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.]


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


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]

Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?


Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>