Carthage Burning

How Empires Die

When the ancient Romans thought of Carthage, the image that flashed through their minds was of fire. They had all heard of the terrible brazen image of the god Ba'al Hammon, which dropped infants from its red-hot outstretched arms onto blazing altars. They had heard of Hamilcar, the Carthaginian admiral who, after losing all but one of his 251 vessels in a fight with the Syracusans at Himera, built a fire and jumped into it. They had heard especially of Dido, the queen who founded Carthage, and how, when she saw her faithless lover Aeneas sailing off on his divine mission to found Rome, built a pyre on the beach, stabbed herself and plunged into the flames.

The love-and-suicide story was Virgil's version, the official Roman version. Other accounts follow what is most likely an older tradition of the Dido story. Half-myth but perhaps half-history as well, it tells how a princess of the Phoenician port city of Tyre named Elisha (Elissa in Greek) flees the city after her brother Pygmalion murders her husband. With a group of Tyrian aristocrats and a cache of gold, she reaches a Tyrian colony on nearby Cyprus called Qart Hadasht, or New City. They rescue 80 virgins from ritual prostitution at the temple of Astarte (Aphrodite to the Greeks), and then head westward in their ships. Sailing when the winds are favorable but mostly rowing along the north coast of Africa, they come to what is now the Gulf of Tunis and find a superb site for a settlement. It offers a fine natural harbor near a promontory that can easily be defended against attacks from the mainland, and is an ideal place for trade, strategically located at the narrowest part of the Mediterranean Sea.

Here Elisha gets a new name, Dido (meaning, says one ancient author, "the Wanderer"; meaning, says another, "husband killer"). She founds a second new city, the Qart Hadasht twisted on Greek and later Latin tongues to become Carthago.

Mythic and scholarly consensus holds that all this happened sometime around 800 B.C. Some 650 years later, in 146 B.C., when the Romans, after more than a century of sporadic savage war by land and sea, finally conquered the city Dido founded, they destroyed it utterly, letting fires rage for ten days until not one building was left upright.

"Great Carthage made war three times," Bertolt Brecht once wrote, summing up seven centuries of history. "After the first, she was powerful. After the second, she was rich. After the third, no one knew where Great Carthage had been."

The last phrase, written to warn Germans of the twentieth-century AD against hooking up with American imperialists, was a propagandistic exaggeration. Everyone in ancient Rome had heard about Great Carthage, and about Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps in 218 B.C. to start the Second Punic War with Rome ("Punic" comes from the Roman word for "Phoenician"). And everyone knew where Great Carthage had been because the Romans built a city of their own on the site, a new Carthage that became a center of industry, learning and luxury, arguably the second city, and according to Saint Augustine the most sinful city, of the Roman Empire.

But new Carthage went the way of the old, to destruction and oblivion, and until less than a century ago, no one had any real idea of the size of the original Punic city, its boundaries, its layout or its architecture.

It was only in 1921 that a local public servant of what was then the French protectorate of Tunisia and an archaeologist named Count Byron Khun de Prorok tracked a shady trafficker in classical antiquities and caught him digging up funerary stelae in countryside that is now part of the modern seaside resort of Carthage, a short drive from what is now the capital city of Tunis.. Their discovery led to the unearthing of thousands of urns and tombstones. The urns held the bones and ashes of infants who had been ceremonially burned in the place to which scholars have given the name of its counterpart outside biblical Jerusalem, the Tophet. It is only in the last generation that archaeologists, working as part of a ten-nation international team directed by UNESCO, have proved that a nondescript, brackish pond by the shore of the Gulf of Tunis was once the military port where 220 warships of the Carthaginian navy could be sheltered in covered slips and dry-docks. Nearby they found traces of the great commercial port as well.

For more than a century archaeologists had been digging into the Byrsa Hill, which tradition held to be the center of old Carthage, in the hope of finding some trace of the magnificent temples and palaces that ancient authors say once crowned it. Every time they were sure they had come upon a wall of its most celebrated monument, the temple of the god Eshmoun (whom the Greeks and Romans identified with the god of medicine Aesculapius), their triumph turned to dust as the masonry was shown to be Roman. Only the gigantic work undertaken since 1972 under UNESCO has at last dug up the reason for their failure.

The Byrsa excavations have revealed the appalling extent of destruction at Carthage. The Romans left the blackened ruins alone for a century and would not let anyone live there. They did not, however, sow salt into its soil, as all the schoolbooks say. Salt was valuable; and anyway, the work of scattering it would have taken thousands of man-hours that were needed for constructing the temples and markets and rich country villas of the conquerors. The salt story only got its start in 1902 when Professor B. L. Hallward, in the Cambridge Ancient History, compared Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman commander in the Third Punic War, to Abimelech in the Old Testament Book of Judges, who took the Canaanite city of Shechem "and slew the people that were therein; and he beat down the city, and sowed it with salt."

In 44 B.C. Julius Caesar decided to build a new city on the site of the old, but he was killed before the plan was fully worked out.. Eventually, to make sure that no vestige of the wicked old Carthage would remain to pollute the new one, the Emperor Augustus had the Byrsa Hill decapitated, lowering its summit by 16 feet or more to make a ten-acre plateau on which to lay out a proper Roman city. More than 245,000 cubic meters of earth, rock, masonry (including the foundations of the temples of Eshmoun and Apollo/Reshef), were hacked out and either used as landfill or spilled down the sides of the hill.

Digging into the remains, UNESCO teams have cleared about four city blocks in what appears to have been a prosperous neighborhood, with apartment houses constructed around central courtyards, a few shops, paved streets, sewers, and cisterns for collecting rainwater. According to one Roman author, some of these buildings were six or seven stories high. Nothing is left of the buildings but fragments of ground-story walls, dwarfed into insignificance by the immense pillars the Romans raised to hold in place the city they were building. Beneath the ancient Roman road that led from the Byrsa Hill to the sea, a German team of archaeologists has unearthed remains of Punic housing that date back as far as the eighth century B.C.- the time of Dido's legendary landing.

For the next six centuries, Carthage was at the center of all the cross-currents of the Mediterranean world, its homes and warehouses crammed with all the products of the arts and handicrafts of Egypt, Syria, Greece, the whole Mediterranean world, of which broken fragments are periodically dug up out of the soil.

There were once great libraries of books in the Punic language. Not a page, not a line, remains. The works of a Carthaginian named Mago, the greatest agronomist of antiquity, were translated and studied by Roman landowners, but now even the translations are lost. What remains of the language, a variety of the Phoenician spoken in Tyre, a near relative of ancient Hebrew, are mostly grave inscriptions (some 6,000 of them) with the names of parents offering children to Ba'al Hammon, or the goddess Tanit, and some lines of comic dialogue put into the mouths of Carthaginian merchants and slaves in the works of the Roman playwright Plautus.

One consequence is that practically everything known about the Carthaginians comes from the Greeks and Romans, who made war on Carthage for centuries and came naturally to regard it as the seat of all the vices. Their politicians and historians taught them to see their rivals as corrupt, commercial, cruel, untrustworthy Orientals. This was the picture touched up with lurid highlights by Gustave Flaubert, whose novel Salammbo portrays a Carthage of glittering opulence and unspeakable vice, where rivers of Oriental perfume mingle with rivers of blood from torture chambers and infant holocausts. Flaubert had sometimes the soul of a naughty schoolboy; he was never happier than when giving the recipe for the paste made of crushed flies' legs which high-born maidens like the princess Salammbo used to touch up their eyebrows. But there is no reason to think the people of ancient Carthage were any more addicted to cruelty than the Romans, who thought nothing of crucifying prisoners along the public highways and leaving them there till their bones were picked clean by birds.

Some delicate scholars challenge the whole idea of Carthaginian infant sacrifice, claiming that the charred bones in the burial urns, when they are not those of lambs and calves, are of babies who were stillborn or died of natural causes. But tophet excavator Lawrence Stager, director of Harvard's Semitic Museum, thinks there is no doubt that some form of infant sacrifice took place in Carthage as in other parts of the ancient Middle East, cradle of civilization. There is plenty of contemporary literary evidence. According to the prophet Jeremiah, the custom was being practiced in Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. The early church father Tertullian, who spent most of his life in North Africa, wrote in A.D. 200 that "to this day that holy crime persists."

At one time or another, Rome fought with almost all the other peoples of the Mediterranean world, occasionally taking cruel vengeance, but eventually absorbing most of them, alternately bludgeoning and cajoling as they turned the barbarous Gauls into what are now called Frenchmen and the barbarous Dacians into what are now called Romanians. Only the Carthaginians were too strong or too stubborn to be absorbed, they had to be utterly destroyed, because they were the only foe the Romans genuinely feared, the only rival that might have beaten Rome in commerce and war and nation-building..

From 262 B.C. to 146 B.C. these two states, which had started out as small towns on the fringes of the civilized world, groped and then clawed their way toward mastery of all the Mediterranean lands and well beyond.

Sometimes the story of their conflict sounds like a dress rehearsal for modern times. Just as the expansion of the Western European world began in the 1400s with Portuguese captains like Vasco da Gama pushing their solid ocean- going ships farther and farther into unknown seas in search of gold, spices and slaves, so the Phoenicians, at the beginning of the first millennium B.C., developed sturdier, faster ships than had ever been built before and began sending them on trading or raiding voyages to what were then the ends of the world. A chance remark by Herodotus in his Histories making fun of Phoenician sailors who claimed to have seen the sun to starboard at noon when they were sailing westward proves that at least some of them were circumnavigating Africa more than 2500 years before Vasco da Gama. They opened trading posts in Spain and in west Africa. Homer's Odyssey (dated by current scholarship to the latter part of the eighth century B.C.) describes them as "pirates in black boats laden with a thousand arhythmata" that is to say, a disorderly collection of beads and bowls and wine and metalware and all sorts of bric-a- brac. The Phoenicians exchanged these goods for the produce of the copper mines of Cyprus, the iron mines of Elba, the gold mines of Andalusia and later the tin mines of Cornwall, plus silver and slaves wherever they could find them, and they became very rich in consequence. To help them keep track of their profits, they invented the alphabet.

For hundreds of years the competition was fierce between Phoenicians and island Greeks, mainland Greeks, Sicilian Greeks and the Etruscans of western Italy, where Aeneas and his Trojans were said to have landed. They all established trading posts or spheres of influence scattered over hundreds of miles of coastline; the posts became commercial ports and sometimes fortified cities. The cities made alliances, propped up satellite states, quarreled over tariffs and monopolies, grew richer, conquered more terriotry, and eventually fought world wars. By the fifth century B.C., Rome (which had expelled and then conquered the loosely confederated Etruscans) and Carthage (which had long outgrown its mother city of Tyre, now a mere provincial capital in successive empires, Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian) were emerging as superpowers.

They were briefly allied against the Greeks, then came to blows in 264 B.C. and over the next 118 years fought the three Punic Wars for the domination of the world. They were complex wars bringing into play vast amounts of weaponry, strategic movements of fleets and armies over hundreds of miles of water, the juggling of alliances and the hiring of mercenaries, all on a scale never seen before..

At first the Carthaginians took command of the sea with big battleships -- 98-foot-long triremes with tusk-shaped timber battering rams on their prows. When such a ship was propelled at full speed by three banks of oarsmen (as many as 170), it could ram and sink any enemy vessel. Carthage even developed a quinquereme, with five banks of oars, though no one in modern times has figured out how such a complicated conveyance could operate in real water with real rowers.

After salvaging a wrecked Punic trireme, the Romans were soon building their own. Then, since their sailors had not enough experience to sail them as well as their enemies, they came up with an innovation that revolutionized war at sea. It was called the corvus, or crow, a special boarding bridge at the bow of the ship that could be lowered onto the deck of an enemy vessel alongside. At its end was a heavy piece of iron with a sharpened point like a crow's beak, which would fasten onto an enemy deck like a grappling hook. Then naval war became indistinguishable from land war as heavily armed Roman infantry, using the corvus as a gangplank, swarmed aboard the enemy vessel and massacred its crew.

At Mylae in 240 B.C. in the first Roman naval victory of the Punic Wars, the corvus pecked the Carthaginian fleet to death. In the peace that followed, , Carthage lost some of its overseas empire. It also found itself with 20,000 mercenaries still on its hands in Sicily, wild Gauls, Numidians, Iberians, black Africans and Mauretanians. Having to pay a huge tribute to Rome for the next 50 years because they had lost the war (our more enlightened century speaks of "reparations"), the Carthaginian senators who ran the state did not see their way clear to pay the mercenaries what they had been promised. Gisco, the commander in Sicily, proposed sending them back to their native countries a few boatloads at a time so that a mutually agreeable sum could be negotiated with each group. But a thriftier statesman persuaded them that it would be cheaper to settle on a single lump sum payment and ship them all out together. A child could have predicted what would happen when 20,000 fierce well-armed men, camped just outside Carthage, learned that they were going to be shortchanged. They started a spree of burning and killing that lasted for three years and almost destroyed the state.

Defeat only sharpened Carthaginian hatred of Rome. Hamilcar Barca, leader of the war party, built up a new empire among the old Phoenician colonies in Spain, where he founded a "New Carthage," today's Cartagena. Lacking the support at home to rebuild a navy, he created an army to challenge Rome on land, and in his son Hannibal produced the man who could lead it. It was Hannibal who, at the age of 25, started the Second Punic War and began the campaign that led him to within a hair's breadth of destroying Rome and making Carthage master of the world. He came so close that, for generations, Romans would exclaim "Hannibal is at the gates!" to express fear or anxiety.

Hannibal, the greatest of all the great captains according to Napoleon, could not only outmaneuver the Romans in the field - his "double encirclement" which annihilated two great Roman armies in Italy would be the model for decisive battles down through the centuries to Stalingrad in 1942 - he could also handle the logistical problems of moving a huge army and a horde of elephants through Spain and hostile Gaul and eventually over the Alps in winter, hoping to take Rome by surprise.

He tried to make strategic alliances and to plant fifth columns behind the Roman lines. He was a master of what today is called psychological warfare: the elephants, of which only a few survived the Alpine crossing, were of limited military value, but their image haunted every soldier's imagination as German Tiger tanks did in World War II.

Both sides used mercenaries, but in the 15 years Hannibal fought in Italy, he was steadily outnumbered because Rome could always count on a reservoir of sturdy patriotic peasants fighting for their country, while the more commercially-minded Carthaginians had to turn to unreliable hired help.. Hannibal might destroy two numerically superior Roman armies, at Lake Trasimene and Cannae, but the Romans raised a third. In the end, Hannibal was called back to North Africa to help repel a counterinvasion led by Scipio Africanus, who defeated him in 202 B.C. at the Battle of Zama.

The Roman historian Livy records how Hannibal, after the loss of the Second Punic War, rebuked the rich senators who had watched with dry eyes while their country's navy was towed out to sea and set afire under the draconian terms of the peace treaty, but began to wail and tear their clothes when they learned that there was so little gold in the national treasury that the yearly tribute demanded by Rome would have to be paid out of their own pockets.

Military disaster did nothing to break the entrepreneurial spirit of Carthage. While the taxpayers of Rome were pouring out gold along with their blood to expand and police their empire, the Carthaginians, reverting to their primal role as Levantine traders, were shamelessly prospering. Cato the Elder, sternest of the noble old Romans, on a diplomatic mission to Carthage in 175 B.C. to make sure that the provisions of the peace treaty were being honored, was horrified by all the bustle and industry he saw around him. To his eye the city was "teeming with a new generation of fighting men, overflowing with wealth, amply stocked with weapons and military supplies ... and full of confidence at the revival of its strength." Cato thenceforward added to every speech he made in the senate on any subject the words Delenda est Carthago, Carthage must be destroyed.

Many in Rome were perfectly willing to go on living in peaceful coexistence. But a war party was in power in the year 149 B.C. when the Carthaginians gave Rome a pretext to act by repeatedly taking up arms to repel the Numidians who were seizing their lands. Roman forces were deployed, and the Third Punic War was launched. The Carthaginians, who were in fact ill prepared and fearful, soon agreed to hand over 600 hostages to guarantee their good behavior and braced themselves for another heavy tribute. The Romans first insisted that the Carthaginians surrender every instrument of war in the city. Two hundred thousand weapons and 2,000 pieces of artillery-- catapults and ballistae --were duly loaded on wagons and delivered. Only then were the rest of the impossibly harsh conditions of surrender revealed: Carthaginians must abandon international trade, leave their city and build another at least ten miles inland from the coast. It would be for their own good, the Roman consul Censorinus piously told them, for had not the sea brought them all their woes? Only their temples and tombs would remain undesecrated.

For a people who had lived almost 700 years by overseas commerce, this was a decree of forced suicide. All Carthage united in passionate defiance. The gates of the city were closed, arsenals were improvised and soon were turning out 300 swords and 500 spears a day. Women cut off their hair to make braided ropes for catapults. The Romans had expected a quick surrender by the disarmed foe. They were slow to assault a city with a triple line of walls extending for some 22 miles. The highest wall reached 65 feet and was 98 feet deep, with space dug into it sufficient to stable 300 elephants and 4,000 horses. It took the forces of Rome, eventually commanded by Scipio Aemilianus, three years just to breach the walls. Then they had to fight their way, street by street and house by house, crossing from housetop to housetop on beams that straddled the 15-foot-wide streets, stopping occasionally to allow troops of street cleaners to clear off the dead bodies and rubble.

Polybius the historian, who served as a Roman staff officer during the siege, has left an eyewitness account of the slow, bloody climb up the Byrsa Hill. With all Carthage burning in front of them, he was amazed to see Scipio with tears in his eyes. He was recalling, Scipio said, the lines of the Iliad in which Hector has a premonition of the death of his country: "The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall, and Priam, lord of spears, and Priam's people." When Polybius asked him why he would be thinking such thoughts on a day like this, Scipio answered: "Oh, Polybius ... I feel a terror and dread, lest someone some day should give the same order about my own native city."

It took many centuries for Scipio's premonition to be fulfilled. Roman arms would ensure peace and prosperity to millions for hundreds of years. By supplying wheat, olive oil and wild beasts for the arena, the province of Africa created out of the Carthaginian homeland would become the most prosperous in the empire. Traces of it remain everywhere in today's Tunisia. You cannot drive long in any direction without coming across the ruins of a Roman town, provincial places with elegant theaters, temples and forums. Between the broken walls of their homes, as well as in the vast chambers of the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, you can see acres and acres of mosaic floors -- jolly hunters, piping shepherds, frolicking deer, amorous gods in all the rich, colorful gaiety of Greco-Roman art in its happiest years.

Roman dominion in Africa ended with the Vandal incursions of the fifth century A.D., Byzantine dominance in the sixth century, and the arrival of a wave of Semitic invaders, the Arabs, in the seventh century. The latter preferred to build new capital cities of their own, first at Kairouan, then at Tunis. Gradually, the Roman city of Carthage was drained of people. Its palaces and temples and mansions provided a quarry from which pillars and hewn stones could be carted off for the monuments of the new masters of the land. Most of what was left was taken off by raiding parties of Italian sailors and used to build the churches and palaces of Genoa and Pisa.

For the last defenders of old Carthage, the end came quicker. In the last hours of the six-day battle for the Byrsa Hill, 50,000 Carthaginians marched out to give themselves up and be sold into slavery. Everyone else in what had been a city of several hundred thousand souls was dead, except for a desperate handful clustered in the temple of Eshmoun, resolved to die rather than surrender. At the last moment the Carthaginian leader Hasdrubal lost his nerve and left the temple to grovel before Scipio, begging for his life. His wife, Sophonisbe, dressed as for a feast, was standing on the wall of the temple, which was burning behind her. She howled down a curse upon Hasdrubal for his cowardice, seized her two little sons in her arms and jumped into the purifying fire.

©1994 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine April 1994