Thursday, November 18, 2010

Carthage just won't stay down

At the risk of mentioning the book too often, Katie Low has a review of Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by Richard Miles in The Oxonian Review. Her review and summary are pretty spot on. Here's part of the review:
Miles weaves into his account of Carthaginian development references to Rome’s parallel growth, and stresses the similarities between the two ambitious states: Rome was as much an adjunct to Carthage’s story as Carthage was to Rome’s. Moreover, while the ancient sources present a polarised picture of East and West, trading relations and cultural interplay were in fact widespread amongst the different Mediterranean peoples. One recurring sign of this is the figure of Heracles-Melqart, an embodiment of the syncretism of Graeco-Roman and Tyrian religion and a reminder of the common origins of those two cultures that was evoked by Hannibal when he claimed divine associations for his march into Italy.

Carthage and Rome, however, shared more than gods. They were well matched too in military strength and a desire to incorporate increasing swathes of Mediterranean territory within their respective orbits. The resultant friction led to the First Punic War of the mid-third century BC, which ended with the Romans as masters of Sicily and, through emulation of Carthaginian naval techniques, newly equipped with a formidable fleet. The myth of Rome’s inexorable rise gathers pace, but after this war the two states resumed uneasy diplomatic relations. Conflict loomed again only when Carthage started to carve out new conquests in southern Spain on the initiative of the powerful and belligerent Barcid faction, of which the most famous member was Hannibal. His siege of the Spanish city Saguntum, a Roman ally, led to war, and after crossing the Alps he inflicted a number of significant reverses on Rome, before eventually being drawn back to Africa by Roman threats to Carthage itself.

Carthage managed to maintain an economic and strategic independence after Hannibal’s decisive defeat at Zama in 202 BC and the Roman imposition of harsh terms. But after a busy few decades consolidating its empire elsewhere, Rome decided that even a weakened Carthage could not be tolerated, and besieged the city. Total annihilation followed in 146, and all Carthaginian territories were brought under Roman sway. However, the story does not end here. In the first century BC, soon after Augustus came to power, a capital for the province of Africa Proconsularis was founded on the site of old Carthage. This new start flanked the emperor’s flagship programme of Roman national rejuvenation. Carthage would come to play a significant part in Roman imperial politics and culture—and thus in the great narrative of Rome.

Miles acknowledges this, but his insights into this new chapter of Carthaginian history seem incomplete. In the second and third centuries AD Carthage achieved enormous prosperity, and within the empire was surpassed only by Rome in size and wealth. It also acquired a distinguished literary reputation and would later become a major centre of Christianity. Noted figures such as Apuleius (author of The Golden Ass, the only Latin novel to survive complete) and the early Christian apologist Tertullian lived in the city, and later St Augustine was educated there. The space to cover this in detail may have been lacking, but Carthage’s brighter future seems strangely unheralded at the end of Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Miles has up to this point successfully deconstructed the Romanocentric conception of Carthaginian history, with its focus on the Punic Wars and the apparent triumph of Roman imperialism. But his final chapter reminds us of the difficulty of escaping it entirely.

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