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The Vestiges of Carthage

Angus Haldane, London-based art dealer and author of ‘The Face of War: Portraits of the English Civil Wars,’ is transported to ancient Carthage on a recent trip to Tunisia he made with his wife, Emily Haldane. Read her impressions here.

Allow me to begin by unburdening myself of some emotional and cultural baggage.

Guercino’s Death of Dido in the Palazzo Spada, Rome

As a student I read Virgil’s Aeneid and remember the lines where Dido, Queen of Carthage, realizes that her lover, Aeneas, has abandoned her. This betrayal leads Dido to feelings of such loneliness and despair that her only salve for the pain can be suicide. Later in my life, I became a dealer in Old Master paintings, and I vividly remember the echo of Virgil’s poetry as I looked at Guercino’s masterpiece The Death of Dido in the Palazzo Spada, Rome.

Antonine Baths in Carthage

I should also mention that I love elephants and it was from Carthage that Hannibal set out in his attempt to defeat the Roman Empire, his ships laden with war elephants. Once on dry land, these elephants had to cross the Alps on their way towards Italy. Despite the dramatic story, most never made it, although if you are on a skiing holiday, it is worth trying to find amidst the ice and snow the odd Carthaginian coin depicting a muscular elly!

Laden with this emotional and historical baggage, my wife and I visited the site of Carthage in the modern city of Tunis. Specifically we visited the Antonine Baths, the ancient port, the theatre, amphitheatre and aqueducts. Although the stone remains are Roman as opposed to Carthaginian (once the Romans had defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War, salt was said to have been sown into the earth in order to sterilise the soil), the atmosphere is charged with the history of multiple centuries and civilisations.

At the Roman aqueduct

One could vividly imagine Dido looking out to sea with disbelief and horror. One could imagine being a Carthaginian engineer struggling with the logistics of how to transport and feed an elephant on a voyage across the Mediterranean. One could imagine, Hannibal, Hasdrubal and Hamilcar all sitting in their Carthaginian palace dreaming of crushing Roman power.

Mosaic at the Bardo Museum

Most of the mosaic treasures from Carthage have been removed to The Bardo Museum, where you will be confronted by millions of multi coloured tesserae depicting tigers, sea creatures, gods, goddesses and an adorable couple of cuddling pigs – as well as a rather fine shop.

Such is the power of travel to transport you to, not only another location, but to another era of history, to spheres of imagination impossible to embrace when seated in an office.

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