California Literary Review

Book Review: Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

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August 19th, 2011 at 11:01 am

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Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles
Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
by Richard Miles
Viking Adult, 544 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★


Woe to the Vanquished

When you visit museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the shared legacy of ancient Greece and Rome is readily apparent. These museums are noted for their collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. Study these ancient treasures and you will witness the remarkable story of how artistic expression united the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean world — the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans — across space and time.

But something is missing from this story — and from these museum collections.

An entire civilization, which played a crucial role in the growth of trade, the founding of cities and the spread of literacy throughout the lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea, has been effaced from the records of world culture. In an important new book, historian Richard Miles has uncovered the story of ancient Carthage, the Semitic civilization which flourished in its North African home city and in colonies all over the western Mediterranean until it was conquered by the Romans in 146 B.C.

Carthage, however, was not merely conquered by Rome. As the title of Miles’ book asserts, Carthage was destroyed. In three brutal wars, Carthage’s military power was annihilated by the legions of the Roman Republic. The city was ransacked and burned, down to its foundations. The people of Carthage were massacred or enslaved. The literature of the city was put to the torch. Not a stone was left upon a stone.

Why this special degree of vengeance by the Romans? Even for a people not known for compassion, the Romans waged a ruthless campaign of “fire and sword” against the Carthaginians far in excess of their customary brutality. The reason was simple. Carthage, a resourceful and resilient commercial power, was a threat to Rome like no other kingdom or city state in the Mediterranean.

Carthage, located in present-day Tunisia on the North African coast, began its existence as a colony of the Phoenician merchant city of Tyre. The Phoenician traders from Tyre and Sidon, like their modern day descendants in Lebanon, used their skill as merchants and diplomats to keep nearby wolves at bay. To insure their survival, the Phoenicians provided the mighty empire of Assyria with annual tribute payments of gold and silver, derived from trade throughout the Mediterranean.

Carthage, founded according to legend in 831 BC, was one of numerous Phoenician colonies involved in a complex web of trade that stretched as far as the Pillars of Hercules, now known as the straits of Gibraltar. There is some evidence that the Phoenicians, navigators second to none in the ancient world, passed through the Pillars of Hercules and began a series of expeditions down the coast of Morocco that may actually have reached beyond Dakar and round to West Africa. If so, the Phoenicians stayed only long enough to realize that the resources there were a poor second to the “silver mountain” of the Iberian peninsula. Spain was where the money was.

It was not long before Carthage began to outshine its mother city of Tyre as the commercial nexus of the Mediterranean. Trade links were opened to the Celtic tribes occupying present-day France as well as Spain. Traders from Carthage also ventured to the Italian mainland where an amicable partnership was created with a small state which had overthrown its Etruscan overlords in 509 B.C., the Roman Republic. But where the Carthaginians went, the Greek followed.

For much of the early chapters of Miles’ book, it is the Greeks rather than the Romans who figure prominently as the adversaries of Carthage. The Greeks, from city-states established in Sicily and southern Italy did more than contend with Carthage for mastery of the Mediterranean. Having borrowed the Phoenician alphabet to replace their earlier, primitive script, Greek historians began to vilify Carthage in a series of now lost, but influential, histories. The Greek portrayal of greedy, double-dealing Carthage would survive in Roman accounts, like that written by Livy shortly before the birth of Christ. It is this invidious portrayal of “faithless” Carthage which Miles has set himself the task to supplant with a more accurate and unbiased account.

Ancient Carthage did have one besetting sin to its discredit. The Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors, sacrificed young children to appease their gods, Baal Hammon and Tanit. This repellant practice was questioned by some modern historians until the 1920′s when Carthage’s tophet or sacred precinct was discovered with numerous funeral urns containing the burned bones of young children. Even now, the evidence is debated, with some scholars believing that the remains were those of stillborn children.

