Situated on the eastern shore of the Lake of Tunis in what is now Tunisia is Carthage. This city was at one time the capital of ancient Carthaginian society.
Carthage grew out of a Punic realm that ruled parts of the Mediterranean in the first millennium BC.
The Roman Republic devastated Carthage in the Third Punic War in 146 BC. Julius Caesar then revitalized it as Roman Carthage.
It became the central city of the Roman Empire in the Province of Africa.
History of Carthage
The beginnings of Carthage date back to the Phoenicians. They inhabited land in the Middle East known as Phoenicia, which is now Lebanon.
First, they built city-states extending from southeast Turkey to modern-day Israel. Then they found it easier to create ports along the African coast for setting up bases in the west because the Africans were not as warlike as the people along the European coast.
The Phoenicians established Carthage in the ninth century BC. The city lay on the coastline of Northwest Africa in what is now Tunisia. It was one of many Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean built for trade from Tyre and Sidon on the seaboard of present-day Lebanon.
The word Carthage comes from Kart-hadasht, Phoenician for “New Town.” The Phoenicians were careful in choosing the sites of their coastal colonies. They concentrated on the nature of the harbors and their closeness to the trade routes. Thus, Carthage’s location was ideal.
They built the “New Town” in a small bay in the middle of the expansive natural harbor, now known as the Bay of Tunis. It was on a wedge-shaped headland sheltered by low hills. With its safe anchorage and a large stock of fish, the Lake of Tunis was at its back. The Bagradas River (now the Mejerda) flowed nearby. The land was fertile and well-watered, rich with grapes and corn and oil.
The city is of crucial importance to Roman history. The battles in the colossal struggle between the two powers helped the Romans. It forged their navies and legions into the best combat force in the Mediterranean.
Before the Punic Wars, Carthage was the most prominent political system in the Mediterranean. It was also the most powerful and affluent. It was a significant power in the Mediterranean from around 650 BC to 146 BC.
The city expanded in size after a stream of refugees came in from Tyre. They were escaping Alexander the Great’s conquest of 332 BC. Afterward, it extended until it became the headquarters of the Carthaginian Empire. It had colonies in Sicily, along the coast of North Africa, and elsewhere.
Although it began as a monarchy, Carthage became a republic in the 4th century BC. Like Rome, it had a senate made up of the wealthiest men in the city. The senate made the laws. Carthage also had leaders, called “suffetes,” who acted as judges.
Carthage lost everything in the Punic Wars. These wars hoisted Rome to the position of the Mediterranean’s greatest superpower.
The location allowed access to the Mediterranean. It also protected the city from the powerful storms that battered other ports on the coast. Carthage was in a spot that was well-protected and easy to defend. Plus, it was close to the Strait of Sicily. It was at a strategic high-traffic area in the east-west Mediterranean trade. All ships crossing the Mediterranean Sea had to pass between Carthage and Sicily. It afforded the city great power and influence.
The city soon expanded. It even established an Oligarchic Constitution in the sixth century BC. Before that, a governor reported to the King of Tyre. By 550 BC, their territory included Ibiza in the Balearic Islands and part of Sicily.
Carthage had the support of the older Phoenician colonies. It also had the backing of and the tribes that lived within them. The city had subjugated Libya so that it could control the entire North African coast.
Its dominion ran from the western border of Egypt to the Atlantic Ocean. It also had control of Malta, Sardinia, Corsica, part of Sicily, and the Balearic Islands. History reports that Carthage had control of over 300 cities across the Mediterranean.
– Who Founded the City of Carthage?
Legend has it that Queen Elissa founded Carthage in 814 BC. She was also known as Alyssa, or Dido, which meant Beloved. Dido was the daughter of Mutto (also known as Agenor or Belus), the King of Tyre. The year 814 corresponds with the account of Timaeus, a historian from Taormina in Sicily. Timaeus wrote the earliest story on record about Dido.
