Dido was, according to Greek and Roman sources, the founder and first Queen of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). She is best known from the account given by the Roman poet Virgil in his Aeneid. In some sources she is also known as Elissa.
The name Elissa is probably a Greek rendering of the Phoenician Elishat. The name Dido, used mostly by Latin writers, seems to be a Phoenician form meaning "Wanderer" and was perhaps the name under which Elissa was most familiarly known in Carthage.
The person of Elissa can be traced back to references by Roman historians to lost writings of Timaeus of Tauromenium in Sicily (c. 356–260 BC). Timaeus apparently dated the foundation of Carthage to 814 BC (or 813 BC), but he also placed the founding of Rome in the same year, which suggests legend had been at work.
Other historians gave other dates, both for the foundation of Carthage and the foundation of Rome. Appian in the beginning of his Punic Wars claims that Carthage was founded by a certain Zorus and Carchedon, but Zorus looks like an alternate transliteration of the city name Tyre and Carchedon is just the Greek form of Carthage. Timaeus made Carchedon's wife Elissa the sister of King Pygmalion of Tyre, and modern scholars still put Pygmalion (Pumayyaton) on the throne of gold at that time, so Timaeus' date usually appears in modern chronologies as the normal dubious and legendary date for the founding of Carthage. Yet archaeology has yet to find any evidence of settlement on the site of Carthage before the last quarter of the 8th century BC. So the whole story might be legendary or the synchronism between Elissa and Pygmalion might be legendary or archaeologists may have as yet missed important evidence for earlier settlement. That the city is named Qart-hadasht "New City" at least indicates it was a colony. (There is another Qart-hadasht in Cyprus as well as in Spain).
The only surviving full account before Virgil's treatment is that of Virgil's contemporary Gnaeus Pompeius Trogus in his Philippic histories as rendered in a digest or epitome made by Junianus Justinus in the 3rd century.
According to Justin (18.4–6), a king of Tyre whom Justin does not name, made his very beautiful daughter Elissa and son Pygmalion his joint heirs. But on his death the people took Pygmalion alone as their ruler though Pygmalion was yet still a boy. Elissa married Acerbas her uncle who as priest of Hercules— that is, Melqart— was second in power to King Pygmalion. Rumor told that Acerbas had much wealth secretly buried and King Pygmalion had Acerbas murdered in hopes of gaining this wealth. Elissa, desiring to escape Tyre, expressed a wish to move into Pygmalion's palace, but then ordered the attendants whom Pygmalion sent to aid in the move, to throw all Acerbas' bags of gold into the sea apparently as an offering to his spirit. In fact these bags contained only sand. Elissa then persuaded the attendants to join her in flight to another land rather than face Pygmalion's anger when he discovered what had supposedly become of Acerbas' wealth. Some senators also joined her in her flight.
The party arrived at Cyprus where the priest of Jupiter joined the expedition. There the exiles also seized about eighty young women who were prostituting themselves on the shore in order to provide wives for the men in the party.
Eventually Elissa and her followers arrived on the coast of North Africa where Elissa asked the local inhabitants for a small bit of land for a temporary refuge until she could continue her journeying, only as much land as could be encompassed by an oxhide. They agreed. Elissa cut the oxhide into fine strips so that she had enough to encircle an entire nearby hill, which was therefore afterwards named Byrsa "hide". (This event is commemorated in modern mathematics: The "isoperimetric problem" of enclosing the maximum area within a fixed boundary is often called the "Dido Problem" in modern Calculus of variations.) That would become their new home. Many of the locals joined the settlement and both locals and envoys from the nearby Phoenician city of Utica urged the building of a city. In digging the foundations an ox's head was found, indicating a city that would be wealthy but subject to others. Accordingly another area of the hill was dug instead where a horse's head was found, indicating that the city would be powerful in war.
But when the new city of Carthage had been established and become prosperous, Iarbas, a native king of the Maxitani or Mauritani (manuscripts differ), demanded Elissa for his wife or he would make war on Carthage. Elissa's envoys, fearing Iarbas, told Elissa only that Iarbas' terms for peace were that someone from Carthage must dwell permanently with him to teach Phoenician ways and they added that of course no Carthaginian would agree to dwell with such savages. Elissa condemned any who would feel that way when they should indeed give their lives for the city if necessary. Elissa's envoys then explained that Iarbas had specifically requested Elissa as wife. Elissa was trapped by her words. But Elissa preferred to stay faithful to her first husband and after creating a ceremonial funeral pyre and sacrificing many victims to his spirit in pretense that this was a final honoring of her first husband in preparation for marriage to Iarbas, Elissa ascended the pyre, announced that she would go to her husband as they desired, and then slew herself with her sword. After this self-sacrifice Elissa was deified and was worshipped as long as Carthage endured. In this account, the foundation of Carthage occurred 72 years before the foundation of Rome.
The oxhide story which explains the name of the hill must be of Greek origin since Byrsa means "oxhide" in Greek, not in Punic. The name of the hill in Punic was probably just a derivation from Semitic brt "fortified place". But that does not prevent other details in the story from being Carthaginian tradition though still not necessarily historical. Michael Grant in Roman Myths (1973) claims:
But others conjecture that Elissa was indeed historical.
It is not known who first combined the story of Elissa with the tradition that connected Aeneas either with Rome or with earlier settlements from which Rome traced its origin.
A fragment of an epic poem by Gnaeus Naevius who died at Utica in 201 BC includes a passage which might or might not be part of a conversation between Aeneas and Dido. Servius in his commentary (4.682; 5.4) cites Varro (1st century BC ) for a version in which Dido's sister Anna killed herself for love of Aeneas.
