The Collapse of Carthage and Rise of Rome

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The Mediterranean Basin has been the cradle of world civilizations since the first settlements in Jericho thousands of years ago. Known in English and the romance languages as the sea “between the lands,” the Mediterranean has shaped the cultures and identities of many nations and civilizations over the course of history. No other such basin exists in the world. Looking at a map, one is easily able to see what a unique location the Mediterranean Sea has in the world – with its unique shape, islands, bays, and straits, it creates the perfect environment for a “central highway” for all nations lucky enough to claim its waters. Magnificent civilizations have scattered all around the basin, from east to west, and north to south, from Mesopotamia to Al-Andalus, from the Greek City states to the Nile Delta, from Asia Minor to the Portuguese Empire, and from Carthage to Rome.

Shillings, gods and runes: clues in language suggest a Semitic superpower  in ancient northern Europe

The Carthaginians were famed in antiquity for their seafaring skills and innovation in ship design. At one point, their navy protected stretches of land from the Rock of Gibraltar to the borders of Egypt, and extending north to Italian island of Sicily, the one acquisition that would prove to be their bane. Carthage was founded in 800 B.C. in dramatic fashion after Queen Dido escaped her Phoenician city-state of Tyre. Virgil, in his epic poem the Aeneid, which tells the legendary story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, describes how she fled from her ruthless and autocratic brother Pygmalion after discovering that he was responsible for her husband’s death. Dido is portrayed here as a clever and enterprising women who takes as many men as she can and sails west to start anew.

Aeneas recounting the Trojan War to Dido, by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin. This scene is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Dido falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas, only to be left heartbroken when he leaves.

Appian of Alexandria, a Greco-Roman historian, relays the scenes when Dido and her countrymen landed on the North African coast: Aeneas recounting the Trojan War to Dido, by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin. The scene is taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Dido falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas, only to be left heartbroken by his departure.

 Being repelled by the inhabitants, they asked for as much land for a dwelling place as they could encompass with an ox-hide. The Africans laughed at this frivolity of the Phoenicians and were ashamed to deny so small a request. Besides, they could not imagine how a town could be built in so narrow a space, and wishing to unravel the mystery they agreed to give it, and confirmed the promise by an oath. The Phoenicians, cutting the hide round and round in one very narrow strip, enclosed the place where the citadel of Carthage now stands, which from this affair was called Byrsa, “hide”.

The Phoenicians had mastered both the arts of trade and seafaring, and the former proved to be of utmost importance as their clever and  enterprising nature allowed them to gain the upper hand among the various Libyan and Amazigh tribes. Appian goes on to say: …And engaging in traffic by sea, like the Phoenicians, they built a city around Byrsa. Gradually acquiring strength, they mastered Africa and the greater part of the Mediterranean, carried war into Sicily and Sardinia and the other islands of that sea, and also into Spain. They sent out numerous colonies. They became a match for the Greeks in power, and next to the Persians in wealth.

In Sicily, the Carthaginians would meet their match. 

The city of Rome had been founded a couple of decades after the landing of the Phoenicians in Africa and would stare across the immense “lake” in envy of the growing power of Carthage and its influence. Carthage had a powerful navy, a mercenary army, and through tribute, tariffs, and trade, enough wealth to do as she pleased without fearing retaliation from an internally rife Roman city. Carthage had even managed to restrict Roman trade on waters she controlled and would drown and plunder Roman ships, seeing that Rome had no capable navy to rival its own. Both civilizations were unknowingly headed into a collision that would span almost a century and would be memorialized as the Punic Wars.

First Punic War - Wikipedia
The western Mediterranean by the start of the Punic War

The Punic Wars

In the first Punic Wars, Rome quickly realized that to defeat Carthage they would have to do what they had never done before – build their own naval fleet to rival the growing strength of Carthage. In the spring of 260 B.C., Rome constructed a fleet of 20 triremes and 100 quinquereme, both introduced into the Mediterranean by the Phoenicians. Copying the design of a captured Carthaginian ship, the Romans naturally had to one up the Carthaginians and added the corvus – a rotating 11-metre long platform with a giant holding spike which could be lowered onto an enemy vessel to allow a heavy infantry unit to board. The idea was to negate the strategic advantage that the Carthaginian navy had and make naval combat more akin to land combat, something the Romans excelled in. Consequently, a fleet of 145 Roman ships demolished the Carthaginian fleet, exposing the Carthaginian. Carthage had in turn sent out its best general Hamilcar Barca to push the Romans back and he successfully pinned down the legions, but the navy was unable to hold and was again destroyed. Hamilcar pleaded with the aristocracy for supplies and modest back up, but was refused multiple times, a mistake which was to be repeated again in the future. Many defeats later, the cash strapped Carthaginians would sue for peace.