Dido’s brother, Pygmalion, succeeded Mutto to the throne. He murdered Dido’s husband, Acerbas, the Chief Priest of Hercules, and a man of immense wealth. Pygmalion was jealous of his prosperity. Acerbas’ ghost revealed to Dido what had happened to him and told her where he had hidden his treasure. Dido fled Tyre with some nobles and sailed westward to North Africa in a fleet of ships carrying Acerbas’ gold.
In Cyprus, the party took on 80 temple maidens to provide the fleeing nobles with brides. Then, the fleet continued, landing in Northwest Africa. There Dido bought the land and created the port city of Carthage. This city became a capital superpower that would later be a rival to Ancient Rome.
– Dido and the Founding of Carthage
Great cities were signs of sophistication and power in the ancient Mediterranean world.
Dido bought the land to establish Carthage from the Iarbus, ruler of the Berbers. He dominated the region at the time. Iarbus had told her that he would sell her the amount of land that an ox hide could cover. Dido cut an ox hide into small strips and rested them end-to-end around Byrsa Hill, claiming it for her people.
Virgil’s epic poem, Aeneid, gives details about Dido’s life, character, and role in the founding of Carthage. It also tells how Dido met the Trojan prince Aeneas, who was on his way to Lavinium. Aeneas’ descendants later went on to found Rome. He stumbled on the beginnings of Carthage, where he had expected to find desert alone. Instead, it included an amphitheater and a temple to Juno, both under construction.
Aeneas wooed Dido, who resisted him until an arrow from Cupid struck her. When he left her at the command of Jupiter to fulfill his destiny, she placed a curse on him. She told him that his people and hers would clash in war.
Legend also has it that Iarbus wanted to marry Dido when he saw how rich the city of Carthage had become. He said he would declare war on Carthage if she did not marry him.
Instead, Dido made a great fire, ascended onto the pyre set in the middle of it, and used a sword to kill herself. The people of Carthage revered her as a goddess after her death. Another version of the story says that Dido committed suicide after Aeneas left.
Where Was Carthage?
Carthage was founded in present-day Tunisia. This city-state gained independence from Phoenicia in 650 BC. After that, it expanded its political and economic domination. Its dominion spread across Northwest Africa and Iberia. It also controlled the major islands of the western Mediterranean.
Soon Carthage was the leading power of the western Mediterranean. Thus, it came into conflict with the budding Roman Empire and many other neighbors. It also had to fight off competitors such as the aboriginal Berbers of North Africa.
The Lake of Tunis was still connected to the sea in ancient times. So, Carthage lay to the end of a defendable headland, linked to the mainland only at its east end. A wall, 25 miles long, 30 feet thick, and up to 40 feet high, enclosed it. Earthworks reinforced it. Ditches and towers protected the city and the nearby farming area from enemy attacks.
The city-state could keep Rome in check due to its mighty navy. However, between 480 and 265 BC Carthage fought several wars for control of Sicily, which intensified as the Roman Republic rose in power.
What Was Ancient Carthage Famous For?
Carthage traded in the luxurious purple dye from the murex shell. They also sold other products from south of the Sahara. Ivory, gold, ostrich feathers, and black human captives had an exotic appeal. These products fetched high prices in the Mediterranean markets. Carthage traded in all these commodities and more.
Carthage was itself a center for textile production, and the Carthaginians produced finely embroidered cloth. In addition, the city had many skilled craftsmen in wood-, ivory-, and metalwork.
Carthage also practiced advanced and productive agriculture and manufacturing. They grew large quantities of wheat as well as a wide range of other crops. They used well-thought-out husbandry methods and irrigation practices.
They sold their agricultural produce in ports across the Mediterranean. This produce included wine, olive oil, figs, dates, pomegranates, and pears. The city-state traded in almost every commodity wanted by the ancient world. They even bought and sold spices from Africa, Arabia, and India.
The Carthaginian navy was also famous. Carthage had one of the most significant military forces in the ancient world. Another claim to fame was the Punic Wars, fought on land and sea from 265 BC to 146 BC.
