How and Why did Carthage Fall? – The Destruction of Rome’s Fiercest Rival

For many centuries, the city-state of Carthage dominated much of the ancient world. After being founded by a group of Phoenicians – believed to have been led by the legendary Phoenician Queen Elissa (or Dido) – who fled their home city-state of Tyre, the city became a force to be reckoned with when it expanded its territories and amassed wealth by controlling most of the trade routes all throughout western Mediterranean.

Aside from having immense economic and political power, Carthage was also backed by its powerful military force, which was composed of a strong navy and a diverse army made up of local and foreign mercenaries and fighters.

Of course, Carthage’s power did not go unnoticed, and its rising power in the region often meant that the kingdom was constantly in conflict with nearby kingdoms and states, including the Greeks and the Berbers.

For the most part, Carthage remained stable and it stayed that way until the rise of the Roman Republic, ushering in the century-long Punic Wars. Those wars ultimately culminated in what some historians like to call the first major holocaust in human history, as Rome literally tried to wipe Carthage off the face of the earth.

The destruction of Carthage was meant to send a message to would-be adversaries of Rome. The message was simple: Rome was not to be trifled with!

But just how did Carthage and Rome come to be at each other’s throats for more than a century? And how did Rome go about the brutal annihilation of its fiercest rival?

In the article below, WHE details how the ancient city of Carthage was destroyed by Rome in 146 BC.

Conflict with Rome: Carthage’s Destiny?

According to ancient legend, Carthage’s conflict with Rome did not happen overnight. In fact, it was predicted by the city’s first leader Queen Dido after her romance with the Trojan prince Aeneas came to an end, according to the famous epic the Aeneid, written by the Roman poet Virgil.

Aeneas, who was a demi-god, was destined to start the line of descendants who would eventually establish the Roman Republic.

However, his life took a detour after the fall of his hometown Troy during the Trojan War. Dido found Aeneas wandering in the wilderness and brought him with her to Carthage.

However, the prince had to fulfill his life’s mission and snuck out of Carthage with his men. It had been prophesied that Aeneas was to found the city of Rome.

Heartbroken by Aeneas’ departure, Dido cursed him, condemning his descendants (i.e. the Romans) to endless warfare against the Carthaginians. What she didn’t say was who would emerge victorious.

Events Leading to Carthage’s Conflict with Rome

With Carthage’s power increasing in bounds during the BC years, it gained a lot of enemies and fought in several wars. One of such wars was the Pyrrhic War, which later caused the break out of the fierce and bloody Punic Wars.

The Pyrrhic War

Pyrrhus of Epirus, who was a Greek king, decided to embark on two military campaigns against the burgeoning Roman Republic in southern Italy and Carthage in its Sicilian territory. These campaigns were meant to protect his people, the Molossians, and also expand their influence in the Mediterranean.

Initially, Pyrrhus had some successes in his war efforts against the Carthaginian forces; he came close to conquering Sicily, but he eventually withdrew his forces as the seemed to have reached an impasse.

To recoup its losses, Carthage sued but Pyrrhus dismissed their claims unless they were prepared to give up Sicily. However, things didn’t go as planned for Pyrrhus, who, according to the famous Greek historian Plutarch, had been on a mission to conquer Carthage. Instead, Pyrrhus returned home.

The Roman Republic viewed Pyrrhus’ inability to conquer some of the Greek-dominated colonies in southern Italy as an opportunity to absorb those settlements and expand its territory and bring it closer to having total control over Italy, including Sicily.

It was this ambition of Rome that eventually brought it into a direct confrontation with the ancient city of Carthage.

The First Punic War (264-241 BC)

For many years, Rome and Carthage had a relatively normal tie; the two sides even entered into several treaties that established trading rights. But that came to an end in 264 BC, when Rome and Carthage attempted to resolve a conflict in Sicily between soldiers from the Greek city of Syracuse and those from the Messina province in Sicily.

