According to legend, Carthage was founded by the Phoenician Queen Elissa (better known as Dido) sometime around 813 BCE although, actually, it rose following Alexander's destruction of Tyre in 332 BCE. The city (in modern-day Tunisia, North Africa) was originally known as Kart-hadasht (new city) to distinguish it from the older Phoenician city of Utica nearby. The Greeks called the city Karchedon and the Romans turned this name into Carthago. Originally a small port on the coast, established only as a stop for Phoenician traders to re-supply or repair their ships, Carthage grew to become the most powerful city in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome.
A City of Trade
After the fall of the great Phoenician city of Tyre to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, those Tyrians who were able to escape fled to Carthage with whatever wealth they had. Since many whom Alexander spared were those rich enough to buy their lives, these refugees landed in the city with considerable means and established Carthage as the new centre of Phoenician trade.
The Carthaginians then drove the native Africans from the area, enslaved many of them, and exacted tribute from the rest. In time, they established a working relationship with the tribes of neighboring Numidia who would fill the ranks of their military as formidable cavalry troops. From a small town on the coast, the city grew in size and grandeur with enormous estates covering miles of acreage. Not even one hundred years passed before Carthage was the richest city in the Mediterranean. The aristocrats lived in palaces, the less affluent in modest but attractive homes, while tribute and tariffs regularly increased the city’s wealth on top of the lucrative business in trade.
The harbour was immense, with 220 docks, gleaming columns which rose around it in a half-circle, and was ornamented with Greek sculpture. The Carthaginian trading ships sailed daily to ports all around the Mediterranean Sea while their navy, supreme in the region, kept them safe and, also, opened new territories for trade and resources through conquest.
The Punic Wars
It was this expansion which first brought Carthage into conflict with Rome. When Rome was weaker than Carthage, she posed no threat. The Carthaginian navy had long been able to enforce the treaty which kept Rome from trading in the western Mediterranean. When Carthage took Sicily, however, Rome responded. Though they had no navy and knew nothing of fighting on the sea, Rome built 330 ships which they equipped with clever ramps and gangways (the corvus) which could be lowered onto an enemy ship and secured; thus turning a sea battle into a land battle. The First Punic War (264-241 BCE) had begun. After an initial struggle with military tactics, Rome won a series of victories and finally defeated Carthage in 241 BCE. Carthage was forced to cede Sicily to Rome and pay a heavy war indemnity.
Following this war, Carthage became embroiled in what is known as The Mercenary War (241-237 BCE) which started when the Carthaginian army of mercenaries demanded the payment Carthage owed them. This war was finally won by Carthage through the efforts of the general Hamilcar Barca.
Carthage suffered greatly from both these conflicts and, when Rome occupied the Carthaginian colonies of Sardinia and Corsica, there was nothing the Carthaginians could do about it. They tried to make the best of their situation by conquering and expanding holdings in Spain but again went to war with Rome when the Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked the city of Saguntum, an ally of Rome.
The Second Punic War (218-202 BCE) was fought largely in northern Italy as Hannibal invaded Italy from Spain by marching his forces over the Alps. Hannibal won every engagement against the Romans in Italy. In 216 BCE he won his greatest victory at the Battle of Cannae but, lacking sufficient troops and supplies, could not build on his successes. He was defeated by the Roman general Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, in North Africa, in 202 BCE and Carthage again sued for peace.
Placed, again, under a heavy war indemnity by Rome, Carthage struggled to pay their debt while also trying to fend off incursions from neighbouring Numidia under their king Masinissa (r.c. 202-148 BCE). Masinissa had been Rome's ally in the Second Punic War and was encouraged by Rome to raid Carthaginian territory at will. Carthage went to war against Numidia and, in so doing, broke the peace treaty with Rome which forbid Carthage from mobilizing an army.
Carthage felt it had no choice but to defend itself against Masinissa's invasions but was censured by Rome and ordered to pay a new war debt to Numidia. Having only recently paid off their debt to Rome, they now owed a new crippling war debt. Rome was not concerned with what Carthage and Numidia were involved with but did not care for the sudden revitalization of the Carthaginian army.
Carthage believed that their treaty with Rome was ended when their war debt was paid; Rome disagreed. The Romans felt that Carthage was still obliged to bend to Roman will; so much so that the Roman Senator Cato the Elder ended all of his speeches, no matter what the subject, with the phrase, “Further, I think that Carthage should be destroyed.” In 149 BCE, Rome suggested just that course of action.
A Roman embassy to Carthage made demandSenatehe senate which included the stipulation that Carthage be dismantled and then re-built further inland. The Carthaginians, understandably, refused to do so and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) began. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus besieged Carthage for three years until it fell. After sacking the city, the Romans burned it to the ground, leaving not one stone on top of another. A modern myth has grown up that the Romans forces then sowed the ruins with salt but this story has no basis in fact. It is said that Scipio Aemilianus wept when he ordered the destruction of the city and behaved virtuously toward the survivors.
Utica now became the capital of Rome’s African provinces and Carthage lay in ruin until 122 BCE when Gaius Sepronius Gracchus, the Roman tribune, founded a small colony there. Memory of the Punic wars still being too fresh, however, the colony failed. Julius Caesar proposed and planned the re-building of Carthage and, five years after his death, Carthage rose again. Power now shifted from Utica back to Carthage and it remained an important Roman colony until the fall of the empire.
Carthage rose in prominence as Christianity grew and Augustine of Hippo lived there before coming to Rome. The city continued under Roman influence through the Byzantine Empire (formerly the Eastern Roman Empire) who held it against repeated attacks by the Vandals. In 698 CE, the Muslims defeated the Byzantine forces at the Battle of Carthage, destroyed the city completely, and drove the Byzantines from Africa.
They then fortified and developed the neighbouring city of Tunis and established it as the new centre for trade and governorship of the region. Carthage still lies in ruin in modern day Tunisia and remains an important tourist attraction and archaeological site. The outline of the great harbor can still be seen as well as the ruins of the homes and palaces from the time when the city of Carthage ruled the Mediterranean.