BMCR 1998.08.02

Rome and Carthage at Peace. Historia Einzelschriften 113


The flow of commerce between Carthage and Rome had run for centuries before the outbreak of the first war in 264 BC, and was not overwhelmed by the flood of violence thereafter. Robert Palmer’s learned and perceptive series of essays draws attention to the non-violent interaction between the great two states of the western Mediterranean, offering numerous insights into the evolution of the city of Rome and the nature of commerce during the centuries of peace. We meet here a Punic and African side of Rome rarely glimpsed in the past.

The relationship between Rome and Carthage was defined by a series of treaties, and thus P. properly begins with the treaties as they are reported by Polybius. The physical location of the treaties is of importance as it can tell us what the Romans thought they were about. P. offers the convincing suggestion that the tameion of the aediles that Polybius mentions is the atrium publicum on the Capitoline (p. 19-21). The aediles had a particular interest in the treaties because they were responsible for maintaining order in the market-place; in other words, these documents, connected with interstate commerce, were inscribed in the context of the Roman market. Consideration of the placement of the treaties sets the stage for examination of what this commerce involved. As P. observes, archaeological evidence for trade with North Africa is rather thin on the ground. That, according to P., is because Carthaginian cargoes were not of a sort to leave much of a trace in the archaeological record, including, as they did, slaves, gastronomic delicacies (especially fish sauce), wild animals and other instruments of entertainment.

Commerce involves people and ideas as well as money; the pursuit of commerce enables P. to excavate an oft overlooked substratum of Punic culture at Rome. In the fifth chapter he treats the origin of that section of Rome known as the vicus Africus, showing that the explanation known to Varro ( LL. 5.145-9), that it is the part of the city where Carthaginian hostages were stored, is inadequate. Rather it was a part of the city where people from Africa had made their home. The presence of Carthaginians at Rome and its environs is attested as early as the treaty of 348 BC (Pol. 3.24.12-13), at Pyrgi from the famous tablets, and almost certainly by the existence of Punicum, a probable port of Caere (p. 78). P. goes further in isolating the part of Rome where some of these Punic settlers resided with a thoroughly convincing analysis of Mercurius Sobrius.

P. begins his discussion by demolishing the notion that the vicus Sobrius, so-named — according to Festus’ version of Verrius Flaccus — because Mercury received an offering of milk rather than wine, reflects Italic practice. “Mercury the Teetotaler came to Rome from Africa” (p. 81). The extent of the cult of Mercury, and his identification as a form of guardian spirit, whom P. associates with the Aletes or Titans mentioned by Philo of Byblos, are then reviewed. The Carthaginian version, according to P., was worshipped in the form of a Betyl, and in this form, was carried to Rome. The location of the vicus Sobrius is unknown, but P. calls attention to the lactaria columna mentioned by Paul the Deacon in the region of the forum Holitorium (p. 105 λ an area where P. shows that there is elsewhere evidence for African settlement (p. 98). The case is convincing, leaving us with the picture of a Phoenician divinity, worshipped in the form of a Betyl from an early period of Roman history.

We do not know precisely when Mercurius Sobrius arrived, but it is fair to say that things African were clearly in vogue at Rome even in the third century. Caecilius Metellus had displayed 100 elephants at his triumph in 250 BC; and he may have had imitators, if P. is right in his reading of the reference to the offer of mures Africanae to the aediles ( Poen. 1011-12). Other wild animals followed.

The history of venationes at Rome is, to some degree, connected with the date of the vetus senatus consultum that Pliny says was repealed on the motion of a tribune named Aufidius ( NH 8.64). Dates for Aufidius vary between 170 BC and the end of the second century. P. accepts 170, but it should be noted that the argument is somewhat circular: Aufidius “must” have been tribune by that date since Cornelius Scipio Nasica and P. Cornelius Lentulus put on a display that included sixty-three African animals as aediles in 169 BC. Livy records this as an example of increasing magnificentia. But why? Does it have to do with the presence of africanae, or with the presence of 63 of them in addition to bears and elephants. It is equally possible, on this logic, that Aufidius was tribune in 187 BC: Fulvius Nobilior exhibited panthers and lions during his games in 186 BC (Livy 39.22.2). But we don’t know; the vetus senatus consultum could equally possibly have been a war-time measure at the time of the Second or Third Punic wars that was repealed as soon as one or the other ended. The important point, as P. makes clear, is that animals for beast hunts were part of the trade from North Africa in the second century BC, and Pliny thinks that the man who first trained animals to fight was a Carthaginian, resident in Carthage, named Hanno ( NH 8.55). Only Domitius Ahenobarbus was stupid enough, in 61 BC, to be taken in by someone who sold him bears as “Numidian,” suggesting that the progress of knowledge is not always without its hiccups.

