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Book Reviews


Carthage Must Be Destroyed: And an End to Roman Exceptionalism

August 16th 2011

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Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Richard Miles. Viking. 2011. 544 pages.

England and France. Greece and Persia. Hapsburgs and Ottomans. Imperial rivalry is as old as history itself, but some rivalries can truly be said to have changed the world. The great contest between the Mediterranean city-states of Rome and Carthage falls into that category. At the end of three Punic Wars stretching over a century (264-146 BC), Carthage was literally wiped off the face of the earth. But in this fascinating new history, University of Sydney historian Richard Miles reconstructs a civilization whose memory continues to stir imaginations -- particularly among those who suspect that their own is not immortal.

History, as we all know, is written by the victors (or the ancient Greeks). As Miles explains, most of what we know about Carthage is second-hand, and most of that is anti-Carthaginian. But he is deft in deconstructing such sources. As he also makes clear, he doesn't always have to: the truth is that the Romans needed the Carthaginians, at no time more than after they had been vanquished. There could be no myth of Roman power without a legendary adversary on which to justify it. If you're careful, patient, and epistemologically humble, the truth has a way of surfacing, like pottery fragments from an archeological site.

For the lay reader, one of the more surprising aspects of Carthaginian civilization is its syncretic character, deeply rooted in the Levant. The North African city was founded by Phoenician traders who had deeply imbibed Greek as well as Persian culture. A maritime people whose trade stretched from modern day Lebanon to Spain, its peninsular position right smack in the middle was just about ideal for dominating the Mediterranean oval. For centuries, the island of Sicily was a key staging base for such operations.

Perhaps inevitably, such a position engendered conflict with the Greeks. The Carthaginians were fortunate that Macedonian Alexander the Great looked east rather than west when he began his colossal string of conquests. But they didn't need him to Hellenize them; that process had begun long before. Miles pays close attention the the mythology surrounding the Greek god Heracles, who was fully integrated into a religious order alongside Persian-based deities like Melqart and Baal.

For a long time, Carthage and an an ascendant Rome -- which also enjoyed a fortunate slot in that Mediterranean oval -- cooperated in trade as well as in navigating the geopolitics of Magna Greacia (particularly the Corinthian colony of Syracuse). But by the third century BC their antagonism led the First Punic War (264-241). This conflict broke Carthaginian naval dominance of the central and western Mediterranean and destabilized Carthage from within, but was not completely ruinous. In its aftermath, the so-called Barcid faction launched a highly successful Iberian adventure that effectively became a new power base -- and a new threat to Roman hegemony.

It was the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) in which the legend of the Roman-Carthaginian rivalry really took root. And it was this war that gave the world one of the most remarkable leaders it has ever seen: the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who achieved the stupefying feat of leading a huge army, complete with elephants, over the Alps and embarking on a 15-year occupation of of greater Italy. As one might expect, Miles explains how Hannibal achieved military mastery in the most catastrophic defeat in the history of the Roman republic, the Battle of Cannae (216 BC). But he also does an exceptionally good job of illuminating Hannibal's political gifts. A Hellenically-educated Greek speaker, Hannibal brilliantly exploited the religious mythology of the ancient world in ways that challenged the basis of Roman power ideologically no less than militarily. Miles pays careful attention to Hannibal's rituals, pronouncements, and evidence like coinage to document his strategy, vividly bringing him, his countrymen, and the notably multicultural society that spawned both into focus.

Ultimately, however, Hannibal was unable to break the Latin hold on Italy, or to crash the gates of Rome. Partly this is a matter of predictable logistical strains. Partly, too, it was a matter of internal Carthaginian politics, in which Hannibal's provincial power base in Iberia proved to be a handicap. But his ultimate defeat was also a matter of the worthy adversary who learned from, and adapted, Hannibal's own tactics. In carrying the war back to Carthage, this general pried Hannibal out of Italy and earned the title that made him famous: Scipio Africanus.

Unlike the first two, the Third Punic War (149-146 BC) was a tawdry afterthought that generated significant internal dissent within Rome. Unwilling to tolerate the truly remarkable resilience of its former rival, expansionist senators consistently sided with Numidian aggression on the African coast and ultimately demanded capitulation so draconian that the Carthaginians effectively felt they had no alternative but to fight to the death. Miles argues that it was not coincidental that the similarly storied city of Corinth was also destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC; a voracious hegemon would no longer contemplate the existence of even a symbolic rival.

Ironically, this victory would haunt the Romans long afterward. They had pledged to destroy Carthage (in the famous words from which this book takes its title) and swore it would never be resurrected. But Julius Caesar considered founding a new Roman city there before his assassination, and his adopted successor, Augustus, followed through on the plan (cleverly displacing his ambitions beyond the politically fraught terrain of Italy).  By that point, the history of Rome was being written by Romans in Latin, not Greek. And by the end of the second century, a bona fide African, Septimus Severus, would found a dynasty within what had become an empire. The Mediterranean world was Roman. Everyone else just lived in it.

Would Western civilization turned out differently had Carthage prevailed rather than Rome? Yes, but not that different. In part, that's because, as Miles shows us, Carthage was far from the Other that historians like Polybius and Livy would have us believe. It's also because as an empire that also began as the colonial pod of a seafaring people, the United States is less exceptional than we might imagine. Hail, Hannibal.

Jim Cullen is a book reviewer for History News Network, from where this article is taken. He teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School and is the author of The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea that Shaped a Nation (Oxford, 2003). 

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