You Put the Love on Top: Dido’s Desirous Downfall
While everyone clearly has desires, it doesn’t seem immediately obvious that everyone has a form of duty. Military members and public servants, perhaps, but the average person? However, everyone arguably has a form of duty, some obligations or debts to be fulfilled, even if just to themselves. In The Aeneid, Virgil’s depiction of Dido, Queen of Carthage, brings into question how these concepts interact and which is more important. Virgil uses Dido to demonstrate the interplay of the service and obligations that make up duty with the carefree passion and wants that make up desire. He clearly shows the danger of letting desire consume you so wholly that duty goes unperformed. His dire warning against unfulfilled duty encourages us to find a middle-ground, to seek a life of fulfilling duty that’s made tolerable by a rational, non-consuming amount of desire and the simple joys of life.
The introduction of Dido in the first book of The Aeneid builds her up as incredibly dutiful so as to give her farther to fall. When Aeneas first lands near Carthage, Venus gives him a brief history of the city, telling him that the cruelty of Pygmalion “moved Dido to plan her escape and gather followers” (Virgil 13). This is our first introduction to Dido, and we immediately see her striving for others. Through her, we begin to see the developing nuances of duty – Dido wants to found Carthage, yes, but it’s for her followers that she does. This is the cornerstone of the concept of duty – service. Often this is service to family or society, but sometimes it is as simple as serving one’s self – eating, sleeping, procreating, and continuing to exist. Duty is an obligation – something that one owes, something that must be completed to keep something else functioning, from society all the way down to the personal level. Desire, on the other hand, is something wanted, not owed: I am not required to strive for the highest grade point average, but I do so anyway out of a personal inclination. When these two concepts come together, complications arise. Do I owe it to myself to stay alive, or do I want to? Can it be both? Aeneas later witnesses Dido in person and how she “bore herself joyfully among her people, urging on their work for the kingdom that was to be” (17). Dido is tireless in her pursuit of duty – she herself fulfills obligations to her people, and expects in exchange that they will remain focused on their own work, duty, and obligations. Virgil begins to draw parallels between Dido and Aeneas – both are civic-minded leaders who work tirelessly for a legion of equally tireless followers. Even as Aeneas’ city is crumbling into ash, Dido’s is rising. Dido benefits from being compared to Aeneas – as I explored in my Formal Feature Journal, “The constant references to Aeneas’ parentage allow Virgil to give Aeneas some of the values and traits of his parents and through this prove the strength of Rome, which calls Aeneas its ‘father.’” The fact that the “mother” of Carthage is compared to the “father” of Rome suggests that Dido will thrive and makes it even sadder when she doesn’t. It demonstrates a fundamental difference in the characters of Aeneas and Dido – both start on parallel paths, but somewhere Dido deviates from Aeneas’s heroic trajectory. At some point her desire overwhelms her commitments to such a degree that things break down – not only Carthage, but Dido herself – and tragedy strikes.
The downfall of Dido – and with her, Carthage – serves as a powerful reminder of the dangers of letting desire prevent the fulfillment of duty. This seems confusing, for at first Dido’s marriage seems as dutiful as it is desirous. Dido’s sister, Anna, tells her that Carthage will find glory “if Trojans are marching at our side!” (70). Dido loves Aeneas, but the argument that actually persuades her to marry him is one of duty – it will serve Carthage to ally with the Trojans through marriage. However, this duty is quickly shoved to the side – Dido prepares to marry Aeneas to serve the same subjects she is now neglecting. As Dido falls deeper in love with Aeneas, “The towers she was building ceased to rise. Her men gave up the exercise of war” (71). Carthage is slowly falling into disrepair and Dido barely notices. She is selfishly paying attention to only her desire to be with Aeneas, ignoring every duty she has. Without their queen being obliged to help them, the people of Carthage are directionless – their leader has given up on them to chase her passions instead. This is Virgil’s line in the sand: desire can be good, can even be the same as duty, but duty must still be performed regardless. Not fulfilling one’s obligations is dangerous: for the average person, perhaps it means not going to work and thereby jeopardizing a deal or transaction. For the leader of a city-state, it could mean the ruin of an entire people. Love and desire can be good – when they don’t interfere with duty, there is nothing wrong with them. Aeneas loves Anchises and Cruesa, and he is considered one of the most pious men on the planet. Regular desire is not the poison, it is the failure to fulfill duty due to an overwhelming, work-halting desire. By the end of the Book, every duty of Dido’s, even her most basic duty to keep herself alive, is overruled. After her marriage, “Dido gave no thought to appearance or her good name” and even tells Aeneas “‘I have nothing else left me now’” except for his marriage vow (74, 78). In her desire-driven desperation to keep Aeneas with her, Dido abandons her duty to herself and declares herself nothing without him, disregarding everything she owes to herself and her people. No duty matters to her – she is literally declaring that none of her actions, none of her obligations matter as much as Aeneas. In the end, even Dido’s duty to live is overwhelmed by her desire for death. Dido “decided to die,” full of mad grief and passion, and this final desire overruled all duty – duty to the city and people of Carthage, condemned to political turmoil; duty to her sister Anna, forced to live and grieve despite desires to “share your fate;” and even duty to herself, death preventing the survival of herself and the survival of her line (82, 88). While most human wants, things like fashion or entertainment, are arguably desires, continuing to live is a biological duty. When the “mother” of Carthage kills herself, she ends her line and she ruins her city – a genetic and an aristocratic debt both going unpaid. Dido faces a desire so strong that, over the course of a single Book, she loses all sense of duty – after Aeneas’ departure, she cannot even fulfill obligations to herself. She shows that these obligations are a cornerstone of life – you always have a duty, even if it is as simple as keeping yourself alive. No one can assume that there is nothing they need to do, that they can frolic through life on whims and passions – obligations keep society organized, keep people safe, and at a basic level, keep everyone alive.
The rigid diction of “duty” and “obligation” make this sound like a grim message – you must serve something from the cradle to the grave. There is no escape from all-consuming duty, even in your own body. However, moderation can – and should – be reached. Dido’s example is extreme – she is a warning, a tragic character who demonstrates that consequences of abandoning all duty. However, as previously mentioned, middle ground can be achieved. Desire and duty interplay and mix – I need to eat to keep myself alive, and I also crave a good cheeseburger. Dido’s initial plans, inspired by Anna, mixed both duty and desire – “a city and … a kingdom” of power and glory was intended to rise from their union, and so was marital happiness (70). Virgil does not use Dido to warn us to avoid desire and passion, to enslave ourselves to wholesome and dull duty for long, agonizing lifetimes. Desire can bring joy and wonder into the world if it accompanies duty. You have a duty to live, but why not enjoy said life? In a world of constant deadlines, requirements, overtime hours and gift-giving holidays we must remember the obligations we have to others, the myriad duties we must perform, but we must also remember to temper them with desires. A life full of passion and no work is destructive, but a joyless slave’s life is not the solution – we must find ourselves in the middle, for the embrace of a loved one or a hot drink on a cold night makes it possible, and even enjoyable, to fulfill the obligations of a long, full life.