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.
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.