Summary: An advanced ancient civilisation with origins in Phoenicia, on the Middle East. Best known for fighting against Rome in the First, Second and Third Punic Wars.
Date: Founded: c. 850 BC (traditionally, 814 BC); Destroyed: c. 146 BC.
Location: Modern-day Tunisia, North Africa.
- Introduction -
On the misty morning of 814 BC, a small number of ancient vessels glided swiftly through the Mediterranean Sea. The refugees aboard them were going to become the ancestors of a mighty empire, Carthage, the greatest empire of the Mediterranean Sea for 500 years. She would come to fight Greece, she would come to fight Rome, but now only a legend, a myth that has faded through time and been overshadowed by her greatest enemy... that is, of course, Rome.
- Founding -
Legend has it that Carthage was founded in 814 BC (new evidence suggests Carthage was founded closer to 850 BC) when Queen Alicia, more well known as Queen Dido, fled from her home of Tyre in Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) with a band of loyal followers. With them, she set sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and then pleaded with King Hierboss of Libya for some land. He replied smartly that she could have as much land as a cowhide would cover. When Dido received the cowhide, she cut it into very thin strips and placed them end to end, creating a large radius of land with the sea being one border! Though unimpressed, King Hierboss had to stick to his side of the bargain. And so, upon settling there, Dido brought about the birth of Carthage.
- Growth, Trading, Politics, and Religion -
At first, Carthage was a small trading centre for Tyre in Phoenicia (the empire from where Dido and her refugees came) and was a Phoenician colony. It was called the city-state of Carthage. The Carthaginians spoke Phoenician, as well as having the same religious practices, which were mixed. These differed greatly as some Carthaginians worshipped Greek gods, as well as other gods, though the most common were Baal and Tanit.
Carthage eventually gained its independence in 650 BC when it became separate from Phoenicia. Carthage got rid of the monarchy in 480 BC and became a republic, with a kind of Senate which consisted mainly of rich merchant families (since Carthage was very powerful in trading) as well as two men genuinely elected called suffetes, which meant king. One suffete would rule over Carthage itself, while the other would control the military. In 320 BC, Alexander the Great destroyed Tyre in Phoenicia, so many refugees fled to Carthage knowing they would be safe there. Other Phoenician colonies which had been founded before, now fell under Carthaginian dominance. This extra population boosted Carthage much and she rose, pushing further out into Africa as well as conquering a thin portion of the south coast of Spain.
Carthage had previously taken Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Isles which all served as major trading posts and these islands brought full control of the western Mediterranean Sea. Some sources say that Carthage even charged a small fee to any vessel passing through the western Mediterranean Sea! Carthage's trade was very prosperous due to the fertile soils of North Africa as agriculture was what Carthage mainly traded in. There were basically no poor people at all and even the less wealthy lived very decently. Carthage became very powerful and wealthy and their influence in those parts was very great indeed. The capital city of Carthage was called Carthage and a truly amazing sight it was. The huge round docks could house at least 220 vessels at one time, to be loaded or unloaded with cargo or repaired.
- Sicilian Wars and Pyrrhic Wars -
In 580 BC a contest for Sicily began against the Greek city-state of Syracuse. Carthage had settled on the East side of of the island of Sicily, and the Greeks settled on the West Coast. Since the population of Greece had become too large for their landmass, many Greek colonies had broken out, settling all around the Mediterranean. At this time Carthage was not quite so powerful yet, so both sides found themselves evenly matched.
Battle after battle was fought, and Carthage had many successes until the Greeks won the battle of White Tunis after they landed in Africa. However, two years after, the Greeks were pushed out by Carthage, peace was signed and Sicily was split in half. The outcome of all seven wars fought against the Greeks remained inconclusive with thousands killed.
Later a Greek general called Pyrrhus arrived in Sicily and caused much havoc among the Carthaginians. Their power was initially checked, but the Greek general had to return to Italy and was defeated by a Carthaginian fleet on the way back.
- First Punic War -
The Carthaginians and the Roman Republic (the only great powers left that were really equal to each other) had since signed a number of peace treaties. But now things turned fowl after some mercenary soldiers from Messina in Sicily called for aid from both Rome and Carthage since they were being attacked by Hieron II of Syracuse. Carthage arrived first at Messina with a garrison and negotiated with Hieron II for peace for the mercenaries. However, a Roman garrison arrived, pushed the Carthaginian garrison out, and defeated Hieron II in battle.
