Earlier this month a double celebration took place at Carthage, once the greatest city in the Mediterranean, destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Punic Wars and now a seaside suburb of Tunis. The anniversary of Hannibal's defeat of the Roman army at Cannae in southern Italy on 2 August 216 BCE could be commemorated on the same day (2/8) as the beginning of the 2828th year since the foundation of the city by the Tyrian princess Dido in 814 BCE. Scholarly talks on Carthage and its heroes were followed by a carnival, including a parade from the acropolis to the amphitheatre with Carthaginian and Roman soldiers.
The Tunisian embrace of Dido, Hannibal and their city might seem surprising. The Phoenician colony of Carthage was as much a foreign power in North Africa as Rome was, even if Dido is supposed to have won over the local population with trickery rather than war: promising to live on no more land than she could cover with ox-hide, she cut the animal skin into such thin strips it could encircle the entire hill on which she then built her city. But its earliest known invader has helped to define the nation of Tunisia since independence from France in 1956.
Under Ottoman hegemony, from the 16th to 19th centuries, Tunisia’s history had been presented as purely Arab. From 1881, the French Protectorate emphasised the Roman occupation of North Africa, presenting France as the inheritor of Rome’s imperial mission. But the independent state’s coat of arms featured a Phoenician ship as a symbol of freedom, and both Tunisia’s presidents between independence and revolution exploited the place of Carthage in the new nation’s past.
Habib Bourguiba built his presidential palace at Carthage, and encouraged Unesco's archaeological campaigns of the 1970s that brought the ancient city back to light. State celebrations for Carthage’s 28th centenary in 1986 happily coincided with the 30th anniversary of independence. Bourguiba was particularly fond of Hannibal as a symbol of resistance to Roman, and therefore European, colonialism, and schoolbooks taught – not unreasonably – that Rome was the aggressor in the Punic Wars, forcing Carthage to resist. As the slogan went, ‘Hannibal was one of us.’
Under Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, a ‘Carthageland’ theme park was built in a tourist resort an hour’s drive down the coast, ‘Hannibal TV’ was launched as the first commercial television channel, and the government sponsored foreign exhibitions about Carthage. In 1994-95 Hannibal’s march on Rome was recreated, though using buses rather then elephants, and presenting fancy-dress moments in Carthaginian history at stops in Tunis, Madrid, Cannes and Rome.
Carthage was used not only as a symbol of resistance to European colonialism, but also as a symbolic weapon in the hands of the secular government against the increasing popularity of political Islam, and the notion that Tunisia was a solely Islamic or Arab country. Tunisia on this reading had always been a Mediterranean society, a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures with multiple ethnic roots. Even reasonably peaceable Romans could claim a place in this national history, with St Augustine's story taught in schools alongside Hannibal's.
Despite its popularity with the old regime, this version of the nation’s past remains the most visible in post-revolutionary Tunisia, where the national football team is still known as the Eagles of Carthage, Hannibal’s triumphs are still celebrated, and even his Roman enemies are invited to the party.