Last Updated on November 29, 2023 by Vladimir Vulic
Carthage is indisputable of key importance to Roman history. The first great imperial opponent of Rome, they took the Romans to the very brink of defeat. The battles in the titanic struggle between the two powers helped forge the Roman legions and navies into the supreme fighting force in the Mediterranean. But the annihilation that befell Carthage after its final defeat by Rome makes it an almost unknown quantity to most students of Roman history.
Therefore any history of the Roman empire perhaps also needs to ask the question, who were the Carthaginians?
Below is a brief history, which might go some way to explaining Rome’s greatest and perhaps most mysterious enemy.
The beginnings of Carthage date back to the Phoenicians, who were a people in the Middle East inhabiting Phoenicia, the region today known as Lebanon.
The Phoenicians established themselves as a sea-faring people early on, dominating much of the sea trade of the Mediterranean.
It was the search for trade in metals like tin, etc that led these early traders to explore the western Mediterranean, even passing through the Straits of Gibraltar. When establishing their bases in the west, the Phoenicians found it of greater ease to found harbors along the African coast, which was not inhabited by as warlike people as the European coast. Lixus was founded along the Moroccan Atlantic coast as early as 1100 BC.
The Spanish port of Gadir (meaning ‘fortress’ in Phoenician, later it was called Gades, today it is Cadiz) was also founded around 1100 BC. So too was the port of Utica along the North African coastline. The coast of Sicily, too, saw the establishment of Phoenician ports as early as the 8th century BC.
Some of these dates are naturally disputed, as the evidence from such early times is very faint. However, it is beyond doubt that Phoenician settlements in the West were established at a very early age.
Phoenician trade is believed to have drawn metals from all across Spain, including the kingdom of Tartessus, which many historians believe to be the distant kingdom of Tarshish mentioned in the Old Testament. But apart from having such near-mythical trade partners, the Phoenicians appear to have extended their trade as far as Cornwall in England.
The date of the foundation of the city of Kart Hadasht, or Carthage as we know it, is not at all a fact. The ancient sources vary from 1200 BC to the middle of the seventh century BC.
But in general, it is thought that Carthage must have been founded sometime between the late 9th century and the middle of the eighth century BC.
An abundance of fresh water and a lagoon rich in fish gave Carthage a head start. Its central position in the Mediterranean also made it an ideal base for sea trade.
As it was Tyre, the capital of Phoenicia, was in permanent decline. With the Assyrians sweeping across the Middle East Tyre was becoming ever more hard-pressed. Carthage appeared by the time of the 6th century to have more and more begun to establish a fleet of its own, although it remained dependent on the Phoenician capital.
The Carthaginian language and religion were inevitably Phoenician. Although in times of crisis, children were still sacrificed to their god Ba’al Hammon, killed by secret rites by the priests, and laid at the feet of the statue of the god, long after the practice had been abolished in Tyre.
Around 550 BC a certain ruler Mago founded a new dynasty at Carthage. With the arrival of Mago Carthaginian foreign policy appears to have changed dramatically. If previously Carthage had tentatively colonized the island of Ibiza on its own, it now took the lead, establishing itself as the dominant Phoenician military power in the western Mediterranean. Although it remained an economic dependent of Tyre, it now acted increasingly independently.
If Mago was a ruler of Carthage, it is perhaps wrong to imagine him as a king. Far more Carthage had a Council of Elders and a People’s Assembly. Though Mago appears to have dominated Carthaginian politics as a ‘tyrant’.
The way through by which ‘tyrants’ were chosen remains obscure. It appears that there was some religious connection, as the Magonid dynasty was a lineage of warlike elected high priests. But it does seem as though they were elected for a limited amount of time and thereafter need to seek re-election. One of Mago’s political achievements was an alliance with the Etruscans against the Greeks. This alliance should last until around the time when Rome expelled the Etruscan kings, for Rome itself now made a treaty with Carthage (509 BC).
Mago was succeeded by his son Hasdrubal, who was elected ‘tyrant’ eleven times. The next successor was Hamilcar, the son of Hasdrubal’s brother Hanno.
Carthage, always trying to rid itself of its opponent, the Greeks, might even have allied with the Persian Xerxes (the accounts are unsure) to defeat the joint foe. The decisive battle of Himera between Carthaginian and Greek forces on Sicily might even have taken place on the very same day that the Greeks met with the Persians in the famous battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC in Greece itself in 480 BC. But the Greeks were victorious in both battles and Hamilcar met his death at Himera.
If truly there ever was an alliance between Persia and Carthage then 480 BC saw the end of it. After Hamilcar died in 480 BC, the dynasty continued with Hamilcar’s son Hanno ‘the Navigator’ up to 440 BC, under whom a large part of Carthage’s African dominions were conquered and more of the Atlantic coast of Africa was explored and settled. Great advances were also made in African inland trade. Meanwhile, Carthage appeared to make an effort to keep itself out of any new wars on Sicily.
If this peace and her newly acquired vast trading empire made Carthage rich, then it also helped rebuild the Carthaginian military forces. By 410 BC Hannibal (son of Gisco and grandson of Hamilcar) was the ‘king’ of Carthage. No sooner was he in power he already set out on a new campaign in Sicily, which in 409 BC ended in the utter destruction of the city of Selinus, ally of the powerful Greek city state of Syracuse. Hannibal achieved true notoriety with the sheer destruction he wrought and with the cruelty with which he slaughtered thousands of prisoners.
It was at the siege of the Greek city of Agrigentum that an epidemic swept through the Carthaginian camp which killed Hannibal.
Hannibal’s cousin Himilco (son of Hanno the Navigator and grandson of Hamilcar) now assumed the reigns of power over Carthage. He was only formerly crowned king in AD 396, but this most likely means that a Carthaginian ‘king’ could only be installed in the city of Carthage itself and so he had to wait to receive his title formally until he returned home from Sicily.
He spent his time in Sicily in an on-and-off war with the great Syracusan tyrant Dionysius until in 396 BC he was disastrously defeated, fleeing Sicily in disgrace with Carthaginian refugees whilst abandoning his remaining mercenary troops to be slaughtered by the victorious Greeks.
Himilco later committed suicide.
The Magonid dynasty itself was, so it seems, not quite finished yet. Mago, another member of this family inherited the title of leader at first. His first task was to try and quell a Libyan revolt that came close to overthrowing Carthaginian rule altogether. Thereafter he set out to Sicily again and later even to southern Italy, to occupy himself with Dionysius. What Mago lacked in military ability he made up for with diplomatic skill. Finally, he fell in the Battle of Cronion (378 BC) in southern Italy against the Syracusan army. Alas, Carthage and Syracuse agreed on a peace.
What is intriguing about this time is that, if earlier ‘kings’ of Carthage, though required to put important decisions to the Council of Elders, had enjoyed almost absolute power. But things after the death of Himilco began to change.
Some argue dramatic change followed immediately after Himilco’s death, but most historians say it was a gradual change thereafter. It appeared to affect Mago’s reign very little. Nonetheless, the aristocracy of Carthage gradually seized more and more power for itself.
Somehow the system appeared to turn back to where it had been before the original Mago came to power as founder of the Magonid dynasty. The Council of Elders increasingly took control of government.
This increased confidence of the aristocracy may well have been brought about by the increasing influx of Greek ideas, as Carthage became more and more sophisticated and ‘Hellenized’.
Generally, Carthaginian society seemed to be changing. Even in its religion, Carthage now came to favor the goddess Tanit over her consort Ba’al Hammon.
After the death of Mago, his son Himilco never came to rule, at least not formally. He died a short time after his father in the plague.
