The Rise and Fall of Carthage
Established by the Phoenicians of Tyre in the ninth century BC, Carthage (located in modern-day Tunisia) was once a small outpost on the Mediterranean that morphed into a city-state. Right from the start, the city was destined for greatness. Following its legendary and oft-described mythical birth, Carthage rose to become the most politically and economically advanced empire in the Mediterranean region for many centuries in the BC era.
At its peak, the empire’s sphere of influence stretched from the coast of northwest Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. It also controlled a number of islands in the Italian Peninsula, including Sicily, Corsica, and Sardinia.
But as with all things in the world, nothing lasts forever. The city eventually fell into conflict with the burgeoning Roman Republic, which plunged both powerful states into a near-century long confrontation known as the Punic Wars (264-146 BC). In the third and final Punic War in 146 BC, the trade-oriented and seafaring Carthaginians suffered an annihilating defeat at the hands of Rome.
So, how did Carthage come to wield so much power only to give it up to Rome?
Below, World History Edu explores facts on the history, culture, accomplishments, and fall of Carthage, the prosperous North African city which was arguably the greatest naval power of Classical Antiquity.
Why we don’t know much about Carthage and her contributions
Unlike other prominent ancient civilizations like Rome, not much is known about Carthage. Much of this is due to Rome, which set about to literally wipe Carthage and her history off the surface of the earth.
Known as the Carthage Holocaust, the North African empire was comprehensively beaten by its most bitter enemies, the Romans, in 146 BC.
Aside from the few translations of surviving Punic texts to Latin and Greek, as well as later archaeological findings, most of what is known about the former powerful empire is through the works of Roman and Greek historians like Cassius Dio, Plutarch, Polybius, and many others.
However, given Rome’s long standing rivalry against Carthage, most of these writers and historians skewed their accounts to favor the Roman and Greek empires.
Regardless, Carthage’s history and rise to power is perhaps one of the most interesting accounts, as it incorporates mythical and real-life elements.
Carthage’s Phoenician roots
Although it’s not entirely clear when or how the Carthaginian Empire was established, its history can be traced back to Phoenicia.
At that time, the Phoenicians were a group of people who had settled along the coasts of Lebanon, western Syria, and northern Israel. They were business savvy and were also exceptional sailors who built several ports and trading posts, which brought them a lot of wealth. Their impact on the
he Phoenicians lived in city-states with the most popular cities being Tyre, Sidon and Byblos.
With their rising economic power, coupled with the fall of many other cities along the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, Phoenicia steadily began to set up colonies and outposts along the Mediterranean, including in places like Sicily, Cyprus, Malta, Sardinia, as well as northern Africa. Those new Phoenician colonies exercised some level of autonomy but still paid homage to the other Phoenician city-states.
Over the course of time, Tyre (in today’s Lebanon) grew to become the most powerful city-state, and hence, dominated most of the trade routes in the region.
Around 9th century BC, Phoenician maritime traders from Tyre set up trading posts in northwest Africa and other places along the Mediterranean. Carthage happened to be one of those places that grew from a simple trading post to a massive city-state and then later a colossal and powerful empire.
And most importantly, the Carthaginians did not abandon the seafaring and commerce-centric culture of their ancestors.
The Legend of Queen Dido & the Birth of Carthage
According to legend, it was in Tyre that Carthage’s founder, Queen Dido (also known as Queen Elissa) emerged. In the Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem “Aeneid”, Dido was forced to flee her home to escape being killed by her brother Pygmalion, who had become a tyrant following their father’s death.
Together with several allies who feared the new king, Dido wandered throughout the Mediterranean, eventually arriving on the North African coast, in what is today Tunisia.
Upon her arrival to the new area, she met a Berber chief called Iarbas who agreed to cede any land to Dido and the other settlers that an ox’s hide could cover. But Dido was smart and outwitted the chief by cutting the hide into strips and arranging them around the hill of Byrsa. She named the place “Qart-Hadasht”, which means “New City.”
Soon, Carthage became a prosperous city and Iarbas proposed marriage to Dido. However, she refused out of respect to her deceased husband. Instead, she ordered for a funeral pyre to be built and killed herself by driving a sword into her body.
