At Large  October 24, 2023  Christopher Siwicki

Carthage: The Real Story of an Ancient Lost City

Christopher Siwicki

Glass pendant, 4th or 3rd century BC.

A pair of glazed eyes stare out of a face of ivory white skin and yellow lips, surrounded by curly locks of blue hair. This small, striking, otherly image, a glass paste pendant of the 4th or 3rd century BC, is from the city of Carthage. There was a moment when the history of the West could have been very different, when the seemingly inexorable rise of the Roman Empire might have been checked in its infancy. In 264 BC, Rome sent its legions outside of Italy and across the sea for the first time, in order to assist the Sicilian city of Messina against the Carthaginians.

Over the next 120 years, Rome and Carthage fought three protracted wars; at their conclusion, one people emerged as the major power in the Mediterranean, the other was wiped from existence. Carthago: The Immortal Myth presents the history, culture, and often misrepresentative reception of the latter. Curated by Alfonsina Russo, Francesca Guarneri, Paolo Xella, and José Ángel Zamora López, the exhibition brings to the ancient setting of the Colosseum and Roman Forum artifacts from Italy, Tunisia, Lebanon, Sardinia, Sicily, Spain, Ibiza, and Malta.

Christopher Siwicki

Ivory cosmetic jar in the shape of a duck, 2nd century BC.

Ideas of movement, of transporting people and objects, run throughout the exhibition. Carthage was in what is now Tunisia, but the Carthaginians were Phoenicians, a coastal people of the ancient Levant, and the city was founded by colonists of Tyre from present-day Lebanon. This origin story is represented through a selection of luxury items from Beirut’s National Museum, including an exceptional ivory cosmetic vessel in the shape of a duck from the 2nd millennium BC.

Carthage itself was likely founded in the late 9th to early 8th century BC, and within a few centuries appears to have become an autonomous regional power with a distinct culture. However, a continuing connection between Carthage and Phoenicia is shown by three funerary stelae found in Tyre, which describe their deceased subjects in Punic–the language of the North African colony–as ‘sons of Carthage’.

Christopher Siwicki

Amphorae fragment.

Maritime trade was fundamental to the Phoenician and Carthaginian economies. On display are elephant tusks inscribed with the signatures of traders from a now submerged site off the coast of Spain, as well as an array of amphorae–storage vessels for wine and food products–recovered from shipwrecks.

Christopher Siwicki

Glass ointment vessels.

Looking beyond North Africa, Carthage extended its influence to Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Spain, and Sardinia–represented in the exhibition by finds from recent excavations, including vases from Sardinia, themselves imported from the region around Athens. The skill of Carthaginian craftsmanship is seen in displays of gold jewelry, glassware, such as the blue-bearded pendant and multicolored ointment jars, and a collection of painted ostrich eggs, one of which was cut to be worn as a mask.

Christopher Siwicki

Painted ostrich egg.

The initial clash between Rome and Carthage (the First Punic War) was a two-decade struggle that took place mostly in and around Sicily. The exhibition includes three rostra–bronze rams from the front of warships–only recently pulled from the sea at the site of an ancient naval engagement from this conflict.

Christopher Siwicki

Terracotta elephant figurine.

The Second Punic War is famous for the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, complete with elephants, over the Alps mountain range. Reference to this feat comes in the form of a terracotta figurine of a war elephant found at Pompeii, as well as a stunningly worked bronze elephant foot, presumably once part of a larger sculptural group.

The Third Punic War was an unequal fight that resulted in the obliteration of the city of Carthage in 146 BC, with its inhabitants either massacred or enslaved. Traces of the events are shown by bronze, lead, and stone missiles and projectiles uncovered at the site.

Christopher Siwicki

Stone projectiles.

Despite a Roman vow that the site of their great enemy would never again be settled, Julius Caesar refounded Carthage a century later, and it once more grew into a major city. Carthage became an important center for the development of Christianity in the Empire, and an exquisite mosaic of the 5th to 6th century AD depicts a woman with a halo around her head and her fingers raised in blessing.

Christopher Siwicki

Mosaic of a woman.

History might not always be written by the victors, but the Carthaginians have had little say over how their society and culture was received by others. The exhibition ends with snippets from an assortment of operas, movies, graphic novels, and computer games all of which take elements of the Carthaginian story as their subject. From these retellings, two things are apparent: the first is just how popular the idea of Carthage has been in the 20th and 21st centuries; the second is the perceived and exaggerated ‘otherness’ of this ancient people, vividly shown in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, a fantastical account of the Second Punic War, that includes scenes of attempted human sacrifice to the monstrously headed, triple-eyed god Moloch. Through objects more than exposition, the exhibition introduces visitors to the richness of the Carthaginian world, real and invented.

About the Author

Christopher Siwicki

Christopher Siwicki is an architectural historian, specializing in the ancient world. He is a postdoctural Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute in Rome and an honorary research Fellow at the University of Exeter. He is the author of Architectural Restoration and Heritage in Imperial Rome (Oxford University Press).

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