Analysis: Karen Haegemans on Elissa of Carthage

Elissa of Carthage (commonly known as Dido, the wanderer) is one of the more fascinating examples of history becoming myth. History is rife with examples of strong women dismissed as mythology (insert obligatory “Amazons were real!”) but one of my favorites is Elissa. While researching inbred dynasties for my newsletter and a forthcoming world-building article, I came across a fascinating article I really wanted to dig into:

Haegemans, Karen. “ELISSA, THE FIRST QUEEN OF CARTHAGE, THROUGH TIMAEUS’ EYES.” Ancient Society, vol. 30, 2000, pp. 277–291. JSTOR, Accessed 20 July 2020.

Who was Timaeus?

The Sword of Damocles myth originates from Syracuse. Elissa of Carthage would certainly agree that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

While philosophers might be familiar with Plato’s Timaeus, written around 360 BCE, Haegemans is referring to the historian. Although he spent most of his life in Athens, Timaeus was born in Syracuse and died there. Many of his contemporaries complained that he allowed his politics to distort his objectivity, but one of the things I really like about Timaeus is that he was willing to record myths in the form he found them, instead of rationalizing away the details.

Haegemans’ primary purpose in analyzing Timaeus’ writings about Elissa of Carthage appears to be a rebuttal of the complaints of his contemporaries, to whit:

In the anonymous passage none of the faults that Timaeus is usually rebuked for are present, while they certainly are in the later historian Justin. […] If they were present in Timaeus’ original text, it is a great enigma why they were omitted by the excerptor, who shows a great fascination for sensational elements in the other paragraphs of his work.

Much of his writings are lost, but his extensive works were widely read in antiquity and some survive by reference.

Other Sources

Haegemans references a historian named Josephus, who shared excerpts from Menander of Ephesos. Josephus was a Romano-Jewish Historian from the first century CE who mostly wrote about Jewish history. The Hebrew people fought against the Phoenician Canaanites frequently throughout their history, so this makes sense. Menander seems to have had some cultural understanding of Tyre that later sources would lack, and may have had help from an educated Phoenician.

The article also makes reference to a Roman historian named Justin who wrote about Elissa and Tyre but wasn’t limited to Timaeus’ account. Several possible sources are named, and the point is made that ancient historians mostly reference Timaeus’ account while poets preferred the more romantic version where Elissa falls in love with the hero Aeneas and the wicked Trojan betrays her.

Why Start With Virgil?

Haegemans starts off her article by discussing Virgil’s version of Dido’s story, which was disappointing given the title of the article.

Dido, the founder of Carthage, and the Trojan prince Aeneas were meant to love each other. […] This is the essence of the famous story about the first queen of Carthage as told by Vergil in the Aeneid. 

While the meat of the article is a really fascinating look into evidence of Elissa’s existence, I was somewhat startled that the hook is an explicitly mythical reconstruction — it felt disorienting and misleading.

Many people who have heard of Dido are familiar with Virgil’s version of her life, where the Trojan prince Aeneas and Dido experience a doomed love. My understanding of the timeline, though, is that we’re pretty sure Elissa of Carthage lived from 839 BCE to 759 BCE. The Trojan War happened in roughly 1200 BCE. So to start with Virgil’s founding myth, written during the time of Augustus Caesar, signaled to me that this article was going to discuss myth-making.

Aeneas recounting the Trojan War to Dido, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin.

Using Virgil to talk about Elissa of Carthage is roughly equivalent to using A Knight’s Tale to talk about Edward the Black Prince.

Sure, A Knight’s Tale gives a surprisingly good sense of the era despite the anachronisms, and it does a reasonably good job of representing Edward’s basic nature, but the authors don’t let objective truth get in the way of a quality romance, either. If it was all we had to work from to learn about the Medieval era, we’d do it… but if it’s not, we shouldn’t.

Thankfully, Haegemans’ hook does not really represent the rest of her article.

Other Founding Stories

Although most antique sources credit the founding of Carthage with Elissa, some earlier Greek scholars evidently claimed that two Tyrians, Azoras and Karchedon, were responsible for founding the Punic city. Haegemans dismisses this as a backwards eponymous myth, though, and seems pretty comfortable assuming that Timaeus was working off of real documentation from Punic states, and that the earlier Greeks were basically making up a story because the names Azoros and Karchedon literally mean “Tyre” and “Carthage” which is just a bit too pat.

Synchrony with Rome

Establishing precise chronologies for ancient events based on scattered sources is always difficult. Timaeus reports that Carthage was founded around 814 BCE, in the same year as Rome. This article seems to support this assertion, and goes on to discuss other evidence for chronology.

For example, the historian Menander of Ephesus claims that Elissa fled Tyre during her the 7th year of Pygmalion’s rule. This was probably sometime around 820 BCE, although the architectural evidence is only certain for around 750 BCE onwards.

Where does Elissa’s Story Originate?

It can be assumed that the legend of the Phoenician queen has Oriental origins […] it is not so much the Roman elaborations or the Oriental side of the story we want to explore, but the Greek interpretation.

Leaving totally aside for the moment the question of whether or not the word Oriental is offensive (My South Asian Philosophy & Religion professor was very clear, back in 2005, that it is!) I fail to understand how a story about a Phoenician queen can have “Oriental” origins. Most of the early Phoenician city-states (Tyre, Sidon) were located in the Levant, i.e. the eastern Mediterranean region. Carthage and most other Phoenician colonies were mostly in North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The Orient is usually defined as East Asia. To say that stories about Dido are oriental seems… wildly inaccurate. Like calling the Book of Job “oriental.”

map of Phoenicia

It can be assumed that the legend of Dido has Oriental origins, but that seems like a bad assumption to me.

Regardless, Timaeus is the earliest Greek source we have about Dido. His writings exist as a quotation by an anonymous author who wrote an essay about “remarkable Queens.” An 18th century scholar, A.H.L. Heeren, edited the essay, which was basically untouched until D. Gera in 1997.

Some scholars think that Timaeus had other Greek sources, others claim that he was the first. He may have had access to authentic Tyrian documents. Unfortunately, we don’t have access to primary source Phoenician literature, thanks mostly to Alexander’s sack of Tyre and the way Scipio Aemilianus utterly destroyed Carthage.

Elissa the Heiress

According to Justin, when Elissa’s father died, he split power between Elissa and her younger brother, Pygmalion. It’s not clear whether she was meant to be a regent or rule jointly. She was already married to her uncle, so I doubt she was being set up for a royal marriage. Regardless, the common people preferred Pygmalion as king, although no explanation is given as to why. None of the sources seem to indicate that he was a good king; he is described as a tyrant who murdered his wealthy uncle, who was also the head of the local priesthood. It’s pure speculation on my part, but I imagine two possible scenarios:

  • Pygmalion was so young that the common people had no reason to dislike him (a la early Louis XVI), and Elissa had managed to alienate them by possessing some measure of strong-mindedness, or
  • The Temple of Melqart was out of favor with the common folk due to a concentration of wealth, and as wife of the High Priest, Elissa represented their interests a little too well.

Eventually, Pygmalion went too far and murdered Elissa’s husband. Elissa put together a funeral and faked throwing his money into the sea, presumably as a distraction to buy time so that she and some of the other nobles could flee with all that wealth.

The Journey At Sea

Justin is the only ancient source source that goes into any detail about Elissa’s voyage and the time before her arrival in Libya. During the voyage, the ship with all her wealth and followers stops on the island of Cyprus where they seem to be treated well.

The refugees were received hospitably on Cyprus, where a priest of Juno and his family joined the group and eighty young girls were taken along as wives for the colonists.

This astonishing fact gets remarkably little play in the stories I’m familiar with, and indeed the article basically glosses over the event. Haegemans pays significantly more attention to the providence of the storytelling and analyzing the nature of founding stories and folktales, which is fine, since the goal of the article is source analysis, not the actual content of Elissa’s story, but still.

Since my focus is learning about Elissa of Carthage and her journey, I want to unpack the event.

First, I have to wonder: were those “young girls” kidnapped? Bought by Elissa’s great wealth? Surplus and having a hard time finding husbands because of some recent war?

The Abduction of the Sabine Women, by Nicolas Poussin, (1634–1635) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Was this a Rape of the Sabines sort of situation, or a happy accident?

The involvement of a Priest of Juno leaves me with so many questions. Why was there a priest of Juno in the first place? I thought that the Juno was mostly served by female priestesses? Why is the priest and his family the only people to travel with the young girls? Is he meant to give marriage advice? To ensure that the Phoenicians treat the girls well?

How young were the girls who were to become wives for the colonists? Why hadn’t the nobles brought their own wives or women from Tyre? Does this imply that Elissa’s followers mostly young, unmarried men?

