Peter Jones reviews
CARTHAGE MUST BE DESTROYED: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilisation
by Richard Miles
by Richard Miles
The outcome of the three wars fought between Rome and Tunisian Carthage (264-146 BC) was to stamp the domination of Rome on the western Mediterranean, and eventually the known world, for 700 years.
The first (264-241 BC) was fought over Sicily. The Roman victory left Carthage saddled with a massive indemnity, which the powerful Barca family—as in Barcelona—paid off by establishing their own, virtually private, fiefdom in silver-rich Spain (6.7 million tons of mainly silver slag remain from ancient operations at Rio Tinto).
In 218 BC Hannibal Barca crossed the Alps into Italy with his elephants, seasoned army and innovative brand of generalship, almost bringing Rome to its knees. But with inconsistent support from a Carthage divided by the Barca family’s proud autonomy, he was defeated in 202 BC by sheer Roman determination and Scipio’s intelligent adoption of his tactics.
delenda est Carthago, intoned the elder Cato at the end of every speech to the Senate from then on, and Rome finally agreed. In 146 BC, despite heroic defence, Carthage was fired, and Tunisia became a Roman province. But as it burned, Scipio (another one), reflecting on the fate of great powers, quoted Homer, foreseeing in Carthage the eventual fate of Rome.
Carthage in fact rose again. Harbours on the dangerous North African lee shore were few and far between, and in 29 BC the first emperor Augustus decided to rebuild it. It became a great Roman city. But just to make sure the ghost of old Carthage did not return, the Romans sliced off the whole of the top, tipping it down the hillside, to create a huge base for their ‘new city’. No half measures with Romans.
Richard Miles, fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, tells this story with tremendous élan, combining the best of modern scholarship with narrative pace and energy. It is a superb achievement, a model for all such endeavours. He is even better on the little-known background to this tale.
To wind back a thousand years, it is striking that, with so many Great Powers then astride the Near East, small coastal towns like Tyre and Sidon (Canaanites in the Bible, now Lebanese) seemed to flourish. Miles shows it was all down to the sea.
For example, it was to Hiram, king of Tyre, that Solomon went (c. 960 BC?) to bring him the cedars of Lebanon; it was through Hiram that Solomon got his hand on the exotic, foreign treasures whose exchange smoothed the path to friendly local relationships. The reason was that, for operations vital to land-based powers, only the coastal Canaanites had the latest, cutting-edge technology and skills to do the job: large, sea-worthy merchant ships, able to trawl their immediate world for goods of all sorts that only trade, not conquest, could provide.
But Great Powers did demand tribute for independence, and from 900 BC, under pressure from Assyrians, Tyrians began to expand their search for metals even further, as far as Spain and possibly even tin-rich Britain. The greatest legacy of this expansion was the colony they established in North Africa opposite Sicily: Qart-Hadasht, ‘New City’. Romans latinised it to Carthago.
This expansion had a profound effect on the ‘shape’ of the whole Mediterranean, commercial competition mingling peoples and cultures as never before. In particular, it brought Tyrians into contact with Greeks, who called them Phoinikes (our ‘Phoenicians’)—probably because Greek phoinix means ‘purple, crimson’, and the Phoenicians were famed for the exotic purple dye they produced from shellfish (the pile of discarded shells at Sidon is c. 130’ high!). And Greeks could be a little sniffy about people they characterised as shifty traders, a reputation that dogged the Phoenicians from then on. Meanwhile, Romans turned Greek Phoinikes into Latin Punici.
This fascinating story is of critical importance in understanding the ‘Punic’ wars. The point is that the Carthaginians were not upstart barbarians trying their luck against those nice Romans. The two peoples had been wheeling and dealing in the western Mediterranean for hundreds of years; indeed, as early as 509 BC, Carthage had acknowledged Rome’s growing importance by signing a bilateral trading agreement with them.
Further, it puts in context Rome’s extraordinary achievement in defeating this great ancient power. The first Punic war was fought largely at sea, which Phoenicians had ruled for a thousand years. Rome built their first proper navy of 120 warships in sixty days (!), practised rowing on mock-up benches on land, and beat them. In the second Punic war Hannibal boasted of destroying 400 towns and killing 300,000 Italians. He lost. The Romans simply never gave up. Italy was their land, given them by their gods. The greater the crisis, the more ruthless their response.
Miles has much of interest to say about the propaganda war, Hannibal in particular associating himself with Heracles, in Greek myth the tamer and civiliser of the known world. He certainly met his match in Roman Hercules, but for all the accusations levelled against Carthaginians for their ‘bad faith’, he was still grudgingly admired as the ‘whetstone of Rome’: the man who kept them sharp.