Book Review by Melvadius
This 521 page book by Richard Miles, a specialist in the history of Punic, Roman and late antique North Africa, is claimed to be ‘the first full-scale history of Carthage in decades’ and as such ‘draws on a wealth of new archaeological research’. With a bibliography containing 5 pages of ancient texts, 29 of modern references and end notes stretching to some 77 pages I can well understand this statement without even considering the 26 illustrations and 16 maps the book also contains.
The author does indeed write with authority and noticeably draws on his own experience of excavating Punic sites in both Rome and Carthage. He makes numerous comparisons to the changing view of Carthage throughout history making full use of the large number of both ancient and modern sources listed in the extensive bibliography. The end notes are especially useful for anyone wishing to learn more as they provide a wealth of information and discussion on current and previous views about events in the period.
The book itself contains 15 chapters along with a prologue, introduction and a useful Chronology; the prologue is in effect the epilogue of independent Carthage, dealing as it does, with the final stages of the Roman assault in spring 146BC. This prologue however sets the scene for the introduction which briefly describes much of the symbolism in how both Greece and Rome saw Carthage. It then moves on to more modern comparisons and consideration of how Carthage could be viewed as part of the wider Mediterranean culture it exemplified.
The opening Chapter on ‘Feeding the Beast’ provides needful background for the Punic tyro in how Phoenician culture spread across the Mediterranean initially as an independent set of merchant princes but subsequently out of necessity to feed the continual demands of a threatening Assyria for tribute.
This theme is developed in the five next chapters where the rise of Carthage is explored as well as the continuing links between Carthage and its Phoenician origins and the continuity of the Phoenician based religions such as Melquat. These early chapters also explore the rising tension between Carthage and the cities of Magna Graecia notably with the conflicts in Sicily and the use made by all sides of myths and legends to defend and support claims to particular towns or areas. Rome was not idle in this propaganda war and made her own claims especially as she became a major player in the Mediterranean in her own right.
The next eight chapters from 'The First Punic War' to 'The Desolation of Carthage' concentrate on the events of the three Punic wars charting the major events and providing analysis of why events occurred in the way they did. Carthage’s destruction was not the end of the story and indeed the final chapter 'Punic Faith' charts the outcomes of the war including how this series of major conflicts affected Rome’s sense and view of its own place and how it ‘justified' its actions in terms of Roman pietas and fides.
On the plus side; in this work where there are conflicting views on particular topics Miles text usually includes both some discussion as well as appropriate references to recent works setting out of the main arguments including any contradictory opinions in more detail. The downside is that in any comprehensive study such as this there is always the possibility of the publication of more recent papers which can affect or even contradict some of the conclusions drawn.
The maps provide useful information to the reader and cover a diverse range of topics including; several on the spread of Carthaginian influence, major towns in the Central Mediterranean, as well as Sicily and Sardinia plus Carthaginian trade routes and obviously the major battle of Cannae.
A case in point regarding the changing nature of evidence is the recent publication of a study by Schwartz et al into the infant skeletal remains from Punic Carthage. Consideration of this article may or may not lead Miles into questioning his general conclusions supporting a view of Carthaginian infant sacrifice as a ‘common’ occurrence.
However, the question of the extent or otherwise of Carthaginian infant sacrifice is a relatively minor quibble in what is a very thoroughly researched and readable work by an eminent historian and archaeologist. In my view Miles can be proud of what he has achieved in breathing life into a story which as the chronology in the book makes clear spanned around a thousand years from 969 BC to AD 19. I was reading an advance uncorrected proof version of the text and although I noticed one name misspelt in the index it was correct in the main text so very few if any typographical errors should be included in the published version.
This book can be read on several levels from; a very good overview for the novice to a source for further research by the scholar. I would therefore strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning not just the broad facts but insights into the underlying motivations of the people and races involved in the events of Carthage’s rise, fall and eventual rebirth.