Ancient History & Civilisation


While the Carthaginians could perhaps cope with their negative presentation within Roman comedy, by the 160s some within the Senate had begun to conceive of more serious anti-Carthaginian action. It is clear that Roman foreign policy now became more aggressive, while continually hiding behind the pretext of ‘just war’. In the previous decade, Roman suspicions of King Perseus of Macedonia had led the Senate to declare war. The road to the Third Macedonian War (171–168) had followed an alarmingly familiar path. A series of complaints were laid against Macedon by smaller states favoured by Rome, and diplomatic missions between Macedon and Rome had been quietly hostile. Finally, Perseus’ most powerful regional rival, Eumenes, king of Pergamum, had persuaded the Romans that their suspicions about Macedonian aggression were well justified. The final justifications for war were in fact mostly fictitious, including the supposed assassinations of key Roman allies in the region. As Rome mobilized its troops, Perseus’ requests for dialogue and information were met by increasing evasiveness and equivocation. A truce was eventually offered to Perseus by the Roman general Philippus, which the young Macedonian naively accepted as a sign of Roman goodwill. Philippus, however, was simply buying time to get the main bulk of his forces to the Balkans. Although some senators balked at this supposedly un-Roman duplicity, their colleagues colluded in it by deliberately delaying Macedon’s envoys to Rome from returning home. It was, as one historian has suggested, ‘as disreputable a piece of Roman diplomatic duplicity as many senators had ever witnessed’.34

Perseus’ final defeat, at Pydna in 168, which had spelled the end of the Macedonian monarchy, signalled the adoption of an even harder line against Carthage in the Roman Senate.35 Indeed, a number of ancient authors saw this as a watershed in Roman attitudes to other Mediterranean states. In a famous passage, Diodorus, who perhaps took the notion from Polybius, wrote, ‘In more recent times, the Romans, when they went in pursuit of world empire, brought it into being by the valour of arms, then extended its influence far and wide by the kindest possible treatment of the conquered . . . But once they held sway over virtually the whole inhabited world, they confirmed their power by the wielding of terror and by the destruction of the most eminent cities.’36

Although that development was in fact far less clear than Diodorus suggests, it nonetheless appears that, in the wake of Rome’s victory over Macedon, the Senate was indeed far more willing to use wars in order to protect its interests. At the same time, however, Diodorus sets out a further feature of Roman foreign policy, which appears, superficially at least, directly to contradict his previous pronouncement: ‘The Romans make it a point to embark only upon wars that are just, and to make no casual or precipitate decisions on such matters.’37 What Diodorus means, however, is that the Roman Senate was sensitive to the accusation that it might start a war unjustly. In Roman relations with Carthage, we therefore witness a painfully drawn-out process whereby the Carthaginians eventually provided the Romans with a (weak) justification for further military action.

When, in 162, Masinissa overran the fertile coastal farmland of Syrtis Minor–territory that had been in Carthaginian possession for centuries –the ensuing dispute provided the Romans with the pretext that they required. The real target of this encroachment had been the wealthy trading emporia that dotted the coast, but these were well defended and remained outside Numidian control. What military force had initiated was completed by Roman arbitration. Carthage was ordered to relinquish any claim to the territory seized by Masinissa, and the injustice was further compounded when the former was required to pay the Numidian 500 talents of silver, which represented the revenues the Carthaginians had received from Syrtis Minor since the dispute had begun.38 Even Polybius clearly highlighted the unfairness of this ruling, writing that ‘their [the Carthaginians’] claim to the country was evidently just,’ and proved by Masinissa’s previous request to enter the territory in order to pursue a renegade general.39

While Livy’s account of this episode appears to lack the fullness of that of Polybius, it nevertheless includes an interesting detail about the arguments made to Rome by either side. For the Carthaginians, the territory fell within the boundaries set by Scipio Africanus at the end of the Second Punic War, and was therefore indisputably theirs.40 The Numidians, however, not only disputed the assertion that these lands were included within the 201 agreement, but also countered the Carthaginian claim with much older historical precedent. They asked:

If one wanted to determine the real origin of a property right, what land in Africa was really Carthaginian? Coming there as strangers, they had been granted as a gift, for the purpose of building a city, as much land as they could encompass with the cut-up hide of a bull; to whatever extent they had extended beyond their capitol, the Byrsa, they had gained by violence and without right. As to the particular tract of land in question, they could not even prove that they had held it for any considerable length of time, and much less that they had held it continuously from the time that they had begun to claim it. As occasion offered, now they and now the Numidian kings had claimed the right to it, and possession had always remained with the party that was stronger in arms.41

