Dido’s Lament: A Study of Dido’s Final Words

Since her first known appearance in Virgil’s Aeneid in the first century BCE, Dido has captured the imaginations of those who encounter her. Her ill-fated love story with Aeneas and subsequent death inspired not only Virgil’s contemporary, Ovid, but many later poets, playwrights, and musicians. Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, first performed in 1869, draws inspiration from both poets for his work, but which poet his Dido takes after more is up for debate.

The opening of Dido’s final aria in Dido and Aeneas is an appeal to her handmaid Belinda, equivalent to her sister Anna in Virgil and Ovid’s poems. She says, ‘thy hand, Belinda’, asking for stability and comfort from her companion. This tender request draws the audience into a very intimate moment between Dido and Belinda, where Dido relies heavily on Belinda for emotional support. This intimacy seems to take its influence from Ovid’s Heroides 7, where at the very end Dido turns her addresses from Aeneas to Anna, ‘Anna soror, soror Anna’ ‘Anna my sister, my sister Anna’ (Her. 7.191). Here, Anna is given instructions for what to put on her epitaph when she dies, explicitly:

praebuit Aeneas et causam mortis et ensem;

ipsa sua Dido concidit usa manu.

From Aeneas came the cause of her death, and from him the blade;

From the hand of Dido herself came the stroke by which she fell.

Her. 7.195-6

Virgil’s Dido, on the other hand, does not wish to tell her sister that she wants to die, and instead blames her for her present situation: ‘tu prima furentem his, germana, malis oneras atque obicis hosti’ ‘Won over by my tears, you, my sister, you were the first to load my frenzied soul with these ills, and drive me on the foe.’ (Aen. 4.548-9). Because of this, she tricks her sister into unknowingly building her funeral pyre out of Aeneas’ belongings, uttering her last words without her sister present.

Illustration by Emily Geeson.

Purcell’s Dido, in contrast to Virgil’s, does not wish any pain for her maid, and tells her ‘may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast’, which could not be further from the scene in the Aeneid. As previously mentioned, Anna has been purposefully excluded from Dido’s death in the Aeneid, and so she is shocked and angry when she returns to discover it. Far from creating ‘no trouble’, Virgil’s Dido causes her sister to rebuke her, calling her ‘crudelis’ ‘cruel’ (Aen. 4.681), and accusing her of destroying not only herself, but ‘meque, soror, populumque patresque Sidonios urbemque tuam’ ‘You have destroyed yourself and me together, sister, the Sidonian senate and people, and your city’ (Aen. 4.682-3), and indeed she has. The lines following Dido’s death are filled with words of lamentation and grief: first ‘concussam bacchatur Fama per urbem’ ‘Rumour riots through the stricken city’ (Aen. 4.666), then ‘lamentis’ ‘lamentations’ (Aen. 4.667) and ‘ululatu’ ‘shrieks’ (Aen. 4.667), and even the gods seem to be mourning her death ‘resonat magnis plangoribus aether’ ‘heaven echoes with loud wails’ (Aen. 4.668). Anna’s statement rings even truer in the political context of the Aeneid, which was written more than a century after Rome’s great victory of the Carthaginians. It is frequently argued that Virgil was drawing a conscious parallel between Dido’s death at Aeneas’ departure and the victory of Rome over Carthage in the Carthaginian wars. Thus, Dido is portrayed as being responsible for the fall of her city hundreds of years after her death. This is further supported by Virgil comparing the city’s reaction to her death to a reaction to war:

quam si immissis ruat hostibus omnis

Karthago aut antiqua Tyros, flammaeque furentes

culmina perque hominum volvantur perque deorum.

As though all Carthage or ancient Tyre were falling before the inrushing foe, and fierce flames were rolling on over the roofs of men, over the roofs of gods.

Aen. 4.669-71

While she may not intentionally wish trouble on her sister and city, across Virgil, Ovid, and arguably Purcell, all interpretations of Dido wish at least some ill on Aeneas. In the Aeneid Dido asks the gods to make Aeneas suffer once he has achieved his destiny of founding Rome:

at bello audacis populi vexatus et armis,

finibus extorris, complexu avulsus Iuli,

auxilium imploret videatque indigna suorum

funera; nec, cum se sub leges pacis iniquae

tradiderit, regno aut optata luce fruatur,

sed cadat ante diem mediaque inhumatus harena.

