Cleopatra VII and Dido: The Egyptian Queen as the Basis for Virgil’s Dido

Engraving of a now lost painting of Cleopatra that depicts her suicide via a snake
The Death of Dido by Andrea Sacchi


 During the 1st century BCE, the world was dominated by male rulers. Most societies, such as Greece and Rome, were patriarchies; family units were centered around a male, and the political rulers were almost always men. Women were not granted the same civil and political rights as their male counterparts, so they had very few opportunities to rise to a position of power. If they did get power, it was often attained via the men that they knew, whether this was a husband or father. These women typically influenced these men while working behind the scenes, rather than holding political power themselves. This was due to the fact that women were not able to vote nor hold political office. In both Roman history and literature it is rare to see a woman in a position of true power; but when they are, it is very noteworthy. Two examples of these women are Cleopatra VII and the character Dido from Virgil’s Aeneid. Cleopatra is known to us through literature from contemporary sources around her lifetime, while Dido is a fictional character from an epic dating to the 1st century BCE. Cleopatra VII was a pharaoh of Egypt who lived a remarkable life right when the power of Egypt was diminishing and the might of the Roman Republic was rising. Dido was the fictional queen of a kingdom also in Northern Africa, who was a skilled leader but tragically took her own life in the end, similarly to Cleopatra. These two queens give us a glimpse at how powerful women, both real and fictional, were portrayed by Roman authors during the 1st century BCE. Cleopatra also may have been the basis for the character of Dido as they share many similarities.

Biography of Cleopatra

Cleopatra VII Philopator, considered by most to be the last pharaoh of Egypt, was born in the year 69 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt. Her father was Auletes, better known as the pharaoh Ptolemy XII, and while it is not known who her mother was, she was likely a noblewoman ofMacedonian and Egyptian descent (Schiff, 2010, p. 28). She had two sisters, one older and one younger than her, and two brothers, both of whom she would be married to for short periods of time (Schiff 27). While this may seem strange to modern readers, it was customary for the Ptolemies to marry their siblings. This inbreeding allowed the bloodline to remain relatively pure, however it could also cause a wide array of problems ranging from physical deformities to familial power struggles. Cleopatra likely got her first taste of Rome when she traveled there with her father in 58 BCE (Roller, 2010, p. 3). Auletes was not very popular among the common people of Egypt – they despised him for his laissez faire attitude towards ruling his country and for his seemingly unnecessary involvement in Roman affairs (Schiff, p. 28). However, his involvement with Rome was likely unavoidable as Rome began to emerge as the superpower of the Mediterranean, right as the power and might of Egypt was collapsing. After a tumultuous childhood and adolescence, where most of her siblings were either murdered by her father or herself, she finally came into her own power in 47 BCE, at about the age of twenty two (Roller, p. 4).

Statue of Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII, found in Fayoum, Egypt
Cleopatra and Caesar, a painting by Jean-Leon Gerome from 1866

It was during the year before that she met the infamous Julius Caesar in the palace at Alexandria and became his lover; a story immortalized by art, literature, and history to this day. Caesar and Cleopatra even had a son together, named Caesarion, who was likely Caesar’s only biological son. Julius Caesar had arrived in Egypt in 48 BCE, during a time when the country was boiling over with political and civil turmoil (Schiff, p. 44). While Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII were supposed to be co-rulers, the two very quickly realized they would not work together and two factions emerged; one that supported the twenty year old Cleopatra, and the other that supported the twelve year old Ptolemy XIII. After Caesar arrived in Egypt and Cleopatra set up a secret meeting with him, the Roman dictator put Cleopatra on the throne over Ptolemy XIII, who was later killed in battle (Schiff, p. 65). To eliminate further rivals, the pair also murdered her other brother Ptolemy XIV and her younger sister Arsinoe IV. Cleopatra then finally rose to power on her own as the sole sovereign of the richest and still one of the most powerful kingdoms in the Mediterranean.

