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Carthage (20 May 2022)


Presented Online

Nicholas Hardwick

Carthage, meaning ‘New City’ in Punic, was a Phoenician colony in present day Tunisia, which was founded by one of the major Phoenician cities, Tyre, and whose traditional foundation date is 814 BC.  This colony far outgrew in importance the Phoenician cities which colonised the region.

The adjective ‘Punic’ comes from the Latin adjective ‘Punicus’, which is derived from the Latin name for the Carthaginians, ‘Poeni’.  This in turn comes from the Greek name of the Phoenicians, derived from the Greek word phoinix, which means ‘purple’, because of the purple dye which they traded.  Thus, their descendants, the Carthaginians, are also the people who traded the purple dye. 

The Punic language developed out of Phoenician and became a separate language, which was influenced by Berber languages spoken around Carthage.  There is little evidence for the language, and it is largely known from inscriptions.  It remained spoken until the fourth century AD, as attested by Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the Christian theologian.

Phoenician trade and colonisation had been extensive in the western Mediterranean region since the end of the second millennium BC, and had stretched beyond the Pillars of Hercules, the present day Straits of Gibraltar.  

Situated in Tunisia, Carthage was approximately half way from Phoenicia in the extent of Phoenician trade in the Mediterranean region.  Since Phoenician trade largely hugged the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea along North Africa, Carthage was an important staging post on the way to the western Mediterranean region.  Carthaginian trade also stretched over land over the Sahara desert to the south.

In the fourth century BC, it was one of the largest cities in the world, at a time when the Carthaginian Empire was at its height.  At the site of Carthage, two ancient harbours remain, one of which is semi-circular military, and the other is rectangular mercantile, and are manifestations of the fact that the city was a significant maritime power.

The archaeological remains from the site of Carthage show that the city had a rich material culture based on imports from throughout the Mediterranean region.  The evidence of art is more scanty, but statues exist in a mixed Phoenician and Greek style.  In architecture, there are the significant remains of the harbours. 

Carthaginian coinage generally imitated Greek coinage and derived its designs in many cases from the contemporary coinage of the Greek cities in Sicily, which were themselves known for their significant coin designs of outstanding artistic beauty.  Instead of Greek legends, Punic legends were placed on the coins which imitated Greek coins.  Other designs featured elements of Carthaginian culture, such as local deities, horses’ heads, lions and palm trees, although they were designed in Greek style.  The series had electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), gold, silver and bronze issues, and the major denomination was the shekel.  The coinage was mostly struck in Sardinia and western Sicily, rather than in Carthage, and dated from the late fifth century until 146.

Carthage was known for its military and political achievements.  The military achievements included its army and its navy.  Its political achievements included its republican government.  From the fourth century, it was an oligarchic republic with checks and balances and a complex system of administration.  The heads of state were two magistrates called sufetes.  They had no power over the military, and generals were in control of the army and the navy.  However, a family, which held the office of sufet, could have members who were generals, an example of which was the Barca family.  A council of elders, which numbered about thirty, held the most political power.

The One Hundred and Four was a judicial tribunal and was Carthage’s highest constitutional authority.  Its primary function was regulating the officials, including the generals, to see that the interests of the state were carried out.  The constitution had some democratic elements, such as a popular assembly, whose nature was unclear.  This assembly’s decisions could prevail in certain circumstances.

Its empire occupied significant parts of North Africa, Malta, Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands and Spain.  Subsequent to their earlier trading relations for centuries with the Phoenicians, the Etruscans, who occupied the area of present day Tuscany in Italy, were military allies and commercial partners of Carthage.  The evidence for this is the Pyrgi Tablets, which are three bilingual Phoenician and Etruscan gold tablets, which were found at Pyrgi, Latium, near Rome, in 1964 and date to c.500.

The Carthaginian Empire expanded in the region of the Iberian Peninsula and Morocco until the fourth century BC, and occupied southern Spain.  The most significant colony was ‘Carthage’, founded in 227 and named after Carthage, which was called ‘Carthago Nova’ by the Romans, and is present day Cartagena, on the Mediterranean coast of Spain.  In the Second Punic War (218-01), it was from this city in 218 that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, began his march across the Alps and into Italy in his unsuccessful attempt to conquer the Roman Empire.

