Rivalling the Romans

Chris Gray reviews Richard Miles's 'Carthage must be destroyed: the rise and fall of an ancient Mediterranean civilisation' London 2010, pp521, £30

This book is an extremely welcome account of the history of Carthage from its foundation to the destruction of the city at the hands of the Romans in 146 BCE. Up to now the most accessible account in English has been BH Warmington’s Carthage (London 1964), a competent but rather pedestrian résumé of these historical events.

Miles’s work, in contrast, explores the Phoenician background in more detail - Carthage was a colony of Tyre - and contains observations of great value concerning Carthaginian relations with not only Rome, but also Greek culture. Refreshingly, Miles also succeeds in distancing himself from a blanket endorsement of Roman civilisation as the bearer of paramount values - or, alternatively, a dogmatic reversal of this position, in which Carthage appears as the maligned victim of an all-conquering Roman imperialism, which had no redeeming features whatsoever (see pp360-61). He succeeds in presenting both protagonists as open to criticism, which, indeed, is the only justifiable position for conscientious historians.

Human sacrifice

Criticism of Carthage has understandably often centred on the issue of human sacrifice, as practised there. This is in some respects a carry-over of the old Israelite propaganda against their Canaanite neighbours, as witnessed in the Old Testament, with its references to ritual such as that condemned in Leviticus xviii, 21, which ordains: “And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech”.

It must be recognised, however, that human sacrifice is a practice for which we have widespread anthropological evidence. The usual context is some kind of crisis in which the leader (king, chief) vows that he will sacrifice his child if that is what the gods demand. Thus in the Old Testament itself Abraham is commanded to kill his firstborn son, Isaac, and only at the last minute a ram is substituted (Genesis xxiii, 9-14). Analogously, Jephthah, campaigning against the Ammonites, vows to sacrifice the first person that he shall meet on his return, which turns out to be his own daughter (Judges xi, 29-40).

Similarly at the start of the Trojan War Agamemnon, faced with a contrary wind, sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia in order that the expedition may sail. Even in Rome, where human sacrifice was frowned upon, when Hannibal was carrying all before him and threatening to detach the Italian cities from their allegiance, the citizens decreed that a man of Gaul and a Greek woman should be buried alive in the Forum Boarium, as Miles felicitously reports (p291).

Carthaginian practice is, therefore, not without parallel in the ancient world, but what seems indisputable is its comparative extent, wider than in many cultures. Curiously, it appears that we have here an example of colonial conservatism vis-à-vis the mother country.

Miles asserts that “it appears that the practice of molk sacrifice [cf Molech, Moloch] had completely died out in Phoenicia by the 7th century BC” (p69).

Contrastingly the tophet (child cemetery) at Carthage was, apparently, used from the mid-8th century BCE onwards (p70), and it contained not only infants who had died at a very young age of natural causes, but also a number of deliberate examples of child sacrifice, as witnessed by one inscription, which reads: “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar, son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathan, vowed this son of his own flesh. Bless him you!” (quoted p72).

To this evidence of a strain of cruelty in the Carthaginian character we may add the citizens’ readiness to crucify unsuccessful generals - Miles records several instances - but against this we can set the Romans’ enjoyment of gladiatorial contests, a ‘sport’ which grew out of a decision by certain Roman nobles that some of their slaves should be made to fight to the death.

The constitution

Miles does not give as detailed a picture of Carthaginian colonisation and exploration as Warmington, but he covers the essential ground (see pp82-90). As he observes, the Carthaginians appear to have got as far south as Cameroun, but only as a reconnaissance. This is impressive, but we should remember that some Phoenicians succeeded in circumnavigating the African continent in the 7th century BCE (see Herodotos iv, 42). The Carthaginians’ exploration voyages were essentially a spin-off from their colonising and commercial activities in the western Mediterranean, which they soon turned into something of a Carthaginian lake.

Miles is also good at describing the fluctuations of Carthaginian politics and the evolution of the city’s constitution. He correctly notes the oligarchic bias in the latter:

“From its earliest beginnings the city was ruled by an aristocratic cabal referred to as the b’lm [Punic was written without vowels, but we should imagine some such word as the Hebrew baalim], the lords or princes, who controlled all the important judicial, governmental, religious and military organs of state. At the apex of this hierarchy was a family whose wealth and power set them above fellow members of the elite at that particular time ... From the last decade of the sixth century to the first decade of the fourth the supreme family was the Magonids” (p67).

The word for chief magistrate was sufet, which is cognate with the Hebrew word shophet, usually translated as ‘judge’. According to Warmington, “In the 3rd century sufets held office for only one year, and there were probably two at a time” (BH Warmington Carthage p144).

This would put them roughly on a par with the Roman consuls at that stage, and suggests a substantial ruling class of oligarchs. There was also a Council of Elders. With the collapse of Magonid power following military defeat in Sicily at the hands of Dionysios, tyrant of Syracuse, another elite family headed by Hanno gained the dominant position and a reorganisation of state offices was carried out, which may have included the establishment of the suffetes (to use the Latin plural) as chief magistrates - at any rate that is what Miles appears to indicate:

“During the early years of the 5th century a new constitutional body had been established: the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four. Made up of members of the aristocratic elite, it oversaw the conduct of officials and military commanders, as well as acting as a kind of higher constitutional court. At the same time the Council of Elders remained in existence, and may even have had its powers enhanced, with treasury and foreign affairs coming under its control. At the head of the Carthaginian state were now two annually elected senior executive officers, the suffetes, and a range of more junior officials and special commissioners oversaw different aspects of governmental business such as public works, tax-collecting and the administration of the state treasury. Panels of special commissioners, called pentarchies, were appointed from the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four; they appear to have dealt with a variety of affairs of state” (p130).


Miles also gives a good outline of the seesaw military struggles between the Carthaginians and the Greek colonial cities for control of Sicily. This lasted for some 250 years, always leading to the restoration of a form of balance of power, with the Carthaginians dominant in the west and the Greeks in the east. Then finally the Romans intervened, seizing control of the whole island.

The First Punic War (264-241 BCE) was triggered by Roman support of a group of mercenaries based at Messana in Sicily, who were under attack from Syracuse. These men first appealed to Carthage, and then asked Rome for help. Rome chose to block any aid from Carthage, which would, if given, have extended the latter’s political sphere of influence. In order to win the war the Romans had to develop a fleet: they did so, and they succeeded in winning several naval victories. It was the last of these that induced Carthage to ask for peace; the terms were harsh: the Carthaginians had to evacuate Sicily, set free all Roman prisoners and pay a war indemnity of 3,200 talents. An economically exhausted Carthage was forced to accept. Shortly afterwards, with Carthage embroiled in a conflict with her army of mercenaries seeking payment for their services, the Romans added insult to injury by seizing Sardinia and Corsica (both within the Carthaginian sphere) and demanding a further 1,200 talents as indemnity.

Carthage’s resurgence in the face of these disasters was led by Hamilcar Barca, who seized the opportunity to found a substitute empire in Spain. Miles has a particularly good description of these operations. In parallel, Hamilcar advocated the development of Carthage’s north African territories. As Miles writes, “The wealth of Spain was used not only to pay off Carthage’s war debts, but also to ensure the support of his army, the Popular Assembly and his own faction in the Council of Elders. Despite his absence from Carthage, Spanish gold and silver guaranteed Hamilcar’s political influence by proxy” (p218).

An integral part of these developments was the take-over of a number of metal mines by the Barcids, who organised the work along lines that the Athenians and their Roman successors would have found familiar: “Large numbers of slaves, controlled by overseers, did the manual labour. Underground rivers were redirected through tunnels and shafts, and new technology was used to pump water out of the shafts” (p219).

Hannibal’s elephants

Carthaginian expansion in Spain led to a further clash with the Romans and the outbreak of the Second Punic War, which, as everyone knows, was noted for Hannibal’s invasion of Italy via his celebrated crossing of the Alps.

Miles is once again excellent on this, especially as regards the elephants in Hannibal’s army. These were not, as one might suppose, the large African variety of the savannah, but forest elephants from the north - somewhat smaller, but still effective enough on the battlefield as an early form of tank. It appears that Hannibal also had at least one Indian elephant in his invading force. (The Carthaginians obtained their Indian elephants from Ptolemaic Egypt; the arrival of elephants in Hellenistic Greek armies was due to an initial gift from the Indian emperor, Chandragupta - known to the Greek historians as Sandrakottos - to Alexander).

