Book Review: The Sword of Carthage by Vaughn Heppner

                                       The Sword of Carthage

Melquarth portrait on Phoenecian Coin

Phoenecian Coin Bearing Portrait of Melquarth



The Sword of Carthage, by Vaughn Heppner, tells a tale of the first Punic war through the eyes of Hamilcar Barca, the father of Hannibal.

In writing The Death of Carthage, my novel of the second and third Punic wars, I naturally tried to learn all I could about the first Punic war, but somehow it remained shrouded in mist. I could not wrap my mind around it. All of that changed when I read The Sword of Carthage. Vaughn Heppner brings ancient Carthage alive and paints in bold strokes a fine portrait of the city, its culture and it’s struggles with its deadly enemy, Rome.

It is said that Rome worshipped Mars while Carthage worshipped Mammon. While that has some truth to it, it is an oversimplification. Carthage had a complex cast of Gods. One was Baal, and Baal had a consort-Tanit. Tanit is also associated with Ishtar, the goddess of love. Ishtar is similar to the Greek Goddess Aphrodite and to the Roman goddess Venus. But the Carthaginians also worshipped Melquarth whose name translates literally to King Of The City, and who  bears a great resemblance to Hercules. Melquarth was admired by the more warlike among the Carthaginians. Hamilcar Barca believes that he is the chosen of Melquarth.

In the Sword of Carthage, young Hamilcar Barca, influenced by his uncle Malchus, longs to become a soldier. His father, Ithobal, a Suffete and a very successful merchant adamantly forbids it.  He hires Bromilcar, a priest of Tanit, to tutor Hamilcar, and forbids any encouragement of military ambition. Ithobal’s father had been a great  general, but was killed by an elephant in the war against Pyrrhus and Ithobal despises the whole notion of military force. But Hamilcar comes under the influence of Cimon, an old Macedonian soldier who guards  his father’s estate and he becomes enthralled with Cimon’s war stories. Ithobal is furious when he learns of Hamilcar’s military ambitions.

Soldiers are born in pigsites and mountain shacks.” He tells Hamilcar. “Cunning men buy them with gold and high sounding slogans. Only a fool needlessly risks his flesh.” Ithobal sets out to prove the point to his son. He dismisses the aged Cimon from his service and tells him that he will see that he never finds work again, but then offers him double weight gold shekels to flog the boy. Cimon, knowing that he will be destitute otherwise, reluctantly complies.

Ithobal tell his son that the only two careers open to him are priest and merchant. While Hamilcar shows some aptitude for both occupations, he never gives up his desire to become a soldier.

When Hamilcar is fifteen his father dies and Hamilcar believes that his father was poisoned by his step-mother Elissa and the evil priest Bromilcar who has become Elissa’s lover. Bromilcar marries Elissa, and by a decision of the Suffete, Hamilcar become’s Bromilcar’s ward until the age of 21. Bromilcar continues to interfere in Hamilcar’s attempts to achieve a military career. Hamilcar also suspects that Bromilcar wants to find a way to get rid of him in order to get his inheritance. Bromilcar sends Hamilcar off on a trading mission and and it becomes clear to Hamilcar that when they reach their destination, the caravan master will sell Hamilcar into slavery, a fate that Hamilcar evades by bribing Bromilcar’s Celtiberian guards.

Meanwhile the Romans are wreaking havoc. They defeat the Carthaginians at the battle of Agrigentum, driving them out of most of Sicily, and have dealt them several naval defeats. The Roman Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus has invaded north Africa with eight legions, and is laying waste to the countryside and conquering allied cities. Libyan and Numidian allies are deserting Carthage in droves.

When all the other Carthaginian generals reject Hamilcar’s services in deference to the increasingly powerful Bromilcar, He manages to attach himself to the aging alcoholic general Bostar, impressing him by taming a huge savage elephant that no one else had been able to handle. He convinces Bostar that the only possible salvation for Carthage lies in hiring Spartan mercenaries, and, indeed, the day is saved, at least temporarily, by the leadership of the Spartan king Xanthippus.

The Sword of Carthage is superbly researched and seems to weave every shred of evidence available into a convincing and exciting narrative. Anyone interested in the Punic wars will eagerly devour this book.


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