The principal activity of the Carthaginian Empire was commerce.  Their trade took place throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and overland trade routes existed through Europe and Africa.  Trade was very important with cities in the Iberian Peninsula for copper, lead, silver and tin.  Tin was one of its most important items of trade, which is important for bronze manufacture, since bronze is an alloy of copper and tin.

Carthage traded salted fish and fish sauce from the region of the Straits of Gibraltar throughout the Mediterranean region, including to Corinth in Greece, where significant numbers of amphorae have been found.  These date from the fifth century BC and were made in the Punic city, Gadir, in Latin, Gades, which is present day Cadiz, on the southern coast of Spain.

Following the Phoenician practice, purple dye was produced in the region of Carthage and was of high value.  Remains of murex shells have been found in large quantities at various sites in Tunisia.  Manufacturing was also important, and significant items included textiles, pottery, and precious items. 

Carthage was known for its technical achievements, which probably resulted from trade being its dominant economic activity.  These included ship building and harbour construction.  

Agriculture was important in the economy of Carthage.  Grain production was important in the area of North Africa near Carthage.  There is a Punic treatise on agriculture by Mago, dated before 146 BC, which was translated into Greek and Latin, and survives in fragments.  It described Berber and Punic farming practices, which were very developed.  The Berbers were and are an indigenous people in the region of Carthage and present day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.

Carthaginian religion was based on Phoenician religion, and was polytheistic, although the main deities were Baal Hammon and Tanit.  They were a divine couple and the former was the chief deity and patron god of the city and responsible for the fertility of the crops.  The latter was the goddess of war.  From Phoenician religion, Carthage gradually developed its own distinct religious customs.  Melqart, the patron deity of Tyre, was less important in Carthage, but was significant in Sicily.

Unlike the Phoenician cities which were focussed on trade and commerce, Carthage had military and imperial ambitions, and thus became an expansionist power.  It was largely ruled by members of the Magonid family from the sixth until the end of the fourth century BC.

The Barca family dominated the leadership and military command of Carthage from the third to the second centuries.  Its members are distinguished in some cases by names which commence with ‘H’, and include Hamilcar (c.275-28), the general in the latter part of the First Punic War (264-41), and the father of Hannibal, Hasdrubal (245-07), a general in the Second Punic War (218-01) and the brother of Hannibal, Hanno.  The most famous member was Hannibal (247-between 183 and 181), who was the leading general during the Second Punic War.

The Greeks and the Phoenicians had begun establishing trading posts and colonies at about the same time in the ninth and eighth centuries.  The Carthaginian traders kept their trade routes secret from the Greeks, and their aim was to exclude Greek goods from their ports.  The increasing influence of both peoples led to Carthage to have conflicts with the Greeks often in Sicily during the fifth and fourth centuries, which focussed on economic concerns of both parties.

The Battle of Himera in 480, which was fought between the Greeks and Carthaginians at Himera in the centre of the north coast of the island, marked the end of Punic hegemony on the island, and Carthage turned its attention to expansion in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula.

Carthage had treaties with the Roman Republic from the end of the sixth century, which defined their respective spheres of influence.  The interests of the two powers differed, since Carthage was focussed on trade and commercial ventures, whereas Rome was concerned with territorial expansion in Italy.

Prior to the Punic Wars, Carthage had conflicts with Pyrrhus (319/318–272), who was a Greek king in Epirus, which is a region on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.  He made extensive incursions into south Italy and Sicily during the Pyrrhic War against the Roman Republic (280-75).  This is the origin of the phrase ‘pyrrhic victory’, meaning a victory which is achieved at great cost to the victor, and outweighs the victory itself.  This refers to Pyrrhus’ victory at the Battle of Asculum in 279 against the Romans.

The expansion of both Carthage and Rome led to the three Punic Wars between the two empires.  The First Punic War (264-41) largely involved naval engagements.  Significant sea battles during the First Punic War were fought around Sicily.  Off the north coast, the Battle of Mylae, which was fought in 260, was the first major sea battle between Rome and Carthage, and resulted in a victory by Rome.  The Battle of the Lipari Islands, which are just north of Sicily, was a naval battle fought in 260, which resulted in a Carthaginian victory.  The Battle of Cape Eknomos in 256, off the coast of southern Sicily, was a Roman victory.  In terms of combatants, it is possibly the largest battle in naval history.  

