Ancient History & Civilisation


The most celebrated of Carthage’s sons and daughters were little more than mere bit players in the early annals of Roman history. The famous Dido–Aeneas romance, with the latter callously deserting the Carthaginian queen in order to go off to Italy, where his descendants eventually founded Rome, was in fact the invention of the great Roman poet Vergil, long after the destruction of the city. Dido herself, although possibly the product of an earlier Phoenician or Sicilian Greek story, was developed as a character only by later Roman writers.5 And even Hannibal, the most famous Carthaginian of all, was in part immortalized for his usefulness as a foil for the genius of that great Roman hero Scipio Africanus.

Carthage was just too important to Rome simply to disappear into obliterated obscurity. After all, the great victory over Hannibal in the Second Punic War was considered by many influential Romans to have been their finest hour. Some even believed that the final solution visited on Carthage had been a profound mistake, for the city had provided the whetstone on which Rome’s greatness had been sharpened.6

Carthage may have been destroyed, but it was never forgotten. Even many years later, the memory of the terrible events that had taken place there still hung heavy over the rubble-strewn site where the city had once stood. Paradoxically, Carthage remained a place that most needed to be remembered by the very people who had so thoroughly destroyed it.7 For members of the Roman elite, almost any kind of personal reverse or fall from grace could be placed into its correct context by a stroll –usually of the cerebral rather than physical variety–through the pitiful remains of what had been one of the greatest cities of the ancient world. Some, however, had the opportunity of a more direct form of contemplation. Some fifty years after Carthage’s final destruction, Gaius Marius, a Roman general who had been forced into exile by his political opponents, was said to have lived a life of poverty in a hut among the city’s ruins, prompting one ancient writer, Velleius, to comment, ‘There Marius, as he looked upon Carthage, and Carthage as it gazed upon Marius, might well have offered consolation to one another.’8 However, this regret at Carthage’s passing should not be mistaken for respect for a valiant foe. It sprang from a self-indulgent nostalgia for a fantastical golden age when Romans had been proper Romans.

The success of the Roman project to rewrite the history of Carthage is visible everywhere–even in the terminology used by modern scholarship to define the city and its people. For the period from the sixth century BC onward, we use the term ‘Punic’ to describe not only the dominant culture of Carthage, but also the diaspora of old Phoenician colonies that stretched across North Africa, Sardinia, western Sicily, Malta and the Balearic Islands, as well as southern and south-eastern Spain. It was not, however, a word that Carthaginians or their western Mediterranean peers of Levantine origin used to define themselves, but an ethnic moniker given to them by the Romans. The Latin noun Poenus, often used by Romans to describe Carthaginians, and from which the adjective Punicuswas derived, was hardly a neutral term. As one scholar has pointed out, its use by Roman writers was nearly always ‘defamatory and pejorative’, and it was ‘the term of choice for negative discourse’.9

The negative associations surrounding the Carthaginians have proved to be extraordinarily pervasive–particularly the idea that, through its aggression, Carthage had brought its own ghastly end upon itself. When the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht cast around for a historical metaphor to remind his fellow Germans about the dangers of remilitarization in the 1950s, he instinctively turned to a series of events that had taken place over two thousand years before: ‘Great Carthage drove three wars. After the first one it was still powerful. After the second one it was still inhabitable. After the third one it was no longer possible to find her.’ 10

Many of the prejudices first found in Greek and Roman texts were enthusiastically adopted and adapted by the educated elites of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe and America, who had grown increasingly interested in classical antiquity. The attitudes that they found in the Greek and Roman literature that they read quickly became their own. Thus the idea that the British–the inhabitants of ‘La perfide Albion’–were in fact the Carthaginians of contemporary Europe firmly took hold in Republican France.11 The sentiment soon spread across Europe and beyond.12 Thomas Jefferson, president of the United States in 1801–9, wrote of Britain, ‘Her good faith! The faith of a nation of merchants! The Punica fides of modern Carthage.’13 A nation of shopkeepers could not be trusted to keep its word.14

For the great powers of nineteenth-century Europe, the emulation of these ancient prejudices was linked to something far more particular than mere admiration for the classical world. During the colonial land-grab of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Roman Empire understandably provided an attractive blueprint for these new imperial powers, and Carthage also had a role to play as an ancient paradigm for the barbarity and inferiority of the indigenous populations that they now ruled over. Similarly, when the French had first started writing of perfidious Albion, it had been as much a way of bolstering their own imperialist claims as it was about undermining British pretensions to be the new Rome.15

