Dead Links One – Mago of Carthage

146 BCE: Carthage is burning. After three years and a war waged reluctantly by the people of Carthage and rigorously by the people of Rome, the great African city was collapsing into rubble and embers. For nearly a hundred years, Carthage had countered Rome at every turn, there around every corner as Rome expanded her reach from the village by the side of the Tiber to a conglomeration of cities throughout the Italian peninsula and beyond. The city that had tormented Rome by her proximity was no more.

Once the city had formally surrendered, and before she was put to the torch, she was ransacked, and its population was raped, murdered, and enslaved (or at least two out of three). There is a remarkable article breaking down this systematic razing of a city that was part of the regular modus operandi of the Roman army, but I can’t find it at the moment (*). Carthage’s library was gifted to the kings of Numidia – Massinissa’s sons, Gulussa, Mastarnable, and Micipsa (obviously, these were latinized versions of their names in Numidian) – as partial payment for service as allies of the Romans during the siege. However, one book was kept back from this gift to Numidia, on explicit command of the Senate: the agricultural treatise of Mago of Carthage (1).

Written in the Punic language anywhere from the 6th century BCE down to the 4th, it was 28 books (read: scrolls) on farming techniques (2), and, one could argue, the collected cultural knowledge of the peoples of North Africa. It is understood that it was brought back to Rome and, at the expense of the Senate, translated into Latin by Decimus Junius Silanus after the fall of Carthage in 146 BC (3). There was also apparently an abridged Greek translation completed by Diophanes of Nicaea around the same time. This treatise, saved from the fires of a dying city above all others for Rome, no longer exists. And here’s the worst part: neither do the first Latin and Greek translations of it.

What was in it that Rome demanded it be returned and translated at its own expense?Was the Senate hoping this treatise would teach them how to maximize agricultural output for a growing city population? Rome’s proverbial bread basket did not remain Italy for long. The population of the peninsula grew too quickly for it to feed itself, and the city had been trading and importing grain from Sicily and North Africa for some time before the fall of Carthage.  Did they feel that it could perhaps hold the key to agricultural success in Africa itself? Despite being an enemy of Rome, was Mago considered a great scholar of the ancient world? Did he write well, poetically, beautifully or badly, comedically, clumsily? Did Rome know that his work was prized by the Carthaginians, and so took it to deal a last twist of the knife to the city itself? So many questions!

Mago’s treatise is lost, but it is quoted in the remains of four other works that we do have – insofar as any ancient writer utilized another’s work, it was not quoted verbatim so much as referenced in a paraphrasing or anecdotal way: Columella’s De Agricultura (4), the Historia Naturalis of Pliny the Elder (5), Varro’s De Re Rustica (6), and fragments of Gargilius Martialis (the biography of Alexander Severus in the Historia Augusta is sometimes attributed to him) (7).

But here’s where it gets even more interesting. Let’s look at the chronology so far:

  • Mago writes his treatise on agriculture in Punic somewhere between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE
  • Carthage is destroyed in 146 BCE (mid-second century) and the treatise taken to Rome to be translated by Decimus Junius Silanus into Latin and, around the same time, by Diophanes of Nicaea into Greek
  • Varro was a 1st century BCE Roman writer who lived during the fall of the Roman Republic and into the reign of Augustus
  • Columella was a 1st century CE Roman writer who lived during the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors and died around the same time that Vespasian took over
  • Pliny the Elder was another 1st century CE Roman writer and admiral, who likely died during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE that buried Pompeii and Herculaneum (not selflessly; he was trying to get his ship closer to observe the volcano)
  • Gargilius Martialis lived in the 3rd century CE and wrote about horticulture, botany, and medicine

We’re looking at two to four hundred years between when Mago wrote his treatise and Carthage was destroyed, another 50 or so years from when the treatise arrived at Rome to when Varro wrote about it, another century from when Varro wrote about it and when Pliny and Columella referenced it, and a further 200 years before Gargilius Martialis got a hold of it. Oh yeah, and another 600 years after that before the first extant manuscript of any of these authors’ work can be dated to the 9th or 10th centuries CE and the Medieval period. That’s a separation of what, six or seven degrees from original to what’s available to researchers today?

