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Book Review: Carthage Must Be Destroyed

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization

by Richard Miles

Viking Press, 2010

However else media-friendly historian Richard Miles might resemble the Roman emperor Claudius (fond of mushrooms? touch of scrofula? perhaps a niece who gets too many Christmas presents?), he’s now got one similarity locked: they both wrote histories of the most famous dead civilization this side of the planet Krypton. But even in this, there’s a saving difference: Claudius’ lost work on the empire and city of Carthage was reputed to be extremely dull, but Miles’ book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, is taut and often exhilarating.

It has a tough row to hoe, in order to get to exhilarating: the maxim that history is written by the victors might as well have been invented for Carthage. In three wars with the emerging superpower of Rome, Carthage was first given a bloody nose, then soundly defeated, then utterly annihilated. As a result, the city-state’s growth from a network of Phoenician settlements to a far-flung naval empire is outlined for modern audiences in rattling catalogues of potsherds and speculative reconstructions of street grids, the arid provinces of archeologists rather than the sexy juxtaposition of mopeds cruising by the Colosseum. Miles has done a prodigious amount of research (his Bibliography runs to 36 pages, in multiple languages), but I’m sure he’d trade it all for one afternoon in a Carthaginian library, surrounded by Carthaginian histories and poems.

He makes a superb effort without them – for brio and readability, his book makes a perfect companion to Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars from 2000. As in Goldsworthy’s book (and, remember, in their shared source, the much-maligned Roman historian Livy), so here: the stirring sense that, for these authors, the ancient past is a living thing and should be made to live for new audiences. Miles can’t help himself – he reflexively personalizes even the most mundane of researched facts, telling us, for example,  “The most prominent public building in the city [of Carthage, naturally] was the temple, and it must have been a fine sight.” Yes, it must have been – and it’s good to be reminded of that.

A great deal of Miles’ story will be familiar to general readers of ancient history. Properly speaking, it isn’t possible to write a history of Carthage – even the sources Claudius used (centuries old, most of them) are now lost to us. What remains is grudging stuff for research and unpromising stuff for narrative: we have Livy, Polybius, and the myth of Roman indomitability they crafted two millennia ago – a myth still very much alive in Miles’ account:

Apart from a brief interlude of three years during the Second Punic War, Carthage would never regain a foothold on Sicily. The Carthaginians had been defeated by an enemy who had simple refused to play by the rules of engagement which had for so long held sway on the island … Rome, with its extraordinary ability quickly to integrate the human and material resources of those whom it had subjugated, had proved to be a very different proposition. Such had been its ability to sustain a war effort for decades, and at a high tempo without any respite, that it had been able to exhaust the stamina of Carthage, one of the best-resourced states of the ancient Mediterranean.

The polished-feeling rhetoric of that kind of thing will have a familiar ring to it: Miles rounds out his research duties by hosting BBC history documentaries of the modern stamp that feature a telegenic host (to understate a bit, Miles is telegenic) in a leather jacket, wandering among ruins and musing to the sound of his own voice-over, while that same anonymously dramatic theme-music plays just a touch too loudly in the background. This is the venue that propelled Tudor historian David Starkey to stardom, and the dangers it presents to serious scholarship can be seen clearly in the fact that Starkey’s book on the wives of Henry VIII, at 880 pages, has 1, 225 chapters, many of which are no more than six paragraphs long. BBC documentaries, with their pretty visuals and elbow-pulling theme music, are extremely conducive to sound-bite history: lay on the cliches and idioms to keep the audience entertained, and for God’s sake, keep things simple. Carthage Must Be Destroyed is buttressed with a formidable amount of sheer intellectual work – but it’s neatly cubby-holed back in the Notes section. Up front, readers are more likely to get this:

During the long years of conflict, Carthage had brought Rome to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion. Upon each instance, however, final victory had been snatched from the Carthaginians’ grasp by an enemy who would simply not countenance defeat.

Not always, thankfully. Not only does Miles have a talent for workaday apothegms (“There was no archaic version of the Cold War,” for instance, or “All ancient armies required a large number of troops who were dispensable”), but he can be a deep and rewarding big-picture thinker about the many aspects of his subject, especially when he’s dealing – as he must – with the cut-and-thrust of the Punic Wars:

The Romans, for their part, had shattered any hope of a sustained status quo with the annexation of Sardinia, and their aggressive, expansionist policy must have been well recognized in Carthage. Whether the Romans actually cared about Saguntum is debatable, judging from the protracted period it took them to come to its defence. Renewed Roman interest in southern Spain in 220 BC probably had less to do with the protection of small allies than with concern at the growing Barcid influence in the region. The capture of Saguntum gave the hawks within the Roman Senate the opportunity to press for a war which they were highly confident of winning. Even those senators who opposed the move appear to have been less concerned with the prevention of war than with Rome’s potential image as an unprovoked aggressor. Indeed, the last Roman embassy sent to Carthage had so presented its terms that the Carthaginian Council could not possibly have complied with them. War between the two powers was now unavoidable.

You can still hear him reciting this with smoldering voice-over intensity, but that could be a mere stylistic habit. The important thing is that real analysis is going on in that passage, and readers will find many profitable passages from it. There’s a great deal of thought-provoking stuff in Miles’ book – including what emerges as his central thesis: that Republican Rome so thoroughly defined itself through its wars with Carthage that our book’s title becomes an ironic impossibility – that Carthage in effect created Rome, giving the new empire not only the concept of treacherous ‘Punic faith’ but also the founding concept of the Roman response:

Indeed, the ever-increasing emphasis on good faith as a particularly Roman quality can be mapped on to a growing awareness among the senatorial elite that that same virtue was often the first victim of the realpolitik in which Rome’s new position dictated it should now engage.

Readers coming to this book expecting the expected will not be disappointed: Hannibal is here with his elephants and his doomed tactical genius; the Keystone Cop Roman generals are here; Scipio and Cato and Augustus are all here. The history of Carthage can only now be a history of the Punic Wars, and they’re here in all their gripping drama. Miles has syncretized vast amounts of recent archeological information in order to fill in as many blanks as he can, and as a result his book often has a non-Roman cast to it that’s both unusual and refreshing. In light of all this, it would be carping indeed to ask for more.

But even so, that theme music can be annoying.