Carthage was one of the most vibrant empires of ancient times. History, though, has given us an incomplete picture of the Carthaginians.

Carthage Must Be Destroyed. A book by Richard Miles.
Carthage Must Be Destroyed by Richard Miles

In Carthage Must Be Destroyed, Richard Miles takes up the challenge of discussing this ancient empire from a perspective other than that of the Romans. Miles details the story of Carthage from its start as a colony to its fall through a lens of regional culture and religion.

Religion and Conquest

Melqart was as synonymous with colonization for the Tyrians as Heracles was for the Greeks.

Miles, R. (2012). The Realm of Heracles-Melqart. In Carthage must be destroyed: The rise and fall of an ancient civilization (p. 104). London: Penguin.

Miles’s book stresses the importance of religion throughout the history of Carthage. The important god Melqart is a major player in this story. He would later be associated with the Greek hero and god Heracles. This aspect of Mediterranean culture was far more influential than I realized.

This impact was felt most when it came to the conquest of new lands. The main idea here is that of the Heraclean (Heraklean) Way. This refers to the thousand-mile route that Heracles traveled during his 12 labors. As a result, myth changed to fit the reality on the ground. This was first done by Greece and then Carthage.

Carthage portrayed their god, Melqart, as Heracles. Melqart, in many ways, turned Greek in this time. This worked to their advantage in the wars that would follow. He would be used for political gain.

Rome vs. Carthage

These stories were not just quaint pieces of cultural narcissism. They came to have important political ramifications. . .

Miles. Carthage and Rome. In Carthage Must be Destroyed(pg.168)

Miles’s focus on religion continues through the era of their conflict with Rome. It was central to a battle over who was next in line for control after Alexander the Great. Heracles-Melqart played a major role for the Carthaginians. Hercules, Rome’s Heracles, also gained in power.

Carthage used much of the Heracles myth for its own ends. For instance, they used Cacus, a king Heracles fought, as a stand-in for Rome. This explains Hannibal’s ability to gain allies in Italy and Greece. Some of this was merely self-interest, but I agree with Miles that this was not the only explanation. I find it hard to believe that he would find that many supporters solely due to self-interest.

Rome also used Hercules for the same purpose. Hercules, as Miles details, did not get a state cult until this time. This illustrates why Rome went from being seen as an outsider to that of a descendant of Greece. Rome is one of the most important ancient cities but this took time. Greece had looked at Rome with mistrust before the Punic Wars.

Ruins at Carthage.
Ruins at Carthage.
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Strengths and Flaws

A key difficulty is the lack of surviving literary and material testimony from the Carthaginians themselves.

Miles. Introduction. In Carthage Must Be Destroyed(pg. 12)

Miles’s thesis is strong and well-supported, with both primary and secondary sourcing. These include the right balance of ancient and modern sources. Miles also backs these up with material evidence.

I greatly enjoyed his writing. His story flows well in a narrative. It can be dry in spots but it is very simple to follow for the most part. It is very easy to get into as well.

The main flaw is one that Miles himself recognizes. He mostly uses the writing of Carthage’s enemy. This makes sense, though, for two reasons. The first is that very little writing from the Carthaginians has survived. The second reason is that he accounts for this with evidence drawn from dig sites and ruins.

Another flaw with the book is that much of Miles’s writing is complex. It flows well but it is not suited for young readers. The word choice could have been simpler. This would have allowed for the author to reach a wider audience.

Miles tells the story of a major ancient city and its god, Melqart’s, impact on history. Sadly, today, its legacy is only its wars with Rome. Yet, it was much more than that. It was also a hub of art and culture for about 500 years. It should not be seen only as a foil for Rome’s rise.