It happened today - March 10, 2016

On March 10 a very long time ago Rome handed Carthage its fleet in the pivotal Battle of Egadi Islands that ended the first Punic War.

Now you may say duh, of course it was a long time ago, it was Rome. And you’d have a point. But what surprises me a little is that the first Punic War ended in 241 BC, very nearly two centuries before they Et tu, Brute-ed Caesar on the Ides of March. (Technically his dying words were in Greek “Kai su, teknon,” either a reproach or a threat, but never mind for now.)

By the time Caesar got the point(s), Rome was fast becoming a world power. To master it was to control the Mediterranean. But in its two-decade-long struggle with Carthage that ended at Egadi two centuries earlier, Rome was a small regional power facing possible extinction if it lost. Carthaginian territory extended from Gibraltar to Libya, Sicily and Corsica; Rome held only most of mainland Italy.

Suppose Rome had lost? The Battle of Egadi Islands was itself something of a close-run affair, though less alarming than the crushing defeat Rome suffered at Cannae in the Second Punic War at the hands of Hannibal (the general surnamed Barca with the elephants, not the creepy psychiatrist surnamed Lecter with the strange diet) in 216 B.C., after which Fabius Maximus “Cunctator” (“the Delayer”) managed to save Rome by wearing Hannibal down instead of confronting him directly.

It is hard to imagine the Rome of Augustus, or Marcus Aurelius, being reduced to harassment, attrition and denial of supplies to beat an enemy, especially on the Italian mainland, and taking over a decade to get rid of him. But that’s how it was back then. And what if it hadn’t worked?

There might seem little to choose between Rome and Carthage. Certainly at its worst, Rome was a horror, both in terms of its rulers and its foreign policy. And it was a slave state, one of very few in recorded history to base its economic production in significant measure on slavery. (To my surprise when I learned it from Keith Bradley’s Slavery and Society at Rome a few years back, there have only been five: ancient Athens, classical Roman Italy, and the plantations of Brazil, the Caribbean and the southern United States in the post-medieval period. Slavery is ubiquitous but economically productive slavery is very rare.) But there are major differences.

Rome was a society based on the rule of law from its mythical origins. It did respect human dignity though it drew the circle too narrowly. It believed in government founded on the people though it never got the institutions right. And while Roman religion was frankly a bit silly, it didn’t involve human sacrifice as the Carthaginian worship of Baal apparently did.

Without Rome, there would have been no fusion of Athens with Jerusalem, no Magna Carta and no West as we understand the term. Especially if you accept G.K. Chesterton’s claim, in the profound and moving seventh chapter of The Everlasting Man, that there was a deep, fundamental, essential difference between the domestic rooted family-oriented paganism of Rome and the hard, pessimistic, baby-sacrificing paganism of Carthage, and that the triumph of Christianity depended in significant measure on there being a Roman Empire, that created an open, cosmopolitan, decent, society with ideals nobler than worship of the state and material success all around the Mediterranean from Judea to the pillars of Hercules.

Some might take its role in the triumph of Christianity as an argument for Carthage not Rome winning their long struggle, which only really ended with the lopsided Third Punic War after which Cato the Elder’s grim and persistent “Carthago delenda” was put into practice. (Again, apparently what he actually kept saying was “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” which is too long and grammatically complex to be pithily cited.)

Chesterton took the opposite view, to the point of thinking there was something more than merely accidental about Rome’s victory. The religion and spirit of Carthage was dark, pessimistic and brutal and a world in its image would I think have been far worse than one in that of Rome for all its failings. But however you see it, surely the fact of Rome’s victory was of enormous significance to world history since.

So yes, once again, war matters, and so do apparently minor obscure battles. For instance, if things had gone differently when some 450 ships clashed on March 10, 241, nothing would have been the same afterward.