Chickpeas have been a part of mankind’s agricultural folio for thousands of years. You might know them better as “garbanzo beans,” although the exact etymology of that name is, for the moment, beside the point.
Like any legume, the chickpea has many different variant species. Some are naturally-occurring, some the result of careful cross-breeding. Today, this cross-breeding is conducted to maximize crop yield by breeding strains of chickpea plant that show a resistance to blights, pests, pathogens, etc. This was not always the case. In ancient Carthage, for example, they might have perfected a pulse that packed a little more punch…
The other meaning of pulse, btw:
pulse: (1) the edible seeds of various leguminous plants, for example chickpeas, lentils, and beans. (2) the plant or plants producing pulses.
The Carthaginian Empire was wealthy, scientifically advanced, and always up for losing another war to Rome. Over a period of 118 years (264-146) Carthage fought, and lost, three wars with Rome. The consequences were increasingly severe with each defeat, culminating in 146 BC when the Roman army burned Carthage to the ground.
When told like that, the story of the three Punic Wars makes Carthage sound more like a pesky nuisance than a serious threat. Perhaps some saw her that way. But not Cato the Elder, who ended any speech on any subject with the same exhortation: “Carthage must be destroyed.”
“Punic” is an adjective that means “Carthaginian” and comes to us courtesy of our Roman friends. Because Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers, Rome called Carthaginians “Poenici” (an earlier form of “Punici”) or simply “Poeni” for short.
The Carthaginians were nothing if not resilient. Following the First Punic War, Carthage bounced back in a big way. In 221 BC, a promising 26-year-old called Hannibal was named the supreme commander of Iberia. Two years later he besieged Saguntum, and before his thirtieth birthday he was leading an army of more than 100,000 troops and 37 war elephants. They swept through the Pyrenees, crossed the Alps, and spent the next fifteen years tromping around the Italian peninsula: wreaking havoc, sowing discord, and causing considerable strife for Rome. Hannibal gained legendary status as he routed the Roman armies with ingenious ambuscades. Indeed, he is still considered to be one of the greatest military strategists of all time.
They might have called their city “Puny,” but Rome had good reason to fear the might of Carthage, their North African rival. This empire packed a punch, a seemingly inexhaustible energy that fueled a fearsome fighting force even when heavily outnumbered, that powered Punic pachyderms through treacherous mountain passes in the middle of winter, that carried Carthaginian quinqueremes (warships) across the waves of the known world, three hundred oarsmen rowing as one, tirelessly, ceaselessly, indefatigably.
What could be the source of this indomitable vitality, this superhuman strength that characterized an empire? Many attributed it to the religion of the Carthaginians who did unspeakable things to win the favor of their vile gods. But were those stories even true? Savages engaging in ritual child sacrifice…that smacks of propaganda. After Hannibal’s fifteen-year tour of destruction, Rome desperately needed to unify the fractured and discontented Italian peninsula. Many Roman cities defected to Hannibal and his legendary army, but the Romans excelled in siege warfare. Following in Hannibal’s wake, Rome besieged her own cities, starving them back into submission.
No, the stories of Carthaginian child sacrifice seem to be little more than blood libel: a reason to unite against Carthage and an excuse to wipe her off the map. If such practices were a part of Punic religion, no reliable record remains. The Great Library of Carthage would have contained that kind of information, and one can imagine that it would have made a heroic spectacle to return to Rome with the damning evidence in hand. Such was not the case.
At the end of the third Punic War, as the Romans razed Carthage, the Great Library was opened up and pillaged like everything else. Evidently Rome saw little that interested her as the contents of the library were doled out like trinkets to appease the Numidian Kings who had allied with Rome against Carthage.
Everything was given away, with one notable exception: the works of a Carthaginian author named Mago. His 28 books on agriculture were carefully carried back to Rome to be studied by her best and brightest.
Why? Why save a collection of Punic texts on something so banal as agriculture? The answer, in a word: hummeth.
Hummeth. Tastes like hummus, works like methamphetamine. It explains it all: the resilient empire, the superhuman strength, the drive, the stamina. The recklessness. Ain’t no way an elephant is going to cross the Alps in wintertime…unless that elephant is spun to the hubs on hummeth.
The secret lies in the chickpea genome. Normal chickpeas + tahini + lemon = hummus. But with some slight modification to a key gene in the chickpea, we can stimulate an organic chain reaction by simply adding a source of fatty pinoresinols (i.e. ground, hulled sesame seeds) and an acidic catalyst (i.e. lemon juice). Thus: modified chickpeas + tahini + lemon = hummeth.
We know from other writings that there was once a species of chickpea known as the “Punic chickpea,” but no strains survived the collapse of the Carthaginian Empire. Surely this was the knowledge the Romans hoped to find in Mago’s agricultural texts! Imagine Roman legions, fueled by hummeth, conquering the known earth without need to rest or sleep! Yes, their teeth would be bad, but dental hygiene was pretty poor in those days anyway.
For now, the Punic chickpea remains the stuff of legends, as does hummeth. But someday someone will unlock that genetic code. And the world will be at his (or her) feet.
Oh, and Carthage must be destroyed!