SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted umpteen TV series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Enumerating her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly middle-brow.

What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people from ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s gobby, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics – she first came to public notice when she wrote in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’; more recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through to her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in third world disaster zones, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar…has provided the template..for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations its generated is a good reason for studying a subject, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? Well, not literally, of course. She must be referring to in the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to possibly three items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’).; to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars, and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Have I missed any other media product about gladiators? Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all on the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that the fact that a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of cultural product, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish i don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts are on about the same level of clumsiness.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she doesn’t wear make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of amusingly out-of-touch, white, privileged academic which they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting; more importantly

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other and share the same kinds of values and are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested the history of the ancient world but that she is under the odd misapprehension that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject, it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

Not it doesn’t ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish navvies who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention?

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? People with degrees in the humanities, well in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed its ubiquity. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to have studied Latin to GCSE level and then did a very history-based literature degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking her or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and certainly in no way ‘intellectual’. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by middle-brow: a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Related links

Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles (2010)

According to legend Carthage was founded in 814 BC. Its history came to an end in 146 BC, the year in which Rome defeated and utterly destroyed it. Richard Miles is a young historian whose book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, sets out to record everything we know about Carthage, from the legends of its founding, through its umpteen wars, up to the final catastrophe.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed is long, 373 pages of text, 77 pages of notes, 34 page bibliography and a 66-page index = 521 pages.

It is not a social or political history. There is hardly anything about Carthage’s form of government, a reasonable amount about its economy (trade and some agriculture), a surprising amount about the evolving design and metallurgy of its coinage (in the absence of other evidence, coins are a good indicator of cultural changes and economic success), and quite a lot about its religion, in particular a recurring thread about the syncretistic melding of the Phoenician god of Melqat with the Hellenistic demigod Heracles, about which Miles has a real bee in his bonnet.

But what the text is really filled with is relentless details of Carthage’s endless wars, wars, wars. It is an overwhelmingly military history. Countless battles, an apparently endless stream of generals with the same four names (Hannibal, Hamilcar, Hasdrubal or Hanno) and gruesome references to torture. Failed generals, defeated enemies, rebellious mercenaries, overthrown tyrants, unlucky hostages or ambassadors, an endless stream of unfortunates are publicly tortured, beheaded or crucified (pages 131, 147, 152, 165, 173, 203, 208, 211, 212, 219, 273, 358). The ideal reader of this book will really love details of ancient wars and sadistic punishments.

The single most surprising thing about the history of Carthage is how much of it took place on the island of Sicily. The western half of Sicily was colonised by Carthage from about 900 BC, the eastern half by Greek colonists from different mother cities from about 750 BC, and the economic and territorial rivalry led to almost continuous warfare between the two sets of colonists between 580 and 265 BC, a period known as the Sicilian Wars.

If you know nothing whatever about Carthage, here are the key facts:

The Phoenicians

is the general name given to the people who, 3,000 years ago (1,000 BC) inhabited the trading cities situated along the coast of modern-day Lebanon, ports like Byblos, Sidon and Tyre. The Phoenicians invented new types of more efficient sailing ships with which they established trading routes all round the Mediterranean, trading in precious metals and manufactured goods such as jewellery, ceramics, and food. The high point of Phoenician culture and sea power is usually placed between about 1,200 to 800 BC. They founded trading settlements on all the Mediterranean islands (Cyprus, Sicily, Sardinia) and as far afield as Gades (modern Cadiz) beyond what the ancients called the Pillars of Hercules, i.e. beyond the Mediterranean, onto the Atlantic coast of modern-day Spain.

Carthage

The most successful of these settlements was Carthage. Carthage was founded in the 9th century BC on the coast of North Africa, in what is now Tunisia, by traders from Tyre in Phoenicia (Phoenicia being the coastal strip of the what is now Syria and Lebanon). It was a pivotal position, half way along the trade routes from east to west and also handy for the short routes north to and south from Italy and its two big islands, Sardinia and Sicily.

Map of the Mediterranean showing position, central to various trade routes (source: Politeia website)

In the following centuries Carthage became independent of its mother city (which was eventually subjugated by the Asian empire of Assyria) to become a trading empire in its own right, creating its own colonies around the Mediterranean and spreading inland from its coastal location to conquer territory originally occupied by Libyan tribes.