The Punic Wars
Carthage reigned supreme as long as Rome remained the small trading city by the Tiber River. But Sicily would be the flashpoint for rising Roman hatred for the Carthaginians. So Carthage and Rome declared war on each other for control of Sicily in 264 BC – the first Punic War. The word “Punic” comes from the Latin “punicus,” which the Romans used to refer to the Phoenicians.
Rome built and equipped 330 ships, although they had no navy and did not know anything about sea battles. Carthage had the advantage of the brilliant general Hamilcar Barca. He got the surname Barca, meaning lightning, because of his speed. He was famous for the suddenness of the action whenever he attacked. Still, Rome defeated Carthage in that first war and took control of Sicily.
The two cities fought the second Punic War between 218 BC and 201 BC. Hannibal, the famous Carthaginian leader, was Hamilcar’s grandson. He traversed the Alps to invade Rome in Italy during that war. He won many battles in Italy, but Carthage declined in strength as the war waged on. The Romans crushed Carthage and gained control of most of North Africa and Spain.
The third Punic War happened between 149 BC and 146 BC. Rome conquered the city and burned it to the ground, bringing the Carthaginian Empire to an end. After the Punic Wars, Rome reestablished Carthage as a Roman colony. Caesar Augustus supported its redevelopment.
What Happened to Carthage?
The siege of Carthage was the principal engagement of the Third Punic War.
The primary source for almost every aspect of this war is the historian Polybius (200-118 BC). Polybius was a Greek sent to Rome in 167 BC as a hostage. Historians have debated the accuracy of Polybius’ account over the last 150 years. The modern consensus has been to accept it at face value, so contemporary sources base the details of the war on interpretations of Polybius’ account.
Carthage had to seek Roman permission before waging war. Those were the terms of the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, signed after the Battle of Zama. This battle had marked the official defeat of Carthage, and the city had sued for peace. Yet, in the war leading up to that battle, Carthage had battered the Romans in a way that would be hard to fathom today. Under the leadership of Hannibal, the Carthaginians had almost destroyed the enemy.
Hannibal, his army, and Gallic allies tore through Northern Italy. They ravaged the villages and towns, looting, burning, and gutting. They sliced the very heart of the Roman Republic for 15 long years.
Despite all the destruction and havoc he wrought, Hannibal was still unable to take the prize. The ancient city eluded him. Instead, he sent an envoy to the Roman senate with his demands.
Elements of the Roman government became unsettled. Unfortunately, the Carthage could pay them back too fast and could still recover from the war. This attribute of Carthage had made it possible for them to wage the Second Punic War. They had signed a similar treaty when they lost the first Punic War.
When Numidia, Rome’s ally, took possession of land from Carthage, the Carthaginian army moved to retain it. The second treaty had just expired in 151 BC. Despite that, Rome said that it was an act of war and attacked Carthage.
The Romans, led by Scipio Aemilianus, grandson of Scipio Africanus, built a large mole (a siege wall). They put it in the harbor to prevent supplies from getting into Carthage by blockade runners. The Carthaginians used several counterattacks to repel the Romans. They even burned their fleet several times. Then they broke the harbor blockade, and 50 ships could sail in and wreak havoc on the Roman fleet.
Then the tables started to turn. Scipio decided to attack a town called Nepheris held by the Carthaginians. He surrounded the Carthaginian army of 7000 to 10,000 men and defeated them. He left only a few thousand to escape back to Carthage. Scipio continued his siege, forcing the Carthaginians to get supplies from the interior of Africa. Nothing could come in or go out by the sea.
Scipio tightened the Roman positions around Carthage. Then he launched a forceful attack on its harborside in the spring of 146 BC. Scipio pushed into the city and destroyed house after house. At the same time, he was sending enemy troops toward their citadel. The Carthaginians surrendered after seven days of gruesome carnage. The Romans had annihilated an ancient city that had endured for some 700 years.
