Book Review by Pantagathus
If you’ve ever tried to put together a decent bibliography on Carthage and Punic culture & history you know that it’s no easy task. The combination of the seeming monopoly the French had over North Africa archaeology for much of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the lack of reliable primary sources, the scarcity of experts on Punic epigraphy and advances made with each new dig all come together to ensure that finding a definitive, up to date source on the subject in English is a tall order indeed.
Over the last 2 years I’ve been trying to put together that very bibliography and can say having finally read the English translation of Serge Lancel’s Carthage: A History, I’m finally satisfied that I have access to perhaps the definitive modern source on the subject.
You won’t find an exhaustive collection and study of the ancient sources in this history. First and foremost, Carthage: A History reveals the intimate knowledge that the late Professor Lancel had of the physical site of Carthage and also the commanding grasp he had of work done at Punic sites by any other archaeological expedition over the past 150 years or so. He was no doubt an expert in Punic, Roman and early Christian North Africa and spent many years of his long academic career participating in and directing archaeological digs at Carthage and elsewhere in Tunisia.
From that point of view he laid the framework of the book which cautiously juxtaposed what was revealed through modern archaeology with what is known from the Greek and Roman sources; citing the ancients out of convenience to either support an archaeological interpretation or to dismiss an ancient anecdote. For the Punic era Carthaginians to be brought back to life realistically Lancel argued, they must be allowed to speak for themselves as much as possible through the archaeological record.
I’ve often seen this approach fail for archaeologists writing a ‘history’ because their lack of command of the sources is often betrayed, leaving the reader skeptical of their archaeological interpretations as a result. It works perfectly here for Professor Lancel because he obviously does know the sources well and more importantly, though he knows they should be approached cautiously considering their inherent bias, his enthusiasm for examining any tidbit on the Punic people left to us is overwhelmingly clear. For a subject with so many inherent knowledge gaps, this book goes a long way towards accomplishing Lancel’s endeavor to breath life into the Punic era Carthaginians.
Some sections can be a bit heavy for the lay reader. This is especially the case when Lancel details in various chapters the different archaeological efforts made over the years to gain a better understanding of the layout of pre-Roman Carthage which obviously changed extensively at various points in its long history. However, at most points the books flows with an equable beat; offering one fascinating informational morsel after another. Based on my personal interests, I found the sections on the excavation work in the harbors and the treatment of the so called ‘Marsala Wreck’ to be extremely valuable and enlightening.
The best insight into the Punic heart and mind is regretfully limited to funerary context but through this Lancel presents the reader with a trove of pictures of tombs, their contents, epigraphic descriptions and small important details like the names of those interred (which are far more diverse & numerous then what we find in the sources!). They seemed to have delighted in simple curiosities, were enamored with Egyptian magic and motifs but were inelaborate in their own approach to the plastic arts.
There is an extensive and insightful section on religion and of course the obligatory treatment of the contests with Rome culminating in Carthage’s demise. All in all I found that the culmination of evidence presented in the book gave me an impression that the Carthaginians were not only resourceful & intensely commercial but were a well educated, relatively modest, familial and a surprisingly pious people. Luckily, I feel I know them better now after reading this than after reading all other books on the subject I’ve read combined.