Review: R. Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2)

21 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first part can be read here.]

Cover

Miles offers an interesting twist to the well-known story of the war of Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar, against Rome (218-201): he focuses on Hannibal’s use of the myth of Heracles. Miles is not the first to mention the cult of this macho deity as an instrument to create unity in the multi-ethnic expeditionary force, but he presents new readings of the ancient myths. He suggests that Hannibal’s self-presentation as the new Heracles must have been deeply disturbing to the Romans, who had justified their conquest of Italy with the same myth.

Miles connects little-known stories to better known archaeological monuments and offers a fine story. His reconstruction of the propaganda war is fascinating – no doubt about it. Yet, I am not convinced that Miles’ reading of this ideological clash is correct. It is hard to accept that the Italian nations were reminded of Heracles and the cattle of Geryon when they saw Hannibal’s elephants. (Only one survived to reach Cumae.) Miles tells a good story, connecting many pieces of evidence to create meaning, but I do not believe that these connections were also recognized in Antiquity.

As is well-known, Hannibal was in the end unsuccessful. Although defeated several times, Rome refused to recognize its defeat and its allies remained loyal. At precisely this point, the reader would have appreciated a causal explanation. After all, this is the heart of the matter: why did the Italian cities accept the burdens of war? What did Rome offer that made it attractive to continue a fight for what seemed to be a lost cause? What was Carthage lacking? In any case, the Roman commander Scipio managed to transfer the war from Italy to Africa, and forced the enemy into surrender. The sack of Carthage was postponed for half a century.

Miles serves a dessert. The Romans believed that they had won this conflict because they had superior virtues, virtues that were the opposite of the Carthaginian vices. The Carthaginian became the anti-Roman, which meant that the image of Carthage had to change with Rome’s self-presentation. When Rome got involved in civil wars, when it became a monarchy, when the provinces became equal to their capital: every time, the image of Carthage changed.

I liked this chapter very much, but was left wondering whether the historical significance of this once great North African metropolis was really nothing more than its contribution to Rome’s self-presentation. Unfortunately, Miles has little else to offer. “Attempts to conjure up contemporary relevance with regard to the ancient world can often appear trite and labored at best, and fatuous and false at worst,” he correctly observes, continuing with the platitude that “Western civilization was never an exclusively Graeco-Roman achievement” (does anybody say it is?) and “was the result of a much more complex set of interactions between many different cultures and peoples”. But who denies this?

Miles could have proved the importance of his subject, though. He could have pointed out that the volume of Mediterranean trade had been expanding for some time already before the Carthaginian-Roman wars started and that the interaction between the Mediterranean regions was intensifying. Greece, Rome, and Carthage were all subject to this process, and the unification of the Mediterranean world was less caused by generals like Hannibal and Scipio than by this deep process of economic integration. A structural analysis of this ancient process of globalization might have resulted in a more convincing book. Although Carthage Must Be Destroyed contains a fascinating story, the reader is in the end left unsatisfied.


Review: R. Miles: Carthage Must Be Destroyed (1)

21 June 2011

Cover

The trouble with historical facts is that we cannot observe them. We will never see how the ancient Carthaginians were trading with the merchants of Andalusia, never have a look at the gardens in their cities, never hear them talk. It’s all forever lost. What we can do, however, is study the traces of these ancient acts. Carthage’s endless wars on Sicily were described in texts that we can still study. We can excavate Carthaginian houses. The influence of trade on social relations can be deduced from the archaeological record.

For historians, the indirectness of our knowledge is embarrassing. They want to reconstruct the connections between the events – they want to explain them, in other words – but if the facts are hard to know, the connections between them are even harder to understand. Establishing a cause is next to impossible. As a consequence, several theoreticians have argued that history is less about establishing causes than about telling a convincing story. Because the connections are irrecoverable, the meaning of the past cannot be deduced from the historical facts themselves. Instead, we can connect events and can create a meaningful narrative.