New city

Carthage’s status as a colony or settlement is indicated by its name: the Punic term qrt-ḥdšt directly translates as ‘new city’, implying it was a ‘new Tyre’ (p.62). The city states of Phoenicia – the leading ones being Sidon and Tyre – had thrived in the vacuum caused by the late Bronze Age collapse (about 1,200 to 1,100 BC). But from 900 to 800 onwards the big land empires returned, namely Egypt to the south and Assyria to the east, and repeatedly invaded and conquered the city states. Miles shows how they allowed some, Tyre in particular, a measure of independence because the Assyrian rulers relied on the luxury goods, and especially the rare metals, which were brought in from their trade around the Med (copper from Cyprus, silver from southern Spain).

Nonetheless, as the mother city, Tyre, lost power, its strongest child, Carthage, grew.

Punic wars

From the 300s BC onwards Carthage found its maritime empire threatened by the fast-growing new power of Rome, half-way up the west coast of the Italian peninsula. The Romans used the adjective poenus to refer to the Phoenicians and, by extension, the Carthaginians, and so the three wars Rome fought against Carthage are referred to as ‘the Punic Wars’:

  • First Punic War (264–241 BC)
  • Second Punic War (218–201 BC)
  • Third and final Punic War (149–146 BC)

Rome wins

Rome won the Third Punic War, stormed the city and utterly destroyed Carthage in 146 BC, leading away the survivors into brutal slavery and razing the buildings to the ground. During the final war a leading Roman politician, Cato the Censor, made a reputation by, whatever subject he was nominally addressing in the Senate, ending all his speeches with the same words, ‘Carthago delenda est’, meaning ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. It is this famous catchphrase that gives this book its title.

Not only did the Romans destroy all buildings, but all statues, inscriptions and records, emptying the libraries of Carthage and giving away the manuscripts and codices to local tribes. None have survived. This explains why, despite its long history and one-time predominance, the historiography of Carthage is so shadowy, and has to be reconstructed from references in the writings of its enemies or from the often obscure or ambiguous archaeological evidence.

Archaeology

The victorious Romans razed Carthage to the ground. Generations later, the first emperor, Augustus, ordered the erection of a new city on its ruins, Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago (p.364). Both are now embedded in the huge modern city of Tunis, capital of Tunisia (current population 11 million), which makes archaeological investigation difficult to this day. However, the Carthaginians had established many of their own colonies both across northern Tunisia and on many Mediterranean islands, and from time to time new Punic sites are discovered, or new discoveries are made at existing sites, which provide information which keep our view of Carthage’s history slowly changing and updating.

Punic gods

All written records were destroyed, all the poems and hymns and inscriptions which we have for the Greek or Roman pantheons. From archaeological evidence and references in Greek or Roman works it appears the main gods of Carthage were a couple, the god Baal Hammon and the goddess Tanit (list of 3 triads of gods on page 289).

Baal was a Phoenician name for ‘Lord’, so there were a lot of gods whose first name was Baal. In fact the common Carthaginian men’s name Hannibal is a combination of the Carthaginian name Hanno with the word ‘Baal’.

Melqart was the tutelary god of Carthage’s mother-city, Tyre, sometimes titled the ‘Lord of Tyre’ (Ba‘al Ṣūr), King of the Underworld, and Protector of the Universe. Miles shows how worship of Melqart was encouraged at all Phoenician colonies across the Mediterranean as a way of binding them together culturally.

Miles also shows how Melqart became identified and merged with Greek worship of Heracles, the hugely popular Greek figure who could be taken as both a demigod or a mortal hero, depending on context, and who was the signature figure for Greeks colonising westwards through the Mediterranean in the sixth century and later (pages 105, 221). Heracles was even adopted as a patron and icon by Alexander the Great.

In fact the prevalence of Melqart-Heracles becomes a recurring theme of Miles’s book, popping up wherever Carthage creates colonies, for example becoming the god/face or brand of the new colony in south Spain in the third century (p.221), depicted on the coins of Hannibal (p.227), and then co-opted by the post-Punic emperor Augustus. Miles develops what almost amounts to an obsession with Heracles, turning his myths and legends into a kind of central narrative to the five or six centuries leading up to the Christian Era which are fought over by Greeks and Carthaginians and Romans in turn, who each seek to commandeer and appropriate him as ancestor and avatar for their own colonial ambitions.