The “Aeneid”, on the other hand, tells a different story altogether – a tragic love story. According to the epic, Dido fell in love with the Trojan prince Aeneas, whose line of descendants eventually founded Rome. She met him wandering in the wilderness after the fall of Troy [during the Trojan War] and was struck by the god of love, Cupid. It’s not clear if Dido and Aeneas ever married but they lived together in Carthage. Sadly, that wasn’t the life Aeneas was destined to live. So, the messenger god Mercury appeared to Aeneas and reminded him of his destiny. Aeneas decided to leave Carthage secretly, but Dido found out and committed suicide out of a broken heart. Before dying, she predicted Carthage’s bitter relationship with Rome.
But just how did Carthage become so wealthy and powerful?
It’s said that under the legendary queen Dido’s reign, Carthage expanded from a small hillside community to a sprawling city. Carthage’s unique and strategic location on the Gulf of Tunis helped the city become one of the most crucial trade points along the Mediterranean.
Like many other Phoenician colonies, Carthage maintained independence but its mother-city was Tyre. However, with the passage of time, Carthage rose to become one of the most powerful colonies in the region.
After about a 100-year period since its establishment in the early 9th century, its population had risen to over 30,000.
Aside from maritime trade, the city’s arable land and natural resources also contributed immensely to its wealth.
But while Carthage flourished, the same could not be said for Tyre. Eventually, the city gained independence from Tyre around 650 BC. Following its newly-found independence, Carthage also expanded its territories. Additionally, it still maintained diplomatic relations with Tyre, taking in more Tyrians after its the Lebanon city began to decline.
What was life like in ancient Carthage?
The Carthaginians were an eclectic mix of people from various social classes and other locations. It was ruled by the aristocratic trading class. These were people that had religious and political power.
Under the aristocratic class were artisans, workers, mercenaries, slaves, and other settlers who had come from other nearby regions.
At its peak, Carthage had a population of more than 400,000. This influx turned Carthage into a melting pot of different cultures, making it one of one of the richest cities of the ancient times.
In the first three centuries of Carthage’s establishment, its system of government was most likely to be a monarchy. However, unlike many other empires, Carthaginian rulers did not exercise total control or power. Instead, they had advisors -the Adirim– likely made up of some of the empire’s wealthiest people.
Another system of governance was the Blm, which consisted of nobles in charge of the empire’s politics, military, and religion. This group was typically headed by the most powerful and wealthiest families of the time.
However, that all changed around 480 BC when Carthage’s governance became unstable following the death of its king, Hamilcar I, after his poorly ill-advised decision to fight in the First Sicilian War.
By 308 BC, the empire had become an oligarchic republic. Perhaps this was the empire’s best form of governance as it also had a system of checks and balances. The empire’s well-planned administration ensured that there were higher rates of accountability. The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about Carthage’s oligarchic rule in his treatise “Politics.”
As an oligarchy, Carthage had two main heads known as the sufetes (judges) who wielded both executive and judicial power. However, they did not have power over the military as army generals were typically elected by the people or the government’s administrative offices. Even though subsequent sufetes were sometimes called kings, the role was non-hereditary.
In religious circles, the Carthaginians were polytheistic by nature and worshiped many gods. The two leading gods, Baal Hammon and Tanit, were responsible for fertile crops and war, respectively.
There were many other gods, including Kusor (god of knowledge), Astarte (god of fertility, sexuality, and war), and Eshmun (god of health) among many others.
The polytheism could have been due to the fact that Carthage was heavily populated by settlers from various regions. In fact, many Carthaginians also incorporated other deities into their worship like Bes (or Bastet) who was an Egyptian cat goddess that offered protection against evil spirits. Carthage also worshiped Greek goddesses like Demeter.
There are some historians that believe that the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifices. According to the Hebrew Bible, the Canaanites, who were predecessors of the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice but there remains little evidence to support the claim. However, it is likely that child sacrifices were common during the early years of the empire’s establishment.
Plutarch says that because the Carthaginians were not willing to sacrifice their children, they resorted to other solutions such as buying children from poor homes. On the other hand, the historian Diodorus stated that children from noble homes were the preferred choice.
Modern archaeological excavations revealed infant and children burial grounds in old Punic areas. But then again, it’s possible that those sites served as the final resting place for stillborn children.
