Each war was fought with increasing scope and ferocity; some historians believe they were the largest wars in human history to that time. Tens of thousands died in battle, or in storms at sea, or by siege or starvation. Such fury tells us what was at stake: the balance of power in the known world.
Richard Miles, who teaches history at the University of Sydney, tells the tale. Telling it is a tough assignment. The days of Egypt, Greece, and Rome were well-documented for their times. Carthage is a different case. When the Romans finally sacked and razed it, killing or selling into slavery tens of thousands, they also, in one of the earliest examples of self-conscious culturacide, systematically sought out and destroyed written traces of the city's culture, history, and religious practices.
So the historian in search of Carthage - once, by many accounts, a highly literate culture - must go by archaeological evidence, contemporary writers, and the very few surviving records in the Punic language (the branch of Phoenician spoken in Carthage and its colonies).
Carthage was founded in the early 800s B.C. as a trading outpost of the Phoenician city of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon. (Recent DNA studies show that nearly a third of contemporary Lebanese have Phoenician ancestors.) Tradition said the founder was Queen Elisshat, also known as Dido, or "The Wanderer," who was fleeing Tyre (a powerful trading state more than 1,000 years old by then). The name chosen for Carthage - Qart-hadasht, or "New City" - declared a second Tyre.
The Phoenicians (the Canaanites of the Old Testament) were a wily, ingenious set of peoples and city-states in the eastern Mediterranean, sharing an Afro-Semitic language (a near cousin of Hebrew) but never unified into one land. Their trader-explorers may have ranged all over the Mediterranean, down both African coasts, and up the west coast of Europe. Some think they got to Brazil or even to North America. These were the ancestors of those who settled Carthage.
Carthage was set on a prime spot in North Africa, due east of Sicily and the boot of Italy, in the middle of the action. Soon trading outposts spread all over the western Mediterranean, especially what is now Spain. (Cadiz, Cartagena, and Córdoba are modern versions of Punic place names. Even Hispania, from which we get the word Spain, may derive from a Punic word meaning "island of the hare.") Carthage also got a foothold in pivotal Sicily, warring with the powerful city-state of Syracuse. As centuries passed, the interests of Carthage and Rome edged closer, soon to collide.
Miles describes a fascinating culture and disentangles the prejudices and straight-out fibs of the era's historians (almost all of them hostile to Carthage). The Carthaginian pantheon included the immemorial queen goddess Astarte, counterpart of Ishtar and Isis and Aphrodite. Another prime god was Melqart, who in time became identified with Hercules, the hero who wandered all over the Mediterranean, subduing savage tribes and bringing civilization. Miles makes an entire subplot of the Hercules/Melqart myth, and how Greeks, Romans, and Carthaginians alike tried to claim and exploit it in their own images.
Carthage backed up its trading might with military might. For centuries, it had the best sailing fleet in the world, well ahead in technology and expertise. But Carthage was never as systematic or as efficient as Rome. It was oddly feckless at times, its military leaders making crazy mistakes, playing dilatory games of local politics, relying on cults of personality and notions of divine favor, wasting opportunities, taking dumb risks.
Carthage wanted riches and a flow of enriching natural resources, and it was willing to use force to get them. What it didn't care so much about was empire; its leaders and history lacked the determination of Rome, the cohering vision of uncompromising, zero-sum warfare to acquire land and peoples in the name of a unitary culture.
The high point and turning point of Carthage's history is the emergence of its one real military genius, Hannibal. His ancestral family, the Barcids, had set up what amounted to a quasi-empire for themselves in the Iberian peninsula, keeping ties to Carthage but doing pretty much what they wanted.
At a certain point, Hannibal decided to face the growing threat of Rome, so he organized armies and elephants, and trekked overland into Italy, crossing the Alps in a move that still transfixes, still takes the breath away. He fought the Roman army on Italian soil, escaped traps, showed a brilliant flair for both diplomacy and strategy, and, at the height, inflicted on Rome the worst military loss in its history, wrecking Rome's army at the battle of Cannae. He stayed and fought on Italian soil for 15 years.
When Rome laid siege to Carthage in 202, Hannibal, stymied in Italy, returned to fight brilliantly in, and yet lose, the battle of Zama. That was the end of Carthage as a superpower. For about 20 years, Rome, with incredible ruthlessness, chased Hannibal all over the known world until, near age 70, he took his own life in Bithynia, in what is now Turkey.
Carthage itself hung on and prospered - Miles titles one section "The Revenge of the Losers" - and only in 146 B.C. was it finally sacked for good, a story Miles begins the book with, in hair-raising detail. His title comes from the famous slogan Carthago delenda est, or "Carthage must be destroyed," often associated with the Roman statesman Cato the Elder. The phrase sums up Rome's long frustration with and vendetta against Carthage, and Rome's determination - stretching over more than 150 years - not just to win but also to annihilate.
Centuries later, the Caesars would rebuild Carthage into a trading outpost, exploiting its location and prestige. Punic people and language persisted for at least six centuries more. Miles has written an engaging, richly documented study that merges able storytelling with equally able scholarship. It's quite a tale.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, email@example.com, or @jtimpane on Twitter.