In the early 2000s, I was obsessed with the ‘Age of Empires’ videogame franchise; a historical, real-time strategy game featuring numerous ancient civilizations. Players could choose to fight in a sandbox scenario style or relive various campaigns built around real historical events. In the ‘Rise of Rome’ expansion pack, there were Punic War missions featuring Hannibal’s iconic crossing of the Alps and the Roman triumph in the First Punic War. Beyond those interactions, my knowledge of Carthage was limited to the technology tree available to the Carthaginian civilization within the game. The history of Carthage is difficult to discuss in comparison to civilizations such as Rome, Sparta, Egypt, etc., but that legacy can be attributed to Rome shaping the contemporary historical narrative, which impacted today’s historiography. Knowledge on Carthage itself was also limited when covering lessons on ancient Rome when I was an undergrad student. The standard narrative was that Carthage was founded around the same time as Rome and was settled by merchants from Phoenicia.
Then I received a copy of Richard Miles’ book, ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ and it vastly impacted my understanding on ancient Mediterranean history. Carthage did not emerge as a regional super power in the same mold as Rome, but arose from the networking of commerce and democratic, egalitarian ideals. Carthage was more or less the result of trading centers spreading around the Mediterranean with its physical geography catapulting it to destiny. Miles incorporates a staggering amount of new archaeological findings that reveal how widespread Carthaginian influence was at the height of its power. Simultaneously, Miles delivers a comprehensive review of the struggles that Carthage endured (Rome notwithstanding) and chronicles its rise and fall. Interspersed between the historical analyses are critical looks at the Greco-Roman mythologies that formed the basis for both Rome’s and Carthage’s mythical origins, which Miles argues was an intangible factor leading up to the Punic Wars. Miles’ book goes beyond the normal historical manuscript of regurgitating dates, names, places, facts, battlefields, and economic statistics. ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ recounts just how this Roman arch-nemesis came into existence and then captivated Rome for the remainder of its life.
Firstly, there is an obsession with the story of Hercules and Melqart (the chief Phoenician deity of Tyre and Carthage) that flows like an undercurrent in the story of Carthage’s founding. Mythical foundations tracing back to the Trojan prince Aeneas also illustrate the city’s legendary beginnings. Despite what these pseudo-historical sources claim, Miles asserts that Carthage emerged from the enterprising Phoenicians based in the Levant along the eastern Mediterranean, now modern day Lebanon. Mercantile connections with the Greek city-states resulted in westward progression. Carthaginians no doubt were spurred by their religious convictions that stemmed from being the descendants of Hercules or Melqart. Miles takes point on the unique Carthaginian spiritual beliefs that seemed barbaric by modern comparisons; stories of human sacrifice that regularly included children. However, Miles argues that this narrative persists because of Roman propaganda proliferated around the Mediterranean to demonize the Carthaginians, which would turn off their commercial partners. ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ spends a significant amount of time discussing the religious and spiritual motivations and connections between Carthage and Rome. This can be tedious at some points, but it highlights a feature of ancient civilizations who made important decisions based on the perceived will of the gods.
Miles’ strongest points in his text center on the Barcids; a noble Carthaginian family that consisted of notable figures such as Hasdrubal, Hamilcar, and Hannibal, who became legends in the ancient world. Carthaginian governance was carried out by a popular assembly and Senate-like organization, but political parties were centered on individual families, much like Rome. The Barcids resisted Roman encroachment and according to Miles, were pivotal in pushing Carthage to war with Rome. The Roman Republic expanded through military conquest or alliances with Italian fiefdoms that received protection from Rome, whereas Carthaginian influence followed wherever commercial interests led them. Miles makes a salient point that even though Carthage maintained friendly diplomatic and economic ties with Rome, confrontation was inevitable due to expanding ambitions on control of the Mediterranean.
Miles’ analysis of the Punic Wars are quite in-depth and by examining them from the Carthaginian perspective, we gain a better appreciation of how power in the ancient world was shifting. From the outset, Carthage had significant advantages with an immense maritime force and the ability to muster a cosmopolitan army of mercenaries and local militia. Rome, with its seasoned infantry from years of Italian conquest, had absolutely no navy worth challenging them. In a classic ‘elephant and the whale’ scenario, progress in the First Punic War swung back and forth between Rome and Carthage, until the Romans gained the upper hand by salvaging a wrecked Carthaginian ship and adapting it to their style of warfare. Meanwhile, battles across Sicily ravaged the land and people to the point of them resenting the Carthaginians for ever having taken their grievances to Rome. Moving onto Carthaginian expansion in Spain and the Second Punic War with Hannibal, Miles draws new historical information that elevates the war and people beyond the Roman legends.
Hannibal was a master propagandist and was as skilled as his was a military commander. Miles cites Hannibal’s constant reference to the legend of Hercules, Melqart, and other deities for rallying Rome’s enemies to his banner. Predictably, the Roman Republic was alarmed at this allegations and had good reason to fear Hannibal’s charisma as his army crossed the Rhone, the Alps, and finally entered the Po Valley without hardly meeting any resistance. Seventeen years of terrorizing Italy and guerrilla tactics by Fabius Maximus dealt a severe blow to Roman pride. However, Hannibal could not fully capitalize on his victories by taking Rome itself. Armies under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio eventually drew Hannibal out of Italy through attacks on Carthaginian colonies in Spain and Carthage itself in North Africa. After being defeated at Zama, Hannibal realistically posed no significant threat to Rome. He bounced around royal courts in the Eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor for a few years before he committed suicide upon hearing that his hosts in Bithnyia betrayed him to Roman officials. He knew the fate that awaited him like all defeated enemies of Rome; a triumph showcasing the victor’s spoils and the humiliated vanquished. Roman pride needed Hannibal’s death, but he denied them that complete feeling by taking his own life. The Third Punic War was almost entirely avoidable according to Miller; a fabricated reason for invading North Africa would result in the complete destruction of Carthage and a new Roman version built upon it. The old Carthage soon became a memory whose narrative was completely controlled by Rome and therefore, painted themselves as the noble conquerors and Carthage as the barbarous, weak-willed people who hired mercenaries and sacrificed babies.
Miles’ entire thesis is aimed at debunking much of the Roman propagandized historiography. Such a purpose is massively important as we gain a new understanding of an ancient civilization that fostered some of the greatest cultural exchanges until the Age of Exploration over a thousand years later. Carthage traded in both commodities and intellectual ideas which undoubtedly impacted countless societies in Africa and Europe. In many ways Miles argues that Carthage had as much an impact on the Western world as Rome did; only Rome had the benefit of still standing as an empire, built on the foundations of others. Of course that follows a great Roman tradition of borrowing from other civilizations and adapting it to their own. What would Rome be without Carthage? Well there certainly wouldn’t be any Punic War campaigns in the Age of Empires videogame franchise.