Ancient History & Civilisation

Part II





Of the settlements which, as we have seen (p. 19), the Phoenicians planted in the central and western Mediterranean, the most important was the New City, Carthage (Qart Chadascht), which the Tyrians are said to have founded about 814 BC.1 The Tyrian princess, Elissa, it is said, fleeing from King Pygmalion with a few faithful followers, reached Africa, where the tribes granted her as much land as she could cover with a cowhide (byrsa). By ingeniously cutting this into narrow strips she surrounded enough ground to form the citadel of her new city, the Byrsa of Carthage. Later writers wove around the story of Elissa a mass of myth and legend, until the saga received its final shape at the hands of the magician Virgil who moulded from it an undying drama of love and death. Elissa, now named Dido, welcomes to her new city the Trojan hero Aeneas. At heaven’s bidding he forsakes his new love to fulfil his destiny of founding Rome, while deserted Dido stabs herself on her funeral pyre, and her cry goes up to heaven:‘Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor.’ The drama of the struggle of Rome and Carthage has come to birth.

The native tribes of North Africa, with whom the Phoenician settlers came into contact, had formed no extensive political union although they were all of similar stock, being the predecessors of the modern Berbers and racially distinct from the negroes of the south. Those who later became subjects of Carthage were known to the Greeks as Libyans, the rest as nomads or Numidians. Among these primitive and semi-nomadic peoples Carthage soon became the dominating power, thanks to her superior civilization and to her magnificent geographical position. Situated on a peninsula which afforded room for expansion and protection from the natives, the city lay sheltered in the heart of a bay Her hinterland was fertile and her prominent position in the mid-Mediterranean allowed her to trade with east and west and to control trans-Mediterranean shipping.

In her early days Carthage maintained a link with her mother city of Tyre, but from the seventh century the Phoenicians of the home country were smitten by the great oriental monarchies, one after another: Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Persia. Consequently the Phoenicians of the west were left to their own devices: to preserve their independence, their scattered energies must be united. Carthage stepped into the breach, and from the sixth century she became mistress of an empire which gradually extended far beyond the confines of North Africa.

The centre of this empire was the hinterland which Carthage took into her possession, stretching from Hippo Regius in the west, inland to Theveste and thence to Thenae on the east coast; it was guarded by a frontier called the Phoenician Trenches. The inhabitants served in the army of their mistress and supplied her with a quota of their produce. Under Carthaginian protection agriculture prospered and the population increased. In addition, the inhabitants of the African colonies of Phoenicia and Carthage, which stretched from beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to the three great towns in Tripoli called Emporia, became the loyal allies of Carthage. Known as Libyphoenicians, they supplied contingents in wartime and in some cases at any rate paid tribute. The individual towns were allied with Carthage on varying conditions, much as the Italian cities were with Rome. Including the territory of these Libyphoenician cities, Carthage controlled an area of about 28,000 square miles and a population of three to four million. Further, the Numidian tribes beyond often found it expedient to seek her friendship and thus formed a great potential source of power.

But the ambition and commercial aims of Carthage were not limited to Africa. For many a year she was not strong enough to aid the early Phoenician traders in Sicily, who had been driven to the west end of the island by the advancing tide of Greek colonists, but in about 580 BC she was drawn into the troubled waters, until despite the efforts of Malchus and his successors her advance in Sicily was checked by the battle of Himera, which saved Greek civilization in the west from being overwhelmed (480). The vicissitudes of the struggle between Carthage and the Greeks in Sicily, which recommenced about 400 BC after a period of economic recession and continued till the days of the first Punic War, belong to the history of the Greek rather than of the Roman world.

