Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The Erasure of the Carthaginians

by Salman Hameed

We don't know much about Carthaginians. Perhaps, this is why there is something fascinating about them. That - and the legend of the brilliant general, Hannibal (no - not the Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal). The Romans completely destroyed Carthage (located near modern-day Tunis) in 146 BCE at the end of the Third of the Punic Wars and built their own city on top of it. What we know about Carthaginians - their lives, their customs, their habits, their philosophies - almost all of this comes from the contemporary adversaries of Carthage, including the Romans.

There is a new book out about the Carthaginians, Carthage Must be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by Richard Miles. The book tries to piece together the real story of Carthage. While reading the review I was wondering if similar erasures of cultures can happen in the 21st century - not in a sci fiesque post-apocalytic Earth - but rather in the current age of information? While it is difficult to erase the memory now (digital fidelity prevents this), we can certainly envision a slide to extreme irrelevance of a culture and buried in a deluge of unrelated information.

In any case, here is a review of the new book and it gives us a bit more about the Carthaginians:
Who were the Carthaginians, if not simply Rome’s barbarous enemies? According to one source, they were refugees from the Phoenician city of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon). Late in the ninth century BCE, this source tells us, the king of Tyre died, and his twin children, Pygmalion and Elissa, were left to divide the kingdom between themselves. Pygmalion, not inclined to share power, decided instead to have Elissa’s husband killed and drive her and her supporters from the city. Fleeing Tyre, they ultimately touched down on the coast of North Africa, where the King of Numidia allowed them as much land as could be covered with an oxhide. Elissa and her proto-Carthaginians, in what the Romans would probably point to as a characteristic act of duplicity, sliced the hide into thin strips, thereby acquiring far greater tracts than had been offered. Years later Elissa’s reign would come to a violent end when, put off by the idea of having to marry a local potentate, she immolated herself. 
The city’s actual founding may not have been quite so dramatic, but there are elements of truth in the story. Carthage was indeed founded by the Phoenicians—a mercantile people who lived in independent cities scattered along the Levant—as a port where their ships could anchor and resupply during trading voyages to the western reaches of the Mediterranean. Carthage’s elite citizens claimed descent from these Phoenician settlers, and their Phoenician heritage was reflected in their language—Punic—and worship of Baal Hammon and his consort, Tanit, both Phoenician deities. Given the dearth of information about the Carthaginians themselves, Miles looks to the Phoenicians for clues about Carthaginian identity. They were shrewd, and when faced with occupation by militarily superior nations often leveraged their various trading monopolies to preserve independence. They were also great innovators, developing, we read, “interest-bearing loans, maritime insurance, joint financing of commercial ventures, deposit banking, and, possibly, weights and measures.”
All well and good, except then there is the issue of human sacrifice. Whoa!
The Phoenicians did, however, pass on a few less savory practices to their Carthaginian cousins. Most notable among them was the horrific ritual of child sacrifice, mentioned by a number of historians and confirmed by archaeological discoveries, the largest of which has come to be known as the Tophet (“roasting place”) of Salammb├┤—a field near the heart of ancient Carthage from which archaeologists have exhumed tens of thousands of urns stuffed with the charred bones of newborns and toddlers. One stele unearthed there bears the inscription, “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed this son of his own flesh. Bless him you!” The practice, abhorred by Greeks and Romans alike, was notably continued in Carthage centuries after it had been abandoned in Phoenicia.
Though perhaps less striking than child sacrifice, the most important Phoenician influences on the Carthaginians were undoubtedly nautical and mercantile. The Carthaginians, like their founders, were great sailors and traders, and eventually outpaced their Phoenician forebears for maritime supremacy in the Mediterranean.
And here is an interesting about their evolving and religion:
This trade, in addition to providing the city’s financial bulwark, also led to what Miles calls the “fusive” aspects of Carthaginian culture. As a nexus of exchange the city interacted with a number of different societies—Greek, Roman, Celtic, Egyptian—and what little survives suggests that Carthage was something of a melting pot. One partially extant monument in Carthage shows signs of Greek and Egyptian styles in addition to more traditional Phoenician elements. Similarly, religions bled into one another—the Carthaginian deity Melqart and the Greek god Heracles eventually became so closely associated that the distinct entity, Heracles-Melqart, was worshipped in its own right.   
Miles’s greatest successes in recovering the lost world of the Carthaginian Mediterranean are to be found in these sorts of large scale and somewhat generalized discussions of Carthaginian political and military life—how Carthage first came to power through its shrewd trading, or how its mercantile interests dictated its engagement with other civilizations. Miles is less successful in offering any recognizable portrait of the Carthaginians themselves. Were they, like the Romans, generally tolerant of the religious beliefs and cultural practices of conquered peoples, or did they impose their own ways on others? What rights, if any, did female members of their society have? Did the Carthaginians write poetry or history, tragedy or comedy? These questions go largely unanswered.
But these are, in view of this book’s accomplishments, minor failings. In fashioning this sweeping synoptic history from the absolutely wretched state of written and material evidence on Carthage, Miles has taken a sow’s ear and made it into a silk purse—or, at least, most of one. His account, masterful as it is, is also quite dense, and will not likely hold the interest of the general reader approaching the subject for the first time. It is nevertheless an admirable and a valuable book, and one whose minor shortcomings only serve to remind us that the field of study on Carthage remains quite open.
Sounds great. Read the full review here.


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