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51Jb17R6p6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ 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.

9780300137194 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.

historyofrome 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.

warinhumancivilization 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.

warandpeaceandwar 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.

 
• Category: History • Tags: History, Punic Wars, Rome 
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  1. @Razib,

    What do you think we can learn from this? Who are we, and why are we what we are?

  2. What do you think we can learn from this? Who are we, and why are we what we are?

    carthage. but there’s no rome on the horizon, so we’ll be OK in a *relative* sense.

    • Replies: @CupOfCanada
    @Razib Khan

    I wouldn't sell yourselves short either. American culture is an incredibly powerful force, and one that is both inclusive and uniting. The United States has some major structural and political issues, but from a cultural standpoint I think it still has a lot of advantage on most of the world.

    Further to your "strong man" points - I think the fact that Rome's system was both deliberative and competitive gave them a major advantage over a monarchy or such in its ability to gather and analyze information. The Roman system was far more amenable to telling truth to power than onel based on a strong man who's whims determine one's advancement in society. At the start of the First Punic War, the Romans had almost no naval experience, and it showed in their results at sea, with multiple fleets lost in battle and in storms. Over the course of the war they were able to figure out the cause of these failures, adjust their designs, and achieve naval supremacy to end the war. That's a pretty impressive feat of innovation against a naval power like Carthage.

    I don't know if follow epistemology much (I don't), but Cheryl Misak has some interesting books and papers on the pragmatic espitemological arguments for deliberative democracy, she suggests that we value deliberative democracy because it is more likely to arrive at truth. I think the Roman system had similar strengths - it was not democratic, but it was deliberative.

    What concerns me somewhat is I feel current society is getting worse at this, with media becoming increasingly partitioned along ideological lines. Which is one thing that's really great about this space here.

  3. anon • Disclaimer says:

    I think that’s it. When republics are genuine republics they are immensely strong simply through not giving in.

    In another time and place Hannibal would have won a few battles and the losing elite would have sued for peace and handed over a province or two in the peace deal.

  4. And why are we Carthage?

    The Anglosphere, before it became Carthage, was it was once Rome?

  5. Someone has to speculate why Rome was high-asabiya. Could it be that they were low in clannishness?

    No doubt there is more to it than that. Generations of European thinkers answered “republicanism” to the question “what made Rome so successful?”

  6. Napoleon was attacked by his adversaries one by one so the french army outnumbered it’s opponents until 1813 when Russia, Prussia and Austria were for the first time fighting him all at the same time.
    Carthage didn’t had institutions for mass conscription, but they also distrusted the Barca family who have carved a basically independent state in Iberia. They never gave Hannibal full support because they feared him as much as they feared the romans. Romans had a similar trust problem appointing two consuls to lead the armies for one year and they usually were both inexperienced and bad at cooperating. It was with a heavy heart that they let Scipio have an unified, long term command.

  7. “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.”

    It is interesting to note that does not appear to apply during Rome’s conflict with Antiochus III over Mainland Greece and Asia Minor. Livy (cribbed from Polybius) described Antiochus’ army as much larger than even the combined Roman-Rhodian-Pergamene alliance, with vast military talents from the Near East and Central Asia at his command, but Rome still handily defeated Antiochus over the course of the entire war. Perhaps when push comes to shove asabiyya trumps pure numerical resources?

  8. Romans had a similar trust problem appointing two consuls to lead the armies for one year and they usually were both inexperienced and bad at cooperating. It was with a heavy heart that they let Scipio have an unified, long term command.

    let’s not ignore the dictator maximus fabius. one might argue that in some ways the roman system served as a check on the rise to power of a strongman, allowing for there to be more trust of senators who rose to singular power for a period.

    #7, from what i recall ancient historians are not the most accurate about numbers, and sometimes exaggerate how particular groups/individuals “beat the odds.” in addition, as you imply, sometimes the numbers are not comparable because of issues of quality. for example the persian armies which fought alexander were bolstered by large numbers of auxiliaries which counted toward the head count, but were not really reliable when it come to pitched battle. so really the persians and macedonians were much more comparable when you were talking about the groups of fighters who were brought to bear.

    but, i think gat’s assertion is probably drawn more from european wars of relatively recent vintage which have good numbers.

