Deus Ex Machina: Carthage

I’m proofreading Isabel Paterson’s “The God of the Machine,” having converted it to the TEI format, on the way to an epub file. Thought I should post a few chapters now and then till that gets done.

I | The Energy Circuit in the Classical World

Toward the end of the fourth century of the pre-Christian era, a colonial Greek navigator sailed from the port of Massilia (now Marseilles), his native city, through the Straits of Gibraltar, and thence up the coast of Spain and France and the British Isles to Ultima Thule, the designated end of the world. Possibly Thule was Iceland; it remains a matter of conjecture. The name of the enterprising sailor, Pytheas, has come down to us. He appears to the imagination, a solitary figure framed in light, as if a gate had swung open between the Pillars of Hercules toward the western world.

Now what is peculiar about this aspect of the venture of Pytheas is that he was very far from being the first civilized man to pass the fabled portal of the Atlantic. On the contrary, it had been a trade route of Phoenician merchant ships time out of mind. Tin from Cornwall, furs and amber from the Baltic, were staple cargo, delivered to the markets of the East for the profit of Carthage, which drew its riches from its position as an intermediary.

When Pytheas made his voyage, the Punic wars and the Roman empire were still in the future. Not that Carthage was at peace; it had never been so for any extended period. Taken altogether, the series of wars which run through the story of the Phoenicians make a geographical pattern resembling the track of a hurricane, a cyclonic flow of energy continuing for almost a thousand years, and moving irresistibly along the midland waterway between the great continents of classical antiquity, Asia, Africa, and Europe. This unceasing stream of human activity swirled through its tideless channel always in one main direction, a direction which in view of the extant knowledge of geography was senseless, for it drove toward the empty ocean. This is not to deny the value of the traffic from the outer coast of Europe, but the pull from that quarter seems disproportionate to the volume of goods. During the period of traverse, the Phoenicians rode the storm, or composed part of it.

What manner of people these Phoenicians were we learn from Scripture, under another name. It was a Phoenician, Hiram, king of Tyre, who sent his servants to Solomon on the latter’s accession to the throne, and obtained a commission to build Solomon’s palace and later the Temple. Hiram supplied materials, transport, and skilled labor on a pre-fabricated structure; cedars hewn to measure in Lebanon were brought around by floats, and stone dressed at the quarry, and elaborate metal work wrought to specifications; so that the royal house was raised “without the sound of hammer or axe or any tool of iron.” In payment Hiram received annually “twenty thousand measures of wheat for food to his household, and twenty measures of pure oil,” and a closing settlement of “twenty cities in the land of Galilee.” It is noted that Hiram thought poorly of the “cities,” having accepted them sight unseen; it is a fair surmise that he extended a little too much credit. When Solomon sent out ships of his own, they went under Phoenician convoy.

Obviously the Phoenicians were the leading industrial and commercial nation of their considerable day. Mysteriously failing to resolve into the positive frame of an empire, the center of their undefined sphere of authority and influence was determined by the forces in motion, on a line from Syria to Spain. It shifted progressively through Tyre and Sidon to their last capital city, whence they vanished from the roll of nations. Their historic mode of being was implicit in the character of Carthage, their final and supreme achievement, as indicated by its position between sea and desert, a solid nexus of the confluent energy at a given point. Though the city was backed by a grain-growing district, the arable land bore no normal relation to the population, which has been estimated at a maximum of a million persons. Allowing for exaggeration, or for the inclusion of tributaries, the figure remains impressive. Carthage was less a territorial entity than a knot tied in wind and water.

Against the old despotic monarchies of the East the Phoenicians had established and maintained their special place successfully. With the Greeks they held their own fairly well in a running fight. Manifestly the Greeks were their natural rivals, islanders trading in the same waters, and likewise spreading out from port to port where they touched mainland. Neither Phoenicians nor Greeks proved capable of keeping their colonies in strict confederation; the subsidiary cities changed sides under pressure, and made their own treaties whenever they dared. Some element was lacking in their system, to bind them together.

