Ancient History & Civilisation

Prologue: The Last Days of Carthage

Carthage had been under siege for nearly three years when one day during the spring of 146 BC the Roman commander, Scipio Aemilianus, ordered the final assault on the stricken city and its increasingly desperate inhabitants.

Even now, with its defences and defenders greatly weakened, Carthage still posed a daunting challenge for the Roman attackers. Situated on the Mediterranean coast of what is now Tunisia, the city was built on a peninsula made up of a series of sandstone hills. On its north-eastern and south-eastern peripheries, two narrow strands of land jutted out like wings, with the latter almost cutting off the sea and creating the large lagoon now known as the Lake of Tunis. The northern area of the peninsula was protected by a series of steep sandstone cliffs, whereas to the south lay a large coastal plain protected by a formidable set of walls, ditches and ramparts.

On the seaward side of the city two magnificent harbours were shielded by a sea wall. A chronic shortage of available living space within the city had meant that security had been somewhat compromised in this area. Whereas previously a gap had been carefully maintained between the wall and the nearest buildings, now houses had been constructed right up to the sea walls, allowing determined attackers the opportunity of setting fire to them with missiles or gaining access by climbing on to their roofs.1 However, the walls themselves still presented an intimidating obstacle, with some of the huge sandstone blocks weighing over 13 tonnes. The blocks were covered in white plaster, which not only protected the stone from the elements, but also gave the walls a famous shimmering marble effect when looked upon from ships sailing into the city’s harbours.2

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The two harbours–one commercial and one military–stood as a reminder of Carthage’s past fame as a maritime superpower. These vast man-made structures, which covered an area of around 13 hectares, had required the manual excavation of some 235,000 cubic metres of soil. The rectangular commercial harbour had extensive quays and warehousing where goods from all over the Mediterranean world and beyond were loaded and unloaded.3 The circular war harbour was an engineering masterpiece, with storeyed ship-sheds which could hold at least 170 vessels, with ramps to drag them from and to the water’s edge.4 Now the harbours lay idle, because the Romans, after many fruitless attempts, had finally managed to secure their blockade by constructing a mole to block their entrance.

As the Romans had also managed to seal Carthage from its North African hinterland, no further food supplies could be brought into the city–meaning that much of the population was beginning to starve. Physical evidence still exists showing that life for the inhabitants of Carthage had taken a dramatic turn for the worse during the siege. At some point, probably when the siege made them impossible, rubbish collections ceased (a resident’s nightmare, but an archaeologist’s dream).5 During the last difficult years of the city, the only waste that seems to have been regularly removed was the corpses of the many who died as starvation and disease took hold. Now, in the last terrible months of the city’s existence, in contrast to the care that had traditionally been taken of the dead, the corpses of both rich and poor were unceremoniously dumped in a number of mass graves just a short distance away from where they had lived.6

When the attack finally came, the city’s defenders were caught off guard, because the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal, had gambled on an assault being mounted on the commercial port, whereas in fact the Romans attacked the war harbour first. From the harbour, the legionaries quickly moved to seize control of Carthage’s famous agora, or marketplace, where Scipio ordered his men to set up camp for the night. The Roman troops, sensing that final victory was near, began the inevitable plunder by stripping the nearby temple of Apollo of its gold decoration.7

Carthage was divided into two distinct but integrated parts. While the lower city was laid out orthogonally in a formal grid, the streets on the slopes of the citadel, the Byrsa, were arranged in a radial pattern.8 Now that many of the neighbourhoods on the plain had been secured, Scipio called up fresh troops in preparation for the storming of the Byrsa. The soldiers proceeded with caution, as the nature of the hill made it an excellent terrain from which to stage ambushes. Three narrow streets led up the steep slopes. Each was flanked by six-storey houses from whose roofs their inhabitants mounted a desperate last defence by raining missiles down on to the advancing legionaries. However, Scipio, a seasoned siege tactician, quickly regained the momentum by commanding his troops to storm the houses and make their way to the roofs. From there they used planks to create gangways over to the adjacent houses. While this battle raged above, the slaughter on the streets continued.

Once the resistance on the roofs had been neutralized, Scipio ordered that the houses be set alight. So that his troops’ progress up the hill should be unimpeded, he also commanded that cleaning parties should keep the streets clear of debris. However, it would not be just stone and burning timber that came crashing down from above, but also the bodies of children and the elderly who had been sheltered in secret hiding places within the buildings. Many, although injured and horribly burnt, were still alive, and their piteous cries would add to the cacophony around them. Some were subsequently crushed to death by the Roman cavalry proceeding up the streets. Others would meet a far more gruesome end as the street cleaners dragged their still breathing bodies out of the way with their iron tools before tossing both the living and the dead into pits.

For six long days and nights the streets of Carthage were consumed by this hellish turmoil, with Scipio conserving the physical strength and sanity of his men by regularly rotating his killing squads. Then, on the seventh day, a delegation of Carthaginian elders bearing olive branches from the sacred temple of Eshmoun as a sign of peace came to beg the Roman general that their lives and those of their fellow citizens be spared. Scipio acceded to their request, and later that day 50,000 men, women and children left the citadel through a narrow gate in the wall into a life of miserable slavery.

Although the vast majority of its surviving citizenry had surrendered, Hasdrubal, his family and 900 Roman deserters, who could expect no mercy from Scipio, still held out. They took refuge in the temple of Eshmoun, which, because of its lofty and inaccessible position, they were able to defend for some time. Eventually lack of sleep, physical fatigue, hunger and terror forced them on to the roof of the building, where they made a final stand.

It was now that Hasdrubal’s nerve broke. Deserting his comrades and family, he secretly made his way down and surrendered to Scipio. The sight of their general grovelling in supplication at the feet of his Roman nemesis merely hardened the resolve of the remaining defenders to die a defiant death. Cursing Hasdrubal, they set fire to the building and died in the flames.

It would be Hasdrubal’s own wife, with her terrified children cowering at her side, who would deliver the final damning verdict on her disgraced husband: ‘Wretch,’ she exclaimed, ‘traitor, most effeminate of men, this fire will entomb me and my children. Will you, the leader of great Carthage, decorate a Roman triumph? Ah, what punishment will you not receive from him at whose feet you are now sitting.’ She then killed her children and flung their bodies into the fire, before throwing herself in after them. After 700 years of existence, Carthage was no more.9

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