Ancient History & Civilisation

THE RISE OF A MERCANTILE SUPEROWER

In 573 BC, after a thirteen-year siege, Tyre was forced to sign a humiliating peace with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar. Traditionally, scholars believed that it was the demise of Tyre as an independent mercantile power that sent the Phoenician colonies of the far West into the economic crisis that enveloped them around the same period.59 In fact both events were symptoms of the same malaise: the collapse of the value of silver. Such had been the oversupply of silver to the Near East that by the beginning of the sixth century BC, the trans-Mediterranean traffic between Spain and the Levant had dramatically declined.

Tyre thus no longer received its former protection from its reputation as the dominant player in the precious-metals market, and many of the smaller Phoenician trading stations along the southern coast of Spain now faced doom. The only reason for the existence of many of these settlements had been the small-scale trade facilitated by the cargo ships which passed by on the Gades route, and once these ships were gone these communities were quickly abandoned. In contrast, the Phoenician colonies of the central Mediterranean seem to have emerged from this economic crisis relatively unscathed, probably because their primary focus was the north–south Tyrrhenian axis and its links with the Aegean.60

For Carthage, the disappearance of Tyrian shipping in the region appears to have presented a major opportunity to expand further its own trading networks, particularly in regard to the supply of goods and raw materials from the eastern Mediterranean, Egypt and the Levant.61 The collapse of the Levantine–Spanish trade routes, which had played such an important part in the early development of Carthage, would now be the catalyst for what one German scholar has termed ‘Der Aufstieg zur Grossmacht’–‘the rise of a superpower’.62

The nature of this new superpower has been much debated. Many historians, influenced by the great empires of both the ancient and the modern worlds, have been content to view Carthage as an imperialist power which quickly sought to dominate the lands of the western Mediterranean through military and economic pressure.63 Hostile ancient Greek historiography and more modern prejudices have combined to create an image of the Carthaginians as aggressive and pernicious oriental interlopers whose one clear aim was to overrun an ancient world already imbued with Western civilization. This is particularly true in the case of Spain, where the Carthaginians have often been blamed for the demise of the old Tartessian kingdoms. Keen to promote the idea that Tartessus had been a great Western civilization –indeed an occidental Troy–some scholars have argued that ancient Andalusia was subjected to a brutal invasion by the Carthaginians in the late sixth century BC.64 These claims appear to be validated by much later Roman sources, who report that the Carthaginians had treacherously seized Gades after its hard-pressed citizens had begged them to provide help against hostile Spanish forces.65

These were not the only accusations of imperialism levelled at Carthage’s actions during this period. According to the third-century-AD Roman historian Justin (himself drawing on the lost Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus), Malchus, a Carthaginian general or ‘king’, after overrunning much of the island of Sicily was heavily defeated in Sardinia in the mid sixth century BC. Unwilling to accept such a humiliation, the Carthaginian Council of Elders punished the general and his remaining troops by sending them into exile. However, Malchus and his soldiers, indignant at the severity of the sentence–especially as they had enjoyed considerable success in the past–rebelled. After putting Carthage under siege, Malchus captured the city, although eventually he was himself put to death after being accused of plotting to be king.66

Justin would also report that later in the sixth century BC another Carthaginian general, named Mago, supposedly sent an armed force to Sardinia under the command of his sons Hasdrubal and Hamilcar. This expedition almost ended in disaster when Hasdrubal died of battle wounds, but the Carthaginians eventually managed to establish themselves in the southern half of the island, and forced several of the indigenous tribes to withdraw into the mountainous interior.67 There is indeed good archaeological evidence for unrest on the island in the mid sixth century BC. The Phoenician stronghold settlements at Monte Sirai and Cuccurredus were both abandoned, the latter after being burnt down, and the major Nuragic settlement at Su Nuraxi was violently destroyed.68

These dramatic stories of a tyrannical and acquisitive Carthage in the sixth century BC must be treated with a good deal of scepticism, particularly as they were written both in a much later period and at a time (after the Punic wars) when such negative stereotyping was firmly fixed in the Greek and Roman cultural imagination. On Sardinia, there is no sign of a long-term Carthaginian occupation during this period. The violence and unrest evident in the archaeological record might well indicate disturbances between the Phoenician and indigenous populations, or even internecine conflict between Nuragic groups.69

If the stories concerning Malchus and Mago have any basis in truth, then they may be literary embellishments of long-distant memories connected with a short-term Carthaginian intervention to protect Phoenician interests on the island. In the first half of the sixth century BC, Carthage was still reliant on overseas imports for around 50 per cent of its food, and Sardinia remained an important source of supply.70 Indeed, Carthaginian strategy on the island during the sixth century BC, rather than being one of aggressive conquest, appears to have centred on improving the collection and transportation of agricultural produce and other raw materials from the interior though the foundation of two new towns, Caralis (Cagliari) and Neapolis.71

In southern Spain there is also no convincing evidence for a Carthaginian invasion. The collapse of the Tartessian kingdoms has nothing to do with a Carthaginian invasion and everything to do with internal feuding and the collapse of the Levantine metal trade, the main source of wealth for the elite.72 Even if the Carthaginian military interventions mentioned in later sources did take place, they must have been of a temporary nature, for there is no archaeological evidence of a prolonged occupation of southern Spain. Carthage did partially step into the economic vacuum created by the collapse of the Levantine–Iberian metal trade, but only in a strictly limited way. There was some Carthaginian colonization in Andalusia (such as at Villaricos), but most efforts appear to have been directed towards the reorganization and expansion of existing Phoenician settlements such as Malaga and (on Ibiza) Ebusus.73 It was not until the late fifth/ early fourth century that Carthage began to acquire direct control of overseas territory, and even then this did not fit comfortably into any model that we might view as ‘imperialistic’. There is little evidence of territorial conquest, administrative control, collection of taxes, commercial monopolies or the appropriation of foreign policy.74

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