Dido, Queen of Carthage

She is almost certainly a fabrication, but mythic Dido, Queen of Carthage, is still spoken of as Tunisia’s first ruler. Her name graces cafes, hotels and street signs throughout the country, and she is often put forth as an example of the nation's long lineage of strong women.

Dido’s story is Carthage’s foundation myth, a 3rd-century-BC Greek tale that kicks off six centuries earlier. Phoenician princess Elissa flees Tyre with a band of followers – her brother Pygmalion has robbed her of the throne and murdered her husband. When they arrive in North Africa, she does a canny deal with the local inhabitants, who agree to give her a plot of land – one that can be covered by an oxhide. She cuts the hide into a long, fine string that marks out what now is Byrsa Hill (byrsa means 'oxhide' in Greek). Elissa, or Dido (‘wanderer’) as she comes to be known, goes on to build a great city – Qart Hadasht. But there’s no happy ending. After she refuses the hand of a local king out of loyalty to her dead husband, she commits suicide to avoid war.

Roman poet Virgil went on to tell a different tale in the Aeneid. While its beginning and tragic end concur with the original, its dramatic middle stars Rome’s founding father, Aeneas. Our hero is shipwrecked in Carthage en route to Italy, where he has a god-given assignment to found Rome. He and Dido fall in love, but the gods meddle. Dido is no longer the steely, chaste and self-sacrificing woman of Phoenician mythology, but a complex, troubled soul who could well do with watching a DVD of He’s Just Not That Into You. Aeneas comes to his senses: he has a job to do, and despite his love for Dido, he sets sail. Dido cannot live with her heartbreak and kills herself – but not before promising that Carthage will one day avenge her.

Virgil’s story, seductive as it is, tells us a lot more about Rome than it does Carthage. The Punic civilisation’s foundation myth is told through the distorting prism of its greatest rival’s. Writing during the tumultuous years of Rome’s transition from republic to dynastic empire, Virgil is hard at work creating a humanising back-story for Aeneas (flawed, brooding, romantic), as well as explaining away the fever-pitch proportions of hatred that marked the Punic Wars (not to mention assigning blame).

However self-serving Virgil’s Aeneid was, it has withstood repeated retellings over the ensuing 2000 or so years, including iterations by Ovid and Dante. The English seem to have a particular affection for the tragic lovesick queen, with her story inspiring Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s cautionary tale, Purcell’s masterpiece of Baroque opera and, later, four action-packed maritime paintings by Turner.

Sacrificing the Truth?

Ancient Greek and Roman spin doctors had a hand in popularising stories of Carthaginian child sacrifice. Plutarch and Diodorus claimed it was common practice and the modern discovery of remains at the Sanctuary of Tophet in Carthage offer us compelling material evidence. However, contemporary historians – bearing in mind Churchill’s maxim that it's the victors (in this case the Romans) that always write history – have suggested that the children offered to the gods were possibly stillborn or had died of natural causes, by no means an unusual occurrence in the ancient world, especially in times of war and rebellion, as certainly was the period that most of the remains date from. The Romans continually painted the Punic people as a race of decadents: if a Roman said that you had fides punica, it meant you were mighty unreliable, and naughty children were told that the Carthaginians were coming to get them. Punic child sacrifice certainly helped bolster the idea of inherent Greco-Roman civility (ironically, by a society that enjoyed watching people being eaten by wild animals).