Part of the problem was the vagueness with which Scipio had actually set the boundaries in 201, but the Numidian argument actually seemed to confirm the Carthaginian possession of the lucrative trading emporia, for in defence of these Carthage had indeed proved itself ‘stronger in arms’.42When the Roman Senate decided in favour of the Numidians’ dubious and opportunistic claims, it was an ominous warning of what was to come. Within a decade Masinissa employed the same aggressive tactics to seize the fertile Thusca region, which had long been Carthaginian territory. Once more the Carthaginians complained to the Roman Senate, but the subsequent embassy sent from Rome merely compounded their problems, for it was led by a man who was already implacably opposed to the city.43

Marcus Porcius Cato was an old man of 81 years, but he had lost little of the hard-nosed political skill and ferocious determination that had driven his rise from relatively humble beginnings to the summit of the Roman political system, the consulship. Famed for his ascetic lifestyle and sense of moral rectitude, Cato had throughout his career rigorously pursued those fellow senators who had failed to meet his own high standards, and it was indeed Cato who had led the successful campaign to drive Scipio Africanus into the political wilderness.44 Cato’s apparent hatred towards Carthage was most probably born from his experiences during the Second Punic War, in which he had served in the Roman army at Capua, the siege of Tarentum and the Battle of the Metaurus in 207.

Arriving in Carthage in 152, the Roman embassy led by Cato decided to leave the seized territory in Numidian hands, but Cato himself was nevertheless alarmed by what he found. According to Plutarch, ‘The city was by no means in a poor and lowly state, as the Romans supposed, but rather teeming with vigorous fighting men, overflowing with enormous wealth, filled with arms of every sort and with military supplies, and not a little emboldened by all this.’45 Moreover, in the countryside crops were growing in abundance to feed the city’s burgeoning population.46 The Roman envoys also found evidence of large quantities of stored timber, which they presumably feared would be used to build a war fleet.47

On his return to Rome, Cato set to work lobbying his fellow senators. Although the famous aphorism ‘delenda est Carthago’ is a later invention, he would nevertheless end all speeches in the Senate with the uncompromising statement that Carthage indeed had to be destroyed.48 His primary argument was that Carthage not only was restoring itself to its former strength, but had also learned from and corrected the errors of the past.49 In his desperate efforts to get his senatorial colleagues to back his position Cato proved himself unabashed by a little histrionics. Standing on the speaker’s rostrum, he shook out the folds of his toga and revealed a large, juicy African fig. He then told his audience in the Senate House that the fig had been picked in Carthage just three days ago, thereby driving home not only the city’s renewed prosperity, but also its proximity to Rome.50At the same time, and despite the obvious exaggeration, Cato made his senatorial audience aware of the agricultural riches that could be appropriated if Carthage were destroyed.51

Cato’s position was opposed by a group of senators led by Scipio Nascia, the son-in-law of Scipio Africanus, who reportedly argued that to destroy Rome’s greatest enemy would be simultaneously to destroy its political equilibrium. Without a great enemy like Carthage, they predicted, the common citizenry would refuse to obey the authority of the Senate and, drunk with greed and power, would drag Rome into a series of ill-thought-out and potentially disastrous adventures.52 Diodorus summarized Scipio’s arguments as follows:

Rome’s strength should be judged . . . not by the weaknesses of others but by showing herself greater than the great. Furthermore, as long as Carthage survived, the fear that she generated forced the Romans to live together in harmony and to rule their subjects equitably and with credit to themselves–much the best means to maintain and extend an empire; but once the rival city was destroyed, it was only too evident that there would be civil war at home and that hatred for the governing power would spring up among the allies because of the rapacity and lawlessness to which the Roman magistrates would subject them.53

Despite the power of these seemingly prescient observations, we should of course be cautious in accepting them as an accurate reflection of Scipio’s objections. Writing a century later, Diodorus already knew that the Roman Republic would indeed be torn apart by political strife and civil war. Livy, by contrast, claims that Scipio’s opposition to war was formed on the basis of the lack of adequate justification (and not on aversion to the destruction of Carthage per se).54 While many senators apparently shared Cato’s suspicions of a resurgent Carthage, many also understood that war could not be waged without an adequate pretext.55 Ever concerned to avoid the charge of transgressing the much-vaunted virtue of fides, the Senate decided simply to wait until an opportunity presented itself.

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