The following comment has been revised and expanded as of 11:00 am on February 15:

One of the most famous stories in all of Western literature is the legend of Dido, queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the founder of Rome, as told by Virgil, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, of all the classical Roman poets. For the past 2,000 years, this story has been known throughout the world as a tragic love tale.

Their romance ends when Aeneas (who is also one of literature's best known political refugees) leaves Dido in order to carry out his duty of arriving in Italy in order to establish the city and the people of Rome (one way, no doubt, to obtain political asylum, though not one that is available to a great many people.) Overwhelmed by grief, Dido ultimately dies.

However, while this may not be the main focus of Virgil's Dido and Aeneas story, the great poet expresses some remarkable views about immigration, namely by implying that liberal immigration policies go hand in hand with the idea of justice and fair legislation in general.

In addition, when Virgil speaks about immigration, as when he speaks about any other topic, it is safe to assume that he is not only speaking for himself, but also for the first, and one of the greatest, of all Roman emperors, Augustus Caesar.

Virgil's masterwork, the Aeneid, is considered to have been written in order to justify Augustus' rule and to describe what were considered to be the Roman ideals of virtue under his leadership (ideals which, according to historians, Augustus did not always adhere to himself in his personal life, but that is a different story which does not concern us here).

Virgil was held in high esteem by Augustus, and was actually together on a voyage with the emperor at the time of Virgil's death in 19 B.C. Indeed, the only reason that we have his magnificent epic poem today is because Augustus countermanded Virgil's instructions that the Aeneid should be burned after his death. (Evidently Virgil was dissatisfied with some of his lines in the poem and thought that he should have improved on them.)

(It may also worth noting that Augustus was not always so friendly to every poet. Another great Roman poet, Ovid, whose whose work was less to Augustus' liking, was exiled to and spent the rest of his life in a lonely outpost, far away from Rome, after many unsuccessful efforts to have his "deportation" rescinded.)

With the above by way of introduction, I will turn to Virgil's views about immigration, as expressed through the character of Dido.

As soon as Dido is introduced in Book 1, it is clear that she is meant to represent a feminine ideal in every aspect of her personality, just as Aeneas represents the Augustan male ideal of loyalty, piety and bravery. Dido is even described as not only being the most beautiful, but also the tallest, of all women in her entourage, (possibly a connection with Maat, the Egyptian goddess of Justice, who was said to be tall).



One of Dido's outstanding attributes, as Virgil describes them, is her function of law giving:

iura dabat legesque viris, operumque laborem / partebas aequat iustis aut sorte trahebat: ("She gave laws and rules to her people, dividing the work to be done in equal parts or allocating it by lot." Aeneid - 1, 507, 508)

This passage clearly equates justice with fairness and equality, even to the point of resorting to what USCIS now chooses to call "random selection". (Did Virgil anticipate the H-1B lottery by any chance?)

The theme of justice as one of Dido's chief attributes is expanded when one of Aeneas' men addresses her as follows:

justitiaque dedit gentis frenare superbas ("He [Jupiter] allowed you to govern proud peoples with your justice.")

It is fine for Virgil to talk about Dido's devotion to justice, but does he give any actual examples of her putting this devotion into practice? This is where immigration comes into the picture.

Addressing one of Aeneas's men, (long believed by Aeneas himself to have been lost in a shipwreck) Dido offers to refurbish his ships so that he and his companions can go anywhere they wish.

But then Dido also has another suggestion:

vultis et his mecum pariter considere regnis? / urbem quam statuo, vestra est; subducite navis ("Or do you wish to settle with me on an equal footing, even here in this kingdom? This city which I am founding is yours. Draw up your ships.")

And she concludes her offer with the remarkable line, far more enlightened in its openness than the immigration policies of any so-called "advanced" countries today:

Tros Tyriusque mihi nullo discrimine agetur.
("Trojan and Tyrian shall be as one in my eyes.")

In other words, Dido is in effect offering permanent residence (or even citizenship) to Aeneas and his entire fleet, for no other reason than that they might wish to remain there, without requiring them to show qualifications for immigrant status or citizenship under any set of predetermined rules.

It is true that Dido is destined later on to fall in love with Aeneas, so that one might argue that his fleet members could fall into the category of his "dependents", or even "immediate relatives" in a rather extended sense of that term - but that is all for the future.

At the time she makes her immigration proposal (which can certainly qualify as a classical example of executive action) Dido's generous offer of residence or citizenship in Carthage to these complete strangers with no pre-conditions whatsoever (not even a fine or payment of back taxes) appears to be based on profound humanitarian considerations which Virgil clearly identifies with justice in the highest and truest sense of the word.

