History of Tunis, from Carthage to independence

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The story of a city that has always played a leading role in the Mediterranean, first as Carthage and then as Tunis

The mythical origins of Carthage

To understand the origins of Tunis we must take a step back in time and discover those of Carthage, its ancestor. According to tradition, the city was founded in 814 BC. by Queen Elyssa, called Dido by the Romans; she the latter would have fled from her hometown, Tire, following some riots that had animated the Phoenician city, finding refuge first in Cyprus and then in North Africa. Here she met King Iarba, a local ruler who gave her a territory “as large as it could be covered by a beef skin“; naturally the queen divided the skin into very thin strips, thus obtaining an ideal territory to give rise to the new settlement. According to a legend, the new inhabitants, while they were digging the foundations of the city, found a bull’s head, a symbol of fatigue, and that of a horse, a symbol of extreme nobility, which will fully characterize the destiny of Carthage.


The Aeneid then narrates the sad fate that would befall Dido, who fell madly in love with Aeneas to the point that, on the day of his departure, she committed suicide by launching herself from his palace, victim of an eternal unrequited love and an omen of one of the most decisive clashes in history.

From colony to colonizer

Initially Carthage remained extremely dependent on Tire, so much so that it is not known exactly when the city actually became autonomous, but this probably happened in 585 BC, the year in which Nebuchadnezzar II began a siege of 13 years on the Phoenician city. It must be said, however, that already from the 7th century the newcomer began to become famous, so much so that the first colony was Ibizia, which was followed by several others which, together with the difficulties of the motherland, allowed her to aspire to a destiny as a protagonist in the Mediterranean. Many will be the colonies of Tire that will swear allegiance to the city of Dido, allowing it to soon increase its sphere of influence.


What will distinguish it most from Rome, its bitter rival, will be the expansionist model which, however rapid and successful, did not give certainty in the long term. The Carthaginians, heirs of the Phoenicians, were in fact more interested in ensuring commercial and port control rather than the production of basic necessities; an element that gave a lot of wealth and therefore made it possible to quickly recruit the best mercenaries, but not guaranteeing a large army and, above all, the resistance to face great wars.

The clash with the Greeks and Pyrrhus, king of Epirus

Initially the main rival of Carthage will be Greece and its colonies scattered around the Mediterranean, now increasingly worried by the new power and, specifically, by its interests in Sicily, an island of great strategic and commercial importance for the Hellenes. Not surprisingly, the first conflict of 480 BC it will be on the Italian island and will see the Carthaginians succumb, who will return to office only after 70 years; according to some theories, the legendary travelers date back to this period Annone and Imilcone, the first reached today’s Cameroon, the second up to Britain. However, it will not be with the subsequent conflict that the Carthaginians will begin to dominate in Sicily, but with the 3rd, in which, while fighting with honor, Syracuse and the Greek-Sicilian world in general lost their centrality in island politics.


The Punic however also had to face another obstacle coming from the Balkan world: Pyrrhus, king of Epirus. The latter had in fact decided to expand his sphere of influence also in the western Mediterranean and to do so he organized a famous expedition which had as its protagonist first the Italian peninsula and then Sicily. The king went to the island with the specific intent of driving out Carthage and imposing his dominion, but things did not go as planned. Initially the Epirus army managed to gain a lot of ground and victories, but was arrested in Lilibeo and this blockade will mark the definitive end of Pirro’s ambitions in Italy, forcing him to return to his homeland.

The first Punic war, the beginning of the clashes with Rome

Historically between Rome and Carthage there had always been a convivial climate made up of agreements and treaties, the definitive Greek collapse in Sicily, however, created a power vacuum that was too interesting for both powers, so much so that, less than 10 years after the end of the pyrrhic wars, the first Punic War began. The bone of contention in this case was Messina, a city of strategic importance for both sides, at that moment involved in an internal revolt. The insurgents first asked the Punic and then the Romans for help, which enticed the latter more than ever, prompting them for the first time on an expedition to the island. With their arrival began a long series of clashes that will end only in 241 BC. with the Battagli of the Egadi islands, a clash in which Rome certified the great developments in the nautical field and managed to conquer the dominion of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, inflicting a severe blow to the Punic. The latter, having an army made up mostly of mercenaries, had many difficulties in paying their soldiers; this will lead to the “War of the mercenaries”, one of the bloodiest and most arduous clashes in the entire history of Carthage, solved only thanks to the intervention of Amilcare Barca, who also found a new solution to the recent defeat: taking over Iberia.


