The Death of Carthage by Robin E. Levin
Book Review by MarcusMettius
Good historical fiction is a two-fer. You can get the facts by reading Polybius and Livy. But you need a Robin Levin to introduce you to Marcus Nemo Nemonides (Marcus Nobody, son of Nobody) - I just love that name!
Yep - you get to have fun and learn something in the bargain with good historical fiction, and The Death of Carthage meets both criteria in spades. Robin Levin brings life to the history – even the mundane history. We all know that slaves in the ancient world were flogged. But listening to the slave overseer Nicander describe to the new slave Enneas how and under what circumstances that punishment would be inflicted brought to my mind any number of new employee orientation meetings that I have had the misfortune of sitting through.
The Death of Carthage spans the Second and Third Punic Wars. The book is divided into three distinct sections, or “books,” each narrated from the perspective of a different participant in the conflict between Rome and Carthage: Lucius Tullius Varro, a gentle but nonetheless lethal Roman cavalryman; his cousin Enneus, a Roman soldier sold into slavery by the Carthaginians; and finally Enneus’ son Ectorius, a Roman army translator who witnesses the final destruction of Carthage. If you want fascinating fictional portrayals of the “big shots” of the conflict – the various Scipios, Hasdrubals, and Hannibals – you will get them here, in abundance; but the real “heroes” of the book, in my opinion, are the ordinary folk caught up in the war.
I particularly liked the author’s depiction of the life of the slave Enneus. To the victor belong the spoils, and I had gotten used to thinking of Romans as the buyers at slave auctions, not the other way around. Enneus suffered a huge “demotion” – from Roman citizen to servile ranch hand. He begins his account by posing the question – “What would I say is the worst thing about being a slave?” His list of possible answers to that question contains the usual suspects: flogging, the loss of status, the threat of sexual assault, etc. But what bugged him the most was being deprived of learning and knowledge. Like stories of wealthy people who lose everything in a financial crisis, the author’s quite lengthy portrayal of Enneus’ life as a slave serves as a warning against taking a reasonably happy and secure life for granted – you just never know what is lurking around the corner!
Because of the “three book” format of the novel, Ms Levin repeats many historical details from different points of view. My knowledge of the Punic Wars was spotty prior to reading the book, so I appreciated the repetition. Also, the perverse Roman naming conventions (and the Carthaginians were even worse!) make following this history difficult, no doubt. "Uh, excuse me, but exactly which Scipio or Hasdrubal are we referring to?" I believe that is why Robin Levin chose to repeat the same history and story elements through the words of each of the main characters in her book. It might have been more effective if she had varied the language just a bit more, but overall I found the technique to be a good one - Robin Levin does not just want to give you the history - she wants to make it stick. And while the book is very character driven, she also provides extensive commentary on the many battles of the conflict and a fascinating depiction of the life of the Carthaginian elite. My knowledge of and interest in this extinct culture was greatly enhanced by the reading of this book.
In the end, though, what I enjoyed most about the book was the author’s portrayal of human kindness and dignity. Her depiction of a group of slaves and ex-slaves forming their own little oasis of humanity in the midst of a violent world offers hope for the future. "Papa's funeral" epitomized this depiction and showed the love and respect that an ordinary, good person can garner in the midst of a world ruled by glory and power-driven masters of the universe, and also the positive impact that such a person can have on the lives of others.
Informative, funny, and human - good stuff! I recommend it. And Carthage must be destroyed!