Carthage—The City That Nearly Toppled Rome


ON THE north coast of Africa, on the outskirts of Tunis, capital of Tunisia, lie the ruins of the ancient city of Carthage. The tourist might be forgiven for missing them altogether, for there is not much to catch the eye. Yet, this site holds the remains of one of the greatest cities of antiquity—one that came within a hairbreadth of defeating the might of Rome. According to Roman historian Livy, “this combat between the two richest cities in the world held kings and peoples in suspense,” for the issue at stake was nothing less than world domination.

The City’s Foundation

In the second millennium B.C.E., the Phoenicians were confined to a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean Coast, stretching north and south of modern-day Lebanon. Good seafarers, they turned their attention to the west in search of gold, silver, iron, tin, and lead. For these, they traded wood (such as the famous cedar of Lebanon), cloth dyed purple-red, perfume, wine, spices, and other manufactured items. *

As they traveled west, the Phoenicians established settlements along the coasts of Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain—perhaps the Biblical Tarshish. (1 Kings 10:22; Ezekiel 27:2, 12) According to tradition, Carthage was founded in 814 B.C.E., some 60 years before its nemesis Rome. A specialist in North African antiquity, Serge Lancel, notes: “The founding of Carthage, around the end of  the ninth century BC, was for many hundreds of years a determining factor in the political and cultural destiny of the western Mediterranean basin.”

The Beginnings of an Empire

It was on a peninsula shaped like “a giant anchor thrown out to sea,” as historian François Decret describes it, that Carthage began to carve out an empire. Building on the foundation laid by its Phoenician forebears, Carthage developed its commercial network—primarily involving the importation of metals—into a giant trust, enforcing its monopoly by means of its powerful fleet and mercenary troops.

Never content to rest on their laurels, the Carthaginians were constantly on the lookout for new markets. About 480 B.C.E., the navigator Himilco is thought to have landed in tin-rich Cornwall, in Britain. Some 30 years later, Hanno, a member of one of the leading families of Carthage, is said to have led an expedition of 60 ships, bearing 30,000 men and women, to form new colonies. Passing through the Strait of Gibraltar and sailing down the African coast, Hanno may have reached the Gulf of Guinea and even the shores of Cameroon.

As a result of such a spirit of enterprise and keen business acumen, Carthage reputedly became the richest city in the ancient world. “By the beginning of the third century [B.C.E.], its technical know-how, its fleet, and its commercial establishment . . . put the city in the foremost place,” says the book Carthage. Of the Carthaginians, Greek historian Appian declared: “In power, they equaled the Greeks; in riches, the Persians.”

In the Shadow of Baal

Though scattered throughout the western Mediterranean, the Phoenicians were united by their religious beliefs. The Carthaginians inherited the Canaanite religion from their Phoenician forefathers. For centuries Carthage sent a delegation to Tyre each year to sacrifice at the temple of Melqart. In Carthage the chief deities were the divine couple Baal-Hammon, meaning “Lord of the Brazier,” and Tanit, identified with Astarte.

The most notorious characteristic of Carthaginian religion was child sacrifice. Diodorus Siculus reports that in 310 B.C.E., during an attack on the city, the Carthaginians sacrificed over 200 children of noble birth to appease Baal-Hammon. The Encyclopedia of Religion states: “Offering up an innocent child as a vicarious victim was a supreme act of propitiation, probably intended to guarantee the welfare of family and community alike.”

In 1921, archaeologists discovered what came to be called the Tophet, after the Biblical expression used at 2 Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 7:31. Digs revealed multiple levels of urns containing the charred remains of animals  (used as substitute sacrifices) and young children, buried under stelae with votive inscriptions. It is estimated that the Tophet contains the remains of over 20,000 children who were sacrificed during just one 200-year period. Some revisionists today claim that the Tophet was simply the funeral site of children who were stillborn or died too young to be interred in the necropolis. However, as notes Lancel, quoted earlier, “the reality of Carthaginian human sacrifice cannot be categorically denied.”

