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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