By Ben Potter
What do Spain, Portugal, Malta, Gibraltar, Libya, Morocco, Italy and France have in common?
Weather… perhaps. Food… some. Sea? Ah! Now we’re warming up!
What if we throw into the mix the names Bomilcar, Hasdrabul, Hamilcar and Terrence?
If you’ve got the answer, well done!
If you haven’t, then it’s probably because I’ve been tricky, having omitted the key place, person and animal associated with this land; they are Tunisia, Hannibal and the elephant, respectively.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, today we will be looking at that erstwhile champion of the Mediterranean, the forgotten superpower of the ancient world, Carthage!
The inhabitants of this land, originally a large peninsula which washed into the gulf of Tunis, often have to play second, or indeed third fiddle, in the annals of history to their Greek and Roman neighbours.
It is perhaps a quirk of geography that casts Carthage in shadow. While the Hellenes and the Latins understandably dominate proceedings, ancient-lovers’ who are drawn towards Africa are normally met with pyramids, sphinxes, and the hypnotic eye of Ra.
This rings more true when combined with the fact that this impressive society never quite managed to become truly imperious… though they often came close.
One could say that geographically and historically Carthage has been always the bridesmaid…but never the bride.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves; let us begin at the beginning.
Legend has it that Carthage was founded out of the Phoenician stronghold of Tyre (in Lebanon) in the latter part of the ninth century BC.
Archaeological verification is yet to be made within a century of the date, but the influence of those great Semitic traders and seamen, the Phoenicians, is certain.
Less so is the idea that Carthage’s first ruler was the mythical and tragic queen Dido.
Whatever her origins, Carthage became an essential port, first rivalling, and then outstripping, its motherland. This was due to its fine farmland, two excellent harbours, important strategic position and judicious buying and selling of commodities from as far afield as Britain and the Canary Islands.
Its trade of precious Iberian metals, and especially its monopoly of tin ore, meant that…ahem…unalloyed wealth streamed into the colony. Indeed, without this booming industry the Bronze Age might have existed in only a nominal sense.
Though practical metals were far from the be-all-and-end-all of Carthaginian trade.
Their immense fleets (both trade and naval) saw them wheel and deal in lead, stones, garum (a salty fish sauce used as a condiment), fish, skins, hides, ivory, salt, exotic animals, timber, textiles, glass, pottery, wine, gold and the pound-for-pound most valuable commodity of the ancient world, purple dye.
Thus Carthage was not merely the marketplace of the Mediterranean, it was the very conduit from which other cities were able to become cosmopolitan.
Though loyalists might baulk at the suggestion that, without trade, Carthage would have been nothing, we can confidently state that no other ancient civilization (and perhaps no modern – discuss!) was so dependent on foreign commerce as was this one.
But just how, as they were initially in the thrall of Tyre, did Carthage manage to manoeuvre itself into a position to be a major Mediterranean player?
Well, first it gained its independence from the Phoenicians around 650 BC.
Though the fledgling state seems to initially have been governed along monarchical lines, there is evidence for an advanced and sophisticated political system via the adoption of an oligarchic constitution by the sixth century BC.
However, the break from their Phoenician forefathers (who were being overrun by the Persians) was not merely a functional or symbolic one; this was not a simple taxation vs. representation equation.
What occurred would have been the equivalent of the 1776 United States of America becoming lord and master of parts of India, Canada, South America and Africa!
Yes, with an unfettered vim, Carthage went about exerting hegemony over the key Tyrian trading posts and colonies of the Mediterranean basin. The effect of which was not merely the establishment of a trading realm, but of a full-blown (and capital-lettered) Empire!
Indeed, by 509 BC Carthage’s rampages forced Rome to sign a treaty recognising that these seafaring swashbucklers had control over both Sardinia and Sicily.
With regards to the inland areas of Africa, the Carthaginians (generally) made peaceful treaties with the indigenous peoples therein. It is quite likely such pacts were eagerly signed as Carthage had enough coin to hire half the mercenaries of Europe and decimate the African hinterland… should she have wished to do so.
But it was the fascination with Sicily that set Carthage on an inevitable crash course with the Greeks, themselves keen to expand their sphere of influence into what became known as Magna Graecia.
This now quintessentially Italian isle was anything but in the ancient world and for 200 years (from the fifth century BC onwards) it set the stage for a tit-for-tat war between the Greeks and Carthaginians.
Carthage was peerless in naval terms, but its small native population necessitated an overreliance on mercenaries. For whatever reason, these swords-for-hire never quite managed to overwhelm or intimidate the Greeks into submission.
Susceptibility to plague and a formidable opposition meant that Carthage, though never losing its foothold in the West of the island, by equal measures, never managed to drive the Greeks into the sea.
This centuries-long stalemate not only cost both sides time, men and money, but it had another effect. It allowed the Roman Republic to slowly blossom into a major player while their two most likely rivals slugged it out down south.
Indeed, Greek mistakes were often at the heart of Roman expansion.
The most famous example is Pyrrhus, king of Epirus and Macedon (remembered today though the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’), who looked to expand his empire.
He assaulted Rome and Sicilian Carthage, which briefly made the two states allies to counter his machinations (to the Carthaginians eventual downfall). His failure gave Rome the casus bellum to assimilate the Greek portion of the Italian peninsula.
This meant that when Carthaginian ships were stationed in the stretto di Messina (between Italy and Sicily), Rome’s newly swollen boundaries were suddenly under threat.
What happened next is well known: The Punic Wars, Hannibal and his elephants, initial success, and ultimate failure.
The battle of Zama (202 BC) between Hannibal and Scipio Africanus was a catastrophic defeat for the Carthaginians. Rome was on the path to greatness, while Carthage, a forlorn and broken foe, was left to muse over that saddest of sad reflections: ‘it might have been’.
146 BC saw the annihilation of Carthage, its earth salted, and its population enslaved or massacred. Crucially for the fate of world history, this meant that Rome was now the dominant force in the region, with a greatly expanded empire and without any serious military rivals.
Though it is never expedient to play ‘what if…’ in such situations, it is a simultaneously sobering and humbling thought to think that Western civilization may have hinged on the outcome of this moment.
Rarely does history roll over the points in such a clear and stark fashion, but this is one moment we can pinpoint and say from here on in… Europe had Africa in its thrall.
Though that’s not to say this was quite the end of Carthage; it’s difficult to keep a good people down after all. Like the proverbial phoenix, Carthage rose again, albeit under the auspices of Rome.
The age of emperors saw a renaissance in the colony with Augustus (understandably shy of tempting fate in Egypt) making it the base for his proconsul to Africa.
As Africa was swelling the Empire’s breadbasket, providing it with a vital corn supply, Carthage became more and more important. Within 200 years, it was second only to Rome itself in the western Mediterranean.
In addition, the great city became a bastion of both education, producing or polishing great orators and lawyers, and of Christianity. The bishop of Carthage was Rome’s number two (at least according to the man himself).
Overlooked, undervalued, and a postscript to the main attraction… even so, Carthage somehow survived the sword and salt of Rome.
True, it may have had little in the way of original and distinctive art as well as a pagan pantheon that was derided by contemporaries (for its practice of child sacrifice). Nonetheless, it is well worth more than a mere fleeting thought.
Through us, Carthage lives on… and will continue to do so as long as men and women through the ages occasionally rise a glass and a smile to the bridesmaid who never quite got the breaks to become a bride, but without whom the wedding would hardly have been worth attending.