Carthago Delenda Est

Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization by [Richard Miles]Title: Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Author: Richard Miles
Genre:  Ancient History
Pages: 471 (plus indices, etc.a0
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you want to know more about Carthage than “Aeneas abandons Dido…Hannibal crosses the Alps with elephants…Carthago delenda est,” this is a great place to start. The author manages to make it a fairly popular level overview without giving the feeling that he’s dumbing it down or skimping on research.

Compiling an accurate history of Carthage is no easy task since most of our extant primary sources were written by their enemies. Overall, the author does an admirable job of comparing and stitching together available sources while trying to sort out truth from slander. He probably swings too far in the other direction at times, giving Carthage the benefit of the doubt while emphasizing Roman hypocrisy and perfidy…but I think that most historians tilt things in favor of their chosen topic.

Throughout the book the author emphasizes the propagandizing of mythology/religion by both the Romans and the Carthaginians, with special attention on Heracles/Hercules. Whether or not this was always done as intentionally as the author seems to think, it provides an added dimension that makes the book all the more interesting.

Because the book covers hundreds of years, it provides only the briefest description of most battles in the Punic wars, spending no more than a few paragraphs on all but the most important of them. So, if you are looking primarily for a military history you may want to look elsewhere. However, if you want a solid overview of Carthaginian history, culture, and religion, give this a read.

The Granddaddy of Epic Poetry

Title: Gilgamesh: A New English Version
Author: Unknown
“Translator”: Stephen Mitchell
Genre: Ancient Narrative Poetry
Pages: 292
Rating: 4 of 5

Last year I read a version of the Gilgamesh Epic by Herbert Mason that amounted to a heavily edited retelling. I found it disappointing because there was no way of knowing the actual extent of the author’s editing and personal interpretation (a review of that version can be found here).

The main text of this version was similarly functional (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word), as Stephen Mitchell is working off other people’s word-for-word English translations rather than consulting the ancient languages himself. However, he is careful to note where his text becomes especially interpretive. In copious endnotes he carefully cites which specific versions of the epic he is working off in a given section and provides a woodenly literal translation of difficult passage where he resorted to heavy paraphrasing or speculation. To me, this made all the difference in the world…I now feel like I have read a valid translation of Gilgamesh, not just some scholar’s “here’s what I think you should get out of this” paraphrase.

Along with translation notes, Mitchell offers commentary on the cultural setting, comparison to stories found in Genesis, and similar background. I question some of his interpretations at this point, but found much of it to be helpful as well.

If you’re not the kind of person who is into scholarly footnotes, I think that this is still a great version for reading the poem itself. You get a feel for the broad Gilgamesh tradition (including some of the bemusing and inconsistent bits “smoothed out” [i.e. omitted] by Mason) and Mitchell’s phrasing captures the great emotional depth in the timeless friendship and loss of Gilgamesh and Enkidu in a way that doesn’t come across well in a woodenly literal translations. Don’t expect a happy story. Mitchell aptly refers to this as “the epic of the fear of death,” and to me its despair over human mortality offers a sobering contrast to the “living hope” found in Christianity.

**Addendum: I forgot to mention that in the lengthy introduction Mitchell practically tells the whole story of the poem mixed in with his cultural commentary, so depending on your preferences you may want to read the poem and then come back to the introduction (or skip it entirely since a lot of the most important info is repeated in the endnotes in more concise form).