by Richard Miles
560 pages, Allen Lane, £30
Attempts to conjure up contemporary relevance with regard to the ancient world can often appear trite and laboured at best, and fatuous and false at worst. However, the history of Carthage does force us to reassess some of the comfortable historical certainties that underpin many of the modern West’s assumptions about its own cultural and intellectual heritage. The ‘classical world’ still revered as the fount of much of Western civilization was never an exclusively Graeco-Roman achievement, but was the result of a much more complex set of interactions between many different cultures and peoples.
Thus Carthage stands not only as an eloquent testament to the cultural diversity that once exemplified the ancient Mediterranean, but also as a stark reminder of just how ruthlessly that past has been selected for us.
Note: two reviews of this book can be found at the Guardian’s site:here and here). I’m not sure when this book will be released in the U.S.
I highly recommend Miles’ book for his reconstruction of Carthage’s history while trying to minimize the Romans' filter. For one example of this filter, even our terminology for the civilization and culture, Punic, comes with its own baggage since Romans used the term in a pejorative and disparaging context.
Miles spends time on the background and history of Phoenicia, showing how the expansion to Carthage and other areas in the west were motivated by survival rather than greed or glory. The view toward the Phoenicians by the Greeks seems to have been a mixed bag. There is evidence of Phoenician and Greek cooperation in trade and settlements as the goals of the two states were complementary in some areas. Yet as some lines in the Iliad and the Odyssey show, there seem to be negative attitudes toward the Phoenicians, maybe as a result of the commercial rivalry or in differing views on colonial expansion. In later writings, Aristotle praised Carthage’s government as excellent while Plato presented Carthage as a well-ordered state.
Carthage’s aims were constantly misrepresented by those that felt threatened by their expansion. With the rise to power of the tyrant Agathocles in Syracuse in the 320s BC, “Once more the totally erroneous but seductive idea that the Sicilian wars [conflicts between Carthage and Greek-backed Syracuse] were a western extension of the age-old struggle between the civilization of Greece and the dark forces of the barbarian East would have renewed capital.” The resulting war with Agathocles, even though ultimately successful, would highlight at least two structural problems for Carthage which would return to haunt them during the Punic Wars with Rome. The first problem was their reliance on mercenary armies and their unreliability. The second problem developed as these armies would become mostly independent institutions, outside the control of Carthage’s government.
Carthage and Rome had been on the same side during one of many Sicilian skirmishes but Carthage misplayed its role and Rome established a secure base in Syracuse. From here, although neither side seemed to desire war, both sides continued expansionist policies that guaranteed conflict. Or as Miles puts it, “In fact the main antagonists of the First Punic War drifted into the conflict less for reasons of grand strategy, and more for the lack of political will to prevent it.”
Miles does a good job of following the Punic Wars, providing enough detail about the conflicts for the reader to follow without getting bogged down in minutiae. At the same time he shows how Carthage’s and Rome’s political actions fit into a central arc that guaranteed continuing war. Also of importance, he lays out how the different government structures meant very differing approaches to war. One example of the differences: Rome, with its generals/consuls having only a one year term, would be more aggressive in order to conclude a decisive action. Carthaginian generals, elected for an open term, could “dictate the pace and style of the conflict, and the Romans could do little about it.” As it turns out during the Second Punic War, a change to a temporary autocrat, which was allowed by the Roman constitution during an extreme crisis, would encourage Rome to pursue longer-term strategies against Hannibal and emerge victorious.
In the wake of the First Punic War, Carthage underwent a political transformation that no longer balanced aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic factions in the manner that Aristotle had admired. Foreign policy now became an extension of the factional struggles within (and outside) the government or even carried out by the military with the government along for the ride. Regarding Hannibal,
the Roman historian Cassius Dio would so astutely point out, “He was not sent forth in the beginning by the magistrates at home, nor later did he obtain any great assistance from them. For although they were to enjoy no slight glory and benefit from his efforts, they wished rather not to appear to be leaving him in the lurch than to cooperate effectively in any enterprise.”
