Thursday, June 26, 2014

Rome and Carthage: What might have been.

The military struggle between Rome and Carthage that commenced in the First Punic War, circa 264 BC, was an inevitable clash of two expanding powers vying for dominance in the western Mediterranean.  I would not however consider the story of the Punic Wars a study of dead history. Its ramifications reflect, for one, in the Latin tongue rooted Romance languages spoken in Europe and South America today.

Depiction of Roman legionary soldiers

Our mode of thinking in the West, our world view originated, grew and took root in a long standing Roman world that valued even application of law, systematic order and strict organization. Carthage and Rome 2,300 years ago were giving birth to different types of babies in two different cradles of civilization.  One would be the cradle of civilization from which we would emerge.

Carthage was a Phoenician sea-faring power that traded extensively. It was ruled by a collective of merchants. It was a multi-lingual culture, learning the languages of its possessions rather than imposing its own tongue.
Rome was a land based power that had by this time fully subjugated the Italian peninsula. Its people were mostly farmers and soldiers ruled by an elite Senate. As opposed to Carthaginians who more valued literacy and science, Romans more valued practicality and efficiency.

Could Carthage have defeated Rome? It had sufficient capacity. At the start of the First Punic War, Carthage held sway over economically vibrant territory, including the north coast of Africa, the southern coast of Spain and most islands in the western Mediterranean, in addition to the southern half of Sicily.

Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War

How would the West be different if Carthage had destroyed Rome?

I surmise the idea and practice of democratic government would be more alien to us. It would not be in our blood as much because the Roman outlook revered values of political representation and public discourse. Carthage concentrated on commerce and trade. Its government was more oligarchic than republican.  If Carthage had erased Rome from world history, it would not have continued to expand to the length Rome eventually did. Carthage didn’t have the same aggressive spirit as Rome. If Rome had been totally vanquished, barbarian tribes from Gaul and Germania would most likely have invaded either Spain or Italy, checking the northward advance of Carthage. This would have prohibited the enclosing, nurturing and protecting process of assimilation of Roman culture in the provinces from which we in the West spring. The imprint on us by Rome would never have been made. For instance, the system of Roman roads throughout the Empire would not have been built and this would have compromised the spread of Christianity. We would not have had the architectural influence which inspires so many of our state buildings.


The trigger that launched the First Punic War took form in the manner of an appeal.  A Greek city in Sicily appealed to Rome for military intervention in a war, and when Rome obliged, the two regionally dominant powers struggled the next 24 years for control of the island. Despite the powerful Carthaginian navy, Rome won. It induced the North African power to pay an almost crushing war fine. Taxes began to flow into Rome from Sicilian towns and villages. Rome built a strong navy and Sardinia and Corsica were added to Roman jurisdiction.

The First Punic War was a prelude to the much more antagonistic and widespread conflict between Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War. It began in 218 BC, and many scholars believe during this war Rome might very well have succumbed to Carthage.

Doing the research for this post captured my attention, as I've long read books on Roman history as a hobby.  My next post will focus on the Second Punic War and how Rome was almost permanently brought to her knees.



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