Sieges can be dramatic, tragic, far-reaching in their results, desperate, epochal. But quite rarely they are all of these at once. The battle of Carthage (149-146 BC) is one of these rare examples. In my previous two articles I have talked about the historical context and the course of the respective sieges. Now I will change the focus of the story and talk mainly about the motivation of the opposing forces, because this peculiar siege is best remembered for its bitter fighting, huge casualties (according to Polybius only some 50 000 of the 500 000 inhabitants of the city survived the carnage) and the utter destruction of one of the greatest cities of Antiquity.
Carthage - The Forgotten Empire
Hundreds of thousands of pages have been dedicated to Roman history and for good reason – after all the late Roman civilization was the pinnacle of the ancient Mediterranean historical evolution and the cradle of birth for Christianity. Compared to this bulk of knowledge and research, what we know of Carthage is negligibly small. It is worth mentioning that the aftermath of the fall of the great Punic city lead to one of the most cynical yet fundamentally true historical maxims – history is written by the victors.
Many people fall in the trap of historical hindsight – that is, they read history backwards. Thus, Carthage becomes doomed and Rome – the only possible victor. Carthage becomes just a trade port, Rome – the true centre of the great Mediterranean empire. None of this is true. If we go back to 216 BC, it was the Romans, not the Carthaginians who trembled in panic in their temples and cried in despair “Hannibal ante portas!” In 323 BC we would find Carthaginian and not Roman emissaries in Babylon, at the court of Alexander the Great. And further back, at the great siege of Syracuse in 414 BC, the Athenians negotiated with Carthage as the true imperial power of the Western Mediterranean for spheres of control. Rome was still busy figuring out its civil problems and small provincial wars.
That is not to say that the Roman victory in the Punic wars was accidental, on the contrary. The Carthaginian society had inherent weaknesses and flaws that became crucial at times of war. One of these was that before the conflict with Rome, Carthage never had to fight for its survival. For the Romans, it was their natural state, since the very birth of the Republic – first against the Etruscan League, then against the Samnites and Gauls, later against Pyrrhus. The Romans built their empire on the edge of their swords, the Carthaginians – on the sails of their ships. It was a monumental clash, the ancient Hundred’s Years War, yet even more bloody and epic in scale.
I would need a set of articles to describe the Punic Wars in detail, and this is not my purpose. Yet for the readers who are new to ancient history, I will try to quickly sketch the conflict.
The origins of the First Punic War we should seek in Sicily, and more precisely – the city of Messana, occupied by Campanian mercenaries known as Mamertines. Soon they entered in conflict with the most powerful of all Sicilian cities – Syracuse, but were soundly beaten. To save themselves from imminent total defeat and death, they appealed to both Rome and Carthage.
This should not surprise us. Ironically, Rome and Carthage were allies at this time – an echo of the great Pyrrhic Wars in Sicily and Southern Italy. The drift among the allies however was getting greater by the day. Rome considered Sicily in its sphere of power. Carthage had had interests on the island for more than two centuries, far before Roman power spread even out of Latium. The situation soon became combustive, and the decision of the Roman Senate to invade Sicily lead to the inevitable – the two most powerful states in the Mediterranean opened war.
The most important feature of this First Punic War was the decision of the Romans to build a fleet – a revolutionary step for the Republic. At this time the Carthaginian fleet was considered the strongest in the Mediterranean, yet it suffered some humiliating defeats at Mylae (260 BC) and Cape Ecnomus (256 BC), before it was completely subdued at the battle of the Aegates Islands (241 BC). The Romans, considered superior at land, could not win a decisive victory in either Northern Africa or especially Sicily, where the military genius of Hamilcar Barca kept them at bay. But after he had been cut off from the mainland, the brave general had to negotiate his evacuation. Hamilcar was never defeated in the field though, and this left in him the bitter sense that he had been betrayed by the merchants in Carthage.
The Second Punic War tested Rome’s resolve and resilience to the fullest extent possible. Hannibal, Hamilcar’s son, bitterly hated the Romans and had sworn to destroy the city. It was a family story of Shakespearean scale and fabric. Hannibal was a legendary commander-in-field, a talented tactician, the great enemy of Rome. He is often considered to be the only ancient commander who could be compared or even exceeded Alexander the Great military skills.
The war began in 219 BC and soon turned into a streak of catastrophic defeats for the Romans – at Trebia (218 BC), Lake Trasimene (217 BC) and most of all
Prelude To A Tragedy
Carthage was forced to a unconditional surrender – this was the Roman way of doing business. The conditions of the peace treaty were severe – 10 000 talents of indemnity, the Carthaginian fleet was limited to 10 ships (a ridiculous, even insulting number), and the city-state lost its political independence. To make matters catastrophic, the empire that Hamilcar and Hannibal had built in Spain was lost forever.
