Ancient History & Civilisation


Recovering Carthage


In the late first century AD, Silius Italicus, a very rich Roman senator with literary pretensions, wrote the Punica, an epic poem that took as its subject the Second Punic War, between Carthage and Rome. At over 12,000 lines long, the work almost made up in sheer ambition for its author’s lack of poetic talent. One of its more memorable sections centred on a suit of fine bronze armour and weaponry, strengthened with steel and finished in gold, that skilled Galician smiths presented as a gift to the great Carthaginian general Hannibal while he was on military campaign in Spain. In laborious detail, Silius related how it was not just the excellent craftsmanship of the plumed helmet, triple bossed breastplate, sword and spear that delighted Hannibal, but the intricate scenes from Carthage’s past engraved upon a great shield. This medley of historical highlights included the foundation of the city by the Tyrian queen Dido, the doomed love affair between Dido and the Trojan founder of the Roman people, Aeneas, scenes from the first great war between Carthage and Rome, and episodes from the early career of Hannibal himself. These vignettes were adorned with a little local colour in the form of supposedly ‘African’ bucolic scenes, including animal herding, hunting, and the soothing of wild beasts. Silius went on to describe how, delighted with the gift, Hannibal exclaimed, ‘Ah! What torrents of Roman blood will drench these arms.’1

Resplendent in his new armour, the Carthaginian general would become a walking, and very deadly, lesson in history. But was it Carthage’s lesson or Rome’s? Certainly most of this prehistory of the most famous war that Rome had ever fought was complete fiction. So what? one might ask. After all, the Punica itself was written not as history, but as a (not particularly good) epic poem. However, by the time that Silius was writing, nearly 250 years after the final destruction of Carthage, the scenes engraved upon Hannibal’s shield were part of a very real canon of historical ‘fact’ that had reduced Carthage to little more than a ghostly handmaid to Roman greatness. Moreover, the ‘historical’ episodes depicted on Hannibal’s shield represented Carthaginians in profoundly negative terms–as impious, bloodthirsty, sly and deceitful. In one scene Hannibal was even represented in the act of breaking the treaty with Rome which led directly to the second Punic War–a reference to the by then established historical orthodoxy that it was Carthage’s own perfidy rather than Roman ambition that had brought about its downfall. Such was the emphasis placed by the Romans on Carthaginian treachery that the Latin idiom fides Punica, literally ‘Carthaginian faith’, became a widely used ironic expression denoting gross faithlessness.2

The Romans were not the first to develop the powerful negative stereotypes of Carthaginians as mendacious, greedy, untrustworthy, cruel, arrogant and irreligious.3 As with many aspects of Roman culture, the hostile ethnic profiling of the Carthaginians originated with the Greeks: in particular, with those Greeks who had settled on the island of Sicily and had, before the rise of Rome, been Carthage’s main rivals for commercial and political supremacy in the region. However, it had been the Romans who obliterated not only the physical fabric of Carthage but also much of its history, by giving away virtually all the content of Carthage’s libraries to their local allies, the Numidian princes,4 in 146 BC, thereby leaving Rome’s own version of events unchallenged.

However, the dispersal and destruction of Carthage’s own historical records did not mean that there would be no history of Carthage. The spoils of war included the ownership of not only Carthage’s territory, resources and people, but also its past. Carthage was indispensable to Rome because of the central role that it had played in the development of a series of now well-established Roman myths. It was during their wars against Carthage that Romans had first begun to write their own history, and Carthage’s subsequent destruction ensured not only the authority of this new (Roman) historical orthodoxy, but also the survival of a defeated Carthage in the popular imagination.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!