Ancient History & Civilisation

THE DESOLATION OF CARTHAGE

During the last years of the 150s, it became increasingly clear in Carthage that their treaty with Rome offered much by way of obligation, and little by way of protection. The growing exasperation led to the political rise of a democratic faction who, one suspects, were the successors of the demagogic Barcid clique. According to the Greek writer Appian, this group, led by Hamilcar the Samnite and Carthalo, argued that, as no assistance could be expected from Rome, Carthage would have to defend itself.56 With Carthage’s agricultural base being slowly eroded by Numidian infringements, it is not difficult to understand why such a manifesto captured the popular vote in the city.

Once in power, Hamilcar and Carthalo quickly established a more assertive policy towards the Numidians, and drove all pro-Masinissan politicians out of Carthage. Masinissa responded by sending two of his sons to demand the restoration of the pro-Numidian faction, but when the princes were excluded from the city, and then later ambushed by Hamilcar the Samnite, open war between Numidia and Carthage was declared. After an inconclusive battle, the Carthaginians under their general Hasdrubal allowed themselves to be surrounded, and were eventually starved into submission and then treacherously massacred. Only Hasdrubal and a few others escaped back to Carthage. As a result, yet another sizeable piece of Carthaginian territory in Africa was lost to Masinissa.57

The Carthaginians had not only lost the brief campaign against Numidia, by attacking Roman allies they had also violated the terms of the 201 treaty, and thus given their enemies in the Roman Senate a pretext to convince their less belligerent colleagues that another war was justified.58 Now that the situation in Macedon and Greece had been resolved, and a difficult series of rebellions among the Spanish tribes had been put down, Rome also had the resources to attack Carthage with overwhelming and irresistible force.

It has sometimes been argued that some in the Senate may have feared that the Carthaginian recovery would now accelerate, since in 151 the city had successfully paid off the last instalment of the indemnity from the Second Punic War. It seems equally probable, however, that for some the end of the indemnity signalled not only the end of a lucrative and regular source of revenue, but also the possibility of an even greater payday.59 War and conquest had brought Rome huge wealth, and all classes of its citizens had benefited.60 Plutarch recounts how a wealthy young Roman in this period threw an opulent dinner party, of which the centrepiece was a honey cake in the form of a city. The host had then declared it to be Carthage, and exhorted his guests to plunder it.61 The story, while undoubtedly apocryphal, nonetheless touches upon an important truth: whatever its actual or potential military threat, Carthage, through its mercantile and agricultural wealth, had now become an attractive prospect for slavering Romans who wished it as their own.62

In 150 the Romans mobilized an army for North Africa. When the ominous news of this crossed the Libyan Sea, there was widespread alarm. Finding themselves isolated by the desertion of their erstwhile North African allies such as Utica, the Carthaginians desperately tried to appease the Romans by bringing the party of Hanno back into power, and arresting and condemning to death Hasdrubal, the general who had led the Numidian campaign. When Carthaginian envoys arrived in Rome to plead their case, however, they discovered that the Roman army had already left for Sicily, whence it would progress to Africa. Their concerns would not have been eased by the frosty reception that they received in the Senate, where, on informing their audience that Hasdrubal had been apprehended and was awaiting execution, the envoys were asked why this had not been done at the beginning of the conflict. Requests for guidance on how Carthage might atone for its transgressions were simply met by the ambiguous response ‘You must satisfy the Roman people.’63

Cato, despite his age, did all that he could to maintain the drumbeat of war, and in a speech from which several extracts have survived he reportedly declared, ‘The Carthaginians are already our enemies; for the man who prepares everything against me so that he can make war whenever he wants is already my enemy, even if he is not yet taking military action.’64 Later in the same address, he brought his case to a powerful climax: ‘Who are the people who have often broken their treaties? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who have waged war with the utmost cruelty? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who have disfigured Italy? The Carthaginians. Who are the people who ask to be forgiven? The Carthaginians.’65 In addition to the emphasis on the suffering of Italy, which was obviously an emotive topic,66 Cato thus played on pre-existent Roman stereotypes of Carthaginians. Punic perfidy was thus set against Roman fides, the primary virtue upon which the Roman state increasingly prided itself—to the extent that during the First Punic War the Romans had even built a temple to Fides.67 Cato had in fact established a dossier (now lost, and the subject of seemingly endless historical speculation) of six supposed instances of Carthage’s lack of good faith in breaking its agreements with Rome.68 This strong contemporary emphasis on Punic treachery served, one suspects, not only to strengthen the immediate case for war, but also to mask the Romans’ growing awareness of their own diplomatic disingenuousness.