The landowning aristocracy of Carthage needed not to be asked twice to assume power.
The title of ‘king’ or ‘tyrant’ continued in its existence, but it now was of clearly diminished power.
Not to be forgotten in all this is the People’s Assembly, which acted as the deciding party if the aristocratic Council of Elders and the king could not agree on something.
Additional to this there was the Tribunal of the 104, which was a court of aristocrats who would act as the highest court.
As the aristocracy seized more power through the Council of Elders, very quickly two factions emerged. One was led by Eshmuniaton who appeared to command the most support from the aristocrats, the other was Hanno the Great, who being appointed commander of the Carthaginian forces was a military, although no doubt also an aristocrat. In his position as supreme commander, Hanno more than likely occupied the position of ‘king’. Hanno rode on a wave of popular support, as the war with Syracuse was once more renewed and Carthage was gripped by ardent nationalism. His main enemy Eshmuniaton was soon disposed of in the courts, condemned for treason.
Next, he picked up the fight against Syracuse and that old foe Dionysius who died in 367 BC, which soon brought the hostilities to an end.
But soon after an alliance between Syracuse and Tarentum strengthened the Greeks. So much so, that Carthage and the Etruscans made a pact of their own to protect themselves from such increased Greek power.
Peace with Syracuse meant that Hanno could dedicate himself to other conquests. Campaigns were fought in Libya, Spain, and Mauretania.
However, at some point Hanno the Great then was no longer content with his position and tried to overthrow the Council of Elders. The accounts tell that he sought to have them all assassinated. As this mass assassination failed he thereafter attempted to organize a revolt. This attempt also failed. Hanno the Great was executed in a gruesomely brutal fashion, and most members of his family were killed, too. The date of Hanno’s fall is however unknown. Most likely he was overthrown sometime in the 350’s BC.
If the Carthaginian Council of Elders had found a means of creating a powerful general and a powerful king who shared power (perhaps faintly comparable to the two consuls of Rome), then Hanno the Great had tilted this balance by removing Eshmuniaton.
Now, after the death of Hanno the Great, this balance was restored.
In 345 BC the Carthaginians then launched a large-scale military campaign in Sicily. Syracuse was no longer the supreme power it had once been in the Mediterranean. Lots of small powers, war bands, and tribal princes sought to control their part of the island. Into this chaos, Carthage sent a force of 50’000 infantry, backed by cavalry, a large fleet of war chariots, and a large train of siege engines.
However, the Greeks received assistance from Corinth under the able commander Timoleon who drove the Carthaginian forces out. The Carthaginian commander Mago committed suicide rather than face the Tribunal of 104, who he knew would condemn him to death for such failure.
The Carthaginian response was to send forth another army, commanded by two generals named Hasdrubal and Hamilcar, which was defeated at the Battle of Crimisus. Most notably the ‘Sacred Battalion’, the very elite of the Carthaginian army, consisting of three thousand noblemen, was annihilated. The defeat was staggering and ranks among the greatest Carthaginian military disasters. One of the generals, Hasdrubal, was condemned by the Tribunal of 104 and executed.
The great disaster brought about the comeback of the family of Hanno the Great. Public passions ran high and the imperialist powers surrounding the survivors of the Hannonian family gained the upper hand. And so Hanno the Great’s son Gisco was recalled from exile and acceded to the position of melek (king), a title which his son, Hamilcar, should also bear. With the arrival of Gisco on the throne a new peace with the Greeks was soon reached.
The peace that followed saw a further upturn in Carthaginian trade and wealth. With greater wealth came ever more Greek influence and sophistication.
The succession of kings is a bit confusing. Both the succession is not necessarily always clear and the amount of men bearing the same names does not help matters.
In 330 BC Agathocles came to power in Syracuse. He was aided by the Carthaginian general Hamilcar, who was the nephew of Gisco. This Hamilcar however was soon after ousted from his position by the Tribunal of 104 for this very action. Or, as some say, for plotting with the Syracusans to seize control of Carthage.
He was succeeded by Gisco’s son called Hamilcar who after some time of preparation defeated Agathocles at Ecnomus in 311 BC.
But Agathocles, rather than stay in Syracuse to fend off a Carthaginian siege, took his foes by complete surprise by sailing south and landing his troops in North Africa (310 BC).
In a state of panic, Carthage quickly appointed two commanders to fend off the attacker. One was Bomilcar, nephew of the Hamilcar who had made the initial treaty with Agathocles. Despite their joint heritage, Bomilcar’s line of the family is seen to have been in bitter rivalry with that of King Hamilcar, who was still at the head of his army in Italy.
Of the two leaders at Carthage Hanno soon fell in battle. Bomilcar had to retreat, if not flee, before the army of Agathocles.
At such a time of crisis, Carthage reverted partly back to its old ways, sacrificing 300 children of noble birth.
But Agathocles did not possess the forces necessary to attack the well-fortified city of Carthage and instead contented himself in raiding the countryside to bring the territories of Carthage to switch their allegiance to his side.
If King Hamilcar in Sicily did send some troops back to Africa then he retained his main army to continue the siege of Syracuse. He was however captured during one assault and died a gruesome death at the hands of his enemy’s torturers.
And so in 309 BC, the title of melek (king) was passed on to Bomilcar. But as with Hanno the Great, he once more united the position of general and sole leader in his person.
But rather than concentrating on the enemy, Bomilcar put his efforts into an attempt to overthrow the Council of Elders and seize power for himself (309/308 BC).
However, his attempt saw a popular uprising, with the people taking up arms against his troops. Bomilcar himself was captured, tortured, and crucified.
This latest attempt by a Carthaginian ‘king’ to make himself a tyrant was the final straw for the Council of Elders and they abolished the monarchy altogether. The title of ‘king’ was still used thereafter, but was purely honorary and held no constitutional powers.
Power in the future should lie with the Council of Elders and the generals.
The Treaty with Rome – 306 BC
With the Hannonian dynasty gone and the Carthaginian monarchy effectively at an end, the Council of Elders now set about reforming the army. Three commanders were appointed; Hanno, Himilco, and Hasdrubal. Agathocles meanwhile had conquered several important cities around Carthage, had left his army under the command of his sons, and had returned to Sicily to conduct campaigns against Carthaginian territory on that island.
The troops remaining in Africa however were met by the three commanders, each at the head of a separate army, and were heavily defeated.
The port of Syracuse was blockaded by the Carthaginian fleet and Agathocles only managed to hang on due to help from his Etruscan allies who sent their fleet to relieve the harbour in 307 BC.
Meanwhile, with this alliance of the Etruscans and the Syracusans, it was only natural for Carthage to seek an alliance of its own. It found its ally in Rome in 306 BC.
One source points out that Rome and Carthage might indeed have agreed to divide their enemies’ territory between them. Rome would keep any gains made in Italy, whereas Carthage would keep what was won on Sicily.
This treaty established the two powers as eventual masters of the Greek colonies in the south of Italy and Sicily. One last desperate attempt in 281 BC by the Greeks, who called in king Pyrrhus of Epirus almost managed to swing the balance the other way again; Rome was driven back and Carthage lost almost all its Sicilian territory, but for the city of Lilybaeum, when Pyrrhus set over to Sicily. But as King Pyrrhus withdrew, the result was pretty much what had been agreed between Carthage and Rome. Sicily fell almost entirely to the Carthaginians whilst the Romans gained the overlordship of Italy.
