Richard Miles presents a new history of Carthage, which aims to show the land of Dido and Hannibal in a new light and rehabilitate the Punic state from what the author considers neglect and prejudice on the part of later historians. Miles especially succeeds in his descriptions and analysis of the military history of Carthage by admirably making the various convoluted aspects of the three Punic Wars easy to follow.
Overall, Punic history can be confusing for the nonspecialist. For example, political and military leaders of the Carthaginians were all named Hanno, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal, or Hannibal. In the book, there are ten Hannos, eight Hamilcars, nine Hasdrubals, and even the great Hannibal Barca shared the crowded stage of Punic history with five other Hannibals.
The best part of Miles’ book is his description of the rise and military campaigns of Hannibal Barca during the Second Punic War and the great commander’s later fall from favor into exile and death. Hannibal was influenced by the martial jingoism of his clan. His father was the general Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar was badly defeated by the Romans in Sicily during the First Punic War but saved Carthage from destruction by rebellious mercenary soldiers in that war’s aftermath by savagely suppressing the uprising. Hamilcar Barca and his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair then conquered and consolidated southern Spain for Carthage, using the same brutal tactics as during the Mercenaries Revolt. Southern Iberia was effectively turned into a protectorate of the Barcid clan.
Although Hannibal was born in Carthage, he experienced his formative years on campaign with his father. Unlike other prominent Carthaginians, Hannibal was the product of Iberian military camps, not the Punic palaces. After the death of Hannibal’s father and the assassination of his brother-in-law, the Punic army in Spain proclaimed the 26-year-old Hannibal to be their leader, and Carthage had no choice but to ratify the decision. Hannibal inherited all the martial expansionist sentiment of his clan and was determined not to let the Romans humiliate Carthage again. Even the tendentiously pro-Carthaginian Richard Miles admits that the Second Punic War was sparked by the Barcids’ bellicose behavior in Spain.
Hannibal pushed northward into Spain and conquered the city of Saguntum, which was allied with Rome. When Rome protested, Hannibal shrugged off her envoys, sparking the Second Punic War as he embarked on his road to military glory.
Hannibal was one of the first generals to use propaganda effectively. With the help of sympathetic Greek intellectuals, he appropriated the image of Hercules and his mythic travels to rally the support of Hellenized inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin. This task was made easier by the fact that Hannibal was tutored by Greeks. The crossing of the Pyrenees, the fording of the Rhone, and the conquest of the Alps were presented as new Herculean labors by the new Heracles. Hannibal finished the Alpine crossing by wiping out a small Celtic tribe named the Taurini, after they resisted the Punic advance through their ancestral lands. This was both an emulation of Heracles’ defeat of various small tribes and an example of how much the lionized general was a product of his brutal time and of his brutal father.
Hannibal’s famous use of elephants was actually less innovative than has usually been believed. Alexander the Great, not Hannibal, introduced them to classical warfare, and Carthage learned about elephantine warfare from Pyrrhus, who used them against Punic forces in Sicily. Hannibal’s innovation was to draft the presently extinct elephants from the foothills of the Atlas mountains—these beasts being significantly smaller than other elephants adapted to warfare, and thus more maneuverable. Therefore, the mountain-like creatures shown in paintings such as Giulio Romano’s The Battle of Zama were not similar to those employed by the great Carthaginian.
The general’s battles are skillfully described by the author. Without getting bogged down in overtly detailed military narrative, Miles shows how Hannibal’s tactical genius allowed him to ravage Italy for over a decade. At Cannae, Hannibal made sure the Romans had the sun in their eyes and created a vacuum at the center of his host by allowing the Romans to drive back his Iberian and Celtic infantry. The Romans were drawn into this trap and subsequently wiped out by the Carthaginian cavalry swooping down from the wings. Twenty-nine senior Roman commanders were killed along with 70,000 soldiers, and 10,000 Romans were captured. In the aftermath of Cannae, Hannibal either murdered his prisoners or sold them into slavery. Miles excuses this on the grounds that the prisoners were “a dangerous drain on his already stretched resources.”