Yet even so, harassed in war by the arms of a fearless nation, expelled from his territory and torn from Iulus’ embrace, let him plead for aid and see his friends cruelly slaughtered! Nor yet, when he has submitted to the terms of an unjust peace, may he enjoy his kingship or the life he longs for, but perish before his time and lie unburied on a lonely strand!

Aen. 4.615-20

Rather than wishing an early death on Aeneas, Ovid’s Dido only wishes him to suffer for a short period of time. She says ‘hiemis mihi gratia prosit!’ ‘Let the tempest be my grace!’ (Her. 7.41), but does not wish him to die, exclaiming ‘vive, precor!’ ‘O live; I pray it!’ (Her. 7.63). In fact, she believes he should suffer more if he lives through the storm, reliving the wrongs he did her and begging for forgiveness, she imagines him cry ‘merui! concedite!’ ‘Tis my desert; forgive me, ye gods!’ (Her. 7.71).

The theme of the storm appears also in Purcell’s opera, but not at the hand of Dido. The Sorceress, having successfully torn the pair apart, announces to her coven ‘Our next motion shall be to storm her lover on the ocean’. Some productions, such as Mark Morris in 1993, choose to use the same performer for the parts of Dido and the Sorceress. This directive choice makes the Sorceress a dark part of Dido that conspires against herself to create her ultimate downfall and emphasises her unwillingness to put any blame on herself for the circumstances of her death. In this way, if Dido and the Sorceress are one and the same, it is in fact Dido who conjures a storm to endanger Aeneas’ fleet, just as Ovid’s Dido wishes.

The wrath on Aeneas does not end there. The famous line ‘remember me, but ah, forget my fate!’ sung by Purcell’s Dido is a sentiment opposite to the vengeful Dido of Roman minds. In her last speech, Virgil’s Dido lists her achievements as a leader:

urbem praeclaram statui, mea moenia vidi,

ulta virum poenas inimico a fratre recepi

A noble city I have built; my own walls I have seen; avenging my husband, I have exacted punishment from my brother and foe.

Aen. 4.655-6

But far from wanting anybody to forget her fate, she says ‘nostae secum ferat omina mortis’ ‘carry with him the omen of my death’ (Aen. 4.662), a restating of a threat she previously made directly to Aeneas:

sequar atris ignibus absens

et, cum frigida mors anima seduxerit artus,

omnibus umbra locis adero. dabis, improbe, poenas.

Though far away, I will chase you with murky brands and, when chill death has severed soul and body, everywhere my shade shall haunt you.

Aen. 4.384-6

Ovid’s Dido wants her fate to be remembered too, for Aeneas to regret his words and recall her death as he suffers on the ocean:

protinus occurrent  falsae coacta periuria linguae

et Phrygia Dido fraude coacta mori

Straight will come rushing to your mind the perjury of your false tongue, and Dido driven to death by Phrygian faithlessness.

Her. 7.67-8

More than wanting Aeneas to remember her cause of death, she wants anyone who comes to visit her grave to know why she died, dictating the words for her own epitaph, specifically pointing all blame to Aeneas:

Praebuit Aeneas et causam mortis et ensem;

Ipsa sua Dido concidit usa manu

From Aeneas came the cause of her death, and from him the blade;

From the hand of Dido herself came the stroke by which she fell.

Her. 7.195-6

In contrast, the Dido of Purcell’s opera has a quiet dignity and acceptance of her fate. She offers no fight, saying ‘death, alas, I cannot shun’ upon Aeneas’ departure, and wishing to be remembered only as she was before her death.

Dido’s quiet dignity in Dido and Aeneas is powerful, and very suited to the queen of a powerful emerging nation, and in keeping with the collected nobility of Virgil’s Dido. Unlike many of the tragic heroines of both opera and the Greek and Latin poetic traditions, Dido has no self-pity in her speech, no exclamations of wretchedness or undoing. Her final soliloquy of the Aeneid is much more parallel to that of Ajax in the Iliad, who out of shame fell on the sword of Hector, his enemy, just as Dido falls on the sword of Aeneas, now an enemy, out of shame for her actions.

This is much better suited to the role Dido holds as a leader, a position mostly preserved for men with few exceptions throughout the epic tradition. The language of each final speech is that of war, an exclusively male activity, further supporting this characteristic. In Dido and Aeneas, Dido sings of how death ‘invades’ her, very similar to Virgil’s likening the spread of grief at Dido’s death to the city being under siege. He says:

‘quam si immissis ruat hostibus omnis

Karthago aut antiqua Tyros, flammaeque furentes

culmina perque hominum volvantur perque deorum.

