The search for cipollino in Tunisia took place in 2010, travelling on an organised tour, fortunately just before the beginning of the Arab spring.. The tour included the principal Roman sites, Carthage, Dougga, Thuburbo Maius, Sbeitla and El Jem. (Fig 16) but not Utica, Bulla Regia or Leptis Minor (Lamta) in some of which there were references to cipollino, although it was not sure whether there actually was any in these places or how much.

The history of Tunisia is long and varied. There are mentions of tool making hominids in North Africa 1.8 million years ago and of inhabitants in the Middle Stone Age 30,000 to 40,000 years ago. There was a society of nomadic hunters occupying the country, the original Berber population, when the Phoenicians arrived at the beginning of the first millennium BC. ‘They were a maritime trading nation, originally drawn to North Africa from their home in Lebanon because they needed staging posts for the long haul across the Mediterranean’. The founding of Carthage, one of their major ports, ‘is attributed to Queen Dido (or Elissa) and a band of exiled nobles from the Phoenician homeland.’1
The story of Dido and her disastrous love for the defeated Trojan hero, Aeneas, who landed on her shores at a time when she was engaged in overseeing the further building of the city, is to be found in Books I and IV of the Aeneid by Virgil. Aeneas, for his part, falls passionately in love with Dido and they are united during a hunting trip whilst sheltering from a violent storm in the same cave, a coincidence engineered by Juno herself. Aeneas becomes distracted from his intended aim, the founding of Rome, and remains in Carthage, helping Dido with the construction of her city until he is reminded by Jupiter’s messenger, Mercury, that he has to follow his own fate and leave Dido to hers. As he sets sail Dido kills herself, ‘perishing neither by destiny nor by a death deserved, but tragically before her day, in the mad heat of passion.’2

There followed a period between the 7th and 3rd centuries BC of conflict between the Greeks and the Phoenicians before the lead up to the Punic wars and the final devastation of Carthage. The great Punic city of Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC. ‘The city which had flourished for seven hundred years from its foundation, which had held broad dominion over lands and islands and seas, which had vied with the greatest of empires in its wealth of arms and ships and elephants and money, which had 118manifested extraordinary courage and fortune by resisting a formidable enemy and famine for three years after it had been deprived of its ships and arms – this city was now being utterly blotted out and destroyed. As Scipio, looked on he is said to have wept and openly lamented the enemy’s fate’.3 According to our guide he even visited the shrine of the Phoenician god, Baal, to apologise for what he had done ‘in the course of his duty’, and to pay his respects.

Carthage was later rebuilt as a Roman city in 46 BC and became the second city of the empire after Rome. The little of that city which is left is scattered throughout the modern town. The most significant remains consist of the great water cisterns of Hadrian, the amphitheatre, the buildings on the Byrsa Hill, the Antonine baths, Roman villas and the theatre. We visited all these areas, except the theatre. Unfortunately very heavy rain and lack of time prevented us going up to the theatre but our very knowledgeable guide, Hédi Slim, said that there was not any cipollino there.

1 Jacobs, Daniel, The Rough Guide to Tunisia, Rough Guides, New York, London, Delhi, 2009, p. 453.
2 Virgil, The Aenid, Book IV, translated into English prose by W.F. Jackson Knight, Penguin Books Harmondsworth, England, 1972, p.118manifested

3 Appian, Punica, 128, quoted in Moses Hadas, The History of Rome, G.Bell and Sons Ltd. London, 1958, p.34.

Maps and Plates

Fig 16.jpg

Fig 16 Map of Tunisia