August 11, 2011


Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. By Richard Miles. Viking. $35.

     This is how exhaustively University of Sydney ancient-history teacher Richard Miles researched Carthage Must Be Destroyed: nearly 30% of the book consists of footnotes, bibliography and index (about 150 pages out of almost 530). Beginning with the utter destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, in 146 B.C., Miles then reaches back to the glory days of the Carthaginian empire (which at one time controlled most of the western Mediterranean) and traces the civilization to its heights, then back down to its depths. In the final battle, the city was utterly destroyed (although the land was not then salted, as is frequently claimed) and the remaining 50,000 inhabitants were sold into slavery and dispersed by the Romans, whose relationship with Carthage stretched back to before 500 B.C. and was one of near-constant commercial, economic and military battles.

     To the victors belongs the right to write the history books, and Rome’s triumph over Carthage was so complete that digging out truth (rather than Roman opinion) about the Carthaginians is a monumental task – hence the extent of Miles’ notes and bibliography. The Romans were nothing if not efficient: they destroyed Carthage itself, took over all its economic power, assumed its political hegemony, and systematically dismantled its reputation – although “the Romans were not the first to develop the powerful negative stereotypes of Carthaginians as mendacious, greedy, untrustworthy, cruel, arrogant and irreligious. As with many aspects of Roman culture, the hostile ethnic profiling of the Carthaginians originated with the Greeks.” That is, the Greeks too had axes to grind with Carthage, with Sicily in particular rivaling Carthage for commercial and political leadership in the Mediterranean.

     But it was to be the Rome-Carthage confrontation that resonated through the ages, partly because it led to Carthage’s total destruction and partly because of the towering reputation of Carthage’s greatest military general, Hannibal, whose strategy and tactics are still studied today. So crucial was Hannibal to the enmity between these powerful states that the Romans actually called the Second Punic War “the war against Hannibal.” They won, eventually, but it took 16 years, and even in defeat, Hannibal remained a towering figure in Carthage and a source of constant anxiety to Rome – to the point that he eventually took poison rather than allow himself to be handed over, at around age 65, to a Rome that still feared him and what he might yet accomplish.

     The Rome-Carthage relationship was one of near-equals in some ways, of “necessary enemies” in others. Indeed, when Cato the Elder – who did not say delenda est Carthago, the spurious but very famous phrase that gives Miles’ book its title – argued strongly for a new war against Carthage, he was opposed by senators “who reportedly argued that to destroy Rome’s greatest enemy would be simultaneously to destroy its political equilibrium. Without a great enemy like Carthage, they predicted, the common citizenry would refuse to obey the authority of the Senate and, drunk with greed and power, would drag Rome into a series of ill-thought-out and potentially disastrous adventures.” This was not an entirely fanciful fear, as was demonstrated many years later in the time of medieval Roman tribune Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354), when the populace turned on the tribune himself when he was no longer seen as defending Rome against a powerful enemy. And the anti-Cato forces’ argument is certainly an interesting one, akin to the “balance of terror” viewpoint of our own time: that it is better to have a powerful enemy that is nevertheless a known quantity than to remove that enemy and create uncertainty and the possibility of turning the distress of a restive populace inward.

     Miles writes with verve of “The Last Age of Heroes,” “The Road to Nowhere” and “The Revenge of the Losers” (three of his chapter titles) and other subjects, and is at his best when ferreting out little-known material that casts an interesting light on Roman attitudes toward Carthage. His excerpts from the play The Little Carthaginian, based on an earlier Greek play and written by the Umbrian playwright Plautus in 194 B.C., are both revelatory and hilarious, as when a Roman soldier abuses a Carthaginian by saying he is “stinking of garlic and onions worse than a bench of Roman rowers.” The 16 pages of color illustrations, one of them showing the ruins of Carthage, are unusually interesting, and the maps (as of the Second Punic War) are helpful for understanding the detail of the various troop movements and battles. For the general reader, the level of detail that Miles offers may easily become overwhelming, and some of his sentences will require parsing and careful study: “Yet if Hannibal had spent a little longer studying the history of Pyrrhus’ Italian escapade, he might better have understood the difficulties which swiftly arose between the cities of Magna Graecia and the Epirote interloper.” Miles knows his subject so well that he sometimes lets his enthusiasm run away with him. Yet the enthusiasm itself is highly admirable, and if Carthage Must Be Destroyed is scarcely a book for all readers, it will be most welcome to those who have always wondered what more there was to ruined Carthage than Hannibal and his elephants – and just why Rome felt it had to, in the end, delete Carthage from the map.

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