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Dido’s Treasure

by Ryan Sellers
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Dido supervising the removal of Sychaeus' treasure from Phoenicia; 15th century, from Laurent de Premierfait's translation of Boccaccio's "De Casibus Virorum"


In 65 CE, a Carthaginian man named Caesellius Bassus sailed to Rome, purchased a private audience with the Emperor Nero, and claimed that he had discovered, on his own property in northern Africa, a vast cave containing a massive amount of gold (magna vis auri, Tacitus, Annales 16.1). The cache wasn’t limited merely to gold coins, either. It was a veritable thesaurus of ancient, unwrought bullion, with heavy bars of solid gold both lying on the ground and stacked up in columns. The gold had been hidden there, Bassus explained, by someone who didn’t want the colonists of the new Carthaginian settlement to be distracted by an unhealthy preoccupation with luxury, and someone who didn’t want the hostile Numidian kings, motivated by a desire of the gold (cupidine auri, 16.1), to invade her burgeoning city. It had been hidden there, in other words, by Dido herself.

Of course, by 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]

The thesaurus of Phoenician gold appears again in Ovid’s Heroides. For most of the story, Ovid follows the Vergilian tradition, with the greedy Pygmalion murdering Sychaeus at a sacred altar in Phoenicia (coniunx mactatus ad aras, 7.113), driving his sister Dido into exile (exul agor, 7.115), and looming as a constant physical threat to her safety (est etiam frater, cuius manus impia poscit / respergi nostro sparsa cruore viri, 7.127-128). Unlike Dido in the Aeneid, however, Dido in the Heroides, desperate to persuade Aeneas to stay in Carthage, proposes that he accept the treasure of Sychaeus as part of a very lucrative dowry (in dotem . . . accipe . . . opes, 7.149-150). The prospect of becoming one of the wealthiest men in the Mediterranean world overnight may have been very tempting for Aeneas, especially since he had observed the Greek army plundering the treasures of his native land as he escaped from the city (Aeneid 2.761-766). But because Helenus had filled his ships with gold, silver, and ivory (Aeneid 3.463-471) before he arrived in Carthage, the incentive to accept such an offer wouldn’t have been nearly as strong.

Dido’s treasure, therefore, was well-documented in the Roman literary tradition, and it would have been very familiar to Nero when Caesellius Bassus approached him in 65 CE. Excited by the opportunity to recover the gold, Nero immediately launched an expedition of triremes to Africa, equipped, according to Tacitus (16.2-3), with crews specifically chosen for their speed. Once in Carthage, both Nero’s soldiers and hired local laborers worked feverishly to find the treasure, following Bassus as he searched first his own land, then neighboring fields, and finally, probably in a state of sheer panic, random places here and there (hunc vel illum locum, 16.3). According to Suetonius, Bassus had assured Nero that digging up Dido’s treasure would be a “very small chore” (parvula opera, 31.4), but the excavation turned out to be a much more difficult enterprise.[3]

There would have been plenty of reasons for Nero to respond to the fantastic claims of Caesellius Bassus with skepticism. For one, Tacitus says that Bassus was obviously deranged (mente turbida, 16.1). Moreover, even Bassus himself admitted that the idea of discovering Dido’s lost treasure in a cave had come to him in a dream (nocturnae quietis imaginem, 16.1). Nero didn’t pause to evaluate Bassus’ credibility, however, and he didn’t send out an advance team to verify the report before committing to a wide-scale expedition (16.2). In fact, Nero personally fanned the flames of gossip about the story around Rome (auget ultro rumorem, 16.2), and although the hoi polloi of the city quickly became fascinated with the rumor of Dido’s gold and could speak of nothing else, the more sophisticated residents of the city harbored serious doubts (16.2).[4] At any rate, the excavations continued, and Nero even began to spend Dido’s money – before it had been recovered or, for that matter, corroborated – so lavishly that it became one of the leading factors contributing to public debt (16.3).

So why did Nero send out an expedition to recover the lost treasure of a mythological Phoenician queen, based on nothing more than the dream of a mentally disturbed stranger from Carthage? Suetonius and Tacitus, both of whom are heavily biased against Nero, offer similar interpretations: Suetonius attributes the episode to Nero’s insanity (furorem, 31.4), Tacitus to his foolish vanity (vanitatem, 16.1). Rather than reading the treasure hunt as a simple example of Neronian madness, however, several scholars interpret it as an illustration of a sophisticated political agenda. To begin with, the discovery of the treasure would have been viewed as a clear sign of fortuna delivered by supernatural powers, and like all emperors, Nero was always eager to establish a connection with the gods.[5] During the quinquennial festival, in fact, Nero’s orators deliberately linked the discovery of the treasure, a reflection of a renewed abundance of the earth, with divine intervention (Annales 16.2). In addition, attempting to recover Dido’s treasure was a means of legitimizing and reinforcing Nero’s family connections to Aeneas, Venus, and Jupiter, a legendary mythology so important to the Julio-Claudian tradition.[6] Furthermore, it is important to remember that gold was a quintessential symbol of Nero himself.[7] This was, after all, an emperor who worked tirelessly to associate himself with the golden sun god Apollo – the apotheosis scene in Lucan’s Pharsalia (1.48), for example, specifically describes Nero climbing aboard Apollo’s chariot – and who built himself an opulent palace called the Domus Aurea. In short, Nero was attempting to recreate an Augustan Golden Age during his reign, and so whether or not he actually believed that he was going to find buried treasure in Carthage, the quest for Dido’s gold was a symbolic celebration of his public persona, and he had every political incentive to pursue it.

