Academic journal article Helios

Cato the Elder and the Destruction of Carthage

Academic journal article Helios

Cato the Elder and the Destruction of Carthage

Article excerpt

  The last of his political actions is supposed to have been the
  destruction of Carthage; while the younger Scipio brought about the
  fulfilment of the act, it was by the design and especially the
  judgment (gnome) of Cato that the Romans undertook the war.
  PLUTARCH, Life of Cato the Elder

  Must we ... give up any hope of finding a reason for this sudden Roman
  fury against an enemy who was powerless? Cato was a hard man and
  lacked breadth of vision, but he was neither stupid nor easily
  excitable, and was therefore unlikely to undertake a difficult war for
  purely emotional reasons.
  GILBERT CHARLES-PICARD, The Life and Death of Carthage

  ... in the real of our desire, we are all murderers.
  SLAVOJ ZIZEK, Looking Awry

Among Cato the Elder's writings there should have been a monograph entitled How to Do Things with Words, since his famous soundbite or gnome on Carthage is not only his best-known work, but also one of the most resonant soundbites from antiquity (possibly even more notorious than veni, vidi, vici). (1) The reason for its resonance possibly is that Cato appears as that miraculous figure whose words do not represent actions in the past but create a future within which actions seem inevitable. The representations of Cato collude with this apparition by conflating the sententia with "its" outcome, noticeably bypassing the Senate's first response to the debate, their decision not to destroy Carthage but to relocate it (a response to which I will return). Instead, many texts work to minimize the gap between word and deed. Pliny the Elder, who will reappear later in this paper, may serve here as the representative example:

  [W]hen he was declaiming in every meeting of Senate that Carthage must
  be destroyed [Carthaginem delendam] ... and at once they embarked on
  the third Punic war, in which Carthage was destroyed [Carthago deleta
  est]. (HN 15.74-75)

What Cato creates as a potentiality, he represents as necessity--Carthage must be destroyed--and what he represents as necessity, we and (most of) the writers of antiquity now available to us see forever under the shadow of its fulfillment by Scipio. Pliny's way of rendering this is to see Cato's demand, Carthago delenda est, met with (the aftermath of) its fulfillment, Carthago deleta est, while on the far side of the perfect participle those of us born after the destruction of the city are left to contemplate the marvel of this figure whose words translate so clearly into deeds. Another way to put this is that we, Plutarch, and Pliny see the destruction of Carthage as completed, and retroject into the second century B.C.E. the necessity of this destruction. Cato becomes, from this perspective, a spokesman not for his present but for ours. And this makes him more, not less potent. Why does antiquity create this monster, and why do we perpetuate it?

Cato is a monster not because his words consign the people of Carthage to the flames, but because his awareness renders him opaque to historical understanding. Charles-Picard's perplexity in the epigraph to this paper arises in part out of this opacity. Because Cato's insistence on the historical necessity of destruction (a necessity that arises out of subsequent recognition) is a voice from the future, his words cannot be understood historically, that is, cannot be understood within the context of their own time. In other words, the statement Carthago delenda est, and its speaker, can only make sense from the perspective of Carthago deleta est. Note here that Carthage in these statements always is--Carthago est--but its existence oscillates between a dependence upon the future (delenda) and a dependence upon the past (deleta). (2) Thus, before continuing with a reading of Plutarch's and Pliny's Catos, it is necessary to formulate the status of Carthage, or rather of Carthage the undead city.

The year 146 B.C.E. saw the destruction by Rome of both Carthage and Corinth. …

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