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Book Review: The Punic Wars
(Adrian Goldsworthy)

The study of history is dead.  That may seem an odd assertion, given that I am reviewing a very good work of history, Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Punic Wars.  But books like this are read by a tiny audience—hard to say how big, but I would be shocked if more than ten thousand people had read this book, and it is by a known author.  As far as I can tell, nearly nobody in public life, whether in politics, the media, popular entertainment, big business, or even most of the academic world, knows anything about actual history.

Sure, most “educated” people generally know about Hitler.  He was bad.  And maybe they can distinguish, more or less, between World War I and World War II.  Perhaps they know that Japan was involved in one of those, because it keeps getting brought up in the context of nuclear weapons.  Those are bad too.  There are exceptions—as a result of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, many people know, for now, something about Alexander Hamilton.  He was good (if you’re not a Jeffersonian).  But there is so precious little discussion of real history in most people’s lives that even if they once learn the history of a particular era or event, they forget it, since the knowledge is never reinforced by any other reference to it.  Goldsworthy’s Preface touches on this problem.  “Until well into the twentieth century Greek and Latin language and literature lay at the heart of Western education, and the major events and personalities of the Graeco-Roman world, especially those described by one of the great ancient authors, were familiar and frequently alluded to in art and literature.”  It is this frequent allusion that makes it possible for most people to absorb and use history. Without allusion and consequent reinforcement, reading history is just a way for those blessed with good memories (which does not include me) to win trivia competitions.

This loss of knowledge removes a central pillar from society.  It is not like forgetting how to play canasta (a card game of the 1950s, of which I have only heard because my mother taught me how to play in the 1980s).  Such ephemera are merely part of the constantly changing surface of a culture, which has little to say about the culture itself and each example of which is replaced by something else (video games, say, replacing canasta).  History, or lack of history, is another thing entirely—it seems to me that you cannot run a society if its ruling class, and the educated classes more generally, no longer know or care to know any history.  True enough, it does not matter if the lower classes know any history.  Lack of the type of knowledge that characterizes the educated, ruling, classes is one reason why they’re the lower classes.  But the study of history has always been deemed a matter of critical importance for the formation of those who dominate a society.  Until now—or, perhaps, until 1975 or so, for reasons that appear complex, but certainly are related to the broad attack in the West on all social norms that gained traction around that date.

The historian Niall Ferguson, a popularizer like Goldsworthy (though more famous, more academically connected, and, not coincidentally, a tireless self-promoter), offered insights on this topic in 2016, when accepting an award from an academic organization.  He noted that only a tiny fraction of American students (1.7%) major in history as undergraduates; and that the percentage has dropped by about 20% in just the past five years.  And what they are studying has also precipitously declined in value.  The problem is not just that the vast majority of courses offered at top schools are worthless on their face, except as amusement, such as Stanford’s “Madwomen: The History of Women and Mental Illness in the U.S.”  The problem is, as Ferguson points out, that almost zero courses on actual history are offered at any college.  A student, through his university, simply cannot acquire what would until recently have been regarded as the very basic elements of a history education. There is essentially nothing taught of American history, British history, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, or any similar topic—or even of the World Wars.  All classes are mere fluff like Stanford’s class about crazy women, or wholly politicized offerings of pseudo-history, mostly focusing on oppression and emancipation (not the Proclamation—instead, putative emancipation of those supposedly oppressed today, an ever expanding group of embarkees on the ship of fools).

The very few substantive courses that are taught focus on extremely narrow areas (e.g., “the makeup of various Caribbean ethnic groups in the areas of Brooklyn that made up the West Indian Day Parade in the 1960s”), so that the subject matter fails to offer what the study of history is meant to offer, which is the ability to contrast and compare any given period, especially today, to other periods, earning lessons and insights.  Or, as Ferguson cites R. G. Collingwood, “We study history in order to see more clearly into the situation in which we are called upon to act.”  If we cannot see clearly, we cannot act competently.  Looking around America for the past twenty years or so, I’m pretty sure there’s a tight correlation between ruling class failures and lack of historical knowledge.  And I suspect that in China students destined for the ruling class still learn a lot of history, and hard-edged, substantive history at that.  Failure to study history is not a winning strategy.  This may not be our biggest ruling class problem we have today, but it’s not the smallest.

