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

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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]

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