On the morning after the banquet given in honor of Aeneas, Dido confides to Anna, her sister, that the Trojan warrior is the only man she has met since the death of her husband, Sychaeus, who could make her consider breaking her vow to remain faithful to his memory and never remarry. Urging the queen to act on these new, amorous feelings, Anna emphasizes that the dead do not care about the romantic lives of those they leave behind. She advises Dido to pursue the Trojan, both for the sake of her own happiness and for the future safety and prosperity of Carthage, which, Anna says, will be militarily strengthened by the Trojans's remaining presence. Anna's counsel increases Dido's lust for Aeneas, but, unable to act on this passion, the queen languishes helplessly, neglecting her once-paramount project, the half-built new city of Carthage.
Dido and Aeneas's relationship catches the attention of Juno and Venus. For very different reasons — Juno wants to delay Aeneas's reaching Italy, and Venus wants to ensure his safety — the two goddesses jointly conspire to bring about a sexual union of the pair. While Aeneas and Dido are out hunting one day, Juno causes a torrential storm, and the pair seeks shelter in a cave, where they are sexually united. Dido tries to legitimatize the union by calling it a marriage.
News of the relationship spreads throughout Africa. King Iarbas, one of Dido's rejected suitors, vents his anger in a prayer to Jupiter, who sends Mercury to Aeneas to remind the Trojan leader that he is shirking his heaven-appointed duty to found a new homeland: Aeneas must sail from Carthage at once. Shocked into action by Jupiter's command, Aeneas gives secret orders for the ships to be made ready to sail, deciding to postpone notifying Dido of his intention to leave Carthage until the right occasion presents itself.
Dido, however, discovers Aeneas's plan and violently berates him for concealing his intentions from her and for wanting to abandon her to her enemies. Aeneas declares that he did not intend to deceive her, and that he will never forget her, but he does not regard Dido and himself as married, and he must fulfill fate's decrees. His attempt to justify himself only increases Dido's anger. When she sees the preparations for departure going steadily ahead, she loses her pride and sends Anna to Aeneas to beg him to delay sailing until better weather, thus allowing her time to grow accustomed to his leaving. Anna does the queen's bidding, going to Aeneas several times and bringing him to Dido, but Aeneas's resolve to sail to Italy never wavers.
Full of despair and haunted by evil omens and nightmares, Dido secretly decides to kill herself. She asks Anna to prepare a pyre and to heap upon it all the items in the palace associated with Aeneas: These objects, she says, she will burn according to magic rites that will either restore him to her or free her of her love for him. In fact, however, the pyre is intended for burning herself as well as Aeneas's belongings. Ignorantly, Anna does as Dido requests, believing that the queen's grief is no greater than that which she suffered over her husband's death. On top of the newly built pyre, Dido places a couch heaped with Aeneas's clothing, a portrait of him, and his sword, with which she plans to kill herself.
That night, Dido sleeplessly considers her plight. Having ruled out the alternatives of marrying one of her former suitors or following the Trojans, she reaffirms her decision to commit suicide. Meanwhile, Aeneas, asleep aboard his ship and ready to sail the next day, is again visited by Mercury, who appears to him in a dream and commands him to flee while flight is still possible. To strengthen Aeneas's resolve, Mercury deliberately speaks ill of Dido. Aroused, Aeneas gives orders to sail immediately, and soon the Trojan fleet is under way.
When dawn comes and Dido sees the Trojan fleet at sea, she is uncontrollably overcome by an all-consuming rage. She momentarily contemplates having the Trojans pursued; then, realizing that it is too late for this tactic, she curses them, praying that eternal hostility may exist between them and her own people, that some "avenging spirit" will right the wrong that has been done to her, and that Aeneas will "fall in battle before his time and lie / Unburied on the sand."
Resigned now to death, Dido sends her dead husband's old nurse to fetch Anna, pretending to need her sister's assistance in completing magic rites. Once the nurse leaves on this errand, Dido mounts the pyre, lies down on the couch, and stabs herself with Aeneas's sword. Anna arrives amidst the uproar of the household and gathers Dido into her arms, where the queen dies.
Virgil's motive for inventing Aeneas and Dido's doomed love affair is to provide a poetic and romantic explanation for the hatred that existed between Rome and Carthage. The Punic Wars, which occurred between Rome and Carthage in the third and second centuries B.C., would seem to be the fulfillment of the curse Dido places on Aeneas and his posterity when he abandons her and sails to Italy to fulfill his destiny.
In addition, Virgil has another important reason for telling this poignant love story: He wants to present Aeneas not only as the embodiment of Roman virtues, but also as a living, breathing human being. We have already seen how Virgil is willing, when the occasion warrants — for example, in his description of the fall of Troy — to show Aeneas as haunted by the same doubts and fears as are other people. Aeneas is not born a hero; he becomes one, and the noble result appears all the more admirable because of the many obstacles he has to overcome.
However, simply to show Aeneas stumbling in the dark would have been a rather negative demonstration of his humanity. Virgil knew that the most effective way to display the hero's humanness would be to portray him in the grips of the strongest of all passions, as a lover whose love is reciprocated. Aeneas's struggle between his love for Dido and his need to prove worthy of his fated mission — which he pursues at the price of sacrificing the personal happiness he craves as much as any man or woman — saves him from becoming a mere one-dimensional character. Later in the Aeneid, when he is in danger of appearing to be an unbelievably perfect hero, our recollection that he was capable of loving Dido and reluctantly left her sustains his characterization as a flawed, mortal man.