Miles is a skilled archeologist, as well as an accomplished historian. After examining the physical remains of Carthage, he believes that the Carthaginians did sacrifice their children in times of great crisis. Urns marked with the letters BNT or BT testify that the bodily remains were those of a “child of their own flesh.” In other words, these are inscriptions written by parents who had sacrificed their own children for the public good.

It is possible to refute the terrible accounts by Greek historians detailing the hurling of living children into pits of fire while music was played to drown their screams. But the accumulating evidence of child sacrifice in Carthage needs to be both accepted and better understood. The BNT inscriptions that Miles analyzes were points of pride like modern memorials recalling the death in war of a family member — and for the same reason.

Carthage was menaced first by the Greeks in Sicily and then by the Romans. Both Greek and Romans, of course, had no compulsion about killing Carthaginians in order to seize their wealth and trading empire. When war broke out between Rome and Carthage over control of Sicily in 264 B.C., the Romans showed a particular aptitude for warfare, including naval campaigns, which initially stunned the Carthaginians. Miles astutely notes that the Roman’s aggressive instincts were sharpened in the political arena of the Senate and Forum, giving them a decisive edge over the commerce-minded Carthaginians, who favored skirmishing and sieges:

This type of warfare did not suit the Romans. Their political system meant that their consul/generals held their commands for only one year, so that there was considerable reason to force the pace of conflicts by decisive action.

Although the Roman preference for offensive campaigns led to frequent defeats, Rome’s ability to replace its heavy battlefield casualties kept the tempo of warfare to a level that Carthage could not sustain. Carthage, sacrificing its Sicilian colonies, sued for peace in 241 B.C. With Spain still in its sphere of influence, Carthage began to rebuild its battered trade. But it was not long before the insatiable Roman hunger for conquest brought Carthage and Rome to the brink of a second war.

When Rome declared war in 218 B.C., the powerful Barca family that dominated Carthage’s colonies in Spain was ready. Leadership devolved upon Hannibal Barca, the son of the Hamilcar who had established the Carthaginian protectorate in the south of Spain. Hannibal had a superbly trained army of North African cavalry, Spanish and Celtic mercenaries and a core of battle-tested Carthaginian officers ready for offensive action. This time, Carthage would force the momentum of warfare. Hannibal planned to attack not the Roman forces in Spain, but Rome’s Italian homeland.

In a brilliant stroke, Hannibal and his Greek staff officer, Silenus, devised an ideological weapon to complement his shock troops. Seizing upon one of the ancient world’s most popular myths, Hannibal posed as a second Hercules, who would perform the labor of liberating the peoples of Italy and Sicily, especially the Greeks, who had grown restive under Rome’s autocratic power.

It might seem strange that a warrior from Carthage would recast himself as a Greek hero. In fact, the Carthaginians had a long tradition of identifying their gods with those of neighboring peoples. It was part of their broad-minded demeanor and it was good for business. Hercules was associated with the Phoenician hero-god, Melqart. Garbing himself in the mantle of Hercules-Melqart, Hannibal marched on Rome.

Miles comments on Hannibal’s cunning use of a psychological weapon far more menacing to the Romans than his famous squadron of war elephants:

Hannibal was intent on setting out a clear alternative not only to Roman political hegemony, but also to the Roman mythology by which that hegemony was justified…Hannibal appears to have been determined to wrest from Rome not only the military but also the propagandistic initiative. The Romans found themselves recast…in a new and unfamiliar role: as the agents of a tyranny from which the great hero was destined to liberate Italy.

Hannibal’s audacious strategy nearly succeeded when he launched his fabled campaigns over the Alps into northern Italy in the late summer of 218 B.C. A brilliant combination of cavalry and light infantry tactics, along with diplomatic enticements to detach Rome’s Italian allies, sent the numerous but poorly commanded Roman forces reeling in defeat. By the time he reached the Greek-speaking city states of southern Italy in 216, Hannibal had out-maneuvered the Romans militarily and politically.

It was at this point that Hannibal made two crucial blunders.

