Dido's Treasure

Death of Dido from Vergilius Vaticanus (Vatican Library, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225).

The erudite Ryan Sellars, publishing at AncientCarthage.com, recounts two variants of the once-famous legend of Dido ... and her treasure.

[B]y the first century CE, the legend of Dido’s treasure had been circulating around the Mediterranean for close to a thousand years, and many Romans would have been familiar with the version of the story told in Vergil’s Aeneid. An earlier version of the myth, however, comes from Pompeius Trogus, a contemporary of Vergil who was probably following in the tradition of the Greek author Timaeus, and whose works were later documented by Justin.[1] In this account, the Phoenician Dido (Elissa) is married to her uncle Acerbas, a wealthy priest who hides his substantial treasure (magnae opes, 18.4.6) in the earth to keep it concealed from Dido’s brother Pygmalion, the greedy king of Tyre. A rumor of this treasure quickly spreads throughout the city, and Pygmalion, inflamed with avarice, murders Acerbas without any proper regard for piety (sine respectu pietatis occidit, 18.4.8). Dido hates her brother for this terrible crime, but she conceals her feelings, telling Pygmalion that she plans to move back to the family residence so that she can get over the memory of Acerbas. Pygmalion expects Dido to bring the gold with her (existimans cum ea et aurum Acherbae ad se venturum, 18.4.11), but she has a more subversive plan in mind. She pretends to throw the precious treasure into the sea – the bags were actually filled with sand rather than money (onera harenae pro pecunia, 18.4.12) – and then sails away with members of the Tyrian aristocracy, first to Cyprus and then eventually on to the shores of Carthage.

In Vergil’s account, Pygmalion is the same greedy, murderous tyrant depicted by Justin. In Book One of the Aeneid, Venus describes him as more monstrous in crime than all others (scelere ante alios immanior omnis, 1.347), and blinded by a love of gold (auri caecus amore, 1.349), he murders Dido’s Phoenician husband in cold blood. Even when Dido is in Carthage, halfway across the Mediterranean Sea, the threat of Pygmalion still looms ominous. Anna reminds Dido of his menacing presence at the beginning of Book Four (germanique minas, 4.44), and later in the same book, Dido reminds Aeneas that Pygmalion is still out there, waiting for an opportunity to exact revenge (An mea Pygmalion dum moenia frater / destruat, 4.325-326). A key difference in the Aeneid, however, is that Dido is married not to Acerbas but to Sychaeus. Like Acerbas, Sychaeus is wealthy, the wealthiest man, in fact, in all of Phoenicia (ditissimus agri / Phoenicum, 1.343-344). After the murder, the ghost of Sychaeus comes to Dido in a dream and reveals the location of the treasure, a secret stash of silver and gold (argenti pondus et auri, 1.359) that will facilitate her escape from Phoenicia. Dido quickly rounds up sympathetic Phoenician comrades, loads up her ships with Sychaeus’ gold (onerantque auro, 1.363), and sails away with the treasure to establish a new life in northern Africa.

The Aeneid includes none of the deceptive behavior illustrated by Dido in earlier versions of the myth. She doesn’t pretend to be amenable to a life in Phoenicia with Pygmalion, and she doesn’t pretend to throw the treasure of her late husband into the sea. Moreover, whereas Justin’s Dido is motivated by a bitter hatred of Pygmalion (Elissa diu fratrem propter scelus aversata ad postremum dissimulatio odio, 18.4.9), Vergil’s Dido is motivated by both a fear of her brother and an abiding love for Sychaeus. Venus mentions this love specifically in Book One (magno miserae dilectus amore, 1.344), Dido speaks of it at the beginning of Book Four (agnosco vestigia veteris flammae, 4.23), and Sychaeus and Dido both manifest it, albeit posthumously in the Underworld, in Book Six (aequatque Sychaeus amorem, 6.474). The Sychaeus character, therefore, allows Vergil to portray Dido not as a duplicitous woman, filled with loathing and rage, but instead as a tragic heroine, a woman with a history of suffering and exile very similar to that of Aeneas himself.[2]

In this era, mostly thanks to playwright (and gold standard sympathizer) George Bernard Shaw and its progeny, Pygmalion, may be more familiar to most people than his once far-more-famous sister, founder and Queen of Carthage. The more compelling story regarding Pygmalion is not that of a statue come to life but that of treacherous murder of a sister's husband in a frenzy of "fell lust for gold," perfectly antithetical to the true nature of the true gold standard itself.