At the top of the Carthaginian social class were the rich merchants. Most of these people also played critical roles in governance and were members of the empire’s senate. Priests were also members of Carthage’s upper society, and the head priests usually served in the Senate. They performed sacrifices and rituals. Priesthoods were hereditary roles, so it was common to see descendants following in the same position as their predecessors.
Like many other ancient societies, men had more power and were given the right to engage in discourse. Despite having been founded by a woman, women were not regarded as citizens of Carthage and played little to no roles in society.
Ancient Carthage was also home to many foreigners, most of whom originated from Tyre, as well as Numidia and Libya in North Africa, Spain, and Italy. There were also heavy Greek influences on the empire by the 4th century BC.
The empire was also home to slaves, who were either people that had been conquered or bought from slave markets. They performed menial tasks and some of them also served in the navy during the Punic Wars against Rome.
Not much is known about Carthage’s culture aside from what Roman and Greek historians wrote and whatever archaeological pieces that were left behind. It’s, however, a known fact that due to its trade and maritime success, Carthage became the largest city in the world by 300 BC.
The Carthaginians were known for their affluence, and while it did impress other foreigners, not many Roman writers wrote positively about it. According to Roman poet Cicero, the people’s love for acquiring wealth and trading contributed to its eventual downfall. Many other writers also described them as greedy and untrustworthy.
The people of Carthage were also impressively artistic; and through their creative skills, the empire became the hub for some of the finest clothing materials and artifacts. Artisans crafted items using metals, glass, ivory, and precious gems.
Carthaginians also relied extensively on agriculture, planting various crops such as fruits, olive trees, and vegetables. They could do this because of the vast fertile lands at their disposal. After the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the Carthaginians turned to agriculture to help bring the economy back to life.
Carthage arguably had the best and most powerful militaries at its peak. Because its people were expertly skilled sailors, the navy remained its strongest force. But the Carthaginian army also played a key role in expanding the empire further into North Africa and Spain.
Historical accounts reveal that Carthage decided to use its strong military in a bid to further its interests, especially after the reign of Mago I. They also relied heavily on auxiliary forces from other client and satellite states, ensuring that their diplomatic ties were properly maintained through arranged marriages and military pacts.
At its core, the Carthaginian army comprised mostly the Numidians, Libyans, and a group of Phoenicians who were of Punic and North African descent. The army also recruited other foreign fighters during other wars and conflicts, including the Balearics, Iberians, and Celts who helped Carthage fight against Sicily.
The Carthaginian army’s diversity was extremely advantageous to the empire, with each group of people playing specific roles. For example, most of the troops of North African descent, especially the Numidians who were skilled horsemen, formed the cavalry. The army also used war elephants in battles. Carthage’s most famous army general, Hannibal Barca, used the Gauls and Iberians during his military campaigns in Africa and Italy. It is believed he traveled with 37 elephants during his invasion of Italy.
Carthage’s navy was arguably the most powerful at its peak in the 4th and early 3rd century BC. Despite having incurred several losses after the 17-year Second Punic War, its navy still managed to secure about 350 warships. Most of the naval officers were everyday Punic citizens.
Aside from fighting in wars, the navy was also responsible for protecting Carthage’s vast trade routes and also embarking on explorations to find new trade routes. It’s likely that Hanno the Navigator, the famous Carthaginian explorer of the 5th century BC, sailed to the West African coast in an effort to further enhance the empire’s gold trade.
Most Carthaginians spoke a dialect called Punic, which was a language that originated from their original home of Phoenicia. The other Carthaginian territories, especially those in the Mediterranean and northern Africa, also spoke Punic. Through their interactions with other tribes and groups like the Berbers, a new dialect of the language was introduced.
As a result of its influence in the region, Punic was likely to have been the chief language used among merchants and traders that plied the Mediterranean Sea. Some historians even believe that Punic served as the foundation for other world languages.
Interestingly, the language did not immediately die out following the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. For example, many people living in Sardinia continued to speak Punic for close to 400 years.
Ancient Carthage used trade to establish itself as a powerhouse in the ancient times, especially during periods of instability and wars. It was extremely successful in bringing people of various ethnicities together.
Economically, the empire prospered and was the focal point along the Mediterranean trade routes and its harbor had more than 200 docks.