Sparring for Supremacy

With the decline of Tyre in the sixth century B.C.E., Carthage took up the mantle of leader of the western Phoenicians. But the rise of Carthage to preeminence was not without opposition. Early on, Punic and Greek merchants sparred for control of the seas, and about 550 B.C.E., war broke out. In 535 B.C.E., the Carthaginians, helped by their Etruscan allies, drove the Greeks from the island of Corsica and took control of Sardinia. * As a result, conflict between Carthage and Greece for control of Sicily—an island of key strategic importance—was all the more bitter.

At the same time, Rome was beginning to flex its muscles. Treaties between Carthage and Rome guaranteed the trade prerogatives of Carthage and made Sicily off-limits to the Romans. But as Rome subjugated the Italian peninsula, the increasing influence of Carthage on Italy’s doorstep was seen as a threat. The second-century B.C.E. Greek historian Polybius commented: “The Romans saw . . . that the Carthaginians had brought not only Africa * but also large parts of Spain under their rule, and that they were the masters of all the islands in the Sardinian and Tyrrhenian Seas. If the Carthaginians gained control of Sicily, they would prove the most vexatious and dangerous of neighbours, since they would encircle Italy on every side and threaten every part of the country.” Certain parties in the Roman Senate, motivated by commercial considerations, were pressing for intervention in Sicily.

The Punic Wars

In 264 B.C.E., a crisis in Sicily provided the Romans with a pretext  for intervention. In violation of an agreement, Rome sent a detachment of troops, sparking what is called the First Punic War. This conflict, characterized by some of the largest naval battles of antiquity, dragged on for more than 20 years. Finally, in 241 B.C.E., the Carthaginians were defeated and forced to abandon Sicily. Rome also snatched Corsica and Sardinia from their grasp.

To compensate for these losses, Hamilcar Barca, a Carthaginian general, set out to reconstitute the power of Carthage by building an empire in Spain. A “New Carthage”—Cartagena—was founded on Spain’s southeast coast, and within a few years, the mining riches of Spain had refilled the coffers of Carthage. Inevitably, this expansion led to conflict with Rome, and in 218 B.C.E., war broke out again.

At the head of the Carthaginian army was one of Hamilcar’s sons, Hannibal, meaning “Favored by Baal.” Leaving Cartagena in May 218 B.C.E., he set off on an epic march through Spain and Gaul, crossing the Alps with his army of Africans and Spaniards together with nearly 40 elephants. Caught off guard, the Romans suffered several crushing defeats. On August 2, 216 B.C.E., at the battle of Cannae—“one of the most terrible disasters that the Roman army ever experienced”—Hannibal’s army wiped out a Roman force twice its size, killing nearly 70,000 of the enemy while losing only 6,000 men.

Rome was nearly within reach! But refusing to give up, the Romans harassed Hannibal’s troops in a war of attrition for the next 13 years. When Rome sent an army to Africa, Carthage was abandoned by her allies and defeated in Spain and Sicily. Hence, Carthage was forced to recall Hannibal. The following year, in 202 B.C.E., the Roman General Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal’s army at Zama, southwest of Carthage. The Punic city, forced to surrender its fleet, was denied military independence and was fined a huge indemnity to be paid over a period of 50 years. As for Hannibal, he later fled into exile, and about 183 B.C.E., he committed suicide.

“Delenda est Carthago!”

Peace brought renewed prosperity to Carthage, to the point that it offered to pay the indemnity in just ten years. Such vitality, as well as political reforms, was considered extremely dangerous by the implacable enemies of Carthage. For nearly two years, right up to his death, the elderly Roman statesman Cato concluded every one of his speeches before the Senate with the slogan: “Delenda est Carthago!,” meaning “Carthage must be destroyed!”

Finally, in 150 B.C.E., an alleged breach of treaty gave the Romans the excuse they were  seeking. A war, described as “a war of extermination,” was declared. For three years the Romans laid siege to the city’s 20 miles [30 km] of fortifications, part of which were over 40 feet [12 m] tall. Finally, in 146 B.C.E., a breach was made. Roman troops, advancing through narrow streets under a hail of projectiles, engaged in savage hand-to-hand combat. In gruesome confirmation of the ancient record, archaeologists have found human bones under the scattered stone blocks.

