Dido, Compulsory Heterosexuality, and the Lesbian Continuum
By Anika Faro ’23
ENGL 361: World Literature 1
Anika’s research project on The Aeneid illustrates the enormous payoffs of reading ancient texts through the lens of modern feminist theory. Anika intervenes effectively in the scholarly conversation on this ancient Roman epic by exploring how Adrienne Rich’s theory of compulsory heterosexuality can better help us understand how gender and power work in the text.
– Valerie Billing
Strong warrior women and regal queens are the epitome of strong female characters. In the Aeneid, Dido is a powerful queen who has fought for her people. Dido is the queen of Carthage who ends up falling so in love with Aeneus that she commits suicide at the end of Book 4. Adrienne Rich’s theory of the lesbian continuum and compulsory heterosexuality is useful in providing a new feminist analysis of Dido’s story in Book 4. The lesbian continuum talks about how women fall in love with other women, but also “include[s] the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, [and] the giving and receiving of practical and political support […]” (Rich 649). Dido’s story is an example of why the support system Rich calls for in the lesbian continuum is important because all of the other female characters fail to empower and support her, leading to her death. Rich defines compulsory heterosexuality as an ideology that says women are biologically built to fall in love with only men, denying the existence of lesbians and any kind of female community (Rich 632). Dido has compulsory heterosexuality forced upon her by goddesses like Juno and Venus and her own sister, Anna, when they all encourage her to marry Aeneus for their own reasons, which are political for the goddesses, and in order to fulfill societal expectations for Anna. Scholars have often analyzed Dido as a victim of her own choices and the cause of her own death. However, using Rich’s terms, Dido is the victim of the other women in her story, who enforce compulsory heterosexuality and do not support her, leading to her fall from being a strong, regal queen and into death. Dido’s death shows how important Rich’s idea of the lesbian continuum is, specifically in women empowering and supporting each other. Having a good support system that was focused on empowering women instead of focused on putting Aeneus and the thought of marriage and children first would have changed the outcome of Dido’s story.
Adrienne Rich’s article about compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian continuum is an influential text in feminist discourse. Rich decided to talk about these terms because she saw a gap in scholarship where feminist writings were enforcing the Anika’s research project on The Aeneid illustrates the enormous payoffs of reading ancient texts through the lens of modern feminist theory. Anika intervenes effectively in the scholarly conversation on this ancient Roman epic by exploring how Adrienne Rich’s theory of compulsory heterosexuality can better help us understand how gender and power work in the text. – Valerie Billing idea that women want to be with men sexually, which denied the existence of women who loved other women platonically or sexually. When Rich was talking about the lesbian continuum, she was not limiting the term to lesbian women; instead she was using the lesbian continuum as an umbrella term that “embrace[d] many more forms of primary intensity between and among women” (Rich 649). This continuum includes all relationships between women, be it a friendship, a romantic relationship, or any other relationship between two or more women. By applying the idea of the lesbian continuum to Dido’s character, the lack of relationships that would be a part of the lesbian continuum and the enforcement of compulsory heterosexuality from the women around her, Dido’s mental anguish is easier to explain and more relatable to the modern experiences of women who refuse to take part in compulsory heterosexuality.
Dido’s character is heavily influenced by her compulsory heterosexuality throughout the Aeneid, but her first introduction does not show it as she is powerful on her own. Her power in the beginning scenes comes from the fact that she shows masculine traits instead of feminine ones. According to Barbara McManus, these traits and attributes are positive if they are masculine, and negative if they are feminine:
In the figures, a whole complex of positively charged ideological and cultural values are regularly and repeatedly associated with males and masculinity (order, rationality, fatum, pietas, imperium, Rome, Jupiter) while their negatively charged contraries are associated with females and femininity (disorder, irrational emotion, furor, impietas, defeat/submission, Carthage, Juno). (McManus 97)
This quote directly connects to the differences between Dido and Aeneus. Dido is queen of Carthage introduced in Juno’s temple, while Aeneus is on a quest to Italy so his descendants can found Rome. In Book 1, Dido is first physically presented as a powerful queen of Carthage with more masculine traits than feminine,
So too Dido, moving through their midst.
Urged on the work of building a kingdom.
