Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me!

Aeneas and Dido

What role did Carthage and Hannibal play in the history of Rome as Virgil saw it — ie, in the entire millennium between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus?

Last time in this mini-thread on the Aeneid, I tried to sketch the big historical picture of that great poem, the overarching tale of how a band of Trojan survivors arrived in Italy and merged with the Latin race to found what would become, fifteen generations hence, the Roman nation.

But I promised in that post to pay a bit more attention to Hannibal and Carthage. For Aeneas the Trojan, the three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage would not start for another thousand years. For Virgil and Augustus, the worst memories of those Punic Wars (ie, the years when Hannibal was in Italy) already lay two centuries in the past. Did Carthage need to be in this story at all?

And how.

It is clear that Virgil and the Romans in the time of Augustus still considered Hannibal their worst enemy ever, the man who brought them closest to extinction. And so Virgil almost stuctures the entire poem around Carthage, albeit in very subtle and psychologically surprising ways. Here goes:

Juno (Hera) again….

Hera, whom the Romans called Juno, has already come up repeatedly as an almost generic source of trouble in antiquity, as when she drove Hercules mad in her jealousy. Well, the Aeneid takes place just after the Trojan War, and Virgil has Juno still seething with rage at the indignity that caused that war, which was Paris’ choice of Aphrodite (Venus) over Hera as “the most beautiful.” Venus, of course, not only went on to fight for the Trojans but was also the mother of Aeneas.

So Juno would do everything she could to torment Aeneas:

… the origins of that anger, that suffering, still rankled: deep within her, hidden away, the judgment Paris gave, snubbing her loveliness; the race she hated… (I, 38-41)

And so Virgil starts his poem, on the very first page, with Juno and her new obsession, which is Carthage (“new city” in Punic), which was just then being built, at least in this mythical version:

Tyrian settlers in that ancient time held Carthage, on the far shore of the sea, set against Italy and Tiber’s mouth, a rich new town, warlike and trained for war. And Juno, we are told, cared more for Carthage than for any walled city of the earth… There her armor and chariot were kept, and, fate permitting, Carthage would be the ruler of the world. So she intended, and so nursed that power. But she had heard long since that generations born of Trojan blood would one day overthrow her Tyrian walls, and from that blood a race would come in time with ample kingdoms, arrogant in war, for Libya’s ruin… (I, 20-32)

There, in a nutshell, you already have it all: Juno would nurse Carthage to become the world power, and yet she already knew that destiny intended, after a bloody struggle, for Rome to “overthrow its walls” and be its “ruin.”

(Tyrian refers to Tyre, Carthage’s mother city in Phoenicia, today’s Lebanon. Libya at the time referred to the inhabitants of northern Africa.)

Carthage as eastern temptress

Aeneas and his Trojans, meanwhile, are at sea, trying to reach Italy. Juno tries to kill them, by persuading the god of winds to cause a storm. She almost succeeds. 13 of Aeneas ships sink, and only 7 remain. And where do they land?

At Carthage, as it is being built. Its ruler is the beautiful and good queen Dido. Dido is more than generous to these Trojan refugees. She even offers to share her kingdom:

Would you care to join us in this realm on equal terms? The city I build is yours; haul up your ships; Trojan and Tyrian will be all one to me. (I, 776-779.)

And then she beholds Aeneas, the Trojan leader, and falls for him,

for she who bore him [Venus] breathed upon him beauty of hair and bloom of youth and kindled brilliance in his eyes…. (I, 801-803)

From the start, there is a scintillating and even erotic chemistry between “Carthage” and “Rome”, these two opposites who are yet so attracted to each other.

So Dido asks to hear Aeneas tell of the sack of Troy, that Greek genocide about which all people in the Mediterranean had by then heard. Aeneas describes it, in Book II of the Aeneid, in harrowing detail (in the picture above, Dido is listening to him as Ascanius, Aeneas’ little boy, sits on her lap). Aeneas also tells of his wanderings, his “Odyssey”, that brought him from Troy to Carthage.

Did0 listens and is rapt:

The queen, for her part, all that evening ached with longing that her heart’s blood fed, a wound or inward fire eating her away. The manhood of the man, his pride of birth, came home to her time and again; his looks, his words remained with her to haunt her mind, and desire for him gave her no rest. (IV, 1-7)

They get together, in a wild cave on a wild night. It must have been great, for she wants more, infinitely more. In fact, she considers herself married.