The Second Punic War was what made the Roman Empire possible due to the amount of territories they gained after the war. The Second Punic War was started because of the economic crisis that Carthage was in after paying the Romans from the treaty of the First Punic War. Rome was in fact the one to declare war on Carthage. Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar, was chosen to lead the Carthaginian army. Hannibal was raised by his father to never befriend the Romans and was a very skilled Carthaginian general. Unlike the First Punic War, the Carthaginians were the ones on the offensive. Sicily was controlled by the Romans and Carthage was unable to push through their defenses. The war was favorable for Carthage in northern Italy at first, because Hannibal was able to assault the Romans with a surprise attack from the Alps.

Hannibal Hits The Alps

Hannibal was known for pushing through the Alps with an army of war elephants and men. At first Hannibal was able to win a series of battles starting with the Battle of the Trebia.

Hannibal's crossing of the Alps - Wikipedia

The Battle of the Trebia took place along the Trebbia River where the Romans and Carthaginians had camps on each side. This battle was won because of a clever strategy by Hannibal, who was relying on scouts to inform him of Roman activity. The scouts had informed him that the Romans were prepared to attack the following day. After hearing this, Hannibal sent a detachment of his force led by his younger brother to hide in some brush nearby. In the morning, the Carthaginian cavalry was sent to attract the Roman army and lead them back to the Carthaginian army. When both sides started fighting, the detachment had flanked the Roman army and caught them off guard. This led to the Romans suffering heavy losses and the rest retreating.

Hannibal was able to use his innovative strategies again in the Battle of Lake Trasimene as well. This battle was the largest ambush in military history, and was another huge victory for the Carthaginians. When Hannibal had received word that his army was being followed by a Roman army, he had been passing along Lake Trasimene, where he was able to spot a good location for an ambush. Hannibal positioned his soldiers on a ridge to the north of the lake. When the Roman troops arrived, they followed some retreating cavalry right into a valley where the ambush would take place. When the ambush began, some Romans escaped in the cover of fog, while most of them were killed. The Carthaginians suffered minimal losses.

After the Battle of Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene, Hannibal had another victory at the Battle of Cannae. Hannibal had captured a supply depot at Cannae, this forced the Romans to attack the Carthaginian army. After the Romans major losses at the Battle of the Trebia and the Battle of Lake Trasimene, the Romans wanted to ensure victory by sending massing heavy infantry. Hannibal’s strategy was to keep his line in a wing formation, where the flanks would be made of cavalry that could swing around and surround the Romans. At the beginning of the fight, the cavalry was able to surround the Romans successfully and cut through the back of the Roman army. Very few Romans were able to escape the battle and Hannibal had a huge military victory.

Even with the very successful victories by Hannibal, the Romans were able to defeat the Carthaginians. This is due to Hannibal never receiving the reinforcements that he requested from Carthage. The Romans found that they could not beat Hannibal head on so they cut off supplies to the Carthaginian army. While cutting off supplies, the Romans pushed an attack on Carthage. This forced Hannibal to rush to defend his homeland, which led to the destruction of his army. The Romans had set up terms that Carthage had to follow. They were not allowed to have any overseas matters. After the terrible losses that the Romans suffered in the battles, the Roman senate shot down any compromise that Carthage suggested.

Destruction' is part IV of Thomas Cole's epic painting series
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

The Third Punic War was a very short war when compared to the first two. Carthage, while still limited by the Romans and not allowed to declare war on others, was attacked by the neighboring Numidia. Carthage decided to repel the invaders with what was left of its army, but ended up losing. Rome saw the act of war against Numidia as Carthage disobeying Rome and led a siege on Carthage. This siege lasted for three years and many of the Carthaginians died from starvation. Carthage was burned and destroyed before being annexed by Rome.

By the end of the Punic wars, the Romans came out on top, inevitably destroying all that Carthage was…

Thanks for reading!

Kareem Abdurazag


Writer | Culture & Humanities Blogger


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