Book Review: Carthage: A History

Carthage:  A History, by Serge Lancel

But is it a history?  There is no doubt that I would enjoy reading a good narrative history of Carthage if it could be found, but this book is heavy on archaeology, heavy on discussion about digs and about those who have written about Carthage and key moments of its history, and not as much of a history as one would hope.  Indeed, this book is more an apology for the difficulties of writing a history about Carthage than it is a history itself.  Given that the author has written other works (mostly in French) concerning the archaeology of Carthage, it is little surprise that he focuses so much on what he knows–namely artifacts–and does not focus on what readers would want from this work, which is a coherent narrative that provides some well-supported discussions of important aspects of Carthage’s history such as its government, its material culture, and its language and religion.  And, to be sure, the author covers at least some of this material, albeit in a tentative way that is not very narrative and not very enjoyable to read.  This is a book that does not reward its reader, unless you like reading about things and stuff and about sites and how they are uncovered, rather than about the history of a largely obscure ancient civilization, as the book promises in its misleading title.

This book of roughly 450 pages consists of 11 mostly long chapters.  The author begins with a discussion of the founding of Carthage (1), where the author spends much time examining myths and looking at the dating of material remains and issues with the texts.  After that there is a discussion of the establishment of the city (2), and here too the author focuses on grave goods and tombs, which are most of what has been uncovered in the city itself.  Then follows a discussion of the beginnings of empire, which looks at early Punic sites and artifacts in the Western Mediterranean basin (3).  The author discusses the move from a thalassocracy to a state, and here too we look at a shipwreck (4).  There is a discussion of the development of the city from the fifth century to its destruction in 146 BC (5), and this involves a look at town planning and the arrangement of harbors and houses.  A discussion of religion involves a lot of discussion of the excavation of tophets and the large amount of infants and small children found with calcified bones who were likely victims of burnt child sacrifice (6).  The author talks about the expansion of Carthage’s rule into Africa, and here are more discussions of rural residences and other material remains of Carthage’s power (7).  Even a discussion of Carthage’s ambiguous position between east and west (8) involves architecture, sculpture, and other material culture.  The discussion of Carthage and Rome’s imperial competition is one of the most narrative aspects of the book, but it comes rather late (9), and is followed by a discussion of the final ordeal of the city during the Third Punic War, and late punic pottery (10).  The author then closes with a discussion of the double survival of Carthage’s culture and language under Roman rule (11), after which there is a chronological overview, bibliographic notes, and an index.

This book has a lot of interesting photos and drawings and details about archaeological digs and material remains including masks and statues and pottery and grave goods and lonely fortresses and maps.  But is it a history?  I’m not sure if most of this work qualifies as a history, and I suppose readers will have to judge for themselves if this is the sort of historical work they can approve of.  It is easy enough to recognize that the history of Carthage presents major difficulties, that there are some serious conflicts between text and material remains–and it is clear that the author has an anti-textual bias even if he openly admits that the high amount of consistently built-up area in the core of the city of Carthage itself means that few material remains are going to survive from antiquity, as much as one may want to find them.  As someone who reads a fair amount about the phenomenon of biblical architecture, the author’s disdain for texts and his open preference for sometimes dubious interpretations of material culture in exchange of a thoughtful understanding of written texts that can form the basis of a sensible chronological narrative make this book less enjoyable to read than it would have been had it been written by a more competent author with a better methodological approach to the writing of history.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Carthage: A History

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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