Ancient History & Civilisation




The Opposing Sides

BEFORE LOOKING IN detail at the political organizations and military systems of Rome and Carthage on the eve of their first conflict, it is worth considering what the Mediterranean world was like in the third century BC. The death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC without a clear, adult successor had quickly torn his vast Empire apart. Eventually, three major dynasties emerged, the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Seleucids in Syria and much of Asia, and the Antigonid Kingdom of Macedonia. These bickered with each other and with the various smaller kingdoms, cities and leagues of cities which appeared in Greece and Asia Minor. The Greek communities which occupied most of Sicily and southern Italy - known as Magna Graecia - and were dotted around the coasts of Spain and southern Gaul, notably the great city of Massilia (Marseilles), were culturally part of the Hellenic world, but politically divided. Spain was occupied by the Iberians in the south, Celtiberians of mixed Spanish and Gallic stock in the north and the Lusitanians in the west. Gaul and northern Italy were populated by the people known to the Greeks as Celtoi and the Romans as Galli. All of these peoples were essentially tribal, although the level of unity within a tribe, the power of its leaders, and the strength of individual tribes fluctuated. Some peoples were developing settlements which already resembled classical city states. The Ligurians of north-western Italy were much more fragmented socially, with few leaders able to control more than the warriors of their own small village. In all of these peoples a leader's status depended primarily on his martial prowess. Raiding and small-scale warfare were endemic; battles less common, but by no means unknown.1

At the beginning of the third century Carthage was undisputedly the greatest power in the western Mediterranean. The Romans first really came to prominence, at least in the eyes of the literate Greek world, following their stubborn resistance to and eventual victory over Pyrrhus in 280-275. Yet they remained entirely an Italian power and it is fitting that we should look first at Carthage.


Phoenician merchant ships, initially powered solely by oars, were a familiar sight throughout the Mediterranean world from the beginning of the last millennium BC. A Semitic people, whose great cities of Tyre and Sidon lay on the coast of what is now Lebanon, the Phoenicians established trading settlements throughout the Mediterranean. There is archaeological evidence for their presence in Spain from the eighth century BC, but it is probable that they were active in the area earlier than this, for this was clearly Tartessus, the Tarshish of the Old Testament, a source of great mineral wealth. Carthage was not the first Punic settlement in Africa - Utica was certainly older - but it seems from the beginning to have had a special importance. Myth later told of Elissa (Phoenician Elishat) or Dido who fled from Tyre after her brother, King Pygmalion, had killed her husband, and in 814 she founded Carthage. Granted as much land as an ox-hide could cover by the Libyans, Elissa cut the hide into thin strips and so was able to claim far more ground than anticipated, in an early display of that deviousness which the Romans and Greeks considered a Punic trait. Subsequently Elissa chose to burn herself on a funeral pyre rather than marry the Libyan King Hierbos, an act which protected her people and maintained faith with her dead husband.2

Whether there is any slight trace of the truth in this story is impossible to say, for foundation myths were common in the Graeco-Roman world and frequently fabricated. We do not know what the Carthaginians themselves said of the origins of their city. Excavation has yet to reveal any traces of occupation before the very end of the eighth century BC. It is clear that Carthage maintained a close link with Tyre throughout its history. Annually an expedition was sent to sacrifice at the Temple of Melquart ('The Lord of the City') at Tyre, a connection that was preserved even after Carthage grew in power and began to found colonies of its own. Culturally the city remained distinctively Phoenician in language and culture, the adoption of some Greek and Libyan customs not changing its essential nature. In at least one aspect of religious practice the Carthaginians were more conservative than the people of Tyre. They continued the ghastly Moloch sacrifices of infants which were killed and burned in honour of Ba'al Hammon and his consort Tank, a practice which had been abandoned at Tyre by the time Carthage was established. The Tophet of Salammbo, the cult site where this ritual occurred, is the oldest structure yet discovered by archaeology at Carthage and the excavations have shown that the practice continued until 146. Disturbingly, the proportion of sacrifices where a lamb or other animal was substituted for the child decreased rather than increased over the centuries. Similar tophets have been discovered at other Carthaginian foundations, but rarely if ever on sites founded directly by the Phoenicians. Religion was closely controlled by the state at Carthage and its senior magistrates combined a political and religious function.3

Carthaginian overseas foundations remained primarily trading centres, like their Phoenician predecessors, but from the sixth century onwards they came into direct competition with the Greek colonies which began to spring up. The main driving force behind Greek colonization was the shortage of good, cultivatable land to meet the demand of an expanding population. The colonies they established were replicas of the city states or poleis of Greece itself, communities in which status was normally dependent on ownership of land. Competition between rivals both eager to exploit territories for their own benefit developed into open conflict, primarily for the control of Sicily. Numbers favoured the Greek colonists, for Carthaginian settlements were always small in size, but the Greeks were handicapped by their political disunity. An especially ferocious tone was added to the conflict by the strong religious differences between the two sides, and it was common for shrines and temples to be desecrated. This attitude softened slightly as the Carthaginian state began to accept certain Greek deities. The worship of Demeter and Kore (Persephone) was formally introduced to Carthage in 396, an act of propitiation after the destruction of one of their temples in Sicily had been followed by a devastating plague amongst the Punic army there.