While the Romans continued a diplomatic charade with the Carthaginian envoys, instructions had already been dispatched to the expectant Roman army. Thus in 149, as the Carthaginians, at Rome’s behest, handed over 300 noble children as a sign of good faith,69 the Roman army, made up of 80,000 infantry and 4,000 horse and led by the consuls of that year, Lucius Marcius Censorinus and Marcus Manilius, set off for North Africa. Only once the Roman army was ensconced at Utica were the Carthaginians given the terms under which war could be avoided.

When a trumpet sounded, envoys were brought into the Roman camp and were made to walk through the massed ranks of Roman legions, who stood to attention fully armed and in complete silence. In front of them, sitting magisterially on tall chairs, were the consuls, with their senior officers standing around them. After a litany of excuses had been curtly dismissed by Censorinus, the Carthaginians were ordered to hand over all their weapons and war machines. The Carthaginians complied, and a train of wagons soon arrived in the Roman camp carrying armour and weapons for 20,000 men, as well as 2,000 giant catapults. Now that the Carthaginians were completely disarmed, a deputation composed of thirty leading citizens was summoned to learn the final peace terms which the Romans were prepared to offer. The Carthaginians would be allowed to live freely under their own laws, and indeed within their own territory (as long as it was at least 16 kilometres inland).70 But, in order to enjoy that freedom, they had to consent to a dramatic act: the utter destruction of their city.

The destruction of Carthage and its relocation elsewhere was more than a case of simple resettlement. As Serge Lancel has said:

Such a diktat was the equivalent of a death sentence. There was no precedent in antiquity for a state’s surviving the eradication of what constituted it on the sacred plane: the destruction of its temples and cemeteries, the deportation of its cults, were a more surely mortal blow than displacing the population. But that displacement in itself, simply in material and non-religious terms, was the very negation of what had been the vocation and the raison d’être of Carthage, a maritime state whose power and wealth relied on the feelers it sent out from its ports across the seas.71

The angry and grief-stricken response which the Roman demand elicited from the Carthaginian envoys shows that they understood its full implications. When eventually silence was restored, one of their number, a certain Banno, attempted one last time to intercede on his city’s behalf. In his account of the speech, Appian reports that the Carthaginian skilfully highlighted how, in destroying Carthage after promising to leave it free and autonomous, the Romans would transgress a number of the virtues that they proudly claimed to possess. Banno reportedly argued that the obliteration of Carthage, a city founded on the command of the gods, would be an act of gross impiety. Moreover, to raze to the ground a city that had already surrendered, given up its arms and children, and met all other terms, would be an act of bad faith.72

According to Appian, the Roman consul Censorinus responded with a highly selective account of how the Carthaginians’ relationship with the sea had brought them nothing but hardship and misery. Even Rome’s unjust seizure of Sardinia was presented as the result of Carthage’s maritime obsession. The Carthaginians would, he insisted, be far more secure, and indeed content, with the simple joys of agriculture. Then the consul presented the Carthaginians with the brutal logic behind the Roman decision. While the Carthaginians remained in their city they would remember and seek to reacquire the glories of the past: ‘The medicine for all evils is oblivion and this is not possible for you unless you put away the sight [of their city and former glory].’ Finally, Censorinus, clearly sensitive to the suggestions of impiety and bad faith, proclaimed that, despite the city’s destruction, the temples and tombs would be spared. As to the charge of breaking the terms of Rome’s own accord with Carthage, the consul was ready with a clever answer: ‘We offer you whatever place you choose to take, and when you have taken it you shall live under your own laws. This is what we told you beforehand: that Carthage should have its own laws if you would obey our commands. We considered you to be Carthage, not the ground where you live.’73

The Carthaginian ambassadors were now charged with the unenviable task of relaying these unwelcome tidings to their fellow countrymen. First, however, they asked that the Romans send their fleet to within sight of Carthage, so that its citizens should understand the gravity of the situation that they now faced.