Lost the 3 islands, in fact, it became essential for the Carthaginians to find new sources of raw materials and labor, just what that land was rich in, which had also already known Punic and Phoenician because of the many colonies that populated its coasts. In a short time the peninsula was almost completely conquered, so much so that in 226 BC. Rome and Carthage signed a treaty in which all the territories before the Ebro, a river considered to be the historical border of Iberia, were conferred on the latter. The problem, however, will be in the determination and safety of Hannibal and his lieutenants, who besieged Sagunto, an ally of Rome in the Punic territory, razing it to the ground; this will be the event that will bring about the actual outbreak of the Second Punic War.

The 2nd and 3rd Punic Wars and Roman rule

At this point Hannibal will choose to cross today’s Spain, France and to cross the Alps with his army, made up of many elephants; if on the one hand this allowed him to completely avoid the Roman legions, on the other hand it placed the army in extreme suffering, however repaid by the subsequent battles. In fact, the Carthaginian general triumphed over Ticino, Trebbia, Trasimeno and finally to Canne, threatening Rome more than ever, now isolated from much of the Mediterranean. The series of victories had in fact pushed more and more cities and kingdoms to seek an alliance with Carthage and this allowed Hannibal to have a safe harbor in Capua and new allies ready to give the Romans a hard time, such as Syracuse and Macedonia. by Philip V; starting from 215 BC, however, the fate of the clash changed and thanks to a decisive series of clashes the Romans managed to overturn their destiny. The decisive battle will be the capture of Capua which, combined with other successes such as the Battle of Metauro, will take away any possibility of supply to the general, who will be forced to take refuge in today’s Calabria. In the meantime, Scipio, later called “the African”, will begin an incredible series of victories in Spain that will preclude the Carthaginians from the reservoir of resources and men.

The great Hannibal Barca

At this point the Roman commander inaugurated the Expedition to Africa, which saw its decisive conclusion in the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, a clash in which the two great generals faced each other and Rome obtained the decisive victory, placing conditions of peace so heavy that never raise Carthage again. However in 149 BC the city, tired of the abuses of the Roman ally Massinissa, armed an army of 50,000 men in contravention of the treaty with Rome, which returned here and in 146 BC. he destroyed it permanently and forever … and then rebuilt it. The settlement at that specific point was in fact too convenient to leave it completely abandoned and consequently a new Roman colony was founded, called Colonia Julia Carthago. The new inhabited center, despite having significant ups and downs, never managed in any way to approach the glories of the past, becoming a place particularly linked to Rome but not richer than other cities in the area.

From Carthage to Tunis

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, this territory passed first to the Vandals and then to the Byzantines, and was then conquered by the Arabs, to whom it will be deeply linked over the centuries. To be precise, today’s Tunis does not arise exactly on the remains of ancient Carthage, but on those of Tunes, a small village just 17 km away from the much more renowned Punic capital, which entirely shared its fate. The arrival of the Umayyad general Hasan ibn al Nu’man al Ghasani, however, marked a turning point in his destiny, transforming it from a suburb to the capital of all of North Africa. In fact, the new arrivals immediately became aware of the strategic importance she held and they worked harder than ever to transform it into their naval center, also in view of a future landing in Sicily, which took place in 827 but which had already seen its start. in the early 1700s. The city and all of Tunisia will first pass under the dominion of the Aghlabids and then under that of the Zirids, a dynasty that, except in its last phase, always reigned as a vassal of the Fatimids, Shiite dynasty that was later defeated by Saladin; it will be precisely in this phase that Tunis will acquire greater importance, as it was one of the few centers to be spared from the retaliation of the Fatimids, against which the Zirids rebelled.


The definitive change of pace will come with the Almohads, who definitively made it the capital of Tunisia, and the Hafsids, who made it one of the richest cities in the world. This richness and abundance is also found in the words of Ibn Battuta, who passed here at the beginning of his journey. Tunis was then occupied by the Ottoman corsair Khayr ad-Din Barbarossa in 1534, but was then conquered the following year by Charles V himself who, taking advantage of the request for help of the last caliph Hafside, decided to drive out the corsair in exchange for the Spanish sovereignty over the region. However, the dominion of the Holy Roman Empire lasted very little and was continually alternated by Ottoman reconquest until the last and definitive one in 1574, the year in which the Sublime Porta definitively laid hands on the city. Under the new rulers, Tunis flourished more than ever, enriching itself both for trade and for the acts of piracy which became, as in Algiers and Oran, a distinctive feature of Turkish rule. From 1705 until the arrival of Habib Bourguiba Tunisia will be governed by the Husainide dynasty that will reign under both the Ottomans and the French. In 1881 Paris created the French Protectorate of Tunisia which lasted until 1956, the year in which the country definitively freed itself from the transalpine game. From 1982 to 2003 it housed the headquarters of the Palestine Liberation Organization and for this reason it was bombed in 1985 by the Israeli army during Operation Wooden Leg. It was from Tunis that the so-called”Arab Springs” began

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