The African question had long evoked much thought at Rome, until out of ugly suspicions and rumours of war there gradually crystallized two opposing policies. As is well known, whenever Cato was asked his opinion in the Senate he used with untiring importunity to add: ‘I am also of the opinion that Carthage should cease to exist.’ He is also said to have emphasized the dangerous proximity of Carthage by dramatically displaying in the House a ripe fig which he declared had been gathered at Carthage only three days before. But while the old man, obsessed with this one idea, was inciting the warmongers, P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, a noble of considerable weight who had twice been consul, supported the Carthaginian cause, traditionally on the ground that fear of a strong political rival was a salutary discipline for Rome; but his motives are more likely to be found in a different political outlook combined with a more generous spirit. Neither party immediately gathered enough strength to win a political victory, and the scales remained balanced: in 152 Cato could arbitrate against Carthaginian interests, while the next year Nasica forced Masinissa to draw in his horns. But suddenly the Carthaginians threw themselves into the scales – on the wrong side. By attacking Masinissa they had given their foes in Rome the pretext they were seeking. And amid the cries of ‘Punica fides’ which rang so pleasantly in Cato’s ears, the more generous voice of Nasica was drowned.
The cause of the Third Punic War was, as Appian rightly states, the infringement of the Zama treaty by Carthage when she attacked Masinissa. Livy, following the patriotic efforts of Roman annalists to justify their city, declares that Carthage had prepared for war against Rome since 154 and that the Senate was very long-suffering. But if Roman ambassadors or spies saw hoards of munitions in Carthage, these were being prepared to settle accounts with Masinissa, not with Rome. There were, however, causes more deep seated than the juridical case which Rome used as a mere pretext. Some have supposed that economic factors were at work; but the view that commercial jealousy affected Rome’s policy and that the Senate was influenced by vested interests has not met with favour. Political motives, however, were more potent. During his visit to Africa, Cato had been deeply impressed by the apparent prosperity of Carthage; he feared a possible revival of Rome’s old enemy, especially when by paying the last instalment of the war indemnity in 151 the Carthaginians were seemingly less dependent on their conqueror. But the need for precautions against a Punic revanche were reinforced by misgivings about the growing strength of Masinissa, who having encircled Carthage might next covet the city itself. Suppose that the new Numidian kingdom, which had already upset the balance of power in Africa, should absorb Carthage, and that Masinissa, no longer content to play the role of watch-dog, should begin to growl at his master. Fear and hatred increased at Rome and men only awaited the opportunity.18
Nor had this been long delayed. By attacking Masinissa the Carthaginians gave the war party in Rome a pretext, a justa causa. Learning that troops were being levied in Italy they hastily condemned their military leaders to death, and then sent to Rome to complain of Masinissa and to shift the blame on to the shoulders of the condemned leaders. At this a Senator bluntly asked why they had not condemned the officers at the beginning of the war. On asking how they could atone, the Carthaginians were told that they must satisfy the Roman people, but the nature of this satisfaction was not defined, so that while Carthage debated Rome completed her preparations. Early in 149 Utica deserted Carthage and surrendered unconditionally to Rome. War was declared on Carthage, and a force of perhaps 80,000 men crossed to Utica: M’. Manilius, a well-known orator, commanded the land forces, while his philosophically-minded colleague, L. Marcius Censorinus, was in charge of the fleet. Among the military tribunes was P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who three years later destroyed Carthage. Meanwhile, when five deputies arrived in Rome to announce that the Carthaginians had decided that their only hope of safety lay in unconditional surrender, they found that war had been declared and that the consuls had already sailed.
By this formal act of surrender (deditio) Carthage had atoned for her breach of the Zama treaty and thus deprived the war party in Rome of any excuse for prosecuting hostilities. But at the same time she had put herself completely at the mercy of the Romans: she had given them a blank cheque, and if they cared to insert ‘delenda est Carthago’ she could hardly complain. But it was the calculating and almost diabolic manner in which the Roman diplomats played their cards that roused the passion of the Carthaginians and the disgust of a large part of the civilized world. For in the Senate the Punic ambassadors were told that they would be allowed to retain their freedom, laws, territory and other property, both public and private, provided that they surrendered three hundred noble hostages and obeyed ‘such commands as should be imposed on them by the consuls’. It was significant, as a certain Mago pointed out at Carthage, that no reference was made to the city, but it was too late to retract, and the hostages were duly handed over. Still keeping their real mission secret the consuls demanded the surrender of all arms and weapons; 200,000 panoplies and about 2,000 catapults were obediently given up, though the Carthaginians ventured to point out that they could not protect themselves against their erstwhile general Hasdrubal who had escaped execution and had collected 20,000 troops. The grim reply was that Rome would provide. Next, thirty leading citizens were ordered to go to Rome to hear the Senate’s final orders. At long last the consuls announced the Senate’s decision: the inhabitants must evacuate Carthage, which would be destroyed; the could settle where they liked provided that it was ten miles from the sea.
The Romans had skilfully attained their object, whether Carthage submitted or not. For if she refused she would thereby break the agreement made at the moment of her deditio and thus give them the legitimate excuse to proceed by force of arms. That Rome was technically correct is probable; she had skilfully used two pretexts, the infringement of the Zama treaty and of the act of deditio, to enforce her will. True, there might be room for more than one interpretation, the Romans regarding the act of deditio as a unilateral agreement, the Carthaginians as a bilateral. But nothing except the plea of expediency can excuse the deceit with which Rome first obtained hostages, then disarmed the city and only finally announced her real intentions. The shrewd historian Polybius, who was indirectly involved, shows clearly by his conduct that he regarded the surrender of Carthage as the end of the war; but he misjudged either the intention of the Senate or the fury of the Semite.