A History of Carthage

In the ninth century BC, the city of Qart-ḥadašt was founded on the Gulf of Tunis, North Africa, as a dependency of the Phoenician state Tyre. This Carthage was originally a trade colony, trading goods such as bronze objects, ceramics and wine with the West- and Middle-European inlands, for silver, tin and slaves. It became independent of Tyre in 650 BC, and began to expand its influence via trading.

Where the Phoenicians had been the most successful traders in the Levant, Carthage quickly took over that position in the West. The city-state was ruled as an aristocratic republic, in contrast to the absolute monarchies of West Asia and Egypt. The aristocratic council strove to turn most of the West into monopoly areas for its own traders, and attempted to maintain these areas by military force. After some struggles with the Greeks in the sixth century BC, the Carthaginians, with the help of their Etruscan allies, were able to take control of the Spanish and Corsican coastlines.

The main battleground for these struggles was Sicily, where they eventually founded a Carthaginian colony. Other colonies were established on Sardinia, some of the smaller islands in the area, and the north coast of Africa. On Sicily, main enemy of Carthage was still the Greek city of Syracuse. In 480 BC it came to a full-on war between the two, this time with a distinctly less positive outcome for the Carthaginians. A peace with Syracuse was negotiated.

This First Sicilian War was followed by a Second in 409 BC, spurred on by a desire to reclaim Sicily after the Iberian colonies seceded. Carthage successfully captured the smaller cities of Selinus and Himera, yet Syracuse remained undisturbed. After a war that would drag out for almost seventy years in which they achieved initial victories, the Carthaginians were finally pushed back to a south-western corner of the island, and peace reigned afterward – albeit an uneasy one. In 315 BC, Syracuse seized the city of Messene and attempted to capture various other Carthaginian strongholds, which led to the Third and final Sicilian War. Like the others, this one didn’t end well for Carthage either, when in 307 BC Syracuse led a counter strike on Carthage itself, forcing the Carthaginian army to retreat from Sicily to protect their city. Once again, a truce was negotiated.

In the third century, Carthage adopted the airs of a Greek city-state, basing their coin system on the Greek and building their army of mercenaries after the Greek example. In the meanwhile, the cultivation of the African hinterland expanded and eventually gave rise to a new type of agriculture: plantations cultured by slaves. Native Berber-peoples were starting to be recruited for the army. This would suit them well, as the Pyrrhic war broke out in 280 BC, directed at both Carthage and the early Roman Republic. After its instigator, Pyrrhus, had been defeated by the Romans, Carthage returned to its status quo.

After the Pyrrhic war, Rome and Carthage had established a treaty of friendship. Despite this, when the Italic former mercenaries in Messene requested protection from Carthage and Syracuse, Rome rose to the occasion and the First Punic War was a fact. Carthage’s fleet was the stronger, but Rome quickly scrambled to build its own, and after many undecided battles the Republic finally achieved victory over Carthage. A treaty was drawn up, and Carthage was made to relinquish the Carthaginian part of Sicily as well as pay a compensation in ten yearly terms.

Faced with this loss, general Hamilcar Barca turned to Spain to build Carthage a territorial empire there. He succeeded in subduing the Iberian tribes and established a number of strongholds in the area. When in 218 BC a Spanish city requested Roman help from the Carthaginian threat and got it, the aristocratic council at first wished to retreat to avoid conflict, but the young general Hannibal Barca saw the opportunity to avenge the defeat of his father Hamilcar on Sicily. This debouched into the Second Punic War, arguably the most famous war of the Carthaginians.

In what would almost become standard for any war Carthage took part in, they achieved some early and decisive-looking victories, especially in Cannae. In 215 BC Rome changed its tactics and led the Carthaginian army across Italy for 13 years without ever allowing a battle. Hannibal’s auxiliaries would either not reach him, or be intercepted by the Romans and disposed of separately. Syracuse, who’d taken Carthage’s side for once, was forcibly subdued, and after Scipio Africanus had conquered all of Carthaginian Spain in 204, Hannibal was called back to defend the homeland. In 201 BC Carthage met its decisive defeat. The city ceded its Spanish and African empires, and agreed to a compensation to be paid in fifty yearly terms.

The Third Punic War in 149 BC was the last battle of independent Carthage. It was a small affair that consisted mainly of the Battle of Carthage, and ended in the utter destruction of the city in 146 BC. All remaining Carthaginian territory was assimilated into the Roman territory and its population either put to the sword or enslaved. 


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    Great article. I just love Phoenicians, their colonies and Mediterranean civilization of that time. In a day I got...
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