On the other hand, Miles acknowledges the genius and drive of the man who would ultimately defeat Hannibal and drive him out of Italy. Publius Cornelius Scipio, better known as Scipio Africanus, was a military leader whose genius was equal to that of Hannibal. Indeed, in terms of propaganda, Scipio arguably surpassed Hannibal. The young Roman had stories spread throughout Italy that he was the son of Jupiter and received military advice from his celestial father. Before conquering New Carthage (modern day Cartagena, Spain), Scipio claimed to have been visited by the sea god Poseidon, who promised assistance in battle.
Scipio Africanus started his campaign against Hannibal when he was only 25; he had an uncanny capacity to appropriate and improve upon Hannibal’s tactical and strategic gifts. During the Battle of Zama, where Carthage was defeated and the Second Punic War ended, Scipio created open spaces between his ranks (as Hannibal had done at Cannae), which channeled the Punic elephants and prevented them from inflicting their usual grievous damage.
Scipio was also known for his magnanimity toward his foes (which, as we have seen, cannot be said of Hannibal). When Hannibal committed suicide in Bithynian exile after the local ruler was about to surrender him to Rome, Scipio publicly expressed his outrage in the Senate. Like Hannibal, Scipio Africanus was also forced into exile, albeit internal, and died a broken and bitter man.
The remainder of Richard Miles’ work suffers from a remarkable anti-Greek and anti-Roman bias, and a tendentious exaggeration of Punic cultural influence. The narrative opens with a heartrending description of the sack of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War, in the course of which the author describes the Roman forces as “killing squads.” At the same time, the well-known Carthaginian custom of sacrificing live children is obfuscated. Miles dismisses the evidence of child sacrifice to Baal as anti-Punic slurs by Greek historians, but later acknowledges that “during periods of great crisis the Carthaginians and other western Phoenicians did sacrifice their own children for the benefit of their families and community.” These savage practices were officially sanctioned and took place as late as the Third Punic War.
Additionally, Miles exaggerates the Carthaginian influence on the Hellenic world. While the naval and mercantile innovations of the Phoenicians are not in doubt, their cultural impact was nowhere near the level that Miles suggests. The author inflates Punic influence on Greek and Roman architecture and claims that Punic religion strongly influenced the development of the iconic Greek Hercules and the famous Herculean Way. There was indeed a Mediterranean cult of Hercules-Melqart, but it was the Carthaginians who joined their god to the mythical Hellenic figure; and even this cult was nowhere as prevalent as Miles suggests.
He derides the famous legend of Carthage’s founding by Elissa, who used a thinly cut ox hide to measure out the territory of the future city, as “a wonderfully dramatic vehicle for virtually every Greek and Roman prejudice about Carthage and its inhabitants.” Miles claims that the legend portrays the Carthaginians as “treacherous and deceitful practitioners of doublespeak” who are also greedy, lustful, and cruel. To follow this laughable analysis to its nonsensical conclusion, the legend of Aeneas portrays the Romans as craven, lustful, and devious. (After all, Aeneas fled from the victorious Greeks, seduced Dido, and then secretly abandoned her to suicide.) The author blames all Greco-Punic tension and warfare on “aggressive Greek colonial expansion,” while tracing every negative reference to Punic culture and society to Grecian historical bias. What Miles prefers not to emphasize is that both Plato and Aristotle admired Carthage for her system of government and public order. (Aristotle considered Carthage among the best-governed states of his time.)
A further problem is Miles’ account of the historical debates between historians and archeologists. For example, Miles’ captivating description of Carthaginian voyages to West Africa is ruined by several long paragraphs describing the academic debate regarding Carthaginian exploration. A summary of this debate would fit well into a scholarly monograph or dissertation, but it is hardly acceptable in a more general work of history aimed at a wider readership.
[Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, by Richard Miles (New York: Viking Adult) 544 pp., $35.00]