Virgil’s Roman audience at this point pictures not only the temptresses that tried to seduce Odysseus but Cleopatra, another queen in northern Africa who had very recently led astray a great Roman (Mark Antony) with her wily and erotic eastern ways. This is titillating stuff to the Romans.

Indeed, Aeneas almost seems inclined to change his plans and stay with Dido. But this is not his duty, and he is “dutiful Aeneas”, pius Aeneas. Jupiter, via Mercury, reminds him unequivocally of his destiny: to go to Italy and sire the Roman race.

Aeneas understands and decides to be on his way. But he doesn’t know how to tell Dido. Indeed he fears her. So he orders the ships to prepare to sail away at night.

Dido finds out and goes into a rage, the mother of all meltdowns. As Cheri has said elsewhere, it is not a testosterone rage as Hercules might have it, defined as violent, intense and short. No, it is an “estrogen rage”: deep, lingering, even eternal and ultimately more destructive.

Thus Dido (Carthage) ceases being Aeneas’ (Rome’s) lover and becomes instead his enemy, indeed the enemy of his entire race:

Then, O my Tyrians, besiege with hate his progeny and all his race to come: Make this your offering to my dust. No love, no pact must be between our peoples; No, but rise up from my bones, avenging spirit! Harry with fire and sword … Coast with coast in conflict, I implore, and sea with sea, and arms with arms: may they contend in war, themselves and all the children of their children! (IV, 865-875)

Then she stabs herself with a sword and hurls herself on a funeral pyre.

Every Roman of Virgil’s day would have understood whom Dido was summoning as this “avenging spirit”: Hannibal.

Indeed, just in case anybody was still confused, Virgil later, in Book X, has Jupiter himself make it more explicit. At a council of the gods on Olympus, Jupiter says

the time for war will come — you need not press for it — that day when through the Alps laid open wide the savagery of Carthage blights the towns and towers of Rome. (X15-19)

You almost get the sense that the entire Aeneid was mere prologue … to this:

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39 thoughts on “Dido conjures Hannibal: Avenge me!

  1. Oh wow, I had never thought of Dido symbolizing Carthage and Aeneas symbolizing Rome. No wonder Romans 1000 years after the Punic Wars loved Virgil’s tale of destruction (Troy), safe-harbor (Carthage-Dido), lust-then-sex (Dido-Aeneas), duty (Hera-Aeneas), rejection (Dido), war (Latium) and victory (Aeneas).

    We know that Augustus hired Virgil to write a poem about what it is to be a Roman; in essence, he was to write a piece of superb propaganda.

    Years later, Dante and Machiavelli, would also try to reinvigorate the Roman Empire.

    Thank you for this post! And the time it takes to compose…love it!

    • I had never thought of Dido symbolizing Carthage and Aeneas symbolizing Rome, either. I’d always thought Dido was someone’s Chihuahua and Aeneas was an old Anglo-Saxon term for pineapple.

      We know that Augustus hired Virgil to write a poem about what it is to be a Roman…

      We do? I don’t 😦

    • Good name for a Chihuahua, Peter.
      I’am sorry. When I made that rather presumptive statement, I had my “teacher hat” on…I was channeling Emerson who believed that we humans had some innate knowledge that a teacher only needed to coax out of her students…

  2. Virgil in my view has to be located historically, not that you’re not doing it, but the picture is far in time and hard to reconstruct, I am struggling too and this is my take anyway.

    As I have *already said* in your blog – though journalist-like you seem more interested in the latest posts (or have little time) – Augustus’ reformed state and new Empire had a religious essence that made it solid rock. Virgil, Horace and Livius helped with their works, not as propaganda but as co-believers who saw Augustus as a living god. It is different from our views, but it is like that in my view, as I tried to explain in the said prior comment.

    The Romans had always felt as a special folk chosen by Fate, stoic Providence, or more vulgar Fortune deity, little matters. What was now new tho was this terrific extra dose of self confidence they got, like a huge dose of cocaine. Why? Because they had defeated the only tough enemy that almost succeeded to destroy them. Thence their non extinguishable hate, and fear – and romantic Virgil’s rendering of the birth of this hate from love.