As for Caesellius Bassus and the treasure hunt in Carthage, Tacitus documents two different conclusions (16.3). In one, after digging up so much territory all across northern Africa, Bassus finally abandoned the effort, amazed that he had been deluded by one of his dreams for the very first time (non falsa antea somnia sua, 16.3). Understandably reluctant to face an emperor who had invested so much time, money, and political capital in the excavation, he escaped shame and fear by taking his own life (pudorem et metum morte voluntaria effugit, 16.3). In another, slightly more sanguine version of the story, however, Bassus was imprisoned but then soon released after Nero confiscated his property. It wasn’t exactly the royal treasure of Dido (regiae gazae, 16.3), but Nero was content to have the personal treasure of Bassus in its place.



Image:
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Dido and Aeneas; Pierre-Narcisse Guerin, 1815
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An advertisement in a 1930 issue of Boys' Life magazine for an adolescent novel based on the myth of Dido's treasure

Annotated Bibliography:

I. Primary Sources


Appian, Punic Wars 1.1

Appian, a Greek author living in the Roman era, includes a couple of short paragraphs about Dido at the beginning of his account of the Punic Wars. He also mentions Zorus and Carchedon as possible founders of Carthage.

Justin, Historiae Philippicae 18.4-6

Justin summarizes the writings of Pompeius Trogus, a contemporary of Vergil who was probably following in the tradition of the Greek author Timaeus. Therefore, this is a very early account of the Dido story, and one that is quite different from the more familiar version in the Aeneid.

Ovid, Heroides 7

For the most part, Ovid follows the Vergilian tradition, but there are some key differences, especially in reference to the treasure of Sychaeus (7.149-150).

Suetonius, Nero 31.4 – 32.1

Suetonius tells the same basic story about Dido’s treasure as Tacitus, though his version is much shorter, and he doesn’t mention Caesellius Bassus by name.

Tacitus, Annales 16.1-3

Tacitus relates the story of Caesellius Bassus and Nero’s reaction to his tale of treasure in an African cave. A much more comprehensive account than the version offered by Suetonius.

Vergil, Aeneid

Book One – Venus tells the story of Dido’s escape from Phoenicia in 1.335-368.
Book Four – References to Pygmalion (i.e., the looming threat of him coming to Carthage to steal the treasure) in various places, including 4.21, 4.325, and 4.656.

II. Web Resources


Ancient Carthage

http://www.carthage.edu/classics/karthago

Carthage College’s page dedicated to ancient Carthage. History, mythology, topography, images, maps, and a timeline of important dates in Carthaginian history.

Dido

http://www.magistrula.com/Latin/11Dido.pdf

Anna Andresian, author of Looking at Latin: A Grammar for Pre-College, has compiled a nice assortment of images related to Dido. She also includes some background information and some quotations (Latin and English) from the Aeneid.

Nero

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/home.html

Bill Thayer’s excellent Lacus Curtius site. Links to Tacitus and Suetonius (in Latin and English) are included.

http://www.roman-emperors.org/nero.htm

A succinct biography of Nero, written by Herbert Benario from Emory University.

Ovid

http://english.edgewood.edu/heroides/hero07.htm

James Hunter, an English professor at Edgewood College, offers an introduction to the Heroides version of the Dido and Aeneas story, together with commentary, a complete translation, and a comprehensive index of terms and characters.

Vergil

http://www.unc.edu/~oharaj/VergilLinks.html

A thorough, no-frills list of Vergil links from Jim O’Hara at the University of North Carolina.

III. Secondary Sources for Students


Braund, David. “Treasure-Trove and Nero.” Greece and Rome 30, number 1 (1983): 65-69.

The author discusses the political motivations behind Nero’s decision to pursue Dido’s treasure. Students would probably find the second half of the article, which approaches the episode from the perspective of Roman law, to be a bit digressive.

Champlin, Edward. Nero. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

In this readable, well-written text, Champlin rejects many of the traditional interpretations of Nero (sociopath, lunatic, buffoon, etc.) and presents a much different picture of the emperor than the one most students have probably heard before.

Dyck, Andrew. “Sychaeus.” Phoenix 37, number 3 (1983): 239-244.

Dyck argues that Vergil’s insertion of Sychaeus – a character absent from earlier versions of the Dido story – actually strengthens the bond between Aeneas and Dido. This article would be especially helpful for AP Vergil students.

Soren, David, Aicha Ben Abed Ben Khader, and Hedi Slim. Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

A lucid and very readable summary of the foundation myths associated with Dido (pp. 22-28).

IV. Secondary Sources for Teachers


Buckland, W.W. A Textbook of Roman Law from Augustus to Justinian, 3rd edition revised by Peter Stein. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963.