The fortunes of both sides fluctuated during the long contest for Sicily. In 480 the Greeks won a great victory at Himera, an achievement which happily coincided with the defeat of Xerxes' invasion of Greece at Salamis in the same year and Plataea in 479, and was a cause of much satisfaction throughout the Hellenic world. Despite such failures, the Carthaginians persevered and Greeks increasingly were forced to accept the leadership of tyrants, notably Dionysius and Agathocles, or mercenary captains, of whom Pyrrhus was one of the last, to continue the struggle. In 310, Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, landed a force at Cape Bon in North Africa and posed a direct threat to the Carthaginian homeland. This produced a panic and political upheaval at Carthage. Agathocles defeated a much larger Carthaginian army, drawing troops away from the Punic expeditionary force. Ultimately, he was incapable of storming Carthage itself and could not raise enough of its Libyan subjects in revolt to weaken it fatally. Abandoning his army, Agathocles returned to Syracuse from which he dominated much of Sicily until his death in 289. Pyrrhus' intervention on the island initially checked the Carthage's reviving power, but failed to achieve any long-term results when his allies turned against him and the Carthaginians defeated his fleet in 276. By the time of the war with Rome, Carthage was clear master of all of the southern and western parts of Sicily.4

In the fifth century Carthagian power in Africa itself had steadily increased, perhaps in part encouraged by the failures in Sicily. The city had ceased to pay the subsidies levied by the local Libyan rulers and had come to control all the other Phoenician towns in the area, notably Hadrumen-tum and Utica. In the middle of the century Carthaginian fleets mounted great exploratory voyages along the North African coastline, passing the Straits of Gibraltar and pushing hundreds of miles along the western coastline. More permanently this led to the establishment of further trading posts in Africa, whilst the settlements in Spain continued to be developed. Control of all these outposts on the key coastal positions, for Carthaginian settlements were always based around good harbours, combined with the power of the Punic fleet, gave the city control of all the major trade routes in the western Mediterranean. Everywhere its merchants traded in the most favourable conditions, whilst those of other nationalities paid dues and tolls which further enriched the city's coffers. The enormous wealth of Carthage was reflected in the steady growth of the city and the splendour of its defences and buildings. Remains of the new areas of the city show evidence of having been laid out to a clearly organized plan, conforming to, although not as rigid as, the most advanced contemporary Hellenistic town-planning.5

Trade was not the only source of the city's prosperity. It is important not to forget that Carthage's wealth was also derived from a highly organized and effective agricultural base. The Agricultural Manual produced by a Carthaginian nobleman, Mago, probably dating to the late fourth century, was later to have a massive influence on the rest of the world when it was translated into both Greek and Latin after 146. Mago wrote about the methods of running a large estate worked at least in part by servile labour, supplemented by Libyan peasants. By 300 the Carthaginians directly controlled about half of the territory of modern-day Tunisia and the greater part of this was owned by the nobility. The nobles of Carthage were just as much a landowning aristocracy as the ruling elites of other cities, including Rome. The land was fertile (far more so than today), the climate favourable and their productivity foreshadowed the time when the African provinces would be the great granaries of the Roman Empire. These estates produced vast quantities of grain and especially the tree crops for which Africa was famous, such as grapes, figs, olives, almonds, and pomegranates. Agathocles' army is supposed to have been amazed by the fertility of the Carthaginian farms when they landed in Africa. Not only did this supply the city's needs, but it also provided a great surplus for export.6

In 300 the land controlled by Carthage was significantly greater than the ager Romanusy the lands owned by the Roman people, and rivalled the sum of these and the territories of Rome's allies. Its yield was probably significantly greater, for much of the land in Italy had poorer soil. Yet the benefits from this agricultural richness were not evenly shared and were enjoyed largely by the Carthaginians themselves, and most of all by their nobility. Carthage proved reluctant to extend citizenship and political rights to the peoples within the areas she came to control. The citizens of Carthaginian and Phoenician communities enjoyed a privileged position, as did the people of mixed race known to the Greeks as the Liby-Phoenicians, but others remained clearly subordinate allies or subjects. Therefore the extension of Punic hegemony over Africa, Spain, Sicily and Sardinia did not result in a great expansion of the Carthaginian citizen body. The Libyan population on the great estates seem to have been tied to the land and had little freedom. Libyan communities allied to Carthage enjoyed some internal autonomy, but were clearly subject to Punic will. Whilst waging the First Punic War, other Carthaginian soldiers were engaged in bitter fighting to conquer more Libyan communities. When after the peace with Rome the mercenary soldiers of Carthage mutinied and turned against her, they were swiftly supported by many Libyan communities. Other allied peoples, such as the Numidian kingdoms in Africa, enjoyed greater or lesser autonomy, but derived few benefits from being part of the Carthaginian empire to which they paid subsidies and for which they were often obliged to fight as soldiers.

Carthage had originally been a monarchy, its kingship possessing a strongly religious character, but by the third century the senior executive officers of the state were the two annually elected suffetes. It is unknown whether this office developed from or replaced the monarchy, but the Greek use of the word basileus (king) for this magistracy makes it possible that there was a connection. The nature of the Punic monarchy is fiercely debated by scholars, but it may be that it had been an elective office. Wealth as much as merit was important in the election of the suffetes, who held supreme civil and religious power but did not act as military commanders. A Council of Thirty Elders (or gerousia) acted in an advisory capacity and was supervised by and probably drawn from another tribunal, the Council of 104. If the suffetes and the Elders agreed on a course of action then they had the power to implement it. If they were unable to reach agreement then the proposals were taken to the Assembly of the People to decide the matter. At these meetings any citizen was permitted to make a counter-proposal. It is clear that a relatively small number of noble families dominated the council and probably monopolized the office of suffes (suffete). The details of the internal politics of the city are far less clear, and whilst we gain hints of disputes and factionalism, it is impossible to describe these with any precision. Greek philosophers, most notably Aristode, praised Carthage for possessing a balanced constitution combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy, which allowed it to avoid the chronic instability which was the weakness of most Greek states. Certainly Carthage appears to have been very stable, although it is difficult to say whether or not the Greeks had understood the true reason for this, and its regime was one from which the citizens, and most of all the wealthy, benefited greatly.7

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