Pre-Roman North Africa I

Hannibal and his staff at the battle of Zama – art by Giuseppe Rava


North Africa (with the exception of Cyrenaica) entered the mainstream of Mediterranean history with the arrival in the 1st millennium BCE of Phoenician traders, mainly from Tyre and Sidon in modern Lebanon. The Phoenicians were looking not for land to settle but for anchorages and staging points on the trade route from Phoenicia to Spain, a source of silver and tin. Points on an alternative route by way of Sicily, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands also were occupied. The Phoenicians lacked the manpower and the need to found large colonies as the Greeks did, and few of their settlements grew to any size. The sites chosen were generally offshore islands or easily defensible promontories with sheltered beaches on which ships could be drawn up. Carthage (its name derived from the Phoenician Kart-Hadasht, “New City”), destined to be the largest Phoenician colony and in the end an imperial power, conformed to the pattern.


Tradition dates the foundation of Gades (modern Cádiz; the earliest known Phoenician trading post in Spain) to 1110 BCE, Utica (Utique) to 1101 BCE, and Carthage to 814 BCE. The dates appear legendary, and no Phoenician object earlier than the 8th century BCE has yet been found in the west. At Carthage some Greek objects have been found, datable to about 750 or slightly later, which comes within two generations of the traditional date. Little can be learned from the romantic legends about the arrival of the Phoenicians at Carthage transmitted by Greco-Roman sources. Though individual voyages doubtless took place earlier, the establishment of permanent posts is unlikely to have taken place before 800 BCE, antedating the parallel movement of Greeks to Sicily and southern Italy.

Material evidence of Phoenician occupation in the 8th century BCE comes from Utica and in the 7th or 6th century BCE from Hadrumetum (Sousse, Sūsah in Tunisia), Tipasa (east of Cherchell, Alg.), Siga (Rachgoun, Alg.), Lixus, and Mogador (Essaouira, Mor.), the last being the most distant Phoenician settlement so far known. Finds of similar age have been made at Motya (Mozia) in Sicily, Nora (Nurri), Sulcis, and Tharros (San Giovanni di Sinis) in Sardinia, and Cádiz and Almuñécar in Spain. Unlike the Greek settlements, however, those of the Phoenicians long depended politically on their homeland, and only a few were situated where the hinterland had the potential for development. The emergence of Carthage as an independent power, leading to the creation of an empire based on the secure possession of the North African coast, resulted less from the weakening of Tyre (the chief city of Phoenicia) by the Babylonians than from growing pressure from the Greeks in the western Mediterranean; in 580 BCE some Greek cities in Sicily attempted to drive the Phoenicians from Motya and Panormus (Palermo) in the west of the island. The Carthaginians feared that, if the Greeks won the whole of Sicily, they would move on to Sardinia and beyond, isolating the Phoenicians in North Africa. Their successful defense of Sicily was followed by attempts to strengthen limited footholds in Sardinia; a fortress at Monte Sirai is the oldest Phoenician military building in the west. The threat from the Greeks receded when Carthage, in alliance with Etruscan cities, checked the Phocaeans off Corsica about 540 BCE and succeeded in excluding the Greeks from contact with southern Spain.


By the 5th century BCE active military participation in the west by Tyre had doubtlessly ceased; from the latter half of the 6th century Tyre had been under Persian rule. Carthage thus became the leader of the western Phoenicians and in the 5th century formed an empire of its own, centred on North Africa, which included existing Phoenician settlements, new ones founded by Carthage itself, and a large part of modern Tunisia. Nothing is known of resistance from the indigenous North African populations, but it was probably limited because of the scattered nature of local societies and the lack of state formation. The actual stages of the growth of Carthaginian power are not known, but the process was largely completed by the beginning of the 4th century. The whole of the Sharīk (Cap Bon) Peninsula was occupied early, ensuring Carthage a fertile and secure hinterland. Subsequently it extended its control southwestward as far as a line running roughly from Sicca Veneria (El-Kef) to the coast at Thaenae (Thyna, or Thīnah; now in ruins). Penetration occurred south of this line later, Theveste (Tbessa, Tébessa) being occupied in the 3rd century BCE. In the Sharīk Peninsula, where the Carthaginians developed a prosperous agriculture, the native population may have been enslaved, while elsewhere they were obliged to pay tribute and furnish troops.

