Ancient History & Civilisation

THE RISE OF HAMILCAR BARCA

In order to conserve its hold on power, the Carthaginian elite looked around for a scapegoat to blame for the mercenaries debacle. Hamilcar Barca, who had rashly made his soldiers promises that he could not keep, and whose military command in Sicily had been unsuccessful in meeting any of Carthage’s immediate strategic aims, was the obvious candidate.49 Yet Hamilcar’s glamorous but ineffectual raids against the Romans, and his eventual defeat of the rebels, had earned him great popularity among the citizen body. Although he had been the commander of the Carthaginian armies in Sicily, and had indeed been in charge of the peace negotiations, he had not been tainted by the abrupt surrender like other members of the Carthaginian elite. As the Roman historian Livy records, he felt that ‘Sicily had been surrendered too soon, before the situation had become really desperate.’50 Hamilcar was also by far the most popular general among the Carthaginian troops–as emphatically proved when they voted for him, rather than Hanno, as their leader during the Mercenaries’ Revolt.51

Hamilcar was also well connected to wealthy individuals who had great influence with the general citizenry, such as his new son-in-law, Hasdrubal.52 By using his connections, he was able not only to escape attempts at prosecution, but also to obtain a military command over all Libya that was granted him by popular vote.53 Carthaginian generals on overseas campaign had long enjoyed wide powers, and now it appears that Hamilcar would enjoy them in North Africa itself. Indeed, Hamilcar Barca appears to have been the main beneficiary of sweeping political changes in the crisis-hit state. According to Polybius, it was in this period that ‘in Carthage the voice of the people had become pre-dominant in deliberations and that for the Carthaginians it was the opinion of the greatest number that prevailed’.54

Although many of the details remain opaque, there is no doubt that the sequential catastrophes of the defeat in the war against Rome, the loss of Sicily, near-extinction at the hands of their own mercenaries and the further loss of Sardinia had ushered in a period of profound political transformation in Carthage. The delicate balance of aristocratic, oligarchic and democratic governance, so admired by Aristotle, had relied to a large extent on the forward momentum of the overseas success that Carthage had enjoyed in the fourth century.55 The loss of the empire was a devastating blow to that effective political status quo. The Mercenaries’ Revolt had already strengthened the Carthaginian officers, who during the conflict had been heavily involved in the selection of their commander-in-chief. This now became a jealously guarded privilege, rather than a one-off piece of crisis management.

Moreover, within the mass of the ordinary citizenry or the s’rnm (‘little ones’) were ambitious groups who were clearly no longer willing to accept a political system that gave them so little influence.56 Previously, some limited opportunities for social and civic advancement had existed for a select few of Carthage’s non-citizen male inhabitants. (As was the norm right across the ancient Mediterranean world, no such opportunities for enfranchisement were open to the female population of the city, whatever their social status.)57 For instance, it had been possible for some very highly valued slaves legally to gain their freedom, although they were still bound to their ex-masters by a formal set of obligations.58 However, there is no evidence of the s’rnm being accepted into the exalted ranks of Carthage’s elite.

That did not mean that they had no influence. In particular, the tradesmen and artisans, who were the most dynamic sections of the s’rnm, were extremely well organized and belonged to powerful guilds and corporations which had sufficient resources to contribute to major construction projects in the city.59 The main political vehicle for the ordinary citizens of Carthage since at least the end of the fourth century had been the Popular Assembly, although its original powers were strictly limited. The Assembly could debate issues only when they had been expressly invited to do so by the suffetes and the Council of Elders, or when the two chief officials were in disagreement with one another. Now it appears to have acquired more influence over the decisions of the Council of Elders and the Tribunal of One Hundred and Four, including an extension of its influence over the annual election of the two suffetes. It was because of these developments that Polybius, who was vehemently unsympathetic to democracy, considered post-war Carthage as exhibiting all the worst aspects of a slow drift into demagogy. 60 Diodorus went even further in his description of Hamilcar Barca’s growing political influence in Carthage: ‘Later, after the end of the Libyan War, he created a political faction of the basest sort of men, and from this source, as well as from war booty, amassed a large amount of wealth; sensing that his successes were gaining him great power, he gave himself over to demagogy and to earning favour with the people.’61

Indeed, the tactics supposedly used by Hamilcar Barca to amass political power would have been very familiar to any of the Sicilian Greek historians (such as those used as sources by Diodorus), as they were similar to those that had been deployed by many autocratic leaders in Sicily. In Syracuse, Dionysius, Agathocles and now Hiero had all seized and maintained political power through the support of three key constituencies of the Syracusan state: the Popular Assembly, the mercenary army, and a number of the rich and influential elite. Although both Agathocles and Hiero would later proclaim themselves kings, both had initially used their appointments as strategos autokrator (sole commander of the armed forces) as a power base from which to gain control of the political process.62

The growing political influence of the Barcids–Hamilcar’s clan–was further displayed when, immediately after the African command, he received permission from the Council to take an expeditionary force to southern Spain.63 The southern and south-eastern coasts of the Iberian peninsula were certainly not unknown to the Carthaginians. Since the fourth century BC, Punic products as well as considerable amounts of Campanian and Athenian pottery had been arriving in Spain courtesy of Carthaginian merchants often operating through the Ibizan town of Ebusus. Indeed, in the second treaty with Rome, in 348, southern Spain had been listed as an area of Carthaginian influence, although there is no evidence of any direct intervention.64 Carthage’s main interest in the region, like that of Tyre before it, appears, unsurprisingly considering its huge war expenses, to have been silver.65

A further connection between the Iberian region and Carthage existed through the recruitment of mercenaries. On the island of Majorca there exist fortified enclosures built by the Carthaginians which archaeologists have suggested were mustering points for the famous Balearic slingers, whom the Carthaginians used to such deadly effect in their armies.66 Hamilcar’s reasons for targeting Spain were simple: it was blessed with enormous natural resources of metal ores, people and food. Indeed, the Greek geographer Strabo reported the unlikely tale that the Barcids had first become aware of the great mineral wealth in the region when they witnessed the Turdentani, the tribe on whose territory the richest mines were located, using silver feeding troughs and wine jars.67

Polybius and Livy, the two major historical sources for this period, agree that the dominant motivation for the Barcid expedition to Spain was to build up the necessary resources to gain revenge on Rome for recent humiliations that Carthage had suffered. But the actions of Hamilcar were probably driven as much by the need to restore Carthage’s ruined economy as by any hatred of Rome. The deeply debased coinage that was minted in Carthage during this period tells a story of economic hardship and personal privation. Heavy bronze coinage was being used as a poor substitute for silver, and generally there seems to have been a dramatic drop in the amount of coinage being minted in Carthage during this period.68

Carthage also had a huge indemnity to pay off. One incentive for the Spanish expedition was to rescue the city from this economic quagmire, but the meeting of Carthage’s punitive debts to Rome was only ever one of a number of motivations for Hamilcar’s Spanish expedition. Perhaps the most crucial lesson that had been learned from the First Punic War was that any successful resistance to Rome required a huge reservoir of human and material resources. With its extraordinarily rich mines and large pool of warriors, southern Spain had the potential to supply such resources at a level that far exceeded the combined output of Sardinia and Punic Sicily.69 This does not mean that a new war with Rome was already at the forefront of Hamilcar’s thinking; nevertheless, among the Barcid faction there was already a steely determination that Carthage would never again be humiliated by Rome as it had recently been.

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