By contrast with the hundreds of mentions and extended passages about Heracles, the goddess Astarte is only mentioned a handful of times. She was a goddess of the Levant, of not only Phoenicians but the Canaanites too, rather than distinctively of the Phoenician diaspora. Still, I could have done with more about Astarte.

Carthage as ‘the other’ for Rome

Miles’s central point is that, for the reasons explained above, almost everything we know about ancient Carthage comes down to us from Greek, and then Roman sources, and that both of them were bitter rivals of Carthage’s trading and military might. In other words, all the written evidence we have about Carthage comes from her enemies.

Miles uses ideas derived from Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism about how colonial conquerors project onto their victims their own vices, to suggest that in these accounts the ancient Greeks and Romans projected onto the Carthaginians all the moral and social sins and transgressions and weaknesses they could think of. These included cruelty, dishonesty, effeminacy, luxuriousness, barbarity, sexual immorality, and so on. The notion of the unreliability or deceitfulness of the Carthaginians gave rise to a Roman proverb, fides Punica, meaning Punic or Carthaginian ‘faith’ – ironically indicating the exact opposite. Towards the end of the book he spends three pages describing how the Roman comic playwright Plautus’s play, The Little Carthaginian, performed in the lull between the second and third Punic wars, attributed all these perfidious characteristics to the hapless protagonist (pages

So Miles’s mission is to use the latest up-to-the-minute archaeological and scholarly knowledge to penetrate back through centuries of Greek and Roman prejudice and anti-Carthage propaganda to try and establish who the Carthaginians really were.

There are two problems with this approach:

1. It assumes that you are already fairly familiar with all the Roman prejudices against Carthage which he is setting out to overthrow. If you’re not familiar with Roman slurs against Carthage, then the book has to explain the prejudiced view first, before going on to rebut it and, in doing so, it turns out that the accusations of the Greeks and Romans are often so florid and vivid that you remember them more than Miles’s myth-busting antidotes.

2. This is especially the case when Miles’s anti-prejudice myth-busting is not as exciting or as clear-cut as you might hope, substituting a clearly defined line with the uncertain speculations of modern scholars.

The most obvious example is when Miles sets out to undermine the Greek and Roman accusation that the Carthaginians practised the ritual sacrifice of babies. But to do so he has to present all the evidence supporting the baby-killing view and this turns out to be pretty persuasive. He explains that a ‘tophet’ was the general term the Carthaginians used for a site where infants were sacrificed. It was a Hebrew term derived from a location in Jerusalem in the Gehinnom where worshippers, influenced by the ancient Canaanite religion, practised the human sacrifice of children to the gods Moloch and Baal by burning them alive.

Miles then goes on to look very thoroughly at the archaeological evidence from the cemeteries which have been found in Carthage itself and in the surrounding towns, where urns have been found which contain the ashes of infants. Up-to-the minute scholarly research using DNA and other types of scientific technology seem to have established that many of the infants who were (undoubtedly) burned to ashes, were so young as to maybe have been still-born. Maybe it was only still-born infants or infants who died within months of birth (i.e. who were already dead) who were burned as offerings to the gods. But still… the accusation is not completely baseless… the Carthaginians did burn babies… So Miles’s attempt to overthrow a modern ‘prejudice’ against the Carthaginians ends up bringing the prejudice more prominently to my attention and not really decisively rebutting it.

The endlessness of scholarly debate

And that’s the trouble with any book which sets out to take us into the heart of scholarly debate – the trouble is that scholarly debate is endless. And it is particularly exacerbated with a subject like Carthage where the Romans went out of their way to destroy every building, statue, stele or inscription, and all the books and manuscripts which recorded Carthaginian religion, culture or history.

What we are left with is an admittedly copious amount of archaeological evidence from the city itself and its numerous colonies around the Mediterranean, but evidence which is always partial, fragmentary, complex and open to differing interpretation.