The two powers were divided right from the start, with Rome supporting Messina and Carthage backing Syracuse. This division caused Carthage and Rome, arguably the two most powerful states at the time, to descend into a direct conflict over who would control Sicily.

The size of Rome and Carthage before the start of the First Punic War

For nearly two decades, the Roman Republic decided to invest heavily in its navy so they could have a chance at defeating the powerful Carthaginian navy, which was the envy of many at the time.

By 260 BC, Rome, having built advanced warships similar to that of Carthage, had won its first naval battle at Mylae; and four years later, Rome secured another important victory at the Battle of Ecnomus.

Emboldened by those victories, the Roman Republic tried to invade North Africa but that campaign was not successful. They defeated the Carthaginian navy yet again in 241 BC, a victory which positioned them as the new naval superpower.

By the end of the First Punic War, Rome was firmly in control of Sicily.

The Second Punic War (218-201 BC)

The Second Punic War was a 17-year conflict that pitted Rome against Carthage, culminating in the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, where Carthage was defeated. Image: Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War

Carthage went through a difficult period following its losses in the First Punic War. But it wasn’t the end of the road for the prosperous North African city. While Rome continued to expand, Carthage also gained a stronghold in Spain around 237 BC through the leaderships of the military generals like Hamilcar Barca and Hasdrubal Barca.

In some historical accounts, Hamilcar Barca forced his son, Hannibal, to swear complete allegiance to Carthage and take a blood oath, vowing to not rest until Rome was defeated.

When the Hamilcar died around 228 BC, his other son Hasdrubal became the commander of the Carthaginian forces. Hasdrubal led the army for nearly eight years before dying in 207 BC. By that time, Hannibal was old enough to command the army.

Considered one of the greatest military commanders of all time, Roman general Scipio Africanus comprehensively defeated the Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal Barca at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC

Hannibal was an exceptionally astute military general, with many Carthaginians believing that the general was the manifestation of Queen Dido’s curse against Rome.

In 219 BC, Hannibal marched his army to invade Saguntum, which was a Spanish city protected by Rome. By doing so, he declared war against Rome, which started the Second Punic War.

In the first half of the war, Carthage secured several victories against Rome. Hannibal’s most notable victory occurred during the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, where he defeated the Roman army with significantly less forces.

In spite of his defeat at the hands of the Romans in 202 BC, Hannibal Barca is revered as one of the greatest military minds of the ancient world.

But the Romans – and their army general Publius Cornelius Scipio – did not give up. After losing consecutively to Hannibal and with Rome close to bending the knees, in came Scipio, who was able to reorganize troops and take the fight to the North Africans.

Scipio and his men fought bravely against the Carthaginians in North Africa during the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. Carthaginians, led by Hannibal, were heavily defeated and subsequently lost all of its power throughout the Mediterranean.

Rome now had total control over Spain and Carthage’s boundaries no longer exceeded North Africa. The Carthaginian senate had no other option than to sign a humiliating peace term proposed by Rome.

Carthage’s economic and military recovery following the Second Punic War

It’s said that by the year 151 BC, Carthage had successfully paid all of its war debt to Rome. The North African city’s economy was growing in leaps and bounds, which made Rome not only anxious but envious. Two years later, in 149 BC, Rome was once again in conflict with Carthage, ushering the Third Punic War.

Following the humiliating defeat at Zama, Carthage was reduced to a shadow of its former self. This was due to the peace terms it signed with Rome, promising never to rub shoulders with Rome in the Mediterranean.

The North African city had virtually exhausted its coffers during the 17-year war. To make matters worse, Carthaginians had to pay a lot of in financial restitution to Rome. Some historians state that those war debts would be the equivalent of more than 40 billion in today’s dollars. Simply put, the treaty bankrupted Carthaginians.

Content with his triumphant victory over Carthage, General Scipio sailed back to Rome and was welcomed a hero, receiving a triumph from the Roman senate.

