The Roman Siege of Carthage: The Third Punic War, 149–146 BC

The conflict is traditionally called the Third Punic War but the siege of Carthage might be a more accurate name, since there was only one military operation, the siege of the Punic capital. The Romans had started the war with Perseus having made him believe that war could be avoided through negotiations but in fact they were already proceeding in Greece. This strategy was repeated with Carthage. The Romans began making demands. The consuls that had arrived in Sicily in 149 with 80,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 50 quinqueremes and 100 hemiolia – fast, two-banked galleys – delivered the declaration of war in Carthage by messenger. The Carthaginians sent an envoy to Rome to settle the difficulty by any terms they could. The senate stated that the freedom and autonomy of Carthage should be preserved and Carthage would retain its lands in Africa if it handed over to the consuls in Lilybaeum 300 children from the leading families as hostages. The captives were sent and taken to Rome in a sixteen. Yet the consuls sailed to Utica, which had defected to them, and set the camp on the Castra Cornelia; the fleet stayed in the harbour at Utica. The following meetings took place at Utica. Now the consuls demanded that the Carthaginian arsenal was handed over. It included complete armour for 200,000 men, innumerable javelins and darts and 2,000 catapults for throwing pointed missiles and stones. The demand included Carthaginian ships. When this had been fulfilled, lastly, the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians must evacuate the city and the citizens settle in countryside about 20 kilometres inland. Free access to temples and tombs was granted but the rest of the city was going to be destroyed. The Carthaginians were not allowed to send an embassy to Rome but the envoys returned to Carthage to discuss the demands at the senate. Appian’s account tells about the anger and frustration of the people; envoys were lynched and so were the senators who had spoken for accepting the Roman demands for hostages and arms. Some Italians who happened to be in Carthage were also maltreated. The senate declared war on Rome. Preparations began, as Appian states:

All the sacred places, the temples, and every other unoccupied space, were turned into workshops, where men and women worked together day and night without pause, taking their food by turns on a fixed schedule. Each day they made 100 shields, 300 swords, 1000 missiles for catapults, 500 darts and javelins, and as many catapults as they could. For strings to bend them the women cut off their hair for want of other fibres.

The Carthaginians had two armies defending their city: one outside at Nepheris, 25 kilometres south of Carthage, led by the Hasdrubal who had been defeated by Masinissa, and one in the city, led by another commander called Hasdrubal. The army outside also arranged for supplies to be sent from the countryside to Carthage. The consuls began the siege of Carthage but because of vigorous Carthaginian defence the Romans did not achieve much in 149 or 148. They were defeated in their attempts to overcome the army at Nepheris and to take Hippo Acra. They attacked Aspis by land and sea and were repulsed. They made a failed attempt to besiege the city of Hippagreta, located between Carthage and Utica, because it intercepted the Roman supply ships. In 147, Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul although he was only 38 years old – the minimum age for consulship was 42 – and sent to continue operations in Africa. He started by returning discipline to the army. The problems reported by Appian – the idleness and greed of the soldiers resulting in unauthorized plundering expeditions and quarrels about how the booty should be shared – were basically the same issues of an idle army that the Romans had to deal with in the war with Perseus.

Carthage was mostly depending on supplies coming from land but some supplies by sea also got through because the blockade of the Roman fleet stationed outside Carthage was not complete. In his depiction of the situation, Appian describes all the typical difficulties of a sea blockade: the Romans were not able to keep their positions as they had no shelter and the sea was full of reefs; they were not able to anchor near the city itself, with the Carthaginians standing on the walls and the sea pounding on the rocks there. Some merchants, watching for a strong and favourable wind, spread their sails and ran the blockade with the Roman galleys unable to pursue them as they sailed before the wind. Scipio made the soldiers carry out works that would cut Carthage off from supplies coming from Africa. This caused a shortage of food in Carthage. He also installed a mole to prevent the entry to the two harbours that Appian describes as follows:

The harbours had communication with each other, and a common entrance from the sea seventy feet wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships’ tackle. Within the second port was an island which, together with the port itself, was enclosed by high embankments. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. Above them were magazines for their tackle and furniture.

Archaeological excavations have proved the description to be substantially correct. The Carthaginians began a carefully-hidden operation from inside the harbour to excavate another entrance at another part of the harbour in mid-sea. The women and children helped in the digging. At the same time they built triremes and quinqueremes from old material and launched fifty triremes and smaller ships from the new entrance. These were defeated, however, by the Romans in two sea battles outside the harbour, so their last attempt to take charge of the situation failed. Finally, the Roman troops stormed the city and started to take it in stages in street fights, starting from the lower city and ending in the upper. After a week of horror that would be recognizable in any modern footage covering street fights in the middle of a civilian population, the surviving citizens were sold for slavery and the city was razed to the ground. Scipio gave the soldiers a certain number of days for plunder, preserving the gold, silver and temple gifts. The Romans declared that the city of Carthage should be left uninhabited and gave the territory of Carthage to the Uticans as a reward. Scipio celebrated a triumph splendid with gold and overflowing with the statues and votive offerings that the Carthaginians had gathered from all parts of the world over many eras; the fruits of their countless victories. In the following year the Romans celebrated the triumph of Lucius Mummius from Achaea and Corinth, another helpless city that had been sacked.

The naval rivalry between Rome and Carthage that started in the fourth century BC had ceased in 201. Rome had challenged – and beaten – the Carthaginians, Macedonians and Seleucids in a shipbuilding arms race. In this competition Carthage fared best, while the Macedonian and Seleucid resources turned out to be very limited. All these states would have had a chance of gaining supremacy in the Mediterranean if the Romans had not been involved. Rome’s success can be explained by good planning, determination to succeed and a large pool of resources in Italy, including finance, manpower and timber. Allies played important roles in the conflict. The Romans could not have taken and kept Sicily without support from Syracuse; the Massilian fleet helped the Romans on the Spanish coast; and, in the eastern Mediterranean, the Romans benefited from assistance given by the Aetolians and by Pergamum and Rhodes, gaining access to ports and advice on the local conditions. None of Rome’s opponents had similar support from its allies and none of them could draw on resources of the same scale. As a result, Rome overcame all its enemies in the Mediterranean, in the west and in the east, and was master of the sea.

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