But here’s my biggest question: more so that the tantalizing potential of what could have been in Mago’s work for the Romans to save it in the first place, why does the only contemporary account of the fall of Carthage not mention it at all? Polybius was a young man from Megalopolis in Greece who was taken to Rome as a hostage (a normal way for the conquering power, in this case Rome, to maintain control over a recently conquered place was to take high-profile hostages where, although they were treated well, it was understood that any action by the conquered city against Rome would mean their executions), and he was taken in and befriended by the Aemilii Paulii family, famous for their crop of conquerors. Aemilius Paullus, son of the Aemilius Paullus who died at the Battle of Cannae against Hannibal, conquered Macedonia. His son, Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, was active in Spanish campaigns in the second century BCE. And the son of Scipio Africanus, who put an end to Hannibal’s ambitions at Zama in 202 BCE, was Scipio Aemilianus, the man who gave the order to finally burn Carthage to the ground fifty-six years later. Polybius was with Scipio Aemilianus at Carthage (or shortly thereafter), and was an eye-witness to it all.

Polybius’s history of “how and by what system of polity the whole world was subjected to the single rule of Rome” (8) – again, available in its earliest form as a palimpsest, a single page reused for another text, from the 10th century CE, and as a complete manuscript dating from the 11th century CE (9) – is one of the primary sources that modern historians use to understand the Roman world during the Republican period. The fall of Carthage was a seminal moment, not only for the survivors of Carthage itself, but for Rome, as the last major Mediterranean power that could blunt its drive to Empire was reduced to ash. Polybius’s friend and former student, the general overseeing the destruction of the city, would be hailed as a hero at Rome when he arrived for his Triumph, at approximately the same time Mago’s treatise likely reached its translators. And yet, it is never mentioned.

Polybius was an industrious researcher, following goat-paths into the mountains to track Hannibal’s course over the Alps with his army and elephants from decades before. More importantly, as tutor to Aemilius’s family, he had access to the libraries of Rome and the archives of the family itself as he was writing his Histories. And yet, he never mentions Mago’s book.

So far as I can tell – though more work is required to confirm this beyond a doubt – the first time Mago’s book is mentioned as a survivor of the fall of Carthage is in Pliny the Elder, who wrote his Historia Naturalis more than two hundred years later. To offer some perspective, this is the equivalent of the knowledge that Napoleon loved Josephine being made public for the first time 23 years from now. I know that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so I can only guess at why Pliny’s work is the first mention of the honour paid to Mago by the Roman Senate when they translated his book. But as a known unknown, the importance of Mago’s agricultural treatise is clear (10).

For now, I’m going to follow up with Varro (once the Loeb edition I ordered arrives), Appian’s Punica, and dig deeper into Richard Miles’ giant book of a history of Carthage. In the meantime, look forward to my next foray into this blog series in two weeks’ time.



works to be found and cited

(1) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18.5 translated by Karl Friedrich Theodor Mayhoff, 1906 – igitur de cultura agri praecipere principale fuit etiam apud exteros, siquidem et reges fecere, hiero, philometor, attalus, archaelaus, et duces, xenophon et poenus etiam mago, cui quidem tantum honorem senatus noster habuit carthagine capta, ut, cum regulis africae bibliothecas donaret, unius eius duodetriginta volumina censeret in latinam linguam transferenda, cum iam m. cato praecepta clarissimae familiae d. silanus. sapientiae vero auctores et carminibus excellentes quique alii illustres viri conposuissent, quos sequeremur, praetexuimus hoc in volumine, non in grege nominando M. Varrone, qui lxxxi vitae annum agens de ea re prodendum putavit.

(2) Wikipedia article on Mago (agricultural writer), accessed 22 July 2017 at 13:55 EST.

(3) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 18.5 (as above)

(4) Columella, De Agricultura, 1.1.18, 3.12.5, 4.10.1, 6.1.3, 6.37.3, 9.14.6, 9.15.3, 12.39.1, 12.46.5; Columella, De Arboritus, 4.10.1

(5) Pliny, Nat. Hist. 17.63-64, 17.80, 17.93, 17.128, 17.131, 18.5, 18.35, 18.97-98, 21.110-112

(6) Varro, De Re Rustica, 2.1.27, 2.5.18, 3.2.13

(7) Wikipedia article on Quintus Gargilius Martialus, accessed 22 July 2017, 14.:01 EST.