However, the episode of Pyrrhus campaigns had shown the supposed allies of Carthage and Rome not overly eager to come to each other’s aid, when the Greek opponent arrived. As Pyrrhus had fought on the Italian mainland, Carthage virtually ignored the danger he posed to Rome. And once he had set over to Sicily, Rome appeared quite content to watch him reduce any Carthaginian possessions. Alas, when the Carthaginians signed a peace agreement with Pyrrhus and even provided him with ships to return to Italy with his forces, they were violating the treaty they held with Rome.
However dubious the deal might have looked, it brought peace. With peace, and the increased Greek influence through its Sicilian colonies, the import of ever more eastern luxuries, and the fostering of especially good political and trade relationships with Egypt, which was dominated by Ptolemaic Greeks, Carthage’s cultural sophistication continued to grow.
So, too, were ever more Greek gods adopted into the Carthaginian pantheon, or at least they were assimilated with appropriate African ones, just as the Romans merged Greek and Latin deities.
The First Punic War
The Reason for War
Around the beginning of the third century BC, Rome controlled Italy. The Roman Republic stood at the head of what could be termed a confederation of Italian tribes, each tied to Rome by its agreement. Carthage in comparison controlled its ‘mainland’ of North Africa, but also its colonies of Sicily (about two-thirds of the island), the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and Corsica. Further, it also controlled important trading posts along the Atlantic coastlines of Morocco, Spain, and Portugal.
The Carthaginians were a well-developed, outward-looking nation of seamen and traders. They traded with the ports of the Mediterranean and entertained diplomatic relations with several powers.
Meanwhile, Rome’s territory was largely agricultural, its nature was far less outward-looking. Just as its territory was based on one united mainland, what fleet it possessed was provided through the Greek cities in the south of Italy.
The Carthaginian peace deals with Pyrrhus and their help in setting his army back over to Italy had most certainly done damage to the relationship between Rome and Carthage.
But what now followed would lead to war between the two.
Had Agathocles of Syracuse made use of mercenaries from Italian hill tribes to fight off the Carthaginians, then at the death of Agothocles a large band of such mercenaries, called the martini (‘men of Mars’, simply seized the town of Messana (today’s Messina) for themselves and used it as a base from which to harass shipping and raid both Sicilian and Italian towns.
Once Hieron, known as Hiero to the Romans, had made himself the new tyrant of Syracuse in 270 BC he asked Rome for help against the Mamertines, offering them control of Messana in exchange for seeing the pirates removed.
Anything which was of advantage to the Greeks was understood as a disadvantage to Carthage. And so the Carthaginian admiral Hanno was immediately sent forth with a fleet to aid the Mamertines against the Syracusan threat. However, the Mamertines were effectively lawless bandits who welcomed help against the Greeks but soon began to resent the Carthaginian ‘occupation forces’ who had come to their aid and who now occupied the citadel of the town. And so, stressing that they were after all Italians, they called on Rome to free them from Carthaginian oppression.
Feeling under pressure to appease their Italian allies in Campania, who wanted to see help extended to their fellow tribesmen in Messana, the Romans intervened. The Roman garrison of Rhegium was sent to occupy Messana.
As it arrived, Admiral Hanno saw little chance of withstanding the superior Roman forces, immediately evacuated his troops, and returned to Carthage. There however he was greeted by outrage at what was seen as a humiliating surrender to Roman aggression.
The tribunal of one hundred and four condemned him to death for treason and he was crucified. Meanwhile, Rome had – although acting against Carthage – worded its decision in such terms that they were still aiding the Mamertines against Syracuse.
It may well have been their hope that their continued war against Syracuse after the occupation of Messana would sufficiently satisfy the Carthaginians.
The Beginning of the War
The war between Rome and Syracuse lasted only one year and cost the king of Syracuse the control of a considerable part of his territory.
It was now that Rome moved upon the Carthaginian part of the island of Sicily. The city of Segesta (close to Palermo) defected from Carthaginian control to the Roman alliance.
Had Carthage until then done little it now was forced to take action by this encroachment onto its territory. Hannibal (son of Gisco) at the head of a mercenary army was sent to reinforce Agrigentum, Sicily’s second-largest city, which the Romans laid siege to. The siege lasted seven months and ended in victory for the Romans, though Gisco was able to withdraw with most of his forces.
The effects of this Roman victory were two-fold. Firstly, many Sicilian cities now dared to break away and switch their allegiance to the Roman alliance. Secondly, Carthage realized that seeking an open battle with Roman forces was not a sound strategy.
Instead, it now changed its approach, seeking to fight more cleverly. Raids were carried out along the coastlines, isolated units of Roman soldiers were attacked, and Roman shipping was harried. If not as glorious as great victories in battle, then this new Carthaginian approach worked. The Roman advance was halted. Some cities returned to Carthaginian control.
The tide swung in Carthage’s favor. In 259 BC a general named Hamilcar defeated the Romans in battle near Paropus, with 3000 Italian soldiers losing their lives.
but Carthage’s successes were not to last for long. Rome had begun building a fleet of 120 ships in 260 BC. In 259 BC it met with the Carthaginians off Mylae. The Carthaginians, commanded by Hannibal (son of Gisco), were heavily defeated, losing 50 galleys, including their flagship.
Politically Hannibal could count on powerful allies in Carthage to sustain his position. But political support was not enough. It wasn’t long before the mercenary force he was commanding in Sardinia grew tired of their leader’s lack of competence and crucified him.
Carthage was hardly defeated by one such blow. But this Roman victory will have gone towards stifling Carthaginian supremacy at sea, no longer letting her fight a highly mobile war, launching attacks at will along the coastlines of Sicily.
Regulus lands in Africa
Next in 256 BC, the Roman consul M.Atilius Regulus launched Rome on an all-out attack. At Ecnomus in Sicily, he assembled a large invasion force with which to set over to Africa consisting of 330 ships and 40’000 men. The Carthaginians became aware of this threat and sent their fleet to take on the Roman war machine. The generals Hanno and Hamilcar (known for their actions at Agrigentum and Paropus) were put in command of this vast force.
At the Battle of Ecnomus, the Carthaginians tried to employ superior tactics. But with their captains not able to perform the maneuvers without their battle line falling into disorder, the Romans won the day, scuttling or capturing over 100 Carthaginian ships.
Regulus promptly landed in Africa and began ravaging the countryside. If Carthage was in serious trouble, then Roman politics now came to her aid. The Roman fleet was largely withdrawn and so were most likely some of the troops. Regulus left with 15’000 legionaries made the best of a far-from-ideal situation, spent the winter in Africa, and defeated a Carthaginian army sent against him in 255 BC at Adys.
Carthage was in real trouble now. Libyans and Numidians revolted, adding to the terrible damage already wrought on the empire by the Romans.
Regulus thought himself in a position of sufficient strength to begin negotiations with the troubled Carthaginians. But his demands were ludicrous. Carthage was to surrender Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, scrap its fleet, and declare itself subject to Roman power.
And so the negotiations collapsed. Carthage now took steps to rid itself of this nuisance. A highly skilled Spartan mercenary commander named Xanthippus was hired to help organize the Carthaginian forces. At the same time, Greek mercenaries were enrolled to provide the heavy infantry Carthage urgently needed to meet Regulus’ legions.
The foreign mercenaries proved well worth the expense. In the valley of the river Bagradas Carthaginian troops, commanded by Xanthippus, met with the forces of Regulus. Faced with elephants, superior numbers of cavalry, and a battle-hardened Greek phalanx, the Roman army buckled and was annihilated. Only two thousand men managed to escape.
Regulus himself was captured, never to be seen again.
