Ancient History & Civilisation

ROMAN VIRTUE, CARTHAGINIAN VICE

By 31 BC, with all his serious rivals for power either dead or neutralized by other means, Octavian, adopted son of Julius Caesar and later, under the name Augustus, to become the first of Rome’s emperors, had effectively taken over the reins of Roman government. Augustus was as shrewd a political operator as he was ruthless in his pursuit of power, and he had learned well the lessons of his adopted father’s death. Any suspicion that he was aiming for royal power (the persistent rumours of which had led to Julius Caesar’s assassination) was assuaged by the new regime’s relentless emphasis on Augustus’ restoration of the Roman Republic to its former glory, authority and stability. Although his powers came increasingly to resemble those of an autocrat, Augustus preferred to present himself merely as the ‘first among equals’ in a fully restored and invigorated Republic. The powerful central message of the Augustan regime was that it was only through the restoration of traditional Roman virtues such as fides (faithfulness) and pietas (duty to one’s gods, country and family) that Rome’s greatness could be guaranteed.17 These themes appear frequently in the extraordinary outpouring of artistic and literary endeavour that accompanied the reign of Augustus, often produced by individuals who were broadly supportive of the aims and achievements of the new regime.18

The idea of faithfulness and piety as the bedrock of Rome’s greatness can be traced back to the Punic wars, and more generally to Rome’s increasing military and diplomatic involvement overseas during that period. The first temple to Fides in Rome had been inaugurated by Aulus Atilius Calatinus, the first Roman dictator to take troops on active service overseas (in Sicily in 249).19 Indeed, the ever-increasing emphasis upon good faith as a particularly Roman quality can be mapped on to a growing awareness among the senatorial elite that that same virtue was often the first victim of the realpolitik in which Rome’s new position dictated it should now engage. Rome’s treatment of Carthage was seen by many, particularly in the Greek East, as evidence of the growing distance between Roman words and Roman actions.

In an excursus towards the end of his Histories, Polybius set out the supposed reactions to the destruction of Carthage by certain groups in Greece, two supportive and two unfavourable. While Polybius thus neatly avoided clearly voicing his own opinion on the matter, the fact that he set out the critical views in such great detail gives an important indication of his own disquiet.20 In particular, he paid considerable attention to the view that the Romans had failed to meet the high standards that they had previously set themselves both in war and in foreign relations:

Others said that the Romans were, in general, a civilized people, and that their peculiar merit on which they prided themselves was that they conducted their wars in a simple and noble manner, employing neither night attacks nor ambushes, disapproving of any kind of deceit or fraud, and considering that nothing but direct and open attacks were legitimate for them. But in the present case they had used deceit and fraud, offering certain things one at a time and keeping others secret, until they cut off every hope in the city for help from its allies. This, they said, savoured more of a despot’s intrigue than of the principles of a civilized state such as Rome and could only be justly described as something very like impiety and treachery.21

Such criticisms clearly hit a nerve, and soon apocryphal parables that detailed Rome’s adherence to the tenets of good faith, even in the face of extreme provocation, were woven into the fabric of the city’s history. The most famous of these stories would, unsurprisingly, involve Carthage. By the 120s BC a fanciful tale began to circulate in which Regulus, the Roman general ignominiously captured during the First Punic War, had returned to Rome with a peace proposal from his captors which he urged the Senate to reject. Then, as faithfully promised, he returned to Carthage and was repaid for his efforts with torture and death.22 Another historian paints a rather different picture of Regulus’ interaction with the Carthaginians. The Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus tells how Regulus’ wife, embittered by her husband’s continued imprisonment, had starved one Carthaginian to death by locking him in a tiny room with no food or drink. His comrade had been spared from the same fate only because household slaves, alarmed by their mistress’s unhinged behaviour, had raised the alarm. So shocking had been the scene that investigating magistrates had supposedly threatened the family with prosecution.23 Nevertheless, by the last decades of the second century BC the story of Regulus’ brave self-sacrifice on the altar of good faith had become a favourite in the canon of Roman history.24

It was no coincidence that the reign of Augustus saw the further embellishment of the Regulus legend. In one of his most powerful odes, the poet Horace likened the emperor’s uncompromising subjugation of the Britons and the Parthians to Regulus’ selfless plea that Rome should reject any peace deal with the Carthaginians, despite the terrible personal consequences for himself:

It’s said he set aside his wife’s chaste kisses,
and his little ones, as of less importance,
and, grimly, he set his manly face
to the soil, until he might be able

to strengthen the Senate’s wavering purpose,
by making of himself an example no
other man had made, and hurrying,
among grieving friends, to noble exile.