Therefore Miles’s book doesn’t tell ‘the’ story of Carthage, it tells one possible story and, as his narrative proceeds, it is very scrupulous in pointing out where scholars differ and mentioning different interpretations. In fact he does this so often you feel you are reading not one but multiple versions, multiple possible histories of Carthage.

Take something as simple as the start of the Punic period itself, the period of Phoenician economic hegemony in the Mediterranean, presumably, after two and a half thousand years, historians are fairly clear when this began, right? Wrong.

The advent of what we call the ‘Punic’ era is notoriously difficult to define. (p.88)

Presumably historians have a clear sense of what ‘Punic’ culture was, right? Wrong. Turns out that Punic culture was highly ‘syncretic’ i.e. incorporating elements from many other Mediterranean cultures:

What we refer to as ‘Punic’ culture is an umbrella term for a whole series of diffuse cultural experiences that took place all over the western and central Mediterranean. (p.89)

In other words, wherever you look in the subject of Punic or Carthaginian history, there are scholarly problems of interpretation which the steady trickle of modern archaeological discoveries only makes more complex, sometimes bewilderingly so. In fact rather than one coherent story, the text can more accurately be described as a succession of puzzles, historical teasers for which Miles presents the evidence for and against particular solutions or interpretations.

For example, does the existence of the Ara Maxima altar and temple in the Forum Boarium in Rome testify to the early Roman adaptation of a local legend about a hero-brigand with the Greek legends about the wandering hero Heracles? Or, on the contrary, might it point towards early Rome being a mish-mash of Etrurian, Greek, Phoenician, Punic and other peoples in a typically Phoenician cosmopolitan trading community?

Miles devotes pages 108 to 111 to presenting the evidence for either interpretation, which were intriguing to follow but, ultimately, quite hard to remember or care about – and my point is that a good deal of the book is like this, a sequence of puzzles and mysteries and obscurities which scholars are wrangling over right up to the present day, and which Miles shares with us in some detail.

  • There is no consensus on the meaning of the Nora stone… (p385)
  • There has been considerable debate over the provenance of the Cacus myth… (p.404)
  • The identification of the goddess figure has been controversial… (p.405)

Greece, the first rival

For centuries before Rome rose, Carthage’s rival was Greece or, more precisely, the numerous Greek colonies around the Mediterranean. Not a lot of people know that the Greeks colonised or, more accurately, set up trading centres which became towns and sometimes fortified citadels, at points all round the Mediterranean coast, the ones Carthage clashed with dotting the coasts of Sardinia and Sicily. I’m always surprised to reread that the southern coast of Italy was for centuries known as Magna Graecia, or Greater Greece, because of the dominance of Greek towns.

The ubiquity of Greek colonisation was reflected in the spread of the cult of the Greek hero and demi-god, Herakles, whose legendary travels, labours and womanising, as Miles shows, became a symbol of ‘the Greek colonial project’, the ‘Greek colonial endeavour’ (p.171). Temples were built for him all over the Mediterranean littoral and local towns and cities and even ethnic groups claimed descent from the far-travelling bully. A particularly striking example is the way that the Celtic race claimed to be descended from Heracles after he slept with the daughter of the king of Galicia and fathered a son named Kelta (p.399).

Sicily, the endless battlefield

Sicily is separated from Italy by a strait just 1.9 miles wide at its narrowest point and is only 87 miles from the African shore.

Around 500 the narrative emerges from speculation based on archaeology into more reliable history documented by Greek sources, in the form of military campaigns in Sicily. A glance at the map shows why Sicily was important to anyone trying to set up a trading empire in the Mediterranean and Miles devotes several chapters to accounts of the long-running conflict between towns founded by Carthage in the west of the island, and towns founded by Greeks in the east, specifically Syracuse, founded by Greek settlers from Corinth.

The Sicilian Wars, or Greco-Punic Wars, were a series of conflicts fought between ancient Carthage and the Greek city-states led by Syracuse over control of Sicily and the western Mediterranean between 580 and 265 BC. (Wikipedia)

The Carthaginians set up small trading settlements on Sicily as early as 900 BC but never penetrated far inland. They had traded with the local peoples, the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels. Greek colonists began arriving after 750 BC.

