Carthage (Phoenician Kart hadašt, "new city"): important ancient city, close to modern Tunis.

Early History

The ports of Carthage, seen from the north
The ports of Carthage, seen from the north

Carthage was founded as a Phoenician colony near modern Tunis. After the fall of its mother-city Tyre in 585, Carthage became the leader of the Phoenician colonies in the west and founded an informal but powerful empire, which is known for its almost perennial struggle against the Greeks of Sicily and the Romans. In the First Punic War (264-241; the greatest war in Antiquity), the Carthaginians lost Sicily to the Romans, and although their general Hannibal Barca tried to reverse the situation in a Second Punic War, the decline had already started. The Romans sacked Carthage in 146 after a Third Punic War, but later, they refounded the city, which again became prosperous.

According to the Greek historian Timaeus of Tauromenion, Carthage was founded in 814 or 813; another author, Justin, suggested 825. For some time, these dates seemed to be contradicted by the results of excavations, which all suggested that the oldest finds were younger. However, in the late 1990s, it became clear that although the archaeologists had done their job well, their method of dating had been wrong. Essentially, all dates were derived from pottery, the sequence of which was based on the ceramics known from Sicily, where we have Thucydides' list of dated city foundations (text). Although it was widely recognized that these dates were problematic, it was the best way to proceed. In the 1990s, however, radiocarbon-dating was for the first time applied to the Early Iron Age of Carthage, and the oldest finds in Carthage can now be dated to the last quarter of the ninth century.

Ivory sphinx from Carthage, made in Phoenicia
Ivory sphinx from Carthage, made in Phoenicia

The first settlers were people from Tyre in Phoenicia. According to legend (text), their leader was a princess named Elissa, who was forced to flee from Tyre after her brother, king Pygmalion, had killed her husband. After founding Carthage, she committed suicide to prevent a war against the native population. The story may contain some reliable information, although it is more likely that the founders of Carthage were merchants and farmers - not refugees. On the other hand, the idea that the powerful city was founded by a woman is too unusual to be a mere invention. However this may be, the settlers founded the city on a marvelous place, where it controlled trade between the eastern and western parts of the Mediterranean, and had access to good agricultural resources.

It seems that the colony was first ruled by a governor sent from Tyre, but the settlement became a city, the citizens wanted some independence, and kings started to be rulers of Carthage. In the course of the sixth century, they were replaced by two annually elected supreme magistrates, the suffetes ("judges"). The Roman consulship, which is better known to us, was modelled on this office.

Map of Carthage
Map of Carthage

Meanwhile, the city was becoming an important trade center. Probably in the first half of the sixth century, the Carthaginian admiral Hanno founded several colonies along the coast of what is now Morocco and proceeded to the gold river Senegal, and even reached Mount Cameroon. Another explorer was Himilco, who reached the British isles. There must have been other expeditions, which are not documented in our sources.

In c.575, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar captured Tyre, which now lost its independence and was no longer able to send reinforcements to Phoenician colonies if they needed them. The settlers had to look elsewhere if they needed help, and Carthage became the leader of a more or less informal empire, based on a shared ethnic sentiment and commercial interests. It consisted of many cities, all situated on the coast. In the east and northeast, it bordered on the Greek possessions in the Cyrenaica and on Sicily; in the north, Carthage controlled the coasts of Sardinia and Corsica, and in the west, the ports of the Maghreb and Andalusia. It also controlled the gold trade from Senegal and the route to the mysterious "tin isles", which may have been everywhere along the Atlantic Coast.

Origins of Empire

Tanit on a Carthaginian coin
Tanit on a Carthaginian coin

No doubt, the Carthaginian towns often had to fight against people in the hinterland. We might like to read more about, say, the Iberian wars, but unfortunately, the ancient inhabitants of Hispania did not leave many written accounts. Nor did the Carthaginians. The only place where we can see their imperialism at work, is on Sicily, where the Greeks and Carthaginians seem to have been in an almost perennial war.

