Ancient History & Civilisation


The First Punic War had levied but a light toll in blood on the citizens of Carthage, but the Truceless War which followed endangered the city’s very life. Twenty thousand mercenaries, who had returned from Sicily, mustered at Sicca Veneria (modern El Kef) and clamoured loudly for arrears of pay. This motley crew of Libyans, Iberians, Celts, Ligurians, Balearic Islanders and half-breed Greeks, who had found a common bond in their claims on Carthage, marched on Tunis under the joint leadership of a Libyan named Matho, and Spendius, who was said to be a runaway Roman slave. The standard of revolt was raised throughout the country. The subject Libyans rushed to arms against their oppressors. The Numidians swept over the western frontier. Utica and Hippo Diarrhytus, which alone remained loyal, were besieged; the mercenaries were masters of the open country and cut the communications of Carthage with the rest of Libya. Other mercenaries in Sardinia also revolted.

In desperate plight the Carthaginians raised an army under Hanno, who failed to relieve Utica (spring 240). Carthage was further isolated when Spendius camped at the only bridge over the river Bagradas, which ran between Utica and Carthage. Hanno’s ill-success led to the appointment of his rival Hamilcar Barca, who had been eclipsed after the war with Rome, partly from dissatisfaction with the peace terms he had arranged and with his promises to the mercenaries, partly by the prominence of Hanno, who represented a party which saw the future of Carthage in expansion in Africa rather than in foreign exploitation which clashed with the interests of Rome.

By a decisive victory near the Bagradas Hamilcar opened up communications beyond the river. Then instead of joining his rival Hanno who was operating against Matho at Hippo he again tricked Spendius who was hanging on his heels. By showing great leniency after the victory Hamilcar tried to check the revolt, but Spendius destroyed all hope of compromise by torturing seven hundred prisoners. So the war was renewed with the utmost barbarity and cruelty on both sides.

When Utica and Hippo capitulated, the mercenaries moved against Carthage itself from their base at Tunis; but without the command of the sea they had little prospect of success. Carthage was further embarrassed by the revolt in Sardinia, but Hamilcar, who had been given the sole command after an ineffective attempt to co-operate with Hanno, soon rounded up and annihilated Spendius’ force at Prione. Moving to Tunis he camped at the south end of the isthmus on which the town lay; Hannibal, whom he had left to cover Carthage, was at the north end. But Matho, goaded into action by the gruesome sight of the crucifixion of his fellow-mutineer, Spendius, and his companions, skilfully captured Hannibal’s camp before Hamilcar could move. Hamilcar, thus forced to raise the siege of Tunis, withdrew to the mouth of the Bagradas to protect the communications of Carthage (239).

During the winter Carthage made her final effort. New troops were raised; Hamilcar and Hanno were reconciled. An energetic strategy gradually drew Matho to the neighbourhood of Leptis Minor; both sides wearied of guerrilla warfare and met on the field of battle, where the mercenaries were destroyed. The rebellious subject towns were reduced; Utica and Hippo surrendered after a short siege. Peace was restored after three years’ fighting which far surpassed in cruelty and inhumanity any other struggle known to Polybius. The Carthaginians themselves had for once to fight for their city’s preservation. The tenacious fury of the Semite had been roused to good effect; disciplined and scientific warfare had worn down the resistance of mercenaries whom common interests alone held together. But Carthage had paid a heavy price for victory, especially in her weakness after the war with Rome.2

During this life-and-death struggle Carthage had maintained friendly relations with Rome. True, some slight trouble had arisen when Italian merchants supplied arms and food to the rebels. The Carthaginians had captured 500 of them, but on receiving representations from Rome had released them. In return Rome sent back the Punic prisoners that were still in Italy, forbade further contraband running and allowed Carthage to trade with Italy and possibly to hire troops there. Possible friction was avoided for the moment in Sardinia, where the Punic mercenaries had revolted from Carthage and taken most of the island (240). They appealed to Rome for help, probably in 239, when Hamilcar’s victory over Spendius suggested that Carthage was finishing her war in Africa. But Rome rejected their appeal and that of Utica which also proffered submission. She probably regarded the mercenaries as an international danger and preferred to respect the treaty of 241.

When Carthage had crushed the African rising, the mercenaries in Sardinia, being hard-pressed by the natives, again appealed to Rome (238). It was known that the Carthaginians would attack them soon, so that if Rome wished to prevent the reoccupation of the island by Punic forces, this was the time to act. For Carthage was worn out by her recent struggles; her fleet had been lost in the war with Rome and her revenues were reduced by the Truceless War. There was little likelihood that she would face another war if Rome insisted. The Romans, therefore, bluntly declared war on her when she objected to their claim to intervene in Sardinia.3 In vain the Carthaginians protested that they had prior claims; in vain they offered to submit to arbitration (by Ptolemy III of Egypt?). Finally they were granted peace only at the price of 1,200 talents and the surrender of Sardinia; an additional clause was added, as it were, to the Peace of Lutatius. This act was strongly denounced by Polybius as ‘contrary to all justice’. It would be idle to suggest that by abandoning Sardinia for a year or more Carthage had forfeited her rights to it; the successful mercenaries could hardly claim to dictate the future of the island. Nor could it be classed among ‘the islands between Sicily and Italy’ which had been ceded to Rome by the treaty of 241, though Roman annalists patriotically may have tried to stretch the point. It may be true that the severe treatment by Carthage of Italian merchants, who continued to run contraband, gave Rome a pretext:4 but it was no more than a pretext. Sardinia was so closely connected geographically with Italy that the Romans could not allow Carthage complete control of the island; the First Punic War had shown the danger which might arise from an enemy fleet based there. When the moment was ripe Rome acted with decision and without scruple and thus permanently embittered relations with her old rival just when they were becoming more friendly.

The Romans’ troubles started when they set out to conquer Sardinia and with it Corsica whose capital they had taken in 258. The courage of the natives and the mountainous country rendered conquest a slow task. Ti. Sempronius Gracchus occupied the coastal cities once held by Carthage (probably in 237); but the conquest of the interior progressed slowly. Not till 231 was a semblance of peace imposed, when the consul gained a doubtful reputation by employing manhunting dogs against the natives. In the same year Corsica was pacified. In about 227 the two islands were constituted a Roman province like Sicily and a praetor was appointed annually to supervise them. This caused another revolt in Sardinia, which was, however, pacified by 225; by the Second Punic War the island was officially conquered, except for a few highland tribes. The province was administered like Sicily, except that no towns had obtained freedom or immunity. Apart from territory confiscated by Rome, a tithe on the products of the soil was levied on the rest, and Sardinia became, with Sicily, and later Africa, one of the three granaries of the Republic. This tax was not severe for a people which had been subjected to exploitation by Carthage, but the economic life of the island declined when its produce could no longer be shipped to the Punic markets of the west.

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