The Carthaginian Invasion of Europe
For over a century between the outbreak of hostilities in 265 and the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BCE, the two most powerful states of western Afroeurasia engaged each other in a series of three major conflicts. The First and Second of these Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage were fought on a scale scarcely rivaled before the modern era. Hundreds of thousands of African and European sailors and soldiers were employed in theaters spanning the entire Mediterranean Basin, including the Balkans, Greece, Sicily, North Africa, Spain, France, the Alps and the Italian peninsula. The expense of maintaining these large armies and navies consumed the economic resources of both states, while the human costs were even higher. A substantial portion of the adult male population of Italy was annihilated, with Rome losing 50,000 dead in one battle alone (Cannae in 216). Nor were military personnel the only casualties. In a further parallel with modern warfare, large numbers of civilians were also killed, either massacred following the siege of a city, killed in raids on towns, villages and farms by the armies of both sides, or suffering as a result of starvation brought on by the confiscation of crops and animals to provision the troops.2
By the end of this conflict Carthage was in ruins and its culture extinguished. This was despite the extraordinary efforts of the Carthaginian general Hannibal who, during the Second Punic War, undertook one of only two examples known to history of an invasion of Europe by an essentially North African power. Had Rome not been able to withstand this assault, her imperial ambitions and even survival as a state would have been severely undermined, and the entire course of world history dramatically altered. Rome not only survived, but evolved from being a regional Italian power into a position of unrivalled dominance in the Mediterranean world. By 146 the Romans were well on their way to creating an even larger empire that would control much of Western Afroeurasia for the next five centuries. The struggle with Carthage enabled the Romans to conceive of themselves for the first time as a world power, and accustomed them to sending armies over large distances to fight in several interregional theaters simultaneously. It goes without saying that the imperial structure that eventually ensued had a profound effect on the subsequent history of the Afroeurasian world zone, and (through eventual European global colonization) much of the rest of the world as well.
Less well known perhaps is the profound effect this epic conflict had on the philosophy and methodology of western historiography. That the historians of the Mediterranean Basin should have felt compelled to write accounts of the largest conflict in the ancient world is hardly surprising. Because the wars were fought on such a broad scale however, historians were forced to adopt a similarly wide-ranging approach in their accounts, seeking out connections across time and space in a manner that demanded a more inclusive conception of historical accounting. The ultimate historiographical result of the Punic Wars was the confirmation of a universal conception of history as the pre-eminent method for the description of historical processes on the macro scale. Universal history has been variously defined. To its ancient progenitors it was a form of large-scale history that treats the affairs of the known world as though they were those of a single state, and which argues that the whole is more useful than its parts. Historiographers today distinguish universal from world history by suggesting that, where the latter attempts to provide an inclusive and broad-ranging survey of events, universal history emphasizes the continuity between those events by using themes as threads to join the parts together into a whole.
These definitions become clearer when considered in the context of the particular struggle between Rome and Carthage. The Achaean historian Polybius, who as we will see below spent most of his professional life in Rome, criticized other Greek historians for their limited scope, offering instead a 'compendious view' that joined the histories of all the peoples of the Mediterranean together through his unfolding of the theme of Roman hegemony.3 Polybius recognized the Punic Wars as an event of historical and historiographical significance, suggesting that 'from this point onwards history becomes an organic whole: the affairs of Italy and of Africa were connected with those of Asia and Greece, and all events bear a relationship and contribute to a single end'.4 A century later the Sicilian Greek historian Diodorus was even more aware, with the benefit of hindsight, of how the success of Rome following the Punic Wars had united the histories of all of the states of the Mediterranean (including those of the Greeks) into a unified whole. Diodorus also noted the historiographical implications of this when he wrote that 'historians, in recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state, have made of the treatises a single reckoning of past events'.5
The origins of universal history are not clearly defined, but the link between interregional conflict in ancient Afroeurasia and an increasingly trans-cultural conception of history writing is undeniable. An earlier and similar example comes from the work of the Greek historian Herodotus, whose interest in the states contiguous to the Eastern Mediterranean intensified after the Persian invasions forced the Greeks to start thinking outside of the confines of their individual poleis:
Raoul Mortley has noted a similar link between the evolution of a universalist conception of history and interregional conflict during the Hellenistic Era, following the campaigns of Alexander:
Nor was this solely a Western Eurasian development; a similar trend emerged in China in the last century Before the Common Era. The Early Han historian Sima Qian's historical and anthropological interest in the semi-nomadic Xiongnu, Wusun, and Yuezhi confederations matched that of the Han administration, which found itself in an increasingly desperate struggle on a widening series of frontiers with the 'barbarians'. As Emperor Wudi sent envoys into Central Asia seeking military alliances with the Yuezhi and Wusun against the Xiongnu, so Sima Qian's historical interests expanded correspondingly until his Shi Ji incorporated accounts of states as far west as India, Parthia and even Mesopotamia.8
The specific focus of this paper is on the particular historiographical implications of the conflict between Carthage and Rome, both because of the fascinating nature of the relationship between the particular events and their accounting, but also in an attempt to trace the further evolution of universal history in ancient Western Afroeurasia. In the same way that the Mediterranean-wide campaigns of the Punic Wars helped determine the subsequent shape and direction of world history, the accounts of those events written during the last two centuries before the Common Era also profoundly affected the methodology and philosophy of western historiography.