Miles is to be commended, as I said, for avoiding pro-Roman prejudice in his work. Commenting on the stock Roman picture of the Carthaginians, he writes:

“It is worth reminding ourselves that these representations of impiety, faithlessness and greed were the product of [Roman historian] Livy’s perspective, fulfilling a particular Roman agenda in both justifying Roman aggression and defining Roman virtue. Despite Livy’s protestations to the contrary, the Carthaginians were demonstrably no less [he presumably means no more] faithless than the Romans during the Second Punic War, and many of the charges that Livy laid against Hannibal and his troops in fact served to deflect attention away from Roman breaches of good faith. Thus Livy doggedly portrayed the Carthaginian siege and capture of Sagunto (which had triggered the Second Punic War) as a prime example of bad faith on the part of Hannibal and his countrymen. By contrast, the Roman Senate’s failure to protect a sworn ally is completely glossed over” (pp360-61).

Mode of production

Richard Miles is not a Marxist, so it is useless for Marxists to complain if he does not ask or answer questions which interest them. It falls to us to tackle these issues. Chief among them is the question of the precise mode of production obtaining in Carthage - in particular in the period between the First and Second Wars, when Carthage entered its final expansionary phase. Fortunately we can refer here to the analysis developed by Stéphane Gsell, who wrote (in French) a history of ancient North Africa and also an important article on rural slavery in the Roman province thereof (‘Esclaves ruraux dans l’Afrique romaine’ in FE Adcock et al Mélanges Gustave Glotz Paris 1932, pp397-415).

Gsell notes that “we know vaguely that the Carthaginians had many slaves” (in the article cited) and discusses the extension of the city’s north African territory in the 3rd century BCE in his main work.

He writes: “Did the state declare itself the owner of the land in the whole of this conquered territory? This is what we don’t know. However, some Carthaginians obtained or acquired lands that became veritable private property ... On these domains and perhaps also on others where the state would reserve for itself full ownership and exploitation rights there lived many slaves, employed as agricultural workers. Thousands of them took part in revolts at the beginning and in the middle of the 4th century. Carthage kept prisoners of war to cultivate the fields: that was the origin of a large part of the rural slaves. But we are not told if they had masters who bought them or if, on the contrary, the state would have remained the owner of these unfortunates, forcing them to work on public land or hiring them out for work on private land. We do not know if there were any free labourers on the Carthaginian nobles’ land, farmers paying rent in agricultural produce, like the coloni on the great African estates of the Roman epoch” (Histoire de l’ancienne Afrique du nord Vol 2, pp299-300).

It follows that we can only guess what the dominant mode of production actually was, but an educated guess, I would argue, is possible. Retention of native (ie, non-Carthaginian) labour seems unlikely: the Phoenicians were paramount slave dealers and it seems probable that there would have been dealers in Carthage quite prepared to sell to fellow nationals. Carthaginians as tenant farmers also appears unlikely: with alternative locations first in Sicily and then in Spain, there would have been counter-attractions, although it is possible that with a rising population certain of the poorer classes might have elected to support themselves in this way.

State farms operated by unfree labourers seem a distinct possibility, but the nobles may well have preferred private estates of their own. A famous Carthaginian agricultural treatise written by Mago in the 3rd century invited his fellow countrymen to live on such a farm (see Warmington, p155). (This work was translated into Latin following the final defeat of Carthage and used by Roman experts on agriculture such as Varro and Columella; unfortunately it has not survived). It seems likely, therefore, that Carthage was on the road to what could be characterised as a ‘mature slave society’, of which the classic example is Rome in the final two and a half centuries of the republic.

Such reasoning must be seen as speculative, and maybe that is why Miles refused to pursue the topic. But he has written a very useful book which, hopefully, will stir interest in this gifted Semitic people, a nation which gave the Romans the fright of their lives in the 3rd century BCE, when the dread shout arose in the city of Rome: “Hannibal ad portas!” (“Hannibal is at the gates!”).