The Roman sacking of Carthage was quite horrific. Many specific details stick out. One was that the street was so slick with blood that the Romans could not follow enemies escaping down it.
At the end of the war, 62,000 Carthaginians died. The Romans sold 50,000 into slavery, which was standard practice at the time. The city laid empty for 100 years until Julius Caesar designated it as a location for a Roman colony.
– What Led to the Fall of Carthage?
Carthage was very near Rome. That meant conflict between the two western Mediterranean powers was unavoidable. In the third century, BC Rome challenged Carthage in the Punic Wars. The first of these wars cost Carthage all remaining hold on Sicily.
The great general of the Carthaginian army, Hannibal, was born in 247 BC. He was the grandson of another great Carthaginian general, Hamilcar Barca. In 219 BC, Hannibal appeared from the Alps and attacked the town of Saguntum. This action raised the ire of Rome and started the second Punic War.
Rome was also concerned about Carthage rising again and overshadowing the Ancient City. Carthage’s quick recovery from the first and second Punic Wars did not help matters.
Hannibal was able to inflict heavy casualties on the Roman army in the Battle of Trasimene. He also dominated in the Battles of Trebbia and Cannae. Still, he lost many of his men and war elephants.
The Romans defeated Hannibal’s army in the end. Carthage lost all its warships and possessions outside Africa. From thenceforth, Roman statesman Cato the Elder put a supplement to all his speeches. No matter what they were about, he ended with “Carthago delenda est,” or Carthage must be destroyed.
The Second Punic War had lasted seventeen years, but the third lasted only three. The Romans devastated the city once they had subjugated it. They did not leave a single stone standing atop another. They wiped out almost every trace of the thriving Carthaginian civilization. Then they scattered salt on the ruins to ensure that it would never rise again.
Rome became known as the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean. Carthage lay in ruin for over 100 years, and then the Romans rebuilt it following the death of Julius Caesar.
– What were the Carthaginians Like?
Carthaginians were an ethnic group descended from Phoenician sea traders. The city also had Libyan, Greek, and Numidian people.
The earliest archaeological evidence of occupation in Carthage dates back to 760 BC. Archaeologists found city walls and harbor installations (containing over 200 docks). There was also a “Tophet,” which the Romans may have built about a century later. The Tophet, in the southeast of the city, may have been used for child sacrifice. Baal Hammon and his consort, Tanit, were the two main deities worshipped in Carthage.
Present Day Carthage
Carthage ceased to exist in 146 BC when Scipio Aemilianus directed its defeat. The Romans first attempted to establish a Roman colony on the site a quarter of a century later, in 122 BC. Julius Caesar then proposed a new colony. After his death, it became established as Colonia Julia Carthago.
By the middle of the first century AD, the colony was the second largest city after Rome in the western empire. It became the hub of the prosperous Roman provinces of North Africa. The Arabs razed that colony in 697 AD.
Today, few ruins remain in Carthage, only some Punic shrines and cemeteries. One can also find ruins of aqueducts, baths, and other buildings in the Roman design. Byrsa Hill, which overlooked ancient Carthage, now has a chapel and a museum. The Carthaginian ruins are a popular tourist attraction, and UNESCO has named it a World Heritage site.
Modern-day Tunisians remember Hannibal and his city with pride. Tunisian tourism markets Ancient Carthage as a “storehouse of history.” Hotels and businesses throughout the country carry the name of Hannibal and his city.
A wealthy suburb of Tunis now bears the name “Carthage.”
The destruction of Carthage marked the emergence of Rome as the leading superpower. That same conquest started the sequence of events that led to Rome’s downfall. The spoils of war included a host of slaves, plunder, and Carthaginian territory.
This windfall became a reason for squabbling among the Roman senators. The instability in the government would last for decades. It brought about the end of the Roman republic.
Yet, this strategic site on the Mediterranean coast is too valuable to waste. Today, another city thrives only a few miles away from the ancient ruins. That city is Tunis.