The Battle of the Aegates was a naval battle fought in 241, near the Aegates Islands off the west coast of Sicily.  It resulted in a Roman victory, which led to the end of the First Punic War.  A recent important discovery on the sea bed has been the bronze prows of Roman and Carthaginian ships which took part in this battle, which have writing on them in Latin and Punic respectively.

During the Second Punic War (218-01), Hannibal conducted a campaign of invasion from Spain which crossed the Alps and entered Italy, with a force which included elephants.  In Italy, Rome suffered significant defeats by Hannibal at the Battles of Trebia (218), Lake Trasimene (217), and Cannae (215), which threatened the very existence of Rome.  The Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (236/235-183), finally defeated Hannibal in the Battle of Zama (202), near Carthage.

After the Second Punic War, Carthage was reduced to the city and the neighbouring region in North Africa.  Conservative forces in Rome, led by Cato the Elder (234–149), who had been consul and censor, which were two of the most senior magistracies, thought that Carthage should be destroyed completely, so that it would not pose a threat to Rome in future. Indeed, Cato ended every speech which he gave in the Senate with words to the effect that, in Latin, ‘Delenda est Carthago’, which is translated as ‘Carthage must be destroyed’.

The Third Punic War (149-6) led to the final destruction of Carthage by the Roman general, Scipio Aemilianus (185-29), and annexation of its territory by Rome.

Rome’s interaction with Carthage was influential on contemporary and later Roman literature, which shows its significant impact on Roman culture.  Gaius Naevius, (c.270-c.201), who fought in the Second Punic War, wrote the epic poem, Bellum Punicum.  Plautus (c.254-184), the comic playwright, who was born during the First Punic War and lived through the Second Punic War, wrote the Poenulus (The Little Carthaginian), written between 195 and 189, in which one of the characters, the Carthaginian, Hanno, speaks a number of lines in Punic.  Whether or not the Roman audience all understood these lines in Punic, its use demonstrates a significant familiarity with Carthaginian culture by many people in Rome after the Second Punic war.

These works of Naevius and Plautus are significant because they reflect contemporary events, rather than mythological or fictional themes, which are otherwise frequent in Greek and Roman literature.

The Roman poet, Virgil (70-19 BC) wrote the epic poem, The Aeneid.  The encounter at Carthage between Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, the Trojan hero who came to Italy, after the sack of Troy, is a significant part of the poem. Silius Italicus (c.26-c.101 AD) wrote the epic poem, Punica, about the Carthaginian wars.

In contrast to Naevius and Plautus, these works of Virgil and Silius Italicus portray the Carthaginians in the mythological past, which is otherwise frequent in Greek and Roman literature.

The influence of the Carthaginians on Latin literature is one significant way that Latin literature is not simply a reworking in Latin of Greek literature.

In the mid-first century BC, the Romans rebuilt the city of Carthage, which became an important city during the Roman Empire, and particularly during the Late Roman Period (third-fifth centuries AD).  This region of Africa was known for its grain production and wealth.  Two Roman emperors were of Punic descent, Septimius Severus (145-211, reigned 193-211), who was born in Leptis Magna, in present day Libya, and his son, Caracalla (188-217, reigned 198-217).  St Augustine of Hippo, who was of Berber descent, was born in Thagaste, in present day Algeria, near the border of Tunisia, and was bishop of the neighbouring city of Hippo Regius.  In addition to Latin, the Punic language continued to be used in the region.

Carthage was a significant trading city and built a considerable empire in the western Mediterranean region.  It challenged both the Greeks and the Romans for supremacy in the region.  By challenging Rome, it led to the development of the Roman Empire to counter Carthage’s power.  If it had prevailed over Rome in the Second Punic War, the course of European and world history would have been considerably different.


For Punic amphorae at Corinth see: Fantuzzi, L., Kiriatzi, E., Sáez Romero, A.M. et al. Punic amphorae found at Corinth: provenance analysis and implications for the study of long-distance salt fish trade in the Classical period. Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences 12, 179 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-020-01093-3

For the prows from the Battle of Aegates Islands: www.sea.museum/2017/05/29/a-roman-rostrum