We know that in the mid-sixth century, Carthage supported the Phoenician towns against Greek Selinus; that they fought against the Spartan prince Dorieus, who tried to build a city within the Carthaginian part of the island (c.510); that in 480 the Carthaginian leader Hamilcar was defeated near Himera by Gelon, the Syracusan tyrant; that a commander named Hannibal renewed the war at the end of the fifth century and organized the Sicilian towns into one province; that a treaty was signed in 405; and that war flared up every now and then during the fourth century. We know of fighting in the years 397-392, 382-373, 368-362 (all against Dionysius I and II), 345-339 (against Timoleon; text); and in 311-306 against Agathocles.

Because the Greeks and Carthaginians were close, an interesting document about Carthage was written by a Greek observer: in his Politics, the philosopher Aristotle of Stagira offers an analysis of the Carthaginian constitution (text).

Tombstone of Batba'al, third century BCE. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden (Netherlands). The text of the inscription is: Tomb of Batba'al, daughter of Himilkat, son of  Abd-Eshmun, son of Beraj the high priest.
Tombstone of Batba'al, third century BCE.

During all these wars, for which Diodorus of Sicily is our main source, Carthage was sometimes defending itself against Greek aggression, and just as often, it was the other way round. There is not a clear-cut pattern, and it would be wrong that Carthage pursued a consistent imperialistic policy, like Assyria, king Philip II of Macedonia, or Rome. On the other hand, Carthage was not a peaceful city pursuing a mercantile policy either. It was a republic and there were several factions with differing opinions and policies.

In 278, war was renewed; this time, the Greeks found a champion in Pyrrhus of Epirus, who had already defeated the Romans and was now called to Sicily. He was successful, but after his victories, the Greeks refused to give him the soldiers to finish the job, and Pyrrhus went back to Italy, where he was defeated by the Romans. He commented that Sicily would be the cockpit for the Carthaginians and Romans to fight in, and this prophecy turned out to be correct.

First Punic War

Map of the Carthaginian Empire (c.220 BCE)
Map of the Carthaginian Empire (c.220 BCE)

A few years after the defeat of Pyrrhus, the Romans decided to declare war after an incident in Messana. This town had been occupied by former Syracusan mercenaries, called the Mamertines. In 265, the tyrant of Syracuse, Hiero II, defeated them and laid siege to the city. Immediately, the Mamertines asked help from Carthage, which gladly intervened and sent its admiral Hannibal to defend and garrison Messana. From now on, the Carthaginians controlled the Strait. However, occupation was not the help the Mamertines had been hoping for. Rome received a call for help too, and decided to intervene, running the risk of full-scale Carthaginian intervention. But Rome could not ignore the request: from Messana, the Carthaginians threatened the Greek towns of southern Italy's, Rome's new allies. War was inevitable.

Carthaginian coin from the First Punic War: the Carthaginian goddess Tanit and the Greek mythological creature Pegasus
Carthaginian coin from the First Punic War: the Carthaginian goddess Tanit and the Greek mythological creature Pegasus

In 264, one of the Roman consuls, Appius Claudius Caudex, invaded Sicily with two legions and captured Messana: the First Punic War had broken out. Next summer, the Romans laid siege to Acragas and captured this Carthaginian base (early 261), which had been defended by the same Hannibal who had garrisoned Messana. However, after these successes, the Roman war machine came to as standstill. The Carthaginians refused to accept Roman control of the Strait, and the Romans understood that they had to conquer the entire island. This meant that they had to gain naval superiority - something that would be very difficult, because the Romans were no sailors.

It was a conflict between an elephant and a whale, which could go on forever. However, the Romans had a secret weapon, called corvus ("crow"). This was a movable bridge with a metal prong that could be dropped onto the deck of a Carthaginian ship. Once the two ships were tied to each other, the naval battle had changed into a land battle. In other words, the Romans used their ships as platforms for fighting. In 260, at Mylae, their consul Gaius Duillius defeated admiral Hannibal, and won Rome's first naval victory ever.