So, back to this book, or on to this book, since my monologue has had little to do with it so far!  Until very recently, the Punic Wars (between Rome and Carthage, taking place between 265 and 146 B.C.) were regarded as offering critical historical insights.  Naturally, as with all history, the Punic Wars offer illustrations and principles, not cut-and-paste solutions.  But, for example, there are clear parallels between the restart of hostilities in the Second Punic War and the restart of hostilities in World War II.  Goldsworthy does an excellent job of drawing out of his detailed, yet readable, history basic principles about the protagonists, especially the Romans.  It is not that he applies those principles to today; he does not regard that as his job.  But to know, to take what is perhaps the author’s most emphatic point, that the Romans were unique in their time and place in their approach to warfare, seeking decisive and permanent victories rather than negotiated peace, regardless of risk or cost, gives us insight into Rome’s later history, and offers us further insight into that attitude as a possible choice today.

For a ruling class, history does not have merely an instrumental purpose tied narrowly to foreign policy.  Yes, if you’re Henry Kissinger, you care about history mostly because it informs your choices and the advice you give your masters.  But history offers moral lessons for broader society—not just George Washington and the cherry tree, but George Washington and how he approached, and formed, the office of the Presidency.  Or, in this book, how the consul Marcus Atilius Regulus was captured by the Carthaginians, and was released to negotiate peace, on oath to return to Carthage.  He went to Rome and urged the citizens (peace treaties had to be approved by the Centuriate Assembly) to reject peace in favor of a war to the finish, which they did.  And then he returned to Carthage, to be tortured to death, and also to be held up for two thousand years as a model of civic and personal virtue.  Sure, maybe the story is made up or exaggerated. That’s not the point.  The point is that moral lessons, of what to do, and of what not to do, come from historical actions of men and women as seen by us today.  No history, no moral lessons, at least none with any punch or staying power.

As Goldsworthy notes, we know little about the Carthaginians.  The Romans won decisively, and while they did not try to destroy Punic culture as such (that’s a modern innovation), just Punic power, in the natural course of things little historical memory remained.  We are missing details for most of Roman history, and have lost most of the writings of Rome, so it is no surprise we have essentially no knowledge about Carthage, other than that gained by archaeology and that reported by their enemies.  We do know that the Carthaginians engaged in evil practices, including massive amounts of infant sacrifice, by burning alive, and that “the proportion of sacrifices where a lamb or other animal was substituted for the child decreased rather than increased over the centuries.”  The modern revisionist attempt to claim that child sacrifice was a myth has been crushed by archaeology (just like the myth that the Maya were peaceful flower contemplators, a myth I was taught as a child, although I suppose they still were by comparison with the ferociously bloodthirsty Aztecs).  Maybe this was exaggerated by the Romans, or maybe not.  But even on less controversial topics, such as Carthaginian political organization, we know little other than the broad outlines—which are not wholly dissimilar to Rome, in that Carthage had “a balanced constitution combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.”

What the Carthaginians did not have was an effective citizen military or, in general, competent military leaders (a fact masked by Hannibal being the only military leader we remember).  The Romans had citizens who served in the field, along with reliable allies.  When tens of thousands were killed, as at Cannae, they raised more legions from the citizenry (and by offering slaves freedom).  The Carthaginians relied almost exclusively on mercenaries and on allies of highly dubious loyalty, such as the Numidians, with Punic citizens only fighting in desperate circumstances.  To them, and most of the Hellenistic world by this time, war was a calculation, where money was spent to achieve goals, and where if you lost, a peace not to your advantage, but not crippling, would be signed.  The Romans assigned senior magistrates as military leaders—not professional soldiers, but invariably men with military experience, unalterably loyal (like Regulus) to the State, but rarely punished for failure.  The Carthaginians seem to have picked military chieftains based on the politics of the moment, who were often crucified if they failed.  On balance, the Roman system worked a lot better—but the Carthaginians were rich enough and lucky enough to engage in more than a hundred years of war.