    From this victory though they learned a big lesson. As I read in my copy of the Britannica: “It is this spectacle of individual genius [Hannibal] overborne by collective and persevering effort [a civic effort, to be noted, by citizens with its ‘faithful’ Italian allies, not mercenaries or slaves] which lends to the Second Punic War its peculiar interest”. I mean, the Romans better understood their culture made of patriotism, of citizenship, of collective self-effaced effort, they being the quintessential juridical folk after all.

    Carthage instead, the Western non decadent fruit of the eastern half Hellenized (and decadent) Phoenicians, offered a different future, where mercenaries were fighting and not citizens, and the people, except for the rich families like the Barcas, were little more than slaves. Carthage meant also the east – eastern temptress you well say – was half Hellenized (the bad Hellenism, not Pericles or Salamina). But after Hannibal’s city defeat, except for terrible Cleopatra’s backlash, the rest of the East will fall in a few years. Octavius proved a good pupil of Caesar.

    The Romans, ever practical, understood this as a turning point. So how could Virgil not include this war in his national epic?

    “Tu regere imperio popuos,Romane, memento / haec tibi erunt artes …”

    “Remember o Roman that you have aptitude for government, and that these will be your arts and high mission – Virgil reminds his people in the 6th book of his poem.

    We were saying about possible universes. Punic wars were a turning point. The New Augustan empire too. So were too the defeat of the Spanish Armada or the defeat of Napoleon at Trafalgar.

    • Our comments on this and the other post seem to have crossed in the ether. There was a 110-minute outage on Wordprss today, btw).

      Yes, this all makes great sense, as I said underneath your other comment.

    • Yes, I did notice the Wpress blackout.

      Ah ah ah, messages sent in the ether! And before they coming back rogue of Rome so swift to scold Hannibal … which makes sense as well, also mystically, since I now see … like the feud continuing between souls this time: Hannibal’s, reincarnating in you, and Rome’s collective soul in me, a new mystery religion wow, with everyone clad in sumptuous costumes – whether strictly Dionysian worth pondering. Lots of fun, heaps of money, how’s that …

  3. I never understood why Carthage and Rome were such mortal enemies because I always thought that Rome’s wars were primarily expansionist empire building enterprises. I guess there was an ideological component to the Punic wars.

    • Actually, Thomas, there was no ideological reason for them to clash, as I sort of wrote here. Which makes these wars all the more mysterious.

      They were NOT over religion, NOT over ideology.

      Yes, they were about dominion (Sicily in the first one). But then it became about something vaguer and more interesting, having a lot to do with the psychology of Hamilcar and his son Hannibal.

      The third “Punic War”, btw, was not a war but an unprovoked genocide by Rome of a now-docile nation, Carthage. Revenge for Hannibal, you might say.

    • Allow this old chatter-box, Andreas, I’m your punishment from Baal u having betrayed Hannibal.

      Revenge plus hate, which plays a role (as Virgil too poetically attests) the Romans being human after all, tho ever practical. I’m convinced they were never cruel without an aim, since no New World is built on cruelty or sadism (of course the least enlightened Christians tried to prove the Pagans were a bunch of pervs).

      So 1) the West had to be Roma only (plebeian solid-rock Cato playing an astute role here) and 2) the East had necessarily to be taught a lesson the hard way, or it could result in an endless Vietnam war.

      So in that same 146 BC – as you have pointed out here – Rome annihilated both Carthage AND the impudent Greek Corinth. And the Greeks tamed forever mixed with the Romans, Polybius being an excellent example, and later old Plutarch too so much, or Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus.

      I am getting more and more convinced this II century BC is a key & fatal period although I am still struggling. Possibly the magic moment when Paganism reached its noblest peak after which … well, a terrible spiritual revolution was about to boil below ground. What surprised – and troubled me mostly – was that its seeds were contained in THAT same Pagan peak.

      Weird. Without any doubt.

    • Those twin sacks of cities (Corinth and Carthage) are interesting indeed.

      One difference: In the case of Carthage, an ancient civilization was erased.

      In the case of Corinth, a city was erased but its ancient civilization (ie, Greek culture) was simultaneously “conquering” Roman culture.

