Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Carthage in Literature

Literature about Carthage focuses mainly on the Punic Wars and Hannibal. All original sources were written by the enemies of this incredible civilisation. The actual founding of the city is the stuff of legends and when Aeneas was injected into the tale, it made the legends even more unlikely. It is difficult to find good historical fiction that deals with ordinary life in Carthage but upon my return from my brief visit to La Goulette, I was fired with the need to immerse myself in the atmosphere of that ancient civilisation.

I wrote about two good factual studies of Roman civilisation in North Africa in an earlier post. Since then, I discovered two excellent contemporary novels about Carthage. 'Fire and Bronze' by Robert Raymond is a compelling account of the founding of Carthage by Dido. 'Carthage' by Peter Huby deals with the ultimate horrific destruction of the city by the Romans. Both attempt to decipher the reality that underlies the legends and ancient political propaganda to create a plausible realistic sequence of events and both succeed admirably.

Furthermore, I was astounded by the beauty of the prose, especially in view of the fact that 'Fire and Bronze' is a first novel. The two writers are very different but both demonstrate a love of words and images and an expert ability to alternate extraordinary lyricism with graphic realism. In fact, having finished the two novels, I was hungry for more. I found Peter Huby's first novel, 'Pasiphae' and devoured that as well.

I recommend all three of these novels. I read all the 'Classics' as a child but I have to admit that there are many contemporary writers who may supercede some of the Victorian 'Masters'. If I were to teach a class in ancient History, I would be inclined to include these novels in any discussion of Carthage.

I have one negative criticsm of 'Carthage' and I am not alone in this. Many readers remarked upon the writer's use of anachronisms in this book. Some of them were more irritating than others. I found the writer's inaccurate correlation of Phoenicians with Jews to be unjustifiable and infuriating as well, essentially writing the ancestors of the Arab Nation out of the equation. The Phoenicians were NOT Jews. At the time when Qart Hadasht was founded, the Hebrews were well-known as a separate ethnic group.

Qart Hadasht or 'New Town' is the real name of Carthage. As is often the case, however, the victorious Romans ultimately triumphed in history as well as in life, leaving us with their name for the civilisation that may have been Rome's greated rival. So determined was Rome to destroy Kart Hadasht that it sowed the land with salt, preventing any crops from growing there for a hundred years.

One of the few details about ancient Carthage familiar to the general public even when nothing else is known is the practice of infant sacrifice. The entire civilisation has been demonised because of a religious tradition poorly, if at all, comprehended. 'Fire and Bronze' tackles this subject well. In a period of history when mystery religions often demanded the sacrifice of a man's genitals, the sacrifice of the first-born would be an example of true devotion and a very profound faith in the gods and in a world beyond this one.

Religions such as Christianity and Islam stress the principle that this life is transient. If one accepts the premise that the world beyond this is far more substantial in spiritual terms and is the only one that endures, human sacrifice will be perceived not as a cruel and barbaric act but one that sets the 'victim' above and beyond ordinary humans. The child that is sacrificed in essence becomes one with the gods, entering an existence that is free from pain and suffering.

Comprehending a ritual or tradition is not tantamount to agreement with it. Recoiling from horror from the practice of infant sacrifice prohibits any true exploration of a civilisation that was extremely sophisticated and one that based itself on a code of law that was far from barbaric. Religion in any civilisation is a tree that has deep roots in another world, with a distinct logic that is divorced from ordinary existence. If one were to view the principles of 'Holy Communion' and 'Transubstantiation' without reference to the underlying philosophy of Christianity, one might find them horrific as well. An actual need for a god to die in human form in extreme torment upon a wooden cross is the foundation of Christian religion. How one perceives the ultimate sacrifice depends upon comprehension of the system of philosophy that underlies the act rather than the act itself. Infant sacrifice is no different in this respect.

Neither novels are centred upon the religion of ancient Carthage but they touch upon it en passant. In this particular aspect, Robert Raymond's spiritual comprehension of ancient cultures was far more convincing. Peter Huby's insistence on equating the Carthaginians with the Jews severely marred his account of ancient religion. The appearance of Orthodox Jews on the streets of Kart Hadasht was bizarre, to say the least. Even though he included some of the ancient Canaanite tales in his account, his attempt to address Carthaginian beliefs was unsuccessful in my view. He did far better with 'Pasiphae'.

'Pasiphae' incidentally is a tale of ancient Crete and the central character, despite the title, is Daedalus. Sadly, although it is very high on my list of places I long to visit, I have not been to Crete yet. Peter Huby's work deals with the passion of the Queen for the Sacred Bull in the context of Daedalus' own passion to create and explore the limits of human possibilities. Although he missed the point here as well in terms of ancient mystery religions, in my opinion, it is an incredible book and his exploration of human passions is very fine.

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