Perhaps I am swimming against the tide in visiting the Carthage National Museum after visiting the Bardo. The latter is a vast treasure-house of mosaics and statues from the high days of Roman pomp. The former scrapes together most of what is left from a site which had been wiped off the face of the Earth by the Romans around two centuries beforehand. It is akin to surveying the art and furniture of modern New York and then turning to their equivalents from pre-1945 Hiroshima.
Carthage was almost exactly like Hiroshima aside from in that the Romans obliterated the city manually rather than automatically. They tore it down street by street; they then, at least according to later and rather flowery accounts, sowed the ruins with salt. They built their new city on top of the old one, as if to really rub it in for the ghosts. If you followed Hollywood’s standard formula for Indian burial grounds, Roman Carthage would be a city in which every house was disruptively haunted. But the Romans were a people who saw themselves as bringing cleanliness wherever they went. By the time that they were walking through Carthage’s immaculate forum, only the barest traces of dust, in the cracks of the pavements, would have been Punic.
Carthage had once stood on top of Byrsa Hill. Incidentally Byrsa means “oxhide.” Dido, the mythical founder of Carthage, had claimed a piece of land from whichever people had been living on the hill. She had requested, so the story goes, only the area which could be covered with a single oxhide. Once the is had been dotted on this contract, the rascally old witch had then proceeded to slice her oxhide into strips which would encircle the whole hill and annex enough land for a future city. This legend clearly does not so much illustrate Dido’s cunning as it does the ineptness of her victims’ lawyers.
The Romans’ new town is today marked out around the hilltop with stumpy melted pillars. If you are still struggling to picture how the city had once looked, the powerful scale model inside the museum should give your imagination a helpful push in the right direction. Punic Carthage is now more or less denoted by a sign which reads “Carthage was here,” but the museum nonetheless contains a tiny, tantalising collection of original Punic artefacts.
They are laid out daintily on tables and, were it not for the glass cases, they could be knickknacks on display in a car boot sale. There is not really any aura surrounding them which signifies their extraordinary age. Of course, you are enthralled and furious at the same time. Imagine that our own civilisation was exhibited to some Martians in the form of a handful of random objects from Poundland. This might be all very well – it might sum up our everyday priorities – but you would want to showcase the very best that our people can do, our beautiful Samsung tablets and our designer handbags. It is the same with the Punics: the awesome sample which we have been given makes you fantasise impossibly about ever seeing the elite of their erased art.
I have come to view the Punics as being similar to a single modernist artist, say an obscure associate of the Bloomsbury Set, whose paintings and sculptures you have to discover piece by piece. Each new artwork opens up a new depth. You sense that there are only a limited number to be hunted down and so you rejoice in each find. I liken the Punics to a 1920s modernist because there is something quirky to all of their stuff, a flair and a freedom which is stirred into the mix. There is that grinning terracotta funeral mask, with his eyebrows raised jauntily (though this was in the Bardo). There are pinched astonished little heads which are meant to be pendants or amulets. There are the figurines of young men cavorting as weightlessly as fairies on the bronze vases, but with something extra too, a frankness which speaks of ripening virility. There is a grumpy-looking Baal on his throne and a cheerful sphinx vase with a wagging tail.
Still, there is a definite evasiveness to all of this. Carthage was a port and a melting pot, where Greek and Egyptian influences swirled and blended. I am never quite certain that you can turn the process back to isolate any true Punic elements.
The standout exhibit in the Carthage museum is a pair of sarcophagi which were unearthed from the Punic necropolis. They are on display within an elegant antechamber in which the busts of Roman boys and girls gaze over them like youthful guards who are supervising two disgraced prisoners. The sarcophagi are on their backs, with their feet pointing in the air, but, after a rare brainwave, I jump on to a nearby bench to procure a view over them.
A priest and a priestess, superbly sculpted out of rust-coloured marble. The accompanying information board attributes these figures to “a colony of Etruscans who had adopted the Punic traditions but with recourse to a Greek artist.” They had obviously had Egypt in mind as well. The priest has a Greek straightforwardness and realism to him; the priestess is, by contrast, coolly Egyptian, and wrapped in the wings of a bird. So what of Carthage? In this heady artistic concoction, it is essentially as blank as the city now remains over twenty centuries later.
The name of Byrsa Hill, the place where I am standing, derives from the Greek for oxhide, not the Punic. These careless people who had lost their entire civilisation!