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Mago's Treatise on Agriculture
Although they were best known as traders and navigators, the Carthaginians were also, after a certain period at least, highly expert farmers. Various references and notes in Greek and Roman authors such as Diodorus Siculus, Polybius and Ennius state plainly that Carthaginian agriculture was in a prosperous condition. That the Carthaginians looked on the improvement of agriculture as a real science is proved by the existence at Carthage of several highly renowned works on agriculture. The best known of these was unquestionably that of Mago, which was known, appreciated and copied by the Greeks and Romans, as it was later by the Byzantines and the Arabs. This monumental work in twenty-eight books was the only one -- of all those saved from the fire which destroyed the libraries of Carthage in 146 B.C. -- to be appropriated by the Romans and accorded the distinguished honour of an official Latin translation. We are told by Pliny the Elder: "After the sack of Carthage, our Senate presented the libraries of the town to the African princes, with the sole exception of the twenty-eight books of Mago, which they decreed should be translated into Latin. However, Cato had already written his own work on the subject. The text was entrusted to scholars learned in the Punic language. The chief part was taken by D. Silanus, a man of high birth." The treatise was also translated into Creek by Cassius Dionysius of Utica.
It goes without saying that nothing has survived of the original work of Mago in Punic ; and ever the Greek and Latin versions are lost. We have in all about forty quotations of varying length from Mago's work, scattered here and there in the work of various Roman authors, principally Varro, Columella, Pliny and others such as Gargilius Martialis. We know that Mago's work covered all branches of agriculture. It is not impossible that he consulted some Greek works on the subject, but his treatise is pre-eminently a native Punic product concerned with farming in North Africa. The surviving quotations mostly deal with cereal crops, vines, olive and other fruit trees, vegetables, the breeding of horses, mules and oxen, farmyard animals, bee-keeping, and the internal organisation of the farm. To give an idea of the style and literary construction of Mago's work (if, indeed, it is possible to discern them from Latin translation), I shall quote some typical passages.
In the section on cereals, for example, there is a recipe for grinding wheat and barley:
The Carthaginians made raisin wine that was very popular with the Romans, and we are fortunate enough to know Mago's instructions for making it:
Finally, here are Mago's instructions on how to select oxen.
It must be admitted that this long description with its remarkably precise choice of words, has a flavour and beauty all its own. It is not difficult to understand why this admirable work of Mago was so famous for so long. Precision, brevity and sobriety as they are exemplified here were, in general, the dominant characteristics of Punic literature. These Phoenicians of the West, although at heart they were closely related to their eastern brothers, knew how to restrain their imagination better than the Orientals. The Carthaginians' imagination was always tempered by their alert intelligence and their outstanding common sense. However, their creative power, sensitivity and feeling, although often veiled, breaks out from time to time through the apparent aridity of style and thought, as we see from the Periplus of Hanno, the extracts from Mago, and even from some of the inscriptions.
In the fourth century A.D. when Punic was
still spoken as a living language, St. Augustine had no reservation in
stating in a letter addressed to the orator Maximus Madaurus that:
"on the word of many scholars, there was a great deal of virtue
and wisdom in the Punic books". This certainly appears to be true of Carthaginian literature
when it is studied from the inside, and not just via the distorting mirror
held up by their enemies and rivals, the Greeks and Romans.