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  • Carthage: A Mediterranean Superpower
  • Richard Miles

Our Understanding of Carthage Has Been DI-storted by longstanding Greco-Roman bias. The Greeks and Romans depicted Carthaginians as “uncultured barbarians and effeminate, lazy, dishonest and cruel orientals.” Today Carthage is principally remembered as being the loser in an ancient Mediterranean power struggle with Rome, despite the ambitious campaigns of its famous general Hannibal Barca. In his recent Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (Viking, 2011), Richard Miles rescues Carthage “from the dead weight of wanton destruction and gross misrepresentation that has for so long subsumed it.” Miles, a University of Sydney archaeologist and historian and a fellow-commoner of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, makes a convincing case that Carthage should be viewed as a dynamic and dominant maritime power in the Western Mediterranean throughout much of the first millennium B.C. His essay, “Carthage: A Mediterranean Super-Power,” is followed by a brief interview conducted by senior editor Donald Yerxa.

The problem with writing a history of Carthage is that no history written by a Carthaginian or with a Punic perspective has survived. When they destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C. the Romans did an extraordinarily thorough job with regard to Carthaginian learning. The tomes that graced the shelves of the city’s libraries, with the exception of the famous agricultural treatise of the Carthaginian Mago that was taken back to Rome, were dispersed among the local Numidian princes who had aided Rome in their war of extermination against Carthage. Although there are later vague references in Roman sources to Punic works, nothing has survived.

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An illustration of the Battle of Trebia, 218 B.C., from Alfred John Church and Arthur Gilman, Carthage: Or, the Empire of Africa (London, 1886).

Destruction, however, did not mean a descent into complete obscurity. The defeat of Carthage was far too seismic a watershed in the story of the rise of Rome for it to be forgotten. Instead, generations of Roman writers constructed a new history of Carthage designed to embellish the city’s new role as the ultimate foil to Roman greatness. Under the hostile pens of both Greek and Roman writers, the Carthaginians were reduced to the status of pantomime villains—mendacious, greedy, untrustworthy, cruel, arrogant, and irreligious. Such was the emphasis placed by the Romans on Carthaginian treachery that the Latin idiom fides Punica, “Punic faith,” became a widely used ironic expression denoting gross faithlessness.

Taking all of this into account, one might question whether it is really possible to write a history of the “real” Carthage. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed, I describe researching the history of the city as being rather like reading a transcript of a conversation in which one interlocutor’s contribution has been deleted. Yet the responses of the existing protagonists, in this case Greek and Roman writers, allow one to follow the thread of the discussion. Indeed, the sheer range and scale of these “conversations” enable the historian of Carthage to recreate some of what has been expunged. Ideology and egotism dictate that historians united in hostility toward their subject still manage vehemently to disagree with one another, and it is within the contradictions and differences of opinion that existed among these writers that this heavily biased monologue can be partially overcome.

Then there is the archaeological record. The Romans might have destroyed Carthage, but much of the rest of what had once made up the Punic world in Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearics, southern Spain, and North Africa was left intact. Even in Carthage the situation is by no means as hopeless as one might think. It is certainly the case that for modern archaeologists Carthage can resemble a complicated jigsaw puzzle of which many pieces have been intentionally thrown away. History, however, tells us that such final solutions are rarely as comprehensive as their perpetrators would have us believe. Although the religious center on the hilltop citadel of Byrsa was completely demolished, many of the outlying districts and some parts of the hill itself escaped total destruction. In fact, the Romans inadvertently did much to preserve parts of Punic Carthage by dumping thousands...