Rome Pushes Carthage To The Brink

Rome Pushes Carthage To The Brink

The Treaty of Lutatius brought an end to the First Punic War, the longest continual conflict of antiquity which had raged and stagnated for 23 years. 

Carthage agreed to pay Rome 3,200 talents of silver – $52.8 million USD – over ten years, and a further 1,000 immediately. 

Sicily was annexed by Rome, with Carthage forfeiting all of its possessions on the island. All Roman war prisoners were returned to the republic. Rome was now the leading power in the western Mediterranean, and essentially the foremost power in the Mediterranean as a whole too. 

Disarray in Carthage emboldened the Romans to seize their possessions of Sardinia and Corsica and turn these into Roman provinces too. 

Caesar Crosses The Rubicon – 10 January 49 BC
Pyrrhus Abandons Rome For Carthage : Pyrrhic War
Enemy At The Gates
Revolt In Carthage

A beaten and beleaguered Carthage was in no position to resist, though Rome would be viewed as an oath-breaker by the move that further embittered the Carthaginians towards them – another similarity to the First World War, where seemingly unfair terms served merely to embitter the defeated and make a second conflict inevitable.

For Rome, the years after the First Punic War would see its attention turn east to Greece. From having been the primary power in the Mediterranean in destroying the Achaemenid Empire less than a century earlier, Greece now stood as a divided nation again, filled with a disparate collection of competing kingdoms and republics. It was also only relatively recently that Pyrrhus had invaded Italia and repeatedly defeated Rome’s legions, only to be incapable of turning battlefield victories into a war victory.

A foothold across the Adriatic could ensure any such future invasion from Greece was repelled, establishing a Roman beachhead in Greece to both keep the war there while also continuing to stoke the fires of Greek division to ensure there could be no anti-Roman coalition as had happened under Pyrrhus.

Ostensibly Rome’s reason for a Greek expedition was to quell piracy.

Illyria, the Adriatic Balkan coast (modern Serbia and Albania), was essentially an ungoverned area west of, and nominally a vassal of Macedon, guarded by the mountains. As such it became a safe haven for pirates, who continually disrupted Adriatic trade. The Greeks, who considered Romans as barbarians, were not at all perturbed by this, implicitly supporting the pirates in buying stolen Roman goods.

They were not strong supporters of the pirates though, and so when Rome proposed an expedition to expel the pirates and establish strong government in Illyria, unsurprisingly the Greeks did not resist. Rome launched the first of a series of campaigns into Illyria, and unsurprisingly did not vacate its legions once the pirate threat was removed, instead establishing its own vassal state, and in time another province following a series of rebellions supported by Macedon. Rome’s foothold in Illyria would be just the steppingstone into the rest of Greece and would pave the way for a series of conflicts of Macedon that would ultimately see Greece become Roman.

The latter stages of the First Punic War had seen Carthage seek to expand its African territories.

Hanno the Great led a series of campaigns south to extend the city’s control to Theveste (modern Tébessa, Algeria), almost 200 miles south of Carthage. He was rigorous in squeezing taxes out of these new peoples to pay for the main war and his own campaigns. Half of the agricultural produce was collected as a war tax, and tribute due from existing vassal cities was doubled. These payments were brutally enforced, and caused many areas to plummet into poverty.

Battle of Thapsus

Carthaginian armies were composed largely of foreign mercenaries, with very few citizens serving in the army. Most of these mercenaries were from north Africa, including Libran spearmen and Numidian cavalry, complemented by Celtiberian and Gallic infantry and Balearic slingers. Sicilians and Italians had also joined, while war elephants also played a hugely important role in the army.

Hamilcar had left Sicily with such an army in a rage following his orders to surrender.

Leaving this and the evacuation of his 20,000-strong force to his adjutant Gisco. Gisco split the army into small units based on their homeland, and sent them back to Carthage individually, expecting them to promptly receive several years’ back pay upon arrival. It is worth noting that in the paid armies of antiquity, including the Roman legions, soldiers were often paid a lump sum at the end of a campaign, rather than a monthly salary that would be expected today. This could cause a huge headache for commanders who did not have the cash, and could further exacerbate their problems, and cause unrest, by having to keep their armies mobilized for longer, and sitting idle, while they scratched around for the money. 

The Carthaginian government instead decided to wait until all of the troops were back, and then attempt to negotiate to pay them at a lower rate.

As each group returned it was billeted in the city, where the advantages of living in a wealthy city seemed luxurious after eight years under continual siege. The troops’ “tumultuous licentiousness” so alarmed the city population that they were billeted instead in Sicca Veneria (El Kaf) before all had returned, and before they had been paid. Now freed from the shackles of military discipline and at a loose end, the men began to grumble as they refused repeated Carthaginian attempts to pay them less. Carthage simply did not have the money to pay Rome’s war indemnity, much less its mercenary soldiers which had been “defeated”.

Another thing to note from antiquity is the lack of “employee representation” in such armies. Soldiers who mutiny – often over pay that is not forthcoming, or terms of contracts not being honours, or retirement dates not being honoured – did not have any other recourse. Workers today could use unions or HR departments if a company was not paying them, but without those options in antiquity, soldiers often turned to mutiny instead. With history being recorded by the powerful, these men were universally vilified as disloyal for merely demanding that the terms of service they agreed to were honoured.

Frustrated by Carthaginian attempts to haggle, the 20,000 troops marched to Tunis, just ten miles from Carthage. The panicked Senate now agreed to pay in full, but it was too late. The troops demanded more and Gisco, who was in good stead with the army, returned from Sicily to speak with them in late 241 BC. He went to the camp with the money that was owed, dispersing this with promises that the balance would soon be forthcoming. 

Just as discontent was abating, discipline broke down and a number of ringleaders insisted that no deal was acceptable, and a riot began with dissenters stoned to death. 

Gisco and his staff were taken prisoner and his treasury seized. 

Spendius, an escaped Roman slave who faced death by torture if he was recaptured, and Matho, a Berber outraged by Hanno’s brutal tax collection in Africa, were declared generals. 

Carthage now faced a well-trained, veteran army right outside the city. 

Far from a simple pay dispute, the existence of Carthage itself was now threatened. Supplies and supporters poured into this rebel army from all those disaffected peoples to the south (just as they would to Spartacus in Italia some 150 years later), and numbers in the rebel camp swelled to 70,000 men. Having just limped out of a devastating war with Rome, Carthage now faced destruction by the very soldiers it had hired to fight the republic thanks to an entirely avoidable situation.

Rome Pushes Carthage To The Brink

Written by Jack Tappin

Rome Pushes Carthage To The Brink