Why Did the Romans Destroy Carthage?

Why Did the Romans Destroy Carthage?

Roman Empire

“Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed.” -Cato the Censor

As the years ticked down on Carthage’s indemnity payments to Rome, a deputation was sent to Africa to ostensibly arbitrate between the Punic city and King Massinissa of Numidia. Among those leading the mission was the elderly Cato the Censor, who had cut his teeth during the Second Punic War before establishing himself as an advocate of a simple and stoic lifestyle at a time when traditional Roman values were being replaced by Greek hedonism and debauchery as the republic expanded across the Adriatic. Cato was aghast at the growing prosperity of Carthage, and became convinced that the future of Rome was dependent on the annihilation of Carthage. From that point on, all of the Consular’s speeches to the Senate, be they about the price of grain, road repairs, or overflowing sewers, would be finished with the words: “Carthago delanda est” (“Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed”). Cato is likely history’s first recorded example of someone being a vocal inciter of genocide.

The layout of the Punic city-state Carthage, before its fall in 146 B.C.

In 149 BC, the Roman legions under the Consul Manius Manilius and the fleet under his co-Consul Lucius Censorius landed at Utica. Carthaginian attempts to appease Rome continued, and an embassy was sent to Utica. The Consuls demanded that all of the weapons and armory be handed over, and reluctantly the citizens did, with 20,000 sets of armor and 2,000 catapults forfeited to the legions. All of the Punic warships sailed for Utica, and were burnt in the harbor in an act of psychological warfare that clearly showed Rome’s dominance. Hundreds of the children of the local aristocracy were demanded as Roman hostages, and reluctantly forfeited. Then the obnoxious Romans demanded that the city of Carthage be abandoned, with its citizens relocating ten miles (16km) inland to be cut off from the sea. It was finally abundantly clear that Rome had no intention of being appeased, and that the demands would become increasingly farcical. Finally, Carthage said no, and prepared for war.

The Fall of Rome : 476, The Final End of An Empire

Carthage itself was an unusually large city for the time, with an estimated population of 700,000. Its strongly fortified walls were around 20 miles (35km) in circumference, around triple the size, with three lines of defenses including a strong, brick-built wall nine meters (30 ft) wide and 20m (70 ft) high, with a 20m wide ditch in front of it. These walls were three times as long as Rome’s Servian Walls, double the height and triple the width. Carthage’s barracks could hold 24,000 soldiers, and although the city had no reliable supply of groundwater, a complex system caught and channeled rainwater into large cisterns for storage. 

An initial force to garrison the city was raised from the citizenry and freeing willing slaves, while a 30,000-strong force was placed at Nepheris, 16 miles (25km) south of the city, under the command of Hasdrubal, recently released from his condemned cell. The Roman expeditionary force in Africa had around 50,000 soldiers, plus around 4,000 cavalry. The forces had deployed separately upon landing, Manilius on the isthmus approaching the city, facing the citadel of Byrsa, and Censorinus on the shore of Lake Tunis, opposite the city’s western wall. Manilius planned to fill the ditch facing the southern wall and scale it, while Censorinus would raise ladders against the western wall from the ground and from his ships. Two initial assaults were made, the complacent Consuls thinking the Carthaginians were disarmed, but they were shocked to find out that the city had re-armed, and their attacks were repulsed. Fearing the approach of Hasdrubal’s force on the far side of Lake Tunis, the Consuls fortified their camps. 

Censorinus set his men to gathering timber from the far side of Lake Tunis for siege engines, but the Punic cavalry commander Himilco Phameas seized the opportunity to attack. Five hundred Romans were killed in the raid, and their tools and siege works destroyed. Censorinus still managed to gather enough timber for siege towers and ladders, and launched another attack in concert with Manilius, which was again repelled. Manilius decided to launch no further attacks from the isthmus, but Censorinus worked to make two huge battering rams. His assault from the lake breached the walls before being driven back, and the breach hastily repaired. Fearing a second assault, the Carthaginians sallied out to attack the Roman camp, and destroyed more siege engines. The next day Censorinus ordered his men to attempt to breach the wall again, though his military tribune Scipio Aemilianus refused to enter, instead holding his troops in reserve and spacing them at intervals along the wall. Those troops that did enter suffered heavily for it, and had to fall back. It was only Scipio’s men, who had remained calm and collected along the wall, who were able to prevent the Punic counter attack routing their comrades, as his men were now able to defend the retreat.

