Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization

  • Richard Miles
  • Viking/reissued by Penguin Group
  • 544 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • August 22, 2011

An archeologist and historian fills in the blanks on an overlooked power.

Reviewed by Robert M. Knight

When we the unwashed think about ancient European civilizations, we come up with the obvious two: Greek and Roman. We’ve heard of Carthage, but aren’t sure where it was. (It wasn’t even in Europe, but in what is now Tunisia.)

We’ve heard of that Carthaginian guy Hannibal, who for some reason decided to lead a herd of elephants across the Alps. Poor elephants. And many of us recall that Gen. George Patton World during War II believed he was Hannibal reincarnated.

Now we have an archaeologist and historian from an Australian university who has scanned the literature and artifacts and filled in some blanks, not only ours but those of scholars. Those nuggets are there, but the average reader must dig through layers of verbiage to find them.

The book’s title suggests that Richard Miles has aimed it at a general audience. Miles, however, borrowed the title from Marcus Porcius Cato, the most strident of Rome’s equivalent of the U.S. Neocons, who in 157 or 156 B.C. thundered “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed).

Also known as Cato the Elder, he was the grandfather of Cato the Younger, whom William Shakespeare erroneously included in the dustup between the armies of Mark Antony and Brutus, after Julius Caesar’s murder. (The younger Cato had committed suicide two years earlier.)

The title is a good one, but it promises more punch than the book delivers. To legitimately lay claim to the substantial time the casual reader must donate, the writer must be a storyteller of the quality of David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Kenneth D. Ackerman or John Waugh — or have an outstanding editor.

Miles takes the reader or scholar on a journey of 800 years, from the origins of the Carthaginians in the Phoenician settlements of Lebanon, mainly Tyre, in what is now Lebanon. The Phoenicians crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, southern Spain and North Africa to the foundation of Carthage in about 800 B.C. — half a century before the reputed foundation of its nemesis, Rome. (They even went as far as the Atlantic and the British Isles.)

Even a good editor must take some pity on Miles, though. According to his own index, Miles along the way encountered eight Hannibals, nine Hamilcars, nine Hadstrubals and 11 Hannos. Even a veteran journalist like Waugh, good at illuminating detail, would have had a hard time separating them out for his readers.

What all those Hannibals, Hamilcars and Hannos did, though, gets provided in some detail. Scholars should glory in it; modern archaeology has contributed considerably to fleshing out what Carthage was and who the Carthaginians were. And the story isn’t simply a Rome-versus-Carthage drama. The Carthaginians trip over Greek city states, especially Syracuse on the island of Sicily, ally themselves with Celts from the Iberian Peninsula and fight through a series of challenges from Numidia, their North African neighbor.

Somehow, though, Miles forgot to tell his editors that he was aiming the book at the general reader, the history buff. And he’s had two tries. What the book needed before it was reissued was a thorough editing job, from someone who does not have a tin ear for what history buffs read. Surely an editor or two must have reread the 2010 book before Viking reissued it.

The point? Archaeologists and historians certainly have every right to write as much jargon-laden prose as they want if they are communicating with other archaeologists and historians. They make their livings, after all, as scholars, not professional writers.

A good editor might have noticed that Miles is prone to beginning a sentence with a rhetorical “Not only …” and a second clause beginning with “but also ….” Now, I know that some grammarians insist on including the “also,” even if it is redundant (I call it the Also Disease.) But Miles writes “not only … but also” at least once every three pages and sometimes two or three times on a single page. Such rhetoric is meant to add a little elegance to the rare fact that cries out for it. Too much rhetoric is no rhetoric.

Sometimes his sentences simply bog down in needless complexity. They appear to travel in about as many directions as the Carthaginians themselves did. For example: “Before the first confrontation between the two armies, at the river Ticinus, a tributary of the Po, Hannibal, in order to prepare his army psychologically for the hardships that undoubtedly lay ahead, took the unusual step of offering his Gallic prisoners the opportunity of freedom if they emerged victorious from a series of bouts of single combat.”

Whew. Is there an editor in the house? (When corporate interests began to buy up publishing houses a few decades ago, one of the first things many did was to lay off large chunks of the editorial staff.)

Miles is not a bad writer, just one who has no sense of word economy. I would suggest that the casual reader stick with the prologue, the introduction and the last couple of chapters, which feature narrative that is adequately comprehensible. It is these chapters that appear to have been edited more thoroughly and they tell much of the story without the help of the book’s middle.

Use the middle for reference. It’s in the middle where historians and archaeologists can swim with utter content.

Robert Knight is the author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press, 2010).

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