Naturally, Carthage was not happy and the threats they made to Rome were so intimidating that the Roman Commander almost wanted to negotiate peace, but peace was not to be. Many sea battles occurred during this war and the Carthaginians were natural sailors (due to their Phoenician origin) and were very skilled at sea. The Romans proved terrible sailors for they had never even been at sea and hundreds of Roman ships were wrecked by storms.
Nevertheless, the Romans persevered and their unending supply of resources and manpower, together with the invention of the Corvus (a draw-bridge platform that lowered onto enemy ships to allow the Roman soldiers to board) all paid off in the end. The Carthaginians were run into the ground after the battle of Aegates Island. Carthage had to surrender Sicily as well as Corsica and Sardinia, and pay a large indemnity of silver. Though if Rome thought the two powers would have peace they were disappointed, for the words ‘Hannibal at the gates’ would bring nightmares to the Romans for years and years to come.
- Revival: The Armies Of Carthage And The Second Punic War -
Now let's take some time to examine the armies of Carthage. First of all, Carthage didn't have a citizen army but instead relied more on allied soldiers. Mercenaries wouldn't be the right word for most were not hired as such (though sometimes Carthage did hire mercenaries). Their army consisted of Iberian troops, (Iberia was a peninsula in eastern Spain), Celt-Iberians, Gauls, Libyans, or Liby-Phoenicians, as well as a large sum of Italians and other Roman “allies” who defected to Carthage during the Punic Wars.
During times of need though, Carthage could muster a force of 10,000 levy phalangites. Carthage also had what they called the ‘Sacred Band,’ consisting of elite infantry and cavalry. Another contingent of the Carthaginian army was the Numidian light cavalry. The Libyan or Liby-Phoenician infantry was given to Carthage as a tribute, while others were under Carthaginian dominance, and so went to war with them, and others still, fought during the Punic Wars just because they hated the Romans.
Carthage’s largest and main force was their navy, which did have citizens as the soldiers or marines aboard the vessels. Their navy remained uncontested until the First Punic War, in which it was overcome.
Carthage’s reviving power after the First Punic War was not checked and she soon recovered from her losses. Trade was still in business and Carthage flourished greatly. Hamilcar, a Carthaginian general (Hannibal’s father), did much conquering in Spain, basically taking the whole country, adding to the south coast slither they already held. This expanded their empire greatly, making up for their losses of the isles in the Mediterranean. The Romans saw Carthage’s power growing and noted it with concern.
The indemnity Carthage had been paying to Rome over 20 years was paid well before schedule, much to the amazement of the Romans. Now Hannibal (said to be the 4th most brilliant general in all history), took command of the armies in Iberia and besieged the city of Sagentum, which had been a Roman ally.
After Hannibal took it, the Roman senate demanded Hannibal be handed over at once for “Roman justice”. Carthage responded, basically saying “As if - go away” and so Rome declared war. The most bloody series of battles that ever occurred in Europe was about to begin. Hannibal decided that he wanted to be on the offensive rather than defensive, so with over 30,000 soldiers and cavalry, and some elephants, he made the march across the Pyrenees and Alps.
This was a feat that still remains incredible and has mind-blown many historians. With that done, many peoples who had been oppressed by the Romans joined the Carthaginian army. The Romans saw this as a great threat and responded accordingly by sending consul and army after consul and army to defeat Hannibal. But, Hannibal’s brilliance prevailed and the Romans were consecutively defeated at the battles of Ticinus, Trebia, and the most well-executed ambush in all history.....Lake Trasimene. Hannibal plundered Italy and this affected Rome greatly - Hannibal and the Carthaginians seemed unstoppable. (Meanwhile, Rome had sent a fleet of ships to the Iberian Peninsula for a counter landing, and after some success, they were defeated. They sent more reinforcements there and eventually prevailed). So Rome decided to do something like never before, they mustered a HUGE army of 85,000 men to crush Hannibal.
