15 November, 2010Issue 14.3Classics

Email This Article Print This Article

In Rome’s Shadow

Katie Low

foerRichard Miles
Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
Allen Lane, 2010
521 Pages
£30.00
ISBN 978-0713997934


Brian Friel’s 1981 play Translations imaginatively reconstructs the efforts of a detachment of the British Army to map a village in rural Donegal and substitute standardised English equivalents for its Gaelic place names. All attempts to allay the locals’ suspicions of the outsiders prove futile, and by the play’s end the soldiers are threatening to raze the countryside unless a comrade’s disappearance is resolved, while a sickly sweet smell in the air heralds the advent of the potato blight. At this juncture the schoolmaster Hugh, purveyor of Latin and Greek to the district, is moved to quote Virgil’s Aeneid: “Urbs antiqua fuit… there was once an ancient city, beloved by Juno, but destined to be overthrown by a people proud of their talent for war, who ruled broad realms and would eventually bring about the downfall of that city, Carthage.”

As Richard Miles points out in Carthage Must Be Destroyed, this is one of many instances of the deployment of Carthage and its destruction by the forces of Rome as a metaphor for modern imperialism. Critics such as Friel have sought to highlight the aggression and injustice of colonising powers by comparing them with Rome, and those whom they oppressed with Carthage. In Translations, the English threaten to root out Irish language and culture just as Rome eradicated Carthaginian identity. The lines cited by Hugh are in Latin, the language of Carthage’s conqueror—and in the play Irish Gaelic is represented by English.

The idea of Carthage has not only seemed relevant because of the parallels between the Carthaginians’ fate and the lot of more recent victims of colonialism. Many of the propagators of modern imperialist policies were, with their classical educations, all too eager to see themselves as reborn Roman generals and provincial governors ruling over barbarians. Nineteenth-century British and French apologists for imperialism sought to justify it by equating potential subjects with the Carthaginians. The perceived cruelty, decadence, and unreliability of that people meant that they could serve as an “ancient paradigm for the barbarity and inferiority of the indigenous populations” that were being brought under European rule.

As we are frequently reminded in Carthage Must Be Destroyed, however, this image of the city and its inhabitants that latter-day imperialists found so appealing was the version promulgated by its Roman conquerors. Although substantial archaeological investigations have been undertaken in North Africa, no extant written sources tell Carthage’s story from a local point of view. Its libraries were pillaged and all record of their contents lost when it was destroyed by Rome in 146 BC. Modern scholars must rely on Greek and Roman historians whose value as evidence varies from significant to negligible, and whose works often survive only partially or in citations.

More to the point, as Miles stresses, these accounts are components of a grand Roman narrative in which Carthage was only a supporting character. It related Rome’s rise from small, if auspicious, beginnings to hegemony over the Mediterranean and beyond. The defeat of Carthage, a power portrayed as a dissolute and faithless antitype to traditional Roman morality but which also posed a genuine strategic threat, was for many ancient writers a mere stage in this ascent. Not that everyone understood Carthage’s conquest as leading only to greater success: the historian Polybius memorably depicted Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who oversaw the city’s final destruction, weeping as he saw Rome’s eventual fate foretold in the burning ruins. Meanwhile, as civil wars engulfed Rome in the first century BC, writers attributed this to the absence of the metus hostilis (fear of the enemy) provided by Carthage: with no powerful foreign opponents against which to guard, Roman society was believed to have succumbed to an innate propensity for self-destruction. After 20 years of such conflict, Gaius Octavian was the last warlord left standing. Reinventing himself as the emperor Augustus, he proclaimed that he had restored the old republic along with its high moral standards, although some later writers of a cynical bent viewed him as the founder of a military despotism.

So even 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. However, the story does not end here. In the first century BC, soon after Augustus came to power, a capital for the province of Africa Proconsularis was founded on the site of old Carthage. This new start flanked the emperor’s flagship programme of Roman national rejuvenation. Carthage would come to play a significant part in Roman imperial politics and culture—and thus in the great narrative of Rome.

Miles acknowledges this, but his insights into this new chapter of Carthaginian history seem incomplete. In the second and third centuries AD Carthage achieved enormous prosperity, and within the empire was surpassed only by Rome in size and wealth. It also acquired a distinguished literary reputation and would later become a major centre of Christianity. Noted figures such as Apuleius (author of The Golden Ass, the only Latin novel to survive complete) and the early Christian apologist Tertullian lived in the city, and later St Augustine was educated there. The space to cover this in detail may have been lacking, but Carthage’s brighter future seems strangely unheralded at the end of Carthage Must Be Destroyed. Miles has up to this point successfully deconstructed the Romanocentric conception of Carthaginian history, with its focus on the Punic Wars and the apparent triumph of Roman imperialism. But his final chapter reminds us of the difficulty of escaping it entirely.

Katie Low is reading for a DPhil in Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford. She is currently a visiting student at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris.