Friday, July 22, 2011

An Empire of the Mediterranean

'Carthage must be destroyed'—the title of Richard Miles's book was the constant theme of the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.). In the last years of his long life, Cato became obsessed with Rome's old rival, the city that had unleashed Hannibal on the Roman Republic and brought it to the brink of destruction.

Famed for his oratory as well as his stern morality, the old man was frequently asked to give his opinion in the Senate. Regardless of the topic, his last sentence was always the same—"And I think Carthage ought to be destroyed." A rival countered by ending his own speeches with "And I think Carthage ought not to be destroyed," but Cato carried the day, although he died before Carthage was captured in 146 B.C. The city was demolished and the site formally cursed by Roman priests. The oft-repeated story of the ground being sown with salt is a much later invention, but the destruction of Carthage as a political state was total.

The subtitle of the book is the more revealing, for this is not primarily an examination of the three Punic Wars fought between Carthage and Rome but instead a full history of "The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization." Those epic conflicts, and indeed the savage wars fought between Carthaginians and Greeks to dominate Sicily in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., are just part of the bigger story.

The campaigns are covered intelligently, but even the biggest battles rarely rate more than a paragraph. Richard Miles is instead concerned with the wider context of these struggles, and his book is all the more valuable for that.

History is proverbially written by the victors. Carthaginian civilization was much older than that of Rome, and its mother city of Tyre in modern Lebanon boasted a sophisticated culture also predating the achievements of Classical Greece.

Yet Carthage was destroyed and with it so much of our knowledge of its glories. Greece was also conquered by Rome, but as the poet Horace put it, "captured Greece conquered the fierce captor." The Romans fell in love with Hellenic learning and literature, the passion fueled by a deep-seated sense of their own cultural inferiority.

Educated Romans were fluent in Greek as well as Latin. The first Roman historian was Fabius Pictor, and he was inspired to write at the end of the third century B.C. by the war with Hannibal, but he did so in Greek. No Roman was ever inspired to write in the Punic language of Carthage.

For more interesting topics related to archaeology, visit archaeology excavations.

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