One reason I blog so often about Virgil is my habit, in the middle of the university lectures on the Aeneid that I’ve been giving for years, of suddenly seeing things more clearly. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when I understood a moment in Aeneid 1 as I talked about it better than I ever have before. I then did most of the research for this blog sitting for fifteen minutes after a Covid booster, and I dunno, but maybe a blog about how everything is bound sooner or later to fail, as well as about bursting into tears at inappropriate moments, speaks a little to our current circumstances.
The moment in question is when Aeneas, accompanied by Achates, sets eyes for the first time upon Carthage (1.418-38):
Carthage in the first book of the Aeneid is presented by Virgil to his Roman readers as a place both alien and deeply (and because it’s Carthage, Rome’s historical bête noire, disconcertingly) familiar. I wrote here about passing hints of the Carthaginians’ most notorious religious practices within Virgil’s otherwise surprisingly appealing account of Carthage and its exemplary leader, Dido. In this passage we could point to the word magalia, “huts”, in the fourth line, a Punic term that defines the space as irrevocably foreign; but against that, the city being constructed before Aeneas’ eyes has theatres with columns, and in line 426 (suspected by some scholars, but present in all the manuscripts) even iura, “laws”, magistrates and a senate, more Roman words and concepts than which it would be hard to find.
Aeneas reacts to this scene with a kind of rueful recognition: the Carthaginians are realising the precise thing that he passionately wants but is constantly prevented from achieving, a new city for his Trojan followers. The readers of the Aeneid have also been promised that new city, Rome, from the very beginning of this national epic, and they are feeling pretty disorientated just four hundred lines into the poem when there is indeed a city being founded, but it’s Rome’s nemesis, Carthage.
This effect was all the sharper for the first Roman readers of the Aeneid, or so I tell the students in my lectures. Rome in the early Augustan period was a building site: Chapter 29 of Suetonius’ life of Augustus lists everything built by Augustus, or by other senior Romans with his encouragement, while 19-21 of the Res Gestae gives a longer list of his own construction projects. Augustus’ building programme, whereby he famously took a city of mud brick and left it made of marble (Suet., Aug. 28.3), was a way of giving concrete form to his claim to be refounding Rome: Suetonius again (7.2) records the perception of Augustus as a conditor urbis, a founder of Rome, by virtue of restoring harmony after decades in which Romans had fought fellow Romans. My point in the lecture is that if the scene of Carthage under construction evoked anything for contemporary Romans it was their own city.
So Aeneas is looking at Carthage and thinking of Rome, but Virgil ensures that his readers are doing the same, and I just say again that we can’t overstate how bold it is of the poet to present Carthage, of all places, to his Roman readership early in his poem as not only not demonically alien but actually familiar enough to provoke thoughts of home.
Another thing we can say about the scene of Aeneas contemplating the beginnings of Carthage is that I don’t think Romans could look at Carthage being founded and fail to think of Carthage getting destroyed. The name “Carthage” actually means “New City”, but the latter end of Carthage’s history, its capture and destruction in 146 BC, was an iconic moment in Roman history, the final defeat of their most daunting enemy. Something the historical sources and the archaeology agree on is how comprehensively the city of Carthage was made to disappear by its vengeful conquerors. The sources talk of a fire that lasted seventeen days, unrestricted looting by Roman troops, the city walls reduced to dust, all but the most senior men sold into slavery, and a ritual obliteration as important as the physical: the site was cursed, set aside for the gods by consecratio: no human was to live there again. The action of ploughing over the site mentioned by Modestinus (Digest of Justinian 7.4.21) reversed the ploughing that established the sacred boundary of the city at foundation, hinted at by Virgil at line 425. C. Marius, at a low ebb after defeat by Sulla, pondered his humiliation appropriately seated amid the ruins of the fallen city (Plutarch, Marius 40.4; Lucan 2.85-93).
The only thing the Romans didn’t do was sow the ground of Carthage with salt, for that is a factoid with no basis in the ancient sources: the ancient evidence for the destruction is collected by Ridley in the process of scotching that story, and supplemented in a more open-minded way by Purcell, and both citations are at the bottom.