In the furore that followed back in Carthage, both those elders who had argued for acquiescence to Rome’s demands and hapless Italian merchants were set upon and murdered by the angry mob. At once the city began to prepare for war. It set free its slaves to fight in the army; then Hasdrubal, the general who had been sentenced to death for his part in the war with Masinissa, was reprieved and restored to his old position. After a failed attempt to buy more time by making a request to the consuls for a thirty-day truce while a new embassy went to Rome, the pace of war preparations was stepped up, with all available public space, including temples, being turned into workshops in which men and women worked shifts. Each day 100 shields, 300 swords, 1,000 ballistic missiles, and 500 darts and spears were produced, and the women even cut off their long hair to be used as catapult string.74 New coins–the first silver issues since the end of the last war with Rome–were also minted, presumably for the payment of troops.75

Thanks to extensive excavations since the 1970s, an increasing amount of information about the city in its last years has been gathered. The most extraordinary discovery was made by French archaeologists who uncovered a neighbourhood dating to this period on the southern slopes of the Byrsa hill, the citadel of Carthage and the administrative and religious heart of the city. The ‘Hannibal Quarter’, named by its excavators after the famous general who held high office in Carthage around the time that it was constructed, is in remarkably intact condition, with some walls still standing to a height of nearly 3 metres, and presents a fascinating snapshot of life for the 700,000 inhabitants of Carthage just before its fall. It is not known for whom these houses were built, although their excavators have speculated that, because of their uniformity, they may have been intended for some kind of governmental cadre.

Although the roads remained unpaved and were clearly unsanitary when it rained heavily, because of their rather rudimentary drainage system, the Hannibal Quarter, with its multi-storeyed blocks uniformly set out on right-angled streets, looked like many others that one might find across the Mediterranean region during this period. Many of the houses were certainly rather small, but they conformed to a basic plan that was found all over the Greek world, with rooms arranged around a central courtyard that acted as the main source of light into the building.76

The presence of a large number of cisterns for collecting and storing rainwater gives some insight into the struggle that was waged to collect a sufficient amount when so ill-supplied with natural sources of fresh water. Indeed, these cisterns seem to have collected sufficient water not only for drinking and other household necessities, but also for the bathing and other ablutions performed in washrooms (identifiable by the waterproof plaster on the walls and floor, as well as the outflow drainage). Although only one example has survived, it appears that these washrooms would have possessed free-standing terracotta hip baths (complete with elbow rests) which would have been filled with water from the cisterns in the courtyard.77

The stairways and steps that were needed to compensate for the gradient of the slope, and the lack of paved surfaces, made it impossible for vehicles to access its streets, but the area was still a thriving hub for local business. One floor was still covered with coral, obsidian and cornelian chippings from a jeweller’s workshop. In another street a miller’s yard was found deserted, with parts of a rotary grain mill still lying discarded on the floor.78

When the Roman consuls eventually began their siege, what confronted them was a very formidable challenge. Although Appian’s account of the fortifications on the isthmus on which Carthage was situated is undoubtedly fanciful–it describes huge walls and fortified towers, as well as barracks and stables large enough to house 20,000 infantry, 300 elephants, and 4,000 horses and their riders–archaeological excavation has proved the existence of triple defences made up of ditches, banks and walls.79 It was these defences that the Roman consuls tested for the remainder of 149, with very little success. At one point Censorinus used massive battering rams to break down a southern section of the outer walls, but he was once more driven back. The siege dragged on throughout 148, and indeed the Carthaginians, despite the desertion of the old Punic cities of North Africa, had reason to be confident. The reprieved general Hasdrubal was roaming freely around Carthage’s hinterland with an army, disrupting Roman communications and supply lines, and the Roman onslaught in general had been repelled with some ease.80

In 147 the new Roman consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso attempted a new tactic, and attacked the last towns in the region which still supported the Carthaginians, thus preventing the latter from receiving supplies and reinforcements. His second in command, Lucius Hostilius Mancinus, also led an opportunistic commando assault on a weak section of Carthage’s defences, but, after initially breaching the wall, Mancinus and his men were set upon, and were saved only by the timely intervention of the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus, who had just arrived in Africa with reinforcements to take over command of the campaign.81

