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How ancient Rome built its Mediterranean empire

The Associated Press, Thursday, July 28, 2011, 9:50am (PDT)

"Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization" (Penguin Group), by Richard Miles: For ancient Romans, "Carthage Must Be Destroyed" had to be the wave of the future if they were to become the unrivaled masters of the Mediterranean and the lands on its shores. Look at a map.

Carthage, a colony of seagoing Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon, was strategically on the Mediterranean's south coast, halfway between its Middle East homeland and the entry to the Atlantic. It was building an empire of its own, subjecting tribes in North Africa, Spain and the big islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica.

The cry to destroy Carthage was taken up by Cato, one of Rome's most respected senators. He got into the habit of using the slogan as the last sentence of any speech he made — no matter what he'd been talking about. That disconcerting practice must have helped give Romans a case of the jitters when Hannibal, Carthage's greatest general, mounted an invasion of Italy, complete with African combat elephants. It went through Spain, southern France and the Alps, up to the gates of Rome. That invasion failed, but a Roman invasion of Carthage succeeded.

This is a scholar's book. Author Richard Miles teaches ancient history at the University of Sydney, Australia, and writes here about events long past. He has to quote copiously from Greek and Roman historians, some of dubious reliability and little concern with today's ideas of fairness and entertainment. The victorious Romans got rid of Carthage's own records, along with temples and other public institutions. The book has color photos of the ruins, made in a suburb of today's Tunis.

Some of the stories are still teasingly attractive.

The elephants impressed people. Smaller than the Asian variety, they may still have been able to carry archers, but they sometimes panicked and trampled on their own infantry, an ancient version of "friendly fire." The Romans killed some, captured some others and marched them in the triumphal parades that celebrated their victories.

Some people marveled that the Carthaginians got the elephants across the broad Rhone River in southern France. Polybius, a Greek who wrote Roman history, may have shared the delusion that elephants couldn't swim.

"...(He) even repeated a story that some of Hannibal's elephants, panicked by the water, plunged into the river, and crossed to the other side by walking underwater on the riverbed and using their trunks as snorkels," Miles writes.

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