The War drags on in Sicily
The threat of the over-ambitious general Regulus had been removed, but Carthage had been dealt a severe blow. Her African territories were laid waste and in Sicily, the war was going badly. Other than for their fortress towns of Lilybaeum and Drepanum they had been swept away by the Roman advance. In 251 BC an attempt to launch a fresh attack on the Romans and regain some Sicilian territory failed abysmally.
In 250 BC Carthage saw a new supreme leader come to power; yet another Hanno. Hanno II, whom the historians also awarded the additive ‘the Great’, making him Hanno II the Great.
Hanno II’s showed little taste for war and so Carthage’s support for its generals in Sicily was far from what it might have been.
Yet in 249 BC Carthage achieved a significant victory when its fleet, commanded by Adherbal, heavily defeated the Romans at Drepanum, scuttling or capturing 96 Roman ships.
But despite such successes, the Carthaginian government showed little enthusiasm for the war. General Himilco who had heroically held out at Lilybaeum and Adherbal, the commander who had just dealt Rome its greatest defeat in the war, were both relieved of their positions. Meanwhile in 247 BC Hanno II led a campaign against the tribes of the Sahara, capturing the city of Thieves.
Bizarrely the Romans, too, somehow lost interest in the war in Sicily. Neither side committed any troops of their own, but far more let their allies do the fighting. No new fleets were built. Carthage’s economy was badly bruised after the invasion by Regulus. Its treasury simply had no money for the war. In this dire time, only one commander showed much determination. Hamilcar Barca. He raided the Italian coastline. And when forced to find other means to trouble his opponents, he dug himself in on top of Mount Eryx and began launching raids into the territory held by the Romans carrying away enough food to sustain his mercenary troops and enough booty to pay them.
The Battle of the Aegetes Islands – Carthage defeated
Rome however was now preparing for one last effort to finish this war. So weary were they however of this war by now, that those proposing this undertaking, had to finance it themselves. A vast personal layout by those parties involved. And a financial risk that would only be repaid in the case of victory.
With this fleet of 200 new galleys, consul Gaius Lutatius Catulus attacked a Carthaginian fleet carrying food supplied to the besieged city of Lilybaeum. This battle off the Aegetes Islands was a complete Roman victory and ended the war. The Carthaginians lost 120 ships, 70 of which were captured by the Romans (241 BC).
Had Hamilcar Barca held out heroically he now could hold out no longer. Cut off from any supplies by sea, they would starve. Carthage could take no more and needed to sue for peace.
But this time they would not be met by impossible demands. Lutatius was a better diplomat than Regulus had proved to be. The peace settlement was indeed to become known as the Peace of Lutatius. The man authorized by the government to negotiate on behalf of Carthage was Hamilcar Barca. The settlement the two commanders reached was reasonable indeed. Carthage faced no limitations on its military forces. She needed to surrender her Sicilian possessions (which consisted of little else than two towns by now anyway). She had to agree to pay reparations to Rome for twenty years – 2’200 Euboean talents.
The Mercenary Revolt
Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War and her loss of Sicily was inevitably going to have a severe impact on her government back home. The rule by the Oligarchy of Carthaginian aristocrats through the Council of 104 had brought nothing but disaster. Sicily was lost, the treasury was empty, the African territories were devastated and its peasants were cruelly oppressed.
Worse still, with the end of the war, Carthage was filled with mercenaries evacuated from Sicily, waiting to be paid off, so they could alas return home. But there was no money.
Fearing that they may become a danger to Carthage itself, they were moved out of the city to the fortress town of Sicca Veneria (Le Kef). Hanno II kept command of the town and now proposed to pay them off, but at a lesser rate than had been agreed. Given that this mercenary army was 20’000 strong this was a dangerous thing to do. The mercenaries arose in mutiny.
They moved toward Carthage and made camp at Tunis, where the Carthaginian government sent General Gisco to try and negotiate with them.
But Gisco was taken hostage and worse still the Libyan peasants, desperately oppressed by Carthage and in recent years also punished with yet higher taxes for their aid to Regulus now joined the mutineers. To some extent, the Numidian tribes joined the uprising.
Rome and Syracuse both declared their support for Carthage. Most certainly they were no friends of the city, but also they wished to see no success of revolt by the peasants which might inspire Italian and Sicilian peasants to do the same. Their support was however not to be by any military means. But trade with the rebels was forbidden. Syracuse even supplied food and money to the besieged city.
Hanno II meanwhile found himself defeated while seeking to relieve the siege of Utica. Essentially this was the last straw and supreme military command now passed to Hamilcar Barca.
The experienced general intervened decisively and attacked the rebels at Utica. Six thousand of them lost their lives as they were beaten back from Utica.
Of the prisoners he took, he granted them the choice of either returning home or joining his army. This display of mercy towards the captives, whilst demonstrating the futility of resistance against Carthage’s armies seemed to work partially. The Numidians indeed changed their allegiance back to their old masters.
But Hamilcar’s approach, it appeared, was also far from successful. Gisco, still a hostage, was tortured to death and officers suspected of defecting to Hamilcar were executed. Worse still, the cities of Utica and Bizerta went over to the rebels. Even the mercenary garrison of Sardinia now changed its allegiance.
Such crises were mirrored in Carthage itself. The aristocracy tried to maneuver Hanno II back into supreme military command. Hamilar Barca meanwhile married the daughter of King Bomilcar, bringing the king onto his side. The Carthaginian constitution seemed to prescribe that if the Council of 104 and the King failed to reach an agreement then it fell to the People’s Assembly to decide. This assembly however simply decided that the army should decide whom it wanted as a commander. It was obvious that the soldiers preferred the experienced commander Hamilcar Barca to Hanno II.
May it seem to make a small difference on the surface, the long-term effects of this occasion were to change Carthage into an empire ruled by a dynasty of military commanders, the Barcids.
The now securely established military commander of Carthage also found the good fortune of successfully baiting a substantial part of the rebel army into a trap and managing to capture two of their leading commanders, Spendius and Autaritus. The leaders were crucified and their army was massacred.
However, Rome now decided that it didn’t like the new style of government emerging in Carthage. Had the mutinous mercenaries on Sardinia offered to hand the island over a year before, then now Rome chose to accept the offer.
In Carthage, the aristocratic Council of 104 managed once more to heave Hanno II back into power, by getting Hamilcar to accept sharing his command with him. With the main rebel force already being crushed, the two commanders now completed Carthage’s victory by defeating the remaining mercenaries. The cities which had joined the rebels were forced into surrender and the Libyan peasants were once again brought to heel.
With the defeat of the first war with Rome and the mercenary revolt in short succession, Carthage’s old order was no longer safely in power. The people it seemed were well and truly sick of their aristocratic leaders. A figure called Hasdrubal, of whom little is known rose to considerable power with the backing of the people. He allied himself with Hamilcar Barca to rid Carthage of the power of Hanno II and the aristocracy. By political means, the two in 238 BC succeeded in reducing the powers of the Council of 104 and also ousted Hanno II from power. Hamilcar Barca was henceforth the supreme commander of the Carthaginian forces.
Either in the same year or the following one, the People’s Assembly arose as the main political body of Carthage, every year electing two leaders to rule over the state. The role of these leaders was, however, purely civilian. The military remained firmly in the hands of Hamilcar Barca.
Another change in the political affairs of Carthage was to be the creation of a separate, military state to oversee all Carthaginian dominions outside of Africa. In effect, this granted Hamilcar Barca huge powers, which held the potential of rivaling, if not even overshadowing, any office in Carthage.
But if Hamilcar Barca succeeded in gaining political power within Carthage, military success was harder to come by. He set sail toward Sardinia, seeking to re-occupy it, for Rome had so far not sent troops. And Hamilcar Barca could effectively claim that it was Carthage’s property, according to the very peace treaty he had negotiated with Lutatius.
