Oops, we started a world war


Life, or history, is a tragicomedy. A lot of it is is just plain absurd. Hilarious, if it were not also terrible. The epic is bound up in the banal, the heroic in the vulgar. Wars are started out of folly or oversight, or somebody’s vanity, or pure mistake.

Let me give you an example from the era that forms the backdrop for the main characters in my forthcoming book. This is the giant cock-up that led to the Punic Wars, stretching over 118 years, robbing the ancient Mediterranean world of entire generations of its young as the the World Wars of the 20th century once would, and ending in the complete annihilation of Carthage.

To recap: Last time in this series we left off with Pyrrhus, the studly Hellenistic king who fought the Romans, usually winning (but hey, those Pyrrhic victories) but finally acknowledging that those Romans, so obscure and backward until now, were quite something. He went home and left Italy to them. For the first time, the Romans were now all the way down in the Italian “boot”, looking over at Sicily (see map).

Sicily, remember, was a mostly Greek island whose western parts Carthage, the maritime superpower of the day, considered to be in its sphere of influence.

We have already reviewed how Carthage and Rome were twins in some ways, friends in others. But now suddenly, they found themselves staring across the narrow straits of Messina, then called Messana. What would happen next? Did anything at all have to happen next?

No, nothing had to happen. That’s just what historians pretend 2,000 years later when they need to get tenure. Instead, here is what did happen:

Meet the Mamertines

There was this band of hoodlums–hooligans, gangsters, goons, whatever you want to call them. They were from southern Italy but went to Sicily at some point to look for work. Sort of like the Okies during the Depression. They found jobs in the great Greek city of Syracuse for a few years, but then got fired. So they wandered off again.

But on they way back to Italy they stopped at Messana, also a Greek town. The town’s elders, always good hosts in the Hellenistic way, gave them lodging. The hoodlums said Thank You, waited till everybody was asleep, got up and cut their hosts’ throats. Then they took their women. Then they declared that Messana was now theirs.

For good measure, they called themselves Mamertines, or “sons of Mars”. Looks better in the history books.

They kept being hoodlums, ransacking the towns in their neigborhood, until the Syracusans heard about this and sent an army. Yikes, the Mamertines thought. We better call for help.

So they contacted the Carthaginians in the west of Sicily and invited them over, just to show some force and scare the Syracusans off. The Carthaginians came, and the Syracusans thought it better not to risk a war over, well, hoodlums. (They knew whom they had recently fired, after all.)

Except now the Mamertines thought ‘Yikes, those Carthaginians are a bit scary too, aren’t they?’

So–and I think you see where this is going–they contacted the (wait for it) Romans, who were, after all, just a stone’s throw across the straits, in Rhegium (also Greek), today’s Reggio.

Sure, the Romans said. Why don’t we hop over and strut around a bit. We kicked out Pyrrhus, after all.

The Carthaginian commander thought it best not to risk a full-fledged war over, well, hoodlums, and left. But this was picked up by the Carthaginian equivalent of Fox News and the superpower decided that it had been humiliated. It crucified the general. (Literally, by the way.) Then Carthage sent a force to drive the Romans back across the straits.

And this, in 264 BCE, is how it started! The First Punic War would last 23 years. It would see some of the greatest sea battles of all time, including our own. It would be followed by the Second Punic War–Hannibal’s war–which was even bloodier. And then by the Third Punic War, which was genocide.

And the Mamertines, you ask?

Good question. Somehow they vanished from history the moment they entered it. We have no idea where they went or what became of them. The Romans, the Carthaginians, the Sicilians–nobody heard about them again or cared to inquire. After all, they had just been a bunch of hoodlums, passing through.

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Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

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Great friends for 230 years: Carthage and Rome


Are you puzzled by Carthage and Rome? You should be, if you’re learning about them through my thread on the historical backdrop behind the main story and main characters in my forthcoming book. So far, I’ve told you just enough to raise lots of questions.

Recap: There we are, in the third century BCE in the Mediterranean: the place is essentially a Greek (“Hellenistic”) pond, with two other powers–one mighty, seafaring and rich (Carthage); the other obscure, land-bound and provincial (Rome)–waving at each other from opposite shores. But one century later, the obscure upstart somehow completely erases the mighty and rich superpower, thereby changing our world forever.

How and why did this come about?

We will get there, but first, let’s take another look at Carthage and Rome before war broke out between them. Not only were these two city-states remarkably alike; they were also … friends!

Not cuddly friends, perhaps, but certainly cordial enough to have four treaties of friendship between 509 BCE and 279 BCE. The terms changed, but the essence stayed the same:

  • You play nice over there, and don’t come armed over here, although if a storm were to blow your ships to our side, we’ll help you out so that you can be on your way.
  • In return, we will play nice over here, and not come over there, unless a storm were to blow our ships to your side, in which case we’ll be on our way as soon as you’ll help us along.
  • Oh, and we both realize that a lot of these places between us are actually Greek, so let’s give them some respect too.

