I just finished Richard Miles' Carthage Must Be Destroyed. It was fabulous--an illumination of the time of heroes; of Hannibal crossing the alps and Salammbô. Miles says: great cities have great foundation stories. Indeed, the story of Carthage is the story of Tyre, Troy, Rome and Sicily... Tangled webs and Homeric Destiny?
At one time it was the most luxerious, most fabulously wealthy city on earth. I have been re-listening to another Melvyn Bragg program, this time on the Roman destruction of Carthage, and one of the guests mentioned that in ancient times, traveling from Rome to Carthage would have been like going from London to New York today.
Well, I prefer to think of it like Hong Kong: a dazzlingly rich, bustling trading entrepot; populated with people from all over the region-- Italians, Greeks, Syrians, Persians and those from the Levant mingling with Spanish, Egyptian, and Sub-Saharan Africans. Strabo claimed that over 700,000 people dwelled in the city. A city of maritime merchants, it was also a naval super power.
Built on the fortunes made from the legendary purple dye of the Phoencians-- these great traders of the Mediterranean made the finest ships and traded in everything from ebony and ivory, to African animals used for the Roman Games-- skins, hides, lions, elephants and peacocks. Tin and silver from New Carthage (Spain) was important as was their trade in crockery and spices, honey; the city was also known far and wide for its wine and for its version of the wildly popular Roman condiment, Garum--made from fermented fish innards, it was "like the tomato ketchup of the times," said one of Melvyn Bragg's guests. (See Silk Road Gourmet's Making Garum!)
Facing the sea, with it's superb double harbors, you almost cannot help but imagine that on a clear day a person could see all the way to Sicily.
Taking a look at the city layout one can immediately sense how well-planned the city was. Guarding the circular military harbor and the larger mercantile harbor stood a watchtower, and located near the tower were both the tombs and the kilns. I imagine this also would have been a good place to have located the dye vats and the garum producing factories as well-- guarded and facing the sea.
In fact, the entire city was well-guarded, as Carthage was known for its massive city walls.
Not surprising, in the center of the city was the busy agora, and giving the people's predilection for trade, you can just imagine the kinds of goods that must have been available in the markets-- incense from Arabia and maybe even silk from China sat alongside local dates, figs, olive oil and the most exquisite embroidery in the Mediterranean.
Scattered beyond the agora, were temples and four residential areas layed out in grid patterns.
Like Hong Kong, I imagine it to be a place that exuded unstoppable excitement. And, thanks to the fact that-- unlike their mortal enemies, the Romans-- the citizens of Carthage never took to the Stoic philosophy, conspicuous consumption was always an option. And, so the city was also renown for its monumental architecture and beautiful buildings, embodying all the latest Greek and Egyptian styles. There were five and six story residential building, for example, which are said to have towered over narrow streets-- and of course, the famed mosaics.
Going through an exhibition of Carthaginian artifacts in Tokyo, one could only just barely catch a glimpse of the splendour of what was Carthage. There were terracotta urns used to store the city's famous garum (in Japanese called 魚醤）and coins, gold jewelry,beautiful glass beads and armor. I think it had to be the mosaics that most impressed. To be honest, compared to things you see from China at a similar time period, it seemed somehow under-whelming. However, world-class she was-- and Carthage, during Punic times, stood as the great mirror of ancient Rome. Sometimes referred to as twin cities, Carthage and Rome were entangled by an ancient curse and entertwining destinies, jealousies, and rivalries. If nothing else, there was always Sicily to fight over. So, I suppose it only inevitable that one or the other must fall.
Cato the Elder always ended his speeches thus: And by the way, Carthage must be destroyed. It might have been Mary Beard or one of the other lady scholars with Melvyn Bragg who described the time that Cato took out three ripe and exquisite figs from his pocket: Look, these are but three days from Rome...Those figs representing wealth beyond imagination and a city infamous for its child sacrifices and lack of restraint. Decadence, sacrifice and fabulous riches.
Cato kept up his mantra and before long the opportunity to attack presented itself leading the way to the third and final Punic War.
It was Scipio, of course, who brought the city down.
After a long siege, Scipio-- "the Roman Hannibal"--swept in to inflict defeat on the Carthaginians and raze the city to the ground. Anyone not killed was sold into slavery and the city buildings were all destroyed.
The final moments of the battle have been told and retold. The Carthiginian general, hoping to at least spare any final suffering after he realized that all was lost, had left the citadel to surrender, to the disgust of his wife, who yelling insults at his cowardice leapt with her children into the fires. The entire city was, by that time, I suppose, on fire. And then as the Greek historian Phobius stood at his side, Scipio-- with tears streaming down his cheeks, was said to have cried out a sentence from Homer:
- A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
- And Priam and his people shall be slain.
The Greek historian was deeply moved by this; for --as all historians know-- there is such a thing as Homeric destiny, and hence, just as Troy fell, and now Carthage falls, so too shall one day Rome be destroyed as well.
History as destiny
Miles' book has chapters about heroes. Not surprisingly, when I mentioned being on another Hannibal kick, one of my associates on facebook said, "The Punic Wars, now Those were Wars." Interestingly, not an hour earlier-- thinking along very similar lines, I had asked Caesar whether he thought that there was any chance that someday future historians would be talking about our wars in such heroic terms... Vietnam, Iraq, AfPak-- is it near impossible to imagine that modern wars will ever inspire people in the same way.
For history is more than anything a love story, and in this way, Troy, Carthage and Rome remind me of my murals at Bezeklik.
Located along the Great and Glorious Mural Express, they were renown in all lands for their stunning beauty-- in particular, it was the extravagant use of the costly color blue that amazed East and West. Like Carthage, like Troy, like Rome, they were painstakingly created over hundreds of years-- only to be destroyed in waves: ancient treasure hunters, Islamic iconoclasts and finally by the western scholars who pried the murals right off the cave walls. The most precious of the murals, cut into pieces and shipped back to Berlin, perished during Allied bombing during WWII.
And, so it goes.... and yet that is not the end of the story for Bezeklik since researchers in Japan are now trying to digitally reconstruct the murals to bring them back to life once again. One can get on board the mural express to see them or one can log on to see them digitally reconstructed on a scholarly site or even visit them in Second Life.
Less some Manichaean fight between light and dark, history-- told and re-told like a poem-- rises and falls as it is reborn.
Or as Charlotte Higgins article on the war and the Iliad concludes:
At the end of the poem comes the scene between Priam and Achilles, when the frail, grieving father finds it in himself to kiss those "terrible, man-killing hands / that had slaughtered Priam's many sons in battle", when Achilles sees reflected in the face of Priam the likeness of his own beloved father. Weil underestimated the power of this passage. Achilles is not simply an unfeeling "thing", reduced by the unspeakable power of force. The truth may be harder to take. He is at the same time a mass slaughterer and the gentlest of men. Only a few lines of verse stand between the Achilles who wipes away the tears of his beloved Patroclus and the one who piles up hecatombs of the Trojan dead. Find in this comfort, if you can.