“Carthago Delenda Est!” “Carthage must be destroyed!” This phrase rang through the Roman senate as Cato the Elder once again called for the destruction on Rome’s greatest rival, the city state of Carthage. At this point, Rome had fought two civil wars with this waning North African empire, both of which had ended up well for the Rome, and in 146 BC, Cato the Elder received his wish as the troops of Publius Scipio Aemelianus destroyed the once mighty city at the Battle of Carthage. This is the first blog post in a series that discusses the ancient relationship between these two superpowers.
Why would the Romans be compelled to destroy an entire city?
According to myth, the feud between the Roman people and the Carthaginians began when the Trojan hero Aeneas left the love-struck Queen Dido, the founder of Carthage, so that he could establish a people on the Italian peninsula. With her heart broken, the queen commits suicide, forever pitting the people of Carthage against the heirs of Aeneas (who the Romans claim to be). The story of Aeneas and Dido is found in Virgil’s epic poem, The Aeneid, which was written over 100 years after the destruction of Carthage, so, while it demonstrates that Rome’s rivalry with Carthage was so entrenched in its national identity that it needed to be chronicled in Rome’s national epic, it is most likely not historically correct.
Although ancient sources disagree, it is known that Carthage was founded with Phoenician influence around 900 BC. Some stories of its founding speak of Carthage as a colony of the powerful sea faring Phoenicians, whereas others speak of the Tyrian Princess Elyssa so that she could escape the wrath of her brother, who sought to consolidate power by killing her off. Regardless of either story, similarities to Phoenician religion and culture suggest that the Carthaginian people are related to those of ancient Phoenicia.
Carthage held an excellent geographical location at the intersection of two major shipping routes across the Mediterranean Sea and rose very quickly to become a major naval power. By the fifth century BC, Carthage became a major regional power, actually enacting a treaty with the a young Rome to protect its regional trading interests.
As a naval power, Carthage is accredited with a number of accomplishments including the exploration of the Atlantic coastlines of Europe and Africa. The commander Himilco supposedly took his ship as far north as Britain before returning.
The first known conflict between Rome and Carthage began in Sicily, where both the Romans and the Carthaginians had an interest. The Mamertines, a group of mercinaries from the Italian peninsula who were occupying part of Sicily, fell into trouble against armies from Syracuse and sought help from both the Roman and Carthaginian powers. Carthage was able to repel the invading armies, but insisted on establishing a garrison in Sicily. This led the Mamertines to plead for help once again from the Romans.
The ensuing conflict was known as the first Punic War (“Punica” was the Latin adjective describing the people of Carthage; the word carried a negative connotation, again showing the depth of the dislike toward the Carthaginians). The First Punic was characterized by the Carthaginians, who were a naval power, being defeated on the water by the infantry heavy Romans. This was because of the invention of the corvus, a hooked plank that allowed the ships to attach to one another. Once attached, the maneuverability of the ships of Carthage was nullified and the Romans were able to cross over the planks and engage in hand to hand combat, where the Romans held a distinct advantage.
In the end, the First Punic War was a great success. The technological brilliance of the corvus allowed the Romans to establish themselves as a Mediterranean power and gain their first overseas province, Sicily. There was one downside to this great victory, however: it sewed the seeds for future conflicts between these two powerful nations. (to be continued)