Her survival during this extremely tumultuous time period demonstrates Cleopatra’s strength, intelligence, cleverness, and charisma. She not only survived, but became the queen of Egypt and would reign for twenty one years. During this time she won the favor of her people and suppressed rebellions, led her own armies, controlled currency and trade, expanded her empire, and staved off the lurking wolf that was Rome (no small feat).

A silver coin depicting Cleopatra, minted in Syria

Later on in her life, after the assassination of Caesar, Cleopatra began an affair with another powerful Roman general, Mark Antony. Together the pair presented a huge threat to Rome, as the people loved Mark Antony; the troops were included in his supporters as well, meaning Antony had thousands of soldiers loyal to only him. With Cleopatra’s wealth, intelligence, and navy, and Antony’s army and influence over Rome, the two likely could have taken over the Roman Republic. This is why the future first emperor of Rome, Octavian (later known as Augustus) would declare war on Cleopatra. Their story ends tragically however after Octavian’s forces claimed victory at the Battle of Actium. Following their loss and the defection of their troops, Mark Antony in a state of despair killed himself in the year 30 BCE; Cleopatra did the same soon after (Schiff, pp. 295-305). Rome then took over Egypt, making Cleopatra the last pharaoh to ever rule over the kingdom. 

Cleopatra, a painting depicting her death by Juan Luna, from 1881

Portrayal of Cleopatra in Contemporary and Modern Sources

While Cleopatra may have used Caesar and Antony to secure her throne and keep ties with Rome, she was a queen in her own right. Stacy Schiff demonstrates Cleopatra’s commendable ability to rule in her book Cleopatra, a Life: “A capable, clear eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine” (Schiff, p. 2). Duane W. Roller also discusses in his book Cleopatra, a Biography, just how capable of a leader she was when he states she was “…an accomplished diplomat, naval commander, administrator, linguist, and author, who skillfully managed her kingdom in the face of a deteriorating political situation and increasing Roman involvement” (Roller, p. 1). The fact that she lived to the age of thirty nine amidst civil disorder in her own country and foreign unrest with Rome is an accomplishment in and of itself.

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae, by artist Frederic Arthur Bridgman

While Cleopatra does not have her own biography written by Plutarch (his subjects were only male) she is heavily featured in his biographies of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Plutarch remains a valuable source for the queen as he was as close to a primary source as we can get in regards to a detailed description of Cleopatra, even though he wrote his biographies over one hundred years after her death. Plutarch demonstrates how Cleopatra was an incredibly skilled linguist, knowing at least 7 other languages in addition to Macedonian Greek and native Egyptian. He remarks that “…she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt” (Plutarch, 1920,  p. 197). Plutarch goes on to say that most of the pharaohs before her did not bother to learn the language of the Egyptians, and some even did not know Macedonian.

From all contemporary sources, it is apparent that Mark Antony was in love with Cleopatra. Authors such as Plutarch and Cassius Dio attempted to twist their love affair and used it as a direct insult against Cleopatra. They claimed she was a foreign sorceress or seductress who managed to steal Mark Antony from the common people of Rome and use him as a pawn. It is clear from the way these authors discuss the queen that they had an agenda against Cleopatra. They used xenophobia and misogyny that was common amongst Romans to twist their view of Cleopatra in order to make her the enemy, instead of Mark Antony. She was considered both a foreigner (despite the fact she was Macedonian Greek) and a scheming, manipulating woman in power. Plutarch demonstrates this when he details the moment when Augustus declares war on Cleopatra: “When [Augustus] Caesar had made sufficient preparations, a vote was passed to wage war against Cleopatra, and to take away from Antony the authority which he had surrendered to a woman. And Caesar said in addition that Antony had been drugged and was not even master of himself…” (Plutarch, p. 275). The Roman general who was beloved by the people was instead viewed as an unsuspecting pawn of the evil queen’s debauched ways. Plutarch also notes that Octavia (Antony’s Roman wife and Augustus’ sister) at first refused to act like Antony had dismissed her, “since it was an infamous thing even to have it said that the two greatest imperators in the world plunged the Romans into civil war, the one out of passion for, and the other out of resentment in behalf of, a woman” (Plutarch, p. 261). These excerpts demonstrate the misogyny deeply rooted in Roman culture during this time period; Cleopatra is blamed for the civil unrest in Rome and the destruction of Antony.

