Dido's love for Aeneas, described as a wound and a flame, grows as she listens to Aeneas's sad story. She eventually works up the nerve to speak to her sister Anna, describing her alarm at her passion for Aeneas, and how she had never loved anyone other than Sychaeus. Weeping, she states that she'd rather die than betray Sychaeus's memory.
Virgil uses negative, violent imagery of wounds and flame to describe Dido's love for Aeneas. His metaphors foreshadow her tragic fate, even while she piously tries to resist the passion that Venus created in her.
Anna encourages Dido to let herself love. Anna argues that a marriage with Aeneas makes emotional sense (since Dido won't waste her youth in loneliness) and tactical sense (since Carthage is surrounded by enemies, including King Iarbus of a nearby nation whose love Dido had spurned, and could use an alliance like this). Anna encourages Dido to keep Aeneas in Carthage by warning him of the dangers of sailing in winter storms. Dido's doubts easily vanish, and she gives herself to passion.
Though Venus didn't enchant Anna, Anna unknowingly helps Venus's plan. This passage illustrates the limits of divine intervention. Maybe without Venus, Dido would have found herself in the same position. Mortal decisions may still count for more than gods' endeavors.
Virgil compares "poor Dido" to a doe who doesn't realize that a hunter's arrow is still stuck in her side. Dido makes sure that Aeneas sees how wealthy she is, yet, love-struck, she can hardly bring herself to speak with him. She treasures his every word and stays up at night, lingering alone where he sat at dinner. Without her guidance, construction of Carthage comes to a halt.
Dido was once a match for Aeneas—a strong leader who'd founded a new city. Her character has entirely changed and she's allowed love to blind her to her other duties to her people. Love has made her impious.
Juno angrily addresses Venus for putting Dido in such a state. Hoping to protect Carthage and block Aeneas's fate, Juno asks to solidify a balanced union by getting Aeneas and Dido to marry. Venus feigns agreement, saying this merger of Carthage and Troy must be fate.
Here it's easy to sympathize with Juno and Dido. Venus shows disrespect for fate, another sign that she might be in the wrong.
Juno explains the wedding plans to Venus. When Aeneas and Dido join a hunting group tomorrow, Juno will create a huge storm. The couple will take refuge in a cave where Juno will marry them. Venus again pretends to agree, but has other secret plans. The following day, the hunting party sets out, including the majestically dressed Dido, and Aeneas, who is so handsome he resembles Apollo. The storm arrives, scattering the group, and Aeneas and Dido end up together in a cave, as planned. Juno presides over the wedding, with nature as the witness, while nymphs cry from the hills.
Is this a real wedding? Juno certainly wants it to be one—but here again we see the limits of her power. With no human witnesses, and a groom who doesn't realize he's been married, the wedding pushes the limits of legitimacy. Still, Virgil presents the scene seriously and calls it a wedding, so Dido's point of view might not be wrong.
Virgil doesn't mention if the couple physically consummates the marriage, but he hints that they do, writing that Dido "calls it a marriage, using the word to cloak her sense of guilt." Meanwhile, rumor, the "swiftest of all the evils in the world," spreads gossip about Dido and Aeneas's shameful union around the entire region, and about how they've forgotten their leadership roles, shirked their duties, and have spent the whole winter together.
Dido might realize that her marriage isn't quite authentic, since she's trying to cloak her guilt. Nonetheless, we see that Aeneas isn't blameless either—and perhaps he's even worse, since no god enchanted him, or since he's leading Dido on. He knows this isn't his fate, but he too has abandoned his people in favor of love.
Iarbas, the nearby king whose love Dido spurned, hears the rumors and, jealous, appeals to his father Jove to intervene. Iarbas criticizes Aeneas for becoming like a woman, perfuming himself and letting his men become "eunuchs." After checking on the situation in Carthage, Jove sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his mission. Mercury flies with his winged sandals to Carthage. He finds Aeneas bedecked in sumptuous clothing embroidered by Dido, with an ornamental sword. Mercury asks him why he lingers here, neglecting his own future kingdom. If Aeneas doesn't care to leave, he should at least think of Ascanius, a promising future king and forefather of the Romans. Mercury disappears. Aeneas is so dumbstruck and frightened that his hair stands on end.
From one point of view, this is a positive development. Aeneas does need to get going, and Iarbas indirectly does him a favor by getting the gods to remind him of this mission. On the other hand, Mercury's instructions leave no possibility of a good outcome for Dido. We've just spent half a book in her head, and now we're expected to root for her heartbreak? The priorities are brutal here. Ascanius, forefather of Rome, deserves Aeneas's consideration. But Dido doesn't.
Aeneas struggles to decide how to break the news of his departure to Dido. He decides to prepare to leave in secret, and figure out how to tell her later. His men are happy to depart.
Aeneas cowardly choice to try to leave secretly does not reflect well on him at all, even if he is just piously obeying fate.
When Dido hears rumors that Aeneas is leaving, she comes to him in a rage, railing against him for planning to leave in secret and for breaking apart their recent marriage, asking if he really must depart during the winter, and begging for his pity. She's disgraced herself, she says, and adds that if he leaves she will end up either married to Iarbas or conquered by Pygmalion. She would at least be happier if they'd had a child together, a little Aeneas to keep her company.
