- This article is about the ancient city-state of Carthage in North Africa. For other uses of the word, see Carthage (disambiguation).
Map of central Mediterranean Sea, showing location of Carthage (near modern Tunis). Map also shows Italy and the islands Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
Carthage (from the Phoenician Kart-Hadasht, the "New City", written without vowels in Punic as Qrthdst), was a city in north Africa located on the eastern side of Lake Tunis, across from the center of modern Tunis in Tunisia. It remains a popular tourist attraction.
Founding of Carthage
In approximately 814 BC, Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers from the city of Tyre, bringing with them the city-god Melqart. Traditionally, the city was founded by Dido, and a number of foundation myths have survived through Greek and Roman literature.
Located on the Mediterranean Sea, Carthage's early years were defined by a long rivalry between the landholding and maritime families. In general, due to the city's dependence on trade, the maritime faction controlled the government, and during the 6th century BC, Carthage began to acquire dominance over the Western Mediterranean. Merchants and explorers established a vast network of trade, bringing wealth and power to the city-state. In the early 6th century BC, Hanno the Navigator is supposed to have sailed down the African coast, perhaps as far as Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, under a leader named Malchus, the city began a systematic conquest of both the African interior and the coastal regions.
By the beginning of the 5th century BC, Carthage was the commercial center of the region (a position it would retain until overthrown by the Roman Republic). The city had conquered the territory of the old Phoenician colonies and Libyan tribes, spreading its control along the North African coast from today's Morocco to the borders of Egypt. Its influence had also spread out into the Mediterranean, with control over Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and the western half of Sicily. Colonies had also been established in Iberia.
Ruins of Carthage
First Sicilian War
Carthage's success had led to the creation of a powerful navy to discourage both pirates and rival nations. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with Greece, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.
The island of Sicily, lying at Carthage's doorstep, became the arena on which this conflict would play out. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts. Small battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries, but in 480 BC it became the staging ground for the first major Carthaginian military campaign.
Gelon, the Tyrant of Syracuse, Italy, backed in part by Greek support, was attempting to unite the island under his rule. This imminent threat could not be ignored, and Carthage -- possibly as part of an alliance with Persia, then engaged in a war with Greece -- fielded its largest military force to date under the leadership of the general Hamilcar. (Although traditional accounts of 300,000 men are almost certainly exaggerated, it must still have presented a formidable force.)
En route to Sicily, however, Hamilcar suffered losses (possibly severe losses) due to poor weather. Landing at Panormus (modern-day Palermo), Hamilcar was then decisively defeated by Gelon at the Battle of Himera. Hamilcar was either killed during the battle, or committed suicide due to his shame. Carthage was weakened severely by the loss, and the old government of entrenched nobility was ousted to be replaced by the Carthaginian Republic.
Second Sicilian War
By 410 BC, however, Carthage had recovered under a series of successful rulers. It had conquered much of modern day Tunisia, strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, and sponsored Mago Barca's journey across the Sahara Desert and Hanno the Navigator's journey down the African coast (possibly passing the Cape of Good Hope). Although, in that year, the Iberian colonies seceded -- cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copper -- Hannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily, while expeditions were also led into to Morocco and Senegal, and also into the Atlantic.
In 409 BC, Hannibal Mago led the new expedition to Sicily. He was successful in capturing the smaller cities of Selinunte (the ancient Selinus) and Himera, before returning triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war. The primary enemy of Syracuse, however, remained untouched, and in 405 BC Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition to claim the entirety of the island. This expedition, however, was met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the Siege of Agrigentum, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague and Hannibal Mago died of it. Although Hannibal Mago's successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege, capturing the city of Gela, and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius, the new Tyrant of Syracuse, he, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning to Carthage.
In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively to this attack, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege met with great success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces and Himilco's forces collapsed.
Sicily, however, was now a necessary obsession for Carthage. Over the course of the next 60 years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant series of skirmishes. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island and an uneasy peace reigned over the island.
Third Sicilian War
In 315 BC Agathocles, the Tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene (present-day Messina, Italy). In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, breaking the terms of the current peace treaty and laying siege to Akragas.
Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, led the Carthaginian response and met with tremendous success. By 310 BC he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself. In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. Although Agathocles' army was eventually defeated in 307 BC, Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and was able to negotiate a peace which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily.
Pyrrhus of Epirus
Between 280 BC and 275 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus waged two major campaigns in an effort to protect and extend the influence of Greece in the Western Mediterranean: one against the emerging power of the Roman Republic in an effort to defend the Greek colonies in southern Italy, the other against Carthage in a renewed attempt to wrest Sicily wholly from their control.
Pyrrhus lost in both Italy and Sicily. For Carthage, this meant a return to the status quo. For Rome, however, it meant capturing Tarentum and holding the entirety of Italy. The result was a shift in the balance of power in the Western Mediterranean: Greece was effectively reduced to its toehold upon Sicily, while Rome's growing strength and territorial ambitions brought it directly into conflict with Carthage for the first time.
The Messanan Crisis
When Agathocles died in 288 BC, a large company of mercenaries who had previously been held in his service found themselves suddenly without employment. Rather than leave Sicily, they seized the city of Messana. Naming themselves Mamertines (or "sons of Mars"), they became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the surrounding countryside.
The Mamertines became a growing threat to Carthaginian and Syracusan alike. In 265 BC, Hiero II, the new Tyrant of Syracuse, took action against the Mamertines. Faced with a vastly superior force, the Mamertines divided into two factions, one advising surrender to Carthage, the other preferring to seek aid from Rome. As a result, embassies were sent to both cities.
While the Roman Senate debated the best course of action, the Carthaginians eagerly agreed to send a garrison to Messana. A Carthaginian garrison was admitted to the city, and a Carthaginian fleet sailed into the Messanan harbor. However, soon afterwards they began negotiating with Hiero II; alarmed, the Mamertines sent another embassy to Rome asking them to expel the Carthaginians.
This action had placed Carthage's military forces directly across a narrow channel of water from Italy. Moreover, the presence of the Carthaginian fleet gave them effective control over the Straits of Messana, and demonstrated a clear and present danger to nearby Rome and her interests.
As a result, the Roman Assembly, although reluctant to ally with a band of mercenaries, sent an expeditionary force to return control of Messana to the Mamertines.
The Punic Wars
The Roman attack on the Carthaginian forces at Messana triggered the first of the Punic Wars. Over the course of the next century, these three major conflicts between Rome and Carthage would determine the course of Western civilization.
Rome consistently triumphed over Carthage during the Punic Wars. The end of the Third Punic War resulted in the end of Carthaginian power and the complete destruction of the city by Scipio Africanus Minor: Roman soldiers went from house to house, slaughtering the people of Carthage and enslaving any who survived. Carthage's harbor was burned and the city razed. Carthage would never again rival the Eternal City of Rome.
Between the first and the second Punic war, Carthage faced a major Mercenary revolt.
It is disputed whether the Carthaginian farmland was salted following the Battle of Carthage.
Late Antiquity Carthage
The site was too well-chosen to lie waste, however, and a new city grew up there and became the second largest city in the western half of the Roman Empire and the metropolitan city of the Roman Province of Africa. By the late 2nd century, Carthage was the center of Roman Africa. Tertullian rhetorically addresses the Roman governor with the fact, as for the Christians of Carthage that just yesterday were few in number, now they
- "have filled every place among you— cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods" (Apologeticus written at Carthage, c. 197)
It is worth noting that Tertullian omits any mention of the surrounding countryside or its network of villas not unlike colonial hacienda society. In the first of a string of rather poorly reported Councils at Carthage, a few years later, no fewer than seventy bishops attended. Tertullian later broke with the mainstream that was represented more and more by the bishop of Rome, but a more serious rift among Christians was the Donatist controversy,which drew in the young Augustine of Hippo while he finished his education at Carthage, before moving on to Rome.
The political fallout from the deep disaffection of African Christians was a crucial factor in the ease with which Carthage and the other centers were captured in the 5th century by Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, who defeated the Byzantine general Bonifatius and made the city his capital. Gaiseric was considered a heretic too, an Arian, and though Arians commonly despised Catholic Christians, a mere promise of toleration might have provided the turning point. After a failed attempt to recapture the city in the 5th century, the Byzantines finally subdued the Vandals in the 6th century. Using Gaiseric's grandson's deposal by a distant cousin, Gelimer, as a pretext, the Byzantines dispatched an army to conquer the Vandal kingdom. On Sunday, October 15 533, Byzantine general Belisarius, accompanied by his wife Antonina, made his formal entry into Carthage, sparing it a sack and a massacre.
During Byzantine emperor Maurice I's reign, Carthage was made into an Exarchate, as was Ravenna in Italy. These two exarchates were the western bulwarks of Byzantium, all that remained of its power in the west. In the early 7th century, it was the Exarch of Carthage, Heraclius (of Armenian origin), who overthrew emperor Phocas.
The Byzantine Exarchate was not, however, able to withstand the Arab invaders of the 7th century. The first Arab assault on the Exarchate of Carthage was initiated from Egypt without much success in 647. The final campaign against Carthage was in 670-683. In 698 the Exarchate of Africa was finally overrun by the rising forces of Islam.
Carthage's government was an oligarchy, not unlike that of republican Rome, but only few details are known. Its heads of state are commonly referred to as "sufets" (literally, "judges"; Roman writers referred to them as "reges", kings), which might originally have been the title of the city's governor installed by the mother city of Tyre. Later, one or two sufets, who are believed to have exercised judicial and executive, but not military functions, were elected annually from among the most wealthy and influential families. Those aristocratic families were represented in a supreme council, comparable to the senate in Rome, which had a wide range of powers, but it is not known whether the sufets were elected by this council or by an assembly of the people. Although the people might have had influence on legislation as well, democratic elements were rather weak in Carthage, and the city's administration was firmly controlled by oligarchs.
Carthaginian Religious Practices
Carthage under the Phoenicians was notorious to its neighbors for child sacrifice. Plutarch (ca. A.D. 46 - 120) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius and Diodorus Siculus. Livy and Polybius do not. Modern archeological excavations could be taken to confirm Plutarch's view. In a single child cemetery called The Tophet an estimated 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BC and 200 BC. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds, indicating that if the baby was stillborn, the youngest child would be sacrificed by the parents. However, it is sometimes argued that these were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally, although in the light of other Canaanite evidence this seems less likely.
- Hannibal's Campaigns, by Tony Bath. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.
- Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context, by Shelby Brown. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
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