Carthage maintained an iron grip on the entire coast, from the Gulf of Sidra to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, establishing many new settlements to protect its monopoly of trade. These were mostly small, probably having only a few hundred inhabitants. The Greeks called them emporia, markets where native tribes brought articles to trade, which could also serve as anchorages and watering places. Permanent settlements in modern Libya were few and date to after the attempt by the Greek Dorieus to plant a colony there. Though in time fishing and agriculture played a part in their wealth, Leptis Magna with its neighbours Sabratha and Oea (Tripoli) became wealthy through trans-Saharan trade; Leptis Magna was the terminus of the shortest route across the Sahara linking the Mediterranean with the Niger River. A Carthaginian named Mago is said to have crossed the desert several times, but doubtless much of the trade (in precious stones and other exotics) came through intermediate tribes. Other stations on the Gulf of Gabes included Zouchis, known for its salted fish and purple dye, Gigthis (Boughrara, or Bū Ghirārah), and Tacape (Gabès, or Qābis). North of Thaenae were Acholla, traditionally an offshoot of the Phoenician settlement on Malta, Thapsus (near ṭabulbah, Tun.), Leptis Minor, and Hadrumetum, the largest city on the east coast of Tunisia. From Neapolis (Nābul, or Nabeul) a road ran direct to Carthage across the base of the Sharīk Peninsula.

West of Carthage there have been changes in the course of the Majardah River; as a result, Utica, a port in Carthaginian and Roman times, is now some 7 miles (11 km) from the sea. Utica was second only to Carthage in importance among the Phoenician settlements and always maintained at least a nominal independence. Beyond Cape Sidi Ali el-Mekki (Farina) as far as the Strait of Gibraltar, the coast offered a number of anchorages, but few of the stations reached anything like the prosperity of those on the Gulf of Gabes and the east coast of Tunisia. One of the more important was Hippo Diarrhytus (Bizerte, Banzart), whose natural advantages as a port were utilized at an early date; another Hippo, later called Hippo Regius (Bône; modern Annaba, Alg.), was also probably of Carthaginian origin. Along the same stretch of coast were Rusicade (Skikda, or Philippeville) and Collo. Still farther west a number of place-names known from the Roman period show an earlier Phoenician interest, through the incorporation of a Phoenician linguistic element, rus, meaning “cape”—e.g., Rusuccuru (Dellys) and Rusguniae (Borj el-Bahri). Tingis (Tingi, or Tangier, Mor.) was already settled in the 5th century BCE.


Ancient sources agree that Carthage had become perhaps the richest city in the world through its trade, yet few traces of its wealth have been discovered by archaeologists. This is because most of it was in perishables—textiles, unworked metal, foodstuffs, and slaves; its trade in manufactured goods was only a part of the whole. There can be no doubt that the most profitable trade was that inherited from the Phoenicians in the western Mediterranean, in which tin, silver, gold, and iron were obtained in exchange for manufactures and consumer goods of small value. Carthage ruthlessly maintained its monopoly of this trade from the late 6th to the end of the 3rd century BCE by sinking the vessels of intruders and exacting recognition of its position from other states. Its wealth is attested by the vast mercenary armies it was able to maintain with a mintage of gold coins in the 4th century far in excess of that known for other advanced states.

It was apparently in connection with this trade that during the 5th century there occurred two voyages of exploration and trade, evidently of particular importance since reports of them were known to later generations of Greeks and Romans. One was along the Atlantic coast of Morocco, the other northward along the Atlantic coast of Spain. They were led by Hanno and Himilco, respectively, both members of a leading family in Carthage.

