Tales from the Estoria (vii) — The dramatic death of an Empress

Medieval historians were deeply conscious of the legacy of classical civilisation. During the Age of Antiquity, the Mediterranean was the central stage in which superpowers came and went. Egypt, Greece, Phoenicia and Rome flourished throughout the region; the sea was the lifeblood of trade, cultural exchange and warfare. The medieval chroniclers of Alfonso X made great efforts to trace the history of Spain right back to Antiquity, gathering as many sources as possible in order to do so. In the early sections of the Estoria de Espanna we find the history of a great Mediterranean civilisation: Carthage. We also find the dramatic narrative of the death of Queen Dido, the Empress of Carthage.

 

Dido

 

Alfonso X includes the history of Carthage in the Estoria because southern and western Spain was incorporated into the Carthaginian Empire. Alfonso’s medieval historians tell us of how a Phoenician princess, named Elissa Dido, fled from the Levant, many centuries before the birth of Jesus. Threatened by her rapacious brother, Dido set sail from Lebanon and settled far away on the coasts of present-day Tunisia. With her family troubles behind her, she founded the mighty city of Carthage. She then sent her fleet onwards, and founded the city of Cartagena. We are told that the Queen Dido commanded great influence throughout North Africa and southern Iberia.

 

Alfonso’s chroniclers are particularly interested in Queen Dido. They are drawn to her intelligence, power and noble character. Notably it is the sentimental and dramatic story of her death that captivates the medieval historians. The Estoria recounts that Elissa Dido falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas. Himself an exile from the distant, ruined city of Troy, Aeneas marries Dido and rules Carthage alongside the Empress. But her husband, seeking vengeance for the destruction of Troy, decides to leave Carthage. Despite the Queen’s protestations, he insists he must go, promising to return one day.

 

Dido yearns for the return of her husband Aeneas. The Estoria reproduces her long and emotive correspondence with Aeneas, in which she implores him to return. Yet she receives no reply. Dido is so overcome that she feels she has no other option than death. During her last moments, she mounts one of the high towers of the city defences. Amid violent sobbing and cries of agony, Dido tears her fine robes and picks up the sword that once belonged to Aeneas. In a solemn act of sacrifice, she plunges the sword into her chest and falls from the tower into a burning funeral pyre laid beneath…

 

This tragic portrayal of self-sacrifice reveals king Alfonso X’s great esteem for Elissa Dido. The Empress of Carthage embodies great authority, having founded a vast Mediterranean empire. She also dies an honourable and dignified death: her loyalty to her husband is so firm that she sacrifices herself for him. In the narrative of her death, the compilers of the Estoria reproduce much of the elaborate, literary style of their source material. Alfonso X showed appreciation for fine literature, as well as for the powerful civilisations of Antiquity.

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