Then under the temple’s vaulted entrance
And flanked by guards, she ascended her throne.
She was making laws for her people,
Distributing duties or assigning them by lot… (Virgil 1.619-624)
This introduction of Dido’s character shows Dido as a powerful woman who is acting with traits that McManus would say are masculine. She is completing the duties that are usually reserved for a king while also keeping her femininity and power. In the quote above, Dido is shown making the laws, not just agreeing to them. This is important because it shows that Dido’s power over Carthage is completely in her hands, not filtered through other people first. She is also shown going up to her throne, putting her literally above everyone else in the room, but also showing that her status is higher than everyone else’s and that she has the most power of anyone in Carthage. According to Katherine De Boer, Dido is even considered a militant figure at her introduction:
Though she does not personally commit wartime violence, Dido is often figured as militant, particularly in the introduction and conclusion to her story. She is first described as a dux femina (1.364), a female leader, who spearheads her people’s escape from tyranny. As is often noted, Dido’s initial appearance is immediately preceded by the tableau of the Amazon Penthesilea on the doors of the temple of Juno, and this juxtaposition suggests that the two women should be identified with one another (1.490–93). (De Boer 143)
DeBoer’s analysis of Dido as a militant figure adds to her masculine portrayal of power, rationality, and pietas, which means duty. Dido founded the city of Carthage after her brother killed her husband and attempted to steal her gold. She fought for her livelihood and succeeded in creating her own city and building her own power. The comparison between Dido and Penthesilea, an amazon warrior, reminds the people who visit the temple of both Juno and Dido’s power, not only as queens, but also in war. However, as her narrative continues, this positive view where she is shown as more masculine is quickly exchanged for a desperate woman whose only goal is to keep a man from leaving her.
Dido’s strong introduction is quickly overpowered by men and goddesses taking away her power and slowly leading her to exhibit the stereotypical ‘negative’ female traits that McManus mentioned above. When Aeneus comes to Carthage, Venus tells her son Cupid to make Dido fall in love with Aeneus in order to keep Aeneus safe. Thus, thinking that Cupid is Aeneus’ son, he goes to sit in her lap, and Cupid forces her to forget her dead husband, Sychaeus, and fall in love with Aeneus,
And she clung to him
With all her heart, her eyes were riveted on him,
And she cuddled him on her lap. Poor Dido.
She had no idea how great a god had settled there.
Mindful of his Acidalian mother,
Little by little he began to blot out Sychaeus
And tried to captivate with a living passion
Her slumbering soul and her heart long unused. (Virgil 1.877-884)
As Cupid is making Dido fall in love, he is taking away Dido’s wish to stay true to Sychaeus and replacing it with a desire for Aeneus that eventually leads her to the point of madness. He is also taking away her masculine traits and replacing them with irrational emotional ones, along with more motherly actions when she cuddles him as if he was her own son, despite being in front of her people. Her strength as the “masculine” queen who was making laws earlier is now gone and replaced by impietas, which is the opposite of doing one’s duty or acting in a way that is considered improper, and irrational emotion as Dido clings to the boy and stares at him. The line “with all her heart” shows how desperately she is holding onto Cupid. The other interesting part about this section of Dido’s story is that Venus is the one that ordered Cupid to make her fall in love with Aeneus. Venus is on Aeneus’ side, so she decides to tear down Dido instead of empowering her by dooming her to an unwanted love. Venus is not supporting Dido, but supporting Aeneus by forcing her to love him, and by forcing her to participate in compulsory heterosexuality by falling for the strange, strong man. Venus is herself participating in compulsory heterosexuality and denying the lesbian existence because she is not supporting Dido but doing everything for her relationship with Aeneus. Dido’s character has changed as well. Instead of the masculine, king-like figure shown at Dido’s first appearance, she is now an emotionally motivated woman at the whims of a god who looks like a child. Dido suddenly wants marriage to a man and a child, which is the main ideology of compulsory heterosexuality. The difference between Dido at the beginning of the epic and the scene where she is cuddling a child makes her seem like two completely different women. The first Dido is strong, independent, rational, and willful, but the Dido holding Cupid in her lap is emotional, acting improperly with no sense of her duty as queen, and has no control over the situation. She has gone from showing stereotypical masculine traits to stereotypical negative female traits. Instead of participating in the lesbian continuum by helping Dido and supporting her politically, Venus is helping to force Dido down the path of compulsory heterosexuality by making her love a man when she would rather be a single widow for the rest of her life.
