Mark Zuckerberg’s birthday shirt triggers outrage in Tunisia

The story of the phrase “Carthago delenda est” dates back to a rhetorical Latin statement made by the politician Cato the Elder. [Getty]

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s newfound swag on his 40th birthday made headlines globally, but his T-shirt caused quite a stir in Tunisia. It bore the Latin phrase “‘Carthago delenda est,” which translates into English as “Carthage must be destroyed.” Many Tunisians urged an official response from President Kais Saied himself.

On Tuesday, 14 May, the tech tycoon posted a photo dump of his 40th birthday party, which was themed around the places where he lived in the early days before Facebook took off.

He sported a gold chain and an oversized black T-shirt bearing the phrase for this special occasion. 

Under his post, users questioned why Zuckerberg chose to wear this phrase. Here’s a theory of why:

The Story Behind “Carthago delenda est”

The phrase “Carthago delenda est” dates back to a rhetorical Latin statement made by the politician Cato the Elder during a debate in the Roman Senate before the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) between Rome and Carthage.

“Carthago delenda est” translates literally to “Carthage must be destroyed.”

Carthage, a city in present-day Tunisia, was a rival civilisation to Rome back in the day. Cato was famous for ending all his speeches with those words. It was his obsession to destroy Carthage. Not just beat it like it had in two previous wars: Annihilate it. (“Delenda” shares an origin with the English word “delete.”)

The phrase is memorable partly because it uses a unique piece of grammar called the gerundive, which doesn’t exist in English.

The phrase conveys that something ought to happen to the thing in question. In this case, Carthage has got to go down. It’s not an opinion or an idea; going down is in Carthage’s very nature.

Along with being a throwback to Roman history, it’s very on-theme with Zuckerberg’s throwback party.

Zuckerberg, who studied Latin in university and gave his kids Latinate names, is rumoured to have made “Carthago delenda est” a rallying cry within Facebook when it had its own version of Cato’s Carthage: Google.

In 2011, Google launched its Google+ social network, and Zuckerberg worried it might threaten Facebook’s dominance. His response was a “lockdown” culture in which Facebook staff faced challenges to defeat its rising foe. One of the rooms at Zuckerberg’s party referred to the lockdown phase.

Tunisians angry at Mark Zuckerberg

While Zuckerberg’s shirt was most likely a jab at Google, Tunisians took it personally.

“The inventor of Facebook, which is the most dangerous invention in human history, is Zionist in belief and knows well that everyone is following him. Therefore, in my opinion, it is necessary to respond to him clearly, firmly, and quickly,” wrote Tunisian journalist Hisham Al-Hajji.

Al-Hajji argued that this would be the perfect opportunity for the Tunisian state to launch a communication campaign on the history of Carthage and its resilience.

Some other users went further to assume that the Meta founder’s attire was an allusion to destroying Gaza.

“(…) Carthage stood up to the Roman aggression for three years despite the siege and depletion of supplies. They then turned to Scipio, one of the most bloodthirsty leaders, who besieged it from different directions and managed to destroy it completely…),” wrote journalist Leila Belhaj. 

Gaza is Carthage, and Zuckerberg is Cato the Elder,” she added.

Meanwhile, hundreds of others flooded the Facebook founder’s comments with calls for issuing an immediate apology and deleting the post, with some tagging the Tunisian presidency’s social media account.

Neither Zuckerberg nor Kais Saied have addressed the controversy so far.

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