Virgil (1.746f) adds that the marriage between Dido/Elissa and Sychaeus, as Virgil calls Dido's husband, occurred while her father was still alive, that Pygmalion slew Sychaeus secretly and that Sychaeus appeared in a dream to Dido in which he told the truth about his death, urged her to flee the country, and revealed to her where his gold was buried. None of these details contradict Justin's epitome. Indeed they clarify it and are likely enough to have been part of the tale Justin was abridging.
But Virgil very much changes the import and many details of the story when he brings Aeneas and his followers to Carthage.
(1.657f) Dido and Aeneas fall in love by the management of Juno and Venus, acting in concert though for different reasons. (4.198f) When the rumour of the love affair comes to King Iarbas the Gaetulian, "a son of Jupiter Ammon by a raped Garamantian nymph", Iarbas prays to his father, blaming Dido who has scorned marriage with him yet now takes Aeneas into the country as her lord. (4.222f) Jupiter dispatches Mercury to send Aeneas on his way and the pious Aeneas sadly obeys. Mercury tells Aeneas of all the promising Italian lands and orders Aeneas to get his fleet ready.
(4.450f) Dido can no longer bear to live. (4.474) Dido has her sister Anna build her a pyre under the pretence of burning all that reminded her of Aeneas, including weapons and clothes that Aeneas had left behind and (what she calls) their bridal bed (though, according to Aeneas, they were never officially married.) (4.584f) When Dido sees Aeneas' fleet leaving she curses him and his Trojans and proclaims endless hate between Carthage and the descendants of Troy, foreshadowing the Punic Wars. (4.642) Dido ascends the pyre, lies again on the couch which she had shared with Aeneas, and then falls on a sword that Aeneas had given her. (4.666) Those watching let out a cry; Anna rushes in and embraces her dying sister; Juno sends Iris from heaven to release Dido's spirit from her body. (5.1) From their ships, Aeneas and his crew see the glow of Dido's burning funeral pyre and can only guess what has happened. At least two scholars have argued that the inclusion of the pyre as part of Dido's suicide -- otherwise unattested in epic and tragedy -- alludes to the self-immolation that took the life of Carthage's last queen in 146 BC.
(6.450f) During his journey in the underworld Aeneas meets Dido and tries to excuse himself, but Dido does not deign to look at him. Instead she turns away from Aeneas to a grove where her former husband Sychaeus waits. T. S. Eliot once called this "the most telling snub" in Western literature.
Virgil has included most of the motifs from the original: Iarbas who desires Dido against her will, a deceitful explanation for the building of the pyre, and Elissa/Dido's final suicide. In both versions Elissa/Dido is loyal to her original husband in the end. But whereas the earlier Elissa remained always loyal to her husband's memory, Virgil's Dido dies as a tortured and repentant woman who has fallen away from that loyalty.
The story of Dido and Aeneas remained popular throughout the post-Renaissance era, and was the basis for the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell and the drama Dido, Queen of Carthage by Christopher Marlowe. Even today, Dido appears in Sid Meier's strategy game Civilization II, as the female leader of the Carthaginian tribe, and in Civilization IV as the leader of the Phoenician tribe.
Remembrance of the story of the bull's hide and the foundation of Carthage is preserved in mathematics in connection with the Isoperimetric problem which is sometimes called Dido's Problem (and similarly the Isoperimetric theorem is sometimes called Dido's Theorem). It is sometimes stated in such discussion that Dido caused her thong to be placed as a half circle touching the sea coast at each end (which would add greatly to the perimeter) but the sources mention the thong only and say nothing about the sea.
Carthage was the Roman Republic's greatest rival and enemy, and Virgil's Dido in part symbolises this. Even though no Rome existed in her day, Virgil's Dido curses the future progeny of the Trojans. In Italy under the Fascist regime, her figure was demonized, perhaps not only as an anti-Roman figure but because she represented together at least three other unpleasant qualities: feminine virtue, Semitic ethnic origin, and African civilization. As an innocuous example: when Mussolini's regime named the streets of new quarters in Rome with the characters of Virgil's Aeneid, only the name Dido did not appear.
In tragic compensation (in a sadly curious way), the Royal Navy employed Dido-class cruisers against Italian objectives during the Second World War, seemingly a devastating justification of Fascist fears.
Dido, or Elisha/Elissa, was a Phoenician Queen, founder of Carthage. First-born from King of Tyre, her succession was disputed by her younger brother, Pumayyaton/Pygmalion, who murdered her husband and imposed his rule. At this point she left Tyre with a large following, starting a long voyage; main stages were Cyprus and, possibly, Malta [Ovid, Fasti 3.567f].
Landing on Libyan coasts, about 814 BC (Timaeus' date), she chose a place to found a new capital city for her Phoenician followers: Carthage. She peacefully obtained the land by an ingenious agreement with the local lord, today known as the "Theorem of Dido". During her widowhood, she was consistently sought in marriage by local kings; but if we accept Silius Italicus, she married again, probably with a Tyrian follower, from the Barca family [Punica 1.71f, 2.239].
Dido promoted a significant religious reform and after a long and prosperous reign, she favored the formation of a Republic [Virgil, Aeneid 1.426]; After her death, she was deified by her people with the name of Tanit and assimilated to the Great Goddess Astarte (Roman Juno) [Virgil, Aeneid 1.446f, Silius Italicus, Punica 1.81f].
The cult of Tanit survived Carthage's destruction by the Romans; it was introduced to Rome itself by Emperor Septimius Severus, himself born in North Africa. It was extinguished completely with the Theodosian decrees of the late 4th century.