Archaeological work at Carthage tells a similarly terrifying story. In Virgil’s day, after false starts by Gaius Gracchus and then Julius Caesar, Augustus established a colony on the site of Carthage, the beginnings of a very successful future city. This looks at first glance like a contradiction of the consecratio in 146 BC, but archaeological discoveries suggest the efforts that were made to honour that original decision that Carthage was not in any way to be refounded. On the Byrsa, the citadel of the Punic city, Serge Lancel describes a “gigantic levelling” by Roman engineers in preparation for the new colony, “a resection that would seem to us almost unimaginable without the aid of our powerful public works machines.” The top of the Byrsa hill was effectively sliced off, 100,000 cubic metres of earth removed, and the character of the space utterly transformed, an astonishingly thorough intervention into the physical landscape of Carthage that clearly had the aim of “effacing any surviving trace of the past.” Deleta est Carthago.
This brings me to my final thought about Virgil’s scene, which is in fact something suggested to me a few years ago by Denis Feeney (it was Sandro Barchiesi who alerted me to the remarkable archaeology of the Byrsa, I should also say). Denis told me that he was pretty certain we were supposed to see, when Aeneas stands on the hill and contemplates Carthage rising, a strong hint of a famous anecdote from the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC involving the triumphant Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus. The story originates with Polybius, who was with Scipio Aemilianus at the time, but it is recorded by Diodorus and Appian (Diodorus 32.24, Pun. 132 = Polybius 38.22):
“When Carthage had been put to the torch and the flames were doing their awful work of devastation throughout the whole city, Scipio wept unabashedly. Asked by Polybius, his mentor, why he was thus affected, he said: ‘Because I am reflecting on the fickleness of Fortune. Some day, perhaps, the time will come when a similar fate shall overtake Rome.’ And he cited these lines from the poet, Homer: ‘The day will come when sacred Ilium shall perish,/ with Priam and his people.'”
The Homeric quotation is from Hector’s moving words to his wife Andromache in Iliad 6. Trojan Aeneas gazes at Carthage as it is being founded and is put in mind of his own hoped-for foundation, Rome; Scipio witnesses the fall of Carthage and thinks of Rome and the sack of Troy; and the readers of the Aeneid watch as their Trojan founder looks upon Carthage, and find themselves pondering their own city Rome at the end of the first century BC, subject to the ineluctable processes of construction and destruction, as they well knew, just like Troy and Carthage before it.
* * *
R.T. Ridley, “To be taken with a pinch of salt: the destruction of Carthage”, Classical Philology 81 (1986), 140-46;
N. Purcell, “On the sacking of Corinth and Carthage”, in D. Innes, H. Hines, and C. Pelling (eds.), Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical Essays for Donald Russell on his 75th Birthday (Oxford, 1995), 133-48;
J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido”, in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London, 1998), 65-88;
S. Lancel, La colline de Byrsa à l’époque punique (Paris, 1983), 7-8.
The noblest of their sons
One of the big surprises that Virgil springs on his readers as the Aeneid gets under way is to take them straight to Carthage.
This city is really the last place that a Roman epic should start, the most relentless and dangerous enemy that Rome in its long history felt it had faced: the threat of Hannibal coming to get them was a favoured Roman method for getting the kids to eat their greens, long after the city (and the threat) had been eliminated in 146BC, so deep ran the fear evoked by Rome’s greatest imperial rival.
But Virgil doesn’t just drag his Roman epic to enemy HQ, he then compounds the scandal by making a place that Romans very well knew represented all that was most despicable in human behaviour, all that was most uncivilized, most un-Roman, a really rather decent place, even — terrifyingly — a place quite reminiscent of Rome. I tell my students, though they probably don’t believe me, that what is most clearly evoked by the scene that meets Aeneas as he approaches Carthage for the first time, the busy building activity of the rising city, is Rome in the first years of Augustus’ principate, the time and place of Virgil’s writing, and Romans’ first reading, of the poem.
It is indeed a shocking way to open a Roman national epic, almost as if Virgil was out to offer his Augustan readers no kind of simple answers.
By the time Aeneas leaves Carthage, it has assumed an altogether less friendly, though also more familiar, appearance. One way of understanding the trajectory of Aeneas’ stay in Carthage is as the creation of a Carthage recognisable to Roman readers, answering to the deep prejudices they had developed about their mortal Mediterranean rival during the Punic Wars. By the end of Book 4 Dido has sworn undying enmity to Rome, conjured up Hannibal from her own ashes, and generally started to look a lot like an existential threat. What’s quite interesting here is that Aeneas shares responsibility for the creation of this monster: Carthage would not be Carthage if Aeneas hadn’t met, loved and abandoned Dido.