That makes sense if Elissa’s escape was facilitated by her political allies, and those political allies were the cohort of young firebrands, but my base assumption would have been that she had female allies, but this is never really considered in the versions of Elissa’s life I’ve come across.

Secondly, eighty feels like a surprisingly large number, and it gives a rare sense of scope to the expedition. Phoenicians were noted sailors, and their ships had space for plenty of cargo, but how many ships did Elissa of Carthage likely set sail with? How much extra space did she have? Adding an extra 80+ unexpected people to your party before a sea voyage seems a bit dangerous.

Land Acquisition

The story goes that when Dido arrived in Libya, she purchased land from the local inhabitants — “as much land as could be covered with an oxhide.” I imagine some precision is lost in translation (that’s not what “covered” means!), but the gist is that she cut the oxhide into strips and they formed the perimeter to a much bigger tract of land than originally bargained for.

This often becomes a word problem proxy for the geometry puzzle: what shape lets you contain the largest area if the perimeter is a set length? Dido’s problem is a isoperimetric problem well-known in mathematical circles. The answer is “a circle” which seems obvious but took until the 19th century to prove mathematically.

Pressure to Marry

Word of Elissa’s cleverness — and probably also the ships and colonists and wealth she brought with her — made its way to the local king, Hiarbas, who asked to marry her. She declined, quite sensibly in my opinion. If she wanted to preserve her people’s culture and found a city rather than be absorbed by the North Africans, marriage is a bad way to retain her independence. The nobility evidently didn’t see it that way, and her followers pushed her to accept, probably because they were afraid of a war. This “push” may have involved “underhanded tactics,” which I imagine to mean they accepted on her behalf without telling her, and by then it was too late to back out without definitely starting a war.

Regardless, Justin’s account confirms that Elissa of Carthage responded by pretending to create a ritual pyre to absolve herself of her marital vows, and jumped into the pyre instead.

For a relatively short story, a lot happens under false pretenses. This is often a feature of foundation myths, but it may also have had something to do with the way Romans viewed the people of Carthage. It wouldn’t shock me to find that Romans viewed stories of their enemies through the lens of “our enemies aren’t honorable.”

Elissa the Faithful Wife

Early on, Haegemans discusses how stories of Dido grew out of the Phoenician tradition, separate from Rome and Christianity.

In the earliest stories of the foundation of Carthage, Dido was faithful to her deceased husband and declined the marriage proposal of an African king.

Haegemans alludes to the Greek and Christian sense that Dido was a woman of principle, which I hadn’t realized. In essence, Timaeus says that Elissa fled Tyre with “some fellow citizens” after King Pygmalion killed her husband. She suffered for awhile during her travels, founded Carthage in Libya (the ancient region, not the modern country), and then the Libyan king tried to marry her. She didn’t want to marry him. Her citizens pressured her into the marriage, so she built a big pyre that she pretended was for a ritual to absolve her of her marriage vows to her deceased husband, and threw herself into the fire.

18th century painting of a Sati ceremony

I’m not sure why Christians were so impressed by what is essentially delayed sati (suttee) — the Hindu practice of a wife following her husband into the afterlife by throwing herself onto his pyre.

I’m not sure why Christians were so impressed by what is essentially delayed sati (suttee) — the Hindu practice of a wife following her husband into the afterlife by throwing herself onto his pyre. To the best of my knowledge this has never been an expectation for Christian women, although people commit suicide with frightening regularity in Antiquity.

But personally I agree with Haegemans when she rejects the religious interpretations and points out:

By making her refuse Hiarbas’ offer, the legend emphasizes Carthage’s position: the city will be independent and autonomous territory.

It’s not a bad legacy — for anyone, man or woman.. in the 800s or otherwise.


Eleanor teaches Ancient Civilizations and spends the bits of time left over writing books that bring history -- and magic -- to life. She enjoys rock climbing, bullet journaling, & gardening focused on plants you can actually eat.

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2 Responses

  1. Corinne says:

    Eww, she was married to her uncle. xD Like, I know past people wouldn’t be as squicked out by that as we would be today, but I do kind of wonder how closely related two people would have to be before it would be incestuous. Also I do know that often women were forced to marry their rapists, so that raises a ton of questions. xD If you were to write a book based on this story, I’d totally read it though.
    opens up the plot-bunny summoning serum

Let me know what you think!