There are as many explanations of the dominance and decline of nations as there are examples. The favor of the gods, or “the stars in their courses,” were once thought determinant. The modern view reckons by temporal factors, chiefly raw materials, high economic development, naval strength, and military genius, the latter exhibited in understanding of the grand strategy, and in a brave and ready soldiery utilizing a special discipline or type of armament. The drawback is that each theory will be found applicable only to one age or people, with nothing to account for the actual existence of the given factor. Let comparisons be tried according to the rules laid down.

The conflict of Greece and Carthage may properly be called a trade war. They were in competition for stations, goods, charters, and customers. In this respect Rome was comparatively negligible at the given time. Possibly Rome became a permanent settlement as a local trading center. (Mommsen argued reasonably for this supposition on internal and historic evidence.) The mixed origins of the population, the location on a river and near enough to the sea to be reached by small vessels, the early building of bridges, and the use of money, would indicate commerce; and contractual relations were inextricably woven into Rome’s political system. Apparently the flow of energy was sufficient to require habitual accommodation, and consequently to make the Romans realize the equivalent need of strong bases fixed on the land. But they did not get into the main stream of world trade during the formative period, in which they established their civic structure. “For various reasons at various times Rome has never from its foundation until today been an industrial city…. For international trade Rome was badly placed…. Only by courtesy could the Tiber be called a navigable stream … the estuary (was) of little value as a harbor; and the rapidity of the current rendered the journey from Rome to the sea a laborious business even for river barges…. The familiar pictures of sea-going merchantmen engaged in general trade sailing regularly up and down the Tiber and using a port beneath the Aventine may safely be dismissed as works of imagination.” In their earliest treaty, “Carthage, as might be expected, is insistent on her commercial domination in those regions which she controlled,” while Rome “was indifferent to those considerations which must affect every community with a right to be called industrial.”1

Compared to Greece, just then Carthage probably was ahead in economic organization and technical knowledge, and had the greatest number of ships under single command, monopolizing the most extensive provinces rich in natural resources. The struggle between Greece and Carthage had been going on for centuries, and was still undecided when Pytheas made his voyage. Within fifty years, Rome thrust between the two, commencing the long, bitter, intermittent effort that broke the Phoenician power, razed the walls of Carthage, and left the site a waste. Nor did the Greeks benefit by the ruin of their mighty antagonist; on the contrary, the subjection of Greece was to follow shortly. Economic determinism failed.

The outcome of this particular quarrel was so conclusive that the main issue has grown dim. History is obliged to fall back on geographical terms: Rome and Carthage fought for the mastery of the Mediterranean. Consequently the changing scene of hostilities is taken for granted. Carthage was situated on the north coast of Africa, and lived by its keels. Yet we see the Carthaginian general Hannibal leading an army, with elephants, against Rome by a toilsome march over the Alps.

The most positive proponent of the naval interpretation of world events, Admiral Mahan, told how the idea came to him. Reading Mommsen’s “History of Rome,” he recalled: “It suddenly struck me … how different things might have been could Hannibal have invaded Italy by sea, as the Romans often had Africa, instead of by the long land route.” From that reflection, Mahan wrote “The Influence of Sea-Power Upon History.” He might as well have called his book the influence of history upon sea-power. Undoubtedly things would be different if they were different. Especially if sea-power, a superior navy commanding main trade routes from impregnable bases, were necessarily decisive, Hannibal would never have been compelled to his Alpine detour, and Carthage must have won. Rather, by that criterion, Carthage should have won a generation earlier. Instead, “with the strongest fleet on the seas, and with a naval experience gained through centuries, the Carthaginian admirals lost six out of seven of the naval battles, despite the fact that the Romans had never possessed a quinquireme before this time (the first Punic war), and very few Romans had ever set foot on shipboard.”2