As for his counterpart, Hannibal Barca, it’s said that the humiliated general spent the remainder of his life staying low, engaging in some political activities. One thing was for sure: Carthage’s ruling elite did not intend to stand idly by and watch their city fade into military and financial obscurity.

In the few years after the Second Punic War, Carthaginian senate embarked on a massive economic recovery project. Inspired by Hannibal, the rulers were able to swiftly pay off its war debts, increase productivity, and firmly place the city on solid economic footing.

Such was the rapid growth of Carthage’s economy that it sent shivers down the spine of many war hawks in Rome. Afraid of a resurgent Carthage, Rome intervened and forced Hannibal to go into exile, where the general took his life around 183 BC.

“Carthage must be destroyed” (Carthago delenda est)

Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as Cato the Elder, was the leader of anti-Carthage faction in Rome’s senate

In spite of the absence of Hannibal, the economic growth of Carthage continued at a steady rate, causing even greater anxiety to some Roman senators, especially Cato (also known as Cato the Elder). The Roman senator argued against Roman politicians that maintained that Carthage was simply not a threat militarily. Cato begged to differ, championing a full-scale military action against the North Africans.

Cato, who was a naturally gifted orator, gave quite a lot of anti-Carthage speeches, often ending them with the phrase “Carthage must be destroyed” (Carthago delenda est). Having been convinced by Cato and other war hawks in the Senate, Rome began to prepare for war with Carthage.

Carthage’s disastrous conflict with the Numidians

Fully aware that the Carthaginians could not wage war without Rome’s approval, King Massinissa of the Numidia decided to become a thorn in the flesh of its North African neighbor by conducting a series of raids into Carthage.

Completely fed up with those raids, the rulers of Carthage acted by dispatching General Hasdrubal Barca (also known as Hasdrubal the Boetharch), a grandson of Hannibal Barca, to bring an end to Massinissa’s brazen menace in those regions.

Hasdrubal’s 25,000 men, along with rebel Numidian forces of about 5,000, were defeated by the Numidian force in the battle (Battle of Oroscopa) that took place in 151 BC.

Carthage’s disastrous conflict with the Numidians in 151 BC was used as a pretext by Rome to attack Carthage. This punitive action taken by Rome against Carthage ushered in the Third Punic War, which was so to speak the final nail in the coffin for the North Africans.

The Third Punic War (149-146 BC)

A very harsh peace treaty was struck following Carthage’s defeat during the Second Punic War, resulting in Carthage losing a significant amount of its overseas territories. During the Third Punic War, Rome waged war against Carthage, which at the time was simply a shadow of its former self. In spite of its efforts, Carthage was ultimately captured and reduced to ruins by the Romans in 146 BC.

Despite Carthage’s irrecoverable defeat in 201 BC, some Romans, led by Cato the Elder and other senators believed that the former superpower could still be a threat against Rome’s rapid rise. Some historians believe Cato’s declaration for the destruction of Carthage supported genocide.

In response, Carthage waged war against Numidia, which was an ally to Rome. This act also effectively broke the empire’s treaty with Rome, which stated that Carthage could not wage war without gaining consent from Rome. This plunged both states into the Third Punic War (149-146 BC).

Under the leadership of Roman consuls – Manius Manilius and Lucius Marcius Censorinus, commanders of the army and the navy, respectively – Roman forces made landing at Utica on the North African shores in 149 BC.

The Romans then demanded that Carthage surrendered all its weapons, including about 160,000 set of armor and about 1700 catapults. The Carthaginians obliged. Rome also proceeded to burn down all Carthage’s warships.

With Carthage completely disarmed, the Romans ordered the North Africans to abandon the city and move further inland, about 15km away from the sea. Carthage’s refusal infuriated the Romans; and so the Roman forces attempted to scale the defensive walls of the city. When that failed, the Romans laid siege to the city.

Rome laid siege to Carthage. Image- Catapulta by English painter Edward Poynter, 1868

For two years, Carthage was successful in resisting attacks from their Roman enemies. But that all changed when the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus took over.

