Dido, also called Elissa, was the founder-queen of the city of Carthage. She founded the city after fleeing from an attempt on her life in her home city of Tyre. She appears both in the foundational myth of Carthage and in Virgil's Aeneid. It is likely she was a real, historical person, although many elements of her life were mythologized or fictionalized. They do make for a good story, though.
Records from around the 1st Century CE by Timaeus and Josephus both describe her as the sister of the Tyrian king Pygmalion. In a more detailed Roman story (which calls her Elissa), she was married to Acerbas, the chief priest of Hercules (but most likely the Phoenician god Melqart) and the second-most-powerful man in the city. Pygmalion wanted more power for himself and had Acerbas slain, and would have slain Dido, but she agreed to exile from the city.
Acerbas' temple had a large treasury, which passed to Dido. Dido knew that Pygmalion coveted the treasure, so she made a great show of sending container after container from the temple to the docks, then before departing Tyre, poured the contents of containers into the harbor in sight of Pygmalion's spies. Pygmalion assumed she had sacrificed the treasure, but Dido had in fact substituted sand in the containers and departed with her deceased husband's treasure safely hidden.
She wandered the Mediterranean for years afterwards, accompanied by her faithful retinue. She landed on Cyprus, where she added a group of desperate young women of the island to her band, who became wives for her soldiers.
The wanderers came to the North African coast, and there encountered a local king named Iarbas. Dido negotiated with Iarbas for permission to settle, saying she wanted “only as much land as an oxhide could cover.” Iarbas agreed. Dido ordered the cowhide sliced into a long, thin strips, and used the strips to encircle a hill near the coast. In honor of this bit of clever topology, the main hill of the city of Carthage became known as the Byrsa, which is a Greek word for oxhide.
There are two main accounts of her death. In the Aeneid, an anachronistic Aeneas stops in the newly-founded city of Carthage, and Dido falls madly in love with him, forgetting her vows to her deceased husband. Aeneas, reminded by Mercury of his destiny to found a great city of his own, departs suddenly, without bidding her farewell. Dido, heartbroken, realizing she has betrayed the memory of Acerbas, stabs herself with Aeneas' sword and swears unending enmity between Carthage and Aeneas' descendants. Aeneas sees her funeral pyre from the sea, and is briefly saddened by the turn of events, but then promptly goes back to the business of being a hero. This Roman account speaks volumes about Roman attitudes towards the Carthaginians, but maybe says less about Dido's history.
In the second account, King Iarbas demands Dido's hand in marriage from a Carthaginian delegation, and threatens the destruction of Carthage should she not comply. The delegates, knowing their queen's temper, cannot bring themselves to raise the issue to her, even despite the danger of war. One of their number phrases the situation delicately to her saying: “King Iarbas has requested the hand of one of our citizens in marriage, and says he will destroy the city if she does not accept.” To which Dido snaps: “Anyone who would not accept this marriage request, and so doom the city, should be put to death.”
When she realizes that the marriage proposal was extended to her, Dido agrees to the marriage, but says she must placate the spirit of Acerbas before marrying Iarbas. To this end, she constructs an immense pyre, and makes offerings, before slaying herself (and remaining loyal to Acerbas and outside of Iarbas' rule) rather than marrying Iarbas. Thus she remains faithful to her own word as queen, her own vows, and her own independence.
The chronology of Pygmalion's rule and the foundation of Carthage roughly support the story of Dido and her wanderings. Some archaeological evidence also supports her existence, although some scholars say these inscriptions are referring to the Phoenician goddess Tanit. If she did exist, and founded the city of Carthage while remaining independent and a ruler in her own right as in the myth, it would have been a remarkable achievement of the ancient world. Establishing the foundation of a mighty power from a humble start as refugees clinging to an unfriendly coast speaks volumes to her capability and guile as a ruler.