Hanno’s voyage is generally associated with Herodotus’s account, written about 430 BCE, of Carthaginian trade on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Herodotus describes a system of dumb barter with the coastal peoples, by which the Carthaginians exchanged manufactured goods for gold. It is not known where the exchanges took place; the Río de Oro is a possibility, and it is probable that Hanno’s expedition went beyond Cape Verde. Nevertheless, the “gold route” did not survive the fall of Carthage and was not exploited by the Romans. This has led some scholars to argue that the Carthaginians’ interest in the Atlantic coast of Morocco was stimulated by the more prosaic attraction of abundant fish stocks there.

Himilco’s voyage also was known to the Greeks and Romans. He sailed north along the Atlantic coast of Spain, Portugal, and France and reached the territory of the Oestrymnides, a tribe living in Brittany. The purpose of this voyage was apparently to consolidate control of the trade in tin along the Atlantic coast of Europe. It followed the route used by the Tartessians, a people of southern Spain (in the area where Cádiz had been founded) who knew of Ireland and Britain. This trade was no doubt the latest phase of contact between the various areas of the Atlantic seaboard that went back to late Neolithic times. There is no evidence that Himilco reached Britain, nor indeed has any Phoenician object ever been found on the island, but probably Cornish tin was obtained through the tribes of Brittany. Tin was also obtained from northwestern Spain. It is notable that the Carthaginian tombs at Cádiz, found at intervals since 1900, have produced nothing earlier than the 5th century BCE, which would indicate that it was not until that date that Cádiz became a large and permanent base for the exploitation of trading opportunities in the west.

Trading contacts with the Greek world had been substantial from the earliest period of Phoenician colonization, in spite of the intermittent wars with the Greeks of Sicily. Pottery from Corinth, Athens, Ionia, Rhodes, and other Greek centres has been found at Carthage, Utica, and many other sites, as well as imports from Phoenicia itself and from Egypt. It is known that Selinus, a Greek city in Sicily, grew wealthy from trade with Carthage, probably in foodstuffs, before Carthage enlarged its Sicilian territory. During the 5th century BCE imports from the Greek world seem to have declined. One factor that may have inhibited trade was the lack of a Carthaginian coinage before the early 4th century, though most important Greek states had had their own coinages for at least a century before that. Carthaginian merchants, however, did not cease to frequent Greek ports, and a number of them were established at Syracuse in 398. From that date economic contacts with advanced states seem to have revived, especially after the conquests of Alexander the Great in the eastern Mediterranean created a new market for the cheap Carthaginian manufactured goods. The Carthaginian merchant became a familiar figure in such economic centres of the Greek world as Athens and Delos, so much so that there were Greek comedies in which the central figure was the Carthaginian trader.


Except in politically backward or thinly populated areas, Carthage’s foreign policy was nonexpansive. One major departure from this policy was a disaster: in 480 BCE Carthage intervened in intercity struggles among the Greeks of Sicily and suffered a heavy defeat at Himera. After a long period of peace, it went in 410 to the aid of Segesta, an ally in Sicily, and turned the war into one of revenge for the earlier defeat. After initial successes, including the destruction of Himera, a treaty confirmed Carthage’s control of the west of the island. During the 4th century most of the region’s wars were caused by the attempts of various rulers of Syracuse to drive the Carthaginians out of Sicily; three of these (398–392, 382–375, and 368) were with Dionysius I of Syracuse. Most of the time the eastern limit of Carthaginian power in the island was recognized as the Halycus (Platani) River. The only occasion in which Carthage suffered directly (since its armies were largely mercenary) was in 310, when the ruler of Syracuse, Agathocles, under heavy pressure in Sicily, launched a daring invasion of Africa, the first experienced by Carthage. Over a period of three years he caused great devastation in Carthaginian territory in eastern Tunisia, but in the end he was defeated.


