Carthage – The final act

Carthage had scrupulously followed the terms of the peace treaty of 201 BC, which included the paying off of the massive war indemnity in the fifty year period as prescribed then by Rome. Yet its rapid recovery (together with Hannibal’s dealings with the Syrian king, Antiochos) made the Romans apprehensive, and rekindled their bitter hatred and desire for vengeance. During this half century of uneasy peace with Rome, Carthage’s Numidian neighbour, Masinissa, who, after going over to the Romans during the closing stages of the Second Punic War, had been awarded the kingdom he now ruled, tirelessly badgered Carthage.

Even though Carthage offered, and gave, the Romans assistance in their imperial ventures, the Senate in Rome regularly countenanced Masinissa’s annoying encroachments upon its remaining dominions in North Africa. The pro-Roman Numidian king was determined to turn Numidia into a modern state and in the course of doing so to expand his boundaries at the expense of Carthage. As a ‘true and loyal friend’, the king knew very well that in any dispute the Senate would always back him. In fact on seven separate occasions Carthage was forced to appeal to Rome for redress against Numidia, and though on some of these occasions the Senate did act to restrain its client king, on none of them was he forced to disgorge his ill-gotten gains. To Carthage, Masinissa seemed like a felonious bad hat on the make, a daylight robber given to the impertinent singeing of Carthaginian beards. The Carthaginians therefore began to build up military forces, but for defence against the Numidian king and not for a war with Rome. All the same, a more truculent Carthage emerged, which led to the reiterated demand of the elder Cato that the city must be destroyed. And so it was, after the Third Punic War. But that is to anticipate.

A fresh dispute arose in 153 BC and the Senate responded by despatching an embassy to Africa, headed by Cato, in order to arbitrate. Masinissa was willing for Rome to settle the issue, but Carthage obviously declared there was no need. Naturally this aroused the Senate’s suspicions, especially as Cato, veteran of the war with Hannibal, had seen signs of Carthage’s military build up. From the time of his return to Rome, Cato argued for war, which led to a long-running dispute between him and those who opposed war, the Cornelii Scipiones faction led by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica. A senator of considerable weight who had already been consul twice (162 BC, 155 BC), Scipio Nasica saw all this as an unjustified act of aggression by Rome, but Cato was impressed by the Carthaginian revival and saw the latest quarrel with Masinissa as just the start of an impending war with Rome. Plutarch continues the story by relating how Cato brought back a fresh fig from Carthage, robustly declaring in the Senate that he had only picked the fruit three days before. Many scholars have taken this anecdote as positive proof of Rome’s jealousy of Carthage’s economic revival, and the call for death which he repeated henceforth in the Senate merely jealous greed voicing itself. However, the message was loud and clear; Cato was only demonstrating to his fellow members of the Senate how close he thought the potential military threat was. Clever was Cato in the art of making the white look black.

Notwithstanding Cato’s blatant manipulation of his fellow senators’ fears, Scipio Nasica put forward two arguments. First, Rome should make no rash move without justification, in other words war required a iusta causa. Second, hostilis, that is the natural fear of a strong rival, was a salutary right by which the nobility kept ready and prepared for war. Without Carthage, in other words, Rome would have no worthy opponent and, as a consequence, the nobility would slowly slide into a moral decline. In matter of fact this is the celebrated argument put forward by writers of the Principate such as Livy and Tacitus, the year 146 BC and all that is seen as the pivotal date when the rot in Rome set in.

Like a dripping tap, Cato steadily wore down his opponents. Moreover, the Carthaginians finally played right into the Senate’s hands by attacking Masinissa and war was duly declared amid the raucous cries of Punica fides, the stock charge of Punic ill faith. The words of Cato had become the policy of the Senate. According to Polybios, the Romans ‘had long ago made up their minds to act thus, but they were looking for a suitable opportunity and a pretext that would appeal to foreign nations’. Legalistic pretext seized, the tragic end result would be the utter destruction of the hated city by Scipio Africanus’ adopted grandson and Polybios’ close friend, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus who, ‘with tears in his eyes’, would carry out the brutal wishes of the Senate to root out Carthage like some old fig tree. A new Roman province, the sixth, would rise from the ashes of a once-proud metropolis: that of Africa.