The news, however, that Hamilcar Barca was at sea, was still enough to terrify the Roman senate. Immediately war was declared. Carthage was in no position yet to fight another war with Rome. To avoid war, Hamilcar needed to abandon any Carthaginian claim to Sardinia and even agree to an increase of 1200 talents in reparations to Rome. Next Rome went forth and occupied Sardinia Carthage was utterly humiliated and clamoured for revenge.
It was following this debacle, that during a religious ceremony to the god Ba’al, the boy Hannibal Barca swore hatred to any Roman.
Was Rome no doubt gleeful in her victory, then as long as Carthage had men like Hamilcar Barca, she was far from defeated.
And so Carthage now set out to restore her position as a great power by turning her attention to Spain.
Conquests in Spain
Carthage had always had loyal allies with the autonomous Phoenician cities in Spain, however, the Spanish tribes had always been left in peace, retaining their independence. Now though things were set to change. Spain contained a large mineral wealth and so presented a huge prize to any would-be conqueror.
And to Hamilcar Barca, the conquest of Spain would also present a vast kingdom under his command, for everything outside of Africa under the new constitution fell under the sway of the supreme military commander. And so, setting out to conquer what was to be virtually a personal empire, Hamilcar Barca established his base at Gades (Cadiz) and from there went on to gain control of the valley of the river Guadalquivir.
The final control of the valley appears to have been managed in 235 BC. But if the Turdetani, the tribe that occupied this valley which was rich in silver, were quite willing to submit to Carthaginian overlordship, then the neighboring tribes much resented the invaders. So much so in fact that they attacked in 235 BC.
Though they didn’t stand a chance. Hamilcar Barca’s superior troops annihilated their forces. One of the tribal chieftains leading the attack was captured and made an example of. After lengthy torture, his eyes were gouged out and he was crucified. This utter cruelty was no doubt to demonstrate that no resistance to Carthaginian domination would be tolerated.
If the advance in Spain proved promising for Carthage, other events closer to home proved just how weak she still was. In the same year as the conquest of the Guadalquivir valley, 235 BC, in some Italian traders were attacked in the city of Carthage. Rome, concerned for the safety of its merchants, was threatened with war. Once more, Carthage was humiliated and needed to offer its apologies to the Roman senate. War was averted, yet Carthaginian hatred no doubt only grew.
But however humiliating such events might have been, Hamilcar Barca was left to continue undeterred in Spain. One by one the Phoenician cities along the southern coast of Spain were tied into the new territory of Carthage’s Spanish dominion. the cities were effectively brought under Carthaginian control and the immediate outlaying tribal lands were conquered. Soon Hamilcar Barca controlled much of Spain’s southern coastal area.
Worries by the Greek colonies along the north-western coast of Spain then brought Hamilcar Barca’s Spanish adventures for the first time to any serious attention of the Roman senate.
A group of delegates was sent to investigate what Hamilcar Barca was up to in the Spanish wilderness. But the old soldier proved a capable diplomat. He welcomed them kindly, even showed them around the silver mines of which he now held control, and told them that they would serve to pay the vast reparations Carthage owed to Rome according to their peace agreement.
Completely satisfied with such explanations the Roman delegation departed to Rome. Meanwhile, of course, much of the income from the mines was refilling the Carthaginian treasury and also for building a new formidable war machine.
If these conquests proved relatively easy, then moving further north, into the Spanish interior, proved tougher. The Iberian hill tribes were considerably more troublesome opponents. Nonetheless, he pushed on determined to stamp out any opposition. But in 229 BC disaster struck. Confronted by a much larger force of Celtiberians in the valley of the river Júcar, his forces were driven back and later ambushed when crossing the river. Hamilcar Barca drowned in the waters.
Hasdrubal the Elder
But Hasdrubal, Hamilcar Barca’s son-in-law and the very man who had helped Hamilcar Barca into his powerful position after the Mercenary War – and who had by now also acted as Hamilcar Barca’s lieutenant in Spain, was now elected by the military as their new commander in chief.
But Hasdrubal was more of a politician than a military commander. And his different approach brought results by other means. Rather than conquering the Spaniards in battle, he succeeded in getting himself elected commander-in-chief of the Spanish tribes. One of his gestures in securing this position was to marry a Spanish princess.
But famously Hasdrubal also founded the City of Carthago Nova (Cartagena) which possessed a superb harbor and would prove an invaluable asset.
Another interesting point to mention is that Hasdrubal also modeled himself as a king. His coins show him wearing a crown. Something his predecessor Hamilcar Barca had not done. It demonstrates just how much independence the Spanish territory afforded from Carthage.
With Carthage being substantially subject to Greek cultural influences by now, Hasdrubal can be much understood as a Greek monarch, comparable to the royal houses that ruled Greek dominions such as Macedon, Pergamum, and Syracuse.
In 226 BC Rome agreed on a treaty with Carthage over their spheres of influence in the western Mediterranean. The agreement granted Carthaginian control in Spain up to the river Iberus (Ebro). such an agreement was largely sought by Rome as it was to get embroiled in a war in Cisalpine Gaul and wanted to assure itself of no Carthaginian intervention.
However, one problem was caused by the city of Saguntum. It had an alliance with Rome (or achieved it shortly afterward) and therefore could count on Roman protection. It was, however, south of the Iberus river.
It was a disaster waiting to happen. But under Hadrubal things remained peaceful. However, in 222/221 BC, he was alas assassinated by a tribesman who avenged his crucified chieftain.
Hannibal Barca was the son of Hamilcar Barca – and brother-in-law to Hasdrubal the Elder. He was born in 246 BC and succeeded Hasdrubal the Elder as commander in chief of the Carthaginian military in 221 BC. If Hamilcar Barca had been a hardy, able general and Hasdrubal the Elder had been a gifted politician, then Hannibal’s great ability was that of leading and inspiring soldiers. If he was as determined and able as his father, it was this ability of leadership that made him one of the great commanders of history. And yet Hannibal’s education played a great role in his later achievements.
Trained by a Greek tutor called Sosylus, he had been given full training in the art of warfare comparable to that of Alexander. Together with his two younger brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago, he set out to shake the Roman empire to its very foundations. Hannibal Barca was no man to seek to live beside the Romans he’d sworn to hate as a boy. Spain to him was a mere stepping stone toward seeking Carthaginian revenge from Rome.
However, Rome’s army was the most formidable force in the Mediterranean. A large standing army was backed up by a vast number of reserves of Italian allies which could be called up if necessary. Also, her fleet was four times the size of that of Carthage. More so, with the loss of Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia, Carthage possessed no significant naval bases close to Italy anymore.
A naval campaign against Rome would be very hard, if not impossible to accomplish. The Gauls however had proved in their recent wars with Rome that the Romans were indeed vulnerable to an attack from across the Alps. And the Gauls, so Hannibal thought, could provide the vast numbers of warriors against Rome’s massive armies. Also, the rivalries of various regions and cities with Rome suggested that there might well be uprisings against the ruling power for Hannibal to count on, once he weakened her sufficiently.
The Second Punic War
The City of Saguntum
The Roman treaty with the small city of Saguntum in Spain was a disaster waiting to happen. Saguntum was south of the agreed line between Rome and Carthage – the river Iberus (Ebro). It was obvious as Hannibal’s first target and the most immediate reason for a war between the two great powers. There is little doubt that Hannibal would have attacked it anyway, but an earlier revolt in 222 BC by some of the people of Saguntum against the alliance with Rome, which had been crushed with the help of Roman troops, provided him with the excuse to seek to ‘liberate’ the city.