The Carthaginians had an army of approximately 54,000 men, but Hannibal used the stubborn Roman mindset, as well as the terrain, to his advantage, and by deploying the crescent formation the Carthaginians surrounded and massacred the Roman’s in a battle of annihilation... Cannae. After this humiliating defeat with 50,000 dead, and 20,000 captured, things became desperate for Rome. However, luckily for the Romans, their army in Spain had been successful in defeating the Carthaginians at Ilipa. After that, Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal, who was bringing supplies, reinforcements and siege equipment from Carthage to help Hannibal, and take the city of Rome, was defeated and killed by an intercepting Roman army. If Hasdrubal had made it and joined up with Hannibal, Rome certainly would have been destroyed for good.
After achieving more and more victories over Rome in Italy, Carthage recalled Hannibal and his army back to Carthage to defend Africa from a Roman invasion. Hannibal left to defend his homeland. The clash of the titans was to follow. Hannibal gathered an army of 10,000 levies, (the ones we talked about in ‘The Armies of Carthage’ heading) as well as Gaulish mercenaries, and Hannibal’s veteran Libyan and Liby-Phoenician infantry, which had fought all through Hannibal’s campaign in Italy. Carthage also had the Sacred Band in this battle which formed most of their cavalry, as well as 80 war elephants. The Romans were under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio, who had been fighting the Carthaginians in Spain. His force was the normal maniple formation of infantry (which consisted of three large lines, the hastati at the front the principes in the middle and the triarri in the rear). They also had an unusually large number of cavalry consisting of the typical Roman and allied cavalry, as well as the Numidians who had gone over to the Roman side for money. This large contingent outnumbered that of their Carthaginian adversaries.
The two forces met in the plains of Zama, and at first the Carthaginian’s levy and mercenary infantry made headway into the Roman infantry. But Scipio and the Romans used their advantage in cavalry, and eventually after routing the brave but outnumbered mounted Sacred Band, wheeled around and attacked the Carthaginians in the flanks and rear. Hannibal’s elite infantry fought with bravery and valour against the Roman cavalry until all were killed or captured. The Second Punic War was over, Rome had won. Carthage lost all their land in Spain, and almost all in Africa as well. All that remained was a small amount around the city of Carthage itself. Hannibal, being a powerful figure in the Senate, revived Carthage and brought order and wealth back, though Carthage was no longer a strong contestant for power. Rome had triumphed in the end. But it was still not over.
- Third Punic War -
The Numidians had been launching some raids on the Carthaginian borders, so Carthage having recovered a little, commenced a military expedition against them. When the Romans saw this, however, they were not happy, for Numidia was on good terms with the Romans so they declared war on Carthage. At once the Romans moved to besiege the city of Carthage itself. The defences were very strong due to the city’s strategic situation, the strength and height of her walls, and the determination of her occupants. Weapons and armour were continually being produced, hundreds a day in fact. The Carthaginian defenders fought and held the Romans off for two full years before Carthage fell. It was the end. The greatest series of wars in all antiquity had been fought. The hatred with which Carthage and Rome had clashed was even greater than the resources that went into the wars.
- Interesting Facts about the Punic Wars and Carthage -
The battle of Lake Trasimene was the greatest ambush in all history, not only in coordination and execution but because the numbers involved also makes it the largest ambush in history.
The sea battle of Ecnomus during the First Punic War was possibly the largest naval battle in all history. The Carthaginians had 350 vessels and the Romans 330, with over 500,000 men involved.
While crossing the Alps, Hannibal was once in a steep-sided gully and in the middle was a huge boulder. It looked like he might have had to turn back, but telling his men to get two trees, he leaned them against the rock and set them alight. Once the rocks became hot, Hannibal ordered his men to pour a vinegary wine over them, this broke the rock into pieces and the Carthaginians could get through!
In his campaign in Italy, Hannibal had his camp cut off by Romans. Hannibal was near the sea and there were lots of mountains surrounding him, with the two small passes being blocked. During the night, Hannibal got his men to tie torches to the horns of a herd of cows nearby and sent them to one of the passes. The Romans focussed all their forces on that area thinking the Carthaginians were making a breakout, only to find cows. Meanwhile, Hannibal and his men escaped via the other pass. The Romans were furious. Hannibal was very, very clever.
The reason many Carthaginian names ended with ‘bal’ is that the Carthaginians used to worship Baal.
Researched and written by
Caleb Shaw and Cody Mitchell
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A highly advanced ancient civilisation that fought three vicious wars against the Roman Republic between 580 BC and 146 BC.