      Regarding paganism: I’m confused why you think this might have been its peak. In general, I don’t think religion played a role in these wars. The Greek and Roman gods were in effect the same, and even the Punic gods (Baal, Melquart etc) were analogs of Zeus, Mars etc. And, as we’ve said elsewhere, polytheists were already to see new forms of divinity, and were thus never exclusive.

      Back to East-West: You’re right: The West had to be Romanized; the East “administered”. And of course, we still today have Romance languages spoken in the West, Greek in the East. The long shadow of history.

    • Tomorrow Andreas. G’nite to all of you. I have decided to be disciplined and go ‘early to bed (11), early to rise (6), so that I can keep my body … (kinda) wise’.

    • Regarding paganism: I’m confused why you think this might have been its peak. In general, I don’t think religion played a role in these wars.

      I am going to write a post on all this, I being confused too tho, oh be so darn sure of that. Generally I am convinced that, in order to better understand any past, one has to forget one’s culture as much as possible, and penetrate at one’s best the ‘other’, which might seem banal of course, but to me it is the hardest of all.

      We today are too … scientific, blasé, sceptical, unreligious, … un-superstitious, I’d say, compared to any people from the past (or, whether believers, we belong to totally different creeds.) Just as an example, when or where to attack the enemy, to the ancients, implied factors that we … wouldn’t consider important, even the most cultured generals (Caesar, Alexander, Hannibal) were influenced by things we today would consider ridiculous (not to mention their soldiers.)

      The Greco-Romans (and the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons or Celts didn’t differ of course) thought in short ‘differently’.

      Of course almost Hellenistic the upper classes persons (like Augustus, Caesar, Vergil, Horace, and Hannibal tpp) were sceptical compared to the populace. As for the upper Romans they had more or less abandoned the Olympian gods, at least as the plebs conceived them. They had basically embraced Stoicism and a bit of Epicure, with tads of Plato and the happy rest. Cicero is the point of reference to reconstruct this ‘mind’ a bit, with flaws tho, also because he lived one century after such wars. For example Roman upper classes during the punic wars considered low-class and silly a deity such Fortune – not all of them, later possibly not Caesar, because he was raised in low-ckass Subura? Hard for me to say – but they were absolutely in awe before of the stoic Providence, which unfortunately has only vague resemblance with the Christian Providence.

      It is just an example. I am still researching and I am getting crazy. I will probably be the founder of a new neo-pagan religion, of the fun , not the austere, type possibly lol.
      In conclusion in my opinion the Punic wars could not escape the culture(s) they grew in. The problem is the reconstruction of it all and all the religious factors. They are highly sophisticated: for example Stoicism was not just ethics or a rational philosophy, it was an overall entire religion..

      Which brings us (or at least me) again to wonder a bit about those 70 millions Indians flocking to the Ganges in search of purification for their sins…

      The Indians are damn interesting. A huge example of survival of the ancients. There have similar blood, it is know, and – another difficulty – in a far away Neolithic past the big bifurcation took place.

      This is where I am going, a way certainly to distraction, and I might got it totally wrong ending up in a convent praying Baal, or Odino, but who the hell cares?
      As we both said somewhere, mind contemplation – also of non existing things, it tremendous fun in any case 😉 😉

    • All true. But what I meant was simpler:

      The ancients were religious people fighting wars, not people fighting wars ABOUT religion. That came a bit later.

    • @Andreas & Thomas

      Of course that it is so true. I absolutely agree.
      Although, allow me, it goes without saying that the Greco-Romans were tolerant and accepted all gods, while fanaticism arrived from the East:

      Assyrians: they possibly inaugurated religon wars; Persian dualistic Manichaeans: gods save us; the mystery religions and soon later the winning one among them, Chistianity, ah we know what it led to, and now they they are calmer a bit, and her sister Islam, oh Zeus save us again plssss.

      Apparently weird tho instead greatly revealing the fact that the most enlightened and tolerant Pagan Roman Emperors, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, were the most inflexible persecutors of Jews and especially of Christians: they smelled danger, I believe.

      More interesting to me – tho much much harder – is to pierce the thick veil of the other thing I was, and am, struggling with.

  4. One begins to wonder… is all history just propaganda?

    A distortion told by the victors?