Hannibal was brilliant military leader but he failed to understand the psychology of his opponents. Just as Napoleon believed that the Russians would have to sue for peace in 1812, after he captured Moscow, so Hannibal waited for the Romans to negotiate in the wake of their crushing defeat at Cannae in 216 B.C. The Romans, implacable in adversity as in victory, continued their war effort. Hannibal, now badly in need of reinforcements, was stranded in southern Italy. His Plan A had failed just short of ultimate success and he did not have a Plan B.

This led Hannibal almost immediately to make his second error. While many of the Greek city states in southern Italy were hoping for a Roman defeat, they continued to wait and see. Desperately seeking access to a sea route to Carthage, Hannibal won the support of Capua, a Greek city near present-day Naples. But the allegiance of Capua came at a prohibitive price. They demanded that Hannibal recognize Capua as the leader of all the Greek city-states of south Italy. Since the one thing that Greeks could absolutely not tolerate was being lorded over by another Greek city state, the remaining Greeks in that vital region maintained their loyalty to Rome.

Hannibal’s path of glory ended, in Miles’ evocative phrase, as “the road to nowhere.”

The Romans, taking a page from Hannibal’s script, sent an expeditionary force to North Africa. The leader of the Roman forces was a gifted strategist, Scipio, who was soon to win renown as Africanus, the conqueror of North Africa. Scipio, a survivor of Rome’s early battlefield disasters, had made a close study of Hannibal’s methods. Brokering a deal with the North African kingdom of Numidia, the source of Hannibal’s best cavalry, Scipio ravaged Carthage’s home provinces. Not even Hannibal, summoned in a panic to return home, could retrieve the situation. The second of the “Punic” Wars, as the Romans termed these conflicts from their word for Phoenician, ended in Rome’s triumph in 202 B.C.

But not even the harshest of terms and massive financial demands for indemnities could stop Carthage’s savvy merchant class from regaining much of their commercial pre-eminence. The Romans, both envious and alarmed, launched an unprovoked campaign of aggression which ended in the apocalyptic destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. The final street-to-street battles and the fiery destruction of the ruined city invite comparison with the last days of World War II, the Gotterdammerung of the Battle of Berlin and the massive air raids on Japan, culminating with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome were the equivalent of a modern “world war.” Victory would grant control of the entire Mediterranean to the winner. The Carthaginians’ best weapon was their skill in commerce and seafaring. The Romans, who taught their recruits to aim the points of their swords at the jugular vein of opponents, possessed a killer instinct unmatched in ancient times and perhaps modern times, as well. The issue may have been in doubt for a brief time after the calamitous defeat of the Roman legions by Hannibal at Cannae. But the eventual triumph of Rome represented an almost inevitable vindication of their ruthless expansion policy versus the Carthaginian preference for co-existence and trade.

Victory, however, brought an unexpected train of disaster in its wake for the Roman Republic. With nothing to fear from shattered Carthage, political factions in the Senate began to compete for control of the vast haul of treasure, land and slaves. Decades of this civil strife would lead to the Ides of March and the end of Rome’s vaunted political system.

“With the obliteration of its greatest rival, Rome had arrived as a world power,” Miles notes astutely in the concluding pages of his superlative account, “while at the same time setting in motion the cycle that would eventually lead to its own destruction.”

  • Anne

    I learned a great deal, Thank you.

    The Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors, sacrificed young children ….

    Whenever I read of human sacrifice in the past ,I feel the need to point out this practice is still current , but by diffrent methods

    The latest “Kids Count” report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that child poverty grew in 38 of 50 US states over the past decade and is now at 20%.

    Victory, however, brought an unexpected train of disaster in its wake for the Roman Republic. With nothing to fear from shattered Carthage, political factions in the Senate began to compete for control of the vast haul of treasure, land and slaves. Decades of this civil strife would lead to the Ides of March and the end of Rome’s vaunted political system.

    Oh dear that reminds me of what’s been happening since the the Berlin Wall came down…without its Russian rival to contend with , the West has been busy in a similar manner.

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