Choosing a starting point for the history of Carthage was not easy. Once you’re past Carthage’s founding legend, it is difficult to tease out from the historical record where the history of Phoenicians in the Mediterranean ends and where the history of Carthage begins, because, a lot of the times, the sources do not differentiate between the two. So my solution to the problem is to start the history with the Phoenician colonization of the Mediterranean.
But starting a narration of the story that I’m about to tell you, was a slightly more significant challenge. The problem is that the history of Phoenician colonization is an immensely dull topic. While it may make for a useful information-packed episode, it won’t hold your attention for long. And since I have a penchant for the dramatic, I wanted the series to start off with a bang. Instead of beginning at the beginning, I decided to start the story of Carthage from its very end.
At the end of the Hannibalic war, Rome imposed harsh restrictions on Carthage, such that even when Massinisa, the king of Numidia, would harass her to no end, Carthage couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Doing so would violate her treaty with Rome. During the Hannibalic war, Numidia was a Carthaginian ally. But Massinisa had a keen eye for the future. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Rome eclipsed the entire Mediterranean. And so, to get in her good books, Massinisa switched sides. On top of this, Massinisa also had Rome’s tacit approval for his harassment of Carthage. Thus, in 153 BC, when Carthage found herself in conflict with Massinisa for the umpteenth time, she appealed directly to Rome.
In response, Rome sent one of her illustrious sons, a survivor of the Hannibalic War, the aged Senator Marcus Porcius Cato. His job was to arbitrate the dispute between the two sides. But before he rendered a judgment, he insisted that both parties agree to bind themselves to his decision, whatever it was going to be. Massinisa decided to acquiesce, but Carthage was defiant.
Quite what Cato saw and felt during his visit to Carthage we do not know. But he did see something that evoked in him a sense of fear, perhaps, the same fear that he must have felt when Hannibal roamed the Italian countryside not half a century ago. Because after returning to Rome, Cato made it his mission to convince the Roman Senate that they must deal with Carthage decisively. He used Carthage’s defiance as a pretext to go to war.
To prove that Carthage had now revived her dying self, he once brought fresh figs to the Senate, hidden in his toga. In his speech, he threw them on the floor. To strike fear into the hearts of the Senators, he declared that the figs were from Carthage and were picked a mere three days ago. In Cato’s mind, the figs were a sign that Carthage was now strong enough to strike back.
Cato was so struck with the fear of Carthage that after 153 BC, he began ending his speeches in the Senate with one of the most famous lines in all of history:
“Ceterum censeo Carthiginem esse delendam.”
“For the rest, it is my opinion that Carthage should be destroyed.”
Whether on Cato’s insistence or not, Rome did find herself convinced. Over the course of the next few years, such events in Africa transpired that allowed Rome to bring destruction to her bitterest enemy.
At 146 BC, Scipio Aemilianus was called to Carthage to take the Roman army out of a tight spot. They had been besieging the city for a good two years but had made no headway, thus far. The walls were impenetrable. Aemilianus’ luck followed him to Carthage. He found that the walls protecting the outer harbor were weaker than the rest of the fortifications. It didn’t take long for his men to breach these and enter the port. Once in, they found themselves directly facing the inner harbor. Even though this port was like a fortress on its own, Scipio and his men didn’t find it difficult to breach either. Once in, access to the city itself was a cinch. They found the nearby marketplace empty, which they didn’t take long to secure.
Meanwhile, Hasdrubal, the man who had taken it upon himself to defend his city in her last days, was holed up in the citadel upon the hill of Byrsa, along with 900 deserters from the Roman side. The hill was probably more than a mile inland, which would have taken Scipio less than a day’s march to reach. However, it took him six days to get there. Ordinary Carthaginians took up arms and gave a stiff resistance to the oncoming Romans. They also took advantage of their multi-storied housing and shot arrows down on the Romans from the rooftops. Undaunted, the Romans merely entered these homes, climbed up the stairs and took the fight to the Carthaginians themselves. As you can probably imagine, some fighters fell from the roofs on to the soldiers below and were cut down by their weapons.
After the fighting, Scipio got his men to, first, set fire to the entire area and, then, knock down the walls of the houses there. Some Carthaginians had holed themselves up in the upper stories of their homes to escape the fighting. When the Romans knocked the walls down, the charred remains of these guys also fell to the ground. Some of these guys were alive, too, screaming with the pain from the burns and the fall. After breaking down all the walls that they could, they dug pits, into which they threw the bodies of both the living and the dead. Some bodies, the Romans just left amongst the rubble to rot. When the Romans began marching to the hill after this destruction, these bodies were trampled underneath the hooves of the Romans’ horses.
Entirely why Scipio did this is puzzling. The fighting in the streets was over, and he had no reason not to march to Byrsa and take Hasdrubal down. I suspect, though, that he did it to inspire fear in the hearts of Hasdrubal and the Roman deserters. From atop the hill of Byrsa, they had a vantage point, from where they could see everything that was going on below.
On the seventh day after breaching the city walls, Scipio finally made it to the citadel. When the conflict had begun, some 50,000 men, women, and children had holed themselves up inside the fort. By the time Scipio made it there, they were starving. So they surrendered to Scipio in exchange for their lives.
Inside the citadel was an enclosure, sacred to the Phoenician god Eshmoun, inside of which was the actual temple. Hasdrubal and his men had holed themselves up here. The Romans stormed the precinct, but Hasdrubal and the deserters managed to climb the roof of the temple. At the last minute, though, Hasdrubal’s courage collapsed. He descended into the enclosure and begged Scipio for mercy.
The 900 flabbergasted deserters were disgusted by what they saw. They had stayed with Hasdrubal this long because they knew that they were going to die anyway. If they went back to the Roman camp, they would be summarily executed. If they stayed with Hasdrubal, Scipio would kill them. They were expecting that whatever happened Hasdrubal would die fighting with them. Their expectations now dashed, they requested a time-out from Scipio to hurl insults at Hasdrubal. I can almost imagine Hasdrubal’s bloodied face looking at them sheepishly, probably ashamed at what he’d just done. But a man’s gotta hustle, and this was Hasdrubal’s way of doing it.
Hasdrubal’s wife, who had accompanied him all this time, was none too pleased about this either. She, along with her two sons, also descended into the enclosure. She thanked Scipio for granting them their lives, but she also hurled insults at her husband. Then, in one of the most dramatic scenes of mass suicide ever, the deserters set fire to the temple. Hasdrubal’s wife took a knife, stabbed her sons in their hearts, and flung their bodies into the fire, emulating the horrid sacrificial ritual of her ancestors. Finally, she lept into the fire herself. Hasdrubal’s wife, her sons and the 900 Roman deserters perish in the flames of the fire. The cowardly Hasdrubal spent the rest of his days in Rome under Roman supervision.
After Scipio secured Byrsa, he let his men plunder the city. They amassed gold, silver, and most importantly, slaves. Once the town was empty, he ordered the entire city of Carthage to be burnt and razed to the ground.
As Scipio stood watching Carthage burn, he whispered to himself, “The day shall come when sacred Troy shall fall and King Priam and all his warrior people with him.” Polybius, who was standing by him, asked him what he meant. With tears in his eyes, Scipio replied, “This is a glorious moment, Polybius. And yet, I am seized with fear and foreboding that someday the same fate will befall my own country.” Such was the last moment of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world.
The Punic Wars is a topic that has been done to death. Not a year goes by when yet another book, TV show or movie about the wars, in general, or Hannibal, in particular, comes out. It’s getting quite annoying, frankly. What everyone ignores, though, is the equally long and bloody history of Carthage’s relations with the Greek world. And while that does get some attention, virtually no one cares about Carthage herself.
The first series of my podcast will try to correct this imbalance. It will be the story of this city and the empire she built. I will trace the history of Carthage from before her inception, through her rise and expansion, through her relations with the Greco-Roman world, down to this very last moment. We will consult the ancient authors and examine what they have to say. We will also dig through the mass of archaeological details to shed light upon various aspects of her history. And where neither can help us, we will try to connect the dots ourselves.
This journey has been a long time coming, and I invite you to accompany me on it.
In the next few episodes, we will travel back several hundred years and examine the origins of the Carthaginians. We will look at Carthage’s motherland, Phoenicia. We will discuss Phoenicia’s trade and colonization throughout the Mediterranean. And, we will also look at the Phoenicians’ interactions with the Greek world. In the very next podcast, we will kick off our discussions on Phoenicia with the King of the Phoenician city of Tyre, Hiram I.
- Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
- Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)