  • 580 BC – The Phoenicians in Sicily and the Elymians unite to defeat the Greeks of Selinus and Rhodes near Lilybaeum, the first such recorded incident in Sicily
  • 540 – Carthaginian Malchus is said to have ‘conquered all Sicily’ and sent captured booty to Tyre
  • 510 BC – Carthage helped the town of Segesta defeat the expedition of the Greek Dorieus
  • early 5th century; the higher 400s BC were the era of Sicilian ‘tyrants’ i.e. rulers who ruled a town and its surrounding area without consulting the landed elite; examples of these ‘tyrants’ crop up in the writings about contemporary political theory of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle; for example, Gelon who captured the main Greek city, Syracuse, in 485 BC and then deployed a policy of ‘ethnic cleansing, deportation and enslavement’
  • 483 – Terrilus, tyrant of Himera, was deposed by the tyrant Theron of Acragas, and called on Carthage to help; Carthage was motivate to defend its Sicilian territory against Theron who threatened to take over; Carthage sent a large army, maybe as many as 50,000, many mercenaries, under general Hamilcar; the fleet suffered heavy losses en route to Sicily and was then slaughtered at the Battle of Himera; the defeat was a catastrophe and had political ramifications back in Carthage, leading to the replacement of government by an aristocratic elite with the institution of a special form of republic managed by a Council of 104 and an Assembly of Elders (pages 116, 130, 215); Carthage didn’t intervene in Sicily for 70 years, allowing the Greeks to undergo an era of expansion and building, although they themselves then collapsed into a dozen or so bickering commonwealths
  • 410 – Carthage got involved in the complicated internecine Sicilian wars when Hannibal Mago helped the town of Segesta defeat the town of Selinus and then destroyed Himera, thus avenging the disastrous defeat of 73 years earlier
  • 406 – second expedition led by Hannibal Mago was ravaged by plague which killed Hannibal but his successor Himilco, captured and sacked Akragas, then captured the city of Gela, sacked Camarina and repeatedly defeated the army of Dionysius I, the new tyrant of Syracuse, before plague brought the fighting to a halt

And so on for another 150 years. I’m not going to explain the details of this map from the Turning Points of Ancient History website, I’m including it to show how the island of Sicily was characteristically divided up into a surprising number of territories and towns all of which were, at some point, attacking each other, besieged, surrendered, burnt down and so on during the 300 years of the Sicilian Wars. Basically, for most of that period Carthage held the west of the island, various Greek rulers held Syracuse in the south-east, and then they got embroiled in scores of alliances to try and grab as much of the territory between them.

Map of Sicily 483 BC showing its division between different rulers.

What was surprising to me about this was:

  • realising just how much of a colonising, imperialist peoples the Greeks were: I had a very limited image of the ancient Greeks as philosophers in togas strolling round the agora in Athens or heroically defending themselves against the Persians at Thermopylae; it’s chastening to read about their ambitious imperial aims and their success at founding Greek towns on coastlines all around the Mediterranean; in this respect the long chapter Miles devotes to the cult and legends of Herakles and the way his cult was used to both explain and justify Greek imperialism, is genuinely eye-opening
  • and of course, where you have colonies you have people being colonised; Miles’s book and the Wikipedia article devote all their time to the names of Carthaginian and Greek leaders and their battles and only in passing mention the names of the local ‘peoples’ whose land and livings were stolen from them by one or other set of invaders – the natives being the Elymians, Sicani and Sicels – having read so much about the European colonisation of Africa recently, I was struck by the similarities, only on a much smaller scale, in the sense that we hear a lot about the colonists because they were literate and left records, and almost nothing about the illiterate subject tribes who have gone down in history without a voice

Rome’s civic nationalism

Most people think of Carthage in connection with its rivalry with Rome, which led to the three Punic wars (264 to 146 BC) and which climaxed in the conquest and utter destruction of the city. Miles describes the long prehistory to the conflict, describing the slow but steady rise of Rome from a Carthaginian point of view.

Putting to one side the blizzard of dates, events and individuals, what is fascinating is Miles’s analysis of Rome’s success. It had a number of causes. One was that Rome was ruled by a pair of consuls who were elected for one year’s service. This meant they were in a hurry to make their name in history and were encouraged to aggressive policies now. A contrast to most other polities led by kings or tyrants who could afford to take their time. Miles explains that this ‘war without respite’ was a new thing, and economically exhausted Carthage (p.192).

