Adrian Goldsworthy’s The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC is illustrated on its cover with a photograph of a bust of Hannibal Barca. As you may know Hannibal was the general who led the armies of Carthage in the Italian peninsula during the Second Punic War, to great effect. In fact, until the battle of Zama in North Africa, during the last phases of the war, Hannibal did not lose to a Roman army. And yet despite his record of victory in tactical engagements, he was strategically bested by the Romans and lost the war. Unsurprisingly if there is one figure who looms large in the narrative of The Fall of Carthage it is Hannibal. This is striking because almost all of what we know about these wars comes down to us thanks to the Romans, so our perceptions are coloured by their biases, and he was their great antagonist. And yet it is undeniable that Hannibal’s raw tactical genius won grudging admiration and respect from the Romans. He was a singular figure, with no equivalent among the Romans of his era, with all due apologies to Scipio Africanus. And yet Rome won, and Carthage lost.
Goldsworthy is a military historian, so I was aware that he would focus on the minutiae of military logistics as well as outlining numerous set piece battles. Much of his How Rome Fell dealt with the slow decay of the Roman military system of the early empire over the course of the 3rd century, and the reorganization of the 4th century, which temporarily halted the decline, while ultimately undermining it in the long term through a reliance on allies who exhibited less attachment to Romanitas. One could argue in many ways the late antique Roman military complex resembled that of Carthage more than that of Rome during the late republic and early empire. Though the author gives much space to battles and campaigns, aside from the incredible retelling of the battle of Cannae, one can gloss over the details without loss of the general thrust of the narrative. Battles are won and lost, but the lessons from the war can not be reduced down to the battles.
It was simply improbable that Carthage could win a military conflict with Rome over the long run because the Roman system conferred upon the Roman state material and ideological advantages which could not be overcome by military victories, even by a general as creative and competent as Hannibal. The Hellenistic king Pyrrhus learned this, and gave us the term “pyrrhic victory”. In ideological terms Goldsworthy argues that the Roman mindset was one where conflicts were viewed as wars of attrition, where only the victors were left standing. In contrast Carthage, like the Hellenistic states, operated in a more classical Westphalian framework where victory and defeat were never final, but simply instances of a continuous game between elites of distinct polities. But, if it was not for the material advantages of the Roman system its ideological orientation would have been suicidal, because wars of attrition can only be maintained when there are resources to feed them. The Romans relied upon conscript armies of free peasantry, committed to the idea of their republic as an expression of collective will, as well as Italian allies of long standing. Goldsworthy notes that no individual of the Roman elite betrayed their city, nor did any of the Latin allies (the cities who went over to Hannibal during his years in Italy tended to be culturally distant from Rome, whether non-Latin Italian or Greek). And, the citizen base of Rome was notoriously broad, because the Roman system was expansive, assimilating allies and elites of foreign polities over time. This is an ancient feature of Roman society, as at least half of the major patrician lineages are not Latin, but Sabine. This is in contrast to organization of Hellenistic or Carthaginian polities, which were not assimilative, but multicultural and cosmopolitan in a manner more resembling the later Roman system of the imperial period, or empires more generally.* The armies of Carthage and the Hellenistic kingdoms were not manned by citizens, but professionals, whether a standing army, or mercenaries and subject peoples. The army deployed by Hannibal consisted of Libyans, Spaniards, and assorted Italian peoples inimical to the Romans (e.g., the Gauls of the Po valley). Until the last of the conflicts between Rome and Carthage, which took place in the immediate environs of Carthage, Roman amateur soldiers lined up against armies in the service of Carthage, not armies of Carthaginians.
The robustness of the Roman system to defeat can be put down to the fact that like the armies of the French Revolution Rome threw its citizenry against its enemies to complete a broad mission, while its contemporaries purchased smaller professional armies to achieve specific tasks. In many circumstances these professionals could obtain victory, but the gains did not have the depth to force the concession of the Roman state, because the state was an expression of the populace, which remained defiant. In Azar Gat’s expansive War in Human Civilization the author reports that numbers available to the military are the major predictor of victory in battle and war. In other words, the side that can throw more resources into the conflict can win if it so chooses. Sometimes those resources are not so obvious to contemporaries. For example, Britain’s rise to power in the 18th century has often been attributed to its ability to borrow money to finance its wars (in contrast, many continental polities were not as creditworthy, and so lacked as many financial resources). There are cases where individuals of particular genius and charisma can change the calculus; Gat for example states that Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies were as successful as forces which were nearly 30% bigger. In other words, Napoleon’s particular genius was worth a third again as many soldiers as he actually had at his disposal. And yet ultimately Napoleon lost his wars . The French innovation of the early modern period of conscripting the whole nation for war could only gain them advantages for so long as other Europeans nations did not imitate them. When they did so they ultimately surpassed them in raw quantity, and emerged victorious.
The particular story in The Fall of Carthage dovetails perfectly with the general model in Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires. The Romans of the republic had asabiyah, social cohesion. Against their enemies they exhibited a stance where they accepted that the only alternatives were collective victory or collective extinction. One can speculate why this was so, but clearly that is the key variable in the rise of Rome in the world after the death of Alexander. And it explains the fall of Carthage, which in many ways was a Hellenistic polity, rather than an heir to the ancient traditions of the Levant. In the sense of microeconomics the Carthaginians were homo economicus in comparison to the Romans. The years before the Third Punic War were ones of incredible prosperity for the city of Carthage, as documented in the Roman literary sources as well as archaeology. Rome fought Carthage not because it was weak and poor, but because it was strong and rich. And Rome won because its citizens loved their city more than could be accounted for by any rational calculation. Rome rose as an idea, and it fell as an idea.
* Because history is written by the winners we have little direct documentation from Carthage, but it is noteworthy that the city seems to have resembled Rome’s mixed system of governance, down to having a senate.