Rome’s Early Rivals: Who Were the Carthaginians?

Oliver Fletcher

3 mins

20 Nov 2018

Rome’s wars with Carthage were some of the most brutal and famous of its early history. But who were the people of Carthage?

Origins: The legend of Dido

According to myth, the city of Carthage, located near modern day Tunis on the North African coast, was founded by Queen Dido in the 9th century BC. Also known by her Greek name of Elissa, Dido is most famous today as a character in Virgil’s Aeneid, where she vainly attempts to seduce the wandering Aeneas as he flees the destruction of Troy.

Pitted as the original hero of Rome and an ancestor of Romulus and Remus, Aeneas came close to marrying Dido, before being forced to leave after divine intervention. The story goes that Aeneas’s departure from Carthage and rejection of Dido was the root of the city’s later wars with Rome.

An 18th century idealisation of Dido attempting to woo Aeneas. Credit: Musée du Louvre

Historians today question the veracity of the Dido legend, but it is clear that Carthage was founded as a trading outpost by the Phoenicians – a maritime civilisation originally from the region that today forms part of Lebanon. The city gradually grew to become a major centre of Mediterranean trade, and controlled a network of dependencies in North Africa, Spain, and Sicily.

Traders and seafarers

The Carthaginians were able to benefit from their city’s location at the heart of the ancient Mediterranean trade routes.

Specialising in the production of fine textiles, perfumes, and household goods such as furniture and cooking implements, in its heyday Carthage was the dominant metropolis in the western Mediterranean, and profited hugely from the merchants passing through its port. The city also served as a hub for the trading of metal, and tin mined in the Middle East was brought to Carthage to be forged into bronze.

Carthage became wealthy as a trade hub, and grew into a large and vibrant metropolis. Credit: Carthage National Museum

Carthage was also famous for its highly sophisticated agricultural practices. One of the earliest centres of wine production, evidence of Carthaginian goods, including wine amphorae, have been excavated as far away as the British Isles and the Atlantic coast of West Africa.

The Carthaginian army

Ancient sources, most notably the Greek historian Polybius, reported that the Carthaginian military was predominantly a mercenary-based force. Rather than develop a fully militarised society akin to that of ancient Sparta, the Carthaginians largely relied on others to fight on their behalf.

As a result, soldiers from Libya and Numidia (modern Algeria), would have rubbed shoulders with Celts and Iberian forces from Spain in Carthage’s army.

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Carthage’s Numidian cavalry were particularly feared, trained to harass an enemy force from distance with their javelins. Mounted on small Berber horses and only lightly armoured, these skirmishers were described by Roman historian Livy as ‘by far the best horsemen in Africa’.

Wars with Rome

Given its position as a trading hub and cultural capital, Carthage was a natural target for the emerging power of Rome. Growing tensions first escalated into war in 264 BC, and over the next hundred years the two states fought three debilitating conflicts – the Punic Wars.

Initially, these did not provide decisive victory for either side, with both suffering heavily at the hands of the other. Carthage’s most famous general, Hannibal Barca, mounted his trans-Alpine invasion on Italy in 218 BC, but despite his subsequent crushing victory at the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, he was eventually forced to withdraw.

Gradually, Rome began to gain the upper hand. As its empire was eroded by Roman expansionism, Carthage itself was besieged by Roman general Scipio Aemilianus in 149 BC.

After a three year struggle, the city eventually succumbed. The Roman Senate dictated that the city be burned and the remaining citizens sold into slavery. A brutal end for a once glorious city.

The ruins of Carthage today. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ludmila Pilecka

Main image: The Battle between Scipio and Hannibal at Zama by Cornelis Cort. Credit: The Elisha Whittelsey Collection.

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