Unfortunately, most of Carthage’s successes were wiped off after its defeat in the Punic Wars. However, it’s very much possible that the empire’s achievements and legacy played a role in turning the Roman Republic into the next global powerhouse.
For a long time, Carthage enjoyed monopoly as the most powerful and wealthiest empire. But ancient Carthage was not without its conflicts. For many centuries, the empire remained in constant conflict with Greece but this was more economically driven, as both parties were keen on having full control over trade routes.
Carthage had the upper hand for the most part but the Greeks were unrelenting. Both sides established settlements in the region; however, with the founding of these colonies came more conflicts, with the most popular being the Sicilian Wars (i.e. Greco-Punic Wars – 580 to 265 BC). Although the Carthaginians suffered huge losses in those inconclusive Greco-Punic Wars, it still stood tall and managed to maintain control of Mediterranean, especially the island of Sicily. At least, until the rise of Rome.
The Punic Wars
For a long time, Sicily was divided between the Romans and Carthaginians. Because they both supported different groups, they were always in conflict with each other and it escalated into the Punic Wars, which began in 264 BC.
Initially, Rome was significantly weaker than Carthage. The latter had superior military and its navy had successfully managed to prevent Rome from trading in the Mediterranean. But the Carthaginians underestimated Rome’s weakness during the First Punic War (264-241 BC) and were defeated. As a result, Carthage ceded Sicily to the republic and also paid a heavy war fine.
After losing the First Punic War, Carthage once again entered into another conflict called the Mercenary War (241-237 BC), which occurred after mercenaries revolted against the empire. This time however, Carthage, under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca, won the fight.
Times were extremely difficult for the North African empire following the events of both wars. During that time, Rome continued to expand and Carthage focused on gaining more territories in Iberia. Eventually, the two sides were again drawn into another fierce confrontation after Hamilcar’s son, Hannibal Barca, led a siege against the Spanish city of Saguntum, which was a Roman ally.
This invasion brought about the Second Punic War, which lasted from 218-202 BC. Hannibal was an exceptional leader and military general, perhaps one of the greatest generals of the ancient time. Many people believed he was the embodiment of Queen Dido’s prediction. Under his leadership, Hannibal won several battles against the Romans, including the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.
But the very brave Roman army general Scipio Africanus, instead of giving up, decided to pursue Hannibal once again at the Battle of Zama in 202 in North Africa. Africanus came prepared and had sought support from former Carthaginian allies, including Numidia. Carthage lost heavily to the Romans yet again. While struggling to pay fines to Rome, the crumbling empire also had to constantly defend itself from the Numidians and their leader King Masinissa.
The Carthaginians and Romans attempted to enter into a treaty after the former had completely paid off its war debt. But the Romans had other ideas and planned to destroy their North African rivals for good and then rebuild the city. Carthage refused, as expected. This ushered in the Third Punic War (149-146 BC). This time it was the Roman army general Scipio Aemilianus that won the battle against Carthage and ordered for the entire city to be burned down and sacked. A significant percentage of its population was either killed or sold into slavery. And just like that, the city of Carthage was erased from history in 146 BC. It was simply no match for Rome.
Following its comprehensive defeat at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, Carthage struck a peace treaty. The victors, Rome, imposed a heavy financial and territorial toll on the Carthaginians. Many of Carthage’s overseas territories were seized by Rome. Per the treaty, Carthage had to seek Rome’s permission before it could wage any war. This further weakened Carthage.
Carthage in Modern History
In contemporary times, Carthage is mostly known for its long term conflict with Rome. Its destruction changed the course of the ancient world. It also changed how the rest of the world saw Carthage. For many years, both Greek and Roman writers long admired the empire, including its wealth and governance.
Sadly, its defeat in the Punic Wars saw a change in those writings. Carthage was now presented as the antagonist in Rome’s early history. It was described as a place where there was a lot of abuses, cruelty, treachery, and irreligion. It is interesting that such descriptions came from Rome, an empire that believed its sacred duty was to use wars and conquests to spread “enlightenment” to barbaric places.
Quite certainly, Carthage was anything but those descriptions given by the Romans. Modern archaeological findings suggest that Carthage was a truly advanced empire, perhaps even way ahead of its time, barring the typical societal flaws that often characterized the ancient world. Depicting Carthage as merely a rival of Rome will be a true travesty.