    Are myths the “historical novels” and “docu-dramas” of ancient times?

    The Aeneid seems to be of the type that links current rulers to ancient and revered deities. Nothing more powerful than having your subjects believe you are descended from a god or gods. In the Judeo-Christian cultures, it morphed into the “anointing” by God through his representative(s) on Earth.

    • “is all history just propaganda…”

      Well, you might as well widen that to “is all STORYTELLING propaganda?”

      We won’t find a definitive answer, but the mere question opens up this beautifully mysterious possibility.

      Definitely, story = power.

    • Douglas, Andreas is right. Propaganda and power always existed. And storytelling plays a role. But if we consider, for example, the Aeneid just as propaganda, we miss most of it. And even today after all, Zdanov made propaganda too, but he at the same he was a true believer. I mean, propaganda being similar to propagate, if you do believe in something, why shouldn’t you try to propagate it?

      The problem with propagating religions (and with religions tout court) – and Marxism ‘was’ just a political religion, not a science – is that religions are too complex, since non rational. While propaganda for a war is easier to understand.

      Of course Aeneid was not war propaganda, since the war was long over. It was the gospel or announcement of new winning culture, with all its complex values attached: the Roman culture who had inserted into her own mind frame only what she was able, or what she was interested in, of the Greek culture. Which resulted into something different: Greco-Roman, we call it. Exactly like the Beatles who fell in love with American rock, and trying to imitate it, produced tho something different: English rock or beat (or what the hell is the right name for it)

    • I do not disagree with your point, MoR, nor with Andreas. I have seen a change in how my own country’s history is being presented over the last 5 decades. From the mythical (young George and the cherry tree, for example) to the concrete (the Declaration of Independence by a slave owner who had an intimate relationship with one of those slaves). It is what is played up, and what is played down, that constitutes the propaganda.

      I was taught the importance of the Magna Carta but it was merely the division of power within an aristocracy.

      The Aeneid seems, to me, a justification of empire and expansion. I do not say this is wrong, within the context of the period. I just say the underlying lesson of history is that it is distorted by the writers for the purpose of the present powers. One might wish to appreciate the beauty of the prose but should also understand the purpose of the art. Just as we can appreciate the paintings of the Renaissance while understanding the religious indoctrination behind it.

      As, again, I ask… is all history propaganda? What is the purpose of history but to present an image, an ideal, a moral lesson that abides by the cultural principles of the times?

      Right? Wrong? These are judgments that also are dependent upon the cultural views of the moment.

      Perhaps I merely ramble senselessly…

    • @Douglas

      The Aeneid seems, to me, a justification of empire and expansion.

      Pls read my reply above to Andreas. Of course the Romans were imperialist, like the Spanish, the French, the Victorians, or the Americans. But considering Rome – or the said other empires – from ‘our’ perspective only, which makes us similar – we are boomers who went to rallies against the Vietnam was – is missing the greater part of the cake, not only of the Romans of of the Aeneid, their Divina Commedia (and in fact Dante saw in Vergil – a bit Brunetto Latini and others – as his main mentor). Dante had a tremendous mind, and was not an imperialist lol.

      Now maybe I got it all wring of what you said 🙂

    • Hi Man of Roma,

      I love your intellectual and emotional comments.

      The Aeneid gave the Romans of Virgil’s day something to revel in–a grand story, yes! of conquest and pedigree, but also something universal: manifest destiny.

      Add to that, its stories of battle, love, betrayal, lust, and death and voila! you have a seminal piece of work that speaks not only of a time long ago, but also of our lives today.

      Now, you speak very passionately of Dante. Would you agree that Dante humanized spirituality?

    • I agree with all you said Cheri, not because, mind you, you are seducing – which of course you are – but because you MAKE SENSE to me.

      Did Dante humanized spirituality? Mmmm …I’m so far from Dante now … but yes, he certainly did. He was both the highly spiritual rational intellectual and the flesh-and-blood passionate man, it suffice to consider the number of impetuous invectives he shoots like rockets – how many in the Commedia, 50? 80? – against Florence, the Popes, anything he doesn’t like. I remember now the Pisaone:

      Ah Pisa, vituperio delle genti,
      del bel paese là dove il sì suona,
      se i tuoi vicini e te punir son lenti
      muovasi la Capraia e la Gorgona
      e faccian siepe ad Arno in sulla foce,
      sicché s’annieghi in te ogni persona!

      Titanic. Since Pisani had punished Conte Ugolino so cruelly he imagines the two said islands, C abd G, to move unto river Arno’s mouth and shut it so that ALL Pisani die drowned!

      My, if this sublimely sophisticated theologian is not also a passionate man, I am Carthaginian!

      My quotes of Dante being at heart I tend to modernize the language 😦

    • we are boomers who went to rallies against the Vietnam wa[r]

      Not all of us went to the rallies, some of us went to the war. One gains a different perspective that way. Before you conjure an image in your mind, I stood on a steel deck and watched from afar, I did not struggle in the jungle with people trying to kill me though I had several friends who did.

      Quite a different perspective.

  5. May I digress once more into Shakespeare’s use of The Aenied in Hamlet?

    One of the myths about Shakespeare’s Hamlet is that it contains “a play within a play.” But it is more like four — or maybe five — plays within a play, all arguably tied to the killing of Priam.

    The first is when Hamlet himself performs “Priam’s slaughter” before the players, but stops himself just before actual violence is required. (Rather typical of Hamlet.)

    The second is when a player continues the scene and actually recounts Priam’s slaughter. (Hamlet sees this as a reenactment of his father’s murder.)

    The third is the dumbshow account of the poisoning of a king. (Another reenactment of his father’s murder, but this time by the silent players in front of Claudius, Hamlet’s father’s murderer.)

    And the fourth is The Mousetrap — the story of a king murdered by a nephew. (This is the play that Hamlet wrote some “dozen lines, or sixteen lines” for, and the play that he expects will “catch the conscience of the king.” This play frightens Claudius precisely because it portrays a king killed by a nephew.)

    All this formerly puzzled my distracted globe, until I read this clever dissection, which takes Virgil’s Aenied as its starting point:

    Click to access ambivalence-in-the-players-speech-in-hamlet.pdf

    And the fifth play? Here’s the key passage:

    “Meethinkes their ghoasts comes gaping for revenge,
    Whom I have slaine in reaching for a Crowne.
    Clarence complaines, and crieth for revenge.
    My Nephues bloods, Revenge, revenge, doth crie,
    The headlesse Peeres comes preasing for revenge,
    And every one cries, let the tyrant die.
    The Sunne, by day shines hotely for revenge.
    The Moone by night eclipseth for revenge.
    The stars are turnd to Comets for revenge,
    The Planets change their coursies for revenge.
    The birds sign not, but sorrow for revenge.
    The silly lambs sit bleating for revenge.
    The screeking Raven sits croking for revenge.
    Whole heads of beasts come bellowing for revenge.
    And all, yea all the world I thinke,
    Cries for revenge, and nothing but revenge.
    But to conclude, I have deserved revenge.”

    This strong meat is from a contemporaneous play — aptly categorized as a “Revenge” play — and is pointedly referred to by Hamlet as he cuts short the players’ dumbshow to order The Mousetrap to begin:

    “Leave thy damnable faces and begin. Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.” (If Claudius knew of the above “Revenge” play lines, all the more reason to suspect that his nephew intends to get, what? … Revenge.)

    Lastly, Hamlet of the “inky cloak” and Pyrrhus, “he whose sable arms, black as his purpose, did the night resemble” are each denoted by black; so it is no wonder that just before Claudius storms out of The Mousetrap he cries: “Give me some light.”

    • Wow, Jim. You went deep into the subject. I love it.

      I must re-read Hamlet soon (always a good idea), now with this subtext in mind, which I had never before noticed.

    • It would be interesting to inventory how Hamlet meets the varied challenges enumerated by Kipling’s If.  

      Horatio, who according to Hamlet is not “passion’s slave,” in some ways embodies Kipling’s man, whereas Hamlet can be seen as a man who struggles against his nature to achieve this ideal.

  6. Another question, do you think that Vergil, in the shape of the character of Dido, tried to give his contemporary Cleopatra a voice or face in fiction, some kind of vindication, while also slipping that past Augustus? That he humanized her? After all song four seems to be all about her and her emotions. She’s like the main character of that song, and has a lot of inner turmoil going on.

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