Apart from that, a war had started between the city of Saguntum and the Spanish tribe of the Turboletae. As commander in chief of the Spanish tribes (just as his predecessor Hasdrubal the Elder had been) he could claim to be obliged to come to the aid of the Turboletae.
His troops set out in 219 BC and began a siege of Saguntum which should last for eight months. It was a long, hard siege, and – much to Hannibal’s disgrace – at the capture of the city his troops slaughtered the population. Rome meanwhile dithered. For one there were some among the senators who quite agreed with Carthage’s explanations put forward for Hannibal’s attack.
On the other hand, Rome was also busy with a war in Illyria. But by 218 BC sufficient anger had grown over the loss of her ally to Hannibal’s attack and Rome sent her delegates to Carthage. When the Roman envoys arrived, their message to Carthage was simple – ‘Peace or war, as you choose.’ With Hannibal Barca the commander in chief of the Carthaginian army, there was no choice. And thus began the Second Punic War.
Hannibal invades Italy
Was it Rome who declared war, or it was Hannibal who should have made the first move? In spring 218 BC he set out from Cartago Nova ahead of a vast army of 102’000 Spaniards and African troops. North of the river Iberus the Spanish tribes though were allied to Rome and put up a determined struggle.
Yet Hannibal pressed on, fighting his way through hostile territory. To everyone’s surprise, he didn’t seek to besiege cities such as Emporiae but instead just kept on moving, driving on into Gallic territory. His losses had been heavy, his troops being almost halved by the time he reached Gaul, but here he could now pass unhindered. Diplomacy over previous years seemed to have paved the way for such peaceful relations with these southern Celts.
However, from reaching the river Rhône onwards, Hannibal had to fight his way forward again. The toll this took on his forces was tremendous, leaving him eventually with only 20’000 infantry, 6 thousand cavalry, and 3 elephants by the time he had descended from the mountains into northern Italy. His force was nowhere near as formidable as when it had started. Yet it had achieved what he had set out to do. He was in Italy, ready to strike at the very heart of Roman power.
In December of 218 BC Hannibal should then deliver the first major blow to Rome, when he defeated a massive Roman army at the river Trebia. In the winter of 218-17 BC, he lost an eye while suffering through the cold of the Po Valley. It was to be the reason for Roman propaganda henceforth often referring to him as ‘the Cyclops’. But nasty words alone would not stop Hannibal. In June 217 BC he won another decisive victory over Rome at Lake Trasimene.
Though if Carthage was advancing into Italy, she was suffering setbacks on other fronts. In 218 BC a commander called Hanno, who was left in charge of the Spanish territories north of the river Iberus was defeated by Cornelius Scipio. Then in the summer of 217 BC, a fleet under Gnaeus Scipio at the mouth of the Iberus river captured a supply fleet for the army of Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal the Younger, which was marching north along the coast. Such victories, although minor, proved that Hannibal was effectively cut off from the outside world.
With Hannibal moving south to Campania the Romans held their breath at their enemy’s next move. Had the Battle of Trasimene killed one consul, Flaminius, it had separated the other, Servilius, from the city of Rome, with Hannibal’s army between the two. Rome now elected Fabius Maximus to be the dictator and to organize the defense against the invader.
Fabius recruited new soldiers and prepared the siege against siege. His measures were not spectacular, yet they were effective. Hannibal did not attempt an assault on Rome of any sort and moved south to Campania, an affluent and fertile region of Roman Italy, with the wealthy trading center of Capua its greatest prize. No sooner did Fabius have a large enough army under his command than he followed Hannibal into Campania. Though he avoided any battle with the Carthaginians.
Instead, he contented himself with reinforcing the garrisons of the Campanian towns and harassing the enemy wherever possible. Hannibal found himself neutralized by a foe who avoided fighting him and who instead contented himself with nullifying any advantage he sought to achieve. Frustrated by this stalemate he withdrew across the Apennine mountains to the region of Apulia to spend the winter of 217-216 BC there.
Given the dire straits Rome had been in, when he took up the office of dictator, Fabius was very successful. Yet his achievements compared unfavorably in Roman eyes to the deeds of the Scipios in Spain. For there Rome was on the attack and the Spanish tribes were rising up against their Carthaginian masters.
With Rome wanting to see more decisive action taken in Italy, in 216 BC Aemilius Paulus and Terentius Varro were elected consuls. Immediately they decreed a mass mobilization and sought to bring the war to a speedy conclusion, rather than playing at Fabius’ tactical games. No fewer than eight legions were raised twice the force of Hannibal’s army. For six months they prepared, whilst Hannibal patiently waited in Apulia for them to make their move. On 2nd August 216 BC, the waiting was over. The two armies met along the river Aufidus, near the little town of Cannae.
Hannibal won a glorious victory, completely defeating Rome’s massive army in one of the most famous battles in military history.
Rome was now in very dire straits indeed. If one considers the losses she had suffered at the battles of Trebia, Trasimene, and Cannae, one can easily deduce that nearly a third of her overall army had been destroyed. Worse still, among these losses were the battle-hardened veterans of the legions. Her forces critically weakened, and an invincible enemy in her very homeland, Rome seemed doomed. The city of Capua now changed sides, opening its gates to Hannibal.
Much of southern Italy now fell into Carthaginian hands. The large, powerful cities or other well-defended strongpoints held out, but much of the land had come over to Hannibal. Naples and Nola successfully resisted Hannibal’s attempts, but the great general will no doubt have retired to Capua for the winter of 216-15 BC in high spirits. Hannibal had reason to be optimistic. Rome’s military might have crumbled under his assault. And the following year would deepen Rome’s crises even further.
In 215 BC Hieron of Syracuse died, to be succeeded by Hieronymus, who broke off the treaty with Rome and changed instead to the Carthaginian side. Mago arrived in Spain bringing reinforcements to deal with the Scipios and the Spanish tribes. The army of Roman general Postumius, 25’000 strong, was annihilated in a campaign against the Gauls of northern Italy, who were allied with Hannibal. Sardinia was in revolt against Roman rule. Alas, King Philip V of Macedon allied with Carthage against Rome. At this very moment in 215 BC Hannibal was at the peak of his power.
The War drags on
Yet the expected Carthaginian knock-out blow against Roman power never came. Rome was now under the leadership of Fabius Maximus again. And once more Fabius opted for a very steady, careful tactic of frustrating the enemy in a game of chess without ever allowing for a battle against the Carthaginian military genius. He continued to pour efforts into defenses rather than into great armies that might do battle with Hannibal. It also showed for the first time how Rome itself had become an industrial and commercial force of its own.
Had it in the past depended on the financial might of Capua, then her loss to Hannibal now would have proven fatal. But now Rome’s own merchant class could help support the Roman war machine. Rome even introduced a new currency, the denarius amid all this turmoil (211 BC), to further emphasize its new role as a financial center. The navy in particular benefited from the money of Roman trade. With Carthage’s navy at sea again and Macedon’s fleet entering the fray, Rome’s dominance at sea was challenged. And it was at sea and in Spain that Rome was still finding hope in some successes.
The Carthaginian admiral Bomilcar achieved virtually nothing. A strong Roman fleet in the Adriatic rendered Macedon a virtually useless ally to Hannibal’s army in Italy. For two years Hannibal tried to overcome the stalemate in Italy. Fabius’ defenses were too strong to allow him to attack, yet his army was too mighty to allow any Roman army to take the field against him.