In Book 4, Dido’s spiral into compulsory heterosexuality forced by Venus and Cupid is encouraged by Anna, Dido’s sister. At the beginning of the book, Dido is horrified by the fact that she is in love with Aeneus, and that she has broken her promise that she would stay faithful to Sychaeus. This horror at loving Aeneus could also show Dido’s horror of compulsory heterosexuality and its denial of her desire to stay single, which is a concept more on the spectrum of the lesbian continuum. Anna decides to encourage Dido to love Aeneus, instead of supporting her decision to stay single, enforcing compulsory heterosexuality because Dido has no children:
O sister dearer than light itself,
Will you waste your youth in spinsterhood
Alone and grieving, never to taste love’s joys,
The sweetness of children? Do you think
Any of this matters to ghosts in the grave? (Virgil 4.37-41)
In the first line, Anna seems to be trying to empower Dido by supporting her in her love for Aeneus, begging Dido to live her life and not waste it. However, in the next few lines, Anna’s views change to focus on motherhood and how Dido should want to be a mother. Instead of supporting Dido in the fact that she wants to keep a promise and that her love for Aeneus is hurting her, Anna wants Dido to focus on having a relationship and having children, which is part of compulsory heterosexuality which says that a woman’s most important role is having children and a husband. Anna also scolds Dido for making a promise to her dead husband when she asks if anything they do matters to “ghosts in the grave.” Instead of supporting the admirable duty that Dido is trying to keep in her promise to Sychaeus, a masculine trait to try to keep, Anna is trying to encourage Dido to let go of her duty to her husband so she can have children.
Dido’s desire to stay unmarried and her horror at the idea of being married again relates to modern women’s experiences of being forced into compulsory heterosexuality. Teresa Ramsby points out that Dido is “not only a queen, but a woman with the potential desire and power to seek her own mate. When Dido falls in love with Aeneas, we see a stronger emphasis on her vulnerable femininity” (Ramsby 14). Ramsby’s argument here emphasizes the fact that if Dido had wanted to, she could have found someone to be in another relationship with, but she did not until Venus used her son’s power to force her to. Dido did not have any desire to be in another relationship with a man in her lifetime, going against compulsory heterosexuality. Dido shows her wish to stay unmarried when she tells Anna,
If I were not unshakeable in my vow
Never to pledge myself in marriage again
After death stole my first love away—
If the mere thought of marriage did not leave me cold,
I might perhaps have succumbed this once. (Virgil 4.18-22)
In this quote, Dido is directly telling Anna that she does not want to marry Aeneus and that the thought of marriage “makes her feel cold.” Instead of supporting her sister, Anna exploits Dido’s emotional vulnerability by convincing her that she should want to marry Aeneus and a chance to have children, even though the very thought of that marriage is causing Dido mental anguish. Dido’s horror at the idea of marriage and Anna’s denial of that horror is similar to a story in Adrienne Rich’s article of a woman who was subjected to “forcible rape for six months” after coming to a doctor and saying she was a lesbian, to which the doctor told her she was not a lesbian (Rich 653). Although the conflict between Dido and Anna is not so horrific as the story of the woman and the doctor, Anna’s denial of Dido’s feelings and horror is similar in that it brings Dido down and eventually hurts her mental health. Anna is an example of a woman not empowering another woman as they should in the lesbian continuum, but instead is subscribing to compulsory heterosexuality and forcing Dido to agree.
