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Carthage must be Destroyed

Richard Alston looks at an expert account of a civilisation that was defeated and humiliated by the Roman empire

Published: February 26, 2010 at 8:31 am
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Reviewed by: Richard Alston
Author: RIchard Miles
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £25


The great war between Rome and Carthage transformed the balance of power within the Mediterranean. For three centuries Rome had been expanding within Italy, but only in the last decades of the third century BC had it achieved sufficient power to challenge the states of the Greek east and the African empire of Carthage. In the late third century BC, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, invaded Italy after an epic march across the Alps. He inflicted a catastrophic series of defeats on Rome. In three battles between 218 and 216 BC, the Romans lost more than 100,000 troops, perhaps as much as half of the adult male population. Rome’s allies in southern Italy defected. But Rome stood firm. In 202 BC, just 15 years later, the Roman general Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal at the battle of Zama, and Rome stood at the gates of Carthage. 

This was Rome’s great patriotic war, the moment at which the Roman character appeared to be at its strongest and to which all future generations would look back with pride. The humiliating terms that Rome inflicted on Carthage were not, however, enough to break the city. Two generations later, on the slightest of pretexts, Rome again declared war on the Carthaginians and in 146 BC Carthage was destroyed. The Hannibalic war was to be the last serious challenge to the power of Rome until, six centuries later, the barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine to set in train the events that brought an end to the Roman empire in the west. 

All histories of Carthage start from the moment of its eclipse. So thoroughly was Carthage destroyed that our knowledge of its rich culture relies almost exclusively on the writings of its enemies. Carthage’s own histories are lost and even for the period before Carthage came into conflict with Rome, we rely on the accounts of Carthage’s enemies, the historians of the Greek cities of Italy, for our understanding of Carthaginian history. Archaeology can be used as a partial counter to these accounts, but the Roman destruction of the city was so complete that we have little chance of resurrecting an alternative history of the city from its remains. What modern historians have to draw upon is hostile and propagandistic fragments, a task equivalent to writing a history of Germany 1914–45 from American and English populist accounts. 

Richard Miles’s account expertly weaves together these unpromising fragments into a coherent and balanced account. Carthage, founded by Tyre, emerges as a politically and culturally complex city. While maintaining its distinctive semitic cultural features, especially in religious practices, Carthaginian culture drew on several different traditions, notably Greek and Egyptian. Carthage also played a crucial role in the dissemination of ideas across the Mediterranean. Carthaginian traders served the trade routes along which cultures spread, Carthaginian influence in Spain and Italy being particularly pronounced. Carthage has often been represented as a merchant empire, and differentiated from the military empires of Alexander and Rome, and yet we know very little about how the Carthaginians managed and benefited from their trade networks, how their traders were represented in the politics of the city, and to what extent the economy of Carthage differed from that of the other great cities of the Mediterranean. Yet, there is just enough evidence to suggest that Carthage had a very different political system from that of the states of the Greek and Roman world. 

Inevitably, Miles’s history centres on military matters, for that is where our Greek and Roman sources focus. The wars were notable for their brutality, outstanding even by ancient standards. Captives were slaughtered, prisoners tortured, towns razed and their populations sold into slavery.

Miles stresses the propaganda battle, suggesting that Greek and Roman writers sought to depict the wars as being about a struggle for a way of life rather than the control of a few towns in Sicily. In retrospect, that was what the conflict was to become: a moment in which the Romans learnt they were in opposition to their great enemy in the west, and we are left to wonder how different history would have been had Hannibal been able to drive home his spectacular victories and make this Semitic-African city mistress of the world. 


Richard Alston is professor of Roman history at Royal Holloway University of London


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