Ancient History & Civilisation

A NEW HERACLES AND A NEW CARTHAGE

While Livy’s ideas were most probably not the product of a state-sanctioned programme, they nevertheless chimed well with prevailing attitudes within the Augustan regime. Hannibal’s fifteen-year sojourn on the Italian peninsula had left deep scars on the Roman collective consciousness, and his legacy could not be easily forgotten or erased. Uncomfortable reminders of his mighty achievements and divine associations were now embodied in the very landscape of Italy, courtesy of the epic journey that he and his army had made across the Alps in the footsteps of Heracles. Two centuries after Hannibal had successfully overcome the daunting challenges presented by those mighty mountains, still no Roman had managed to repeat the feat. Indeed, the first-century-BC biographer Cornelius Nepos, who originally hailed from Cisalpine Gaul (in the northern Italian peninsula), reported that the great mountain chain was still called the Greek and Punic Alps, because Heracles and Hannibal respectively had discovered its passes.36 Now, mindful of the long shadow that the failure to conquer these mountains had cast over Rome, Augustus attempted ownership of the Heraclean Way and thus also of the legacy of its great (and much disputed) hero.

In 29 BC, after his victory in the civil war, Augustus arrived in Rome to celebrate a triple triumph from 13 to 15 August. These dates were carefully chosen, for the festival of Hercules at the Ara Maxima fell upon 12 August, and the arrival of Rome’s new saviour thus dovetailed perfectly with that of his heroic predecessor.37 This dramatic display was but the first stage in the Augustan takeover of the Heraclean tradition, for in 13 BC a new road was constructed, the Via Julia Augusta. Named after the emperor, it followed the path of the old Heraclean Way, from Placentia in northern Italy, over the Alps, and into Transalpine Gaul. At its terminus at La Turbie, just a few kilometres from modern Monaco, a splendid monument, complete with a rotunda of twenty-four columns and a statue of an enthroned Augustus, was built to celebrate the imperial conquest of the Alps. An inscription, furthermore, gave a copious list of all the tribes in the region that the emperor and his two stepsons, Drusus and Tiberius, had pacified.38

A few years later this road was followed by the renovation, between 8 and 2 BC, of the 1,600-kilometre stretch of the old Heraclean Way from Gades to the Pyrenees. It was renamed the Via Augusta.39 That this route was also the one that Hannibal had taken on his march to Italy may have remained unstated, but poetic praise of the Augustan Alpine campaign indicates that the association was implicit in the minds of contemporaries.40 In a eulogy to the feats of Drusus and Tiberius in the Alps, Horace skilfully weaved into the fabric of his poem a long reference to Hannibal and the defeat at the Metaurus, which had been masterminded by Nero Drusus, an ancestor of the imperial stepsons. In the final lines of the excursus, Hannibal bemoans the failure of his dreams of conquest, as the vigorous youth of Rome finally triumph.41 The Augustan reappropriation of the Heraclean Way, Horace implies, marks the final defeat for the Carthaginians, and with it the battle for the gods and for the past.

The transformation of the Heraclean Way was, however, insignificant in comparison to the new venture which Augustus now envisioned: the rebuilding of Carthage itself. Other self-proclaimed saviours of the Roman Republic had contented themselves with building and beautifying the temple of Concord in Rome, but for Augustus that would have been a controversial move. While he would indeed eventually remodel the temple, in the early 20s BC his later reputation as pater patriae, ‘father of the country’, was far from secure. Most must surely have regarded him then not as the bearer of concord, but as a brutal butcher who had ruthlessly avenged his adoptive father’s murder with the slaughter of political opponents. If Augustus were to construct a monument to Concord, then it would have to be outside Rome, where the risk of hypocrisy was less, and the promise of consensus more. Where better, indeed, to lavish the spirit of reconciliation than on the site of Rome’s bitterest enemy?

It was in fact not Augustus but his adoptive father who had first (quite literally) dreamt up the seemingly unthinkable plan of rebuilding Carthage. Appian reports that in 44 BC, while campaigning in North Africa against his fellow Romans, Julius Caesar had a dream in which he had seen the entire army weeping, and upon waking he had immediately issued a memorandum that Carthage should be colonized.42 The dream itself has been interpreted in several different ways by modern scholars. The most plausible version is that the army represents the dead Carthaginians, so that the reconstruction of their city would illustrate the spirit of clementia (clemency) upon which Caesar would pride himself. Alternatively, the army might represent Roman veterans, thereby placing the colonization of the city within the populist Gracchan tradition of land redistribution.43 The ambiguity may indeed have been deliberately fostered, for a tale so equivocal could represent Caesar’s clementia both to the defeated and to his own veterans. Although one of Caesar’s deputies, Statilius Taurus, was tasked with establishing the new colony, the work undertaken does not appear to have been extensive.44 Nevertheless, the plan to re-establish Carthage –Rome’s most bitter enemy–stood as a potent symbol both of the new Caesarian regime’s self-confidence and power, and of the concord brought by Rome to the Mediterranean.45

Caesar’s infamous murder later in that year postponed much of the new North African project, but by 29 BC Augustus was willing to resuscitate it. From its inception the new city was clearly meant to impress. The street plan was set out with a regularity that was unusually exact even for a Roman city. Each block measured 120 by 480 Roman feet (35.5 by 142 metres), making up precisely one hundredth of the original Roman land allotment.46 The administrative and religious centre of the new foundation was built on top of the Byrsa, the heart of the old Punic city. The summit of the hill was now crowned by a series of magnificent monumental buildings and grand spaces, including a huge civic basilica, temples and a forum. This dramatic reshaping of the physical landscape, and the construction of a new (Roman) religious and administrative topography, proclaimed not only the absolute supremacy of Rome, but also the unity which it had brought to once hostile states.47 Thus Carthage was reborn as Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago, the administrative capital of the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis.48 Although other Roman colonies had been named in celebration of the concord restored by the Julian clan, the name of the restored Carthage must have had a particularly powerful resonance for the Roman people.49

Paradoxically, the rebuilding of Carthage involved a far more extensive destruction of the old Punic city than that achieved by Scipio in the previous century. To prepare the terrain for this monumental building project, the entire summit of the hill was levelled, and an enormous rectangular platform was constructed for the city centre. Over 100,000 cubic metres of rubble and earth–the debris created by this enormously ambitious project–were then pushed down the slopes of the Byrsa. By building a system of retaining walls, a series of terraces was created on the sides of the hill, where residential neighbourhoods and other structures would eventually be built. The new city of Roman Carthage managed to proclaim not only the extraordinary powers of concord and reconciliation possessed by the Augustan regime, but also Roman mastery over an alien landscape. Thus Augustus conquered Carthage with the spade and the trowel with a finality that his predecessors had failed to achieve with fire and the sword.

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