You see this summarized in the map above. The Carthaginian sphere of influence is light green; the Roman light red; the Greek light brown. Notice the three main centers of Greek civilization in this (western) part of the Mediterranean, which were Tarentum (today’s Taranto, in Italy); Syracuse (also Italian today, of course) and Massilia (today’s Marseilles, in France).

This is still a largely happy and peaceful picture. But along came a swash-buckling young lad–no, not Hannibal yet–who caused trouble. He was Greek, his name was Pyrrhus, and you’ve heard and used his name in its adjectival form many times. To be continued.

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Archimedes between Carthage and Rome

"Don't disturb my circles."

"Don't disturb my circles."

Above you see a 78-year-old Greek man drawing mathematical diagrams into the sand, a split second before a Roman soldier stabbed him to death in a war against Carthage. The old man’s name, of course, is Archimedes, and when the Romans ran toward him he apparently said, simply, “Don’t disturb my circles.”

I have been thinking about how to illustrate for you, in one terse but punchy anecdote, the essence of the Hellenistic era that I wrote about in the previous post. And this is it.

Remember: This was an era when 1) two mighty powers, Carthage and Rome, clashed and changed our world forever and 2) the entire known world, including Carthage and Rome, was simultaneously taking its cultural, linguistic, artistic, scientific and aesthetic cues from the Greeks. (Oh, and it was the era that forms the backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book, a book that is really about the ups and downs in your life.)

But why this moment, the stabbing of Archimedes?

Because it was a microcosm of the larger situation. Consider:

  • Archimedes was stabbed in 212 BCE, just as Hannibal, the Carthaginian commander who is my main character, was in Italy, killing Romans (he killed about one quarter of all free Latin men at the time!).
  • The Romans, who were losing, were worried that Sicily, the ethnically Greek island between Italy and Carthage which they had wrested from Carthaginian control in a previous war might go over to Carthage again, thus giving Hannibal a base for supplies and reinforcement and sealing their likely fate: extinction.
  • So the Romans, while fighting Hannibal in Italy itself, attacked and laid siege to the Greek city of Syracuse on Sicily, once a Roman ally but now flirting with Carthage.
  • But Syracuse, a proud and ancient Spartan Corinthian colony, was a more refined–ie, Hellenistic–culture than either Rome or Carthage. It was Greek, rich, old, full of art and learning. And it was the home of Archimedes!
  • Archimedes, using Hellenistic values of science and thought (as opposed to brute Roman force) helped his city to keep the Romans at bay for two years.
  • He figured out a way to use mirrors to focus the sun’s rays onto the Roman ships until they burnt–the Hellenistic form of Star Wars. He designed cranes that, using the principle of leverage, lifted the Roman ships out of the water and let them crash down.
  • Eventually, the Romans got into the city and had their Roman way with it. But the swash-buckling Roman commander, Marcellus, gave orders to save the great man, Archimedes–a gesture that was itself a sign of the Hellenistic Zeitgeist. Alas, the young legionaries did not recognize Archimedes and killed him.
  • And so Sicily stayed Roman and did not become a base to resupply Hannibal in Italy. Hannibal would later kill Marcellus in Italy, and things would take their course…

So there you have it: the three civilizations–Greek, Roman and Carthaginian–meeting in one spot at one time. But there is another reason to choose Archimedes.

Archimedes perfectly epitomized his Hellenistic time and his Greek culture. He was curious, full of wonderment, inquiring into everything. As he was taking a bath one day, he noticed how his leg, moving in and out, displaced the water, which gave him the idea for measuring the volume and density of any object. He was so excited that he ran out into the streets, stark naked and dripping, screaming what might be the the best and ultimate slogan for Hellenism itself:


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It was all Greek to them. No, literally.


I left off in my thread on the general historical backdrop to the main story in my forthcoming book with a nod to Hellenism. That is because my main characters, Hannibal (Carthage) and Scipio (Rome), clashed, with consequences for us today, during the third century BCE, the height of the so-called Hellenistic era.

This may sound weird. Hellenism is named after Hellas, Greece, but what we know about this epic clash is that it happened between the two superpowers of the day, Rome and Carthage. What does Greece have to do with this?

This is what I want to explain, briefly and simply, in this post.

“Greece” was never, in antiquity, a country. Even Homer, writing about the Trojan War that was the mythological foundation for all Greeks, never once used the word Greeks! (Instead, he called the Greeks Argives, Achaeans, Aetolians, and so on.) During the Classical era, the Greeks had independent city states (Athens, Sparta, Thebes etc) that constantly fought against, or allied with, one another.

But although they never thought of themselves as a country, they always thought of themselves as a civilization. The definition of Greekness was simple: if you were allowed to send competitors to the Olmpic Games, you were Greek. And who was allowed? Broadly, those who spoke Greek. All other languages sounded to the Greeks like “bar bar bar bar”, hence barbarian.

Then, in the fourth century BCE, something big happened: While the Greek cities kept fighting each other about rather petty things, as usual, a new power rose to the north. This was Macedonia. Whether the Macedonians were Greek was at first controversial, but might made right, and Philip, then his son Alexander, became not only Macedonian but also Greek.

Alexander, completing the dream his father had dreamt when he was murdered, then swept ferociously across the Hellespont to the east, reversing the direction of the earlier Persian invasions, and conquering most of the known world. In the process he brought Greek language, culture, philsophy, theater, art and architecture to the entire “Middle East”. His name lives on in many garbled city names, such as Kandahar.

Then Alexander died, prematurely. His generals carved up his huge empire and for the next couple of centuries, huge and powerful kingdoms with Greek aristocracies ruled the area. The two biggest were the Seleucid and the Ptolemaic empires. The last Greco-Macedonian queen was, of course, Cleopatra (who happens to be another of the characters in my book.)

What did this mean? It meant that in the whole Mediterranean and “Middle East”, there was one cosmopolitan, urban culture, which was Greek–ie, Hellenistic. There were lots and lots of other peoples–Phoenicians, Romans, Gauls, Numidians, Illyrians etc–who abutted on this Greek pond from all sides, and they each had their own culture and language. But the haute couture, the lingua franca, the aesthetic style, the entire outlook and sensibility of the era–all this was Greek.

There are no perfect parallels in history for this astonishing cultural dominance. The reach of Han Chinese culture during the Tang Dynasty and “Anglo-Saxon” culture today (from English-as-a-second-language to Hollywood films) are the two that seem to come closest.

So there. Hannibal spoke Punic, Scipio spoke Latin, but both of course also spoke Greek. Scipio, in fact, loved Greek culture so much that his political enemy, Cato the Elder, a sort of Roman Joe McCarthy, even tried to spin a scandal out of it.

It was a culturally refined and complex era. A fascinating era.

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Backdrop to the story: Hellenism


I’ve always been a fan of Hellenistic art, such as this sculpture of a Dying Gaul (a Roman copy of the original Greek sculpture, made during Hannibal’s lifetime). Compare the Gaul above to the sculpture below, which shows either Poseidon or Zeus and was made about two centuries earlier, during the Classical era.


Huge difference, wouldn’t you say?

In the Classical era, art (which, as we all know, imitates life) was about depicting heroism in a stylized, idealized and static way. Even if the god is about to throw a thunderbolt, he seems frozen in time. He does not look like an individual but like a type.

In the Hellenistic era, by contrast, art is about individualized, internal, psychological and much more complex depictions of heroism. The Gaul looks ethnically like a Celt; he is struggling against death with as much turmoil on the inside as on the outside; he looks like he is actually moving on his shield. This is one man, unique, during the moment of his life’s ultimate drama.

Why am I talking about this?

Because the Dying Gaul is a great visual clue about the historical era in which the plot of the main characters in my forthcoming book unfolds. (As always, please remember that the plot and the characters are just the frame for a story that is about us today, about success and failure in our lives!) Hannibal and Scipio encountered each other during this, the Hellenistic, era.

In a coming post, let me try to begin to unravel the mystery I set up in recent posts: namely, how was it possible that Rome, an obscure Italian town that most people had never heard of, came to replace (and erase) Carthage, the Mediterranean superpower, making our own world forever Roman? Understanding these events starts, ironically, with understanding Hellenism, ie the Greeks.

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Carthage and Rome: murderous twins

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

Hey Dido, say we EACH had a city....

I left off in this thread on the historical background of the main characters in my forthcoming book by asking you to savor a certain sense of mystery:

At the beginning of the so-called Hellenistic era (ie, the death of Alexander), Carthage was a superpower and Rome all but unknown. 177 years later, Rome was the superpower, and Carthage was completely razed. And our world would forever after be Roman. What happened in those 177 years?

Before I go on, please, remember that my book will not be a history lesson; it is a story of characters, from Hannibal and Scipio to modern people you know, who illustrate a theme that you, I hope, will recognize in your own life.

That said, in these posts I’m amusing myself with a bit of history. And so back to the mystery. It actually gets more mysterious for a while, because Carthage and Rome were … friends.

That might be overstating things, but they were a) extremely alike in some ways and b) entirely tolerant of each other for many centuries.

If you believe Roman legends, the two cities were founded almost at the same time–Carthage in 814 BCE by the beautiful and wily queen Dido, and Rome a few generations later by the descendants of Aeneas, a Trojan survivor and Dido’s erstwhile lover. Dido and Aeneas are pictured together above. (The lewd version is here.)

Rome and Carthage then evolved almost as twins: two polytheistic city-states that shook off tyrants and became proud republics, with popular assemblies, councils of elders, and two annually-elected presidents–the Romans called them consuls, the Carthaginians suffetes.

Carthaginian empire

Carthaginian empire

To the extent that they were also different, this actually helped them to get along. Rome was agrarian, provincial and essentially land-locked in central Italy. It had no navy at all! When it had to fight, it drafted all male citizens. Carthage, by contrast, was maritime, controlled a vast sea empire and made profits from trading. When it had to fight, it hired mercenaries to do the fighting on the citizens’ behalf.

So for centuries the Romans worried about their neighbors in Italy, and the Carthaginians about their profits and sea routes, and both sides were happy. They had treaties of friendship. There seemed to be no problem.

To be continued.

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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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