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Carthage Must be Destroyed—The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization

by Richard Miles

Viking | 2011 | 544 pages

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

richard miles

Although I didn’t see all the places on my wish list to visit—Istanbul’s San Sophia or the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, to name a few—I did see Carthage. To see the ruins of this once great, ancient city was on my itinerary when I visited North Africa during the summer of 2004.

The tragic story of how this lovely and powerful country, situated on the southern Mediterranean coast of what is now Tunisia, was destroyed in 146 BC by the Romans stirred my imagination--they literally salted the ground so that it could never rise again.

Knowing how pitiless was their destruction, I expected that Carthage would be a place of desolation, but such was not the case. Carthage was built on an isthmus made up of a series of sandstone hills that jut into the sea. From Tunis, the modern capital of Tunisia, one can take a train to Cap Bon, a pretty town of white-washed villas covered with bougainvillea, perched at its northern-most point, and then travel south along the eastern seaboard through Roman ruins and the ruins of Carthage. Because of the gentle breezes that waft in from the sea and the agreeable temperatures, Carthage would have been a pleasant place in which to live.

Apparently, the ancient Phoenicians thought so too. An ancient people who originated in the Levant around what is now Beirut, Lebanon, they were known for ship building, sea-faring and mercantile abilities. The Mediterranean was their apple, so to speak, as they traded all along its’ coasts from Beirut to eastern Spain, where they established numerous colonies. But Carthage became their capital city, and they became the Carthaginians.

This is from the book’s jacket: “Richard Miles teaches Ancient History at the University of Sydney and is a Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He has written widely on Punic, Roman and Vandal North Africa and has directed archaeological excavations in Carthage and Rome. He is currently filming Ancient Worlds, a new six part series on the Ancient World for the BBC.”

Centuries before Christ’s birth, Carthage grew into a powerful city-state. For one hundred years, Carthage and its northern rival, Rome, battled for dominance of the Classical World. The devastating struggle between the Carthaginians and the Romans was one of the defining dramas of the Ancient World. In a series of epic sea battles, both sides came close to victory before Carthage was finally defeated.

Someone recently told me that there’s a story that aliens decided not to inhabit planet earth because its people are too war-like. History certainly proves this so. Though not a historian, I’ve observed that most wars were fought because one people desired the resources of another people’s territory. This was the motivation that caused the increasingly powerful Rome to covet the lands controlled by the Carthaginians—particularly in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily.

When the Carthaginians restricted them from the silver-rich east coast of Spain, Rome went to battle.

Carthage Must be Destroyed is a very scholarly book, perhaps written more for other scholars than the lay public. As such, certain things are presupposed, things that the lay reader may or may not know. This caused me to revert, as I sometimes do when I want a summary of information, to a high-school world history book given to me years ago by a Brooklyn history teacher. Here’s its summary of the clash between Rome and Carthage:

The Roman conquest of Italy brought them in contact with Carthage, a powerful city on the coast of North Africa. Carthage had been founded by the Phoenicians about one hundred years before the village of Rome was established. By the third century BC it had become the center of a rich and powerful commercial empire.

At first, Rome was untroubled by the power of Carthage. Later, Carthage angered the Romans by refusing to permit them to trade in the western Mediterranean area. Finally, when Carthage tried to occupy northeastern Sicily—dangerously close to the coat of Italy—the Romans turned to war in an effort to crush this new threat. The three wars fought between Rome and Carthage are the Punic Wars (Punic meant Phoenician in Latin).

Rome Wins the First Punic War

In the First Punic War (264-241 BC) the Romans built ships, learned how to maneuver them, and finally defeated Carthage on the sea. As a result of her victory, Rome gained control of a major part of the island of Sicily. She also won additional freedom to travel on the Mediterranean Sea. The First Punic War had not settled the basic issues between Rome and Carthage. Both sides knew that the struggle would continue, and each used the period of peace to prepare for further war.