Another was that when the Romans were defeated they simply raised more troops and came back to avenge the defeat, unlike the Carthaginians who tended to withdraw.

Another big reason for Rome’s success was its astonishing ability to integrate newly conquered territory and peoples into the Roman state (pages 158-9 and 197). This was done via infrastructure – conquered territory soon benefited from the building of the famous roads and aqueducts and laying out towns rationally and efficiently. But also by law, whereby newly integrated populations became equal under Roman law. Rome espoused what Michael Ignatieff calls ‘civic nationalism’ – all Roman citizens were treated equally under the law regardless of race or religion – as opposed to the ‘ethnic nationalism’ which most other states (then and for most of history) employed to unite its populations.

The ancient Latin identity survived, but only as a set of duties, rights and privileges enshrined in Roman law. (p.159)

A huge consequence of this is that Rome was able to recruit its armies from citizens, albeit only recently incorporated into the Roman state, but still, freeborn Roman citizens, who were inculcated with a sincere belief in Roman laws and values. This was in striking contrast to most other Mediterranean powers, including Carthage, which relied heavily on mercenaries to fill their armies, mercenaries who were both unreliable (often mutinied or defected) but also very expensive (a fact pointed out by the contemporary historian Polybius, quoted page 241). One of the reasons for Carthage’s relative decline was it bankrupted itself paying mercenaries to fight the wars against Rome.

(The best example of this was the Mercenary War which began at the end of the first Punic War when a huge force of some 20,000 mercenaries mutinied and turned on Carthage because they hadn’t been paid. Under canny leaders, who allied with neighbouring African tribes who would benefit from the overthrow of Carthage, it turned into a full-blown war on its own account which lasted from 241 to 237 BC when the mercenaries were finally defeated and massacred. Miles describes it in vivid detail pages 200 to 211. The mutiny contributed to the further weakening of Carthage in her long-running feud with Rome and vividly demonstrated the weakness of relying on foreign mercenaries. It is also the vivid and barbaric background to Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbô.)

To be honest, this was one of the seven main things I took away from this long detailed book:

  1. The Carthaginians sacrificed (or were widely accused of sacrificing) babies to their gods.
  2. The huge cultural importance of the figure of Heracles to Greek imperialism and how he was incorporated into the Carthaginian cult of Melqart.
  3. Rome’s success was in large part to its efficiency at incorporating conquered territory and peoples into the civic nationalism of its polity.
  4. Rome’s military success was attributable, in part, to the way they just would not stop or admit defeat, put pressed on relentlessly till they won. (A point seconded by Adrian Goldsworthy’s book about the Punic Wars.)
  5. The gigantic role played by Sicily in Carthage’s history.
  6. The Mercenary War.
  7. The origins and career of Hannibal Barca.

The Punic Wars

Obviously Miles gives a very thorough account of the Punic Wars although here, as in his account of the Sicilian Wars, the immense detail and the explanation of scholarly debate about various key points and cruxes, often threatened to obscure the outline of the bigger picture. For example, in Miles’s narrative, it wasn’t exactly clear when each of the Punic wars either started or ended, since they merged into peace negotiations and visits by ambassadors and skirmishes and violent rebellions or coups and so on.

The overall message seems to be that the three Punic wars accelerated the rise of Rome, in all sorts of ways, militarily, culturally, economically and culturally.

The first war (264 to 241 BC) was fought mainly on the island of Sicily. Rome’s involvement was the first time that a Roman army was sent outside Italy (p.357). However, even having just read about it, it pales into the background compared to the second one (218 to 201 BC) which is dominated by the ‘romantic’ figure of Hannibal. Part of the reason is that, apparently, we have far better sources for the second war, not least because a number of biographies of the famous Hannibal survive in whole or part.

Slavery

In case it’s not clear, all these societies the ancient Greeks, the Romans and the Carthaginians, relied on slaves. In all the wars, the populations of captured towns and cities were routinely sold into slavery by the victors (pages 127, 140, 281, 296, 315, 347, 352).

