I have a new article up at Sound on Sight, in defense of odd-numbered Star Trek movies.
Bit of an experimental post, this. I thought it might be interesting to look at some places from the Classical world (which I'm loosely defining as anywhere conquered or invaded by Greeks or Romans!) and how they're portrayed in modern popular culture - whether they appear much in their Classical context, whether they're more closely associated with other periods or events, their most famous pop culture appearance and whether or not it's Classical, and so on. The selection of places is entirely determined by where I happen to have visited in the years since I was first given a digital camera.
Whadd'ya mean, blatent excuse to show off my holiday photos?!
I visited Tunisia in April 2008 and all my photos date from that visit (the film stills are, of course, not mine).
Modern Tunis is built on the site of the ancient city of Carthage, one of Rome's most infamous enemies, home of Hannibal (who fought Rome in the Second Punic War and tried, famously but with only a very little success, to bring elephants across the Alps). Carthage was utterly destroyed at the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC (I was very sad to discover that the story of how the Romans sowed the ground with salt to prevent re-growth is now considered to be untrue. It was a good story).
Carthage was rebuilt under Augustus, supposedly something planned by Julius Caesar but not yet carried out when he was killed. It became a thriving city in the province of Africa Proconsularis and was the eventual home of one of my favourite Latin authors, Apuleius.
The museum in modern Tunis is excellent and contains many interesting archaeological remains, both Roman
and some Punic items.
The remains of Roman Carthage are somewhat spread out, and unfortunately the coach tour OldHousemate (thecamelridingone, of course) and I visited it with only had time to take us to the most visually spectacular part, the site of the Antonine Baths. (By the way, before anyone judges us for going with a big coach-group of tourists, please bear in mind that this really is the easiest and safest way for two young women to explore the sites of Tunisia!).
The history of Tunisia since the fall of the Western Roman Empire is long and complex and I don't pretend to be an expert in it - suffice to say, modern Tunisia is inhabited by both Arabs, from later invasions, and Berbers, who are believed to have been there since pre-Roman times.
Tunisia/Carthage's most notable appearance in ancient popular culture was, of course, its role in Virgil's Aeneid. Book 4 of the Aeneid, which tells of the death of Dido, the queen of Carthage who had fallen in love with Aeneas, is one of the most dramatic and enjoyable books in the poem (Books 7-12 get really dull, I find). Meanwhile, Hannibal's exploits ensured that he remained famous from the Roman Republic all the way through to the present, where he makes a sort-of appearance in Gladiator - it is Hannibal's army that is supposed to represented by Maximus and his colleagues, while the female chariot-driving gladiators (inaccurately!) represent the Roman forces led by Scipio Africanus.
However, Tunisia/Carthage is only very rarely allowed to represent itself in popular visions of the ancient world. Rather, because until recently Tunisia, along with Morocco, was one of the most stable and friendly-to-the-West countries in the whole of North Africa and the Middle East, both countries have frequently been called upon to represent ancient Palestine in films about the life of Jesus. This ninth-century Islamic fortress in Monastir has been used to represent various parts of Jerusalem in Jesus of Nazareth...
...and it has also been used for the odd less reverant Biblically-themed production.
The desert sands of Tunisia have also been useful for representing first century Palestine
and the cave-homes the southern Berbers still live in are so unusual they've been used to represent a planet far, far away.
One of the biggest oases in Tunisia, in the Atlas mountains, was used to represent an Egyptian cave in The English Patient.
As you can see, Tunisia rarely represents itself on film, at any period, and its Classical period is little seen beyond recreations in the arena. The exception, however, is popular travel documentaries. Michael Palin and motorcycling pair Ewan MacGregor and Charley Boorman all visited the amphitheatre at El Jem, one of the largest and best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in the Classical world.
Sahara and MacGregor and Boorman's Long Way Down). The experience is a bit different for the rest of us - OldHousemate(thecamelridingone) and I visited as part of a large coach party full of German, Dutch and British tourists and we weren't the only party there at the time - so, rather than experiencing a creepy atmosphere, we were surrounded by excited children, giving the whole place the feel of a playground rather than an horrific place of death.
Palin also visited Dougga, a well-preserved archaeological site in the north of Tunisia, where he looked at the toilets (the Roman ones, that is). We didn't go to Dougga because that coach trip was full, but it's a good thing we didn't, as it clashed with the much more exciting trip to El Jem, the Berber caves, the camel-riding site in the desert, the salt lake and the mountain oasis. We can go to Dougga next time.
Tunisia certainly doesn't lack interest from filmmakers and television producers (recent events notwithstanding) but I think it's a shame that its own Classical past isn't explored more often in modern popular culture. Perhaps it has been and I'm just not familiar with the works - there must be a film about Hannibal out there somewhere, surely?! Anyway, I hope to see works that exploit Tunisia for its own (preferably Classical, since that's my area of interest!) past in the future, as well as using to represent just about anywhere else.