How ironic that, within the past few days, 2,000 years later, in the latest of many recent Mediterranean refugee disasters, 29 would-be immigrants died and more than 70 others spent 18 hours in freezing temperatures without food or water after trying to reach Italy from the same Lybian shores and by crossing the same passage of water as the one which Virgil describes as separating Carthage from Rome:

Urbs antiqua fuit (Tyrii tenuere coloni) /
Karthago, Italiam contra Tiberinaque longe / ostia,
("There was an ancient city, Carthage, held by colonists from Tyre, opposite Italy and the distant mouth of the River Tiber.")


One is also inevitably reminded of President Bill Clinton's sending the Coast Guard to stop impoverished Haitians from fleeing their country by boat to seek refuge in the US in the 1990's.

When one contrasts the humanity and exalted ideal of generous immigration policy as the servant of justice in Virgil's Aeneid with the battles going on in Europe and America today over whether to admit immigrants from different parts of the world or different ethnic backgrounds from the intended host countries' majority populations, one has to wonder how much, if at all, humanity has progressed in the time since Virgil wrote his immortal poem.


As a postscript, one might argue, from a more cynical viewpoint, that Dido's offer of permanent residence or citizenship to all the crew members of Aeneas' entire fleet of ships was not made through any desire on her part to adopt humanistic, ultra-liberal immigration policies. Nor (one could argue) was her offer based on some ancient version of TPS status (though there was nothing temporary about the destruction of Troy).

Certainly, one could also contend, Dido's offer of permanent residence or citizenship to the men did not involve any considerations resembling modern political asylum, since Virgil does not mention her raising any questions about which "particular social group" the men belonged to. Virgil also makes clear that the men did not even ask for asylum, but only for help in going on to their next destination.

Instead, if one wanted to regard Dido as someone with a mentality more in keeping with a modern day USCIS Service Center adjudicator than that of a generous, open-minded ancient legendary queen, one could argue that Dido offered to admit Aeneas' men to her country only because the sheer fact of their having survived the Trojan war - if they did in fact survive, which Virgil never makes clear - showed that they had all met a highly restrictive standard of "extraordinary ability", equivalent to that required for beneficiaries of O-1 or even EB-1 petitions.

However, it is probably less likely that Dido might have been willing to consider these men for a national interest waiver, since Virgil does not mention any shortage of able seamen or shipbuilders in Carthage at the time.

Alternatively, one might have a stronger argument to the effect that Dido could have determined that these crew members had met the P-1 standard of "international recognition" for athletes. After all, Virgil writes that the jealous and vindictive goddess Juno, with regard to these men:

arcebant longe Latio, multosque per annos / errabant acti fatis maria omnia circum ("She kept them far away from Latium, driven by the Fates to wander for many years around all the seas".)

And as Dido says herself:

quis genus Aeneadum, quis Troiae nesciat urbem / virtutes virosque aut tanta incendia belli? / non obtunsa adeo gestamus pectore Peoni, ("But who could fail to know about the people of Aeneas and his ancestry, about the city of Troy, the valor of its men and the flames of war that engulfed it? We are not so dull in mind as that.")

If the above does not qualify as "international recognition", it is hard to imagine what would.

Of course, a cynic might also ask what kind of treatment Dido would have afforded to an entirely different set of shipwrecked men with a different leader whom she had not been fated to fall in love with, as Venus, the mother of Aeneas, had craftily (and with help from Juno) arranged for Dido to do in the case of Venus' son. Would Dido have ordered the men detained, since she had no shortage of border guards available? As she states:

res dura et regni novitas me talia cogunt /
moliri et late finis custode tueri.
("This is a new kingdom, and it is harsh necessity that forces me to take these precautions and post guards on all our frontiers.")

If they had not had any connection with Aeneas, would Dido have put the men into removal proceedings? Virgil does not give us any clear answer to this question.


Note: All the above quotations are from Book 1 of the Aeneid. The English translations above are all taken from, or based in large part on, those of David West in Virgil: The Aeneid, Penguin Books, translation and introduction copyright (C) David West, 1990, 2003.
Roger Algase is a New York lawyer and a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing employment-based and family-based immigration law for more than 30 years and has helped immigrants from many parts of the world fulfill their dream of living and working in America.

Roger studied Latin as a high school student, where he was first introduced to the Aeneid. While he makes no claim to have expertise in Latin, he maintains an active and lively interest in ancient Roman history, culture and literature. His email address is