Ancient History & Civilisation

THE POWER OVER THE PAST

The escalation in demands by the Senate to the Carthaginians served as a testing ground for the newly acquired power which Rome now wielded. What began with demands for children as hostages ended in total oblivion, and the reversal of centuries of Carthaginian history and tradition. The attempt to justify that act on ethical grounds was patently disingenuous, particularly when measured against the parallel destruction of Corinth and increasing Roman claims to the Mediterranean Sea as mare nostrum, ‘our sea’.99 Rome’s newly found status was expressed not only in the power to obliterate, but also in the power to justify the unjustifiable. With the destruction of Carthage, therefore, the Romans became the makers of history in more ways than one.100 Already the Hannibalic wars had played a crucial role in the genesis of Roman historiography, and Fabius Pictor was followed by other senatorial historians keen to document Rome’s glorious past.

While Pictor had written in Greek, the seminal Origines of (none other than) Cato were composed (tellingly) in Latin. Divided into seven books, the Origines set out the history of the Romans up until 149, the year of its author’s death.101 Cato, like Pictor before him, sought to show how particularly Roman virtues such as courage and piety had brought about the rise of Rome as a great power. At the same time, however, he was anxious to emphasize that this success was the result not of the glorious actions of individual generals or statesmen, but rather of the collective endeavour of the Roman citizen body.102 But the chronological (and geographical) spread of Cato’s magnum opus was by no means even. Two whole books were devoted to the origins of the peoples of Italy, perhaps with the intention of emphasizing the peninsula’s cultural and historical integrity, as well as the legitimacy of Rome’s leadership of it.103 Much of the first few centuries of Rome’s existence were then condensed into one book, while the First and Second Punic Wars were contained within a book each. Finally, two whole books were devoted to the short period from the early 160s until 149.104 The lack of balance may be explained by the paucity of sources for earlier Roman history, but it also highlights the extent to which the Origines was intended as a contemporary manifesto. Not least, the work was perhaps designed to explain (or excuse) both Cato’s and the Senate’s role in the utter destruction of their greatest enemy. Certainly, it was here that Cato presented the infamous dossier of Carthage’s six reputed transgressions of its obligations to Rome.105 The Carthaginian perspective was, one must imagine, completely erased.

Within the pages of literature, therefore, Carthage remained as unfinished business. However, the Roman attempt both to control and to reshape the past manifested itself in the works not only of historiographers, but also of a new generation of Roman epic poets. These poets self-consciously based their works on Greek precedent, but by emphasizing specifically Roman themes they sought to create their own ‘national literary culture’.106 The first of these writers of epic were in fact not Romans but Italians from the south of the peninsula, where the cultural influence of the Hellenic world was strongest. Coming to Rome during or immediately after the Second Punic War, they established close links with a wide variety of influential Roman senators. 107 Unsurprisingly, the wars with Carthage loomed large in their work. Gnaeus Naevius, a Campanian and a military veteran of the First Punic War, wrote, in the last years of the third century BC, the first Latin epic poem, The Punic War, taking that conflict as his subject.108 Naevius was followed by one of Rome’s greatest poets, Quintus Ennius, a Calabrian, who had seen military service against the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War. His epic masterpiece, the Annales, took the whole of Roman history as its ambitious theme.109

Both Naevius and Ennius explored recent historical events within a broader overarching frame of ancient myth.110 The history of Roman–Carthaginian relations was forsaken for an epic narrative that emphasized an epic struggle between the two cities for the leadership of the world, a state of affairs divinely ordained from their very foundation. In Naevius’ epic, and also one must suspect in that of Ennius (which, like many works from this period, survives only partially, in fragmentary form), the Carthaginian queen and founder Dido (based upon Elissa in the Greek Hellenistic writers) was portrayed as a contemporary of Aeneas. The intention, clearly, was to maintain the fake equivalence between the respective ages of Carthage and Rome, first propounded by Timaeus.111 For both Naevius and Ennius, it was not the affairs of men but the affections and rivalries of the gods which had brought about the Punic wars. Rome’s patron deity and protectress was Venus, the mother of Aeneas, while Juno fulfilled the same role for the Carthaginians.112Indeed, it was only when the latter’s hatred was placated that a Roman victory was assured.

On one level, such divine partisanship was in no way new, for in the Iliad, the great Homeric epic tale, for which both Naevius and Ennius had provided a partial sequel, Hera, the Greek equivalent of Juno, nursed a famous hated of the Trojans (among whom was Aeneas), while Aphrodite, the Greek equivalent of Venus, supported Troy.113 The mapping of this animosity on to contemporary divisions between Rome and Carthage was, however, a far more recent development, and surely a reflection of the claims to divine favour made by both sides during the Second Punic War. Indeed, the notion of Venus as the ancestress of the Roman people had been securely established only in that period (with the construction of the temple of Venus Erycina on the Capitol), and the acknowledgement of Juno’s enmity was made only soon after, with the various ceremonies to appease her.114 Naevius’ Bellum Poenicum , written while Hannibal was still in Italy, was thus a further response to the religious propaganda of the Carthaginian general and his entourage.115

Ennius, by contrast, wrote the final sections of his Annales in the 170s, when Rome’s relationship with Carthage had once more deteriorated. 116 Although it took in all of Roman history, the work, like Cato’s Origines, still displayed a marked bias towards more recent events, in particular the Second Punic War.117 What survives of the work certainly condemns the Carthaginians, describing them as ‘petticoated lads’ and ‘wicked, haughty foes’ and claiming that they sacrifice their own little sons to the gods.118 Like Naevius before him, Ennius similarly presented the struggle between Carthage and Rome in divine terms, and predicted the triumph of the latter by promise of Jupiter.119 In both the Bellum Poenicum and the Annales, therefore, the Punic wars were presented as a divinely ordained battle for supremacy from which only one of the participants could, eventually, emerge intact.

The impact of such ideas on the final decision to destroy Carthage cannot be gauged. Nevertheless, one of the last acts reportedly undertaken by Scipio Aemilianus before the final assault on the city suggests that they represented something far more prescient than mere literary embellishment or fantasy. Before sending his troops upon their final assault, Scipio, according to one later source, performed the solemn religious ritual of the evocatio, exhorting the gods of Carthage to desert their city and accept a new home in Rome.120 The ceremony was significant for a number of reasons. In its immediate context, it meant that the Romans could avoid any charge of sacrilege, for they were now attacking an essentially godless city. More broadly, however, the ritual of the evocatiorepresented a final statement in the long-drawn-out battle for the sacred landscape of the central Mediterranean–a battle which had shaken Roman self-belief to its very core. The ritual was carried out at the moment when Scipio was already assured of his victory, and therefore his appeal for divine favour was certain to appear successful. The divine favour bestowed on the Roman people was now compellingly confirmed by the presence of their legions on the verge of final victory at the enemy city. As the Carthaginian gods supposedly deserted to the Roman cause, Rome’s domination of the central and western Mediterranean emphatically received the divine sanction for which it had so long struggled.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!