Polybius on the Punic Wars and Universal History
The most important historian of the Punic Wars is the Greek Polybius, an Achaean noblemen who fought against the Romans in the Third Macedonian War, before being taken as hostage to Rome in 167 BCE. Through fortuitous circumstances he became an intimate of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who later led the Roman army that destroyed Carthage. From this position of privilege he was able to travel extensively throughout the western Mediterranean, visit many of the major battle sites and speak to veterans of the Hannibalic War, and accompany Scipio on campaigns to Spain and Africa where he was an eyewitness to crucial events in the Third Punic War. Polybius completed forty books on the conflicts, but only a small part of the total work has survived. Although close to one of the great patrician families, and an unashamed admirer of Rome, this does not prevent him from criticizing Roman incompetence or duplicity, and his account is generally considered to be accurate and reliable.
Polybius makes explicit early that his Histories will be a work of genuine universal history structured around a single theme – the expansion and development of the Roman state:
Polybius compares the 'superior greatness' of Rome to three empires that had preceded it – those of the Persians, the Lacadaemonians and the Macedonians (this incidentally establishing the idea that human history might conveniently be compartmentalized according to the predominant power of an era) – but finds limitations in both their methods and expansionist ambitions. Roman imperialism, on the other hand, 'was not partial; nearly the whole inhabited world was reduced by them to obedience'.10 As a result of this 'impartial' conquest, the various regions of the Mediterranean ceased to have separate histories, but rather became interconnected: 'But from this time forth history becomes a connected whole: the affairs of Italy and Libya are involved with those of Asia and Greece, and the tendency of all is to unity'.11 Polybius clearly recognizes both the political and psychological significance of the Punic Wars in setting the Roman state on a path towards imperial expansion:
Having outlined his theme, Polybius argues that its exploration will demand a very particular approach to the writing of history, in which the nature of the events must be matched by the style of their reporting: 'Just as Fortune made almost all the affairs of the world converge upon one and the same point; so it is my task as an historian to put before my readers a compendious view'.13 Before embarking upon his task, however, Polybius offers a stinging critique of the methodologies adopted by Hellenistic historians. He finds factual inconsistencies in Callisthenes' and Ephorus' accounts of Alexander's campaign;14 questions Timaeus' 'want of skill and judgment' which completely destroyed the value of his eye-witness evidence;15 and is highly suspicious of the apparent impartiality of Zeno and Anthisthenes because they composed their histories 'as part of the business of politicians'.16 Walbank argues that one of Polybius' principal reasons in deciding to write history at all was 'to assert his own view of what history should be against the sort of history which was widely written and read in the Hellenistic age'.17 In particular Polybius is critical of the limited and narrow process of inductive reasoning, the idea that one can obtain 'a competent view of universal from episodical history'.18 While some idea of the whole might be obtained from the part, 'clear comprehension' can not:
Polybius offered an alternative, which Walbank describes as 'history on a large canvas'.20 As Polybius put it: 'It is only by the combination and comparison of the separate parts of the whole – by observing their likeness and their difference – that a man can attain his object; can obtain a view at once clear and complete.21
Once Polybius' aim of writing the history of the unification of the oikoumene (or 'the inhabited world') under Roman hegemony becomes clear, one needs to question the extent to which he might have been tempted to manipulate his recounting of actual events to further project the idea of the unity of the historical story. Polybius was able to circumvent this temptation to a certain extent by arguing consistently through his Histories that it was Tyche or fortune that was the agent responsible for the unification, whereas his role as historian was simply to represent this in the form of a unified narrative. As Walbank suggests: 'Tyche and Polybius are shown as being in a sense complementary to each other: each is a creative artist in the relevant field'.22 Polybius also offers a chronological context for the beginning of genuine universal history, in that he identifies it exclusively with the history of his own time. For Polybius the unification of the oikoumene by Tyche was a new and even unique event in history which demanded a correspondingly original approach to its recording. This, Polybius claims, is what distinguishes his universalism from that of his Hellenistic predecessors.