Dido is forced even further into compulsory heterosexuality against her will when the goddesses, Venus and Juno, arrange for her to marry Aeneus. After Anna convinces Dido to go through with marrying Aeneus, she has continually fallen deeper and deeper into madness: “Dido is burning. / She wanders all through the city in her misery, / Raving mad” (Virgil 4.80-82). The magic that Cupid used on Dido, and Anna’s encouragement to give into it, are causing Dido to go insane as she tries to fight it and keep her promise to her dead husband. This mental turmoil also shows her fight between staying the masculine, powerful queen she was at the beginning, and the emotional femininity of her desire for Aeneus. This turmoil is also the fight between the desire a woman feels for a man in compulsory heterosexuality and Dido’s actual desire to stay single. When Juno sees this turmoil take over Dido, she tries to use it to her own advantage by marrying her to Aeneus so that Aeneus will never make it to Italy. Juno approaches Venus to make the deal to marry Dido to Aeneus for her own political goals, but Venus twists those goals to fit her political goals in keeping Aeneus safe until he can move on to Italy. The two goddesses agree that they will cause bad weather on a hunt, where Juno with marry Aeneus and Dido in a cave,
And with your consent I will unite them
In holy matrimony. This will be their wedding.
The Cytherean approved and nodded her assent,
Smiling all the while at Juno’s treachery. (Virgil 4.145-148)
In the first two lines of this quote, Juno is asking Venus, Aeneus’ mother, for consent for the marriage, but never asks Dido if the marriage is something she wants. Juno is exploiting the yearning Dido has for Aeneus, which was forced on her when Venus exploited her earlier. In the next two lines, Venus is also exploiting Dido again, but is also exploiting Juno’s wish to keep power in Carthage by stopping Aeneus from moving on to Italy in order to keep him safe while he is in Carthage.
Venus is the only one of these three female figures who comes out on top because Aeneus stays safe but leaves when he is prompted to by the gods. Dido is heartbroken as he tells her that he does not accept the marriage, meaning legally it never happened,
I never hoped to steal away from your land
In secret, and you should never imagine I did.
Nor have I ever proposed marriage to you
Or entered into any nuptial agreement. (Virgil 4.384-387)
In the quote above, Aeneus is denying that he ever married Dido, which causes her so much pain and mental turmoil that she eventually kills herself. His denial of the marriage also hurts Juno because Aeneus is still succeeding and has set up the destruction of Carthage, her beloved city and denied the marriage that she set up as the goddess of marriage. According to Leme,
[t]he emotional world of Dido is one of unsuccessful love, so much so that Aeneas’s flight mobilizes the feelings around her past loss. Almost as in a post-traumatic stress disorder response, the recent loss revives the old one, the death of Sychaeus. The damage has been done. Aeneas attacked her honor and created a fama [reputation] that debases the queen in front of her people and her equals. (Leme 96)
Not only did Dido’s reputation get ruined by Aeneus, but so did Juno’s and the reputation of her beloved city, Carthage. Leme’s argument emphasizes the loss of Dido’s positively viewed masculine traits and the reputation she had because she broke her vow to Sychaeus and forgot her duty to her people by focusing on her emotions surrounding Aeneus. Aeneus’ denial of their wedding leads Dido to decide that she will die by the sword because she feels guilt for breaking her promise to Sychaeus,
No, Dido, die as you deserve, end your sorrow
With a sword […]
It was not my lot To live a blameless life as a widow, as free
As a wild thing, untouched by these cares.
I have not kept my vow to Sychaeus’ ashes. (Virgil 4.640-646)
After ruining her reputation and leaving, Aeneus has also destroyed Dido’s will to live. Dido blames herself for not keeping her vow to Sychaeus, but also wishes she could have avoided falling in love with Aeneus at all. This shows how even though Dido is unaware of the exploits of the goddesses, she has recognized the loss of her power and reputation at their hands and is essentially wishing she had never met Aeneus, and that Cupid had not made her fall in love with him. Christopher Nappa’s article analyzed the last lines of the quote above and argues that,
[o]n the face of it, Dido would seem to complain that she has not been allowed to live her life without marriage, like a wild animal, thereby escaping the painful situation in which she has twice found herself, once when her husband Sychaeus was murdered, now again when her lover Aeneas is preparing to depart in order to fulfil a destiny that does not include her. (Nappa 303)
Nappa’s argument emphasizes that in a world where heterosexuality was expected of her and forced upon her, all Dido received was pain, heartbreak, and betrayal. It leaves her wishing that she could have avoided marriage, but also for a support system like what would be found in the lesbian continuum. “Poor Dido”, as she was called in Book 1, was a victim of compulsory heterosexuality in that she was forced into a relationship with a man with no alternatives, while Venus, Juno, and Anna pushed her to marry Aeneus instead of supporting her like they should have within the lesbian continuum.
In the end of Book 4, Dido’s anguish reaches its breaking point as she decides to actually go through with her plan to kill herself by the sword. After seeing Aeneus’ ship leaving the port, Dido builds a pyre, and standing on it, kills herself,
With these words on her lips her companions saw her
Collapse onto the sword, saw the blade
Foaming with blood and her hands spattered. A cry rises to the roof, and Rumor
Dances wildly through the shaken town. The houses ring with lamentation
And the wails of women. (Virgil 4.769-775)
After all Dido has had to endure, she is finally driven to death which leads to the only showing of the lesbian continuum in her story. Right after her death, the epic says that the houses rang with the “wails of women” specifically. The women of Carthage were wailing not only for the death of their beloved queen but were also wailing in companionship with her because they felt the pain Dido did at Aeneus’ leaving and at all the pain he caused by arriving in Carthage. It took Dido’s horrible suicide to get any of the women around her to support her and empower her decisions. Dido’s death also spurs the only instance of the goddesses participating in the support system of the lesbian continuum as well. Juno, after exploiting Dido earlier, now pities her and decides to free Dido so she can die,
Then Almighty Juno, pitying Dido’s long agony
And hard death, sent Iris down from Olympus
To free her struggling soul from its mortal coils.
Her death was neither fated nor deserved
But before her day and in the heat of passion. (Virgil 4.809-813)
In this quote, Juno is shown supporting Dido instead of acting against her by freeing her from life so she can join her husband in death. If Juno had not sent Iris, Dido would have had to suffer with her wounds but would not die, thus Juno is supporting her practically by letting Dido finally find peace and freedom away from the pressures of being queen, falling in love, and being a pawn to exploit for the goddesses. The end of Book 4 offers this image of women supporting women in a beautiful but sad scene of Dido finally dying, but also before her time. If Juno and the other women had supported Dido earlier, she would not have died before fate had decided she was supposed to. The consequence of women not supporting other women is shown as very grave and sad because that consequence is suicide for Dido.
By using modern feminist ideas like compulsory heterosexuality and the lesbian continuum to analyze Dido’s story, the dire consequences of women not supporting one another is shown in the dramatic and depressing death of Dido. As society continues to push compulsory heterosexuality on women so that they believe they must love a man or try to force other women to conform to heterosexuality, stories like Dido’s are made possible as women’s true feelings are suppressed and unsupported by other women. The lesbian continuum and its ideas of women supporting one another and creating community and meaningful relationships with one another is imperative to the survival of women and their power. If women tear other women down, they are doing the job of the patriarchy and anti-feminists by preventing women to rise above as they would if they all worked together to make change. Further study of other strong female characters in the Aeneid, like Camilla in Book 7, further show the success of the lesbian continuum in her support for women around her and the support she receives from the women of her city, though there is not room to analyze her story here. Learning from Dido’s experience of pain and sorrow inflicted by society’s expectations and the selfish ambitions of the other women around her, modern women can avoid making the same mistake by supporting one another and helping to make women’s voices heard while stamping out compulsory heterosexuality.
De Boer, Katherine R. “Arms and the Woman: Discourses of Militancy and Motherhood in Vergil’s Aeneid.” Arethusa, vol. 52, no. 2, 2019, pp. 129-164, doi:10.1353/are.2019.0006.
Leme, Fernando Gorab. “Shame in the Aeneid.” Vergilius, vol. 66, 2020, pp. 87–110, https://www.jstor.org/stable/26956110.
McManus, Barbara F. “Transgendered Moments: Revisiting Vergil’s Aeneid.” Classics and Feminism: Gendering the Classics, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 91-118.
Nappa, Christopher. “Unmarried Dido: Aeneid 4.550-52.” Hermes, vol. 135, no. 3, 2007, pp. 301–13, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40379128.
Ramsby, Teresa. “Juxtaposing Dido and Camilla in the Aeneid.” The Classical Outlook, vol. 88, no. 1, 2010, pp. 13–17, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43940040.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 4, 1980, pp. 631–60, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173834.
Virgil. Aeneid. Translated by Stanley Lombardo, Hackett Publishing Company, 2005.