Carthage was a city in North Africa in what is now Tunisia. Its excellent harbor and location on a peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea gave the city several important advantages for defense and trade. For most of its history, the city thrived on commerce and its people engaged in a brisk trade throughout the Mediterranean region. Carthaginian sailors also explored the Atlantic coasts of Spain and northern Africa in search of new trading opportunities.
At the height of its power in the mid-200s B.C., Carthage controlled a vast commercial empire that spanned the Mediterranean coast from Libya to Morocco, and also included southwestern Spain and the islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Conflict with Rome over control of the Mediterranean Sea eventually led to the defeat and destruction of Carthage and its annexation* by the Roman empire.
* annexation addition of a territory to an existing state
Early History. Carthage was founded in 814 B.C. by Phoenicians from the city of Tyre in the eastern Mediterranean. It remained a Phoenician colony until the 600s B.C., when it gained its independence. In its early years, Carthage was ruled by a colonial governor and then by its own kings. By the 500s B.C., the city had an oligarchy*, with two ruling officials elected annually, a powerful senate whose members held office for life, and a group of elected judges who monitored the actions of other officials. The citizens of Carthage had only limited power. A large army of mercenaries* helped to defend the city and its territories.
* oligarchy rule by a few people
* mercenary soldier; usually a foreigner; who fights for payment rather than out of loyalty to a nation
Following its independence, Carthage gradually brought other Phoenician settlements in North Africa under its control and conquered the native peoples of the region. As its power spread, Carthage came into conflict with the Greeks, who also had extensive trading interests in the Mediterranean. In about 535 B.C., the Carthaginians allied themselves with the Etruscans of Italy to defeat a Greek fleet near the island of Corsica. Thereafter, the Carthaginians extended their control into Sardinia and Spain. Their struggles with the Greeks for control of Sicily continued for centuries. By 265 B.C., Carthage was the major military power in the western Mediterranean, ruling over all the islands and trading settlements of that region.
Wars with Rome. As Rome grew in both strength and size, it became Carthage’s major rival in the Mediterranean. Between 509 B.C. and 275 B.C., Carthage signed three treaties with Rome protecting its trading empire in exchange for promises not to interfere in Italy. Carthage even provided a fleet to help the Romans in 280 B.C. during Rome’s Pyrrhic War against the Greeks. Eventually, however, the rivalry between the two states erupted in war.
Carthage and Rome fought a series of three wars—known as the Punic Wars—between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C. In the first two wars, Carthage suffered embarrassing defeats and had to relinquish territory to Rome. It was during the Second Punic War that Carthage’s greatest general, Hannibal,became famous for leading his troops and elephants across the Alps in a daring invasion of Italy. The city of Carthage itself survived the first two Punic wars and remained strong. By the end of the Third Punic War, however, Carthage had lost its entire empire. Moreover, to ensure that the Carthaginians no longer posed a threat, the Romans plundered* Carthage, burned it to the ground, and forbade anyone to resettle there. They took control of the remaining Carthaginian territory and formed the Roman province of Africa from its north African possessions. This marked the end of the Carthaginian empire.
Under Roman Rule. During the reign of the emperor Augustus, the Romans rebuilt and colonized the city of Carthage and made it the capital of their province of Africa. The Romans constructed large public buildings, including an amphitheater, a forum with a large hall called a basilica*, and lavish baths modeled after those in Rome. An 82-mile-long aqueduct, the longest in the Roman empire, carried water from the mountains south of Carthage to the baths.
The new Roman city of Carthage grew rapidly, reaching a population of more than 300,000 by the A.D. 100s. By then, the city had become a leading cultural center, second in importance in the western Mediterranean only to Rome. Carthage also regained its commercial importance, with African grain among its major exports.
During the first centuries A.D., Roman Carthage became an important center of Christianity. The Christian writer and thinker Tertullian was born there, and the city’s church leaders played a significant role in spreading the religion. In the A.D. 300s and 400s, Carthage became a center of religious controversy when Christian heresy* took root there.
* plunder to steal property by force, usually after a conquest
* basilica in Roman times, a large rectangular building used as a court of law or public meeting place
* heresy belief that is contrary to church doctrine
In A.D. 439, the Vandals seized Carthage and made it the capital of the kingdom they had established in North Africa. Recaptured by the Romans in A.D. 533 during the reign of emperor Justinian I, Carthage remained a part of the Eastern Roman Empire, later called the Byzantine Empire, until it was conquered by the Arabs in the A.D. 600s. (See also Augustine, St.; Byzantium; Churches and Basilicas; Colonies, Greek; Naval Power, Roman; Provinces, Roman; Rome, History of.)