al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ancient Rome, Bacchus, Bardo National Museum, Bardo National Museum Attack, Dionysus, Drink, History, Humor, Jihadism, Terrorism, The Infant Bacchus, Tourism, Tunis, Tunisia, Tunisia 2016, Wine
The infant Bacchus stands naked and unperturbed in bronze and he has done so since the second century AD. He has a podgy, rather stupefied face. As with most specimens of Roman male youth, the realism of his physique splutters out disastrously below the waist, with genitalia which are impractically minute. In one hand, Bacchus holds up a horn of wine which unfurls into a roaring lion or a lynx. In the other dangles a slender wand. But let us study the label for more information:
“In his left hand, he holds up the thyrsus and with the left a rhyton.”
I know next to nothing about antiquity. Perhaps it was contained within the original myth that Bacchus had two left hands. So if he was right-handed, he wouldn’t be able to unscrew the cap off a bottle of wine; if he was left-handed, he would be able to open two bottles at once. I am sure that the prince of all gods of wine must have been left-handed.
The right side of Bacchus’s glass tank is punctured by a fat bullet hole. The shock is frozen in an intricate crystal pattern, as if a camera has caught the exact split second after an olive pit had plunged into a glass of white wine. My new friend appears to have deflected a bullet. His thigh is discoloured and smarting; his right buttock is soured.
Bacchus is today one of the exhibits in the Bardo National Museum’s Hercules and Dionysus Room. In March 2015, three of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s supremest goons attacked the Bardo with Kalashnikovs and murdered twenty-two tourists and staff. You can today walk around the section of the palace in which Bacchus stands and pick out the bullet holes in the walls and display cases (though there are admittedly more worthwhile things for you to see in the Bardo).
I eye the bullet hole in Bacchus’ tank and try to imagine the same damage being wrought upon the frailty of flesh. It seems unlikely from the randomness of the shot that Bacchus was a deliberate target and so there was probably a panicking human body between the gunman and the statue. Would I have dived in front of the young god to throw away my rag of a life and take the bullet for him? I am too slow witted to come up with anything that heroic on the spot, but I certainly would in theory.
I find it altogether easier to imagine debauched Romans with wine on their lips cavorting around the statue eighteen centuries ago than I can the gunfire in the museum last year. The gunmen would have torn about hysterically, like out-of-control spoiled children, whilst the statues and mosaics of Neptune and Virgil and Augustus glowered down at the disturbance. After the gunmen’s suicide belts had failed to detonate and they had egged each other on to be cut down by police bullets, they must have realised how cool and aloof those ancient nobles look. You are just a ripple on our ocean of history, the emperors would have mused. You have only a few minutes left – what can you possibly do which will make your names live on, as ours have done, for millennia?
Yes, the Bardo must be the unwisest available venue in which to stage your flimsy political stunt. All around it will be measured against entire empires.
Bacchus is still standing. It does not look as if the gunmen have even spilled his drink. He would have no doubt scandalised the jihadists, in playing truant from heaven and being happy with wine alone. He would also scandalise a lot of people in the UK as well. He is flagrantly glamorising underage drinking and even if he did have any acceptable ID, there are no pockets for him to carry it in.
So al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have left their mark on history. Unfortunately, it is a small dent in Bacchus’s leg and some scratches on his arse.