As though all Carthage or ancient Tyre were falling before the inrushing foe, and fierce flames were rolling on over the roofs of men, over the roofs of gods.

Aen. 4.669-71

Ovid’s Dido also proclaims her traditionally masculine achievements:

urbem constitui lateque patentia fixi

moenia finitimis invidiosa locis.

bella tument; bellis peregrina et femina temptor,

vixque rudis portas urbis et arma paro.

I establish a city, and lay about it the foundations of wide-reaching walls that stir the jealousy of neighbouring realms. Wars threaten; by wars, a stranger and a woman, I am assailed; hardly can I rear rude gates to the city and make ready my defence.

Her. 7.119-22

The talk of battle indicates a familiarity with death and shows that Dido is not making the decision to take her own life lightly. In fact, Purcell’s Dido explicitly states that ‘death is now a welcome guest’, drawing our thoughts back to Aeneas, who was also a welcome guest in Dido’s city. Virgil’s Dido is also accepting of her death, having debated it back and forth with herself she declares many times that she will die, but wavers once ‘en, quid ago?’ ‘See, what am I to do?’ (Aen. 4.534). However, on her deathbed she is resolved: ‘moriemur inultae, sed moriamur’ ‘I shall die unavenged, but let me die!’ (Aen. 4.659-60). This deathbed is the same bed she orders Anna to pile onto the pyre, of which she says ‘quo perii’ ‘which was my undoing’ (Aen. 4.497). This is commonly translated in the sense of being undone, or destroyed, but ‘quo perii’ could also be translated as ‘where I died’. Thus, Dido could either consider herself already dead in all but deed, or is subtly telling her sister of her intentions to die there.

Ovid’s Dido also invites death upon herself, crying ‘merentem ure’ ‘burn me; I deserve it!’ (Her. 7.85-6), but not only that, she is invited into death by her deceased husband Sychaeus, who calls ‘Elissa, veni!’ ‘Elissa, come!’ (Her. 7.102) from beyond the grave. Dido welcomes his invitation, replying:

nulla mora est, venio, venio tibi debita coniunx;

sum tamen admissi tarda pudore mei.

I delay no longer, I come; I come thy bride, thine own by right; I am late, but ’tis for shame of my fault confessed.

Her. 7.103

Her admission of guilt here, that it was ‘pudore mei’ ‘my fault’ (Her. 7.103) that she is late to join him in the underworld is the only confession of guilt from any of the Didos. Purcell’s Dido, in her dignity, blames no one, and Virgil’s Dido blames everyone but herself.

Thus, in three interpretations, we have three Didos, each bitterly heartbroken by Aeneas, but each displaying varying levels of vengeance. As an interpretation of Ovid and Virgil’s Didos, in her final words Purcell’s has the emotional connection of Ovid’s in her care for Belinda, but the quiet, powerful dignity of Virgil’s Dido in her last moments as she ascends the pyre, each with a slow rhythm. Dido’s final speech in the Aeneid is full of spondaic rhythm, a drum playing her death march. Purcell’s score is the only piece in the otherwise upbeat opera to be marked with the tempo ‘very slow’. Following her death in the opera, Dido is surrounded by a chorus of cupids, scattering roses on her tomb. This brings to mind the epitaph Ovid’s Dido writes for herself in the stark ending of her poem, but also the image of Virgil’s Dido surrounded by her people as she takes her last breaths, and finally passes in the last line of Book 4, each Dido taking centre stage as she dies.

Written by Fiona Macrae


Harris, Ellen T. Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas / Ellen T. Harris. Second edition. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Highet, Gilbert. The Speeches in Vergil’s Aeneid / Gilbert Highet. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015.

Ovid, Grant Showerman, and Ovid. Heroides: and Amores / Ovid; with an English Translation by Grant Showerman. London: Heinemann, 1914.

Schmalfeldt, Janet. “In Search of Dido.” The Journal of Musicology 18, no. 4 (2001): 584–615. https://doi.org/10.1525/jm.2001.18.4.584.

Virgil, and H. Rushton Fairclough. Eclogues. Georgics. Aeneid: Books 1-6. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

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