Our Roman world, 2009


What’s that peeking through the urban thicket of New York? Why, the New York Stock Exchange, where your savings are currently being lost. And what about that patriotic-looking edifice on the right? That’s the US Treasury, where your savings are also currently being lost. But I digress. What’s my point?

By now I shouldn’t even have to make it explicit. It is that those buildings, like thousands of libraries and state capitols and what not, are explicitly and intentionally built to look … Roman!

And what would America look like if Hannibal, ie Carthage, had won? Exactly. We have no idea. We don’t know what Carthaginian columns and buildings looked like because the Romans were too thorough in wiping it off the map.

And what do we speak? English, a Germanic tongue, admittedly, but one that got half its vocabulary from Norman French, an offshoot of Latin. To our north and south in this hemisphere, they speak French, Spanish and Portuguese, other offshoots of Latin.

And what would the Americas sound like if Hannibal had won? Exactly. We have no idea. Perhaps remotely like Hebrew or Arabic, since Punic was a Semitic language, but we can’t say because it’s been dead so long.

We could go on and on. We have Senators because our founding fathers wanted to model themselves after the Rome that Polybius described, the one that survived and overcame Hannibal. Toga parties, Caesar’s Palace, …. Please don’t expect me to go there.

The point of all this, of course, is to instill in you a retroactive sense of wonderment about the mysterious events between, roughly, the death of Alexander and the Roman double-sack of Carthage and Corinth. Recall that Alexander had never heard of Rome but had Carthage in his sights, because it was the superpower of its region. Recall that, 177 years later, those Romans of whom he had not heard razed Carthage and Corinth to the ground and began to turn the world into what we know today.

Those epic and mysterious events that explain the mystery are the backdrop–the context or scene–for the astonishing individual and human stories of the main characters in my book, who proved with their own lives that triumph and disaster are impostors.

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7 thoughts on “Our Roman world, 2009

  1. “…….what would America look like if Hannibal, ie Carthage, had won………?

    Being neither an historian nor economist, I don’t know which of Rome or Carthage had the larger productive economy. But if the larger economy was Rome’s, it was (probably) inevitable that Rome would triumph.

    I say this because some years ago I read Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers”, in which he (Kennedy) showed that in all the wars of the last 500 years, it was always the side having the larger economy which prevailed. Thus the results of these wars were easily predictable.

    Do you have information about the relative sizes of the Roman and Carthaginian economies?

  2. In every good story is the hope or desire that there’s something in this story for me In your recent post, your use of the word wonderment invites the reader to do just that–wonder.

    I find a pleasant connection to your sowing the seeds of wonder (in a blog about your book ) and to your other posts about Twitter and Facebook, two gimmicks designed to keep us all connected, and thus, leave little time for wonder.

    This book is really about us, right? And how each of us handles the successes and failures in our life, right?

    I wonder.

  3. In turn:

    Christopher, No, I don’t have actual numbers about the Carthaginian and Roman economies, but here is roughly how they would have stacked up:

    At the outset of the First Punic War, Carthage’s economy was probably the largest in the Mediterranean, whereas Rome’s was tiny. Rome won (and did its best to impoverish Carthage).
    At the outset of the Second (Hannibalic) Punic War, Carthage’s economy (now including Spain, but minus Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica) must have recovered and was probably again bigger than Rome’s. Rome won.
    The Third Punic “War” was not really a war but ethnic cleansing. It was a postscript. So Kennedy does not explain why Rome prevailed. (Polybius sort of does, but the whole thing is still a mystery, which is why I’m drawn to the subject.)

    Vincent: Oh yes, for the city of Carthage, disaster was no impostor. But remember that in my book, as opposed to this thread, I’m always and only telling the stories of individuals. For the individuals in the story, everything was more complicated and thus more interesting….

    Cheri: Bingo. Yes, the book is about us, and how each of us handles the successes and failures in life. You got it, and that makes me happy. In these posts I’m just keeping myself busy with some historical background….

  4. Great stuff, Andreas. So much of our modern lives is contingent on things that happened thousands of years ago. I highly recommend Nicholas Ostler’s “Empires of the Word” — the history of the world seen through languages — another take on all of this. Cultures that are bitter enemies often speak languages of the same family.

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