Yet, this victory was not decisive, and the war was to last very, very long. The Carthaginian commander Hamilcar Barca was able to defend the western part of the island; and every Roman success was balanced by either a Carthaginian victory, Roman stupidity, or bad luck (e.g., the loss of a fleet in a storm). However, the Roman consul Gaius Atilius Regulus, having overcome the Carthaginian navy at Ecnomus, invaded Africa, and although he was defeated by a Greek mercenary leader in Carthaginian service, Xanthippus, it was clear that Rome was the strongest of the two contenders. It had the resources to raise large armies and build new fleets. The final years of the war looked like a stalemate on western Sicily, where Hamilcar Barca fought a guerilla war, but only the Romans was able to recuperate. In 241, a new Roman fleet, commanded by Gaius Lutatius Catulus, overcame the last Carthaginian ships, commanded by Hanno, near the Aegatian islands in the far west. A peace treaty was signed, and Carthage accepted Roman rule in Sicily. According to the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis, the First Punic War had been "the longest and most severely contested war in history".note

Second Punic War

Tombstone from Carthage, second century BCE. Rijksmuseum van oudheden, Leiden (Netherlands)
Tombstone from Carthage, second century BCE.

Compared to this, the Second Punic War, about which we know more, was a comparatively small war. The Carthaginian government accepted Hamilcar's proposal to compensate for the loss of Sicily by conquering Hispania. Here, he built a new empire, which was, after his death, expanded by his son-in-law Hasdrubal the Fair. He was succeeded by Hamilcar's son Hannibal Barca, who provoked a war with Rome in 218, crossed Pyrenees, Rhône and Alps (text), and arrived in Italy. In several battles (e.g., Trasimene lake, Cannae), he defeated the Romans, but they refused to give up the struggle and cut off Hannibal's supply base in Hispania. At the same time, their commander Marcellus forced Hannibal's army to the south of Italy.

When Hasdrubal Barca, a brother of Hannibal, tried to reinforce the Carthaginian army in Italy, he was defeated; and Publius Cornelius Scipio overcame the last resistance in Hispania. Another Barca brother, Mago, attempted to help his brother, but the Carthaginian government recalled Hannibal once Scipio had invaded Africa. Both sides had Numidian allies: Massinissa supported Rome, Syphax was allied to Carthage. The four armies met in the battle of Zama, where Scipio and Massinissa defeated Hannibal and Syphax (202).

Yet, even a defeated Carthage remained an important city. It still commanded the trade route from the eastern to the western part of the Mediterranean, and became rich again. Several Roman politicians were afraid of Carthage, and in 146, the city was destroyed by Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. He wept when he sacked the ancient city, and displayed more virtue than the last commander of the ancient city, Hasdrubal, who is said to have betrayed the people who trusted him by arranging a private capitulation.

Roman Carthage

A Roman sacrificer preparing to kill an animal
A Roman sacrificer preparing to kill an animal

This was not the end, however. Although the Romans had vowed never to rebuild Carthage, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, a Roman tribune, founded a colonia on the site in 122. At that moment, there was still too much hatred, and the project failed - more or less. Several new citizens are recorded, but it was Julius Caesar, the dictator, who really refounded Carthage, as Colonia Junonia (44 BCE; the plan was executed after his death). Within five years, the city had been chosen as capital of the province of Africa. It was to have a splendid future.

As capital of a province, Carthage had some prerogatives, but several Roman emperors (Augustus, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus, Septimius Severus) granted additional privileges. The Thirteenth Urban Cohort was the city's garrison. The Historia Augusta mentions a great fire in the city's forum, implying that the emperor offered help to restore the city.note In the third and fourth centuries, the city was one of the most important centers - both commercially and culturally - of the Roman Empire.

Although African Christianity was on more than one occasion persecuted, several important Christian authors lived in Carthage: for example, Tertullian (the first Christian author writing in Latin), Cyprian, and Donatus. In 312, the city was recognized as capital of the African Christians (divided between the Donatists and the more orthodox believers).

Carthage's most famous inhabitant in Late Antiquity was Augustine, who had a small school in Carthage before he went to Italy and converted to Christianity.

Texts on Carthage

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 16 October 2019.