Ancient Rome and the Destruction of Carthage: The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On

One of the great excitements for me of writing Total War Rome: Destroy Carthage was the chance to create a story set against an event that was not only pivotal in ancient history, but also a highlight of my own career. Like many archaeologists I’ve often had difficulty correlating what I’ve been excavating with the great events of recorded history—with wars and political upheavals. Often it seems as if those events simply bypass the majority of people, leaving unaffected what the historian Fernand Braudel called the “underlying continuity” of day-to-day life. But sometimes the events are so huge, so all-encompassing, that they reach through the entire fabric of life, leaving their mark everywhere. When you’re confronted with that evidence emerging from the ground, when the scale and reality of those events becomes apparent, the effect can be shocking.

I had that experience at Carthage in Tunisia when I first walked through the so-called Punic Quarter, a complex of housing below the acropolis of the ancient city. The houses date to the time before the Roman destruction of 146 BC, when Carthage was ruled by the people the Romans called Punic—the descendants of the Phoenicians who had first settled the site. In order to reach the houses, the archaeologists had to dig through a huge mass of debris that had been swept down when the Romans decided to rebuild Carthage, a century or so later at the time of Julius Caesar. What stopped me in my tracks was seeing the smashed pottery and bones and building material sticking out of the unexcavated sections, a raw image of destruction. I felt as I had done when I first stood in front of Picasso’s Guernica, or the sculptures made from discarded weapons by the Soviets for their war museums – only at Carthage the image was even more jarring because instead of battlefield debris I was looking at the material of day-to-day life, objects that would be unremarkable in most excavations but here seemed awful testimony to the events of 146 BC, to the totality of ancient war.

And that wasn’t the only jolt I experienced that day. The houses themselves, burned but not levelled in 146 BC, are tall, narrow structures each with their own internal water cistern, like plunge-pools several metres across and five or six metres deep. I’d just been reading Appian, the ancient historian whose account is the only surviving description of the siege, and realised to my astonishment that I was looking at the site of one of his most horrific scenes, where, among the houses, the bodies of the dead—Carthaginian soldiers, but also women and children—had so congested the narrow streets that they were pulled away and hurled into ‘wells’, filling them so deep that limbs were left sticking out. Appian was writing almost two hundred years after the event, but his account is thought to have been based closely on the lost description by an eyewitness, the great historian Polybius—a central character in my novel—who must have stood in front of those wells just as I was, and seen the true horror of war. There could be no better confluence of archaeological and historical evidence, or one more shocking.

Later, leaving my excavation team at the site of the ancient harbours, I took my copy of Appian and began to walk through the modern streets towards the Punic Quarter, intending to read the ancient account of the assault and imagine where the main events might have taken place. Nothing of the ancient city is visible today between the harbours and the acropolis; to me those two places seemed like scene settings in a play, with the city beyond left completely to the imagination. I found myself shutting the book and thinking instead of the main characters in the story—of Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian leader, known only from a few lines in the ancient sources yet whose image standing beside his wife as she hurls her children and then herself into the flames is as awful as anything in Homer or the ancient Greek playwrights, truly the stuff of tragedy; and of Scipio Aemilianus, the triumphant Roman general, “the greatest Roman emperor who never was,” who for a few moments standing atop the acropolis must surely have imagined breaking free from Rome, casting off the shackles of the Republic and leading his army from the burning ruins of Carthage on to ever-greater triumphs in the East.

It was this image of Carthage as a stage setting, with characters as great as any in ancient drama, that drove my fiction, but with a historical reality that I’d seen myself in the ruins of the ancient city. Carthage was very much on my mind when I recently watched my daughter’s school play of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Shakespeare, of course, was a great purveyor of historical fiction, though unlike his historical plays The Tempest is almost pure fantasy. You can almost hear a tinge of regret in Prospero’s famous lines, on “the cloud capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples,” dissolving like the actors themselves, melting into thin air. For me, the strength of my story is that it’s no “insubstantial pageant,” and that the fabric of my vision is not baseless but is something I’ve revealed with my own hands as an archaeologist; in my books, that’s the stuff that dreams are made on.

David Gibbins is the New York Times bestselling author of seven previous historical adventure novels that have sold almost three million copies and are published in thirty languages. After taking a PhD at Cambridge University, he spent almost a decade teaching archaeology, ancient history and art history as an academic in England, before giving up teaching to write fiction full-time. He is a passionate diver and has led numerous underwater archaeology expeditions, some of which have resulted in extraordinary discoveries of ancient shipwrecks and prehistoric artifacts. David divides his time between England and Canada, where he does most of his writing.


Back to the top of the page


This post is closed for comments.

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.