A painting by William Etty from 1821, called The Triumph of Cleopatra

While contemporary Roman sources sought to discredit Cleopatra, it is clear that she was a successful ruler during her lifetime, despite her tragic end. As Roller points out, “… she was the only woman in all classical antiquity to rule independently – not merely as a successor to a dead husband…” (Roller, p. 2). Despite all of Cleopatra’s accomplishments, her legacy is that of debauchery, promiscuity, and deceit. She is remembered as a powerful queen, but one that lost her empire and caused the downfall of a beloved Roman general. Roller shows the importance of how she was portrayed in historical sources when he writes, “Like all women, she suffers from male-dominated historiography in both ancient and modern times and was often seen merely as an appendage of the men in her life or was stereotyped into typical chauvinistic female roles such as seductress or sorceress, one whose primary accomplishment was ruining the men that she was involved with” (Roller, p. 2). It is easy to see how she unjustly became the prototype for powerful queens whose promiscuity led to their ruin; one example is the fictional character Dido.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, from the year 1885

The Character Dido From Virgil’s Aeneid

The Aeneid is an epic written by the Roman poet Virgil in the 1st century BCE. It was written in a very similar style to the great epics of Homer, the Odyssey and the Iliad. The work introduces the reader to the hero, Aeneas. It is set right after the fall of Troy, when Aeneas and his Trojan companions were able to escape from the doomed city and set sail for a new homeland. Aeneas’ mother, the goddess Venus, informs him that he is destined to establish a great new city in Italy, one that will eventually be Rome. Dido, the queen of Carthage, is first mentioned briefly in the Aeneid in Book I. The god Jupiter puts a spell on her so that she will be kind and hospitable towards Aeneas and his men when they arrive on the shores of Carthage (Virgil, 2004, pp. 418-430). Venus, disguised as a maiden, then tells Aeneas all about Dido so that he knows what to expect. She says that Dido was originally from Phoenicia, where her father had married her off to a wealthy landowner named Sychaeus. Dido’s greedy brother Pygmalion kills her beloved Sychaeus so that he could steal all of his wealth. Sychaeus visits Dido in her dreams, where he tells her she must leave Phoenicia immediately; he then reveals to her the location of a secret hoard of silver and gold so she may use it on her journey. Dido then sails across the Mediterranean and founds a city state in North Africa, in modern day Tunisia (Virgil, pp. 484- 516). She becomes the beautiful and powerful queen of Carthage, and receives Aeneas after him and his comrades land on her shores.

A sculpture of Dido by Christophe Cochet

Dido, like Cleopatra, is a capable queen who rules her kingdom all on her own. In Book I Virgil describes her meeting with her subjects: “Dido was dealing judgements to her people and giving laws, apportioning the work of each with fairness or by drawing lots…” (Virgil, pp. 715-717). When the Trojans arrive at her court and ask her for help and safe passage, Dido is beyond generous and hospitable to the foreigners. She tells them “ I shall send you safe with escort, I shall help you with my wealth. And should you want to settle in this kingdom on equal terms with me, then all the city I am building now is yours” (Virgil, pp. 803-807). After providing the Trojans with everything they may need, the queen shows Aeneas her palace. Meanwhile, the constantly meddling gods put a maddening love spell on Dido in order to guarantee the safety of him and his men. Virgil writes, “…that Cupid… with his gifts, inflames the queen to madness and insinuates a fire in Dido’s very bones” (Virgil, pp. 919-923). Over the next two books, Aeneas tells the queen and her court all about the bloody Trojan War and its aftermath.

