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Carthage and Rome – An Early Clash of Civilisations

April 11, 2011

It was their habit to crucify unsuccessful generals. In times of crisis they would sacrifice children. The rival that eventually destroyed them portrayed them as the antithesis of a virtuous people – cruel, rapacious and deceitful. They and their rival worshipped many of the same gods, but under different names

You could describe the hundred-year struggle between the Carthage and Rome as an ancient clash of civilisations. Carthage lost. Their city was razed to the ground and their people slaughtered or enslaved. And since the winners went on to colonise much of the known world – from Britain to Persia – it was inevitable that their greatest foe would end up in the victor’s history as the bad guy.

Yet Carthage, originally a colony of the great Phoenician city of Tyre, was no failed civilisation. It flourished for six hundred years, and its cultural and historical legacy is with us today.

As sea-going merchants, the Phoenicians were responsible for cross-cultural pollination throughout the Mediterranean. They brought precious metals from Spain, the much-prized purple dye from as far away as Cadiz on the Atlantic coast of Spain. They traded in wine, olive oil, pottery and luxury goods from Greece and Italy. Their craftsmen created their own artefacts, drawing on cultural influences  from all over their trading empire.

Phoenician merchants were the first Mediterranean seafarers to venture into the Atlantic Ocean. They are believed to have sailed as far as Nigeria and Southern England in search of raw materials to sustain their trade.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed, written by the classical historian Richard Miles, is an erudite but compelling account of the contest between Carthage and Rome. Miles looks not only at the political and military conflict, but at the efforts of both sides to position themselves on the right side of myth and history – and particularly as the divinely favoured nation.

When the wars with Rome began , Carthage was the dominant naval power in the region. The Carthaginians had taken the trireme – the standard naval warship of the age – and improved it. And in order to fight them, Rome, for the first time, built its own fleet.

The rivalry between the two nations was both territorial and commercial. Carthage was a city of 700,000 inhabitants at the time of its final downfall. It was strategically placed on the North African coast – near the present-day Tunis – to trade throughout the Mediterranean. It saw overseas territories as sources of food and raw materials. It established spheres of interest and control in Sicily, Sardinia, Spain and North Africa. To protect its commercial interests it would establish fortified settlements in each area. In Sicily, it bumped up against the powerful Greek city states such as Syracuse whose rulers also sought to extend their dominion over the island.

Meanwhile, as Rome sought to extend its control over the rest of Italy, and cast envious eyes on Sicily, its relationship with Carthage moved from co-existence to competition, and finally to war. In each of its wars with Carthage, Rome ended up the winner. Yet during the second war, Hannibal, Carthage’s greatest general, carried out the near-impossible task of crossing the Alps with his army. He then proceeded to bring Rome to its knees in a series of stunning military victories. The greatest of these was at Cannae, where he used tactics still taught in military colleges today to defeat a much larger Roman army. In one afternoon, Hannibal left 70,000 Romans dead on the battlefield – a casualty count on a single day rarely rivalled until the mechanised slaughter of the  Battle of the Somme in 1916.

For a number of reasons Hannibal stopped short of delivering the coup de grace. His long Italian campaign eventually petered out, and finally, a Roman general of equal talent, Publius Cornelius Scipio, snuffed out the threat by taking the war to Carthage – thus forcing Hannibal to return to Africa, and inflicting a crushing defeat on him at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. Through dogged determination and refusal to conform to the conventions of ancient war, Rome prevailed. And fifty years later, it found a strong enough pretext to destroy Carthage altogether.

There are many accounts, both ancient and modern, of the struggle between Rome and Carthage. What makes Miles’s book different is his attempt to free Carthage from the straightjacket of the victor’s history.

Very little remains of Carthaginian literature. What we have comes to us second-hand through Roman and Greek voices. But archaeological discoveries – especially in recent years – have shown us much more of their vibrant culture. Superb craftsmen, eclectic architects and unrivalled traders, the Carthaginians and their Phoenician brothers left their imprint across the Mediterranean. Miles argues that by pacifiying large areas of the Mediterranean coast, they made it far easier for Rome to assimilate North Africa and Spain into its burgeoning empire.

Although the standard Roman narrative portrays Carthage as the negative image of Rome, there is archaeological evidence of a Phoenician presence in Rome itself from the earliest days of the city – an inconvenient truth that Rome’s spin doctors chose to bury.

Aside from the political and military narrative, a central theme of Miles’s book is the efforts of both sides to claim the divine high ground. Heracles, as he was known to the Greeks – Hercules to the Romans and Melqart to the Carthaginians – and goddesses such as the Roman Juno and Venus, and the Carthaginian Astarte, consort of Melqart, were protagonists in a propaganda war waged through literature, artistic symbolism and coinage by the rivals. Each side sought to demoralise the other by claiming divine approval. And each used mythology to establish a belief among their peoples of the manifest destiny of their nations.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed is full of characters with qualities that we would recognise today. Hannibal’s mastery of psychological warfare. Ambitious politicians and generals from mainland Greece, Sicily and the two protagonists  – manipulating, playing off competing factions, lying, betraying and undermining those whom they perceived were gaining too much power. The implacable hatred of Cato the Elder, to whom history credits the phrase “Carthago delenda est”, the Latin version of the book’s title – words he would repeat at the end of every speech he gave, regardless of whether or not Carthage was the subject.

When the death struggle was finally over, Roman poets and historians continued to define their civilisation on a canvas haunted by the ghost of Carthage.

Here in the Middle East, the legacy of Carthage and the Phoenicians is with us today. The ancient city of Tyre can still be found in modern Lebanon along with a host of other traces of Phoenician culture. The wit, commercial acumen and ingenuity for which the Phoenicians were famed, is with us still today in the modern Lebanese people.

And across the Middle East, sadly, groups of believers still use their brand of faith as a means to assert their moral supremacy over those who worship the same god, and over those who worship the same god by other names.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed left me wanting to play the “what if” game. If the Carthaginians had prevailed, would they have created a Mediterranean empire as Rome did? Probably not. Would their cultural influence in Europe have been more lasting? Probably.

It’s even possible to imagine that the most influential language in Western Europe, instead of Latin, might have been a tongue closer to Arabic. And that therefore the world today would be speaking a very different language as its method of international communication.

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