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.]

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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

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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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