After six terrible days, some 50,000 famished citizens who were holed up in the Byrsa—the fortified hilltop citadel—surrendered. Others, refusing execution or slavery, shut themselves in the temple of Eshmun and set it on fire. The Romans torched what was left of the city, Carthage was razed and ceremonially cursed, and all human habitation was forbidden.

Thus within 120 years, Rome brought the imperialistic goals of Carthage to ruin. Historian Arnold Toynbee stated: “Whether the coming Hellenic universal state should take the form of a Carthaginian Empire or a Roman Empire was the real issue of the Hannibalic War.” “Had Hannibal won,” comments the Encyclopædia Universalis, “he would surely have founded a universal empire similar to that of Alexander.” As it was, the Punic Wars marked the debut of Roman imperialism, which ultimately led it to world domination.

The “African Rome”

Carthage met a seemingly irrevocable end. Still, just a century later Julius Caesar decided to establish a colony there. In his honor it was called Colonia Julia Carthago. Roman engineers, shifting perhaps four million cubic feet [100,000 cu m] of earth, leveled off the top of the Byrsa to form a huge platform—and to efface all traces of the past. On it temples and ornate public buildings were erected. As time passed, Carthage became ‘one of the most opulent cities of the Roman world,’ the second-largest city in the West after Rome. A theater, an amphitheater, huge thermal baths, an 82-mile [132-km] aqueduct, and a circus capable of holding 60,000 spectators were built to satisfy the demands of its 300,000 inhabitants.

Christianity came to Carthage about the middle of the second century C.E. and experienced rapid growth there. Tertullian, the renowned church theologian and apologist, was born in Carthage in about 155 C.E. As a result of his writings, Latin became the official language of the Western Church. Cyprian, third-century bishop of Carthage who devised a seven-grade hierarchical clergy system, suffered martyrdom in the city, in 258 C.E. Another North African, Augustine (354-430 C.E.), called the greatest thinker of Christian antiquity, was instrumental in fusing church doctrine with Greek philosophy. The influence of the North African church was such that one cleric declared: “It is you, O Africa, who advances the cause of our faith with the most ardor. What you decide is approved by Rome and followed by the earth’s masters.”

However, the days of Carthage were numbered. Once again, its fate was inextricably linked with that of Rome. As the Roman Empire waned, so did Carthage. In 439 C.E., the city was captured and plundered by the Vandals. The Byzantine conquest of the city a century later provided a brief stay of execution. But it was unable to resist the Arabs who swept through North Africa. In 698 C.E., the city was taken, and after that, its stones served to build the city of Tunis. In following centuries the marble and granite that had once adorned the Roman city were plundered and exported, being used to build the cathedrals of Genoa and Pisa, in Italy, and possibly, even Canterbury, in England. From being one of the richest and most powerful cities in antiquity, from being an empire that nearly ruled the world, Carthage was finally reduced to an unrecognizable heap of rubble.


^ par. 5 The name Phoenician comes from the Greek word Phoinix, meaning “purple-red” and also “palm tree.” From this came the Latin word Poenus, giving us the adjective “Punic,” meaning “Carthaginian.”

^ par. 16 The close relations between Carthaginians and Etruscans, lasting several centuries, led Aristotle to comment that the two nations seemed to form but one state. For more information on the Etruscans, see the November 8, 1997, issue of Awake!, pages 24-7.

^ par. 17 “The name Africa was given by the Carthaginians to the territory surrounding Carthage. It later came to designate all known regions of the continent. The Romans kept this name when they made the territory a Roman province.”—Dictionnaire de l’Antiquité—Mythologie, littérature, civilisation.

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CARTHAGE (ruins)

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The remains of the Roman thermal baths

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The transport of cedars of Lebanon by Phoenician ships

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Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Glass pendants were worn as good-luck charms

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Musée du Louvre, Paris

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The Carthaginians placed funerary masks in tombs to ward off evil spirits

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Musée du Louvre, Paris

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Child murder was part of the Canaanite worship inherited by the Carthaginians. This is a grave marker for a sacrificed child

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Ruins of the Punic city, lost to the Romans in 146 B.C.E.

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Hannibal is regarded as one of the greatest military strategists who ever lived

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Alinari/Art Resource, NY