Before the Libyans gave her the name of Dido, she was known as Elissa. She was the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre. Her brother was Pygmalion, who succeeded to the throne of Tyre when their father died. Pygmalion would later kill Dido’s husband because he was jealous of his wealth. He also wanted to rule alone.
Dido learned of this and left Tyre. She would go on to found Carthage in Tunisia. Some historians say that Carthage was not founded until much later. It is believed that Dido later killed herself because she did not want to marry a neighboring king. Other accounts state that she killed herself because her lover, Aeneas, left her.
To date, it is unclear whether there was a historical Queen of Carthage. But Dido, or Elissa, may have been a real woman. Greek historian Timaeus of Taormina (c. 350–260 BCE) was the earliest known person to have written about her. Timaeus said Dido founded Carthage in either 814 or 813 BCE.
Josephus, the 1st century AD historian, also mentioned an Elissa in his writings, saying that Elissa founded Carthage during the rule of Menandros of Ephesus. However, Dido’s story is known by many today thanks to “The Aeneid” of the Roman poet Vergil (Virgil).
Legend says that when Dido’s father died, she married a wealthy priest called Sychaeus. After Sychaeus was murdered by Dido’s brother because of his wealth, Sychaeus’ ghost visited Dido and told her what had happened. He also revealed to her where he had hidden his wealth. Dido went for the treasure and secretly fled Tyre with some Tyrians who were against Pygmalion’s rule.
Dido fled to Utica, which was another Phoenician city. There, she negotiated with Libyan King Hiarbas for her own land. According to this account, “The king told her that she could have any land that could be encompassed by an ox hide. Using her wits, she cut an ox hide into extremely small strips and encircled the whole city with them. This became her city, the city of Carthage. She became Dido, Queen of Carthage.”
Her name, Dido, means “wanderer” and that fits with her story considering how she arrived in Carthage. Dido while queen of Carthage fell in love with Trojan prince Aeneas. The two met while Aeneas was wandering around the Mediterranean following the fall of Troy. At the time Aeneas arrived in Carthage, it was still being built. Dido allowed him to stay with his men. Aeneas then expressed love to Dido but she refused until she was struck by an arrow of Cupid.
The two began a relationship. Aeneas however left her after some time to fulfill his destiny. Dido was heartbroken. Ancient Origins writes that “As she saw the Trojan ships sailing away, she laid a curse on them, vowing eternal enmity between her descendants and the descendants of Aeneas. This is seen as a prophecy for the rivalry between Carthage and Rome, as well as the Punic Wars that would be fought between the two powers.”
Dido committed suicide because Aeneas left her. But some say that Dido killed herself not because of Aeneas but to avoid marrying king larbas.
Dido’s story did not only capture writers and poets of the Classical period but also many later writers such as the Romans Ovid (43 BCE–17 CE) and Tertullian (c. 160–c. 240 CE), according to ThoughtCo. She has also inspired many artworks and operas, becoming the title character in Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas and Berlioz’s Les Troyennes.