(8) Polybius. The Histories. (translated by W.R. Paton). Vol. VI. Loeb Classical Library: Harvard University, 1927, p.455

(9) Polybius. The Histories. (translated by W.R. Paton). Vol. I. Loeb Classical Library: Harvard University, 1922, pp.xv-xvi

(10) Famous quote of Donald Rumsfeld, former US Secretary of Defense, delivered in 2002 during a Department of Defense news briefing.


Loeb Classical Library editions of Varro, Pliny the Elder, and Polybius, among others.

Eckstein, Arthur M. Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. University of California Press, 1995.

Mattern, Susan P. Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate. University of California Press, 1999.

Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Allen Lane UK, 2010

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The Roundup #65

It’s been a strange and unusual week for the archaeology news that I follow. Space archaeology, exhumations of modern artists, and a bit of stuff from the History Boys at the Daily Xtra. Enjoy!

From the Daily Xtra:

A feature piece on titillating narratives and the prevalence vs acceptance of lesbianism in the Roman Empire.

From ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives:

An update on the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Leptis (or Lepcis) Magna, home of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (along with a few other people throughout the ages).

From the Royal Ontario Museum blog:

A bit of modern archaeology following a single-use water bottle across the world. Scary stuff!

From the CBC:

Salvador Dali’s body has been exhumed so as to test his DNA and compare it to that of Pilar Abel, who is claiming she is Dali’s daughter. As an extra bit of fun that the artist no-doubt would have enjoyed, it was discovered that his moustache is still in its iconic 10-past-10 position.


A 2,700 year old reservoir has been discovered in Israel, with human figures and other artistic representations carved into its walls.

The potential eruption of Ol Doinyo Lengai, a volcano in Tanzania, could damage or even entirely destroy a set of 19,000 year old human footprints. Rest assured, the more famous Laetoli footprints from 3.7 million years ago are some distance away.

An eighth or ninth century fishing weir has been identified in the Thames estuary, helping archaeologists map the shoreline and erosion over the last thousand or so years.

The arrival of early humans in Australia has been pushed back a further 10,000 years after excavations in Madjedbebe in Northern Territory yielded stone tools dated to 65,000 years before the present. Now that’s quite a walkabout.

Faint drawings, so far only visible in sunlight – even a camera hasn’t been able to capture them yet – have been identified in the Orkneys at the site of the Ring of Brogdar, a set of standing stones and a nearby settlement.

Archaeologists have begun a 4-D mapping project of the International Space Station, which has been continually occupied since 2000, to develop an understanding of astronaut (read: human) culture in space.

From the Smithsonian:

A World War II Enigma machine with three rotors (the ones with four are rarer and therefore even more valuable) was bought at a flea market in Romania and purchased for $114 USD recently sold for over $50,000 US at auction to an anonymous bidder.

Dead Links – Introducing a new blog series

A six month hiatus from regular posting on this blog should be explained in all honesty.

I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to introduce you to my new project: a bi-weekly series called Dead Links.

Dead links, in the the world of the internets, are URL links that become broken, irrelevant, or otherwise unavailable over time (so says the Wikipedias). This is also called ‘link rot’, but I admittedly didn’t want to start what sounds like a study on trench foot, so Dead Links it is!

In the study of the Ancient World – or the study of any history at all – we are dependent on primary sources and other contemporary evidence to flesh out and lend credence to our work, as well as keep our occasionally wild interpretations grounded in some degree of reality. These are called extant sources (from the Latin extantem, the accusative singular participial form of extans, the third declension noun meaning “existing” or “standing out”), meaning that these sources are active and continuous.

However, as many historians know, there are a myriad of sources that we know did exists and would afford a wealth of new knowledge and perspectives if only they existed still.

This once-was-but-is-no-longer material is the focus of my new project. Every other week, I will post a summary introduction of the various materials I’m researching and update the bibliographies for each as my research goes further in depth than, say, a Wikipedia article. Ideally these will be part of a much larger cohesive project, but for now a post every fourteen days should keep me on the straight and narrow. Academic rigour, what?

My first four posts will be about the lost agricultural treatise of Mago of Carthage, the tantalizingly lost correspondence between Aristotle and right-hand-man to Alexander the Great, Hephaestion, the Sybilline Books, and the embalmed body of Alexander the Great himself. Watch for them, and enjoy!

The Roundup #64

In this week’s roundup, there’s a lot outside my usual fare – more New World than Old. But I’m glad to see that archaeological work carries on in the face of the Trump-Russia-GOP-HealthcareBill stressors. Enjoy!

