Ancient History & Civilisation


In the face of such a litany of destruction and misrepresentation, both ancient and modern, one might legitimately ask whether it is really possible to write a history of Carthage that is anything more than just another extended essay on victimhood and vilification.25A key difficulty is the lack of surviving literary and material testimony from the Carthaginians themselves.

There are some intriguing but equally frustrating clues to the literature that may have existed. Within the burnt-out structure of a temple (thought by its discoverer, the German archaeologist Friedrich Rakob, to have been the temple of Apollo ransacked by Roman soldiers in 146 BC), were the remains of an archive thought to have contained wills and business contracts, stored there so that its integrity and safe keeping was guaranteed by the sacred authority of the god. The papyrus on which the documents were written was rolled up and string was wrapped around it before a piece of wet clay, then imprinted with a personal seal, was placed on the string to stop the document from unravelling. However, in this particular case the same set of circumstances that ensured that the seal was wonderfully preserved because it was fired by the inferno which engulfed the city also unfortunately meant that the precious documents themselves were burnt to ashes.26

When faced with such historical lacunae, there is always a temptation to overcompensate when imagining what has actually been lost. However, 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. Although in the ancient world rumours circulated about mysterious sacred parchments which had been hidden away before Carthage fell, and there are scattered references to Punic histories in much later Roman literature, it is difficult to gauge whether the city was really a great literary centre like Athens or Alexandria.27

It was not Punic literature but Carthaginian technical expertise that the Romans were most interested in acquiring. After the capture of the city, the Roman Senate ordered that all twenty-eight volumes of a famous agricultural treatise by the Carthaginian Mago be brought back to Rome and translated into Latin.28 Unfortunately, although cited in numerous Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Arabic texts, Mago’s work has not survived to the present.29 Its disappearance, however, has not deterred some modern scholars from hailing it as the agronomic bible of the ancient world.30

At times, researching a history of the city is rather like reading a transcript of a conversation in which one participant’s contribution has been deleted. However, the responses of the existing interlocutors–in this case Greek and Roman writers–allows one to follow the thread of the discussion. Indeed, it is the sheer range and scale of these ‘conversations’ that allows the historian of Carthage to re-create some of what has been expunged. Ideology and egotism dictate that even historians united in hostility towards their subject still manage vehemently to disagree with one another, and it is within the contradictions and differences of opinion that exist between these writers that the deficiencies of their heavily biased account can be partially overcome.

Of all the ancient commentators on Carthage, none encapsulates the limitations of what remains of the historical record better than the Sicilian Greek Timaeus of Tauromenium. Timaeus, who lived from around 345 to 250 BC, wrote a history of his home island down to 264, the year that the First Punic War broke out between Carthage and Rome.31 As the Carthaginians were heavily involved politically, militarily and economically in Sicilian affairs throughout much of the fifth and fourth centuries BC, they featured prominently in Timaeus’ narrative. Indeed, for much of that important period of Carthaginian history Timaeus provides the only historical narrative we have.

Timaeus’ ‘testimony’ comes with a number of extremely important caveats. First, he is what might be called a ‘ghost historian’, because none of his oeuvre directly survives. However, his work became immensely influential among later Greek and Roman historians, who used it extensively in their own studies.32 It has been possible, therefore, for modern scholars painstakingly to retrieve a considerable amount of Timaeus’ history of Sicily from the work of his admirers–in particular another Sicilian Greek, Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century AD–because they often extensively and openly followed his account. Second, as an individual who spent most of his adult life in exile in Athens, Timaeus was often far removed from the events that he described. Lastly, his account of Carthage was coloured by his implacable hostility towards it.

Timaeus’ portrayal of Carthage was often predictably negative and clichéd, and there is a marked contrast between the often extremely superficial treatment of Carthaginian motivations and issues and the much more detailed and balanced analysis of the strategies followed by Sicilian Greek leaders.33 Most significantly, Timaeus very successfully promoted the idea of Carthage as the agent of the barbarous Orient in the West, and of its attitudes towards the Greeks being dictated by ethnic hatred.34 He typified the Carthaginians as the beneficiaries of almost unlimited resources that allowed them to raise a succession of enormous invasion forces whose sole aim was the destruction of the Greek communities that lived on Sicily.35

Timaeus also worked hard to pin negative ethnic stereotypes on to the Carthaginians–such as their alleged softness, proved by their habit of keeping their hands hidden in the folds of their clothing, and their wearing loincloths under their tunics.36 He lavished particular lurid attention on the supposed Carthaginian enthusiasm for human and particularly child sacrifice, by including in his account the mass killing of infants to appease the gods when Carthage was besieged by the Greek general Agathocles.37 He was also anxious to portray the Carthaginians as being exceptionally cruel and unmerciful: ‘There was no sparing of their captives, but they were without compassion for their victims of Fortune, of whom they would crucify some and upon others inflict unbearable outrages.’38 Even the mercy shown by the Carthaginians towards women hiding in the temples of the captured Sicilian city of Selinus was explained away by Timaeus as yet another example of their sacrilegious greed, as they feared that those who had taken refuge might set fire to their hiding places, thereby depriving the Carthaginians of the opportunity of plundering them.39 The impiety of the Carthaginians was a regular theme in Timaeus’ Sicilian opus, as they pillaged the temples and even the tombs of the Greeks–for which they were often the subsequent targets of divine retribution such as plague, storms and military disaster.