  9. Great piece with lots to think about -I’d never thought of Carthage as part of the Hellenistic world, or how this affected the mental & moral levels of the Rome/Carthage struggle.
    Militarily America seems traditionally like a country with generally mediocre generalship but strong institutions; in particular America’s unparralleled logistical ability based on a strong manufacturing economy. US institutions allow the nation to reliably win in conventional warfare, but logistical superiority is less useful in war against insurgents who avoid concentrating force.

  10. I vaguely recall that Hannibal had trouble recruiting Italian city-states as allies, even after Cannae, because they generally assumed that in the long run the brilliant African would go back to Africa and they’d be stuck in Europe with Rome, and the Romans never forgot.

  11. ” the roman system system served as a check on the rise to power of a strongman,”

    What about Sulla ?

  12. On Hannibal ; I know their were a couple of Greeks with him during his campaign and they both wrote about it and yet their writings haven’t survived. Very frustrating . Maybe that makes him even more fascinating.

  13. What about Sulla ?

    well, since it’s not around now, it didn’t maintain itself indefinitely 😉 sulla definitely is a crisp turning point (his march on rome, etc.), but arguably the marian reforms and the efforts of the gracchii indicate that the system was already broken before 100 BC.

    Militarily America seems traditionally like a country with generally mediocre generalship but strong institutions; in particular America’s unparralleled logistical ability based on a strong manufacturing economy. US institutions allow the nation to reliably win in conventional warfare, but logistical superiority is less useful in war against insurgents who avoid concentrating force.

    i think america went through distinct phases. before world war ii like the old roman republic we’d demobilize our army during peacetime. the military was a small skeleton force. after world war ii that all changed. also, in the past the united states had an elite which was patriotically vested in this country. i don’t think that’s necessarily true today. it’s a plutocratic and globalist oriented faction that rules, whether on the left or right.

    • Replies: @Simon in London
    @Razib Khan

    "i think america went through distinct phases. before world war ii like the old roman republic we’d demobilize our army during peacetime. the military was a small skeleton force. after world war ii that all changed. also, in the past the united states had an elite which was patriotically vested in this country. i don’t think that’s necessarily true today. it’s a plutocratic and globalist oriented faction that rules, whether on the left or right."

    America's founders seem to have deliberately and successfully modelled their new nation on the Roman Republic, so perhaps its not surprising that it eventually evolved into the Principate with FDR (the USA's Augustus) & WW2, with Dominionate tendencies post-9/11. However I don't think the Roman elites ever became truly un-patriotic, even when the old founding families had gone extinct, so Globalist Transnationalism as a significant force may be something new. For Roman asabiya it helped that there were always significant external threats, existential threats, which the USA has lacked since the end of the USSR.

  14. Here is to wishing Razib has more time in the future to devote to such articles that weave complex pictures from whatever area of history/science he finds interesting.

  15. Here is a picture of a Carthaginian coin from around 300 BC.


    Herakles on the obverse with a horse’s head on reverse , symbol of the cities founding. Some obvious Greek influence. The Carthaginian’s main opponents until they came into conflict with Rome were the Greek colonies in Sicily and they were allied with one , Segesta , against some of the other Greek cities for a time.
    I agree that the US has had it’s share of mediocre generals but Lee, Jackson, Grant and Sherman are names that ring out. But that was in the 19th century as was Wellington.
    In Normandy Eisenhower fired a lot of peacetime generals and kept firing them until he found ones that could do the jobs required of them. Someone should have fired Mark Clark in Italy . One great US general that comes to mind from the Second WW in Europe is James Gavin of the 82nd Airborne . I won’t bring up Montgomery because I’m sure that’s a sensitive subject if you’re English.
    Today in the US Army mediocre seems to be the rule.