The appointment of the young Scipio Aemilianus, who was underage and without the proper credentials, reflects a general dissatisfaction in Rome with the progress of the war against Carthage. Scipio had been elected consul for 147 not only for his promise as a military commander, but also for the record of his family against the Carthaginians.82 He had already served with some distinction as a legate on the African campaign, and this experience proved invaluable as he looked to restore the morale, and review the strategy, of his army.83 Even Cato, the scourge of the Scipios, believed Scipio Aemilianus was the man for the job.84

Scipio first made sorties to test the Carthaginian defences at different points, and attacked Megara, a large suburban area of the city. Intended or not, the result of the latter action was that Hasdrubal, still camped with his army in the countryside, was at last sufficiently alarmed to move his forces back inside Carthage. Now all the Carthaginian forces were trapped inside the city, and all Scipio needed to do was to mount an effective blockade, which he did by securing the isthmus with a fortified camp complete with watchtower. His final action to effectively seal off the city from the outside world was the construction of a mole to block the harbour, and thus also the arrival of provisions from the sea.

The Carthaginians, initially sceptical about the possibility of building such a structure, noted its rapid progression and attempted to thwart the project by secretly excavating a new entrance on the other side of the harbour. When it was ready, they sent out at dawn a flotilla of makeshift warships built out of old materials, and launched a surprise attack on the Roman positions.85 The Romans, completely taken unaware, were at first thrown into confusion, but the Carthaginians failed to take proper advantage of the situation. Three days later an inconclusive sea battle was fought between the two fleets in the old harbour, with the smaller, more nimble, Carthaginian craft having some initial success in damaging the Roman ships. However, when attempting to withdraw so that they could resume battle the next day, some of the Carthaginian ships became entangled at the new harbour entrance, blocking those that followed and leaving them exposed to Roman attack. A number of ships were therefore lost before the Carthaginian naval squadron could retreat inside the city.86

With the completion of the Roman mole it quickly became apparent that its purpose had been not merely to block the harbour, but also to provide a thoroughfare along which Roman troops and siege equipment could be brought right up to the harbour fortifications. The target was the large external platform that had been used by the Carthaginians as an external harbour and quayside. In their desperation to keep the Romans at bay, the Carthaginians launched a daring mission in which naked men, carrying aloft unlit torches, swam or waded through the water and, in the face of Roman arrows and spears, managed to set light to and destroy completely the first siege engines that Scipio had dragged up to the walls. The next day, however, the Romans began the process of constructing new machines, which were then dragged forward on to tall mounds. From there torches and vessels full of burning pitch were hurled down on to the Carthaginian defenders, who were subsequently forced to retreat from the platform. Now that his troops held this precious foothold, Scipio knew that it was only a matter of time before the city fell. Leaving a portion of his army to ensure that nobody escaped from the city, he went off with the remainder to mop up the last pockets of resistance in the surrounding towns and countryside.87

In Carthage itself the situation was critical, for there was now no food entering the city by land or by sea. The subdivision of many of the houses in the Hannibal Quarter into much smaller living spaces may well be a reflection of overcrowding as Carthage’s population was swelled by refugees from the countryside and the suburbs. With the seizure of the last allied cities, there appeared to be little hope of salvation. Now, after centuries of ruthlessly defending their political authority, the Carthaginian elite succumbed to the autocratic ambitions of one among their number.