Hannibal Crosses the Alps

Carthage soon sought revenge for her defeat by Rome, and war again broke out. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was marked by the extraordinary exploits of Hannibal, a great Carthaginian general who decided to march an army over the Alps to make a surprise attach on the Romans! In 218 BC Hannibal led a force of 40,000 foot soldiers, 87 African elephants carrying supplies, and 8000 horsemen through Spain and southern Gaul (part of modern France) until he reached the Alps. Then, in the month of November, he scaled the dangerous 10,000-foot climb over the mountains.

It was a disastrous journey, but Hannibal refused to give up. “No part of the Alps reaches the sky,” he shouted to his men and promised them that they would cross the top. And cross it they did—although only one half of them made it safely to the plain of northern Italy. Here Hannibal rested his men, drew up his military plans, and prepared to fight.

The Second Punic War Ends

The Romans sent an army to meet the Carthaginians, but Hannibal’s troops crushed them and moved forward. Lacking the equipment needed to batter down the walls of Rome, the Carthaginian leader could not take the capital. Instead, he remained in Italy over fifteen years and caused much destruction.

Finally, in an effort to draw Hannibal from Italy, the Romans ordered an army under Scipio to attack Carthage directly. The Carthaginians sent a hurried call to Hannibal to return home at once to defend his people. He did—and at the Battle of Zama (202 BC), the great Carthaginian general was at last defeated. The defeat of Hannibal ended the Second Punic War. Carthage was forced to disarm and to give up most of its possessions.

As well written as this book is, I would only recommend it to those who have a taste for scholarly, historical works and the patience to wade through them, for Carthage Must Be Destroyed is a weighty tome. If one can get through its first half, he will be rewarded in the second half, especially once Hannibal, the mighty, charismatic Carthaginian general, enters the stage when the story becomes intensely interesting. Who can forget the story of Hannibal taking 40,000 foot soldiers, 87 African elephants carrying supplies, and 8000 horsemen over the Alps in the dead of winter to launch a surprise attack on Rome? We talk of pyrrhic victories and Herculean tasks—I’m surprised there’s not a phrase for doing something quite extraordinary, requiring huge effort and largely succeeding in it—as, say, “a Hannibalian effort” would be.

But military geniuses are not necessarily good statesmen or politicians—Hannibal lost the support of the fickle Carthaginians because he was too strict a moralist, and he was ostracized from Carthage. He fled east into Asia Minor. Rather than be captured, he took poison and died condemning the Romans for their vindictiveness, impiety and lack of faith.

Carthage, in fact, became prosperous again after the Second Punic War, causing Rome once again to worry about her re-establishing military strength. Cato, in the Roman Senate, rallied for her complete destruction—he “presented the infamous dossier of Carthage’s six reputed transgressions of its obligations to Rome” and stated that “Carthage must be destroyed!”

It was a case of hype and skewed information, but won the day. Soon all the might of the Roman Empire came down on Carthage. Hardly a blade of grass was left growing in Carthage after Rome’s destruction of it.

The Punic Wars were extremely important as they established Rome as the foremost power in the known world. Following them the Romans referred to the Mediterranean as mare nostrum, “our sea.”

“Rome’s newly found status was expressed not only in the power to obliterate, but also in the power to justify the unjustifiable”, writes Richard Miles.

“In their perfidy in such a pitiless destruction of such a great civilization the Romans vilified Carthage, self-righteously proclaiming its supposed transgressions.”

Sound familiar?

With the destruction of Carthage the Romans became the makers of history.

Had Carthage been the victor of the Punic wars, the history of the world would have been considerably different. Perhaps it was Carthage’s fate. In the Aeneid, penned by Virgil in the first century BC, Aeneas, the forefather of the Roman people, sails to Carthage where he has a love affair with Dido, the Queen of Carthage. When he abandons her, she is so desolate from her loss that she commits suicide.

As it was, Rome continued her expansion into Gaul, Spain and Great Britain. She ruled the known world until her fall in 410 AD when she was overrun by barbarian hordes. The panoply of Roman gods were replaced by Christianity after the conversation of Constantine in 325 AD.

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