From the CBC and Le Devoir:

A live cannon ball has been discovered in Quebec City during routine construction work. Neither the construction workers nor the archaeologist called in to remove it realized it still had a charge right away, and then munitions experts from CFB Valcartier were called in to safe it.

From the CBC:

Unmanned submersibles will be sent into Lake Ontario to find the models of the Avro CF-105, the “Arrow”, that were shot into the late in the 1950s following the closure of the Avro interceptor program. Not the prototypes, mind, but models of them.

From Archaeology News Network:

Ahh, the joys of pre-industrial recycling programs! Some of the writings of Hippocrates have been discovered in a palimpsest manuscript with Biblical text in a monastery in Egypt.

From the Smithsonian:

Hiding in plain sight, figures supposedly painted by Raphael shortly before his death in 1520 have been identified in the frescoes in the Hall of Constantine in the Vatican.


Excavations continue at Tintagel in Cornwall as archaeologists learn more about the locals who lived around the castle.

A Neolithic burial mound has been identified in England between Avesbury and Stonehenge.

A Roman mosaic floor – with a unique herringbone design, also called opus spicatum – has been discovered in a residential part of Alexandria.

Researchers from the Kumamoto University have announced a new theory about moveable set design in Greek theatres.

More evidence of Denisovan culture existing longer than previously thought as a well-worn baby tooth has been discovered that is 50,000 to 100,000 years older than previously identified fossils.

And the ritual sacrifice and burial of a wolf has been identified in Mexico, part of ongoing work into the Aztec culture that existed there before the arrival of the Spanish.

The Roundup #63

It’s been a six month hiatus from my weekly archaeology roundup (more on this later), and I’m happy to be getting back into the swing of things. Here is your roundup for the first week of July 2017. Enjoy!


Evidence from the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme show the remains of the domus of Helena, mother of Constantine the Great and a saint of the Catholic church.

As with so many subject peoples, it appears that the Canaanites took on some of the social customs of the Egyptians who conquered them.

No wonder Rome is building its Metro line C around this: the barracks of the Praetorian Guard have been discovered and are being preserved during construction of the new transit line.

And more delays for the beleaguered line C, this time from the recently discovered remains of a burnt-out building near the Aurelian Wall.

Work is ongoing at a site in Peru called Montegrande where nearly a thousand years of history is being sifted through and documented.

From the Guardian:

I saw this in other places, but the Guardian – as is so often the case – says it better than others: research into the composition of Roman concrete shows that, by incorporating sea water into the mixture, the chemical reaction has made it a stronger and more durable material than modern concrete.

From the Atlantic:

Nothing says ‘god-loving’ like a giant religious conglomerate in the US that does horrible things to people, and now they are doing horrible things to things: after collecting more than $3 million USD of conflict antiquities, Hobby Lobby must pay that amount as a fine and forfeit the items. The best part? The title of the case: The United States of America v. Approximately Four Hundred Fifty (450) Ancient Cuneiform Tablets; and Approximately Three Thousand (3,000) Ancient-Clay Bullae.

The Roundup #62

The world may not have ended on Friday with the inauguration of Idiot Boy, but it sure feels like it did. “Alternative facts” are now a thing (I guess we’ve moved on from #fakenews because the new Administration doesn’t yet have control of the media). On Saturday, something like three million people marched in protest across all seven continents (yes, there were even people in Antarctica protesting the sorry state of affairs in the US right now), and that gave hope to a large number of people who do really feel the world they know may be coming to an end.

In other news, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/The Islamic State destroyed the Tetrapylon in Palmyra after retaking part of the city. And a couple of idiots tried to sneak in to the Colosseum and fell four meters.

Otherwise, here’s this week’s roundup. Enjoy!


The skeleton of a horse has been discovered near the Colosseum in Rome, likely dating from the High Middle Ages.

At a hill fort excavation in southern Scotland, archaeologists feel they may have identified the royal seat of the ancient kingdom of Rheged.

A fortified gatehouse at the entrance to a copper mine has been discovered in Israel.

An inscribed pendant has been discovered at Sobibor extermination camp in Poland.

An unusual stone found in Croatia may have been kept as a curiosity by Neanderthals living there at the time.

From the CBC:

Evidence from the Bluefish Caves in Yukon Territory in Canada may reveal the site to be the oldest in North America.