For the French, in particular, who from the 1830s onward were pursuing long-term strategic goals in the Maghrib, the stories of Carthaginian cruelty, decadence and deceit that abounded in both ancient Greek and Roman literature were eagerly seized upon and projected on to the Arabs who now lived in the region. In North Africa, France would be the new Rome. The most famous product of these colonial assumptions would be Gustave Flaubert’s novel Salammbô. Published in 1862 and set in ancient Carthage,Salammbô was a roller-coaster ride of sexual sadism, extreme cruelty and repugnant luxury.16 In other words, it played to every western-European stereotype that existed at that time about the decadent Orient. It also served as a sideswipe at the French bourgeoisie, whose religious conservatism, materialism and political bankruptcy Flaubert so despised.17

The overarching influence of Roman authors on modern perceptions of Carthage was further reinforced by the trenchant criticism that Salammbô received. This had nothing to do with the savagery, sex and licentiousness that appeared on almost every page, but concerned the obscurity of the subject. One critic indignantly wrote, ‘How do you want me to be interested in this lost war, buried in the defiles and sands of Africa . . .? What is this to me, the duel between Tunis and Carthage? Speak to me rather of the duel between Carthage and Rome! I am attentive to it, I am involved in it. Between Rome and Carthage, in their fierce quarrel, all of future civilization is already in play.’18 The point was that any aspect of Carthaginian history that was not associated with Rome was of no real interest or importance for an educated audience.

Carthage would also prove itself to be as attractive a metaphor for the oppressed as it was for their oppressors. For some, the fate of Carthage, as the victim of brutal cultural vandalism by a ruthless conqueror, appeared so uncannily to resemble their own circumstances that a common heritage could be the only plausible explanation. Eighteenth-century Irish antiquarians, reacting against Anglocentric assertions that the Irish were descendants of the Scythians, an ancient people from the Black Sea famed for their barbarity, counterclaimed that in fact their forebears were the Carthaginians. Serious scholarly attempts were made to attribute megalithic passage tombs in the Boyne valley to the Phoenicians, and to link the Irish language to Punic.19 These theories predictably attracted the ridicule of many in England, including the following mocking verse from Byron:

He was what Erin calls, in her sublime
Old Erse or Irish, or it may be Punic;–
(The antiquarians who can settle Time,
Which settles all things, Greek, Roman or Runic,
Swear that Pat’s language sprung from the same clime
With Hannibal, and wears the Tyrian tunic
Of Dido’s alphabet; and this is rational
As any other notion, and not national;)–
But Juan was quite ‘a broth of a boy,’ . . .20

In the time of the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, although the historical reality of a Carthaginian heritage no longer had any currency, writers such as Seamus Heaney still continued to view Carthage as a powerful metaphor for the situation on the island.21

In recent years the ongoing crisis in Iraq has also afforded political commentators many opportunities to equate the situation in that unfortunate land with what had befallen Carthage.22 The following words by the American sociologist and historian Franz Schurmann are typical of the kind of emotive comparisons that have been drawn: Two thousand years ago the Roman statesman Cato the Elder kept crying out, ‘Delenda est Carthago’–Carthage must be destroyed! To Cato it was clear either Rome or Carthage but not both could dominate the western Mediterranean. Rome won and Carthage was levelled to the ground.

Iraq is now Washington’s Carthage.23

The inconvenient truth that the Punic world incorporated considerable areas of southern Europe has often been put to one side as a strange historical anomaly as we in the West have become accustomed to seeing ourselves as the heirs of Greece and Rome. Indeed, the casting of Iraq as the new Carthage is emblematic of that close association, which is an admission of the clear distinctions that we draw between ourselves and not only the Iraqis but also the Carthaginians. Schurmann’s words, rather than making a convincing case for Iraq being the new Carthage, simply highlight the current (equally bogus) obsession with America being the twenty-first-century Rome. One might legitimately ask, What do modern Iraq and eighteenth-century Ireland have in common with ancient Carthage? The answer is, Very little besides their conquest and suppression by a self-appointed new ‘Rome’, whether Georgian Britain or present-day America. The continued ‘relevance’ of Carthage has always been contingent on our abiding obsession with its nemesis, Rome.24

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