Carthage was more successful in Spain. In the late seventh and early sixth centuries the empire of Tartessus was flourishing, freer now from Phoenician influence. Its King, Arganthonius, the ‘Silver Man’, encouraged friendly relations with the Greeks who were now penetrating the western seas. As early as 620 BC Colaeus, a mariner from Samos, was blown by an easterly gale to Tartessus (p. 21), and the Phocaeans founded two colonies in Spain at Maenace and Hemeroscopium to open up the Tartessian market. This was little to the taste of the traders of Carthage, and the clash of interests ultimately culminated in the sea battle of Alalia, when the combined Carthaginian and Etruscan fleets broke the Phocaean thalassocracy in the west (p. 31). As a result Carthage made settlements in Sardinia, leaving Corsica to her allies, and then, as a stepping-stone to Spain, she occupied the island of Ebusus which the Phoenicians had already visited. Finally, by destroying Tartessus and Maenace, she entered into the heritage of the Tartessian Empire, although she could not drive the Greeks from northern Spain beyond Cape Palos (near Cartagena).2 In southern Spain Carthage gained an almost inexhaustible source of natural wealth and of manpower, as well as control over the Atlantic trade of her predecessors. Merchants now sailed forth from Gades instead of from Tartessus; Himilco was sent to explore the tin routes of the north, while Hanno voyaged down the west coast of Africa to bring back gold and ivory. But the Carthaginians were careful not to share this new prize; they jealously barred the gates of the Atlantic and closed the western Mediterranean to foreign shipping.

Carthage had thus won an overseas empire which she selfishly exploited. The old Phoenician colonies abroad assumed much the same relation to her as the Libyphoenician towns in Africa. In Sardinia and southern Spain some of the natives were reduced to subjection; the rest were exploited commercially and supplied mercenary troops. In Sicily the Carthaginians had to tread more warily, to avoid driving the whole island into the arms of her enemy Syracuse. The Punic province in the west gradually embraced some native and Greek cities, but these retained their internal autonomy and paid a tithe on their produce instead of supplying troops. Further, Carthage had to keep an open market in her Sicilian province. On the whole the condition of her subjects, though tolerable, was far inferior to that of most of the allies of Rome, who had infused her federation with a feeling of loyalty and imposed no tribute. The subjects of Carthage had no real bond, although common interests might sustain their loyalty for a time. Like the members of the naval confederacies of Athens they became increasingly dependent on their mistress without sharing in the advantage which the Greeks had enjoyed of all entering into relation with their leader at approximately the same time.

During this period of external expansion Carthage first came into contact with Rome. The intermediaries were her Etruscan allies, whose ports in Italy had long been open to Phoenician merchants. The product of such trade is seen in the rich seventh-century tombs at Caere and Praeneste: silver and gilded bowls, painted ostrich eggs, and ivory plaques like those made for Solomon’s temple by Tyrian artists. When the Etruscan dynasty was driven from Rome, Carthage struck a treaty with the new Republic. A copy of this treaty, engraved on brass, was preserved in the Treasury at Rome and was known to the historian Polybius. It was obviously the work of Carthage, as all the restrictions imposed were in her favour; only Rome’s lack of commercial interests can explain why she accepted it. The Romans agreed not to sail west of a point, the Fair Promontory, close to Carthage itself, unless driven by stress of weather or fear of enemies; men trading in Libya or Sardinia were to strike no bargain save in the presence of a herald or town clerk; any Romans coming to the Carthaginian province in Sicily should enjoy all rights enjoyed by others. Thus Carthage was already enforcing the policy of a mare clausum: Numidia, Morocco, and the Straits of Gibraltar were closed: conditions of trade in Libya and Sardinia were restricted, though Carthage was not yet strong enough to claim a monopoly there or to close western Sicily. Further, it is assumed that the ports over which Rome had any control were to remain open. In return for these substantial advantages Carthage merely pledged herself to abstain from injuring certain towns in Latium. When this treaty was renewed, probably in 348, Rome allowed Carthage to stiffen up the conditions very considerably. By the new agreement Roman traders were excluded from Sardinia and Libya and from the western Mediterranean from the Gulf of Tunis to Mastia (Cartagena) in Spain; Carthaginian Sicily and Carthage itself alone remained open. Thus the new Republic willingly sacrificed any commercial interests which Rome may have had under the Etruscan regime; for many a long year her thoughts turned landwards while her future rival was transforming the western Mediterranean into a Carthaginian lake.3

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