From Dido to Elissa

To say that North Africa was integral to the history of Rome is hardly controversial. Much of what has been said about ancient North Africa itself, however, is another story. Overt or implicit colonialist attitudes permeate the Latin and subsequent European literature. In turn, decolonization often informs how Rome is remembered in North Africa, if it is remembered at all. The ancient material has invited imaginative histories from all sides of the Mediterranean (Flaubert, Pastrone, Mellah, Ferchiou, Ammi, Ferrah, Harrouch, Seif) that say more about those who wrote them than they do about those who lived them. 

Teaching ancient North Africa responsibly requires, inter alia, unlearning things we think we know about the region and confronting the realities of colonialism. In this paper I examine my own successes and failures teaching this material and endorse comparative reception—how North Africa and Europe differ in their memory of Rome—as a fruitful avenue for discussion with students of all disciplinary backgrounds, not just those in Classics. I focus on two themes. The first is the revival of legendary figures in Tunisia and Algeria to promote national identity after independence. Thus we find a Tunisian Elissa modeled on the stalwart queen of Aeneid 1 opposite Europe’s irrational Dido derived from Aeneid 4. The second concerns a dissident Numidian heritage resulting in, for instance, an Amazigh Augustine alongside an Algerian Augustine—both distinct from Europe’s Augustine. 

This approach to reception not only introduces students to an important part of the world frequently ignored in the United States. Seeing alternative ways that Rome is remembered also highlights the fact that the image of Rome we inherit is a construct of our own cultural narratives. 

I delivered this 15 minute paper at CANE in 2022. A shorter 5 minute version of this talk is available here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s