As noted above, Mortley traces the origins of a universalist perspective to the expanded Greek worldview of the post-Alexander Hellenistic Era. Its intention was to both 'incorporate the experiences of the barbaroi as something less than exotic', but also to provide the reader with a 'sense of unity within diversity' as Greek cities which dotted the entire oikoumene were forced to coexist with a host of local cultures.23 In this sense, a modified version of universal history would also be a perfectly appropriate method to account for the growth of the Roman Empire, which similarly attempted to maintain a level of cultural unity within an array of diverse 'colonial' cultures. The appropriateness and increasing popularity of this approach led to a great flourishing of universal history in the Greco-Roman world, although only about 5% of the total has survived. Hence, although Polybius might have been the first historian in a position to actually describe the unification of the known world into a single structure, his approach was clearly influenced by his Hellenistic predecessors and their literary and philosophical interests.
Plato, for example, had argued that the whole is more than the sum of its parts,24 and Aristotle had suggested that the whole has a cause which actually creates its unity or wholeness, and that eventually the wholeness of something becomes its purpose.25 But Aristotle also went on to argue that poetry was better able to express this sense of the universal than history: 'poetry is a more scientific and serious thing than history. For poetry gives universal truths while history gives particular facts'.26 The universal historian in a sense reverses this dictum, arguing that history is also perfectly capable of identifying universal truths, not just particular and segmented facts. Despite Aristotle's argument, universal history clearly did become an important part of Hellenistic literature, although more in the form of a monograph that focused on a very limited and localized theme. It was Polybius who first articulated the idea that thematically-organized history on a much larger scale could also achieve a sense of organic unity, which could then be superimposed onto the course of particular events. In Walbank's assessment: 'In doing this he not only justified his method, he also produced a highly sophisticated version of the historians' traditional boast that his theme was inherently greater and more important than that of any of his predecessors'.27
Polybius applied this organic concept of history to the actual detailed accounting of the course of the Punic Wars by using what could almost be described as a cinematic technique. Choosing as his starting date the 140th Olympiad (221-216 BCE), Polybius introduces his theme by providing a wide-angle view of events occurring across the Mediterranean Basin:
Like a good cinemaphotographer, Polybius then uses a wide range of historical lenses, moving in for detailed 'close-up' examinations of specific events and personalities where required, before panning back out for wider-angled views which place those detailed vignettes into their appropriate context. In the survey-like Book II, for example, the reader is carried from Affairs in Spain to an account of The Romans in Illyria, back to Spain before a digression on the relationship between Romans and Gauls, then to Spain again before a final consideration of Events in Greece, particularly those concerning the Achaean League. Yet in other places Polybius offers detailed analysis of The Roman Constitution in its Prime, the Treaty between Hannibal and Philip of Macedon, and the Siege of Tarentum. Polybius is also intensely interested in the character of the main protagonists of the wars, producing studies of the characters of Hannibal, Philip and Scipio. Polybius, intent upon offering a compendious, thematically-organized description of the events and participants that 'star' in the Punic Wars, was an historian more than willing to use the widest range of lenses to create a work of genuine universal history.