Briefly sketched, the method by which Rome swept the seas verges on burlesque. “While Carthage kept a fleet of 120 quinquiremes,” (the standard biggest battleship), Rome had neither ships nor shipwrights nor sailors. To make up the deficiency, the Romans salvaged a stranded Punic vessel for a model, laid down a fleet, and meanwhile trained the necessary crews on land, using stationary benches fitted with oars. All their ships were “built, manned and officered by Romans.” When they put to sea, their green pilots were “helpless whenever a storm arose.” It is difficult to repress the spirit of levity which suggests they may have been seasick. Ignorant of naval maneuvers, and with no chance to learn, the Romans simply transformed an encounter at sea into something as like a land battle as possible, and fought it their own way. Having equipped their own craft with cranes and grappling irons, they drove straight alongside the Carthaginian galleys, made fast, and swarmed aboard. Thus in their first important engagement they captured or put to flight a Carthaginian fleet which outnumbered the Roman squadron by thirty ships. Again, at Drepana, the Romans were in harbor when the Carthaginian fleet approached. An inshore gale was blowing, which gave the Carthaginians the weather gauge. Indifferent to this handicap, the Romans drew into line across the enemy’s course, took seventy Carthaginian ships, and sank fifty more. Between victories, the Romans generally wrecked their own fleets by inexpert seamanship.3 After each loss they set to work and launched replacements. The expense bore heavily on Rome; Carthage had a vast advantage financially. Nor did Rome resort to state absolutism on the plea of emergency; there was no seizure of private means. When the Roman public treasury was exhausted, and “taxes could not be raised to a higher rate,” the wealthier citizens subscribed to provide a new navy, with the understanding that if they won they should be reimbursed. They won.

The Carthaginians were so baffled by this inexplicable performance that at one time they considered founding a land empire in imitation of Rome. The materials were at hand. But they did not know how.

It should be noted also that though Roman military discipline was strict, and esteem was proportionate to conduct in the field, a Roman general, or his troops, stood in less fear of penalties from their own government than the Punic commanders. For losing a campaign, the Carthaginians crucified one of their admirals.

As for naval bases, Rome began with none. Carthage was the first great nation to occupy Gibraltar, which was certainly the key to the future as of that time. Obviously it would be easy to acquire from the primitive inhabitants. But Gibraltar has since belonged to one empire after another. Being the fortress ready set to guard the Iberian peninsula, it reverted to Spain in her brief period of glory. The riddle is that it fell to England eventually, and only after England had reduced Spain to secondary rank by operations at sea. The defeat of the Great Armada is usually explained as the result of inadequate management, poor equipment, and above all, bad weather. But it is hardly to be believed that Spain was wanting in seamen, of the race that laid claim to the whole western ocean and almost maintained it. The English fleet was improvised, largely of privateers; it was ill-found in provisions and short of powder. Finally, when the Armada was dispersed and shattered, the English ships were not in drydock; they had to endure the same tempest. Spain surely had sea-power, while it lasted. Unless the absurdity be conceded that sea-power does not consist in ships, sailors, ports, and commercial opportunity, all its tangible attributes, sea-power failed.

On the other hand, if the secret of the development and longevity of the Roman empire inhered in military aptitude, the conquering regime of Napoleon should have struck root and flourished for an equal duration. By a series of actions which rank among the classics of the art of war, Napoleon brought the whole continent of Europe under his sway. His invading armies were tacitly welcomed by an influential part of the conquered peoples, who were already disaffected toward the old regime and imagining a new order. Kings went down like ninepins; barracks organization was praised as the instrument of unity which should usher in a millennium of efficiency; America received an incongruous assortment of exiles. Napoleon rode the crest of the wave of the future. Nevertheless, the glittering semblance of empire reared on bayonets crumbled to nothing after one major defeat in far-off Russia. Rome lost more than one great battle, and revived with increased vigor. Napoleon’s disaster at Moscow, with its consequences, is laid to the cold and the snow. The Russians did not spend the winter on the Riviera. Military means failed.

