November 17, 2010


In Rome’s Shadow: a review of Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (Katie Low, Oxonian Review)

[E]ven in Roman history’s less triumphalist moods, Carthage is still an adjunct to the other power’s historical trajectory. But while the lack of indigenous sources makes a full post-colonialist retelling of Carthaginian history impossible, Miles’s aim is to avoid “another extended essay on victimhood and vilification”. His survey of Carthage’s historical growth begins very far from Rome, in the Near East in the ninth century BC, with the Assyrian expansion that induced the city of Tyre in Phoenicia to seek new spheres of influence in the West. And in contrast to most versions, Miles does not end his account with the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. He goes on to discuss its later resurgence, initially under Augustus, and later as an important player in Roman politics and trade. However, this concluding material is treated in somewhat summary fashion. We are left with the sense that Carthage’s subsequent fortunes were after all a mere appendix to an historical model that neatly encompasses Carthaginian development and destruction. For much of the book Miles enables the reader to forget Rome, or at least look upon its behaviour from a Carthaginian point of view, but its very structure threatens to undermine this guiding aim.

The tale of Carthage begins in the eighth century BC with its foundation as a Phoenician trading colony. The city soon forged commercial links that spanned the Mediterranean, and began to grow as a sea power, making expeditions into the Atlantic and down the African coast. It also started to establish its own colonies. This frequently brought it into conflict with Greek settlers in southern Italy and, especially, Sicily, where Carthage was very often fighting a war of some kind and which would later become the catalyst for the First Punic War with Rome.

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.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 17, 2010 6:17 AM
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