Miles also reviews how ancient historians covered the Punic Wars and how their biases and mistaken assumptions are reflected in their work. Polybius, for example, visits the area surrounding the Alps and interviews the locals before writing off Hannibal’s mountain crossing as an ordinary occurrence. Polybius fails to take into account that the locals he interviewed were Roman settlers relocated after the Second Punic War instead of the Celts that fought Hannibal before he even made it to the Alps. There were writers such as Philinus, a Sicilian Greek, who were sympathetic to Carthage and their views would provide a little influence over later historians. Miles makes a convincing display regarding the propaganda used during the conflicts (most notably by Hannibal) and its effectiveness, both at the time and echoed later. But Rome, as the winner, would be able to shape not just the history of Carthage but also their pre-history through the works of Roman epic poets. The Punic Wars became cast as divinely ordained battles tied to Rome’s and Carthage’s founding. The Aeneas legend was well in place before Virgil but Miles shows how The Aeneid added dramatic flair in addition to fashioning a new Rome under Augustus.
Miles makes clear that “a constant presence throughout this book is the great hero Heracles (or Hercules).” While Heracles was associated with the Punic god Melqart and Hannibal chose Heracles-Melqart as the figurehead of his campaigns, the importance of this tie-in can feel overstated at times. I understand where Miles was going with this approach and agree with many aspects of it, but the Heracles presence or influence works more symbolically than practically (and to be fair, Miles notes this on some of his tie-ins). Also, I wanted to note that anyone wanting a history of Rome or a detailed military history should go elsewhere. Carthage Must Be Destroyed is truly about the rise and fall of that ancient civilization and while Rome and the battles are given adequate detail and background, the amount included is appropriate for focusing on Carthage’s history. While mentioning that Carthage “featured prominently in Roman literature and history throughout antiquity” and providing several of the more famous (or maybe more accessible) examples, I would have loved to seen even more instances (the footnote on this quote points to another book of his which I may have to seek).
I’ll close with the book’s concluding paragraphs (with a couple of publishing typos fixed) which look at the role Carthage played in Rome’s development, points that Miles supports throughout the book:
It is impossible to assess the debt that Rome owed to Carthage with the same confidence as for the debt to Greece. We can clearly trace the impact of Greek art, science, literature etc. on Roman culture: indeed, educated Romans were often happy to acknowledge that influence. Carthage, however, was afforded no such place in the Roman cultural canon. This had little to do with any lack of originality, but was at least partly the result of the phenomenal success that the Greeks had in claiming sole ownership of advances that had in fact been the result of centuries of exchange and cross-fertilization. The cultural marginalization of Carthage was a Greek achievement, the city’s destruction a Roman one.
Carthage did, however, play an important role in the development of the Roman Empire. Rome hugely benefited from the appropriation of the economic and political infrastructure that Carthage had previously put in place in the central and western Mediterranean. In Sardinia, Sicily, North Africa and Spain, the Romans inherited not wild, virgin lands, but a politically, economically and culturally joined-up world which was Carthage’s greatest achievement.
Less tangible, but equally important, was the key role that Carthage played in the creation of a Roman national character. The brutal destruction of the city gave the Romans the freedom to transform Carthage into the villainous antitype against which the ‘Roman’ virtues of faithfulness, piety and duty could be applauded. As long as the Romans needed proof of their greatness, the memory of Carthage would never die.
Update (28 Jul 2011): Thanks to rogueclassicism for the following links, both of which have ties to this topic.
Richard Miles’ was on ABC Radio National’s program By Design talking about Carthage - and where is it now? (approximately 12 minutes). A wide ranging discussion, including how the myth started that Rome sowed the ground of Carthage with salt after the third Punic War.
From Stuff Your Missed in History Class, there is a podcast for the Rise and Fall of Carthage (link goes to rogueclassicism). A conversational introduction covering some key points in Carthage’s history (approximately 24 minutes).