Although he does not discuss these postmodernist theories, Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed. The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization is an example of this approach. After an introduction in which he tells that it is his intention to retrieve “the historical significance of this once great North African metropolis”, he tells a beautiful story about Carthage’s origins, rise, splendor, and decline, without looking for deeper causes.

The outline is well-known. Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers, grew to become the master of the Western Mediterranean, and struggled against Syracuse to obtain supremacy on Sicily. Although wars were depressingly frequent, neither side was able to expel the other from the island. The Romans were more successful and Miles’ description of the First Punic War (264-241) is among the best parts of the book.

After this war, Carthage was at the nadir of its fortunes. For a moment, it seemed that rebellious mercenaries would destroy the city, but Hamilcar Barca defeated them and gained support for an ambitious project to compensate for the loss of Sicily: the conquest of Andalusia.

[to be continued]


Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]

Cover

Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.


Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011

Cover

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (4)

18 June 2011

[This is the fourth part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]

Cover

I argued that Cameron’s thesis that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival looks convincing. However, this could also be said of Gibbon’s reconstruction of the events, which looked convincing for no less than two centuries. How can we establish which theory is better, in a field of scholarship where eight sources is many? We cannot test the two theories empirically: the necessary facts are too ‘soft’.

In situations like these, we need a logical principle to proceed. To paraphrase Karl Popper: the theory that tells most, is to be preferred. That is to say, a theory that has more empirical content: covering more ancient information of a more diverse nature. Now Cameron covers more ground than all of the earlier scholars: even though the number of sources has not expanded very much, he deals with more coins, more inscriptions, more objects of art. Our lack of information about this age is still disastrous, but Cameron uses his small advantage completely. There is not a single aspect of Late Antiquity – or at least the Latin part of it, because I would have loved to read more about the eastern half of the Empire – that he does not discuss.

This means that his book is also very long: 808 pages of text, excluding the index, an appendix and a “selected” bibliography of forty-six pages of fine print. You need to know something about Late Antiquity (don’t consider buying it if Rutilius Namatianus is unknown to you), but Cameron offers at least two weeks of intellectual adventure. This was the most interesting and rewarding book I have read since the fourth volume of Meyer’s Marginal Jew.

Complex and detailed, but The Last Pagans of Rome is superb. Summarized unfriendly, Cameron proves that paganism did not resist Christianity. How could it have been different? Christians were well-organized, while the pagans did not recognize themselves as one group, and never organized themselves.

But as Cameron indicates, there’s another, more positive way to look at it. The classical tradition was so completely absorbed by Christianity that we often cannot identify who was pagan and who was Christian. Both parties cared for the classical heritage. This has still consequences for us: the classical canon that we know, which includes texts in “silver Latin”, is not identical to the set of texts that was most popular when Rome was at its cultural zenith. What we can read today, reflects the taste of Late Antiquity.

The opposition between Christians and pagans, in which only the last-mentioned were the keepers of the classics, is a false one. Not the fathers of the Church and the fanatical pagans are typical for the late fourth century, but the moderates, who changed religion but did not abandon the classics. I imagine they were just too polite and well-mannered to make religion a divisive issue. With one host, they joined in a Christian prayer; upon entering another house, they burned some incense for the ancestors. And when they went home, they invited a rabbi to bless the crops: his blessing had been beneficial in the past, so why stop now?

This ambiguity may explain why Bacurius, the officer I mentioned in the first part of this laudatio review, was considered a Christian by a Christian, and a pagan by a pagan.


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (3)

18 June 2011

[This is the third part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]

Cover

As I said, Cameron’s thesis is that there was no late fourth-century pagan revival that needed to be suppressed with violence at the banks of the Frigidus. Let’s focus on the battle, although it is only one chapter in this rich book. Cameron has access to more or less the same sources as Edward Gibbon, who mentioned eight sources and called the emperor Eugenius a pagan. One of these is a letter by Ambrose of Milan, published after the death of Eugenius and after Theodosius’ victory. In this letter, Ambrose addresses Eugenius and makes him several reproaches. Gibbon accepted these words as authentic, but Cameron points out that there is no certainty that Ambrose had really sent this letter.