From fish sauces and beasts P. passes to humans and pipes. Black Aegyptiani, slaves found in the context of the Carthaginian trader in the Poenulus, were evidently of interest in the early second century, and P. makes a convincing case for the tibiae sarranae used in Roman theatrical events as products of Carthage (p. 48-49). But, before this, and stemming from the existence of a large African community, there was also a Punic fifth column, exposed at the last minute before a plot to destroy the dockyards on the Tiber could be brought to fruition in 217 BC (p. 27-28). The plot may have been all the more dangerous in that there was a substantial African community around the nearby forum Holitorium (p. 102-103).

In chapters four and five P. turns to the evidence for Carthaginian influence on Roman religious practices. As is well known, the Roman state had a penchant for acquiring the gods of its enemies, and they started with in the first Punic War, taking an interest in the divinity who came to be known as Tempestates at Rome. Virgil, knew Tempestates as a single male divinity (Aen. 5.772: … et Tempestatibus agnam caedere deinde iubet), so did Scipio Nasica, who made the first dedication to him, and Ovid, who recorded his commemoration in the Fasti (see also ILS 3932; 3933; 3934). Since P. is somewhat elliptical on this point, it is worth noting here that the name stemmed from a problem in translating a Phoenician cult title on the model of e.g. Ba’al of the skies or Ba’al of the clouds into Latin. The Punic nature of this divinity (the god who oversees storms rather than being the storms himself) is reflected in ILS 3060 (found in Aquitania) and ILS 3061 (found at Lambaesis datable to AD 128/9). In these cases the Ba’al is identified with Jupiter Optimus Maximus and the Latin reflects the Punic title. It is interesting that Fabius Catullinus (consul AD 130), also responsible for ILS 3061, seems to have had difficulty on this point since he offers a slightly different version on ILS 3935. The god’s appearance at Rome resulted from a risky military operation: Lucius Scipio dedicated a temple to Tempestates after the capture of Corsica in 259 ( ILLRP 310, 5-6), Ovid adds that the fleet had been saved from a storm ( Fast. 6. 194).

P. points out that Tempestates was not the first Phoenician divinity who had come to Rome: the Pyrgi tablets offer the synchronism of Ishtar with Juno. It is in this context that P. goes on to explore the possibility that some changes in Roman cult that can be traced to the period of the Punic wars are likewise efforts to extort favor from Punic divinities who had already been identified (or syncreted if that is a word) with Greco-Roman divinities. In an appendix, P. explores the further possibility that the cult of Venus Verticordia was promoted to counter ritual prostitution that had grown up around the cult of Venus Erycina after 217 (p. 122-29).

P. is perhaps on strongest ground with Minucius’ dedication to Hercules (Phoenician Melkart) known from ILLRP 118 (p. 61) and the supplication to Hercules in 218 (Livy 21.62). Intriguing is P.’s suggestion that the change in the celebration of the Saturnalia in 217 was a partial assimilation of the rites of Ba’al Hammon to those of Saturn (p. 62-66), that the ludi Apollinares were founded as a result of an identification of Es(h)mun as Apollo, and that the Magna Mater was brought to Rome because she was a Betyl.

In the case of the Idaean mother P. adduces a passage from Pliny to support the notion that Betyls were good for storming cities and sinking fleets (Plin. NH 37.135: ex his quae nigrae sint ac rotundae, sacras esse; urbes per illas expugnari et classes baetulos vocari). The source for this statement appears to be the third century BC author of a work on stones named Sotacus, a man who thought that these stones were particularly sought by the magi. It is very hard to know just how widespread this view of Betyls was, and to what extent Sotacus (who seems to have invented a Persian context for them) knew what he was talking about. The most famous Betyls in antiquity, Elagabalus (the god, not the emperor), Paphian Aphrodite, and the Idaean mother herself do not seem to have been especially military. Thus, although P.’s proposition concerning the overt military implication of the Idaean mother is intriguing, the evidence that supports it is rather tenuous. The same can be said for his effort to associate the ludi Apollinares with Es(h)mun (claiming that ILLRP 41 can be used to support an identification of Es(h)mun with Apollo as the father of Asclepius), and the notion that the reformed Saturnalia is modeled on a banquet for Ba’al Hammon. Even if one remains skeptical on these points, there can be no doubt that P. has drawn attention to issues that have commonly been missed.

This is not a long book, but it is an important one. P. has succeeded in painting a convincing picture, built upon widely scattered scraps of evidence, of a pattern of contact between Rome and Carthage. Carthage may now be seen as participating in the formation of the Roman community, its tastes, urban geography, population and gods as never before. The contribution of this book to the emerging picture of Rome as a significant Mediterranean city well before the end of the third century BC is substantial.

FGrH 790 F 2.14, though the situation might not be quite so straightforward, see A. I. Baumgarten, The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos (Leiden, 1981), 170-74. MRR 1, p. 423 n. 6 reviewing the possibilities. Curiously enough distinct from africanae, and possibly already domesticated at a zoo in some part of Italy, as we know they were later. Plin. NH 8.134; Vir. Aen. 5.37 with Palmer p. 43 n. 71. I am indebted to Professor B. Schmidt for discussion on this point.