And so virtually nothing was achieved despite all the promises the victory at Cannae had held. By 214 BC even Saguntum, the very cause for the outbreak of war, had been conquered by the Scipios. Without access to the Bay of Naples, the great prize of Capua was virtually useless. And the Carthaginian fleet, more than anything else needed a port on Italian soil to help supply and reinforce Hannibal’s army.
And so Hannibal turned his back on Capua and instead sought to capture the city of Tarentum. Capua was left to fend for itself, having to face a Roman enemy bent on revenge for its treachery. Only in 212 BC did the city of Tarentum finally decide to come over to Hannibal’s side.
Though not even this came without a price. The Roman commander of the citadel, M. Livius, refused to surrender and continued to hold out. This, in turn, made Tarentum’s great prize, the city’s great harbour useless to the Carthaginian and Macedonian fleet. Most of Sicily too had come over to Carthage. But the fortunes of war were now clearly turning.
The brothers Scipio were rampant in Spain, and Marcellus counter-attacked in Sicily and laid siege to Syracuse. Then in 211 BC Capua and Syracuse fell. But in Spain Carthage now turned the tables, defeating the Scipios in battles, in which the brothers lost their lives, and driving the Romans back across the Iberus river.
Scipio arrives in Spain
If at first, Rome sent a new army under the commander Claudius Nero, he struggled to gain authority over the remaining veterans of the Spanish campaigns who still held loyal to the Scipios. And so, in 210 BC, the young Cornelius Scipio was despatched to Spain to succeed him. It was an appointment that should prove decisive in the war. In 209 BC Scipio pounced on Carthago Nova in a surprise attack by land and sea and conquered it.
This city was one of the jewels in the Carthaginian crown. Its loss meant an immediate drop in prestige in Spain for the Africans. But more so, Scipio found in the city the Spanish hostages which assured the loyalty of the Iberian tribes to Carthage. As he released them he gained their loyalty with one stroke. The tribes now even granted him the title of King which they had earlier affirmed to Hasdrubal and Hannibal.
Hasdrubal the Younger invades Italy
In Italy, too things were dire for Carthage. Tarentum had fallen back into Roman hands in 209 BC. Hannibal had pretty much locked himself up in the region of Calabria. But Carthage and the Barcids were not yet finished. One of the three Carthaginian armies in Spain, commanded by Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal the Younger, now made a bold move, marching north, it crossed the Pyrenees into Gaul where he spent the winter of 208-07 BC before crossing the Alps into Italy.
From one moment to the other, everything had changed. If the two Carthaginian armies in Italy were left to unite, then there would be nothing that could stop them. Perhaps even an attack on Rome might have been possible. Rome itself was weary of war. It had dragged on for years by now. Many of Rome’s Italian allies were playing with the idea of switching sides. The Etruscans in particular were keen on rebellion.
Had the tide been in Rome’s favor against Hannibal, the sudden arrival of his brother Hasdrubal meant the possible collapse of Roman power altogether. Hannibal, hearing of his brother’s arrival, moved north. Hasdrubal was moving south towards him. It now fell to commander Claudius Nero, who earlier had had to make way for young Scipio in Spain, to make history.
His forces were close to Hannibal, meanwhile, those of his consular colleague, Livius Salinator, were barring the way of Hasdrubal the Younger, as he ventured further into Italy. Scipio now left behind only a little detachment, who were to make sure Hannibal’s troops saw them, in order to make the great Carthaginian commander believe that Nero’s army was still present. But with his main army, he took north and joined with the troops of Livius. Hasdrubal’s forces were powerful, but no match for the united legions of Nero and Livius. He was defeated and killed at the Battle of Metaurus (207 BC).
The End of the War
Had Hannibal been within reach of victory over Rome, then the defeat of Hasdrubal the Younger at the river Metaurus turned the tables again. Then in 206 BC Scipio won the Battle of Ilipa, which meant that his conquest of Spain was complete. Scipio was though not a man to rest. In 204 BC he led an invasion force from Sicily to North Africa and landed at Utica.
Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, commanded the defending forces against the invader. His principal ally was the Numidian King Syphax. However, Scipio soon won two victories, the Battle of Utica and the Battle of the Great Plains (both 203 BC). Hasdrubal, son of Gisco, lost his life on the field of battle. King Syphax however fled to Cirta.
In a shrewd move, Scipio now detached a third of his army and sent it in aid of Masinissa, a challenger to Syphax’s throne who had so far been forced to live as an outlaw in the mountains. Together with Roman help, Masinissa’s riders defeated Syphax at Cirta (203 BC).
Carthage’s Numidian ally now became Rome’s ally. The Carthaginian African empire was breaking apart. Scipio, seeking to end the war, now opened negotiations with Carthage. But as the negotiations were underway, news arrived that Hannibal had arrived at Hadrumetum. His aim was to gain control of Masinissa’s Numidian territory, thereby restoring the Numidians back to Carthage and turning the tables on Scipio.
The two great armies met outside Zama, the Numidian capital.
With his victory at Zama, Scipio’s triumph was complete. Yet in his moment of triumph, he did not seek revenge from his enemy. Carthage would have to renounce any claim to territories outside of Africa. In Africa she could keep all but for the territories of Masinissa, who would be granted independence. Carthage’s navy would be allowed to be no larger than twenty ships and she would have to pay Rome reparations of 5000 talents.
Hannibal, Ruler of Carthage
With the end of the Second Punic War, Carthage lost its status as a great military power. It was now effectively a Roman client kingdom.
Hannibal, after an initial period that remains somewhat unclear, found himself pretty much in control of affairs in Carthage. The aristocracy was corrupt and largely discredited, many of Carthage’s natural leaders had found their deaths in the war. What exactly enabled Hannibal to wage any sort of power in these days immediately following the war, is unknown. It seems however likely that Hannibal would hold great influence over the army, even though he was no longer its official commander.
In 196 BC Hannibal was elected as one of the two leaders (suffetes) of Carthage by the People’s Assembly together with another man, who seems to have been either his ally or his puppet.
He now set about continuing the reforms of his father, assuring that all magistrates would be appointed by democratic means. In particular, the finances and some of the law courts had so far remained in the hands of the aristocracy. The Council of 104 was abolished.
Having wrestled control from the aristocrats Hannibal then commissioned an inquiry into the financial history of previous years. The inquiry, rightly or wrongly, produced evidence illustrating corruption and incompetence on a large scale. The aristocrats were forced to pay back the money they were alleged to have either stolen or squandered. Naturally, this would have been the financial ruin of most of them and would have rid Hannibal of his main political enemies.
Meanwhile in the east Antiochus III, King of Seleucia, had conquered from Egypt the territory of Coele Syria which contained the Phoenician homeland. Was Antiochus hostile toward Rome, the links with Tyre assured him friendly relations with Carthage.
The disgraced aristocrats of Carthage now appealed to Rome, alleging that Hannibal was plotting against Rome together with King Antiochus. If this was actually true or not, is unknown.
The Senate, however, appeared all too willing to believe that the hated Hannibal was concocting some devious plan against them. Scipio himself spoke, urging them to disbelieve Carthaginian traitors and respect the independence they had assured Carthage of.
Alas, it was agreed to send three senators – under the guise of negotiators in territorial disputes between Carthage and Numidia – to Carthage where they were to arrange for Hannibal to be ousted from power (195 BC). Hannibal, however, suspected much more serious intent. Fearing, perhaps rightly, that they were coming to arrange his assassination, Hannibal fled the city of Carthage.