Yet, like France in 1870 and Japan after the Second World War, Carthage managed to swiftly rebuild its economic basis. The city merchants understood the flow of money and the rules of ancient Mediterranean economy far better than the Romans – it is no surprise then that Carthage managed to repay the huge indemnity by 151 BC. It was however an unwelcome course of things for the Republic. The indemnity after the II Punic War was not simply a punishment – it was meant to cripple the trade city for good. The swift financial recovery of the enemy caused anxiety and anger in the Roman Senate.
Still, this does not fully answer the question of the Roman obsession with Carthage. The legendary note of the censor Cato the Elder “Carthage must be destroyed” is the strongest symbol of this attitude. In the years after Hannibal’s failure Rome had concentrated on confirming its authority on the other two southern European peninsulas – in Iberia and on the Balkans. This was fulfilled successfully. By the middle of the II century BC Rome was the undisputed superpower of the Mediterranean. Carthage was simply no longer a threat - even a child could see that.
Modern historians have tried to explain the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage with the desperate need of fresh farm lands. The population of the Republic had reached 400 000 and was swiftly rising. Northern Africa presented the only option to extend the ager publicus substantially.
Such explanation is only half-logical. The war, if this was the goal, became reasonable. The complete destruction of the city and its population was not. We have to look elsewhere.
Some would say the psychological wounds of Lake Trasimene and Cannae were too deep. Well, let’s not forget that the US helped rebuilt both Japan and Germany, after a much shorter time span. You would say the epoch was completely different – I agree. So let’s find an example of the Ancient Age. Alexander conquered Persia but the only imperial city he destroyed was Persepolis, and it was largely due to political reasons. What the Persians did in Greece during the Greco-Persian wars was not that much different to what Hannibal did in Italy from 218 to 203.
The Romans could excuse their aggression and veil it as retribution for Cannae. But it was something more. A singular trait of cruelty lies deep within the Roman civilization, and it is strongest and most visible in the Roman imperial policy. There was nothing chivalrous or knight-like about it. Especially in the later periods of the Republic, the Romans acted like a horrible bully that enjoyed cruelty for itself. There was absolutely no need – military, political, financial – to utterly destroy Carthage. The Romans did it because they could – and this says enough about their imperial psychology.
Once the indemnity was paid, the Carthaginians insisted that the peace treaty was no longer in effect and that they would regain their political and diplomatic independence. The Romans thought otherwise. Polybius retells in details the border incident between Carthage and Numidia. It is more than possible that the Romans pushed the Numidians, so that they could get the war they wanted. We should not forget a number of facts, considering the start of the Third Punic War. Carthage did capitulate when a Roman army landed on the North African shores. The Carthaginians agreed to pay another indemnity (for a crime they have not committed), to send three hundred children as hostages and even to surrender their weapons and armour. But the Romans went further – they wanted the citizens to move inland and the city to be destroyed.
It was an abominable impudence, a bullying of the worst kind, the perfect feature of what the Romans really were. The citizens of Carthage refused, though they knew they had no chance of victory.
I am not going to retell the course of the siege, because this is not the purpose of this article. Some moments require special attention though. The campaign dragged on for three years, despite the fact that the Romans had all the advantages on their sides. Much of the population died of hunger, especially in the later stages of the siege. One can hardly imagine the everyday life of any of these half a million people, locked in a doomed city, running out of water and food, endemic diseases creeping in, certain death the only outcome. Yet they grinded on, day after day, until the stage was set for the last act of the tragedy.
When the legions finally breached the city walls in the spring of 146 BC, one of the most dramatic battles of Antiquity took place. Every house was a fortress, every street – a battleground. The Romans needed six days of non-stop fighting to finally conquer the city. If we believe Polybius’s numbers, more than 400 000 people died during the course of these three years – in this regard the scale of the tragedy resembles the 20th century conflicts, not an ancient battle. It was nothing short of genocide – the one Roman historians tend to meekly avoid. All the survivors were sold into slavery.
There was no aftermath once the siege was over. A civilization had crumbled into nothingness – a civilization proud and elaborate, with more than half a millennium of history behind its back. Ironically, some historians believe this was also the end of the true Roman virtues – the Republic had become an empire with all its corruption, vices and the seed of self-destruction already evident.
The destruction of Carthage was as much unnecessary as it was cruel. It marks one of the greatest genocides of ancient history and a human tragedy of epic proportions.