But another respect in which Carthage becomes recognisably Carthage by the time Aeneas leaves it is in its religious character. In a brilliant article James Davidson* argues that Dido’s suicide at the end of Book 4 is meant by Virgil to inaugurate something that the Romans associated very strongly with Carthage, something they found especially deplorable: human sacrifice.
Now, a lot of what the Romans believed about the Carthaginians, for example their sexual immorality and their Punica fides, an alleged incapacity to honour an agreement, we can dismiss as the prejudice of a warring nation for its enemy. But it is generally accepted these days that the sacrifice of humans, and especially children (apparently children of the elite), at the temple of Tanit (Virgil’s Juno) was indeed an important element of Carthaginian religious observance. The sacrifice was a means to secure the goodwill of the gods, and Diodorus Siculus (20.14.4-6) records the frenetic activity occasioned by an unexpected raid on Carthage by the Sicilian tyrant Agathocles in 310BC, a crisis (it was evident to the Carthaginians) caused by their neglect of the gods which could only, the logic went, be resolved by appeasing those gods — with the most valuable thing it was possible for them to offer, their own children or themselves. Diodorus’ account is without doubt exaggerated, but the event itself, less some of the more lurid details, is entirely plausible:
“They also alleged that Cronus [i.e. Baal] had turned against them, inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons (τῶν υἱῶν τοὺς κρατίστους), but more recently, secretly buying and raising children, they had sent these to be sacrificed; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been supposititious. When they had considered these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honours of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground, so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”
We have already contemplated two ways in which Virgil’s readers probably reacted to his depiction of Carthage: surprise at the friendly, principled face it presented to Aeneas on his arrival, and a familiar horror at the vengeful promise of eternal enmity voiced at his departure. But one of the most effective things Virgil does, in Book 1 especially, is to sow something else in his readers’ minds, periodically qualifying the positive impression made by Dido and her city with niggling hints of that more familiar, much more intimidating Carthage. Again Davidson picks up on these dissonant notes, and he almost says what I’m about to say, and I’m pretty sure thought it. It’s obvious enough when you think about it, but still a great example of Virgil’s ability to manipulate his readers’ responses to his story.
Someone who harbours serious concerns about the Carthaginians is Venus, Aeneas’ divine mother. At 1.643ff. Aeneas, who has by now met and been warmly welcomed by Dido, sends word to the Trojan ships for his son Ascanius to join him in Carthage, at which point Venus hatches a plan to substitute her divine son Cupid for Ascanius, and thus ensure that Dido, under Cupid’s influence, will fall in love with Aeneas and do him no harm. (Venus’ plan is not flawless.) The grounds for the goddess’s anxiety about Carthage are given at 661, quippe domum timet ambiguam Tyriosque bilinguis, “since indeed she fears the untrustworthy house and the two-tongued Tyrians.” Clearly here Venus’ concerns evoke those raw Roman prejudices about Punica fides, “Punic faith”, their congenital untrustworthiness, a jarring reminder of how Carthage really is amid the overwhelmingly positive representation of Dido and her city.
But I can’t help feeling that the swapping of Cupid for Ascanius is still a bit undermotivated, Dido perfectly capable of falling for Aeneas without Cupid’s intervention. And if we do need a bit more reason for Venus to keep the boy Ascanius well away from Carthage until she’s confident Carthage isn’t behaving like Carthage, well, perhaps the most deep-seated of all Roman misgivings about the place was what they did to children there.
As Diodorus suggests, the really valuable children were the high-born, the children of the elite; in fact only the highest-born would do. No child was more elite than Ascanius, ancestor of the Romans, and of the Julian family in particular: he is the character that represents in the Aeneid all the promise of Rome’s glorious future. Virgil intrudes, with exquisite subtlety, a reminder of what this place where Aeneas was busily making himself at home was in the habit of doing to boys of such extraordinary promise.
How terrifying a threat Carthage actually posed to Rome.
*J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido,” in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), 65-88.
Scene, a Cave
One line of Virgil’s Aeneid out of a total of around 10,000:
speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem
But the Aeneid is so intricately composed that every single line of it is potentially a miniature masterpiece in itself. This is my current favourite, anyhow.