Again, if the Roman empire derived from its antecedent social order, the citizens of Rome, whether aristocrat or plebeian, prided themselves on being simple farmers, alternating sword and spade. Home from the wars, Cincinnatus asked no more than to resume his unfinished furrow. The most honorable reward that could be imagined for Horatius, who held the bridge, was of the same kind:

They gave him of the corn-land,
That was of public right,
As much as two strong oxen
Could plough from morn till night.

No doubt these are romantic versions, if not pure myth. What they do signify is the tradition, with a substantial origin back of it. The description, glossing also a harsh groundsill of slavery, fits equally the agrarian culture claimed by the Southern Confederacy.4 Unfortunately, these are the very reasons adduced to indicate why the South had no chance, in our Civil War, against the mechanical and mercantile North reinforced by its shipping interest.

Carthage is supposed to have weakened in martial virtue by the use of foreign troops. Subsequently Rome ruled for centuries while the famous legions were recruited in part from similar sources.

In the grand strategy, Carthage had an acute perception of vital points. Losing Sicily, Carthage was put on the defensive in the eastern Mediterranean, pinched between Greek sea power and Roman land power. Hannibal’s move through Spain was a boldly logical flank attack rather than a desperate expedient. He drew on the interior for troops and supplies, including silver, which was sound currency. Beyond the mountains he expected another compensating circumstance, but was disappointed. Many of the tribes or cities of northern Italy were in alliance with Rome, to whom they were more or less subordinate. Hannibal assumed that they would join the invader to throw off the Roman yoke. Instead, they stood by Rome, at least tacitly. Yet when Scipio carried the war into Africa, the most useful local auxiliaries of Carthage, the Numidians, went over to the Romans, and victory with them. Whatever is involved in the making of empire, the behavior of tributary peoples and the dependability of allies must be a part of it; the crucial point is whatever induces them to choose a side. Proximity is not enough. The conventional explanations are merely superficial statements of what happened.

As an event, what happened when Carthage was destroyed was of immense and permanent importance. Though the consequence could not be apprehended at once, it portended the future rise of Europe, and the subsidence, in the balance of world power, of the eastern hemisphere. Rational inquiry should investigate the nature of the process which had been brought so far by the Phoenicians and could be further effected only through Rome; and the apparently accidental appearance of Pytheas, a Greek, as the opener of the door.

The facile answer, why Pytheas is remembered and his predecessors anonymous, is that he wrote a narrative of his voyage. As the Phoenicians were literate, this must arouse wonder that they had not done so long before, from much wider experience.

They did not because they sought to preserve a complete monopoly of the Atlantic. It was not a matter of high tariffs or favored nations or blockade in time of war. With the straits in their grip, no vessel might pass but their own, in peace or war, on any conditions. Carthage staked its existence on this policy of exclusion. Occasionally no doubt some reckless privateer ran the blockade, but if he did he might never return. Wherever he put in on the forbidden seaboard, he risked encountering the Phoenicians, in which case the unauthorized ship was liable to seizure and the crew to death. No word would come back. Rumors filled those remote regions with vague terrors for a purpose. It is surmised that Pytheas was able to make his exploration safely and write his report while Carthage was under attack from Syracuse, leaving the straits insufficiently guarded. If so, the watch was shortly resumed, and kept to the end. In the main current, the flow of energy at last jammed the Phoenicians up to the narrow sluice which they had reserved for their sole benefit. It was too strong, and smashed them to driftwood.