It was back in 151 BC when a Carthaginian army under a hitherto-unknown Hasdrubal invaded Numidia, but was soundly beaten, and after being besieged in its camp was virtually wiped out through starvation and disease. Only Hasdrubal and a handful of survivors managed to escape back to Carthage, the remainder being butchered as soon as they laid down their arms to surrender. The attempt to check Masinissa’s encroachments had thus proved abortive; it had merely established the ambitious king in more territory and had roused the anger of Rome. Indeed, that clear breach of the peace terms (Carthage was not allowed to go to war without Rome’s permission), as well as Cato’s acerbic oratory in the Senate, convinced the Roman government military action was necessary.

In the summer of 149 BC Rome despatched a fleet and army (probably a double-consular one) to Carthage under Manius Manilius and Lucius Marcius Censorinus. When the two consuls landed on the African shore at Utica (which surrendered without a fight) they were at once met by a Carthaginian delegation begging for peace at any price. The Carthaginians were promptly told that peace could be had, but that Carthage first must give up 300 noble hostages and hand over all arms of any kind within the city. Since resistance seemed futile, Carthage agreed. The hostages were punctually given up, and apparently some 200,000 panoplies were turned over to the Romans, as well as 2,000 catapults, and a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition. Then with Carthage, as they thought, completely helpless, the consuls delivered the final blow: the citizens must quit the city. Carthage was to be utterly destroyed, but the inhabitants could build a new dwelling place wherever they liked, provided it was no less than 10 Roman miles (14.8km) from the sea.

Not for the first time, however, Rome had overplayed its hand. When the news reached the city, the people resorted to that age-old habit of peoples faced with an obstinate government: rebellion. When the populace erupted into violence, those who had counselled peace and complied with Rome’s harsh terms were lynched on the streets by an angry mob. This aggressive response by the citizens of Carthage is a classic case of how people are beaten only when they understand they have lost, and the government was now forced into attempting the defence of the city. Thus empowered, and despite the earlier surrender of war gear, the citizens went to work with such good effect that they started turning out new swords, spears, shields, and catapults at a prodigious rate. The women of the city willingly cut the tresses of their hair to serve as torsion springs for the new catapults. Within an incredibly short time Carthage was put in a state of defence and messengers sent into the hinterland to raise a relief force. Hasdrubal, who had managed to escape from certain crucifixion after his Numidian fiasco, was pardoned and soon took command of a field army of around 20,000 troops near Nepheris (Bou-Beker), some 30km southeast of Carthage.

Nevertheless, the Romans hardly anticipated any serious resistance, fully expecting to cross the walls and kill, and they were quite unprepared for the fanatical fury with which the city was defended. Not only was the expeditionary force poorly led and badly trained, it also lacked siege engines, and all direct assaults against the landward walls were beaten back with bloody loss before the armed militia that had sprouted from the streets of Carthage. Flabbergasted, the Romans withdrew to lick their wounds and settle down to a prolonged siege. Not content to watch events, the defenders made constant damaging sallies, and the Romans were also faced with a new enemy, as disease decimated their ranks in the insalubrious surroundings of the lagoon. Meanwhile, a foray across the lagoon to secure timber ran into serious opposition from Hasdrubal’s cavalry, under the very able command of one Himilco Phameas, but ultimately sufficient wood was gathered to construct two battering rams. These were brought up near a stretch of the fortifications near the lagoon, considered weaker here, and manned by one team supplied by the army and the other by the navy. Despite the competitive rivalry between the two services, spurred on by their respective officers, and two breaches being made, the defenders drove back all the assaulting parties. Worse still, under cover of darkness, a raiding party went out and managed to set fire to both of the Roman engines. As the summer heat intensified, the Roman camp was relocated away from the lagoon to the southern end of the city where the troops would benefit from the fresh sea breezes. Roman ships anchored there to provision the army, but they were almost completely destroyed by Carthaginian fire ships. The year drew to a close and Carthage remained unconquered.