Carthage was accused by its enemies in antiquity of oppressing and exacting excessive tribute from its subjects. There were, however, different categories of subject communities, the most-favoured being the original Phoenician settlements and the colonies of Carthage itself. There is little evidence of opposition among them to Carthaginian control. Similar institutions and laws may be attributed to a common cultural background rather than to an attempt to impose uniformity. Carthage exacted dues on imports and exports and levied troops and probably sailors. Carthaginian subjects of various nationalities in Sicily also received favourable treatment, at least in economic matters. Relatively free trade was allowed until the end of the 5th century BCE, and a number of cities had their own coinage. In the 4th century some Sicilian Greek states became subject to Carthage, paying a tribute amounting apparently to one-tenth of their produce. It was the Libyans of the interior who suffered most, though few were reduced to slavery. During the First Punic War (264–241 BCE) Libyans are said to have had to pay half their crops as tribute, and it is supposed that the normal exaction was one-fourth—still a burdensome imposition. They were also required to provide troops, and from the early 4th century they formed the largest single element in the Carthaginian army; it is unlikely that they received pay except in booty before the Punic Wars. The Carthaginians are said to have “admired not those governors who treated their subjects with moderation but those who exacted the greatest amount of supplies and treated the inhabitants most ruthlessly.” This hostile judgment (by the Greek historian Polybius) was made in connection with the Libyans and a destructive revolt—one of a number known—that followed the First Punic War. In that revolt (241–237 BCE) mercenaries, unpaid after the Carthaginian defeat in the First Punic War, revolted and for a while controlled much of Carthage’s North African territory. Great atrocities were committed on both sides during the fighting, and the Libyans were among the most fervent of the rebels. They even issued coins on which the name Libyan appears (in Greek), which probably indicates a growing ethnic consciousness. Notwithstanding this relationship, Carthaginian civilization had profound effects on the material culture of the Libyans.


Hereditary kingship prevailed in Phoenicia until Hellenistic times, and Greek and Roman sources refer to kingship at Carthage. It appears to have been not hereditary but elective, though in practice one family, the Magonid, dominated in the 6th century BCE. The power of the kingship was diminished during the 5th century, a development that has its parallels in the political evolution of Greek city-states and of Rome. Roman sources directly transcribe only one Carthaginian political term—sufet, etymologically the same as the Hebrew shofeṭ, generally translated as “judge” in the Hebrew Bible but implying much more than merely judicial functions. At some stage, probably in the 4th century, the sufets became the political leaders of Carthage and other western Phoenician settlements. Two sufets were elected annually by the citizen body, but all were from the wealthy classes. Real power rested with an oligarchy of the wealthiest citizens, who were life members of a council of state and decided all important matters unless there was serious disagreement with the sufets. A panel of judges chosen from among its members had obscure but formidable powers of control over all organs of government.

During the 6th and 5th centuries BCE most military commands were held by kings, but later the generalship was apparently dissociated from civil office. Even in the time of the kings, military authority appears to have been conferred upon the kings only for specific campaigns or in emergencies. The generals are said to have been regarded as potential overthrowers of the legal government, but in fact there is no record that any army commander attempted a coup d’état.

Until the 6th century BCE the armies of Carthage were apparently citizen levies similar to those of all city-states of the early classical period. But Carthage was too small to provide for the defense of widely scattered settlements, and it turned increasingly to mercenaries, who were under the command of Carthaginians, with citizen contingents appearing only occasionally. Libyans were considered particularly suitable for light infantry and the inhabitants of the later Numidia and Mauretania for light cavalry; Iberians and Celtiberians from Spain were used in both capacities. In the 4th century the Carthaginians also hired Gauls, Campanians, and even Greeks. The disadvantages of mercenary armies were more than outweighed by the fact that Carthage could never have stood the losses incurred in a whole series of wars in Sicily and elsewhere. Little is known about how the Carthaginian fleet was operated; technically, it was not overwhelmingly superior to those of the Greeks, but it was larger and had the benefit of experienced sailors from Carthage’s maritime settlements.

3 thoughts on “Pre-Roman North Africa I

  1. Pingback: Pre-Roman North Africa I — Weapons and Warfare – Truth Troubles

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