It was the phrase that defined the middle to later Roman Republic as much as any other: the statement made at the end of orations by M. Porcius Cato (“the Elder”). Delenda est Carthago. Three wars, one semi-conclusive and two more to the knife. Some of the great figures of an ancient world: Hamilcar Barca, Hannibal Barca, Q. Fabius Maximus (“the great”) Verrocosus (“having a mole/wart”) Cunctator (“the delayer”), P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, and others. Phoenician culture vs. Roman culture. Trade and naval power vs. agrarianism and land power, mercenaries vs. citizen soldiers. War elephants vs. pila and gladii.
I’m not even nearly finished with it, but I’m enjoying Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles. Any attempt to understand Carthage suffers from a problem that is the first thing Miles points out: most of our information comes from non-Carthaginian sources, most of whom had serious biases against this non-Roman, non-Greek nation. We don’t really have extant Carthaginian sources from the ancient world; most were obliterated. We thus are faced with the historian’s challenge of evaluating sources, piecing together information said to be taken from them, examining the archaeological record’s findings, and forming a composite and credible image with as little incorporated bias as we can.
This is why I love ancient history, why I majored in it, why I continue to study it. We are challenged to use our minds to deduce and discover all that we may in spite of evidence that can be minimal, fragmentary, contradictory and elusive. We are further challenged not to conclude too much when we cannot, but to suppose or conjecture based on the most reasonable or probable reality in light of what we do know. Antiquarianism is demanding, never complete, and (like all historical study) benefits from understanding of all disciplines and sciences on some level.
What I like most so far about Miles is the rigorous level of critical thought on display. He doesn’t seem to have come to glorify or vilify Carthage, but to assemble honest understanding. I dislike works that seem to have begun with a conclusion and then focused on the evidence that supported it. Miles seems free of this flaw from what I can discern, as far as I’ve gotten. He could later disappoint me, but I’m not expecting that. I am anticipating a fair, nuanced, common-sense portrait of a poorly understood society that stood as an embodiment of all that many ancient writers scorned. They bequeathed that bias to Western historical tradition, and I relish seeing how Miles will assess the evidence to see where that tradition deserves challenge.