The following year, only one of the new consuls went out to Africa. This was Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who brought with him Lucius Hostilius Mancinus to command the fleet. Six years earlier Piso had tasted defeat in Iberia, while Mancinus does not appear to have been any more gifted. In fact the pair made no progress, handling affairs with gross incompetence, and being saved from complete disaster only by the skilful efforts of Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who was serving as military tribune with legio IIII. Rather than press the siege it was decided to attack the stronghold near Nepheris, where Hasdrubal’s field army was ensconced. In a council of war Scipio Aemilianus advised against this operation but was overruled. When the Romans were on the verge of defeat at the hands of the Punic cavalry commander, Himilco Phameas, Scipio Aemilianus’ timely arrival with reinforcements covered the Roman retreat. He then played a key diplomatic role. Masinissa’s offer of assistance early in the siege had been brusquely rebuffed; now the Romans needed all the help they could get.

The king invited Scipio Aemilianus, as the grandson of his illustrious patron, Scipio Africanus, to join the Roman delegation visiting him. When they arrived, they found him dead (he was well into his eighties) and his three surviving legitimate sons awaiting Scipio Aemilianus, who was charged with choosing the successor. He chose all three: one to rule in the palace, one as minister of foreign affairs, one as minister of justice, each according to his talents. Scipio Aemilianus brought Gulussa, the most warlike of the three and the minister of foreign affairs, with him back to the Roman camp, along with a large cavalry force.

The arrival of Numidian reinforcements had a profound effect on Himilco Phameas, who perhaps sensed a change in the winds and defected to the Romans in exchange for a free pardon. Scipio Aemilianus, however, returned to Rome to seek office and was there nominated and elected consul by the people on account of his military record, though he was under the legal age and had not held the praetorship (he had intended to stand as a candidate for the more junior post of curule aedile). All opposition was swept aside and, as at the election of his adoptive grandfather, the constitution had to give way to the will of the people. It seemed the right thing to do, especially as his military record stood out in high relief against the recent military defeats, and intervention by one of the tribunes of the people then ensured that Scipio Aemilianus, rather than his colleague, was given Africa as his province.

With his return to Africa in the spring of 147 BC the whole aspect of affairs would be dramatically changed. Upon his arrival Scipio Aemilianus set about raising the morale and efficiency of the soldiers, expelling the swarm of prostitutes and traders and focussing the army on its task. He also ensued that from now on the soldiers were properly provisioned. In the meantime, Hasdrubal was recalled to take charge of the city’s defences, leaving one Diogenes (probably a Greek condottiere) in charge of the field army. Scipio Aemilianus pressed the siege with vigour, and an attack on the Megara quarter met with early success, but withdrew under pressure. Hasdrubal responded by concentrating his forces in the Byrsa, then for good measure tortured and mutilated his Roman prisoners on the walls. This was intended to stiffen the defenders’ resolve, but instead motivated the besiegers. Scipio Aemilianus spent the rest of the summer building a contravallation to isolate Carthage from landward approaches: a series of palisaded ditches with sharpened stakes at the bottom, an earthwork facing the city with regularly spaced watchtowers, and a four-storey tower in the centre to serve as an observation post. These siegeworks dominated the peninsula and made access to the city from the landward side out of the question.