Iberia

A fascinating aspect of the final period of Carthage was the success of its sub-colony in the south of Spain, which was established and triumphed due to the region’s extensive silver deposits. The Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca invaded and subdued the locals in 237 BC, putting them to work on the silver mines on an industrial scale. Eventually there were something like 40,000 slaves working in the silver mines to generate the precious metal to prop up Carthage and its military campaigns. (The town of Cartagena in south-east Spain was founded by Hamilcar as qrt-ḥdšt, which the Romans called ‘Cartago Nova,’ which was corrupted by the locals to Cartagena. So the city of Cartagena in Colombia owes its name to the same origin in the Phoenician language of the Middle East, page 224.)

The Barcids

Hamilcar’s success really brought to prominence the family of Barca whose era or influence is referred to by the adjective ‘Barcid’. Hence ‘Barcid Spain’. In fact the most famous Hannibal of all, the one who took his elephants over the Alps in 218 BC, was a Barcid, the son of the Hamilcar Barca who subjugated the Iberian tribes. When Hamilcar died in the early 220s, his son-in-law Hasdrupal took over, with Hannibal becoming a senior officer in the army aged just 18. When Hasdrupal was assassinated in 221 Hannibal was acclaimed leader by the army (and promptly issued new coinage depicting Heracles/Melqart, just one of the way in which Hannibal consciously associated himself with the oldest iconography of Carthaginian power, pages 227, 245, 247, 250-258).

Hannibal and the second Punic war (218 to 201 BC)

I remember Hannibal taking his elephants over the Alps from boyhood history books. I must have wondered why he did it. This book makes things clear.

1. Hannibal was seeking revenge or, more accurately, restitution from the peace settlement of the first Punic war (264 to 241 BC) which had given Sicily to Rome as a Roman province – the first ever Roman province – and cemented Rome as the leading military power in the western Mediterranean and, increasingly, the Mediterranean region as a whole. (Coming 20 years after the end of the first war, and seeking to correct the ‘injustices’ of the peace treaty which ended it, reminds me of the 20 year gap between the first and second world wars.)

2. Having been acclaimed general of the Carthaginian army in Spain Hannibal was ambitious to make his mark and confident, having been raised in an army family, gone on campaigns from an early age and been an officer at age 18, that he could do it.

3. But instead of trying to invade and conquer Sicily – graveyard of so many Carthaginian campaigns in the past – he would strike direct at the enemy and invade Italy.

4. But why over the Alps? Simples. The Romans controlled the seas. A sea-borne invasion was just too risky.

As it was, as soon as Hannibal’s left Carthage-occupied Spain they were attacked by Celtic Iberian tribes. Crossing the Pyrenees was dangerous. Then crossing the entire south of France, again, involved armed confrontations with a succession of local Gaulish tribes. Finally they were shown by guides how to ascend one side of the Alps, go through passes, and descend into Italy in late autumn 218, with 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and an unknown number of elephants – the survivors of the 37 with which he left Iberia.

Here Hannibal spent several years marching and fighting and campaigning. He won one of the most famous victories of the ancient world, crushing a Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC, but the description of the war quickly gets bogged down and complicated. Overall the war makes the point that you can be the best general of your day and win stunning battles but still lose a war which is being fought on numerous fronts. While he was in Italy the Romans shrewdly sent an army to Iberia; although they suffered numerous setbacks, the Iberian tribes the Carthaginians had oppressed were happy to defect to them and so, eventually, the Romans defeated them, and, despite mutinies in their own army and local rebellions, eventually forced all Carthaginian forces, led by Hasdrubal Gisco, out of Iberia. The thirty-year Punic occupation of south Iberia was over, and it became a Roman province, as Sicily had at the end of the first war.

Hannibal was in Italy from 218 to 203. 15 years. Long time, isn’t it? Lots of battles. Early on the Roman authorities panicked and appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus as dictator. Fabius introduced the strategy of avoiding open battle with his opponent, instead skirmishing with small detachments of the enemy. This was unpopular with the army, public or Roman elite, as Hannibal marched through the richest and most fertile provinces of Italy wreaking devastation as he went. (This softly, slowly approach explains the name of the Fabian Society, founded in 1884 as a British socialist organisation which aims to advance the principles of democratic socialism via gradualist and reformist effort in democracies, rather than by revolutionary overthrow.)

At one point he seized key towns in the very south, Magna Graecia, notably Capua, not as Punic fiefs but giving them their independence. His aim was not to destroy Rome but to mortally weaken it by giving Rome’s Latin and Italian allies their independence. This explains why he only once marched on the actual city and then was rebuffed by its thorough defences. In the end, though, all the cities he’d liberated ended up being retaken by the Romans.

Nonetheless, in the book’s conclusion, Miles says that these fifteen years during which an alien invader roamed more at less at will across the sacred territory of Rome left a deep psychological scar on the Roman psyche which took generations to exorcise (p.361).

In 203 Hannibal was recalled to Africa because in his absence, Publius Cornelius Scipio who had led the Romans to victory in Iberia, had led a force to Africa. Scipio destroyed an army of 50,000 sent against him but failed to capture the town of Utica and realised that besieging Carthage itself would probably be a long drawn-out process, costly in men and resources.

Thus both sides had fought themselves to a standstill and were ready to sue for peace. The Romans imposed very harsh terms but when Hannibal finally arrived back in Carthaginian territory the stage was set for a massive battle between the two old enemies. At the Battle of Zama in October 202 BC Scipio won a decisive victory and brought the war to an end (p.316).

Wikipedia has a cool animated graphic which sums up the change in territorial holdings over the course of the wars:

Changes in Rome and Carthage’s territories during the three Punic Wars, 264 to 146 BC. (Image by Agata Brilli ‘DensityDesign Integrated Course Final Synthesis Studio’, Polytechnic University of Milan)

The third Punic war

Surprisingly, shorn of its empire, Carthage flourished after the second war, quickly paying off the reparations owed to Rome and actively supplying her with vast amounts of wheat and food to support Rome’s wars against Macedon and other kingdoms in the East. When the end came it was entirely of Roman prompting. Factions in the Senate warned endlessly of the threat Carthage could still pose. Cato visited Carthage and was appalled at its prosperity. Eventually argument in the Senate led to an embassy being sent to demand impossible conditions of the Carthaginians – to uproot their city and move inland and cease to be an ocean-going, trading nation at all.

The embassy withdrew into the city and a 3-year siege commenced. Scipio adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus. Eventually stormed the walls and broke into the city and destroyed it and massacred its population. There is no doubt in Miles’s mind the Carthaginians did everything they could to abide by the letter of the treaties and to avoid war, and that the Romans would accept nothing but utter destruction. Once again it was Roman inflexibility and relentlessness which triumphed. Miles notes how this was recorded around the Mediterranean where Rome’s determination was noted but many lamented its bad faith, its falling short of the values it claimed to promote, of fairness and good faith.

Appropriating Carthage

At the end of the book, Miles shows how Carthage served numerous ideological purposes for Rome. For a start, in later works it became THE enemy which Rome had to overcome to in order to become great. In a sense, if Carthage hadn’t existed, it would have been necessary to invent her (p.373).

Closely connected, as mentioned above re. Said, even as it was being besieged and for centuries afterwards, Carthage became the anti-type of all the virtues the Romans congratulated themselves on, perfidious compared to Roman fides, with a disgusting baby-killing religion compared to Rome’s dignified ceremonies. Rome’s self-image was built by contrasting itself with the imagined vices of Carthage.

Third, however, a series of poets and historians wondered whether, in defeating Carthage, Rome had somehow peaked. The existence of a potent rival in a sense kept Rome on her toes, not just militarily but morally. For some later moralists, the defeat of Carthage marked the start of the internal squabbles, factions and corruption which were to lead to the civil wars, starting in the 80s BC.

The many dead

Deep down, the book made me marvel and gape at just how many, many men, throughout history, have miserably lost their lives in war. As Adrian Goldsworthy writes in his book on the Punic Wars:

In just one battle, in 216, the Romans and their allies lost 50,000 dead. During the second Punic war a sizeable part of Rome’s adult make population perished, mostly in the first few years of the conflict.

Between one and a quarter and one and three quarter millions of men died in the 120-year war. God knows how many civilians perished or were sold into slavery.


Related links

I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

%d bloggers like this: