Ancient Rome

A Brief History of the Carthaginians

The Carthaginians originated from the Tyrians of Phoenicia, sharing a common language related to Hebrew, customs, laws, religion

A Brief History of the Carthaginians

The Carthaginians originated from the Tyrians of Phoenicia, sharing a common language related to Hebrew, customs, laws, religion, and a strong focus on trade. This shared origin fostered a close relationship between them. When Persian ruler Cambyses waged war against Carthage, the Phoenician fleet refused to fight their countrymen. Carthage remained deeply connected to its homeland, regularly sending tribute and offerings to Tyre’s gods.

Religion, Goverment, anc Commerce

Religion held great importance in Carthage. Generals would begin and end their ventures with acts of worship. A treaty between Carthage and Philip, son of Demetrius of Macedon, explicitly outlined their shared belief that gods governed human affairs.

The Carthaginians worshipped two primary deities. The first was the goddess Coelestis (also called Urania), associated with the moon and invoked during times of crisis. The second was Saturn, known by the scriptural name Moloch, who tragically received human sacrifices. This practice was inherited from Tyre and tragically endured in Carthage until the city’s fall, despite being explicitly forbidden in certain religious scriptures.

Carthage’s government was considered exceptionally wise. It balanced three powers: the two supreme magistrates named Suffetes, the senate, and the people. Later, a tribunal of “One Hundred” gained significant influence. The power of the Suffetes resembled that of the Roman consuls. The senate, composed of those distinguished by age, experience, and merit, held supreme decision-making power when unanimous. In cases of divided opinion, the people made the final decision.

Carthage was a commercial superpower. Its central Mediterranean location allowed trade routes to extend in all directions. Egypt supplied them with textiles, paper, and materials for ships; the Red Sea coast provided spices, incense, gold, and precious stones. From Tyre and Phoenicia came luxury fabrics, furniture, and artworks, while from the western world, they received iron, tin, lead, and copper. Their extensive trade networks brought immense wealth and established their dominance at sea. Carthaginian leaders actively participated in trade, and their expansion into Spain with the founding of New Carthage solidified their power in the region.

Carthage: Resources and Military Strength

Carthage derived significant wealth from the gold and silver mines of Spain. These resources funded their protracted conflicts with Rome. Historical records suggest that the mines near Nova Carthago employed a substantial workforce of over 40,000 miners. The daily yield from these mines was considerable.

The Carthaginian military was not a homogenous force but rather a strategic blend of alliances, tributary nations, and mercenary troops. Numidia supplied their swift and tireless cavalry. The Balearic Isles provided skilled slingers, while Spain offered a formidable infantry force. Carthage also looked to Greece for soldiers experienced in diverse combat situations.

This reliance on external military forces allowed Carthage to field powerful composite armies. Without the burden of constantly training new troops, their domestic labor, industry, trade, and naval power continued uninterrupted. They effectively purchased control of territories and used other nations to further their ambitions.

Carthaginian Governance, Education, and Literature

The internal structure and governance of Carthage remain somewhat unclear. Their trade networks were extensive and diverse. Despite their focus on commerce and military might, Carthage exhibited some interest in education and knowledge. Notable examples include Massinissa, the son of a king, who received education in Carthage. Additionally, the respected general Hannibal demonstrated familiarity with literature.

Mago, another Carthaginian general, contributed scholarly works on agriculture. Hanno’s Punic-language account of his voyage around Africa also survives. Among Carthage’s most celebrated figures is the playwright Terence, who, though born in Carthage, received much of his education in Rome.

Despite these examples, Carthage produced relatively few prominent scholars during its seven centuries of existence. The Carthaginians seemed to place less emphasis on eloquence, poetry, and history.

Education and Expansion in Carthage

Carthaginian youth primarily focused their studies on writing, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. All of these skills facilitated commerce and trade. Unlike in many civilized nations, they received little education in behaviors considered honorable or refined. This lack of liberal education was believed to lead many prominent Carthaginians to demonstrate dishonesty, cruelty, and cunning in their conduct. The term “Punic honor” became synonymous with deceit, and “Punicum ingenium” (a Carthaginian mind) indicated a treacherous disposition.

The Carthaginian empire existed for approximately 700 years before its ultimate demise. Its history is typically divided into two periods – the first preceding the Punic Wars, and the second concluding with the empire’s downfall. Carthage was founded by colonists from Tyre, a city renowned for its commercial power. The city’s founding, attributed to the Tyrian princess Elisa (known as Dido), occurred in 3158 of the world calendar (roughly 846 years before the birth of Christ).

Dido’s brother, King Pygmalion of Tyre, murdered Dido’s wealthy husband. To escape Pygmalion, Dido secretly fled Tyre with her husband’s treasure. Landing in Africa, she and her followers settled near the established trade post of Utica after acquiring land from the local population. Here, she founded the city of Carthada, meaning “new city”. During construction, a horse’s head was discovered – a fortuitous omen in their eyes as it foreshadowed the warlike nature of Carthage.

The Carthaginians expanded their domain beyond Africa, conquering lands in Europe. This included Sardinia, significant parts of Sicily, and much of Spain. Carthage’s colonies brought immense wealth, establishing their dominion over the seas for over six centuries. They rivaled the world’s greatest empires due to their commercial success, military might, naval power, and the strategic genius of their leaders. Their initial conflicts arose through attempts to nullify a tribute they’d promised to Africans in exchange for land, followed by successful campaigns and territorial gains against the Moors and Numidians.

