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Thursday, October 30, 2014

“Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization”, by Richard Miles


544 pages, Viking, ISBN-13: 978-0670022663

The Mediterranean is, perhaps, one of the most diverse regions of the world, shared as it is by Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Israelis, Turks, and by Eastern and Western Europeans. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, Richard Miles, the British historian and archaeologist, studies an era of the ancient Mediterranean when other, no-less diverse peoples also shared the region: Egyptians, Gauls Greeks, Libyans, Phoenicians, Romans, and Spaniards all lived around the sea, both competing and cooperating with one another other. Miles’ study arguably is the definitive history of another of those peoples: the Carthaginians.

The narrative commences with the foundation of the city from Tyre by the legendary Queen Elissa (or Dido). Over time, the Carthaginians gained control of the area that today is Tunisia and from that base became a successful trading and maritime power. A key asset that the Carthaginians exploited early on was the silver mined in Spain, providing an early foundation for the city’s vast wealth (the Rio Tinto area southwestern Spain still has huge slag heaps produced by the mining operations of the time). One of the original reasons for the expansion into the Western Mediterranean by Tyre was the need to find resources – such as silver – to feed the “Assyrian Beast”, Tyre’s hated overlord at the time. However, it was eventually Carthage that inherited these resources and its “renown would soon come to far outshine the faded luster of its Phoenician parent”.

The events of the Punic wars are well known but, briefly, during the First Punic War Rome successfully transformed itself from a land power into a sea power and defeated Carthage. Carthage lost Sicily but expanded in Spain to try to make up for its losses, an expansion that once again brought the two cities into conflict. Despite Hannibal’s epic march across the Alps and early victories over Rome, the Romans eventually wore the Carthaginians down, took the war to Africa, and won. Carthage was left with just its hinterland and a huge war indemnity. Even then, she was thought to be too much of a threat to Rome, who again went to war and destroyed the city in 146 BCE after three years of heroic defense by its citizens. The narrative, however, does not stop at 146 BCE. Miles looks at Roman “war guilt” and how that worked itself through the following centuries (for example in the Aeneid of Virgil). Miles’ narrative of these events is compelling and easy to read but with a lot more.

Miles looks at the problems with writing a history of Carthage. There are no Punic sources, the great library of Carthage having vanished after the destruction of the city. Instead, the historian needs to rely on hostile Roman and Greek sources, as well as some pro-Carthaginian Greek sources. Miles does a convincing job of cutting through the hostile propaganda and constructing a more even handed and broadly sympathetic picture of the Carthaginians and their story. He explores the Roman stereotype of “Punic Faith”, the supposed treachery and deviousness commonly attributed to Carthaginians, as well as their reputation as cunning and deceitful traders. Miles however shows a pattern of behavior that is not too different to that of the Romans and Greeks. The accusations of child sacrifice that the Romans levelled at their Punic foes are also explored. The conclusion is that these accusations were not without foundation but are also highly exaggerated. In his study of stereotypes, Miles looks at Greek and Roman literature as sources. Miles also uses the limited sources available and archaeological evidence to examine the intellectual, cultural and religious life of Carthage, a difficult task in view of the scarcity of sources. The Carthaginians appeared to have worshipped a number of West Semitic deities such as Baal, Tanit and Melqart. The culture of the city appears to have been quite syncretic in its final centuries, absorbing much from the Hellenistic world.

Despite Miles’ compelling effort to reconstruct from the debris and try to tell us how Carthaginians saw themselves and their world, one is left with the feeling that one would like to know more. But it was Rome, not Carthage, which established its dominion over the Mediterranean world; the common elite culture of the Mediterranean became Greco-Roman, not Punic culture. For Miles, nevertheless, the history of Carthage is also a history of Rome. The Carthaginians were the first to try to build an empire spanning both shores on the Mediterranean. Though it was the Romans who succeeded in the end, to do so they had to take over Carthage’s empire and build upon it. The early overseas provinces of Rome (with the exception of Macedon) were all inherited from Carthage and with it, presumably, some of its structures of governance and law. The quinquereme of the Roman navy were based on the design of a captured Carthaginian ship. The Romans valued the technical expertise of the Carthaginians and had translated all 28 volumes of Mago’s agricultural treatise said to be the “agronomic bible of the ancient world”. The foundations of the Roman Empire were, to a great extent, laid by Carthage, but whether the Romans themselves recognized their Punic inheritance is less clear.

The Romans did not set out to destroy Punic culture, but to destroy a political rival. Punic culture continued to exist in North Africa for centuries along with the other cultures that fell under Roman rule. The continual process of the mixing of ideas, cultures and peoples in the Mediterranean which under Carthage began, continued under the Roman imperium. The westward road that the early Tyrians took to found Carthage was followed during Roman times by other west bound peoples from the Levant. These included the early Christians such as Paul. These later travelers, unlike their Tyrian and Carthaginian predecessors, left a more permanent cultural and religious imprint on the Mediterranean world and Europe – Christianity.

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