A detailed, thoroughly documented examination of Roman law as it relates to the discovery and acquisition of treasure (pp. 218-221). The interaction between Nero and Caesellius Bassus is mentioned specifically, but the author points out that since no treasure was ever actually found, the case has limited relevance.

Crum, Richard H. “Petronius and the Emperors, II: Pax Palamedes!” Classical Weekly 45, number 13 (1952): 197-201.

Crum expands on Rogers’s interpretation of the Isidorus scene in Suetonius (see Rogers citation below). He also attempts to draw a similar conclusion from a passage in the Satyricon.

Desmond, Marilyn. Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.

A thorough examination of various interpretations of Dido, from antiquity (Timaeus, Justin, Vergil, et al.) all the way up through the middle ages. The “Dux Femina Facti: Virgil’s Dido in the Historical Context” chapter (pp. 23-73) is especially illuminating.

Frazer, R.M., Jr. “Nero the Artist-Criminal.” Classical Journal 62, number 1 (1966): 17-20.

Frazer rejects the conclusions about Isidorus drawn by Crum and Rogers. In other words, he doesn’t think that the allusion to Palamedes was related to the quest for Dido’s treasure.

Graham, J.W. “Auri Sacra Fames.” Phoenix 11, number 3 (1957): 112-120.

The author offers a nice examination of the often ruinous fascination with gold in antiquity. The title of the article comes from the Aeneid (though not the Pygmalion episode).

Harris, W.V. “Roman Opinions about the Truthfulness of Dreams.” Journal of Roman Studies 93 (2003): 18-34.

Harris primarily focuses on the issue of veracity. That is, did the Romans think that dreams could reliably foretell future events? In the case of Nero and Caesellius Bassus, “belief” in the dream about Dido’s treasure advanced Nero’s political agenda, so the question is very difficult to answer.

Hind, J.G.F. “Caligula and the Spoils of Ocean: A Rush For Riches in the Far North-West?” Britannia 34 (2003): 272-274.

This article doesn’t address Nero’s quest for Dido’s treasure specifically, but the notion of a sophisticated political agenda behind a seemingly crazy treasure hunt in a faraway land certainly has its parallels.

Khan, H. Akbar. “Demonizing Dido: A Rebounding Sequence of Curses and Dreams in Aeneid 4” in Religion and Superstition in Latin Literature, edited by Alan H. Sommerstein, 1-28. Bari, Italy: Levante Editori, 1996.

Khan analyzes the relationship between Pygmalion and Dido in the Aeneid, especially in respect to the Roman concept of concordia in family relationships.

Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995.

An exhaustive, scholarly account of the foundation of Carthage (pp. 1-34).

Millar, Fergus. The Emperor in the Roman World. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977.

Millar explores the imperial fascination with money, including gifts, inheritance, confiscation, real estate, and, of course, treasure (pp. 133-201).

Pelling, Christopher. “Tragical Dreamer: Some Dreams in the Roman Historians.” Greece and Rome 44, no. 2 (1997): 197-213.

Pelling compares dream references in Plutarch, Livy, Tacitus, and Vergil. In a couple of paragraphs devoted to the dream of Caesellius Bassus, he argues that the fantastic qualities of the dream mesh very well with the fantastic attributes of Neronian Rome.

Rogers, Robert Samuel. “Isidorus the Cynic and Nero.” Classical Weekly 39, number 7 (1945): 53-54.

In this very brief article, the author argues that a seemingly random reference to Nauplius, the father of Palamedes, in an insult directed at Nero by a heckler in the street (as reported in Suetonius 39) is actually a nuanced criticism of the decision to pursue Dido’s treasure. It’s an interesting hypothesis, but it lacks depth and development. Moreover, the interpretation is based on a very obscure version of the Palamedes myth.
  1. ^ Justin, Historiae Philippicae, 18.4-6; David Soren et al., Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 23; Andrew R. Dyck, “Sychaeus,” Phoenix 37 (1983): 239; Serge Lancel, Carthage: A History. trans. Antonia Nevill (Cambridge: Malden, 1995), 23.
  2. ^ Dyck, 239-244.
  3. ^ Suetonius’ version of this episode is essentially the same as that of Tacitus, though it is considerably shorter. Incidentally, Suetonius does not refer to Caesellius Bassus by name; he simply refers to him as an eques.
  4. ^ Some scholars interpret a seemingly random reference to Nauplius, the father of Palamedes, in an insult directed at Nero by a heckler in the street (Suetonius, Nero 39) to be a sly criticism of the decision to pursue Dido’s treasure (e.g., Robert Samuel Rogers, “Isidorus the Cynic and Nero,” Classical Weekly 39, no. 7 (1945): 53-54). This reading is based on a very obscure version of the Palamedes myth, however, and there are other ways to interpret the episode (e.g., R.M. Frazer, Jr., “Nero the Artist-Criminal,” Classical Journal 62, no. 1 (1966): 17-20).
  5. ^ David Braund, “Treasure-Trove and Nero,” Greece and Rome 30, no. 1 (1983): 66.
  6. ^ Ibid.
  7. ^ Edward Champlin, Nero (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), 126.