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.
So here is a fragment of Polybius, really a chunk of Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Rom. Ant. 1.32.1=Polybius 6.11.1), which quietly blew my mind the other day:
“But as some writers record, among them Polybius of Megalopolis, [the town Pallantium, the mythic ancient city on the Palatine Hill in Rome, was named] after Pallas, a boy who died there; he was the son of Heracles and Lavinia, the daughter of Evander, and his maternal grandfather [i.e. Evander] raised a tomb to him on the hill and named the place Pallantium after the boy.”
(ὡς δέ τινες ἱστοροῦσιν, ὧν ἐστι καὶ Πολύβιος ὁ Μεγαλοπολίτης, ἐπί τινος μειρακίου Πάλλαντος αὐτόθι τελευτήσαντος· τοῦτον δὲ Ἡρακλέους εἶναι παῖδα καὶ Λαουϊνίας τῆς Εὐάνδρου θυγατρός· χώσαντα δ᾿ αὐτῷ τὸν μητροπάτορα τάφον ἐπὶ τῷ λόφῳ Παλλάντιον ἐπὶ τοῦ μειρακίου τὸν τόπον ὀνομάσαι.)
All of these names (Pallas, Heracles/Hercules, Lavinia, Evander, and even the toponym Pallanteum/ium) are familiar from the second half of the Aeneid, but it is as if Virgil’s poem were a pack of cards and Polybius has given it a good shuffle. Strictly, though, since Polybius predates Virgil by a century or more, it is Virgil doing the shuffling. Lavinia, the daughter of king Latinus, for whose hand Aeneas vies with Turnus, is in Polybius’ version the daughter of Evander, Aeneas’ ally against the Latins in the Aeneid. Meanwhile Pallas, in Virgil’s version the son of Evander whose slaying by Turnus motivates the brutal denouement of the poem, is the grandson of Evander and the child of Heracles by Lavinia. Of Aeneas in this account of things there is not a trace.
Lavinia’s name here, Λαουϊνία (the text is the Loeb of Cary, cf. I.xliv-xlv), is a conjectural emendation of the meaningless δύνας preserved in all the manuscripts, albeit a persuasive one. But I shan’t be making too much of Lavinia per se in what follows. What I will offer is the suggestion that Virgil and his Roman readers were not unfamiliar with alternative accounts of Roman mythic history like Polybius’s, and that Virgil positively exploits that familiarity even as he presents his own version. That what Polybius recorded could claim some authority is a reasonable assumption since the Greek historian rubbed shoulders with some of the leading Romans of his day, and would have had access to some high-status Roman folklore. Virgil and his readers may also have known Polybius’ text directly, of course.
The first thing that strikes me, though, is something that’s been staring me in the face. I’m very interested in Hercules, and that includes what I see as his critical symbolic role within the Aeneid. Hercules/Heracles is a figure to whom Aeneas is regularly, though subtly, assimilated. For example, when Aeneas lifts things onto his shoulders, the great shield forged by Vulcan in Aeneid 8 or his own father in Aeneid 2, a parallel is activated with Hercules bearing the burden of the sky (or the universe), which he does while Atlas fetches for him the golden apples of the Hesperides (but which had become, along with Atlas’ own role as sky-bearer, an image of heroic endurance).
In Book 8 Aeneas visits the future site of Rome and is told by Evander of Hercules’ visit to the place, when he rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus. Aeneas’ arrival is deliberately aligned with Hercules’s, since the Trojan hero arrives on the day that commemorates Hercules’ visit. In fact August 12th, the date of the festival of Hercules at the Ara Maxima, the day when Aeneas came, also corresponds to Augustus’ “arrival” outside Rome before his Triple Triumph on August 13th, 14th and 15th in 29 BC, the conclusion of the Civil Wars, another event that Virgil depicts, on the shield which Aeneas hoists onto his shoulders in Herculean fashion at the very end of Aeneid 8. So Hercules, Aeneas and Augustus are layered one on top of another in an intriguing fashion as benefactors of Rome.
There’s lots more to say about Aeneas and Hercules, particularly when it comes to understanding the violence between future Romans that fills Books VII to XII. But what this fragment of Polybius alerts me to is a clear Herculean model for Aeneas’ role as ancestor of the Romans. The Trojan hero will marry the daughter of the local king, Lavinia, and the result will be a brand new people, the Romans. This is classic Herculean lore, and in Polybius we find Hercules in Aeneas’ role. To illustrate, here’s an account of Hercules’ stay in southern France (presumably), on the same journey from Spain to Greece that brought him to Rome, driving Geryon’s cattle before him (Parthenius, Sufferings in Love 30; translation J. Lightfoot):
“It is also said of Heracles that when he was bringing the cattle of Geryon from Erythea, his wanderings through the land of the Celts brought him to the court of Bretannus. This king had a daughter called Celtine. She fell in love with Heracles and hid his cattle, refusing to surrender them unless he first had intercourse with her. Heracles was in a hurry to get his cattle back, but he was even more struck by the girl’s beauty, and so he did have intercourse with her. When the time came round, a child was born to them, Celtus, from whom the Celts take their name.”