In the sense that engineers speak of a head of water, the Romans represented a head of the channeled forces. Neither their location nor their material progress, no economic clue, accounts for their function. And if it is now true that even our most recent history is devoid of instruction because we live in a changing world and have to deal with entirely new conditions, then it was always true. It is not true, nor ever was. What the past shows, by overwhelming evidence, is that the imponderables outweigh every material article in the scales of human endeavor. Nations are not powerful because they possess wide lands, safe ports, large navies, huge armies, fortifications, stores, money, and credit. They acquire those advantages because they are powerful, having devised on correct principles the political structure which allows the flow of energy to take its proper course. The question is, how; for the generator and the possible transmission lines and available outlets to either benefit or destruction are always the same. The only difference between past and present in respect of energy is quantitative, a higher potential available at a higher flow, which makes a wrong hook-up more appalling in its effect by the given ratio, becoming apparent literally in a world explosion. The principles of the conversion of energy and of its appropriate mechanism for human use cannot change; these are universals.

If Rome in due time forced the locks of the Atlantic, there was a reason. Still, it was a Greek who went through alone. Moreover, the personal character of Pytheas is so relevant that fiction could scarcely invent him. He was a scientist as well as a merchant adventurer. His book is lost; a few excerpts and references are preserved in the works of later geographers. They quote him in disparagement; he was not believed, for his observations contradicted orthodox theory regarding climate and general conditions in northern latitudes. Vilhjalmur Stefansson5 has lately rehabilitated the reputation of Pytheas on the score of accuracy. Though Pytheas was admitted to have made valuable contributions to the exact mathematical science of astronomy, applied in navigation, he was accused of lying about what he saw with his own eyes, by men who had never been there at all. What should be marked is the form of opposition he was obliged to encounter, a political ban while he was alive, and academic censure after his death. Theories, when they have gained credence, become vested interests. The prestige and livelihood of schools and teachers are bound up in them; they tend toward enclosed doctrine, not open to fresh information.

Pytheas opened the way, where the Phoenicians, for all their shrewdness and hardihood and their factual priority, did not; because he was endowed with the rare combination of disinterested curiosity, speculative intellect, and active enterprise, qualities which impelled him to slip through an official barrier of the utmost rigor to try the chances of the unknown. Pytheas ranks among the notable discoverers, an exemplar of the free mind. He could not know that he was looking toward America.

  1. ^ CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY: The Early Republic. Hugh Last. Macmillan.
  2. ^ CAMBRIDGE ANCIENT HISTORY: The First Punic War. Tenney Frank. Macmillan.
  3. ^ In 255 B.C., a newly built Roman fleet defeated the Punic main fleet “with ease,” but on the homeward voyage ran into a storm off Sicily. Out of 364 ships only 80 were saved. It is reckoned that over 90,000 persons perished, mostly free men, a greater disaster than the loss of the Armada to Spain. It was the most terrible calamity at sea known until then, and remains so to this day.
  4. ^ In cold fact, the Roman landed gentry seem to have been loan sharks as well, or enough of them were to create endless trouble, lending on mortgages and enslaving creditors who could not pay. So too the Southern planters were cash-croppers rather than true cultivators of the soil. Neither a financier nor a money-grubber is regarded as the makings of an ideal soldier; but it cannot be denied that these were excellent fighting men. These details are doubly confusing since they did not work out to identical ends; Rome triumphed, the South was defeated.
  5. ^ ULTIMA THULE. By Vilhjalmur Stefansson. Macmillan.
Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.


  • Bill Starr  On January 7, 2010 at 1:58 am

    How is the epub conversion going? I just got a Sony PRS-300 digital book reader for Christmas and this book is on my to-read list.

    Thanks, Bill Starr
    Columbus, Indiana
    Wed, 6 Jan 2010, 3:28 pm EST

    • Aristotle The Geek  On January 8, 2010 at 2:30 am

      I finished it a couple of weeks back and uploaded it to the Mises Documents google group. This is a link to the landing page of a zip file with the epub, and the xml source. I don’t know if the institute has released a modified version. You should also check their site just in case…

  • Bill Starr  On January 8, 2010 at 4:53 am

    Thanks. I wasn’t aware of that Google Group. Tried checking for it on, but didn’t see it. Maybe just didn’t know how to search correctly.

    Bill Starr
    Columbus, Indiana
    Thu, 7 Jan 2010, 6:23 pm EST

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s