Hasdrubal had already shown himself well versed in the art of political machination, for he had already engineered the fall from grace of his chief rival, the military commander of the city. (The unfortunate man had been beaten to death with benches in the Popular Assembly, no doubt by supporters of Hasdrubal, after the latter had falsely accused him of treachery.)88 Once Hasdrubal and his army had taken residence in the city, it was not long before the general revealed his demagogic aspirations.89 Those among the Council of Elders who dared to oppose him were executed, while Hasdrubal took on the insignia of the city’s supreme general, garbed in full armour and a purple robe, and accompanied by a retinue of ten swordsmen. Like the Syracusan tyrants of old, Hasdrubal used a potent mix of populist gestures and brutality to maintain his authority. In a city where supplies were in short supply, food was used as weapon of control, and, as the general citizenry starved, Hasdrubal kept his troops and supporters well fed with banquets and parties.90 Moreover, by torturing captured Roman soldiers to death in full view of their comrades outside the city, he ensured that the Carthaginians had little option but to stay loyal: after this conspicuous display of barbarity, any chance of mercy from the Romans was gone.91

Carthage’s lapse into military tyranny was, however, only short-lived. By the spring of 146, Scipio, with his troops mustered, the bridgehead secure, and the rest of Africa subdued, was at last ready to order the fateful final assault with which this book began. Extraordinarily, an eyewitness to Carthage’s bloody demise was the most important historian of the Second Punic War, Polybius. Polybius had been a senior official of the Greek Achaean League and, suspected by the Romans of harbouring pro-Macedonian sympathies, had been taken to Italy in the early 160s as a hostage. In Rome he had become a close friend of Scipio Aemilianus, and had consequently travelled with his patron on campaigns in Spain, Gaul and Africa (hence his presence in Carthage in 146).92According to Polybius, as Scipio watched Carthage burn he wept, and then:

After musing by himself a long time and reflecting upon the inevitable fall of cities, peoples and empires, as well as of individuals, upon the fate of Troy, that once proud city, upon the fate of the Assyrian, the Median, and afterwards of the great Persian empire, and most recently of all, of the splendid empire of Macedon, either voluntarily or otherwise the words of the poet [Homer] escaped from his lips:

The day shall come in which our sacred Troy
And Priam, and the people over whom
Spear-bearing Priam rules, shall perish all.

Being asked by Polybius in casual conversation (for Polybius had been his tutor) what he meant by using these words, Polybius says that he did not hesitate to frankly name his own country, for whose fate he feared when he considered the mutability of human affairs. And Polybius wrote this down just as he heard it.93

It is, of course, difficult to know if Polybius really did write these words down exactly as he heard them. Whatever the provenance of this anecdote, however, Scipio’s tears had little to do with the ghastly horror that the general had unleashed upon Carthage, but were in fact shed for his own city, Rome. With the obliteration of its greatest rival, Rome had arrived as a world power, while at the same time setting in motion the cycle that would eventually lead to its own destruction.

Remarkably, Carthage was not the only venerable, ancient city to be destroyed by the Romans in 146. In the same year a Roman army under Lucius Mummius had captured, looted and destroyed much of the city of Corinth after a revolt by the Achaean League.94On the one hand, the fate of Corinth serves to highlight the hypocrisy of Roman claims that a particular fear of Carthage had led to the extraordinarily brutal and unwarranted treatment of the city. On the other, it strongly suggests that there was more to the destruction of Carthage than simple aggression. The sacking of two of the richest port cities in the ancient Mediterranean was, for one thing, a hugely profitable business. Both cities were brutally stripped of their wealth, and their works of art were shipped back to Rome. Scipio Aemilianus could at least partly exculpate himself by the fact that the Greek Sicilian cities were invited to come and reclaim the works that the Carthaginians had previously looted from them.95 But slave auctions and the seizure of a large swathe of previous Carthaginian territory, which now became public land owned by the Roman state, unequivocally contributed to a massive infusion of wealth into both public and private Roman coffers.96

At the same time, the conspicuous destruction of two ancient cities sent an unequivocal message: dissent against Rome would not be tolerated, and past glories counted for nothing in this new world. As Nicholas Purcell puts it, ‘Founding, refounding and major embellishment were normal ingredients in rulers’ city policy. Destruction was just as effective . . . At Carthage and Corinth in 146 BC the Romans made a carefully considered statement in the old symbolic language, one which went far beyond any recent experience of city war.’97 The earlier fate of Capua–its people enslaved, its civic status repealed, and its access to the sea removed–had merely been the dress rehearsal for a wider Mediterranean drama.98 The destruction of Carthage and Corinth now stood as a bloody memorial to the cost of resistance to Rome, and a suitably apocalyptic fanfare for Rome’s coming of age as a world power.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!