Later, one of Ambrose’s disciples, Paulinus, interpreted the letter incorrectly, exaggerating the saintly bishop’s resistance against Eugenius. Another author, the church historian Rufinus, presents Eugenius’ usurpation as a pagan affair, and converted the battle of the Frigidus into an epic clash between orthodoxy and paganism. Later authors like Theodoret, Sozomenus, and Socrates, copied this and elaborated the story. Where Gibbon and his followers believed that Eugenius’ paganism was proved by several sources, Cameron points out that they are not independent, that some of them can be eliminated, and that others just don’t mention what has been read in them.

Now we may object that the youngest sources contain information that cannot be found in Rufinus. Cameron’s counterargument is that these authors never add the same information, and proves that the extra information is nothing but elaboration. There were no statues of Hercules and Jupiter at the battlefield, missiles thrown by Eugenius’ soldiers were not returned to them by a violent storm (which is of course impossible), and so on. Because Cameron refutes about every counterargument you can imagine, his book is complex – and very, very rich.

This was just one aspect of the book. Cameron offers many other new readings of well-known texts. Macrobius’ Saturnalia? Not a real evocation of ancient paganism and no proof that the author was pagan. Pagan priestly colleges? They continued to exist and people felt honored when they were invited to join, but many members did not fulfill their obligations. Prudentius’ famous description of a taurobolium? Unreliable, and no proof that these sacrifices still took place.

After reading The Last Pagans of Rome, the world of literature of Late Antiquity has another face. Pagan authors turn out to have been Christians. The pagan senator Symmachus, who has been considered one of the leaders of the revival of classical literature, turns out to be a bit old-fashioned; Christians like Augustine were better aware of the latest literary fashion. The main point is that no one appears to have associated the classical texts with a pagan opposition. The late fourth-century renaissance has, in short, nothing to do with a pagan revival that had to be suppressed violently at the Frigidus. Cameron needs a lot of words and pages to make his point, but his reconstruction is convincing.

[to be continued]


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (2)

18 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011); the first part is here.]

Cover

In the twenty-seventh chapter of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon describes the battle of the Frigidus, a small river in western Slovenia, which took place in September 394. The Christian emperor Theodosius I, with the help of among others the Bacurius mentioned above, defeated the army of the usurper Eugenius and his general Arbogast. In a note, Gibbon mentions no less than eight sources, which is a lot for an event in the fourth century. Feeling confident, the British historian accepted all information, and he repeated that Eugenius was a pagan, or supported paganism, as is indicated by several authors. In the next chapter, Gibbon described how Theodosius’ reign marked “the total extirpation” of ancient paganism.

For two centuries, no one has doubted this reconstruction. In fact, it was used to support new theories. Eugenius’ reign was believed to be the political aspect of a pagan revival in the late fourth century, a desperate renaissance in which many old texts were copied again and new texts were written. The idea that there was an Indian Summer for paganism is very common: to offer but one example from popular culture, it is the assumption beyond Gilles Chaillet’s well-documented series of comics, La dernière prophétie. The recent movie Agora also presupposes a sometimes violent conflict between Christians and pagans.

Unfortunately, the reconstruction is not correct. That is the central message of Alan Cameron’s book The Last Pagans of Rome. The Italian pagan elite did not offer resistance. In 382, the emperor Gratian put an end to state payments to the pagan cults, forcing the pagan aristocrats to make a choice between on the one hand paying for the shrines themselves and making themselves unpopular at court, or accept the demise of the cults and remain eligible for the magistracies to which they owed their fame. As was to be expected, the great men found their own honor more important than the honor of the gods. The liberal arts were to flourish one last time, but not because pagans were making a last stand.

[to be continued]


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 323 other followers