Classical Places in Popular Culture: Tunisia

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

A charming piece labelled 'Drunken Hercules'

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!).

That's me, dwarfed by the pillar!

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.

The old, juxtaposed against the slightly-less-old and the newer-still

Camel! This was the first camel we saw up close in Tunisia, as we made our way south

Both Palin and MacGregor & Boorman observe how creepy and unsettling the atmosphere still is in the tunnels underneath the amphitheatre, where criminals and animals were kept - but of course, they all visited at a very quiet time, apparently in complete isolation! There's not a soul in sight in either programme (Palin's 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.

The salt lake, empty of water for most of the year

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.


  1. OldHousemate (thecamelridingone)18 March 2011 at 12:40

    Ooh, nostalgia trip! :D

    Also, wasn't there a tv drama about Hannibal a few years back starring Alexander Siddig? Don't know how much it actually referred to classical Tunisia though...

  2. There have been a few movies about Hannibal, but as might be expected they tend to concentrate on his crossing the Alps with those elephants. There was a TV movie a couple of years ago starring Alexander Siddig and a feature film is supposedly in development.

    The Romans did such a good job of painting Carthage as Other, that even today it is largely forgotten, ignored, or disdained. Other than those elephants, I doubt most people (well, outside of Italy and Spain) could tell you anything at all about Hannibal. And I bet Carthage mostly dredges up vague ideas about Moloch and child sacrifice.

    As for the story of the sowing the ground with salt, it wouldn't surprise me if Scipio did sow (or have sown) a small area with salt as a symbolic act. Resettlement doesn't seem to have taken too long, though it may not have been very large. There must have been something there in the early 1st century BC when Marius went into exile in Carthage.

  3. OK, I am going to have to see this Alexander Siddig thing - reminscing about Tunisia plus reminiscing about the con?! (We met him at a convention some years ago - he was lovely). Perfection!!

  4. First comment on the Star Trek article before I read this post:
    I didn't know you were a Trekkie! ;o)
    Great take on those films. Although a big Trek fan, I'm ashamed to admit the only original cast film I've seen is the first... which is probably why it was near impossible for me to move on to the others! :p I've got the 10 film box-set (currently packed away due to remodelling), so perhaps I'll manage to bring out Khan and continue with them...

  5. You met Alexander Siddig?! He's one of my favourite Trek actors!!! I wish he did more films... and didn't always get cast as the "evil middle eastern" guy. But he nails his roles. :o)

  6. I love this new series!!! Keep it up! ;o)

    I want to go back to Tunisia and explore it more in depth... spent a week there in summer of 99 with Uni friends and loved it! Will have to wait 'till things calm down though. :s

    "Modern Tunis is built on the site of the ancient city of Carthage" huh? I thought the ruins north of Tunis - on the coast, next to the presidential palace - were supposed to be Carthage! Someone tricked me...

    I think we must have done similar coach tours... I was staying in Sousse the whole week and did a coach day trip north to Tunis and Carthage and Sidi Bou Said (so not much time for Tunis proper, mainly the museum w/ fabulous mosaics). Then a 2 day one south the El Jem (amazing!!! and I did get goosebumps going through the tunnels), the berber caves, a camel ride in the Sahara and crossing the salt lake to the oasis and then up north to ancient roman city who's name I can't remember (but the site is HUGE) and who's columns hold up the walls and gates of Islam's 4th major religious point Kairouan.

    As a crazy Star Wars fan you can imagine how excited I was to be on a "planet far far away" ;o)
    And as a history nut I was VERY impressed with the size and quality of the Roman ruins.

  7. I'm a huge Trekkie! (hmm, well, I mean I like it a lot, you know what I mean!). Voyager is my favourite though, which is a bit unusual. And I love the original series and the films - Khan is definitely the best one, I saw it first and that's what gave me my love of Star Trek I think!

    And yes, we met Alexander Siddig at a convention - only for about two seconds but it was really good fun! (We also met James Marsters, at which point I literally lost the power of speech and went 'uuuhhhh'!)

  8. I'm glad you like the post - I wasn't sure what people would think, but I like playing with my photos! (I just need to find a way to work in as many as possible - unfortunately not everywhere has classical connections!).

    I think we did the exact same coach trips! Except we went to the oasis in the Atlas mountains instead of Dougga (the more northern Roman town). And yes, modern Tunis is not quite on top of Roman Carthage - but in general terms, it's roughly over it (I think of Carthage as 'modern Tunis' in the grand scheme of things, but you're right, it's not entirely accurate on the smaller scale!). Also, Carthage is huge, and spread all over the place.


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