A painting that depicts Aeneas telling Dido the story of the Trojan War, painted by artist Pierre-Narcisse Guerin

In Book IV, Dido is lovesick and her city starts to fall apart as she abandons her duties, driven insane by her love. Virgil details just how much Carthage is declining without the guidance of their queen: “Her towers rise no more; the young of Carthage no longer exercise at arms or build their harbors or sure battlements for war; the works are idle, broken off; the massive, menacing rampart walls, even the crane… now lie neglected” (Virgil, pp. 113-118). Later, Dido and Aeneas go on a hunting trip in the countryside. Juno and Venus conspire to create a rainstorm that forces the two to take cover in a cave. It is in that cave that they consummate their love; this spells the beginning of the end for the queen. For after this act she believes she and Aeneas are bound together through marriage. Virgil places the blame on Dido when he writes, “For Dido calls it marriage, and with this name she covers up her fault” (Virgil, pp. 227-228). The goddess Rumor then goes throughout the city, telling the people of what happened between their queen and Aeneas. She too blames Dido for the liaison and states it’s why she is neglecting her kingdom: “… That lovely Dido has deigned to join herself to him, that now, in lust, forgetful of their kingdom, they take long pleasure, fondling through the winter, the slaves of squalid craving” (Virgil, pp. 253-257). Despite Dido and Aeneas’ passionate time spent together, their story ends in tragedy when Aeneas is urged by the gods to leave Carthage and sail for Italy. Heartbroken, Dido first tries to convince Aeneas to stay but she is unsuccessful. In a fit of rage and sorrow, she lights a pyre, curses Aeneas and his descendants, and kills herself (Virgil, pp. 845-916). While Dido is a tragic character who evokes sympathy from the readers, if you look closely you can see that she is not necessarily portrayed positively. 

Death of Dido, from 1631, by Guercino

Negative Portrayal of Dido

Instead, Dido is depicted as the overly emotional woman, who’s maddening love and lust for Aeneas costs her her life and the wellbeing of Carthage. Many of the common negative qualities that are unfairly attributed to women are shown through Dido. One of these qualities is uncertainty, which Virgil demonstrates via the god Mercury when he says to Aeneas, “An ever uncertain and inconstant thing is a woman” (Virgil, pp. 786-787). Throughout Book IV of the Aeneid, Dido is also portrayed as a promiscuous, licentious woman. Her uncontrollable lust makes her irrational, allowing her to only think of Aeneas and ignore the needs of her city. As is often seen, the blame for the affair is placed on Dido, and not Aeneas. While Dido believes the two are married after their night in the cave and winter together, Aeneas argues they were never actually married. He tells Dido, “I have never held the wedding torches as a husband; I have never entered into such agreements” (Virgil, pp. 457-459). Through quotes like this, Virgil is placing the blame on Dido and making her look foolish and naive. To Aeneas it was just another affair, but to Dido it was marriage, and now her city and her reputation are ruined. In these ways, it is not hard to see the similarities between Dido and Cleopatra.

Connections Between Cleopatra and Dido

Cleopatra VII was most likely the inspiration for Virgil’s character Dido. Virgil began to write the Aeneid only one year after the deaths of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. He wrote it as propaganda for the first Roman emperor, the man who was also Cleopatra’s sworn enemy, Augustus Caesar (Chaudhuri, 2012, p. 223). The epic was meant to glorify the Roman Empire and it’s emperor, but also to celebrate the accomplishments of Augustus, such as the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. There are numerous similarities and connections between Cleopatra and Dido. The two are both considered foreign queens of kingdoms in Northern Africa. They each took Roman lovers; Cleopatra had affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony, while Dido had a liaison with Aeneas. Both women were portrayed in literature as promiscuous seductresses or enchantresses, insinuating that their lovers were mere pawns to their conspiring selves. Virgil directly calls Dido an enchantress in Book IV, when he writes, “Before the circling altars the enchantress, her hair disheveled, stands as she invokes aloud three hundred gods…” (pp. 704-706).