Scipio Aemilianus next began attempts to block off Carthage’s seaward supplies. From its southern extremity the mercantile harbour was connected to the sea by a channel some 21m wide, and he began by building a mole running across its mouth. Concealed from sight behind the encircling harbour walls, the Carthaginians responded by cutting a new outlet to the sea due east from their naval harbour. They also secretly began constructing from scratch fifty triremes out of whatever material they could lay their hands on. When both fleet and outlet were complete they sailed out, but inexplicably did not attack the unmanned Roman ships. When they finally mounted an assault on the third day, the Romans were ready and drove them back. Unfortunately a bottleneck in the new outlet kept many Carthaginian ships exposed without, and the Roman ships hammered them. Scipio Aemilianus then assaulted the outer quay protecting the mercantile harbour, bringing in catapults and rams. This move suffered a setback when a night attack by the defenders destroyed most of them, but Scipio Aemilianus patiently rebuilt them and threw up defences too. Persevering with his attacks, Scipio Aemilianus eventually secured the harbour walls and took possession of the newly constructed harbour entrance. He spent the remainder of the year capturing what cities still remained loyal to Carthage, and defeated the field army near Nepheris. By the end of the year Carthage was entirely cut off from the outside world. This provoked an offer to negotiate from Hasdrubal, but he would not concede to Scipio Aemilianus’ demand that the city be razed. The final agony of Carthage was at hand.

In the spring of 146 BC Scipio Aemilianus gave the orders for the final assault. By now, the shortage of food had taken its toll in the city, and when the Romans launched a savage and slaughterous assault from the harbour area, where they had established themselves the previous autumn, a stretch of the city wall fell after brief resistance. Thence he advanced without difficulty to the agora, while the defenders fled to the Byrsa, and here the last desperate, half-starved remnant held out. Tall houses along narrow lanes proved to be individual strongholds, and the fighting was house-to-house, floor-to-floor, room-to-room, hand-to-hand for six days. The account given by Appian, which gives a graphic description of the bitter fighting, was probably taken from Polybios, whose own eyewitness record has been largely lost:

The streets leading from the agora to the Byrsa were flanked by houses of six storeys from which the defenders poured a shower of missiles onto the Romans; when the attackers got inside the buildings the struggle continued on the roofs and on the planks covering the empty spaces; many were hurled to the ground or onto weapons of those fighting in the streets. Scipio ordered all the sector to be fired and the ruins cleared away to give a better passage to his troops, and as this was done there fell with the walls the bodies of those who had hidden in the upper storey and been burned to death, and others who were still alive, wounded and badly burnt. Scipio had sections of men ready to keep the streets clear for rapid movement of his men, and dead or living were thrown together in pits, and it often happens that those who were not yet dead were crushed by the cavalry horses as they passed, not deliberately but in the heat of the battle.

Meanwhile the city below burnt and resounded to the shouts of the victors as they glutted themselves hideously upon the fruits of victory, looting, pillaging, and wiping out men, women, children, and even dogs indiscriminately. The blood lust of the Romans was such that they were still pulling victims out of the debris and butchering them as they cried in vain for quarter, hours after the streets had been won. Maybe they were just extremely brutal men. More likely they had been badly scared by the vicious street fighting, nerve-racking even for those trained in urban combat, and this was the only way to quench their fears. On the seventh day the citadel surrendered and supposedly 50,000 men and women, accompanied by their children and elderly parents, came forth to slavery.

Expecting short shrift if taken alive, 900 deserters from the Roman army made a final stand in the enclosure surrounding the temple of Eshmun. Crowning the summit of the Byrsa, it was reputed to be the most beautiful temple in the city, and, as their numbers gradually shrank, it was in the building itself, then on the roof, the renegades fought before finally immolating themselves in the temple’s blazing ruins. Here also the (unnamed) wife of Hasdrubal, with her two children, joined those who, unlike her husband, refused to give in and chose fire and death rather than captivity and slavery. The epic cycle was complete: a woman had presided over the birth of the city, and a woman witnessed its demise. For ten more days the fires of Carthage raged. The elder Pliny speaks of the ‘pitch-covered roofs’ of the tall many-storeyed houses, and therein lies the explanation for this terrible fire.

Finally, the ruins were systematically razed, a plough was symbolically drawn over the site and the salt of sterility scattered over its smoking remains, and a solemn curse was pronounced against its future rebirth, lesson and punishment from the proud conqueror. With this arcane rite the three exhausting wars between Rome and Carthage had ended in the extermination of one of the two cities. A terrible ending, which illustrates that the fight for survival, far from being just a concept, and often a metaphor, is in many cases a real and violent fact. Carthage was beyond destroyed; it was void as though it had never been.

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