Ancient and modern

Can the UK avoid a Carthaginian Brexit deal?

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

31 October 2020

9:00 AM

The term ‘Carthaginian’ is often used of the EU’s attitude to post-Brexit trade negotiations with the UK, i.e. as if the UK were Carthage, and Brussels were Rome.

One of the few safe harbours on the dangerous North African coast, Carthage with its superb fleet had been a trading power for centuries when, shortly after Rome became a republic (509 bc), it recognised a potential rival and signed a treaty of friendship. But three more treaties later, everything fell apart in two devastating defeats, the first over Sicily (264-241 bc) and the second after Hannibal’s failed revenge assault (218-201 bc).


Rome imposed a heavy 50-year peace settlement: the surrender of Carthage’s whole fleet but for ten triremes, a gigantic indemnity to be paid out over 50 years, Carthage to launch no military assaults outside its own territory, and Rome’s ally in the region, Numidia, to keep any Carthaginian territory it captured. But that was as nothing compared to what was to come.

Despite disputes, Carthage fulfilled its obligations and the treaty held. But when it expired, a war between Carthage and Numidia in 150 bc gave Rome the excuse to finish off Carthage for good, urged on by Cato the Elder repeatedly declaring delenda est Carthago (‘Carthage must be destroyed’). Carthage in despair sent embassy after embassy, meeting every condition Rome imposed on it, only to find a yet harsher one in return. Rome then instructed Carthage to surrender all its weapons. That done, it demanded it hand over the city to be razed to the ground. Carthage refused and fell, after heroic defence, in 146 bc.

If M. Barnier really understands what it means to say that the UK is sovereign, there is at least a chance of a non-Carthaginian deal. Historical note: the story that Rome poisoned Carthage’s territory by sowing it with salt is fiction. The land was distributed among local farmers and Italians. Its harbour being so valuable, Julius Caesar began rebuilding it 100 years later. By the 2nd century ad, it had a flourishing population of half a million and was a centre of early Christianity. And the EU in 100 years’ time? One with Nineveh and Tyre?

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