Actually I’m cheating, because this one is strictly speaking two lines, first used at Aeneid 4.124 and then repeated, unchanged, at 165. The first time, it’s spoken by the goddess Juno as she explains to Venus her plan to unite the Trojan visitors with their Carthaginian hosts and hence neutralise the threat that Aeneas, through his descendants, poses to her beloved Carthage. She will raise a storm as they hunt, she tells Venus, and “Dido and the Trojan leader will take refuge in the same cave,” where Juno, the goddess of marriage, will join them in wedlock: speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deuenient. When the line returns, it is in the voice of the narrator, the only change being the tense of the verb that rounds off the sentence in the following line, a present tense in place of Juno’s future as the goddess’s prediction is realised. The Trojans and Carthaginians gather for the hunt, a storm breaks, and “Dido and Aeneas take refuge in the same cave,” speluncam Dido dux et Troianus eandem/ deueniunt.
Everything about these six words is exquisite, if I’m honest, but let’s start with the very fact it’s repeated, because that in itself is a powerful narrative device, effortlessly achieved. Virgil likes to manipulate his readers’ sense of human free will. Throughout the Dido story we’re forced to wonder where the agency lies: are Dido and Aeneas falling in love as any humans might, or are they the puppets of higher forces? Here Juno sets out to Venus how she will arrange matters, but after that scene in heaven the narrative shifts back to the human level, and we’re distracted by a sequence of compelling descriptions of human activity, the magnificent preliminaries to the royal hunt, the superlative beauty of Aeneas and Dido especially (Aeneas is equated to the god Apollo), and then the excitement of the hunt itself. It has only been forty lines, but in that time the power of Virgil’s storytelling has made us forget the gods’ role in events, lulling us into accepting a strictly human frame of reference. Then suddenly that line returns, the narrator repeating the precise words of Juno; and we realise that events are happening exactly as Juno had predicted they would. The illusion of mortal freedom and dignity is shattered, and it’s a terrifying moment.
But what about the line itself? Even if there weren’t that wonderful effect in store, we could forgive Virgil for repeating it, since he makes it communicate far more than any line should. For starters, he exploits the flexibility of Latin word order to create a verbal image of the scene: the words for the cave, speluncam … eandem, “in the same cave” or perhaps “in the cave together”, surround “Dido and the Trojan leader” (Dido dux et Troianus) just as the cave encompasses the two lovers: a line of verse is made, as far as a line of verse can be made, to look like the restricted space of a cave. I’ve always felt that this famous image from a fifth-century manuscript of Virgil, the Vergilius Romanus, the lovers squeezed into a very cosy-looking cubicle, was inspired by the structure of Virgil’s line.
But if the cave is evoked by meticulous word placement, so is the relationship between the couple within it. Something that Virgil constantly plays on in the Dido story is the anxiety he knows Romans are bound to feel at the idea of their founding father emotionally entangled with the queen of Carthage. There are levels to this anxiety, none of them reflecting well on the Romans: at the most basic, a Roman male would feel threatened by the very notion of a man surrendering his emotional autonomy to a woman, and Virgil works on this fear expertly here. By pushing apart the words we translate as “Trojan leader”, dux et Troianus, and allowing the word for leader, dux, to sit next to Dido’s name, Dido dux et Troianus, Virgil introduces an ambiguity into the line: momentarily we think that the dominant figure in this relationship, the leader, is Dido, not Aeneas, and we’re more prepared to do so because Dido has been presented by Virgil as a charismatic leader of her people (from a Roman perspective a highly paradoxical, female leader) ever since her first introduction to the poem: Venus, recounting Dido’s achievements to Aeneas when he first arrives at Carthage in Book 1, tells him that dux femina facti, “a woman was the leader of the enterprise.” Here in Book 4, as I say, the effect is momentary: when we get to Troianus we know it’s an adjective and it needs a noun to qualify: the “leader” is the “Trojan” Aeneas. But the idea has been broached that Aeneas is not embodying the masculine dominance that Romans expected of their heroes.
