Ancient History & Civilisation

A DUBIOUS ‘FINAL’ VICTORY

The question remains as to why the Carthaginians did not press home their clear advantage in the treaty. The answer probably lies in the fact that the wars against Agathocles had brought Carthage to the brink of financial ruin. To pay for this protracted conflict, there had been an enormous increase in the production of electrum coinage in Carthage, yet the gold content of the new coins had fallen dramatically. 65 In a further sign of economic difficulties, the Carthaginian and Sicilian mints had started producing larger amounts of very heavy large bronze coinage, probably meant as substitute for gold and silver currency.66

The strategy of trying to capture Syracuse and completely dismantle the Agathoclean regime had backfired spectacularly. Agathocles, left with nothing to lose, had simply transported the conflict to North Africa, where Carthage’s discontented Numidian, Libyan and Greek neighbours had been more than happy to join the attack. Of even greater concern had been the conduct of those elements of the Carthaginian army who had participated in Bomilcar’s coup attempt. Having large Carthaginian armies operating in North Africa for long periods of time clearly posed a threat to the current political regime. All these factors must have persuaded the Carthaginians that the old territorial status quo in Sicily was preferable to the tumult that they had just experienced. By resettling and incorporating Sicilian Greek soldiers who were extremely hostile to Agathocles (after he had deserted them in North Africa), Carthage may have been already preparing for the next round of conflict with Syracuse.

A change in the named minting authority that issued military coinage in Sicily may be a sign of a wider change in Carthage’s relationship with its army on the island. There is little reason to think that the army’s actions during the Agathocles crisis had done much to promote confidence in either its loyalty or its military capabilities. Indeed, the armed forces on Sicily had been in complete disarray, and had contributed nothing to the defence of North Africa. Moreover, senior military commanders such as Bomilcar had been involved in the planning and execution of coup attempts.

These concerns may explain the gradual transferral of minting authority for the military from mhmhnt (‘the people of the camp’) to mhsbm (‘the controllers’).67 Were the mhsbm Carthaginian officials sent to take over the financial administration of the army in Sicily, so that the authorities in Carthage could reassert their authority?68 After all, mercenary soldiers tended to be loyal to those who paid them. Tellingly, all Carthaginian military coinage production had ceased by the end of the first decade of the third century BC, with troops presumably being paid with electrum shekels which were now being minted in Carthage.69 More importantly, it is clear that the disruption caused by Agathocles’ African onslaught had left Carthage on the brink of financial exhaustion.

In fact there was no new war with Agathocles. Clearly unchastened by his recent humiliation in North Africa, in 306 Agathocles declared himself a king, before turning his attention northward to the Italian peninsula in an attempt to build up a new empire which might be able to challenge the dominance of the Carthaginians.70 However, his dreams of an Adriatic/southern-Italian empire were dashed, as were his hopes of contracting a grand alliance with Ptolemy, king of Egypt, and several other Hellenistic potentates. Eventually a terrible illness, most likely to have been cancer of the jaw, finally robbed Agathocles not only of his Carthaginian ambitions, but also of his life.71 As a final irony, the man whose silken tongue had propelled him to such notoriety was reputedly burnt alive on his funeral pyre, because the disease had robbed him of the capacity to move or speak.72

In eventually prevailing over this most persistent of enemies, the Carthaginians had shown resilience and resourcefulness. Over two decades, they had survived coup attempts, disastrous military defeats, Libyan and Numidian rebellions, an invasion, and a siege of their home city. Yet, despite his grand pretensions, Agathocles was no Alexander, and the grave difficulty that the supposedly dominant power of the western Mediterranean had in finally overcoming the threat that he posed suggested that it might struggle even more against a betterresourced and more consistent opponent. Other Hellenistic warlords would now view Africa as a viable target in a way they had not done before Agathocles.

Thus the Greek biographer Plutarch’s account of the African ambitions of the Molossian general Pyrrhus, who spent 278–277 attacking Punic interests in Sicily, may have been apocryphal, but it probably accurately reflected contemporary opinion: ‘For who could keep his hands off Libya, or Carthage, when that city got within his reach, a city which Agathocles, slipping stealthily out of Syracuse and crossing the sea with a few ships, narrowly missed taking?’73

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