That Carthage’s relationship with Greek culture was typified by greed and theft was a common theme in Timaeus’ work. He recounted how the Carthaginian general Himilcar, on capturing Acragas, carefully ransacked the city, sending a vast number of paintings and sculptures back to Carthage, despite some of the citizens’ best efforts to stop the looting of the temples by setting them ablaze.40

Although what remains of Timaeus in Diodorus’ The Library of History should be treated with considerable caution, subjecting it to endless postmodernist deconstruction delivers extremely limited returns. One must remain sensitive to the partisan and fragmentary nature of Timaeus’ portrayal of Carthage, as well as vigilant with respect to the clichés and exaggerations within it, but there is no reason to dismiss his account as wholesale fabrication. Timaeus’ dubious testimony of all-out ethnic conflict in Sicily is very useful precisely because it was so clearly a reaction to a far more complex set of interactions between the Punic and Greek populations on the island.

There had in fact been a number of writers who took an actively pro-Carthaginian position in their histories, such as the Greeks Philinus of Acragas (a historian of the First Punic War) and Sosylus and Silenus (companions of Hannibal in the Second).41 Although their work has survived only in sparse fragments, we are fortunate that a number of conscientious Roman historians, such as the late-second-century-BC Roman writer Coelius Antipater, made extensive use of it–while Antipater’s work has also not withstood the ravages of time, it in turn was heavily used by Livy, whose history of early Rome has mostly survived.42

We also owe much to the unfailingly critical eye of Polybius, the best extant historian writing on this period.43 A Greek aristocrat who had come to Rome as a hostage in the 160s BC, he became a key member of the entourage of the Roman aristocrat commander Scipio Aemilianus. Over the next two decades Polybius travelled around the Mediterranean world with Scipio, and he was actually present at the final siege and fall of Carthage in 146 BC. Although Polybius was fundamentally hostile to Carthage, he was proud of being a thorough and scholarly practitioner of his art. He certainly did not hesitate to point out what he considered to be the errors committed by fellow historians.44 Nor was it just pro-Carthaginian writers who were the victims of his scorn. His attitude towards Timaeus in some parts of his work has been accurately described as ‘consistently abusive’.45

But Polybius was happy to acknowledge those who (in his view) upheld the high standards that he demanded of historical scholarship, whatever their standpoint. Thus, although he fundamentally disagreed with Philinus on a number of issues, Polybius clearly respected him as a historian whose didactic approach closely mirrored his own, and he therefore used his work as a basis for his own account of the First Punic War.46 This means that the modern historian of Carthage gleans some idea of the positions taken up by pro-Carthaginian writers and other historians even if Polybius considered those positions to be erroneous.

As regards other material evidence, the ruins of Carthage have always stirred the imagination of those who have visited them. Rumours that the Carthaginians had managed to bury their riches in the hope of returning to retrieve them in better times had led the troops of one first-century-BC Roman general to launch an impromptu treasure hunt.47 For the modern archaeologist Carthage can resemble a complicated jigsaw of which many pieces have been intentionally thrown away. Yet history tells us that attempts to destroy all traces of an enemy are rarely as comprehensive as their perpetrators would have us believe.

Although the religious centre on the Byrsa was completely demolished, many of the outlying districts and, as we have already seen, 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 of cubic metres of rubble and debris on top of it. Even the ominous 60-cm-thick black tidemark found in the stratigraphy of the western slopes of the Byrsa–the sinister archaeological record of the burning down of the city in 146 BC–is packed full of southern-Italian tableware, telling us what pottery styles were in vogue in Carthage at that time.48

Then there are the thousands of monuments recording votive offerings made to Baal Hammon and Tanit, the chief deities of Carthage, which, although extremely formulaic in their wording, have furnished invaluable information on Punic religious rites, particularly child sacrifice. There are also a small number of surviving inscriptions relating to other aspects of city life, such as the construction of public monuments and the carrying out of an assortment of religious rituals. This epigraphic evidence has been helpful in aiding understanding not only of Carthage’s religious life, but also of the social hierarchies that existed within the city.49 It is from such writing on slabs of stone that we learn of the faceless potters, metalsmiths, clothweavers, fullers, furniture-makers, carters, butchers, stonemasons, jewellers, doctors, scribes, interpreters, cloak attendants, surveyors, priests, heralds, furnace workers and merchants who made up the population of the city.50

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