But Dido and Aeneas aren’t just any old woman and man, of course. They are the founder of Carthage and the founder-to-be of Rome, in other words representatives of two cities which would in historical times fight the Punic Wars to decide which of them controlled the Mediterranean basin. To Romans the Carthage founded by Dido could only be the city that produced Hannibal, the city that almost destroyed their own, and which Rome felt had to be destroyed to ensure their own survival (delenda est Carthago, as Cato the Censor used to put it). That struggle was still a strong folk memory in Virgil’s day. Long after Hannibal’s death he was a bogeyman Roman mothers used to get their kids to eat their greens, just as Boney was in England for a long time after the Napoleonic Wars. One of the very strangest things about Virgil’s account of Carthage is how sympathetic and appealing he chose to make a place that his readers were conditioned to regard as irredeemably malevolent. An alliance between the Trojans and Carthaginians, even an amalgamation of the two peoples, is repeatedly mooted, explicitly and implicitly, in Virgil’s Carthage episode, but the poet knows that that the notion of Rome’s ancestors contributing to the gene pool of their sworn enemies is anathema to his Roman readers.
Well, contributing to the Carthaginian gene pool is one way of describing what Aeneas is up to in that cave. What we need to appreciate is how wrong in principle such a relationship would have seemed to Roman eyes.
So Virgil’s intricate word order suggests a man losing control of his destiny, ceding leadership to a woman. But it is a Roman man we are dealing with, and a Carthaginian woman, and that increases the offensiveness of the scene significantly. What occurred to me in the middle of a school talk last week (it was late on a Friday, so forgive me) was that all of this Roman anxiety about Aeneas’ shenanigans in Carthage could be boiled down to a fear of muddying the clear distinction that had to be maintained between Trojans/Romans and Carthaginians, and this is what I think is most troubling about the line: Virgil presents us with characters whose proper roles are confused, but more fundamentally with a couple so intimately involved that they can’t clearly be distinguished.
Now one thing to say is, again, that the sharp differentiation of Roman and Carthaginian was critical to a Roman sense of Romanness to a degree that we can’t any longer appreciate. This is a scene bound to outrage the sensibilities of the male Romans who were Virgil’s primary audience, then. But it also seems to me that this is yet another respect in which Virgil’s line is reflecting in its verbal shape the scene it depicts, in other words that there’s something very suggestive about the intertwining of the (words for the) lovers in this cave-like line. Virgil is notoriously oblique about what does happen in the cave, but I’d say that the word order gives the game away clearly enough.
Of course, Latinists don’t need to be told how sexy the word order of an inflected language can be.
Dunno much about γεωγραφία…
Behold! A map of the city and harbour of Cartagena, in southern Spain, for your delectation. And it may make things easier later on if you note carefully the position of the island of Escombrera or Escombreras, right at the bottom.
To the Romans Cartagena was known as Carthago Nova, New Carthage, and it was celebrated as one of the very finest natural harbours they knew. It’s easy enough to see why: in the sixteenth century the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria was in the habit of saying that the three most secure anchorages in the Mediterranean were “Cartagena and June and July.” Under the settled conditions of the Roman Empire Carthago Nova was best known for its production of the highest quality garum, fermented fish sauce, an evil-smelling staple of Roman cuisine. That island Escombrera was in antiquity Scombraria, named after the scombri or mackerel from which this garum was manufactured.
But Carthago Nova had had an intense and troubled history, the consequence of that splendid harbour. In 228/7BC a Carthaginian general called Hasdrubal (there were quite a few answering that description) established it as a base for Carthaginian operations in Spain: he named it simply “Carthage”, since Qarthadasht in Punic means “New City”; the Romans called it “New Carthage” to distinguish it from the Carthaginian mother city in North Africa.
New Carthage was the key to Spain, and in 209BC, during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, the 25-year old P. Cornelius Scipio (later and better known as Scipio Africanus the Elder) captured it with a lightning manoeuvre. Henceforth the advantage in Spain, and in the war as a whole, shifted decisively towards the Romans. In 202BC Scipio would crush Hannibal at the battle of Zama: the capture of Carthago Nova was felt to have been a critical step towards that ultimate Roman victory.
My own interest in New Carthage came from thinking about Virgil, not the most obvious route in. But I and Ronnie Shi (remember that name, Classicists, for she will go far) have been writing an article about the harbour in North Africa where Aeneas and his companions find refuge in Aeneid Book 1, after the storm brought about by scheming Juno has blown them off course. Here’s the Latin, and a translation, of Virgil’s description of the place (Aen. 1.159-69):
est in secessu longo locus: insula portum
efficit obiectu laterum, quibus omnis ab alto
frangitur inque sinus scindit sese unda reductos.
