Tunisia? Why are we starting in Tunisia? And, why is Tunisia on just about every Western Med itinerary? Two reasons. The first is a very contemporary “follow the money” reason. All of the other possible ports are in Spain, France, Italy and Monaco. All of these countries belong to the European Union. Any cruise ship that only visits ports in the European Union has to pay significant taxes to the EU. If just one port on the itinerary is NOT an EU port, there are no such taxes due. Malta used to be on a lot of itineraries until it became a member of the EU. So, you will visit Tunisia to save the cruise line some tax euros.

Now that you know you are visiting Tunisia, let’s make it relevant to your travels. Pick up the latest version of the incredible National Geographic Visual Atlas of the World, and turn to pages 144-5. You will notice that the Mediterranean Sea is actually two seas, East and West, split by the Italian peninsula and Sicily which extend southward toward Tunisia, which juts northward from the African coast. It’s almost as if the Italian boot is kicking the Sicilian soccer ball into the outstretched, goalkeeping hands of Tunisia. In fact, the distance from Tunisia to Sicily is less than one hundred miles, less than the distance from Cuba to mainland Florida. This means Tunisia is in a very strategic spot on the Mediterranean map and very close to Italy.

Paris should have known this was the start of big trouble. Enrique Simonet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That brings up the second reason for visiting: Tunisia’s essential participation in the earliest history of the Roman Empire. Let’s start with the mythical connection. We go back to the Trojan War and Homer’s Iliad, (The Iliad / The Odyssey). To refresh your memory, unsuspecting Paris is nominated by Zeus to pick “the fairest one” from among Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Each goddess strips and offers bribes to the naïve Trojan mortal. Aphrodite offers the “world’s most beautiful woman,” and Paris goes for flesh over fame and fortune. Aphrodite neglects to mention that the woman, Helen, is already married to a Greek king. Paris abducts Helen with the help of Aphrodite. The outraged Greeks “launch a thousand ships” to retrieve her and the battle is joined.

For our purposes, the most important result of all these shenanigans is that Hera, deeply upset at not being chosen the fairest, hates all Trojans and vows to make life miserable for any of them she happens to run across. We all know the Greeks won the war and returned to Greece. Homer, riding the commercial success of the Iliad, knocked out a sequel, the Odyssey, starting a Hollywood tradition that continues to this day. In the Odyssey, the Greek hero, Odysseus, takes ten years to wander home, braving thrills, spills, and ravenously beautiful women.

Homer, being Greek and knowing his audience, did not concern himself with the fate of any Trojans. So, eight hundred years later, the esteemed Roman poet, Vergil, writing in the golden period of Augustus Caesar, penned the The Aeneid (Penguin Classics). As he tells it, Trojan hero Aeneas, sensing that the battle is going badly, grabs his dad, wife, and son and heads to the ships. The wife, of course, doesn’t make it. In heroic tales, they almost never do. Aeneas launches a dozen ships to go someplace far away from the Greeks. Turns out, the Trojans, as reported by Vergil, were descended from the Oenotrians who happen to have lived in a place now called Italy. In other words, the Romans were descendants of the Turks who were descendants of the Italians. Small world! Apollo said so, and he sends the Trojans in quest of this distant land, their ancestral home.

Aeneas should have known this was the start of big trouble. Pierre-Narcisse Guérin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With a Roman telling the tale, the gods all change names.  Zeus becomes Jove. Hera is Juno. Aphrodite is Venus. (If you need coaching, pick up 100 Characters from Classical Mythology: Discover the Fascinating Stories of the Greek and Roman Deities.) Venus and Juno continue the rivalry and Aeneas is bounced around the Mediterranean for ten years, braving thrills, spills, and ravenously beautiful women. His fleet is tossed about by Aeolis, god of the winds, egged on by Juno, and the survivors are ship-wreaked on the shores of …Tunisia. Venus leads them to Carthage, a city founded in the eighth century BC by exiled Phoenicians (from Syria/Lebanon), under the gracious reign of their ravenously beautiful Queen Dido (pronounced “Die Dough”).

Aeneas and Dido, need we say, fall in love, with an assist from Venus and Cupid. Jove sends Mercury to remind Aeneas of his top priority, which is founding Rome. Aeneas assembles his fleet and is about to sail when he is accosted by Dido. She calls him every name in the book.  He slinks away. She throws herself on his sword and then on a funeral pyre. Before she expires, she curses the Trojans and swears revenge. Such is the stuff of tragic love stories and great opera. British writer Henry Purcell wrote Purcell: Dido and Aeneas / James, Lewis, Baker, Herincx in 1688, staging it at a British girls’ school. Presumably, he was teaching his charges the ageless lesson: all men are slime balls. The haunting “Dido’s Lament” is the most famous aria from the opera.

In the segue from Myth to History, Aeneas finally lands in the valley of the Tiber River and spends 150 pages vanquishing foes. His descendants, twin brothers Romulus and Remus stake out a new city. Romulus kills Remus and calls the new town Rome. The Romans annex, absorb or conquer the rest of central Italy. They begin to expand to Sicily when they run into Carthaginians from…Tunisia. (See Rome: A Cultural, Visual, and Personal History (Vintage), by Robert Hughes.)

Here comes Trouble! Hannibal’s victory at Cannae was humiliating for the Romans. Liftarn, via Wikimedia Commons

While the Romans were expanding in Italy, Dido’s descendants became the major maritime power in the Mediterranean. As 264 BC rolled around, the Romans knew they would have to contend with the Carthage navy if they were to continue to expand their influence in Greece, Turkey and Egypt. For 118 years, the two rivals staged the three Punic wars. In the first war, Rome took out the Carthaginian navy. In the second war, Hannibal crossed the Alps, routed the Romans at Cannae, and occupied Italy for 15 years before retreating to Carthage. This particular defeat was one of the most devastating in the history of the Roman Empire and remains a military and historic milestone. (The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.) Some Carthaginians claimed this was the result of Dido’s curse. The Romans recovered nicely and took the third contest, brutally leveling Carthage. By this time, 146 BC, they had a navy and their imperial ambitions were in full force.

Skip ahead to the Arab Spring of 2011. Tunisia was again in the headlines as the first of the Arabic countries to throw off their authoritarian regime and to begin a new political life as a democracy. We want to do everything we can to support them.

So, enjoy Tunisia. Take the tour to Carthage. Think of Trojans and Greeks, Romans and Carthaginians, Dido and Aeneas, love and war, and it will all make sense why you came here.