Yet he knew what the barbarous torturer
was preparing for him. Still he pushed aside
the kinsmen who were blocking his way,
and the people who delayed his going.25

The Regulus tale is just one example of how during the Augustan period the Punic Wars were presented in increasingly moralistic terms, with a particular emphasis on the Carthaginians as a threat to traditional Roman virtues. Writers who were sympathetic to many of the aims of the Augustan regime, but in no way diehard loyalists, rejected the ambiguities and self-doubt of the past century in favour of the certainties of Roman victory and moral rectitude. In essence, what the work of such writers showed was that Carthage did not need physically to exist to act as the supreme foil to the greatness and virtue of the Romans.

The historian Livy, whom we have encountered on many occasions throughout this book, was one such writer.26 There was in fact nothing particularly original about the main thesis of Livy’s history, which sought to compare the vigour of early Rome with the decline of recent times.27 Indeed, the familiar emphasis on the corrosive influence of luxury on the Roman character was ever-present in his study.28 What separated Livy from Polybius and the previous generation of Roman historians, however, was that he saw Roman decline in the wake of the Carthaginian destruction as essentially revocable. According to Livy’s estimation, until his time Rome had been through three historical cycles, involving several peaks and troughs. The reign of Augustus represented the start of the fourth such cycle, and with it the opportunity for Rome to become great again. In Livy’s programme, it was the responsibility of Augustus, through sometimes unpopular measures, to arrest the current decline and to propel Rome to renewed greatness through the vigorous re-establishment of fides and pietas.29

Carthage’s role in Livy’s history was far more extensive than to serve merely as Rome’s most serious rival for the leadership of the world.30 In addition to reproducing the Polybian thesis that blamed Carthage’s failure on the growing influence of the ill-informed citizenry on its government, Livy also presented the North African city as playing the role of ultimate moral antitype to Rome. While Polybius had argued that Carthage had simply lost its greatness, Livy contended that a morally deficient Carthage had never been great in the first place. Throughout his account of the Punic wars, therefore, Livy continuously juxtaposed Roman virtues and Carthaginian vices.

Although derogatory observations on the Carthaginian national character also appeared in Polybius, Livy’s attacks were less considered and even more vitriolic. In one famous passage describing the character of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal, Livy praised Hannibal’s physical and military skills, but then followed up with a blistering character assassination that immediately undermined any of the compliments that had preceded it: ‘But these great merits were matched by great vices–inhuman cruelty, a perfidy worse than Punic, an utter absence of truthfulness, reverence, fear of the gods, respect for oaths, sense of religion.’31 Hannibal’s vices were thus described as excessive even by the base standards of his race. Indeed, throughout his work Livy placed particular emphasis on Hannibal’s faithlessness, including an episode when the Carthaginian general put chains on Roman troops who had been previously promised their freedom by his Numidian cavalry commander. This the historian drily described as an act of ‘true Punic’ reverence.32 Thus, although he had not invented the long-standing Roman concept of ‘Punic faith’, a sardonic expression for gross treachery and faithlessness, Livy did much to entrench it within the Roman mentality, even going so far as to put the expression in the mouth of Hannibal himself, during a fabricated admission that the Roman Senate had little reason to place their trust in Carthaginian peace negotiations.33

It is worth reminding ourselves that these representations of impiety, faithlessness and greed were the product of Livy’s Roman perspective, fulfilling a particular Roman agenda in both justifying Roman aggression and defining Roman virtue. Despite Livy’s protestations to the contrary, the Carthaginians were demonstrably no less faithless than the Romans during the Second Punic War, and many of the charges that Livy laid against Hannibal and his troops in fact served to deflect attention away from Roman breaches of good faith. Thus Livy doggedly portrayed the Carthaginian siege and capture of Saguntum (which had triggered the Second Punic War) as a prime example of bad faith on the part of Hannibal and his countrymen. By contrast, the Roman Senate’s failure to protect a sworn ally is completely glossed over.34

Much the same can be said for the numerous accusations of impiety that Livy levelled against the Carthaginians. Livy’s claims of Punic sacrilege had little to do with actual Carthaginian religious practices and beliefs, and far more to do with those Roman claims to divine favour which had been greatly undermined by Hannibal’s military successes and slick propaganda. Livy tackled this awkward point of history by portraying Hannibal’s early victories as the result of temporary acts of piety on his part and, more importantly, a simultaneous failure of the Romans to provide due honour to their own gods. By setting out the essential impiety of Hannibal’s mission at the beginning of his account of the war, moreover, Livy ensured that his audience understood that any success that the Carthaginians enjoyed would be short-lived. Indeed, Carthage’s final defeat was eventually justified by Livy as nothing less than divine retribution.35 Under Livy’s dogmatic but powerful schema, therefore, the fate of Carthage, rather than foretelling Rome’s inevitable doom, actually affirmed the superior national virtue of the Romans, the favour of the gods towards them, and their potential for further future greatness.

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