Hinc atque hinc uastae rupes geminique minantur
in caelum scopuli, quorum sub uertice late
aequora tuta silent; tum siluis scaena coruscis
desuper horrentique atrum nemus imminet umbra.
fronte sub adversa scopulis pendentibus antrum,
intus aquae dulces uiuoque sedilia saxo,
nympharum domus: hic fessas non uincula nauis
ulla tenent, unco non alligat ancora morsu.
There is a place in a deep inlet: an island forms a harbour by the barrier of its flanks; all the waves coming from the open sea are broken by it and divide as they flow into the distant recesses of the bay. From this side and that huge cliffs loom skywards, twin headlands, and beneath their peaks the broad waters are safe and still. Above rises a backdrop of shimmering woods, a dark forest with quivering shadows. Under the cliff-face straight ahead there was a cave of hanging rock, and within it fresh water and seats in the living rock, the home of nymphs: here no chains moor the weary ships nor anchor fasten them with its hooked grip.
Ronnie and I were intrigued by a detail in Servius’ late-antique commentary on the Aeneid, where he records that some readers wanted to see Carthago Nova, in Spain, behind this description of a harbour near the original Carthage, in Africa. This struck us as quite an exciting idea: a hint of New Carthage at this point of the poem would introduce lots of interesting associations with Scipio and the Second Punic War, the life-and-death struggle between Carthage and Rome that is very much in the air as the ancestral founders of the two cities, Dido and Aeneas, meet and fall in love.
I won’t inflict the details of our argument on you. That pleasure can be reserved until we persuade a journal to accept it, crossed fingers. But I will share just one of the details that persuaded us Servius might have a point–that ancient readers could have picked up a hint of Carthago Nova in Virgil’s African harbour.
At the heart of our argument are resemblances between Virgil’s poetic harbour and descriptions of Carthago Nova in the historians Polybius and Livy. Their accounts are very similar, Livy imitating Polybius, so I’ll just quote Polybius (10.10.1-3). But one clear point of similarity between Polybius’ Carthago Nova and Virgil’s Carthage should be the island that sits in the mouth of the harbour and protects it from the effects of the open sea:
(New Carthage) lies halfway down the coast of Spain in an inlet facing the southwest wind. The inlet is about twenty stades in depth and about ten in breadth at its entrance. The whole inlet serves as a harbour for the following reason. At its mouth lies an island which leaves only a narrow channel on either side into the inlet, and as this stands in the way of the waves from the sea, the whole inlet is calm, except when south-westerlies blow on both channels and raise billows.
It seems clear to us that ancient readers of Virgil would have been reminded of the Spanish port when reading about the African one, although there’s a question where readers of the Aeneid would have got their idea of the layout of Carthago Nova. In Virgil’s great predecessor Q. Ennius, we think, rather than Polybius or Livy, but that’s another story. However, there’s a fascinating wrinkle here that takes us back to the map at the top of this post. At the beginning I called your attention to the island of Escombrera/Scombraria. That’s the island Polybius describes as sitting in the mouth of the harbour at Carthago Nova, and of course it’s that island-in-the-mouth that’s a key point of contact between Virgil and the historical descriptions of Carthago Nova.
But look at the map and it’s as clear as your nose that Escombrera doesn’t sit in the mouth of Carthago Nova harbour, or anywhere near it: in fact it lies a good three miles away.
Now, this isn’t a problem for our argument, because all we need to establish is that Virgil’s harbour looked like (what Virgil’s readers thought) Carthago Nova looked like, and Virgil’s readers would have got their idea of the place not from maps, which in our sense the Romans didn’t really have, but from descriptions in authors like Ennius. But I still think it’s fascinating that Polybius and Livy could have got it so wrong, that the ancient historical record of a location as important as Carthago Nova was so spectacularly inaccurate.
Now the obvious thing this tells us is that the Romans had an extremely limited grasp of geography. It’s clear from elsewhere in Livy’s history, for instance, that readers weren’t interested, and historians made little attempt to interest them, in geographical precision. This isn’t just another example of the practical Romans’ notorious suspicion of the intellect: yes, the Greeks were more into the theory of geography (a Greek word, after all), but both Greeks and Romans lacked some of the basic technical resources that allow the kind of accurate mapmaking we’re familiar with.