Hercules/Heracles makes a habit of begetting new peoples around the Mediterranean, and it seems to me that Aeneas’ role as the progenitor of the new race in Italy, a blend of the native and the foreign, and as partner of the king’s daughter, is another respect in which Virgil’s hero is patterned upon Hercules.
But I was going to suggest ways in which Virgil’s version of the story exploited Polybius’s very different account, or something like it, and I’d offer two illustrations of that thought, neither of them enough to protect me from the suspicion that I’m just mentally exhausted from exam marking. The first is the passage in Aeneid 10 where Pallas, son of Evander, prays to Hercules, now a god, for help in his imminent duel with Turnus. Pallas is outmatched and doomed, and Hercules in heaven can do nothing but weep, and I explained the significance of Hercules’ all-too-human tears here. But the model for Hercules’ fruitless concern for a doomed mortal is Zeus in Iliad 16 witnessing the death of his son Sarpedon–a scene that Virgil is careful to remind us of. In the Aeneid Hercules’ concern for Pallas seems, by comparison with Zeus, perhaps a little undermotivated. Sure, Hercules had visited Pallanteum and rid it of the monstrous bandit Cacus, but no particularly close connection between the hero and Pallas has been indicated before. My thought about Polybius’ version of the story, though, is that if readers are carrying with them a vague idea that Pallas is as close to Hercules as a son to his father, the relationship that Sarpedon bears to Zeus and Pallas to Heracles in Polybius, it lends this scene, currently (I’ll confess) my very favourite moment in the Aeneid, an exquisite extra force.
I’d regard the funeral of Pallas in Aeneid 11 as a similar nudge in the direction of an alternative detail. The young warrior dies in battle against Turnus, but his body is sent back to Pallanteum, the city of Evander, and that is where he is interred. Now Virgil, through the words of the river Tiber (Aen. 8.51-4), has explicitly derived the name of Pallanteum from another man named Pallas, Evander’s ancestor, but when Pallas is buried on the Palatine in Aeneid 11, his youth as in Polybius heavily emphasised, I wonder if Roman readers could exclude from their minds the possibility that this Pallas, the boy who died, is the origin of the name of the Palatine Hill. (We have already met at 7. 655-69, for what it’s worth, another son of Hercules who appears to be the eponym of a Roman hill, Auentinus, and the reader is by now well used to locations, Palinurus, Misenum, Caieta, named after burials.) If that thought was at all likely to occur to them, all I’d add is that the hint of an act of foundation is associated here, as elsewhere in the Aeneid, with sacrificial slaughter: it is on the Palatine, the very site of Rome, that the eight sons of Sulmo and Ufens, taken captive by Aeneas, are sacrificed at Pallas’ last rites. I discuss that deeply shocking turn of events, and its connections to the closing scene of the poem, in the latest Proceedings of the Virgil Society, if it’s of any interest.
Well, the notion that Virgil is contending with, or exploiting, alternative versions of the various stories that he tells in the Aeneid is a well-established one, particularly perhaps in relation to his departure from Troy. The introduction to Shadi Bartsch’s brilliant new translation of the Aeneid chases some of those ideas around. The presence of “Polybian” hints in the Aeneid, always assuming I’m right, may be further evidence, hardly needed, for Virgil’s subtlety, but what it also reminds us of is the astonishing power of the story that Virgil narrated, a wildly tendentious take on Roman mythic history that was so compellingly told that it eclipsed what must have been a jungle of alternatives. I wonder here also about Virgil’s simple talent for persuasive invention, for making his version the definitive version. Obviously to persuade the reader of one’s own story while at the same time exploiting their awareness of others requires particular virtuosity.
At the end of a string of speculations, some appropriately wild counterfactuals to round things off. I have a personal conviction that, had the Civil Wars which brought Augustus to power turned out differently, and Mark Antony rather than Augustus had won, the world might yet possess a Latin epic not hugely different from the Aeneid. It would feature at least as much Hercules, at any rate, because Antony claimed descent from him. Here is Plutarch, Life of Antony 4.1-2 (translation, B. Perrin):
“He had also a noble dignity of form; and a shapely beard, a broad forehead, and an aquiline nose were thought to show the virile qualities peculiar to the portraits and statues of Heracles. Moreover, there was an ancient tradition that the Antonii were Heracleidae, being descendants of Anton, a son of Heracles. And this tradition Antony thought that he confirmed, both by the shape of his body, as has been said, and by his attire. For whenever he was going to be seen by many people, he always wore his tunic girt up to his thigh, a large sword hung at his side, and a heavy cloak enveloped him.”
This gives us precious little information about the details of Antony’s claimed genealogy, but if Anton, ancestor of the Antonii, was also fathered during Hercules’ cattle herding along the Italian coast, then some permutation of the kind of story told by Polybius might have formed the core of an epic narrative written by a poet with the requisite talent, maybe Virgil himself. The essential scenario of such an Antoneid may seem daft, but that’s only because Virgil has managed the remarkable achievement of convincing us that Augustus’ claim of descent from Aeneas isn’t.
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.