The other major universal historian who turned his attention to the Punic Wars was the Sicilian Greek Diodorus Siculus, who produced his Library of History near the end of the first century BCE. Originally consisting of 40 books, only fragments have survived, although these are sufficient to demonstrate that Diodorus clearly had available to him numerous lost sources including a pro-Carthaginian account by Philinus. Mortley suggests that, where Polybius' view of the wholeness of the world was a practical and empirical one, based as it was on the political reality of Roman expansion, Diodorus had a more abstract conception of the unity of the oikoumene based on a sense of the universality of human nature.29 Yet like Polybius, Diodorus must also have been only too aware of the realities of the expanding Roman state. In the decade between 70 and 60 BCE he would have observed the entire Mediterranean shoreline brought under Roman control by Pompey, with Roman supremacy extended, as Diodorus himself puts it, 'to the bounds of the inhabited world'.30 Despite this, Mortley, who is intent upon tracing the origins of a universalist conception of history to Hellenistic philosophy, argues that Diodorus was seeking more than a mere recounting of practical realities, but rather the articulation of 'some doctrine of a universal human nature with a single underlying quality'.31
Diodorus does address this question of a 'common human nature' by considering the origins of the human race. Following a quite extraordinary account of the creation of the universe and the shaping of the planet (shades of big history here) he settles upon Egypt as the cultural source of all subsequent human history:
Using an approach that might be controversial today (in light of the disagreement between the Afrocentric and Hellenocentric understandings of the origins of Greek civilization)33 Diodorus accounts for the spread of these original Egyptian ideas by crediting the god Osiris with influencing Greek and all subsequent human culture, through his 'priestly scribe' Hermes:
All of this does seem to suggest that Diodorus' conception of history is based on his acceptance of the universality of human nature, a very different understanding to that which drove Polybius to account for the realities of the spread of Roman hegemony and the enforced application of a common political structure. Yet the end result was very much the same, for Diodorus also produced a work of universal history in which the whole was greater than its parts, and where truth was more likely to be revealed by moving from the general to the particular. Whether inspired by philosophy or politics, Diodorus like Polybius is intent upon 'recording the common affairs of the inhabited world as though they were those of a single state'.35 His universal history will have practical as well as ethical value:
The actual contents of Diodorus' forty volumes clearly illustrate not only these dual intentions, but also a Polybian-like ability to bring a range of perspectives to his task, very much in the manner of Herodotus. Hence explanations of the myths and origins of the gods and peoples of Egypt, Assyria, India, Arabia, the Amazons and Atlantis are followed by accounts of the military and political history of Greece and Rome. Then, from book XI on, the broad anthropological and theological focus of the first ten volumes is replaced by detailed descriptions of specific events, related in a tight chronological framework. Book XIII, for example, covers the years 415-405 BCE; book XVII the years 335-324; and book XX the years 310-302.
In the context of the Punic Wars, it is Diodorus' books XXI-XL (301-60 BCE) that are most relevant, although these have survived in fragmentary form only. Yet even these fragments provide crucial information that helps fill out our understanding of events during the First Punic War in particular, and they also demonstrate that a universalist conception of history need not preclude the incorporation of a considerable amount of closely-focused and specific detail. Diodorus' comments upon the maritime and land campaigns undertaken by the Romans in Sicily in the mid-third century BCE, for example, move seamlessly from statistical minutiae to a broad analysis of consequences. Explicitly citing the lost Carthaginian source, Philinus, Diodorus carefully lists the forces available to the Carthaginians under Hanno – sixty elephants, 6,000 cavalry and 50,000 infantry.37 In a subsequent battle with the Roman forces north of Agrigentum, Diodorus tells us that Hanno quickly lost 3,000 infantry and 200 cavalry killed, 4,000 men captured and forty three of the elephants either killed or disabled. The Romans also lost significant numbers but out of a much larger force totaling 100,000, so that proportionally these losses were not as devastating.38 Then, drawing back to place all this in context, Diodorus demonstrates that the ultimate consequence of the engagement was that some sixty-seven Sicilian cities defected to the Roman side, forcing the Carthaginians to sue for peace.39 In this manner, like any good historian, Diodorus is able to fit the detailed pieces of the historical jigsaw into the much larger picture of the ebb and flow of the war, ensuring that the events themselves always remain subordinate to, and serve the ideal of, his universal theme.
From its apparent origins in the Platonic idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, and that eventually the wholeness of something becomes its purpose, universal history had proven itself particularly suited for the description of processes occurring on a broad spatial and temporal scale. The leading universalists of the ancient Mediterranean were particularly skillful at weaving detailed description into a complex narrative that not only synthesized the events themselves into a seamless whole, but which also produced an organic conception of history that was itself greater than the sum of its parts. The link between this expanded methodology and conception, and the magnitude of the events themselves is obvious and crucial. Polybius is explicit that his work was motivated by the sheer scale of the conflict between Carthage and Rome, and the subsequent success of the Romans in bringing 'almost the whole of the inhabited world' under their rule. Similarly Diodorus only began to arrange the complex events he considers in the Library of History into an 'orderly body' after the reality of Roman success in the Mediterranean had obviously and (so the historian believed) uniquely brought the affairs of the inhabited world together 'as though they were those of a single state'.
This was a conception of history particularly suited to its times. As the self-focus of individual city-states was replaced by increasing inter-culturalism and trans-regional expansion and conflict, so the methodology of recounting these processes also had to expand. And when the conflict was on a hitherto unseen scale, as was the case between the North African-based Carthaginians and the European Romans, so the histories produced by Polybius and Diodorus had to be similarly unique in scale and shape. The trend towards inclusiveness and connectedness in history writing continued unapologetically over the intervening millennia. In Late Antiquity, for example, Augustine and Orosius would develop a type of universal ecclesiastical history to try and account for the sack of Christian Rome by the Goths. And a millennium and a half later in the early twentieth century, Wells and Spengler argued that the only way to account for the near self-destruction of western culture in a catastrophic 'world' war was through a universalist conception. By the nineteenth century, however, universal history had lost favor amongst a new breed of nationally-focused historians, who now viewed their universal predecessors as amateurish and unprofessional.
Of course, now in the twenty first century, when the affairs of the whole world really have become a 'connected whole', it could be argued that universal history (in all its various sub-genres) is once again uniquely placed to explain the relationship of the myriad parts to the organic, interconnected whole. In the same way that the approach of Polybius and Diodorus was the most appropriate to describe epic, inter-regional events that unfolded in the Mediterranean Basin more than two thousand years ago, world history, global history, big history and other successors to their universalist model remain the very best tools at our disposal today to, as Polybius so succinctly put it, 'obtain a view at once clear and complete; and thus secure both the profit and the delight of history'.
Goldsworthy, A., The Punic Wars (London: Cassell and Co., 2000)
Polybius, The Histories, trans. Shuckburgh, E.S., (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1962)
Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. Oldfather, C.H., (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 1933, repr. 1998)
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. Godley, A.D., (Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1966)
Momigliano, A., 'The Origins of Universal History', chapter 3 in On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1987)
Mortley, R., The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996)
Sima Qian, Shi Ji, trans. Watson, B., Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian – Han Dynasty II (Revised edtn., Columbia University Press 1993)
Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. Scott-Kilvert, I., (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986)
Walbank, F.W., Polybius (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1972)
Walbank, F.W., 'Introduction' to Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (1986)
Hughes-Warrington, M., 'Big History', unpublished manuscript (2000).
1 The author would like to thank the editors of World History Connected, and in particular the anonymous reviewer who read and made numerous insightful comments upon the article, for improvements to the final version of this paper.
2 This paragraph is something of a paraphrase of the superb introduction to A. Goldsworthy's The Punic Wars (London: Cassell and Co., 2000) intro
3 Polybius, The Histories, trans. E.S. Shuckburgh (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1962) Book 1, 4, p. 4.
4 Polybius, 3.
5 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, trans. C.H. Oldfather (Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 1933, repr. 1998)1, 1, p. 7
6 Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A.D. Godley (Loeb Classical Library, London: Heinemann, 1966) Book 1, 1, p. 3
7 R. Mortley, The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen, 1996) 1
8 See in particular Chaps. 110 and 123 of Sima Qian, Shi Ji, trans. Burton Watson, Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian – Han Dynasty II (Revised edtn., Columbia University Press 1993)
9 Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, trans. I. Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 41
10 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 2
11 Ibid., 3
12 Ibid., 3
13 Ibid., 4
14 Ibid., 98-9
15 Ibid., 100-1
16 Ibid., 182
17 F.W. Walbank, Polybius (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1972) 34
18 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 4
19 Ibid., 4
20 F.W. Walbank, 'Introduction' to Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (1986) 21
21 Polybius, trans. Shuckburgh, 5
22 Walbank (1972) 68.
23 Mortley, 1
24 Plato, Theatetus, 203 ff.
25 Aristotle, Met., 104 1b.
26 Aristotle, Poetics, 145 1b3.
27 Walbank (1986) 22
28 Polybius, Hist. 1, 3.
29 Mortley, 7
30 Diodorus, trans. C.H. Oldfather, 1. 4. 3.
31 Mortley, 7
32 Diodorus, 1. 9. 9.
33 See for example Moeli Kefet Asante, Kemet, Afrocentricity and Knowledge (Trenton: Africa World Press Inc. 1990) for an Afrocentrist perspective; and Mary Lefkowitz, Not Out of Africa. How Afrocentrism Became an Excuse to Teach Myth as History (New York: Basic Books, 1996) for a contrary argument.
34 Diodorus, 1. 15. 16.
35 Diodorus, 1. 1. 1.
36 Diodorus, 1. 1. 2.
37 Goldsworthy, 79
38 Ibid., 80
39 Ibid., 82
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