Perhaps it’s safer to say, though, that the geographical knowledge on show here is more sketchy than straightforwardly bad. We do, in fact, have an ancient account which places Escombrera in its true position: the Greek writer Strabo, in the course of a survey of the Spanish seaboard, mentions Carthago Nova, “by far the most powerful of all the cities in this country,” and “the Island of Heracles, which they call Scombraria, from the mackerel caught there, from which the best fish-sauce is prepared. It is 24 stadia distant from New Carthage.” A stadion was equivalent to about an eighth of a Roman mile, so that’s about right. In general the ancients knew as much as they needed to know about their physical surroundings: there might even be pockets of quite impressive accuracy, but the pieces were never joined up.
Proving that the Romans were rubbish at geography is quite satisfying, I have to admit. But what I find most interesting, exciting even, about all this is something a bit different. I mentioned earlier the question of which text it was in which Virgil’s readers found what they knew about Carthago Nova. We suspect Ennius’ great national epic the Annales, which will certainly have given space to Scipio’s glorious capture of the city. Reaching that conclusion involves some pretty dry research comparing possible earlier accounts to decide who influenced whom: there’s an appropriately forbidding German word for the exercise, Quellenforschung, sources-research. But in this case, it seems to me, Quellenforschung achieves something remarkable, capturing an individual human experience at a remove of well over two thousand years.
What on earth am I talking about?
Well, it seems clear how the error in the historical record about the position of Escombrera crept in. Because, as a recent Spanish book all about the island explains, “[Viewed] from the innermost part of the bay of Cartagena, the island of Escombreras seems to close off the mouth of the harbour almost completely.” In other words, seen from a vantage point at the southern edge of the city, the island does look like it sits squarely in the mouth of the harbour, and it follows that that is where the original source behind Polybius, Livy, and indirectly Virgil (who for various reasons is most likely someone even earlier than Q. Ennius), must have been standing when they noted down their entirely false eyewitness impression.
So we can tell that someone, sometime sat on the dock of the Carthago Nova bay and shared an optical illusion with posterity. But who was it?
It may at a stretch have been Polybius himself, who certainly visited Carthago Nova in the second century BC. But there’s reason to believe that Polybius was mainly dependent for his account of the city on earlier sources. On whom precisely is a matter of speculation, but there seem to be four contenders: Scipio Africanus himself, who wrote a letter about his campaigns in Spain and at Carthago Nova to king Philip V of Macedon (Polybius 10.9.3); C. Laelius, a close friend of Scipio and an important informant of Polybius (Polybius 10.3.2); or most likely of all, one of two historians of whose work very little survives, but whom we know Polybius used extensively in his own history, Q. Fabius Pictor and Silenus.
Q. Fabius Pictor is an important figure in Roman literature, the very first Roman historian, although his history of Rome was, originally at least, written in Greek, the language of such intellectual pursuits as history writing and geography. Fabius would be a strong candidate for our eyewitness if his history extended down as far as 209BC, the date of the capture of Carthago Nova, and that is far from certain. (To be honest, very little is certain about Q. Fabius Pictor.) Fabius was exceptionally well-connected on the Roman political scene, a member of one of the most prestigious families in a very prestige-obsessed city, and second cousin of one of Hannibal’s most effective opponents, Q. Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, known for his tactics as Cunctator, “the Delayer”. Fabius Pictor had a political career himself, it seems, before turning to writing history with the advantage of his extensive insider knowledge; the section of his history devoted to the Punic Wars adopted a predictably pro-Roman stance.
But my candidate for the man staring out to sea is the Greek historian Silenus. Probably a native of the city of Caleacte in Sicily, Silenus was part of Hannibal’s retinue during his famous fifteen-year campaign in Italy, which started with Hannibal’s departure from Carthago Nova in 218BC, “recording the actions of Hannibal with great diligence,” according to Cicero (Div. 1.49) as he inflicted such catastrophic defeats on the Romans as Trasimene and Cannae. Among other things, the fragments of Fabius and Silenus suggest interesting ways in which the Romans and Carthaginians competed for hearts and minds, both for example keen to associate their side of the war with the hero-god Heracles/Hercules/Melqart, a figure worshipped across the Mediterranean and especially popular among the non-Roman peoples of the Italian peninsula, whose sympathies were of crucial importance in the conflict.
So was it Silenus standing there gazing out at Escombrera in the spring of 218BC? It is the very purest speculation, but one thing that makes me want to believe it is that Strabo (3.5.7) refers to Silenus as “something of an idiotes” on geographical matters, and while the Greek word idiotes doesn’t quite mean “idiot”, it comes pretty close to “hopeless amateur”.
That would be a fair assessment of the original source of the information about the location of Escombrera.