Ancient History & Civilisation

7. THE FALL OF CARTHAGE

Carthage with magnificent, if blind, resolve refused to submit. When the Roman consuls had sternly rejected an eloquent appeal for mercy, voiced by Banno, all the pent-up passions of hate and fear and despair were let loose in the city. Amid scenes of wild confusion the gates were closed and the walls manned. The slaves were freed and two generals elected: the exiled Hasdrubal was prevailed upon to forget the past, while the defence of the city was entrusted to another Hasdrubal, a grandson of Masinissa. A request for a month’s truce was rejected by the Romans. Within the city all toiled night and day, the very temples being used as workshops for the manufacture of fresh arms. The walls were strengthened, supplies were received from Hasdrubal who controlled the open country, and though most coastal cities rebelled like Utica, the subject Libyans remained loyal. For some time the consuls waited patiently for the unarmed city to surrender. Meanwhile Masinissa caused slight anxiety. It was a grandson of his that was organizing the defence of Carthage, and the king himself, who saw the fruit of his ambitions now snatched from his grasp, was somewhat cold when asked for assistance; when later he proffered it, he was told abruptly that the Romans would let him know when they needed help.

At length Manilius and Censorinus moved against the city with their army and navy (summer 149). But they found that they had a harder nut to crack than they had anticipated. The walls of Carthage were well-nigh impregnable and her natural position was very strong. The city lay on the southern half of a peninsula which projects from the west into the Gulf of Tunis; its northern flank is protected by steep hills. South of these hills were the suburbs of the city, called Megara, then the Byrsa hill on which lay the citadel, next the lower ground with the market place and harbours, and finally beyond the southern walls a sandy spit of land which formed a bar across the inland lake of Tunis. The isthmus connecting the peninsula with the mainland was narrow, and across it ran the triple fortifications of the western wall of the city, which was forty-five feet high and thirty-three broad.19 On the north of this isthmus Manilius encamped in order to cut off reinforcements from the interior, while Censorinus was stationed with the fleet on its southern shore by the lake of Tunis. After a vain assault from this isthmus, a regular blockade was instituted, but in the summer the unhealthiness of the stagnant lake forced Censorinus to move across the sand-bar to the sea, where his fleet was damaged by the Carthaginians. After he had returned to Rome to hold the elections, the enemy attacked by night the camp of his isolated colleague, Manilius, and the situation was only retrieved by the skill of Scipio.

Scipio again displayed conspicuous ability when during the winter Manilius led two unsuccessful expeditions against the Carthaginian forces near Nepheris, some twenty miles south-east of Tunis. He was once again in the limelight when the aged Masinissa, now on the point of death, asked that the grandson of his friend Africanus should arrange the future of his kingdom; Scipio decided to divide Numidia between the king’s three sons and thereby averted the danger which a united Numidia had presented. Trusting in his increasing fame and popularity, Scipio then returned to Rome to seek office, while the consul of 148, L. Calpurnius Piso, with the admiral L. Hostilius Mancinus, arrived in Africa to take over the command. Warned by their predecessors’ failures against Hasdrubal and Carthage, they attacked the towns which still remained loyal to Carthage, but they achieved little. Consequently the Carthaginians regained confidence: they were in touch with the Mauri in the west and with the pretender Andriscus in Macedonia (p. 260), while Masinissa’s sons were no longer sending help to the Romans. Further, Mancinus had got into difficulties. Having landed on the coast north of Carthage, near Sidi bou Saïd, he had penetrated into the suburb Megara, but was cut off in a perilous position. His urgent dispatches to Utica for help arrived only just in time. Scipio, who had that very evening returned to Africa, succeeded in rescuing him the next day.

In Rome there was such dissatisfaction with the conduct of the war that when Scipio intended to stand for the curule aedileship, he was nominated and elected consul by the people on account of his military record, though he was under the legal age and had not held the praetorship. The opposition of the consul in charge was swept aside by a tribune, and when Scipio’s colleague C. Livius Drusus demanded that the provinces should be allocated by lot, another tribune intervened. As at the election of his adoptive grandfather, the constitution had to give place to the will of the people; like the Spartans after Leuctra they said: ‘Let the laws sleep today.’ Even old Cato went so far as to quote Homer and praise a Scipio by bluntly admitting that Aemilianus was ‘the only sage among the flitting shades’. Among the companions who accompanied the new consul to Africa were the historian Polybius and the younger Laelius, whose father had accompanied the elder Africanus.