Carthaginian Colonies and Military Campaigns

Carthage strategically controlled the island of Sardinia, a source of abundant provisions. The main city in the fertile south was Caralis (modern-day Cagliari). Native inhabitants, resisting Carthaginian arrival, retreated to the island’s rugged mountains.

The Balearic Islands (Majorca and Minorca) provided Carthage with highly skilled slingers. These soldiers used both stones and lead projectiles, renowned for their power and accuracy in battle. The name “Baleares” may originate from the Phoenician words meaning “master of the art of slinging.”

Carthage first entered Spain in support of Cadiz, an old Tyrian colony, which faced invasion from native peoples. The Carthaginians extended their influence significantly along the Mediterranean coast, establishing the city of Carthagena and reaching as far as the Iberus River.

Wars in Sicily are well-documented. The island’s triangular shape led to the name Trinacria. Carthage established a presence in Sicily before their first recorded treaty with Rome in the year of the Roman Republic’s founding.

Later, Carthage allied with Xerxes of Persia, agreeing to attack Greek settlements in Sicily and Italy while Xerxes invaded Greece. Hamilcar led the Carthaginian campaign but was defeated and killed at Himera. News of this defeat caused widespread despair in Carthage.

Hamilcar’s grandson, Hannibal (who vowed eternal hatred towards Rome), later commanded Carthaginian forces in Sicily. He achieved military success, but his actions were marked by extreme cruelty. Upon his return, Hannibal was greeted as a hero in Carthage.

Some years later, Hannibal and Imilcon jointly led a large Carthaginian force against Sicily. They besieged Agrigentum, a wealthy city, eventually forcing its inhabitants to flee. Imilcon also took the city of Gela. Despite a treaty with Dionysius of Syracuse, Carthage maintained its Sicilian holdings.

Dionysius besieged the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya, succeeding in capturing it, only for Imilcon to retake it later. A devastating plague severely weakened Imilcon’s army, forcing him to negotiate a retreat. Upon returning to a grief-stricken Carthage, Imilcon took his own life.

Carthage faced further turmoil as a large, but disorganized African revolt threatened the city. Internal divisions and famine among the rebels ultimately saved Carthage. Despite these setbacks, the Carthaginians persisted in their Sicilian campaigns, experiencing mixed fortunes under the leadership of Mago and his son.

The Carthaginian Empire: Conflict and Decline

A treaty, not differing substantially from an earlier one, was concluded between Carthage and Rome around the 402nd year of Rome’s founding.

During this period, Carthage faced external and internal threats. Imilcon, a Carthaginian general, besieged and captured Gela. His fate remains unknown. Carthage itself endured perilous times, weathering a dreadful storm that put the city in crisis.

Following the death of Dionysius the Elder, political turmoil gripped Syracuse. His son, after being expelled, forcibly regained power and ruled with cruelty. Syracuse sought assistance from Corinth, who dispatched Timoleon with a small force. Timoleon’s army grew during their march, compelling Dionysius to relinquish the citadel and flee to Corinth.

The Carthaginian general Mago, fearing disaffection among his forces, retreated. Upon his arrival in Carthage, he faced impeachment but died by suicide before the sentence could be carried out.

A notable event occurred in Carthage during this period. Hanno, a powerful citizen, plotted to seize control of the republic by assassinating the entire senate during his daughter’s wedding. However, the conspiracy was discovered. Hanno, after further attempts to fulfill his scheme, was captured, tortured, and executed. His family and relatives were also punished, despite their innocence.

Agathocles, a Sicilian of humble origins, rose to power in Syracuse with Carthaginian support. He subsequently launched a war against Carthage, besieging the city itself. The Carthaginians, unprepared for war, suffered an initial defeat at the hands of Agathocles. He captured strongholds and gained support from Africans.

While Carthage battled Agathocles, Tyre sought their aid against Alexander the Great. Though unable to send troops, Carthage sent deputies and sheltered Tyrian women, children, and the elderly.

Carthage attributed their struggles to divine displeasure, believing their neglect of religious customs had angered the gods. To appease their deities, they offered Tyre substantial gifts and sacrificed hundreds of their own children.

Carthage dispatched reinforcements to Hamilcar, who was besieging Syracuse. Hamilcar made a final, unsuccessful assault on the city and later fell into enemy hands. He was executed, and his head was sent to Agathocles. Carthage faced further internal strife as Bomilcar, another general, attempted to seize control of the city. The rebellion ultimately failed, and Bomilcar was tortured and executed.

Agathocles’s fortunes in Africa reversed. Africans deserted him, and his army was defeated by the Carthaginians. Fearing for his life, Agathocles abandoned his troops and fled to Syracuse. He lived out his remaining days in misery and died a cruel death.

The rise of Pyrrhus, king of Epirus, threatened both Rome and Carthage. The two powers renewed their alliance. Pyrrhus achieved victories in Italy, prompting Carthage to offer Rome a naval fleet. Rome politely declined the offer. Carthage sent reinforcements to Sicily, and Syracuse sought aid from Pyrrhus. Pyrrhus intervened in Sicily, forcing the Carthaginians to retreat. However, he was soon compelled to return to Italy, abandoning Sicily.

Following Pyrrhus’s departure, Hiero rose to prominence in Syracuse and eventually became king. He waged war against the Carthaginians, securing some victories. However, the emergence of Rome as a power in the region led to a common cause between Carthage and Syracuse against this new threat. Rome’s intervention in Sicily sparked the First Punic War and ultimately led to the demise of the Carthaginian Empire.

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Julia Caruso
Julia Caruso earned her M.A. in Roman History from the University of Rome. She writes broadly about the political, social, and cultural developments of ancient Rome.

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