recognition of, and capitulation to, his destiny, the deceitful and clandestine manner in which he abandons his former lover must surely have been unsettling for a Roman, for it reeked of the treachery supposedly characteristic of the Carthaginians. Indeed, contemporary Roman readers were confronted with the uncomfortable and disorientating scene of a Punic woman upbraiding the founder of the Roman people in terms usually reserved for Roman abuse of the Carthaginians:

Faithless one, did you really hope that you could conceal
so base a crime, and steal away from my land in silence?
Does neither our love hold you back, nor the pledge I once gave you,
nor the doom of a cruel death for Dido?
Even in winter do you labour over your ships, heartless one,
so as to journey over the high seas at the height of the northern mael-

In a further barrage of direct speech which builds up to her eventual suicide, Dido portrays the Trojan prince as impious and a breaker of sacred oaths.62 By contrast, Vergil’s Dido is nothing like the duplicitous oriental queen of earlier Greek and Roman literature. While Venus may initially fear what the Carthaginian queen will do to her son, Dido soon proves herself to be everything that the Punic race (in Roman eyes) was not supposed to be: industrious, honest, pious and charitable. The deception and trickery that typified the characterization of Elissa in Timaeus are entirely absent in the Aeneid. Famous episodes such as the theft of Pygmalion’s gold or the Byrsa land deal are mentioned to emphasize not typical ‘Punic faith’, but rather the queen’s courage and resourcefulness.63

In many ways, the Dido and Aeneas episode within the Aeneid concerns the impossibility of reconciliation between Carthage and Rome. The cruel and faithless rejection of Dido by Aeneas in favour of his preordained fate functions as a commentary on the brutality of the Roman quest for empire—a quest similarly ordained by the gods. Just as Aeneas crushes Dido in order to fulfil his divine mission, so too will Rome crush Carthage in its pursuit of empire. Nevertheless, just as Aeneas as a character matures, and comes to regret his treatment of the Carthaginian queen (whom he later confronts in the underworld), so too does the Aeneid mourn the necessary but nonetheless lamentable destruction of Carthage, and pre-empt its eventual, Augustan, restoration as a city of the Roman Empire. By subverting centuries of Carthaginian stereotypes (and presenting Dido as more Roman than Aeneas), Vergil points not only to the impropriety of such stereotypes in the new Augustan world, but also to the potential of the Carthaginians to be good Romans. Even at the point at which future enmity is set in train, therefore, the reader is given a clear sight of future reconciliation. Like Augustus’ new city, the Aeneid stood simultaneously as a monument to the restoration of Carthage as a symbol of concord and as a reminder of the discord that had prompted its destruction.

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