Carthago Delenda Est: A Review of ‘Carthage Must Be Destroyed’ by Richard Miles

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.

Ruins of ancient Carthage in modern day Tunisia

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’s Army Crossing the Rhone, Henri Motte, 1878

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.

Nubian Neighbors: The Long Overshadowed African Kingdom

To preface this article, I knew practically nothing about ancient Nubian civilization. Vague childhood memories from my Egypt-o-mania phase recalls a passing reference to Nubia as a subservient client kingdom. My bookshelf had plenty of Ancient Egypt books for kids and most neighboring kingdoms were glossed over. The Egyptians exerted authority over the Nubians through military and economic oppressions, rendering them impoverished vassals. A recent trip to the St. Louis Art Museum fundamentally changed those notions. Nubian Treasures, a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Fine Arts-Boston, displayed an astonishing array of artwork and artifacts from various Nubian kingdoms that existed over two-thousand years. The exhibit left such an impression it compelled me to write this post. As time passes we discover more details and nuances about ancient civilizations that we didn’t know existed. We either don’t have the knowledge or it is explained by another source (No, ancient aliens do not count. Kill that thought right now). Who were the Nubians and why don’t we know more about them?

Faience lion that adorned a Nubian temple. Many of the raw materials and artistic design patterns were heavily influenced by Egypt, which presented difficulties for early archaeologists to separate Nubian from Egyptian (St. Louis Art Museum)

Like many who study ancient civilizations, there is a tendency to attribute cultural traits from an established societies to newly discovered adjacent ones. What does this mean? Essentially, when there’s a powerful kingdom that has large cultural exports such as art, language, religion, and government, bordering kingdoms can heavily rely on their neighbors leading to appropriation. Famed Egyptologist George Reisner believed this theory when excavating Nubia in the early 20th century. Archaeological evidence collected at the time led Reisner to believe that the many of the Egyptian-like artwork and artifacts were remnants of a Egyptian occupied land of a subservient people. Hieroglyphs and artwork reinforced this notion as Westerners interpreted the darker depiction of Nubian characters as servants or slaves. This theory took hold in the academic world and remained unchanged for decades.

The Nubians were definitely not pushovers who allowed the Egyptians to dictate their civilization. The first recorded cultural group, Kerma, lived in Nubia from 2500 BCE to 1500 BCE until it was conquered by Thutmose I during the Egyptian New Kingdom Period. During that one thousand years, Nubians peacefully co-existed with Egypt and other African kingdoms. Trade flourished between them and subgroups of kingdoms developed throughout the region. Nubia is first mentioned in Egyptian accounts in the 24th century BCE during the Old Kingdom. This didn’t mean that the Nubians weren’t of any importance; in fact, they were Egypt’s largest trading partner. Substantial amounts of imported wealth such as gold, ebony, incense, ivory, and copper made the Nubian kingdoms incredibly valuable to Egypt. The Nubians also had great notoriety with their archery skills. They boasted some of the best archers in Northern Africa and on several occasions participated in Egyptian military campaigns. Nubian and Egyptian intermarriages were commonplace and many archaeologists speculate that a handful of Egyptians pharaohs might have had Nubian ancestry. There is no doubting the mutual and reciprocal influence that the two civilizations had on each other for nearly a thousand years.

Nubian ushabtis were small figurines that were placed in the burial chamber of a tomb. They served a spiritual purpose by serving their master in the afterlife. This is one of the many cultural and religious practices that Nubians and Egyptians shared over generations (St. Louis Art Museum)

The dynamic changed drastically around 1500 BCE when the pharaoh Thutmose I expanded Egypt’s borders into the Levant and Nubia. The occupation lasted nearly 400 years, but during that time, competing Nubian factions challenged Egyptian authority creating a near constant state of civil conflict in the region. By 1000 BCE, the Kushites began emerging as the dominant power in Nubia and Egyptian control was relinquished. By the 8th century BCE, the tables were turned as a massive Kushite army led by Piye began a systemic conquest of Egypt. He founded the 25th Dynasty and its pharaohs ruled the two lands for a little over 100 years. In 525 BC, an invading Assyrian army removed the Kushites and forcibly keeping them in the south for the next thousand years. Its at this time that the ancient city of Meroe came to prominence as the cultural and power center for Nubia following the collapse of the 25th Dynasty. The Kushite Kingdom preserved many Egyptian traditions, customs, and religious practices and developed their own language, Meroitic. Today it remains as one of the few undeciphered ancient languages.

The bottom script is Meroitic; one of the last ancient languages never to be translated (St. Louis Art Museum)

The extent of my knowledge on African civilizations is slim, but the point of this blog is to broaden my own history knowledge boundaries. If the Nubian Treasures exhibit taught me anything, it was that civilizations constantly borrow from one another. Whether its religious beliefs, economic practices, cultural customs, or government bureaucracy, the Nubian peoples and Egyptians certainly had a strong and complex relationship. Nubian archaeology has received increased attention in the past two decades and as that interest continues, it’s likely we’ll uncover more about this long overshadowed civilization and its people.

For more information about the St. Louis Art Museum and its exhibits, visit their website: