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The Vanished City

CARTHAGE HAD EXISTED for over half a millennium when the Romans destroyed it in 146 BCE. Located in a natural harbor on the coast of modern day Tunisia, it was for centuries the great maritime power of the ancient Mediterranean, a cosmopolitan, mercantile city with colonies scattered across the North African coast, Southern Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily. But the Romans left little trace of it. After razing the city and laying a curse on its rubble (but not, as is popularly believed, sowing its soil with salt), the besieging Roman army gave the contents of Carthage’s libraries away to hostile neighboring states, in whose hands Carthage’s written works were lost or destroyed. Subsequent histories of the defunct thalassocracy were written by its enemies—Romans, but also Greeks, who had for centuries fought with Carthage for control of Sicily. Written thus by the embittered victors, Richard Miles tells us in his admirable new book, the history of Carthage was bound to contain more than a few errors.

Miles, hoping to give Carthage its due, has attempted to write an objective and comprehensive history of the sea power, from its founding as a Phoenician trading post in the eighth century BCE to its destruction by the Romans in the second century BCE. He offers a fresh and tantalizing glimpse at a world that was lost when Rome eliminated Carthage at the conclusion of the Third Punic War—the last of three separate conflicts between the two for supremacy in the Mediterranean. This lost world was, he suggests, marked by a greater degree of tolerance and interdependence than most Roman historians might have liked to admit. Amid their various squabbles, Miles tells us, Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians also traded freely with one another, exchanging both goods and religious ideas, and from time to time they united against common enemies. Miles even speculates that there may have been a Carthaginian community living in Rome before relations between the two states soured. “A major aim of this book,” he writes, “is to recover some of this long-forgotten world.”

To fully recover it, as Miles himself admits, is impossible. Thanks largely to the Romans, we know little about the Carthaginians. The only written Carthaginian work to survive in any detail is an agricultural treatise (prized for its advice on how best to procure bees from the carcass of an ox) and even this exists only in fragments of Greek and Latin. Worse still, the limited Greek and Roman accounts that do describe the Carthaginians are often hostile, and, according to Miles, riddled with “negative associations” and “ancient prejudices.” To these Greek and Roman writers, the distinctly Eastern Carthaginians represented “the worst of both Western and Eastern worlds: uncultured barbarians and effeminate, lazy, dishonest and cruel orientals.”

This perception of Carthage has proven remarkably tenacious. The Western colonial powers of the nineteenth century, for instance, many of whom styled themselves successors of the Roman Empire, happily perpetuated Roman and Greek depictions of Carthaginian savagery. These nations, particularly France and England, considered Carthage “an ancient paradigm for the barbarity and inferiority of the indigenous populations that they now ruled over.”

Much of this attitude was famously distilled in Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, published in 1862, not long after France had consolidated its control over colonial Algeria. The novel, a love story set during a mercenary revolt in ancient Carthage, is perhaps best known for its violence and sensuality—scenes of cannibalism, rape, sodomy, torture, witchcraft, and bestiality are scattered throughout the book. Reading Salammbô today, one might not point to Flaubert’s Carthaginians, whose interests seem largely confined to debauchery and sorcery, as models of historical fidelity. But they are to a remarkable degree based on surviving accounts of the Carthaginians passed down by Greek and Roman historians. Flaubert claimed to have read some two hundred books in preparation for Salammbô, which is laden with tedious historical detail. Much of what would seem at first to be Flaubert’s own embellishment—for instance, the detail that during rituals of child sacrifice Carthaginian musicians would play frantically to drown out “the cries of mothers ... and the sizzling of falling fat on the embers”—was, in fact, reported quite faithfully from ancient sources. In this case, Flaubert drew on Plutarch, who wrote that, “the whole area before the statue of Baal Hammon, the deity to whom children were sacrificed was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.”

In Flaubert’s time, Greek and Roman assessments of Carthaginian character and practices, no matter how outlandish, were accepted almost without question. That the Romans had destroyed Carthage and sold its populace into slavery seemed to be of little concern. But the reliability of these accounts has since been subjected to more severe critical scrutiny, and scholars have, among other things, attempted to take into account that for almost 120 years the Romans were in a state of near constant warfare with Carthage. The hostilities began with the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), fought for control of Sicily, in which Rome scored a stunning upset victory. The Carthaginians struck back during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE). Led by the brilliant general Hannibal Barca, who famously marched his mercenary army—elephants and all—across the Alps, the Carthaginians ravaged the Italian peninsula for years. The situation became so dire that at one point the Romans, panicked by Hannibal’s encroachments, were reduced to invoking a religious rite in which four people were buried alive in the center of the city’s oldest forum.

So great was residual Roman fear and resentment of Carthage that even after Rome’s eventual victory in the Second Punic War, in which Carthage had been sufficiently disarmed to pose no serious threat, the sight of renewed Carthaginian economic vitality inspired so much concern that the more hawkish Romans began to hunt for a pretext for war. The belligerent effort was led by Cato the Elder, a curmudgeonly senator and a veteran of the Second Punic War who ended each of his speeches in the Senate with the famous gerundive, Carthago delenda est, from which Miles’s book takes its title. When Carthage violated a treaty with Rome by raising an army to defend itself against invading neighbors, the Romans had their casus belli, regardless of the fact that the offending Carthaginian army had already been destroyed. The Romans declared war in 149 BCE. Three years later, Carthage no longer existed.

Who were the Carthaginians, if not simply Rome’s barbarous enemies? According to one source, they were refugees from the Phoenician city of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon). Late in the ninth century BCE, this source tells us, the king of Tyre died, and his twin children, Pygmalion and Elissa, were left to divide the kingdom between themselves. Pygmalion, not inclined to share power, decided instead to have Elissa’s husband killed and drive her and her supporters from the city. Fleeing Tyre, they ultimately touched down on the coast of North Africa, where the King of Numidia allowed them as much land as could be covered with an oxhide. Elissa and her proto-Carthaginians, in what the Romans would probably point to as a characteristic act of duplicity, sliced the hide into thin strips, thereby acquiring far greater tracts than had been offered. Years later Elissa’s reign would come to a violent end when, put off by the idea of having to marry a local potentate, she immolated herself.

The city’s actual founding may not have been quite so dramatic, but there are elements of truth in the story. Carthage was indeed founded by the Phoenicians—a mercantile people who lived in independent cities scattered along the Levant—as a port where their ships could anchor and resupply during trading voyages to the western reaches of the Mediterranean. Carthage’s elite citizens claimed descent from these Phoenician settlers, and their Phoenician heritage was reflected in their language—Punic—and worship of Baal Hammon and his consort, Tanit, both Phoenician deities. Given the dearth of information about the Carthaginians themselves, Miles looks to the Phoenicians for clues about Carthaginian identity. They were shrewd, and when faced with occupation by militarily superior nations often leveraged their various trading monopolies to preserve independence. They were also great innovators, developing, we read, “interest-bearing loans, maritime insurance, joint financing of commercial ventures, deposit banking, and, possibly, weights and measures.”

The Phoenicians did, however, pass on a few less savory practices to their Carthaginian cousins. Most notable among them was the horrific ritual of child sacrifice, mentioned by a number of historians and confirmed by archaeological discoveries, the largest of which has come to be known as the Tophet (“roasting place”) of Salammbô—a field near the heart of ancient Carthage from which archaeologists have exhumed tens of thousands of urns stuffed with the charred bones of newborns and toddlers. One stele unearthed there bears the inscription, “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed this son of his own flesh. Bless him you!” The practice, abhorred by Greeks and Romans alike, was notably continued in Carthage centuries after it had been abandoned in Phoenicia.

Though perhaps less striking than child sacrifice, the most important Phoenician influences on the Carthaginians were undoubtedly nautical and mercantile. The Carthaginians, like their founders, were great sailors and traders, and eventually outpaced their Phoenician forebears for maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean. One historian reports that Carthaginian merchants would range as far abroad as the Atlantic coast of Africa.

There is a country in Libya ... beyond the Pillars of Hercules [strait of Gibraltar] ...  where [the Carthaginians] ... unlade their wares, and, having disposed them after an orderly fashion along the beach, leave them, and, returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the smoke, come down to the shore, and, laying out to view so much gold as they think the worth of the wares, withdraw to a distance. The Carthaginians upon this come ashore and look. If they think the gold enough, they take it and go their way; but if it does not seem to them sufficient, they go aboard ship once more, and wait patiently.

This trade, in addition to providing the city’s financial bulwark, also led to what Miles calls the “fusive” aspects of Carthaginian culture. As a nexus of exchange the city interacted with a number of different societies—Greek, Roman, Celtic, Egyptian—and what little survives suggests that Carthage was something of a melting pot. One partially extant monument in Carthage shows signs of Greek and Egyptian styles in addition to more traditional Phoenician elements. Similarly, religions bled into one another—the Carthaginian deity Melqart and the Greek god Heracles eventually became so closely associated that the distinct entity, Heracles-Melqart, was worshipped in its own right.  

Miles’s greatest successes in recovering the lost world of the Carthaginian Mediterranean are to be found in these sorts of large scale and somewhat generalized discussions of Carthaginian political and military life—how Carthage first came to power through its shrewd trading, or how its mercantile interests dictated its engagement with other civilizations. Miles is less successful in offering any recognizable portrait of the Carthaginians themselves. Were they, like the Romans, generally tolerant of the religious beliefs and cultural practices of conquered peoples, or did they impose their own ways on others? What rights, if any, did female members of their society have? Did the Carthaginians write poetry or history, tragedy or comedy? These questions go largely unanswered. (Miles does, at least, suggest that “we should be wary of assuming that the shelves of Carthage’s famous libraries groaned under the weight of a vast corpus of Punic and earlier Near Eastern knowledge now destroyed,” though he does not say why.) 

Given the dearth of evidence about Carthage, Miles’s reserve is understandable. Still, he can be overcautious. One wishes for more speculation—however tentative—in his discussion of child sacrifice. About its persistence in Carthage long after it had ceased to be practiced elsewhere, Miles comments only that the ritual “was a symbol of the vibrancy and coherency of a western Phoenician world that was beginning to emerge from the shadow of its beleaguered Levantine cousins.” He says nothing of what it might tell us of the Carthaginians themselves—whether it might corroborate suggestions of their cruelty, reported at length by Greek and Roman historians. Likewise, there is no discussion of how our knowledge of Carthaginian child sacrifice might affect our perception of the Greek and Roman sources that reported it. These descriptions of child sacrifice are precisely the sorts of reports that Miles takes pains to discredit as “ancient prejudices,” but one wonders, if they were proven true by archaeological evidence, should this not be cause to reassess the accuracy of other such “slurs,” as Miles calls them?

But these are, in view of this book’s accomplishments, minor failings. In fashioning this sweeping synoptic history from the absolutely wretched state of written and material evidence on Carthage, Miles has taken a sow’s ear and made it into a silk purse—or, at least, most of one. His account, masterful as it is, is also quite dense, and will not likely hold the interest of the general reader approaching the subject for the first time. It is nevertheless an admirable and a valuable book, and one whose minor shortcomings only serve to remind us that the field of study on Carthage remains quite open.

Chris Carroll is on the editorial staff of The New York Review of Books.