Her story ends in suicide, caught up in the flames of a funeral pyre. Scholars of ancient literature know it well, Virgil’s tragic tale of a lustful Queen of Tyre, in the epic poem the Aeneid. But less well-known is the legend, passed down in oral form, of a heroine who through courage and determination founded a city to rival Rome, and who refused to let herself be subject to men, even at the cost of her life.
Dido, or Elissa, as she is known in the legend, was said to be a Phoenician princess who fled Tyre when her brother, the king, murdered her husband. Rather than bemoaning her lot, she took her companions and set sail for North Africa. When she reached Tunisia, she used her wit to gain control of the area of Carthage by getting locals to promise her whatever she could fit within the hide of an ox. She cut the ox’s throat and had her traveling companions cut the hide into thin strips, placing them around the perimeter of the city.
Dido founded Carthage, populating it by organizing the marriage of her male companions and a group of virgins from Cyprus. But when a Berber ruler demanded that she marry him or he would wage war on her city, she killed herself in the heat of battle rather than be subjected to his authority.
In contrast, the Roman tale promoted the image of imperial Rome and cast Dido as a slighted woman who couldn’t live without her man. Aeneas, after escaping Troy, falls in love with Dido. But the god Jupiter tells him he must leave to fulfill his destiny. Dido, crazed with love, curses the Trojans just before she stabs herself in the heart. According to the Aeneid, Aeneas would go on to found Rome.
Many scholars agree that Rome used Dido and Aeneas’ ill-fated love story to justify their actions during the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome. Some have even suggested that Dido’s desire for Aeneas symbolized a twisted view that the colony desired the colonizer, desired domination.
In modern-day Carthage, Tunisia, Dido’s name is attached to everything from restaurants to beauty parlors to wine. A search for “Didon Tunisie” (French for Dido Tunisia) reveals a dental surgery company and a hotel as the first hits. Dido has become a cultural icon in Tunisia, comparable to Joan of Arc in France.
But there is a difference. Dido, also known as Elissa, is part of the heritage of a country where patriarchy is the cultural norm. The fact that as a woman, she founded one of Tunisia’s most important cities, is significant.
Nejet M’Chala, a Tunisian professor of literature says that today Elissa represents “feminine wisdom and inventiveness, care for the other…a creative empowered woman.” Children read her story at school, she says, and learn what it means to be “a courageous, smart woman.”
“Today women identify with Dido as an icon of self-determination and freedom…She is the icon of basic human rights.”
In his 1980’s novel “Elissa La Reine Vagabonde” (Elissa the Vagabond Queen), Franco-Tunisian writer Fawzi Mellah gives the tale of Dido a breath of new life by using the story to comment on modern Tunisia. On page 71, he speaks of Dido’s desire for the new city she would build, “A fragile, maternal land. Not a fatherland (who was it who invented that absurd term?). It was a motherland that I desired; If need be, I would invent it.” Some have interpreted Mellah’s words as his way of voicing his own disapproval at the patrimony and marginalization of women in the public sphere in his home country.
In 2010, Jeune Afrique wrote an article about women in Tunisia. It compared Dido to all the women in Tunisia that have come after her, “who have shone in the sky of this country,” to make Tunisian women “the freest, the most educated and most active of the Maghreb region – of the Middle East.”
But after the Revolution, women’s rights groups have kept a close watch on how the female population is treated in the new Tunisia. Activists and politicians like Ahlem Belhadj, the President of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, say that Tunisia’s struggle for equality is not over.
In this confusing modern era, Dido, and her story of bravery and creativity, becomes even more relevant. As M’Chala explained, Elissa represents equality in both society and politics. It’s this story, and its message, that has lasted through the ages, inspiring generations in the country she chose to call home.