Carthage Must Be Destroyed

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This is easily one of the best books about the ancient world that I have encountered. The ancient world – and it’s history – comes in two forms: mythology/legend and relentlessly archaeological.

Richard Miles has managed to combine both to form a sensible and thoroughly enjoyable narrative. Carthage Must be Destroyed – a title taken from Cato’s dramatic ending to his addresses to the Roman Senate – is about the foundation and growth of Carthage, it’s epic wars with the Roman Empire, and its eventual destruction at the hands of its great nemesis.

Carthage, founded sometime in the 8th century BC, was a maritime merchant city in which thrived on Mediterranean trade ranging from wine, to silver, and luxury goods. In modern-day Tunesia, Carthage was founded by the ancient city of Tyre (modern-day Israel/Lebanon). Miles tells both the story of Carthage, but also the greater picture of ancient history which tends to be obscured by military legends.

These ancient Levantine cities – like Tyre – form the background of the origin of our sense of international affairs and high politics. Out of the depths of history, nearly three thousand years ago the great powers of the day – the first great powers in history really – was the Egyptian Empire and their rivals, the Assyrians. Between them, were these mercantile cities on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean. To avoid be annexed by the rivals powers, these cities sailed out further and further looking for new resources with which to essentially buy off the two land-locked empires.

In the course of this power dynamic, essentially the entire Mediterranean was settled and interlinked through a remarkable trade. Carthage was one of these cities; its sailors made it as far north as Ireland, and as far south as maybe the Congo.

While Carthage is linked to a cosmopolitan world of Mediterranean trade, Rome was much more agricultural; its link with the wider world was an affinity for Greek culture and civilisation, which it made every effort to adopt. Thus the image that emerges from Rome is an austere, militaristic republic founded on civic duty rather than trade.

Carthage for most of it’s history was in conflict with Greek colonial cities, primarily Syracuse for dominance in Sicily and the central Mediterranean. Greek propagandistic sought to portray Levantine Carthage as at the western counterpart to the Great Eastern Menace: the Persian Empire.

The Roman Empire was in a sense a late comer to this game for power in the Mediterranean. But it’s unique military and civic attributes allowed it to overcome defeat and conquer new territory like few powers before it had been able too. Where most powers simply fought to a moderate exhaustion, and considered most of its respective territory as expendable, wars tended to be peripheral.

Rome fought for keeps. They simply would not surrender, and rarely negotiated for peace. The result was in many ways a new form of warfare which literally no nation in the ancient world had the power to resist. Carthage’s wars with Rome are probably the closest Rome ever came to being defeated in it’s phase of expansion. The other powers of the ancient world – such as Macedonia, the Seleucids – it is already too late.

The Punic Wars are a bit like the WWI and WWII of the ancient world. Of course, you can’t push that metaphor too far, but it works as a nice little hook. This book is epic and informative.

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