The Death of Dido, from the year 1872, by Joseph Stallaert

Aeneas and Antony are both very heroic as well. Aeneas was the son of Venus, the leader of the last of the Trojans, and the founder of Rome. Antony was a beloved general who served alongside none other than Julius Caesar. While both Dido and Cleopatra are branded as the ruin of Aeneas and Antony respectively, it is more likely that the men were the ruin of the two queens. Dido was building up a powerful kingdom from bare bones before Aeneas landed on her shores. After the gods put a spell on Dido to make her fall madly in love, she neglected Carthage so much so that all the projects going on in the city halted. Eventually when Aeneas left Carthage to sail for Italy, she was so heartbroken that she killed herself. Similarly, Cleopatra had rebuilt her kingdom up and restored its glory. Augustus only declared war on Cleopatra to stifle her power and to get rid of Antony. Had Cleopatra not begun an affair with Antony, Augustus could not have used her as a scapegoat to declare war on the Roman general. It was through their love affair that Augustus was able to take down the Egyptian queen and her powerful kingdom.

Dido and Cleopatra were queens of foreign kingdoms whose power threatened to topple the might of Rome. Virgil’s audience, the Roman people, would be very familiar with Cleopatra and Mark Antony and their disastrous war with Augustus. After all, it was very recent history. Virgil even directly references Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and the Battle of Actium in Book VIII of the Aeneid. The Battle of Actium is depicted on a large shield, with Augustus and his navy facing Antony and Cleopatra’s. While Virgil does not explicitly name the queen, it is clear he is talking about her: “He [Antony] brings with him Egypt and every power of the East and farthest Bactria; and -shamefully- behind him follows his Egyptian wife” (pp. 892-895). This passage clearly depicts Cleopatra as a foreign queen who Antony should be ashamed of having as his wife. Although Virgil never explicitly states that Dido is based off of Cleopatra, through all of these similarities it is evident that she most likely was. Dido and Cleopatra are examples of how powerful women, whether they are fictional or historical, are often portrayed negatively in literature. The two queens were remarkable leaders who had incredibly tragic downfalls. Dido and Cleopatra should not be portrayed negatively, but rather celebrated as powerful queens who were extremely capable, brave, and intelligent leaders. 


Bridgman. F. (1896). Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Chaudhuri, P. (2012). Naming Nefas: Cleopatra on the Shield of Aeneas. The Classical Quarterly, 62(1), 223-226., Retrieved 19 October 2020,

Cochet. C. (1707). Dido [sculpture]. Wikimedia Commons.

Etty. W. (1821). The Triumph of Cleopatra [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Gerome. J. L. (1866). Cleopatra and Caesar [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Guercino. (1631). The Death of Dido [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Guerin. P. (1815). Aeneas Tells Dido the Misfortunes of the Trojan City [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.érin_Énée_racontant_à_Didon_les_malheurs_de_la_ville_de_Troie_Louvre_5184.jpg

Lawrence. A. T. (1885). The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Luna. J. (1881). Cleopatra [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.,_por_Juan_Luna_(Museo_del_Prado).jpg

Plutarch. (1920). Plutarch • Life of Antony. Retrieved 17 October 2020, from*.html.

Roller, D. W. (2010). Cleopatra: A biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sacchi. A. (1700s). The Death of Dido [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.,_Andrea_-_The_Death_of_Dido_-_17th_c.jpg

Sartain. J. (1885). [Steel Engraving of Cleopatra]. Wikimedia Commons.,_steel_engraving_of_the_encaustic_painting_found_at_Hadrian%27s_Villa_in_1818.jpg

Schiff, S. (2010). Cleopatra A Life (1st ed.). Back Bay Books.

Stallaert. J. (1872). The Death of Dido [painting]. Wikimedia Commons.

Virgil. (2004). The Aeneid of Virgil. Bantam Dell.

Wikimedia Commons. (2004). [Sculpture of Ptolemy XII from Fayoum, Egypt].

Wikimedia Commons. (2009). [Coin From Syria Depicting Cleopatra VII].

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s