He fled to Tyre where he was welcomed as a military advisor to King Antiochus III. With Rome’s victory over Antiochus, Hannibal could no longer be allowed to stay at the court of Seleucia. Instead, he found his way to the courts of other eastern rulers. He ended up at the court of King Prusias of Bithynia, who enjoyed the services of his military expertise for a while, before agreeing to hand him over to the Romans. Before he could be apprehended, Hannibal committed suicide by taking poison (183/182 BC).
The Numidian Problem
With Hannibal gone, one would have thought Carthage’s problems with Rome would be over. However, what emerged now was a flaw in the settlement that had brought an end to the Second Punic War. Carthage was left in control of all of Africa but for the land of the Numidians. And this was to be the source of all the trouble. For Masinissa according to the treaty could lay claim to any land that had belonged to his ancestors.
Now a stream of claims came pouring in, of any ancestral claim Masinissa could dream up. Meanwhile, his Numidian riders conducted raids on the settlements within lands he claimed as his own. Little by little Masinissa started taking over Carthaginian territory.
We know this began before 195 BC, with Hannibal still in charge, as the delegation of senators sent to depose him, had been sent under the pretext of helping resolve this very issue.
However, Rome had little sympathy with any Carthaginian delegations sent to ask for intervention on their behalf. The memory of war was still fresh and Hannibal at the time was aiding Antiochus. And so, for the another three decades, the problems for Carthage should only grow, as Masinissa encroached ever further into her territory.
So successful was Masinissa’s progress that a party established itself in Carthage which actually argued everyone would be best served if Numidia and Carthage were to unite. This party was led by yet another man called Hannibal. History remembers him as Hannibal the Starling. Naturally, this Hannibal enjoyed the support of Masinissa.
However, this apparent friendliness between Carthage and Numidia was not to last. In 155 BC these political allies of Masinissa were expelled from Carthage. One of their leaders, a certain Carthalo, then incited the peasants living under Masinissa’s rule to rise up. He then sought to use them as a peasant army with which to attack Carthage. This was however averted by an intervention by Rome.
The Third Punic War
The fall of Carthage is undeniable. Yet the reasons for the Third Punic War seem unclear. Carthage could not have been any military threat to Rome at all.
One possibility is simply that Rome remained fearful and suspicious of its African neighbor and, alas, decided to rid itself of the possible threat. Another possibility being brought up by historians is that the fear of someone as power-hungry as Masinissa taking over Carthage might have caused Rome to act. A third theory is that Carthage, alike other cities at the time, became a revolutionary hotbed. In the same year as Carthage, 146 BC, the city of Corinth was utterly destroyed by the Romans. This was done to make an example of the revolutionaries. It is deemed well possible that Rome was as worried about revolutionary radicals in Carthage as it was in Corinth.
In any case war it was. It all began as relations between Numidia and Carthage exploded into war (150 BC). Two battles were fought near the city of Oroscopa. The second ended in disaster for Carthage, famine forcing her army to surrender to the Numidians, only to be slaughtered by the Numidians. If this wasn’t bad enough, news then arrived that Rome was mobilizing as a reaction to Carthage’s breach of the peace treaty.
A delegation was immediately despatched by Carthage, virtually begging for Rome not to attack. The city of Utica now came out in favor of Rome, allowing the Roman army under the command of consuls Manius Manilius and L.Marcius Censorinus to land in Africa unhindered (149 BC). While the Roman army marched on Carthage, the delegation in Rome was handing over control of the city to the Romans, if only they spared Carthage.
The rulers of Carthage handed over all the weapons of the city to avert an attack. But it was hopeless. Manilius, encamped outside the city with his legions, let it be known that the Roman senate had decided that Carthage should be destroyed. If Manilius hoped for a simple surrender, then his announcement achieved the exact opposite. The entire city put to producing weapons, to replace those handed to the Romans. When finally Manilius lost patience in waiting for a surrender. His army was ordered to attack but was beaten back by the rearmed Carthaginians.
The Fall of Carthage
And so a siege began. But Carthage proved a hardy opponent. The following year, the two new Roman consuls arrived and maintained the siege but concentrated their efforts on capturing other Punic cities that had remained loyal to Carthage. However, they failed utterly.
Alas, Rome lost patience with such incompetence and elected a new consul to deal with the matter. They chose Scipio Aemilianus, who had so far served successfully as a military tribune in the conflict. Scipio Aemilianus arrived just in time to save L.Hostilius Mancinus, one of the consuls he came to replace, who found himself and some troops trapped by Carthaginian forces.
Immediately after the arrival of their new commander the Romans went on the attack and his siege works started closing in on the city’s defenses. A dam was built across the mouth of the harbor to cut off any supplies that still got in by ships. The Carthaginians, desperate to open up their harbor again, cut a channel, from their military docks to the sea, but the Roman navy outside enforced an effective blockade nonetheless.
Scipio’s forces edged their way gradually into parts of the city. But still no breakthrough occurred. In the winter of 147/146 BC, the last Punic army was defeated, which meant Rome was effectively in control of all the countryside. Spring 146 BC saw the final Roman assault.
Starving and exhausted the defenders could hold them back no longer. Vicious street fighting saw the legionaries edge ever closer to the citadel, where 50’000 terrified souls had fled. They held out for 6 days. Their lives were spared, only for them to spend the rest of their days as slaves.
Carthage’s last stand, however, was made by Romans. 900 deserters, who knew they’d be granted no mercy at the hands of the conquering legions, locked themselves up in the Temple of Eshmun. When they could no longer resist they chose instead to set fire to the temple and die in the flames.
The last leader of the Carthaginians, yet another Hasdrubal, who was with them escaped the temple and surrendered to Scipio Aemilianus. Though not before his wife and children had thrown themselves into the flames.
Scipio then followed his orders to the letter. Carthage was to be razed to the ground, no stone was to be left upon another, and the soil was to be plowed and strewn with salt.
Alas, when Carthage was destroyed so famously by Rome, not all of her buildings were razed to the ground. As buildings were destroyed on the hills, their rubble covered some of those buildings on the slopes. Therefore there were indeed buildings left to excavate for modern-day archaeologists. (The buildings suggest that even wealthy Carthaginians lived in relatively small houses, with no central courtyards.)
Yet Carthage did arise again, however this time as a Roman colony. Gaius Gracchus in 123 BC established it as the first Roman colony off Italian soil. However, it was not until further efforts were made by Julius Ceasar that the place began to prosper. And it would take until the reign of Emperor Augustus for it to become a city again.
People Also Ask:
What is Carthage best known for?
Despite having been one of the most influential civilizations of antiquity, Carthage is mostly remembered for its long and bitter conflict with Rome, which threatened the rise of the Roman Republic and almost changed the course of Western civilization.
What are some fun facts about Carthage?
Its name means “new city” or “new town.” Before the rise of ancient Rome, Carthage was the most powerful city in the region because of its proximity to trade routes and its impressive harbor on the Mediterranean. At the height of its power, Carthage was the center of the Phoenician trade network.
What if Carthage never fell?
As Carthage valued gold overpower, they likely would have left Gaul, Germany, and Britannia intact, preferring to use them as political allies and trading partners. Therefore, Northern Europe would have continued to develop as an independent state and maintained its pagan heritage.
What made Carthage rich?
Much of the revenue of Carthage came from its exploitation of the silver mines of North Africa and southern Spain, beginning as early as 800 bce near Gadir (modern Cádiz, Spain) and in the 3rd century BCE near what is now Cartagena, Spain.
Historian Franco Cavazzi dedicated hundreds of hours of his life to creating this website, roman-empire.net as a trove of educational material on this fascinating period of history. His work has been cited in a number of textbooks on the Roman Empire and mentioned on numerous publications such as the New York Times, PBS, The Guardian, and many more.