Customer Review

5.0 out of 5 stars the other great classical civilization, 27 Aug. 2012
This review is from: Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (Paperback)
In my endless fascination with classical history, I have always been curious about Carthage. This great power has long been defined against its adversaries, the Greeks and the Romans. Having left no real literary legacy, Carthage is like the dark matter of that period: you know it is there, but can't quite see it except as a gravitational well. And yet, it is portrayed as the "alternative" civilization to the Romans, who surpassed and then annihilated it to win domination of the Mediterranean for the next 700 years. I have never felt satisfied with historical treatments of it - until now. In my opinion, that makes this a must-read for classical era enthusiasts. What this wonderful book uniquely accomplishes is to portray Carthage from its own point of view, filling a significant gap in popular history.

The story starts with the Phoenicians, a semitic people who lived to the north of the Jews, in modern-day Lebanon. Tyre was the most influential Phoenician city among many independent city states. They were traders, subject to the Assyrians and other great powers inland during the development of a new urban civilization after the collapse of the Bronze Age. However, with their trade and maritime skills, they were able to maintain a relative autonomy for centuries, paying tribute but allowed the freedom to expand and exploit the western Mediterranean. Carthage began as a trade outpost of Tyre (9 C BCE), but quickly grew into a dynamic hegemonic power once its mother city was crushed and absorbed by the Mesopotamian powers.

In contrast to the Greeks and only much later the Romans, the Carthaginians were principally businessmen rather than soldier-aristocrats from imperialist city states (with economies based on plunder, tribute, and agriculture). In contrast, the Carthaginians found minerals and precious metals that the great powers needed to import, then set up the means to exploit and deliver them. In this way, they expanded into Spain, the large islands off Italy, and across Northern Africa in semi-independent but culturally and militarily linked cities. Their expertise in shipping and manufactures was unsurpassed, even legendary. When they had to fight, they hired mercenaries, though they had their own elite commanders. At first, their enemies were the Greeks, predominantly in Sicily, where they fought incessantly (6-4C BCE). The Romans at that time were a minor inland power.

Though not much is known of their culture due to lack of indigenous literature, Miles does his best to describe its polytheistic religion - essentially a syncretist synthesis of the Greek Pantheon with their own gods - and their system of government (aristocratic casts that gained power by wealth, though there were clans that specialized in warfare, e.g. the Barca clan that dominated Spain and produced Hannibal). Miles develops a fascinating analysis of their usurpation, and use, of Heracles, who was melded with their own Melqart; Hannibal used the myth as propaganda to describe his long march to Italy along Heracles' route of tasks. (I only wish I had read for as an undergraduate - it would have made a perfect essay on myth informing history!) But he also explores the founding myths. This is as fun to read as it is informative.

The war with Rome is also expertly covered. I thought I knew this well, but Miles added so much to my understanding that it offered to me a completely new reading on the conflict. In the first Punic War, the Romans master naval warfare and severely beat back the Carthaginians, taking much of the western mediterranean from them. Then, you have the military genius of Hannibal, who was fighting a different kind of war than the Romans, hoping they would sue for peace as recognition of a Carthaginian sphere of influence, when in fact the Romans were implacable in their refusal to do so; then Quintus Fabius Maximus' strategy of avoiding pitched battles; finally the genius of Scipio, who broke the back of Hannibal's army and then conquered the city. What surprised me was the psychological warfare of Hannibal - the propagandistic use of greco-roman myth and religion against them - and how this fed into Roman fears that the Gods had forsaken them. Hannibal also cultivated the Greeks in S Italy via their myths, whose loyalty and beliefs the Romans had to fight try hard to regain.

Finally, Miles covers the transition of Rome from a regional power into the greatest superpower even known in the Mediterranean. Through trial and error, Rome built a fleet and figured out how to beat the Carthaginian Navy, which had grown complacent after centuries of domination of the seas. Here, he explains the development of a tendentious ideology of piety and just war, so similar to the present-day nonsense you hear all the time, which slanted the histories about Carthage and its image in plays and other art forms. Bent on the permanent annihilation of Carthage in the last (unprovoked) Punic war, Rome had to believe it was morally superior, even though it also destroyed other cultures that were less of a threat at that time. It made me hungry to read more about the period. For example, once they didn't have to defend an empire after Hannibal's defeat, the Carthaginians came roaring back, but exclusively as traders; this threatened Rome and provided an alternative future in economic as opposed to military hegemony.

This is a great intellectual adventure. It is also slightly too academic, but without the obscure discussions and proofs that often go on too long. Warmly recommended.
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