On his arrival in Africa, which was not a moment too soon to rescue Mancinus, Scipio at once determined to starve out the beleaguered city by an unbroken blockade. But while he was busy re-establishing the lax discipline of his army, Hasdrubal, who had been recalled, had taken up a strong position on the isthmus before the western wall of the city. Scipio encamped opposite; then in order to win control of the isthmus, and thus to cut off Carthage from the mainland, he made a night attack on the north-west corner of the walls. Some 4,000 men penetrated into Megara; this caused such a panic that Hasdrubal hastily fled from his advanced post into the city (spring 147). Scipio, his immediate object thus achieved, extricated his men from the suburb, where they were finding the ground very difficult, and then constructed a double line of earthworks right across the isthmus, close to the city wall. Hasdrubal’s only reply was to mutilate his Roman prisoners and throw them from the walls.

Carthage was now entirely cut off from supplies by land, but occasionally a ship succeeded in running the blockade by sea. To complete his cordon Scipio established his fleet and many soldiers on the sand-bar south of the city; from here he began to construct a mole out to sea across the entrance of the Punic harbour. When the Carthaginians saw this work progressing they feverishly built fifty warships from old material and cut a new channel from the inner harbour eastwards to the sea. The high walls around the arsenal screened their actions, so that the Romans were astounded to see this new fleet put to sea. The Punic commanders, however, foolishly waited to test its quality instead of taking the Romans by surprise. Three days later an engagement was fought off the harbour; the Romans finally prevailed, while the enemy either tried to re-enter the narrow entrance of their harbour or else were driven on to the quay and destroyed. After a desperate fight Scipio established himself on the quay where he fortified a position commanding the harbours. Carthage was now completely surrounded. Her last hope was thwarted during the winter when Scipio defeated a small force at Nepheris and captured the town. The Libyan tribes hastened to surrender to Rome. The final agony of Carthage was at hand.

In the spring of 146 Scipio gave orders for the final assault. While Hasdrubal fired the southern part of the harbour where he expected the attack, Laelius succeeded in piercing the wall further north on the seaward side of the inner harbour. Hence he advanced to the marketplace, while the defenders fled to the Byrsa hill. For six days and nights the Romans fought their way step by step up the hillside amid the houses which they burned and destroyed one after another. On the seventh day the citadel surrendered and 50,000 men and women came forth to slavery. A final stand was made in the temple of Esmun by 900 Roman deserters, together with Hasdrubal’s wife, who, unlike her husband, disdained surrender and perished amid the flames of the temple. For ten more days the fires of Carthage burned; the ruins were razed; a plough was drawn over the site; salt was sown in the furrows; a solemn curse was pronounced against its future rebirth; Carthage had been destroyed.

The cities which had remained loyal to Carthage were destroyed; those, like Utica, which had embraced the cause of Rome, were declared free and received territorial concessions. The rest of the land which Carthage had controlled at the beginning of the war was made into the new Roman province of Africa, the boundaries of which were marked out by a vast fosse. His work done, Scipio Aemilianus returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph and to follow the example of his grandfather by adopting the name of Africanus (Minor).

The fall of Carthage evoked varied comments in the Greek world. Some men commended the Romans for their statesmanlike policy in removing a perpetual menace; others believed that they had been corrupted by lust for power. Some contrasted the earlier civilized methods of Roman policy with their present stratagems and deceits; others again denied that they were guilty of treachery or injustice. But few can read the account of the fall of Carthage given by Appian, who followed Polybius closely, without a feeling that Rome also had fallen from her pristine greatness. Rome’s conduct may have been juridically correct, but she was forgetting those moral qualities which had made her great. Even the order to abandon the city of Carthage might have been anticipated, for others such as the people of Falerii and Ligurian and Spanish tribes had been moved from their homes; and as Rome itself was more than ten miles from its port, the agriculturally-minded Senators would be less prepared to consider that the future they proposed for Carthage was unduly severe. It was rather the callous and calculating way in which the order was enforced, together with the nervous bullying which had originally goaded Carthage into retaliating against Masinissa, that casts a shadow over Rome’s good name. The horrors of the siege excite pity, but they are not unparalleled in the history of the ancient world. Scipio might weep over the burning city, but his thoughts were rather brooding over the mutability of human affairs and the possible fate of his own city as he quoted the lines of Homer:

 

MAP IV

That day shall be when holy Troy shall fall
And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam’s folk.

And though, in another poet’s vision, Hannibal had arisen to avenge Dido, the fall of Carthage was not avenged and Scipio’s fatalistic fears were not realized until centuries later the Vandal brought the Imperial City to her knees; and then the flourishingCarthago rediviva of the Empire followed her imperial mistress under the spear of the barbarian.

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