Had Jupiter not sent Mercury to goad Aeneas into action, it is possible that Aeneas would have remained in Carthage and never would have completed his mission. However, once the Trojan prince realizes his error of remaining too long with Dido, nothing will interfere with his determination to fulfill his destiny: "As the sharp admonition and command / From heaven had shaken him awake, he now / Burned only to be gone, to leave that land / Of the sweet life behind." Facing Dido's wrath once she learns of his pending departure, Aeneas transforms himself from a star-struck lover back to a fate-driven voyager. When he tells Dido that Italy is his only true love, we understand that he has replaced his love for the queen with love for his future homeland. Finally, Virgil's characterizing Aeneas as "duty-bound" recalls this same epithet that the hero used to describe himself in Book I. Although Aeneas is "shaken still" with love for Dido, he returns to his ship and sails to Italy as Jupiter decrees.
Aeneas's responsibilities as a father to Ascanius are called into question in this book, as they were in the previous one. Knowing that the familial relationship between father and son is of great importance to Aeneas — as it is to Virgil — Jupiter questions Aeneas's honor as a progenitor who has seemingly forgotten his son's rightful ancestry. When Mercury, instructed to inform the Trojan warrior in person of Jupiter's concerns, finds Aeneas clothed in Carthaginian finery, the messenger god berates him for failing as a father: "If future history's glories / Do not affect you, if you will not strive / For your own honor, think of Ascanius, / Think of the expectations of your heir, / Iulus, to whom the Italian realm, the land / Of Rome, are due." We know that Mercury's rebuke spurs Aeneas's resolve anew, for later in the book the Trojan prince, speaking to Dido, admits his temporary lapse as a father to "young Ascanius, / My dear boy wronged, defrauded of his kingdom, / Hesperian lands of destiny." He vows never again to forget his responsibilities as a father.
In addition to Aeneas's irresponsible behavior toward his son, his leadership abilities are also dubious in Book IV. His infatuation with Dido affects not only himself but his people, who languish in Carthage. Although Virgil never directly addresses the Trojans's concern for their leader's welfare, he offers clues that indicate the discomfort Aeneas's people feel. When Aeneas informs three Trojan crewmen responsible for readying the fleet to prepare all ships for departure, they gladly obey and eagerly begin stockpiling the vessels. Metaphorically, Virgil compares the Trojans to ants, who work incessantly and without any rest to collect the food that will enable their colony to survive. The image recalls the Carthaginians in Book I, who built their city like bees constructing a hive. Both metaphors emphasize the organization and order needed if a community — such as Rome — is to prosper and run efficiently.
The well-organized society that Dido had created prior to Aeneas's arrival is drastically changed once she becomes infatuated with him. The building of Carthage comes to a complete stop. Even worse, the city's defense against enemy invasion — a concern that Anna uses to urge her sister to pursue Aeneas — is not maintained. In one of the poem's few instances of overtly moral proselytizing, Virgil warns that passion — love out of control — causes disorder, both physically and emotionally, and even affects one impiously: "What good are shrines and vows to maddened lovers? / The inward fire eats the soft marrow away, / And the internal wound bleeds on in silence." Dido affirms that unbridled love fosters chaos when, raging at Aeneas, she scorns the gods. Her faithlessness in the gods and destiny demonstrates just how psychologically mad she has become.
Virgil's portrayal of Dido in Book IV is one of the great literary character studies in all of literature. Dido finally knows, as do we, that she is doomed to fail in her conquest of Aeneas, yet we applaud her resourcefulness in facing down her destiny. Her begging at the beginning of Book IV for the earth to swallow her before she falls deeper into passion's indomitable grip is balanced by a similar self-recognition of her plight toward the book's end, when she asks of herself, "What am I saying? Where am I? What madness / Takes me out of myself? Dido, poor soul, / Your evil doing has come home to you." Tragically, no matter how much she is aware of the danger her passion presents, she cannot prevent her own psychological demise.
In some ways, Dido, like Turnus, her male counterpart in the second half of the Aeneid, is even more heroic than Aeneas. After all, Aeneas eventually learns that fate is on his side no matter how difficult his journey may be. Dido and Turnus, however, are heroic without this assurance, most of all at the moment of their deaths.
Stylistically, Virgil reinforces Dido's inability to control her passion by imagining her as a fire that grows and cannot be quenched. The book's first lines characterize this gnawing, excruciating lust: "The queen, for her part, all that evening ached / With longing that her heart's blood fed, a wound / Or inward fire eating her away." And when Dido discovers Aeneas's intent to leave her city, she becomes "all aflame / With rage." Her burning passion for the Trojan warrior is so great that she becomes physically sick. Fittingly, she dies on a pyre, used for burning corpses in funeral rites. However, her inner flame has been extinguished by her own hand; there is no reason to light the pyre now.
The Carthaginian queen is the plaything, the pawn, of both Juno and Venus. She has no freedom except in her choice to kill herself, an act of courage that proves she is a tragic — as well as a romantic — heroine. Indeed, Dido loses, but the cruel goddesses who use her lose also. In trying against their better judgment to alter the will of fate, they only serve it: The passion that Venus inspires and Juno sanctions is, as fate decrees, frustrated, causing Dido to put a curse on the Trojans, which, in turn, will lead to the Punic Wars.
Although Juno and Venus's intention is to change the fated outcomes of human lives, their manipulative actions are the very instruments of fate that will ensure Rome's triumph and Carthage's defeat. Juno knows that Rome's eventual victory over its rival city has been decreed, but the goddess's attempts to block this outcome ironically make it possible. Likewise, the Romans, although ultimately victorious, will endure hardships — the Punic Wars — that Venus, of whom they are the favored people, does not foresee when she attempts to protect her son by having Dido fall in love with him. Fate moves toward its end as inexorably as water flows down to the sea; it may be forced to change its course a little, but it triumphs over every attempt to prevent its fulfillment.