Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Book Review (#49 of 2014) Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization
The previous book I read covering the history of the Greeks and Romans (Thoneman and Price's The Birth of Europe--my review) over this period left out much about Carthage and the Punic Wars. Much of the history about Carthage itself was lost after the Roman army wiped it off the map. Surviving works by Greeks exist, including some copies or long quotations of Carthaginian sources. Carthage had a narrow base of names-- it seems like every male was named Hannibal (meaning "grace of Baal"), complicating matters for historians.  Carthage was important culturally to the Roman Empire-- Carthaginians were loathed as enemies by Greeks and Romans, such that much of what was written about them was racist and propagandist in nature. Carthage was the unvirtuous archrival that balanced the "pietas" of Roman culture. But Carthage has always stood as a warning against war and hubris-- engage in too much foreign intervention and you might end up being wiped off the map like Carthage.
Whereas Thoneman and Price, and other authors, write that Greek and Roman generals looked to Homer's Iliad for their heroes and standards, Miles writes that Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians syncretically all claimed Heracles. This led to a synthesis of culture between Greece and Carthage, particularly on Sicily where both sides fought prolongued battles and established colonies which were constantly being re-occupied. As another commenter writes:
"This is the major thrust of the book and is itself sufficient justification for reading it. Regrettably, this important contribution is diminished by long and persistent digressions into the syncretism between the Greco/Roman Heracles/Hercules and the Punic deity Melquart (Melkart--the basis of given names such as Hamilcar). Miles argues at length that the great general Hannibal and his aides consciously used the parallel with Heracles as a religious accompaniment to warfare in the campaign to undermine Roman pride. These are appealing arguments to an archeologist, as they can be supported to some extent by surviving coinage. This is an inherently provocative thesis and could be the subject of a separate book (though one that would be less appealing to a publisher)."


Miles starts with the development and migration of the Phoenecians (from which we get the Latin term Punic) out of Tyre. No biblical references are given even though Tyre played various roles in Israel's development. I found Miles' treatment very helpful-- what were Tyre and Sidon, why did they matter? How did the center of Phoenecian life move across the see from Tyre to Carthage? (Fleeing Assyrians and Babylonians).
Miles gives a helpful account of the evolution of religion and culture in Carthage. Baal and Astarte (Ashterah) were worshipped. Child sacrifice is documented but its importance is debated.

Carthage occupied territories in Spain and relied on silver from Spanish minds to fuel its trade and fund its armies. Carthaginian armies were diverse and made up of mercenaries. This created some logistical problems-- companies speaking different languages -- but also some benefits like diverse fighting styles and flexibility.
The First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) was largely fought on Sicily. Carthage had long occupied territories and fought prolonged conflicts against Syracusans while maintaining peace with the fledgling Roman republic. However, when another Roman ally was attacked by Carthage, Rome eventually chose to enter war with its new rival. After a failed Roman invasion of North Africa, Rome was eventually able to best Carthage on Sicily and at sea to win the war. Rome had expanded its territory and ambitions, and Carthage would be able to rebuild.

The Second Punic War (218-201 B.C.) was one where strategy was important. Hannibal marched from Spain across two mountain ranges into the heart of Italy. Imagine African elephants marching through the forests of Europe. Hannibal's army occupied parts of Italy for 15 years. At the Battle of Cannae, Rome lost maybe 70,000 troops. Miles writes that Hannibal did not want to destroy Rome, but simply hoped to reduce its power and give independence to Italian city-states. His assumption that Rome would negotiate a peace proved false, and Rome fought on.

One interesting note about these ancient wars are the ways that both sides appeal to their gods and oracles for divine wisdom and favor. Both Hannibal and the Roman Senate appealed to gods in such a way as to try and show the native populations that they would be the favored ones.So, the appeals were often very calculated and for morale as much as actual divine favor.

Hannibal met his match in the Roman general Scipio, and as a Roman counterattack took the battle to Africa, Hannibal and Carthage were forced to sue for peace. Although stripped of its army, navy, and forced to pay a heavy tribute, Carthage again grew economically and was able to rebuild. By 251 it had repaired its war reparations and began rebuilding its forces.

This led to both jealousy and fear among the Roman elite. The title of the book comes from words attributed to Cato the Elder, who often  finished his Senate oratories urging the elimination of Carthage once and for all: "Carthago delenda est." There was a debate in the Senate because there was a fear that if Rome's chief rival was eliminated then it would be harder to keep the Roman masses in check. Eventually, the Roman war-hawks got what they wanted-- Carthage began to behave beligerently and the Senate raised an expedition force to destroy Carthage. The Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) was a brief and relatively one-sided affair. The once-mighty city of 700,000 people was razed to the ground, never to be rebuilt.

Miles looks at how Roman historians looked back on Carthage. Its fall was later seen as something of a prelude to the fall of the Roman empire-- its leaders became corrupt and "irrational," and it crumbled from within before being conquered from without.
I enjoyed this book, learned a lot, and will leave it to the experts to figure out the controversies. 4 stars out of 5.

No comments: