Commentary Magazine

How the West Was Won

We live in a Roman world. The Western Roman Empire disappeared 1,500 years ago, and the last remnant of the Eastern Empire winked out 40 years before Columbus stumbled upon the New World. But the language, law, architecture, and culture of Rome still suffuse our languages, laws, architecture, and culture. Its history is indispensable to understanding our own as heirs to the Western civilization that was created by Greece and Rome and that now dominates the world.

But all that did not have to be. Few things in history do. In the third and second centuries b.c.e., Rome fought three epic wars with Carthage, a city-state in what is today Tunisia. The first two wars (264–241 b.c.e. and 218–201 b.c.e.) were existential struggles, in which the advantage went back and forth several times before an exhausted Carthage had no choice but to sue an almost equally exhausted Rome for peace. Had Carthage won either war, the history of the West and thus the world would have been unimaginably different.

Thomas Hardy once wrote that “war makes rattling good history,” and Richard Miles offers incontrovertible proof of that in his new book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. What’s more, he does so despite a paucity of source material. Garret G. Fagan, a professor of ancient history, once said that writing such history is like trying to describe a room you can view only through a keyhole. The parts of the room directly in front of you can be seen clearly, other parts can only be glimpsed, and much of the room is entirely out of view, leaving you to infer what might be there. For the history of Carthage, that goes double. Not only have many sources been lost, but Rome also did its considerable best after Carthage’s destruction in 146 b.c.e. to erase the very memory of the city.

Thus Carthaginian sources are almost nonexistent and we are forced to rely on Roman and Greek ones, nearly all of which are highly tendentious. Miles does a masterful job of historiography in using these sources with caution and skepticism and combining them with recent developments in archeology. For instance, the famous eyewitness account of the fall of Carthage by the Greek historian Polybius was lost and Miles must tease out what is known of it from the later Greek historian Appian, who used Polybius’s now vanished work. This technique gives us as complete a picture of Carthaginian history and culture as we are likely to ever get.

Rome was founded, according to the traditional tale, in 753 b.c.e., and its early history is nearly impossible to separate from myth. It was only an insignificant city-state on the periphery of Western civilization for its first few hundred years, but it then began to expand out of its base in Latium, the area of central Italy where Latin was spoken. By the middle third of the third century b.c.e., it had conquered all of Italy south of the Po River, including Magna Graecia, the part of southern Italy that Greek colonists had settled. It was by then the greatest land power in the western Mediterranean.

Almost simultaneously, Phoenicians had founded the colony of Carthage on the south side of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a trading state from the start, and by the third century b.c.e. it had established its dominance in the waters of the western Mediterranean.

Between two expansionist states—one a land power, the other a sea power—facing each other across the Mediterranean, conflict was almost inevitable. The casus belli was control of Sicily; Cathage traded with it and had ruled portions of it for centuries. Rome seized on an excuse and invaded. The conflict soon turned into a principally naval affair because both sides had to supply their forces in Sicily from home.

Carthage had the largest navy in the western Mediterranean; Rome did not even have a seafaring tradition. But it built a fleet and soon developed a secret weapon, the corvus, a bridge that was lowered onto the enemy’s deck, secured by an iron hook that penetrated the deck when the bridge was dropped. The corvus allowed the Romans to, in effect, convert a sea battle into a series of land battles. The Carthaginians were flummoxed and lost the first major sea battle of the war.

Rome’s invasion of Africa became a disaster when the Carthaginians hired a Greek general who decisively defeated the Roman army. But Rome showed the mettle that would make it master of the world, building another fleet, raising another army, and continuing the war. The balance seesawed back and forth until 241 b.c.e., when a demographically and financially exhausted Carthage sued for peace. Rome took Sicily, its first overseas province, and soon seized Sardinia and Corsica as well.

But Carthage showed surprising resilience. It thirsted for revenge and with one of the greatest generals in world history, Hannibal Barca, nearly achieved it.

In 218 b.c.e., Hannibal crossed the Alps with his army—an epic military undertaking in itself—and invaded Italy. Twice Hannibal badly defeated Roman armies in Rome’s own backyard, but these defeats were as nothing compared with the Roman defeat at the Battle of Cannae in 216 b.c.e.

Hannibal annihilated the Roman army in a pincer movement known as a “double envelopment,” a defeat that remains the worst one-day slaughter ever suffered by an army in battle.

Rome raised yet another army and fought on. And Hannibal, although unsurpassed as a tactician, was not as good at strategy. Had he attacked Rome itself immediately after Cannae, he might have laid siege successfully, despite the city’s well-founded walls. But he delayed, and that proved fatal.

Forced largely to live off the land, his army’s battle readiness slowly decayed. Finally, when the Roman General Scipio Africanus attacked Carthage itself, Hannibal was called home, where he was defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202. Carthage had no choice but to surrender. She lost her overseas empire and was reduced to a client state of Rome, forced to pay a colossal indemnity of 300 tons of silver and forbidden to raise an army without Rome’s permission. Her once dominant navy was reduced to no more than 10 ships, and those only to deal with piracy.

Although diminished once again to a small city-state, Carthage flourished commercially. This was too much for Rome to bear. The book’s title, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, comes from the phrase that Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman, is known to have uttered at the end of every speech he made in the Roman Senate, regardless of the topic: “Carthago delenda est.”

Rome struck again in 149 b.c.e. After a three-year siege, Scipio Aemilianus broke through the walls and began his final assault on the city. As Miles explains, Hasdrubal, a Carthaginian general who had assumed total power, was ruthless in maintaining it: “As the general citizenry starved, Hasdrubal kept his troops and supporters well fed with banquets and parties. Moreover, by torturing captured Roman soldiers to death in full view of their comrades outside the city, he ensured that the Carthaginians had little option but to stay loyal: After this conspicuous display of barbarity, any chance of mercy from Rome was gone.”

But in the end, it was Hasdrubal who lost his nerve. As Scipio killed most of the inhabitants and sold 50,000 survivors into slavery, Hasdrubal “desert[ed] his comrades and family…secretly made his way down [from his citadel] and surrendered to Scipio. The sight of their general groveling in supplication at the feet of his Roman nemesis hardened the resolve of the remaining defenders to die a defiant death. Cursing Hasdrubal, they set fire to the building and died in the flames.”

Just as the American Civil War would forge this country into a nation 2,000 years later and give the American people a profound sense of its destiny of greatness, so triumph in the titanic struggle against Carthage gave the Romans an equal sense of their own military invincibility and destiny to rule the world. And to say we live in a Roman world is of course unintentionally to invite speculation of “imperial overstretch” and decline. On that score, Miles’s new history is also valuable. It is a compelling reminder that great powers must go to great lengths to defend their interests and ensure their legacies. It is not war itself but rather military defeat that threatens preeminence. For the statesmen and soldiers of the Punic Wars, this was a truism upon which national identity depended.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon’s article “Growth: The Only Way Out of This Mess,” appeared in the July/August 2011 issue.

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