Ancient History & Civilisation

Carthaginian Revival, 201-150 BC

Carthage went through a brief period of political turmoil in the years after 201. As usual, the lack of sources from an insider's perspective makes it very difficult to know precisely what was going on, but there does seem to have been widespread Popular dissatisfaction with the rule of the old oligarchy. Hannibal seems to have continued in command of whatever remained of the Punic army for several years, one late source claiming that he set his soldiers to farming. In 196 he was elected suffete and began a series of confrontations with another magistrate, called a 'quaestor' by Livy, and the Council of 104, accusing many of stealing from the State. He declared that the debt to Rome could easily be paid if corruption amongst the State's officials was eliminated. Hannibal strengthened the power of the Popular Assembly at the expense of the oligarchy, but was bitterly opposed by his political enemies. Some of these went to Rome and accused him of intriguing with Antiochus III against Rome. Despite opposition from Scipio Africanus, the Senate decided to intervene and in 195 sent a Commission of three to charge Hannibal publicly in Carthage. His year of office as suffete had now expired and, aware of the strength of his enemies, Hannibal fled from the city and went into exile in the east, going first to Tyre, the old Mother city, and eventually to the court of Antiochus. His house was demolished and his remaining possessions confiscated.21

Perhaps Hannibal's overhaul of the public finances had the desired result for Carthage rapidly began to recover from the strain of the war with Rome. After ten years, the State was able to offer Rome the remainder of the fifty-year war debt, although the Romans declined, preferring to maintain this annual reminder of Carthage's defeat. Although some land had been lost to Masinissa's Numidia, the Carthaginians still controlled the bulk of their highly fertile territory and it was not long before agricultural production was booming. As mentioned earlier, much of the grain which fed the Roman armies in the east came from Carthage. Trade seems to have revived and Punic merchants were once more a familiar figure in the markets of the Mediterranean, including Rome. It is uncertain whether or not Rome's Carthaginian community had left during the wars, but we do hear of the arrest of suspected spies by the Romans in both the First and Second War, although these appear to have been slaves. The archaeological record suggests a high level of prosperity reflected in the widespread construction of substantial new houses within Carthage and a rich material culture. The great circular harbour of the Punic navy visible today was either constructed or heavily restored during the years between the Second and Third Punic Wars and its scale is another reflection of the city's wealth. Economically the Carthaginians do not seem to have suffered in the long run as a result of their defeats.22

Hannibal did not live to hear of this new prosperity, not even from afar. He had commanded a fleet for Antiochus during the war with Rome and is depicted by Roman sources as constantly urging the king to invade Italy. This he maintained was the only way to beat the Romans. When Antiochus made peace with Rome, one of the terms was that he should hand over Hannibal and certain other named individuals. Before this could occur, Hannibal had once again escaped and this time ended up in the court of Prusias of Bithynia in 183. Under pressure from a Roman delegation, who saw the king's offer of sanctuary as suspicious, Prusias had the country house where the old general was staying surrounded by his soldiers. Unable to escape, Hannibal took poison and ended his own life.23

Both Hannibal and Scipio had ended their lives in disappointment. One tradition claimed that the two men had met once more at Ephesus, when Scipio was part of a Roman embassy to Antiochus III. The Roman is supposed to have asked Hannibal whom he thought were the greatest generals in history. In reply he listed Alexander the Great, Pyrrhus and himself in that order. When Scipio asked what he would have said if he had won at Zama, the Carthaginian said that in that case he would have placed himself first, carefully flattering them both. The story may well be apocryphal, but the debate over the relative merits of these two commanders and comparison with the other 'Great Captains' of history continues to this day. Whilst this may provide an entertaining diversion, it is ultimately a sterile pursuit. Better simply to say that both men were exceptionally gifted commanders by the standards of their time and cultures, that they served their States to the best of their ability, and won remarkable victories against the odds, even if one was eventually defeated.24

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