An adopted grandson of the Scipio Africanus, Aemilianus was a tribune and middle-level military officer who was elected consul despite not meeting the age requirement of 41. He was such a competent military leader that he was appointed as the sole commander of the African campaign in 147 BC.

One year after Aemilianus became army general, he attacked Carthage’s harbor. The Roman general had instilled discipline in the Roman forces and gotten rid of inept and unmotivated soldiers in the African campaign.

With his well-oiled forces, Aemilianus attack proved very effective. In 146 BC, the Roman general was able to break into the Carthage and unleash a six-day attack that saw the destruction of everything in his path.

Much to the surprise of many Carthaginians, including his wife, Carthaginian general Hasdrubal surrendered to Aemilianus.

The attacks ended on February 5th, and Carthage, which had once been the leader of the ancient world for over seven centuries, was no more.

By the end of the Third Punic War, there were only about 50,000 surviving Carthaginians, most of whom were sold into slavery as Rome continued to conquer the rest of the Mediterranean.

For many years, Carthage lay in ruins. However, that changed after the death of the Roman leader Julius Caesar when Caesar’s successor, Augustus, devoted resources into rebuilding the city, which was renamed Colonia Julia Carthago (i.e. Roman Carthage). The city grew to become one of the major cities in the Roman empire and served as Rome’s main base in Africa.

What happened to Hasdrubal and Scipio Aemilianus after the destruction of Carthage?

Hasdrubal surrendered to Scipio in attempt to save his life. Upon hearing of his surrender, Hasdrubal’s wife is said to have cursed her husband and thereafter proceeded to jump into a burning temple, along with her children. Some say that the humiliated Carthaginian general was allowed to live the rest of his life on a small farm in Italy.

Born Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus (185–129 BC), Scipio Aemilianus (or Scipio Africanus the Younger) was the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus, the famed general of the Second Punic War

Much like his adoptive grandfather Scipio Africanus, Scipio Aemilianus returned to Rome a war hero and was honored with a Roman triumph. And similar to his grandfather, the Roman general took the agnomen “Africanus”.

READ MORE: Top 10 Ancient Military Generals and their Accomplishments

Other interesting facts about the destruction of Carthage

Rome’s goal was to wipe Carthage off the face of the earth. Image – ruins of the ancient city of Carthage

Rome was simply bent on removing the Carthage menace once and for all. Perhaps it was afraid of Carthage’s rising economic strength and technological advancement.

Some historians maintain that Rome was a bit envious of Carthage’s lucrative commercial routes. Others say that Rome wanted to use the destruction of Carthage to cement its status as the leading power in the world at the time.

The following are few more interesting facts about the Holocaust of Carthage:

  • At the time of Third Punic War, the city-state of Carthage had a population of at least 100,000, making it the most populous city at the time.
  • Carthage’s fortification walls of about 35 km (20 miles) made it very difficult for Roman forces to break into.
  • According to the historian Apian, Roman forces numbered about 84,000. Modern historians put the figure at around 45,000.
  • During the Siege of Carthage, war crimes were committed by both sides, including Hasdrubal openly torturing Roman prisoners on the city walls in the full glare of Roman forces.
  • It is said that Carthaginian general Hasdrubal became somewhat of a dictator during the Third Punic War. He quashed all forms of resistance to his rule as he fought to defend the city from Rome.
  • Much of what we know about the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage comes from the Greek historian Polybius (c. 200- c. 118 bc), who was among Scipio’s forces that invaded Carthage in 146 BC. The likes of Roman historian Livy, Greek historian and philosopher Plutarch, and Roman historian Dio Cassius also wrote some bit of works about the Third Punic War. The account by Greek historian Appian is seen as the most complete account of the war.

Did you know?

On February 5, 1985, on the 2131st anniversary of the destruction of Carthage, a symbolic peace treaty was signed between Ugo Vetere and Chedli Klibi, the then-mayors of Rome and Tunisia’s Carthage, respectively.

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