Though Aeneas has come to his senses, Dido remains lost in the same overwhelming passion. She can't imagine once again being the powerful leader of an independent, growing nation. Though she has shown the capacity to thrive before Aeneas arrived, her despair (the opposite of love) will doom her.
Aeneas is sorry, but he suppresses his emotions as he remembers Jove's orders. He tells Dido that she should not have thought they were married, as he never discussed being her husband, and they never had a ceremony. If he could have controlled his fate, he says, he would still be in Troy. But since the fates call him to Italy, he must go. He explains that Mercury came to remind him. Aeneas must go, against his will.
Aeneas adds insult to the injury by saying that he would have chosen to stay in Troy rather than be with her. On the one hand, his denial of the marriage seem cruel and immature, given that he's spent the whole winter with her and knows how much she loves him. On the other, he is also simply stating that personal feelings don't mean anything in the face of piously doing your duty and following fate. If he'd followed his personal feelings, he'd have never even started on this journey that led him to Dido.
Dido insults Aeneas, saying that he's not a goddess's son, but was instead born from the earth and nursed by tigers. She describes her misery in a monologue—how she welcomed him as a stranger and split her kingdom with him, only to be spurned; how she won't try to change his decision, but her ghost will haunt him. Dido leaves, fainting, and though Aeneas has many things to say to her, he piously goes to his ships. The Trojans quickly prepare to exit the city, resembling ants that scurry away with a pile of grain. It takes them a day to get ready to leave.
Dido's insults demonstrate the importance of family and lineage. Earlier, on her temple walls, we saw how much happiness Aeneas got from being a part of the great and famous history of Troy. Here Dido attempts to separate him from the glory of the past by denying his ancestry and claiming that his behavior proves he is nothing more than a wild beast.
Meanwhile, Dido asks Anna to hurry to the shore and ask Aeneas to remain in Carthage until the winter ends and better sailing weather arrives. Anna attempts to convince Aeneas, but the fates and the heavens block Aeneas's ears so that he won't change his mind. Virgil compares Aeneas to a mighty tree, with a crown that reaches the sky, and roots that stretch to the underworld.
If Dido's insane passion is more her fault than Venus's, then Aeneas's cold-hearted disregard for her feelings should be treated as more his fault than Jove's. The only difference is: Aeneas is following fate, while Dido is trying to block it. The comparison of Aeneas to a tree represents his steadfast piety, but also suggests that he's unable to feel human emotions.
Dido prays for death. As she prays at her shrine, the water turns black and the wine turns to blood. She interprets these signs as encouraging her suicidal plans, but says nothing to Anna. Night falls, and the Trojans sleep in their ships, planning to leave the next day. Dido endures nightmares about Aeneas. Dido prepares for her death, hiding her intentions from Anna and pretending to be happy. She tells Anna that a priestess recommended ending her heartbreak by burning Aeneas's clothes and armor on a pyre. Anna prepares the pyre, and Dido decorates it and prays throughout the night. Once more, she ponders her future, seeing no escape from her sadness. Even if she went with the Trojans, she'd have been nothing more than their scorned servant. And she'd rather die than try to fight them.
Virgil doesn't tell us if Dido correctly interpreted the signs, only how she interpreted them. Her own decision is the most important thing—the signs only help to steel her resolve. It may be that omens are meaningless by themselves, and behave more like a mirror for what the human interpreters already want. Throughout the poem, Virgil leaves this possibility open, much like the possibility that the gods only have the power to suggest rather than the power to make humans actually do anything.
During the night, Mercury again appears to Aeneas, telling him to leave quickly, before the Carthaginians come to attack their ships. Aeneas wakes his men and the Trojans set sail, leaving the Carthaginian shore.
Aeneas always has a choice when he is told he must follow his fate. He can always choose not to follow his fate. But he always chooses to follow it.
At dawn, Dido sees the ships have sailed away. Crazy with heartbreak, she wishes she'd killed Aeneas when she had the chance. She prays that he will have to fight and watch his people die before founding his city, and asks that he die before reaching old age. She proclaims that her descendents will be the eternal enemies of his.
Here Virgil explains a historical conflict. A century before Virgil's adulthood, Rome and Carthage waged a major war, ending in Roman troops conquering Carthage in 146BC.
Dido tells her nurse to fetch Anna. Then, while the nurse is away, she climbs the pyre and gives a final speech. She says she's glad to have built a beautiful city and to have avenged her Sychaeus, and wishes that the Trojans had never come. She will die without having gotten revenge on Aeneas, but hopes he's sorry to hear of her death. Finally, she stabs herself.
Unlike Aeneas, who has to be reminded to follow his fate, Dido creates her (awful) fate for herself. Her final summary of her life shows how much she's accomplished—she was truly a worthy match for Aeneas, and a heroine in her own right.
Anna runs to the still-dying Dido's side, distraught that Dido had concealed her suicidal plans and gotten Anna to build the pyre under false pretenses. Anna climbs the pyre and holds her dying sister. Juno sends Iris to end Dido's slow torment. Iris offers Dido's body to the underworld, and cuts her hair, ending her life.
Juno's helpless attempt to do one final good thing for Dido, along with Anna's suffering, further shows the parallel between Dido and Aeneas. Both have loving and protective goddesses (and relatives) trying to help them—but Venus's meddling works out well, and Juno's fails. Neither goddess cares whether their interventions harm others, though Juno gets all the blame. The downfall of Juno and Dido is fate, of course, but Dido's death powerfully shows that fate isn't fair.