As the siege dragged on, Censorinius faced an epidemic in his ranks. Many of his troops had been kept on stagnant water with poor airflow from the sea and city walls, and he thus relocated his camp to the sea. Noting the movement of the Roman camp, the Carthaginians launched fire ships from the coastline when the Roman fleet sailed into view. The resulting inferno spread through most of the Roman ships, leaving the fleet devastated. Censorinius would soon after return to Rome to conduct the elections, and Punic attacks on Manilius would be ramped up. Far from being a cowed and broken opponent, the supposedly beaten city of Carthage was proffering stern resistance, and had no intention of meekly surrendering to unprovoked Roman aggression.

“The Carthaginian solution.”

As the Allies advanced on Berlin in 1944, there was much discussion over how the war would end. Even when realising defeat was inevitable, many among the Nazi high command envisaged Germany going down in a blaze of glory, everyone fighting to the bitter end for the glory of the Reich, and the formerly prosperous nation being reduced to ash and rubble. The question for the Allies was if Germany could be convinced to surrender, or if they would have to pursue another path – the path of utter destruction. A path they called “the Carthaginian solution”.

The Third Punic War is essentially just a grandiose name for the Siege of Carthage. While the first war had seen two powerful opponents contend for control of Sicily, and the second had seen fighting take place across Italia, Iberia, Sicily, Greece and Africa, the third was Rome’s final attempt to crush the formerly great power. Despite having hamstrung Carthage at the end of the second war, the economic recovery of the Punic power had emboldened the embittered war faction in Rome’s Senate, led by Cato the Censor, to declare that there could be no coexistence of the two cities. With the flimsiest of pretexts, Rome had embarked on the genocidal path towards the obliteration of a power which, at that time, posed no threat to them. In a modern context it is unimaginable. It is inconceivable that, seeing the economic strength of Berlin and Tokyo in the mid 1990’s, America would decide that it needed to destroy these two nations merely because of their economic prosperity, even though the stipulations of the defeat half a century earlier (Japan having no army, the German army being prohibited from invasions) had neutered either as a threat. Yet that is precisely the path that Rome embarked upon with Carthage.

Despite Rome’s determination to obliterate a defeated foe, the legions and their Consuls were disappointed to find that Carthage was not a city of people meekly waiting to accept their fate. The numerous attempts to storm the city were repulsed with vigor by a resurgent populace who had rearmed themselves remarkably quickly after surrendering their arms to Rome, while too late Carthage realized that citizens fight for home defense far harder than mercenaries. After a year of defeats for Rome in attempts to take the city, 148 BC saw the new Consul Calpurnius Piso take command of the siege, with his adjutant Lucius Mancinius commanding the navy. Realizing the failures of his predecessors, he pulled back the close siege of the walls to a looser blockade, attempting to mop up the various cities supporting Carthage first.

Hasdrubal, who had been condemned to death for the Numidian debacle before being relieved to command the Punic field army outside the city, now overthrew the government apparatus of the besieged city and installed himself as commander. A Numidian chief with 800 cavalry defected to Carthage, while the city looked to align itself with Andriscus, the pretender to the Macedonian throne who had invaded Roman Macedon and triggered the Fourth Macedonian War, crowning himself King Philip VI. This war would provide little lasting challenge for the legions, and the ‘alliance’ between Carthage and Macedon would have no lasting benefits. The rest of the year petered out without significant further action.

Scipio Aemilianus planned to stand for election as aedile in 147 BC, a natural political progression for the 36-year-old which would see him rise from his former post of tribune to an administrative role in a city (similar to that of mayor, responsible for things like civic infrastructure). Rome’s mos maiorum dictated loose age limits for when aspiring politicians should stand for roles, such as 38 to make Praetor and 41 to stand as Consul. However public support for the grandson of Aemilius Paullus and the adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus was huge, and the Roman mob demanded that he be appointed as Consul to take command of what was fast becoming the Carthaginian debacle. The Senate thus disregarded the age requirements for all posts that year, with considerable political maneuvering to ensure he was “elected” as Consul and took sole command of the war in Africa. 

Downfall of the Carthaginian Empire   Lost to Rome in the First Punic War (264–241 BC)   Won after the First Punic War, lost in the Second Punic War   Lost in the Second Punic War (218–201 BC)   Conquered by Rome in the Third Punic War (149–146 BC)