Goldsworthy begins with an overview of Rome and Carthage, in particular their political and military organizational structures (his knowledge of the Roman military and its practices over time is voluminous, and particularly on display in his later book, How Rome Fell).  Here he introduces some of his common themes.  He rejects the idea that, in any meaningful way, Roman politics was divided into political parties of the type with which we are familiar.  Rather, extended family and patron/client groups were what mattered, and elections were often, or even usually, decided on the basis of the prestige and past deeds of a family, with the assumption that the current generation could be relied on to uphold and extend those past deeds.  All politically active citizens of Rome, and all military leaders, were unswervingly loyal to the State—unlike in Carthage, the idea of a turncoat general was essentially unthinkable.  The poor, with limited political power, were still active participants in and supporters of the State.  And “even the most politically advanced ancient states went to war frequently and with enthusiasm, especially when they expected to win and eagerly anticipated the benefits victory would bring.”

For the rest of the book, Goldsworthy marches through the three successive Punic Wars.   The First Punic War often gets short shrift; we have the least information about it and its conclusion was somewhat equivocal.  The author tries to correct this by both offering a complete analysis and tying it to the later conflicts.  This war, which like so many wars was mostly stumbled into as a result of pre-existing tensions and inherent conflicting aims, centered around Sicily, with extensive naval battles in the surrounding seas.  These included what may have been the biggest naval battle in history, the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, where as many as 300,000 men may have fought, and the Romans used a new invention, the corvus, a boarding bridge mounted on a swivel, with a metal spike head.  There was a little land fighting in Africa, but none of it decisive, and in 241 B.C. the war ended in Punic defeat, with the Carthaginians expelled from Sicily (most of which they had controlled) and paying a substantial indemnity to Rome.

Over the next few decades ill-will simmered, with the Romans unhappy that Carthage was not just not wholly subordinated, but clearly growing in wealth and power.  Low-level conflicts occurred over places like Sardinia.  In 218, this erupted into the Second Punic War, when Hannibal attacked a Roman client city in Spain (an area into which both the Romans and the Carthaginians were expanding).  This is the war most of us think about when we think about the Punic Wars, involving Hannibal Barca (although every third Carthaginian seems to have been named Hannibal), elephants going over the Alps, the Battle of Cannae (probably the most disastrous Roman defeat of all time), the delaying tactics of Fabius, Scipio Africanus, and the eventual final defeat of the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama, near Carthage.  (I also learned that there was a battle in Italy at “Narnia,” and Wikipedia tells me “The imaginary land of Narnia, described in the works of C. S. Lewis, was named after the town of Narni [Narnia in Latin] after he came across the name in an atlas as a child.”)  And, finally, it ended with the total defeat of Carthage and its reduction to a rump state under the domination of Rome.

Over the next fifty years Carthage stabilized and showed some signs of resurgence, as well as some signs of overly much independence of action and thought.  It was this time period that Cato the Elder kept demanding “Carthago delenda est” (“Carthage must be destroyed”).  Which it ultimately was, just because the Romans thought it would be a good idea, although sowing the site with salt is a later invention.  This was the Third Punic War, which was more of a siege and destruction of Carthage than anything else, and the outcome was never in doubt (unlike the Second Punic War, which could easily have resulted in Rome’s destruction).

All this, of which I have only scratched the surface in my summary, makes fascinating reading.  Many interesting lessons are contained within, both for today, and for tomorrow.  To paraphrase Trotsky, you may not be interested in history, but history is interested in you, and reading books like this is invaluable in today’s uneducated world.  Not to mention that, as the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind is king, the educated man in the uneducated world is more likely to be able to make himself king.

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  1. Marcus Marcus

    “there’s a tight correlation between ruling class failures and lack of historical knowledge”

    Would love to hear what you think about Daniel J. Boorstin’s work, especially his trilogies (The Americans, and Knowledge Trilogy).

    Various works are stacked up, in constant rotation, on my night table to my utter delight (his books, not the late Mister Boorstin).

    • Charles Charles

      I’ve read the Knowledge Trilogy, although it was nearly twenty years ago, so I can’t remember the details. I remember thinking it was quite good. Really, it wouldn’t matter, I think, what the ruling class read and studied, if they would study anything pre-1960. That is, modern history should be a sidenote; as long as you know the basics (which do not include the Summer of Love and other stupid events), the focus should be pre-1960 history. You get better, and more generally applicable, lessons. JFK does not matter; if you know nothing about him, you can do fine as President, but if you know nothing about, say, the history of Western Europe, you cannot. And, of course, modern philosophy (like Rawls) is worthless to rulers, or rather pernicious.

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