    Not related to the above but here is a Greek coin from the colony of Kroton in southern Italy abt 400BC.

    http://www2.lawrence.edu/dept/art/BUERGER/CATALOGUE/005.HTML

    Does the reverse remind anyone of anything ?

  16. @Razib Khan
    What do you think we can learn from this? Who are we, and why are we what we are?


    carthage. but there's no rome on the horizon, so we'll be OK in a *relative* sense.

    Replies: @CupOfCanada

    I wouldn’t sell yourselves short either. American culture is an incredibly powerful force, and one that is both inclusive and uniting. The United States has some major structural and political issues, but from a cultural standpoint I think it still has a lot of advantage on most of the world.

    Further to your “strong man” points – I think the fact that Rome’s system was both deliberative and competitive gave them a major advantage over a monarchy or such in its ability to gather and analyze information. The Roman system was far more amenable to telling truth to power than onel based on a strong man who’s whims determine one’s advancement in society. At the start of the First Punic War, the Romans had almost no naval experience, and it showed in their results at sea, with multiple fleets lost in battle and in storms. Over the course of the war they were able to figure out the cause of these failures, adjust their designs, and achieve naval supremacy to end the war. That’s a pretty impressive feat of innovation against a naval power like Carthage.

    I don’t know if follow epistemology much (I don’t), but Cheryl Misak has some interesting books and papers on the pragmatic espitemological arguments for deliberative democracy, she suggests that we value deliberative democracy because it is more likely to arrive at truth. I think the Roman system had similar strengths – it was not democratic, but it was deliberative.

    What concerns me somewhat is I feel current society is getting worse at this, with media becoming increasingly partitioned along ideological lines. Which is one thing that’s really great about this space here.

  17. anon • Disclaimer says:

    I think the problem with genuine republics – which I define as societies where the bulk of the population are all voluntarily rowing in the same direction – is they will tend to out-compete their neighbors and get an empire – thus changing themselves – or if there’s more than one genuine republic near each other, smashing each other to bits because neither will surrender until they’re smashed to bits.

    The Anglosphere, before it became Carthage, was it was once Rome?

    I’d say Britain was originally mostly Carthage but gradually became more Rome until an abortive first attempt at replacement in the 1600s – with a lot of the losing Roman faction leaving for the US after – and then making it to Rome on the second attempt along with a bunch of other European countries just in time for WWI – doh – and then reacting away from it – the sheer capacity of societies like that – as a result ever since.

  18. @Razib Khan
    What about Sulla ?


    well, since it's not around now, it didn't maintain itself indefinitely ;-) sulla definitely is a crisp turning point (his march on rome, etc.), but arguably the marian reforms and the efforts of the gracchii indicate that the system was already broken before 100 BC.

    Militarily America seems traditionally like a country with generally mediocre generalship but strong institutions; in particular America’s unparralleled logistical ability based on a strong manufacturing economy. US institutions allow the nation to reliably win in conventional warfare, but logistical superiority is less useful in war against insurgents who avoid concentrating force.

    i think america went through distinct phases. before world war ii like the old roman republic we'd demobilize our army during peacetime. the military was a small skeleton force. after world war ii that all changed. also, in the past the united states had an elite which was patriotically vested in this country. i don't think that's necessarily true today. it's a plutocratic and globalist oriented faction that rules, whether on the left or right.

    Replies: @Simon in London

    “i think america went through distinct phases. before world war ii like the old roman republic we’d demobilize our army during peacetime. the military was a small skeleton force. after world war ii that all changed. also, in the past the united states had an elite which was patriotically vested in this country. i don’t think that’s necessarily true today. it’s a plutocratic and globalist oriented faction that rules, whether on the left or right.”

    America’s founders seem to have deliberately and successfully modelled their new nation on the Roman Republic, so perhaps its not surprising that it eventually evolved into the Principate with FDR (the USA’s Augustus) & WW2, with Dominionate tendencies post-9/11. However I don’t think the Roman elites ever became truly un-patriotic, even when the old founding families had gone extinct, so Globalist Transnationalism as a significant force may be something new. For Roman asabiya it helped that there were always significant external threats, existential threats, which the USA has lacked since the end of the USSR.