The same year saw Mancinius seize an unexpected opportunity to capture a sally port and force 3,500 men into the city. Some 3,000 of these were lightly armed sailors, and Mancinius swiftly asked for reinforcements. However they were hard pressed by a Punic counter attack, and Scipio arrived just in time to evacuate the survivors. Scipio moved the main legionary camp closer to Carthage, shadowed by a Punic detachment of 8,000 soldiers. He made a speech demanding tighter discipline, and dismissed legionaries he considered to be ill disciplined or poorly motivated. A night march saw his force attack a perceived weak point in the Carthaginian main wall, with a gate seized and 4,000 legionaries forcing their way into the city. Panicked in the dark, the Punic defenders fled after brief resistance, but Scipio knew the position would be untenable once the Carthaginians reorganized themselves come daybreak, and so withdrew. Hasdrubal was horrified by the manner of the collapse of resistance, and so brought all Roman prisoners to the walls to have them tortured to death in front of their comrades. Despite being a merchant nation rather than a martial one, Carthage still had a sadistic culture that often saw people and animals crucified for pleasure, and had commanders who had failed routinely killed. Other atrocities were also routine, with no sense of ethical justice or international law to prevent this. Seeing their comrades suffer embittered the Romans, and emboldened the Carthaginians to resist. Any council members who opposed Hasdrubal were immediately killed. There could be no possibility of negotiated peace or surrender now.

The renewed siege prevented landward entry to Carthage, but preventing naval access was impossible. Frustrated by the supplies being shipped into the city, Scipio began construction of an immense mole to cut off access to the harbor. The Carthaginians responded by cutting a new channel from their harbor to the sea. They had built a fleet of 50 new triremes and smaller ships since the sacrifice of their original fleet to Rome two years earlier, and were able to sail these out once the channel was completed.

Taking the Romans by surprise, their light craft were able to cause havoc among the Roman fleet in the Battle of the Port of Carthage, sinking several and causing heavy Roman casualties despite their crews’ inexperience. The smaller vessels then looked to block the entrance to their port, forcing the large Roman ships into the shallows, where many were beached. As they then looked to break off and fall back, a collision blocked the new channel and left several Punic ships stranded. Now pinned against the sea wall without room to maneuver, the larger Roman ships proceeded to ram several Punic triremes before the blockage was cleared. Despite this setback, the majority were able to get back to the city, although the Carthaginian victory was insufficient to lift the Roman blockade.

The Romans then looked to advance against the Punic defenses in the harbor. Carthaginians responded by swimming across their harbor at night, where they set fire to several siege engines. Spooked by the spreading flames in the night, many of the legionaries panicked and fled. Scipio blocked their retreat and ordered a halt, and when this was disregarded he had his mounted bodyguard attack them. Despite the initial success, the Romans eventually gained control of the quay and constructed a brick wall as high as the city wall. It took months to complete, but once done would enable 4,000 legionaries to hurl fire into Carthage. Carthage was enjoying small victories, though none of them were enough to break the Roman siege. While they may have been morale boosting, the city’s doom still seemed inevitable as the Roman juggernaut seemed to shrug off each setback and remain committed to its genocidal goal of destroying the city. 

Sack the City

As the Third Punic War entered its fourth year, Scipio Aemilianus had his command prorogued for another year. As Spring began, he launched the final Roman assault. Hasdrubal was expecting the attack, so set fire to nearby warehouses in the harbor area. Despite this, an advanced legionary party broke through to the military harbor and captured it. This assault reached the city’s main square, where the legions camped overnight. The next morning Scipio led a legion to link up with the group at the harbor, which had stalled as it stripped the gold from the Temple of Apollo, which a furious Scipio was helpless to prevent. The Carthaginians forfeited their last chance to sortie as they pulled back to defensible positions, rather than isolate and annihilate the single legion in the square. 

Now managing to consolidate the legions, the Romans systematically worked their way through the residential section of the city, killing all they encountered and burning the buildings as they went. The fighting was bitter and brutal, the Punic inhabitants knowing this was their last stand. At times the legionaries had to move across the rooftops to avoid the missiles being hurled down on them from above. This was a brutal and bloody business, with the people of Carthage fighting for the lives of their families, for their homes, for their city, all against an aggressive invader set on destruction because of a conflict that took place half a century ago.

There was likely nobody alive during the Second Punic War now fighting in the siege, and yet still the mutual feelings of hatred and bitterness persevered. Rome knew that this war was won from before it began, yet had found its legions frustrated in failing to achieve a swift victory. Now the fury and anger of those legionaries who had stared at the city walls for four years, who had been fed tales from their fathers of the horrors of Hannibal and the valor of Scipio Africanus, were poured out on those citizens who fought for their very lives. The sacking of a city throughout history is a brutal experience, with men and children killed without mercy, women often raped before being killed themselves, and possessions stripped from home – fortunately not an experience we are ever likely to live today, yet one that was incredibly common throughout history. Once a besieging army entered a city, military discipline usually gave way to carnage. Commanders had no control over soldiers who now became looters, rapists and murderers, and often soldiers fought one another over the best loot. If a city surrendered, the commander took the bulk of the loot, so a sacking was often a soldier’s golden opportunity to find treasures for themselves, and a prospect most awaited with relish.

It took six days for the city to be cleared, a testament to the civilian resistance, and finally Scipio agreed to take prisoners. The last holdout included 900 Roman deserters at the Temple of Eshmoun, who burnt it down around themselves rather than surrender, knowing crucifixion would be the likely penalty for defecting. Following this Hasdrubal formally surrendered, on the promise of sparing his own life and freedom. His wife, watching from the ramparts, cursed Hasdrubal and blessed Scipio, then walked herself and her children into the raging inferno of the temple.

Scipio took 50,000 prisoners from Carthage, though this was only a small proportion of the city’s pre-war population. Legionary camps were often followed by slavers, and selling captives into slavery became a hugely profitable businesses – though ruinous for the long-term future of the Roman Republic. What was initially a by-product of war – making slaves of a defeated enemy – would soon become a cause for war. The site of the city was cursed, with the intention being to prevent it ever being resettled (although the idea that salt was sown on the earth was a myth added in the Nineteenth Century). The religious items that Carthage had looted from Sicily during its centuries of warfare on the island were returned, to great fanfare. The First Punic War had seen Carthage ended as a naval power. The Second Punic War had seen Carthage broken as a rival power. The Third Punic War had seen Carthage utterly destroyed, the nation, the city, the very concept of a civilisation that had existed for over half a millennia, which was older than Rome, simply erased. Contemporary observers saw this unprovoked Roman attack on a defeated power as disgraceful, a stain on Rome’s honor – though no power now had the capability to resist Rome in the Mediterranean.

Scipio returned to huge fanfare, and was awarded the agnomen (nickname) of Africanus. The Carthaginian territories were directly annexed by Rome as Africa Province, with its capital at Utica. The province would prove to be a breadbasket, and expedite the process began in Sicily of seeing Italian agricultural land turned over to luxuries like wine and figs, slowly driving out those very citizen smallholder farmers who comprised the legions as grain was increasingly imported from overseas. Scipio’s success in a stalemate siege, following on from his adoptive grandfather’s success at Zama, gave rise to the myth that Romans needed a Scipio to win in Africa. This bizarre myth would persevere for a century, until Julius Caesar crushed the forces ostensibly under Metellus Scipio at the Battle of Thapsus. 

Idealized depiction of Carthage from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle.

Roman expansion into Africa saw Scipio divide the Kingdom of Numidia between various successors following the death of Masinissa, and laid the groundwork for the Jugurthine Wars in the following decades. Various other Punic cities came into the Roman fold, such as Mauretania, though they retained their systems of governance until they were fully incorporated as Roman provinces much later. The Punic language remained widely spoken in north Africa until the Islamic expansion of the Seventh Century. 

The year of Carthage’s destruction, 146 BC, also saw the leveling of Corinth. Roman intervention in Greece finally saw the anti-Macedonian league turn against the legions too late, and they were crushed. Mummius destroyed Corinth, while Scipio destroyed Carthage. Destroying cities in strategically vital positions for emotional reasons seem stupid, and unsurprisingly both Carthage and Corinth were rebuilt, both in the time of Caesar. Carthage would become one of the key cities of north Africa for the Roman Empire, and its capture by the Vandals in the Fifth Century was indicative of the malaise of the Western Empire. A joint Eastern – Western counter-attack was called off by the invasion of the East by Atilla the Hun, and the Vandals ruled the city until the Byzantine Emperor Justinian crushed their nation. It would remain an important Byzantine city until the Islamic conquests, when much of the material from the city was used in the construction of Tunis. 

Today Carthage is a suburb of Tunis, ten miles east of the modern city. The term “Carthaginian Peace” means to extract a peace so punishing that the enemy is completely crushed and rendered incapable of waging further war. There are many parallels betwixt the Punic Wars and World Wars – a small, regional conflict escalating into involving great powers, those powers committing all of their resources to victory, the grinding down of opponents, the unimaginable loss of life and civilian suffering, an initial peace treaty so punishing it fostered bitterness and made further war inevitable. Does the fact that such mistakes were repeated over two millennia later mean that mankind does not learn the lessons of history? On 5 February 1958, the mayors of Rome and the modern city of Carthage, Ugo Vetere and Chedli Klibi respectively, signed a formal peace treaty some 2,131 years after the war had ended. Although Rome may have won the Punic Wars, the cost of victory would be itself – for the seeds had been sown for the collapse of the republic which would soon follow.

Why Did the Romans Destroy Carthage?

Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire