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The Aeneid | Study Guide


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Book 4

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Book 4 of Virgil's epic poem The Aeneid.

The Aeneid | Book 4 | Summary



Queen Dido fears her burning love for Aeneas betrays her vows to her dead husband. However, her sister, Anna, asks: doesn't Dido deserve to know the joy of love and children? Allying with the Trojans would make Carthage stronger, and the gods' approval can be won with offerings. Although given with good intentions, the advice has tragic consequences.

Juno takes advantage of Dido's love to keep Aeneas in Carthage and prevent his fate. One day when the court is out hunting, Juno sends a rainstorm that drives Dido and Aeneas into a cave, where Juno simulates wedding rituals, "marrying" them. Dido doesn't hide their affair, and the winged monster Rumor incites ugly opinions and dissatisfaction with the match, eventually bringing it to Jupiter's attention. Jupiter sends the messenger god Mercury to remind Aeneas of the importance of his fate—especially for his son—and Aeneas prepares to leave. However, he puts off telling Dido, and Rumor gets to her first. She angrily confronts Aeneas—he is betraying their marriage. Denying they are married, he cites Jupiter's order and obligation of his fate. "Come, stop inflaming us both/with your appeals. I set sail for Italy—/all against my will." Fearing this will cause her death, Dido promises to haunt him. Although Aeneas is crushed, his "heart shattered by his great love,/... he obeys the gods' commands." He won't even delay until spring.

Dido tells Anna she has a plan to either bring back Aeneas or fall out of love with him, but she is actually preparing to die. She builds a pyre and puts on it an effigy of Aeneas, things he left behind, and their shared bed. Unsure what Dido will do, Mercury warns Aeneas to set sail quickly. Dido issues a curse that there will be "endless war" between their peoples before stabbing herself with Aeneas's sword on top of the pyre. Juno releases her spirit, which leaves before its fated time, heading to the Underworld.


Virgil uses fire imagery extensively in Book 4 to symbolize the destructive passion of Dido's love for Aeneas. "Dido burns with love." It is in her blood and bones: "The flame keeps gnawing into her tender marrow hour by hour." The poet also recalls the source of her consuming passion, arrow-bearing Cupid, with an epic simile comparing Dido to a wandering wounded doe, "fixed in her side the shaft that takes her life."

Whether Dido and Aeneas are married is unclear. Dido sees it as a marriage, but Virgil says she uses the label to "cloak her sense of guilt." Juno, who is the goddess of marriage, means for it to be binding, providing "lightning torches" and a wedding hymn sung by nymphs from the mountaintops. However, in the end, it may come down to different definitions of marriage: Dido cites the "pledge once sealed with our right hands," but Aeneas says he did not "extend a bridegrooms torch/or enter into a marriage pact."

Whatever their relationship, or Aeneas's feelings toward it, it can't alter his inevitable fate. When Mercury delivers Jupiter's message, Aeneas seems invested in Carthage, building its walls and wearing Tyrian purple (the color of royalty and a symbol of Dido's origin in Tyre). Jupiter uses Aeneas's pius duty to his family, particularly his son, Ascanius, to motivate him to leave—"does the father of Ascanius grudge his son/the walls of Rome?" (Significantly, Aeneas is never called pious during his stay in Carthage.) After the message Aeneas is split, "He yearns to be gone, to desert this land that he loves." Although a stammer reveals his uncertainty, the case for leaving he makes to Dido seems cold, giving his love for her and Carthage little credit. Perhaps he is afraid that speaking it will make it impossible to leave. Regardless of Aeneas's feelings, he barely looks back once Mercury points him toward Italy. Despite all Dido's pleas, "His will stands unmoved."

This decisive action by Aeneas appears to the modern reader as a betrayal of heroic character, but it was never a virtue for a Roman hero to remain enamored of a woman. Virgil supplies the "loophole" for Aeneas to tell Dido that they weren't actually married. Roman readers would agree that the sacrifice of Dido is "regrettable" but necessary to the far more important destiny Aeneas has in going on to found Rome, for which he will need not an "African" queen, but a Roman wife (Lavinia). Virgil is likely making reference to the recent defeat of Antony and Cleopatra here, since in this instance Aeneas passes the test, whereas Antony did not.

Dido immediately sees that the departure of Aeneas will kill her, and she moves steadily toward that end. Many images evoke death and dying. Dido prays for death, and her offerings to the gods become corrupted. She builds a pyre, usually used for funerals, calling on Chaos, god of the Underworld; Erebus, his son and god of darkness; and Hecate, goddess of crossroads and the Underworld (she is a form of Diana, goddess of wild places on earth and the moon in the sky). Hecate is also associated with witchcraft, and many of Dido's actions related to the pyre, such as gathering herbs under moonlight and standing "with one foot free of its sandal," are traditional elements of magic. She has turned toward darkness.

Dido's curse before she dies predicts events in Roman history. The "endless war" she sees between their peoples references the three Punic Wars that pitted Rome against Carthage for more than a century. In the Second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal sailed an army to Spain, including an elephant cavalry, and marched them over the Alps into Italy. Dido's "avenger still unknown," he came very close to taking out her revenge on Rome.

Virgil's depiction of Rumor in The Aeneid is famously striking. She is a winged monster: under every feather an "eye that never sleeps and as many tongues as eyes/... ears pricked up for news." This is a remarkable visualization of rumors that seem to see and hear everyone's business and spread through a thousand wagging tongues. Rumor is the "swiftest of all the evils in the world./She thrives on speed, stronger for every stride."

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