  19. In the US Civil War, the Confederacy had stronger asabiyah and better generals than the Union, but it didn’t matter because the numbers were on the side of the Union.

    Rome’s opponents probably all had strong asabiyah. The threat of your entire society, including your women and children, being killed or enslaved creates the strongest asabiyah possible.

  20. Agrh… seeing you mention asabiya pains my heart. I won’t write down the image that this concept evokes in my mind but lets say one would not qualify it as floral.

    A group’s cohesion is always tied to its material circumstances. The reason why Hannibal did not have a full standing carthagenian army à la romaine is simply because Carthage could not afford it. While rich (a toll state in James Scott’s matrix) it was also sparcely populated and certainly could not count on its neighbours who ranged from rough Berber mountaineers to rough Berber nomads. Rome on the other hand was at the heart of a large flood plain (by Mediterranean standards) and could count on the support of its former enemies, the Sabins, the Volsques or the Samnites.

    The replacement of the scores of lost legions is simply a testament of the depth of Rome’s demographic advantage (and thus also fiscal because people pay taxes). If you ad to that considerations about the agricultural structures of the Roman economy and maybe two or three other details, you really don’t need that asabyia non-sense.

  21. Philip Sabin in “Lost Battles: Reconstructing the Great Clashes of the Ancient World” uses a consistent method of modeling (a type of war gaming) to parse out what was going on in battles from the Greeks/Spartans through Alexander and ending with Julius Caesar. His results are not bullet proof, but he is going into a lot more detail and number crunching than your narrative histories will allow for.

    One of his conclusions: “Victory in battle did not go to the ‘big battalions,’ as the processes of combat were very different to the mutually devastating firepower duels of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fatalities from missile fire or melee seem to have been remarkably light until one force turned tail and exposed itself to one-sided slaughter. When victories armies did suffer significant losses, these were usually concentrated in parts of their force that dad given way before the eventual triumph. Hence, raw numbers were much less important than fighting spirit and a fearsome reputation, as good troops could stand firm even against great odds and could sometimes panic less-resolute adversaries into flight even before physical combat was joined. By far the most important variable in the model is troop quality, to reflect this psychological factor and also to show how good troops like Spartan hoplites and Roman legionaries could use their superiority in drill and discipline to achieve tactical advantage”

    In discussing the time element of battle, he also makes the following note: “Roman legionnaires, by contrast [to heavy cavalry and Greek hoplites] could hold out for a lot longer thanks to their stubborn resilience and their multiple line system…the generally longer duration of Roman infantry combat helps to explain why cavalry double envelopments became such a characteristic feature of battles during the Punic Wars.” This stubbornness meant that the Romans tended to not break and run, and thus caused more casualties as a loser than was the norm. Thus the Pyrrhus of Epirus and his problematic victories.

    Presumably when the Romans went to a cavalry based system, they lost some of “stubbornness” advantage. Although they likely were much more effective on some levels (or they wouldn’t have made the change), it also made them more susceptible to catastrophic defeats that left the victor in a position (being relatively unhurt) to exploit their success.

    Two notes on Napoleon. The French went to a Corp Command structure which allowed their large armies to travel over separate roads on their way to the general battle area (marching to the sound of the guns so to speak). When the Germans later combined this system with a General Staff, you have the modern big war system of organization used by armies in the West. Although the individual units still tended to fight in line (the French reliance on the column was a bit overstated by Oman), it did make their formations deeper and more resilient.

    The other advantage that Napoleon had was that the French Army had parked itself waiting to invade England and trained, and trained, and trained. When Napoleon called off the invasion, the army marched east to deal It is this Army that clobbered the Austrians, Russians and Prussians in the 1805 -1806 era.

    Other French Marshals had considerable success, but Napoleon was the only one who had the command and authority to wield the main army as single entity. Thus it is a little hard to say what exactly his + or minus versus other Marshals, or his opponents was. There is no easy comparison.

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