Ancient History & Civilisation


Barcid Spain


For Hamilcar, the last commander of the Carthaginian army in Sicily, the expedition to Spain offered the opportunity not only to be cast as the saviour of his homeland, but also to increase the opportunities for autonomous action.1 Despite his own supporters dominating the Council of Elders and the Popular Assembly, Hamilcar could still expect opposition from the political clique led by his arch-rival, Hanno.2 For Hanno and his faction it was not foreign adventures but the harnessing of the huge agricultural resources of North Africa which would provide the answer to Carthage’s economic woes.3 The Greek historian Appian reports that Hamilcar defied the wishes of the Council of Elders when in 237 he set off for Spain.4

The Carthaginian elite had traditionally relied on two methods for managing their armies in Sicily. First, they controlled the flow of reinforcements, supplies and, latterly, money sent from Carthage. Second, the decisions and actions of their commanders were reviewed at the end of their service, and harsh punishments for mistakes could be meted out. Hamilcar would make sure that there were no such opportunities for scrutinizing his actions in Spain, for he recruited and paid his own troops. Also, Hamilcar never returned to Carthage to answer for his actions, instead relying on partisans in the Council and the Popular Assembly to speak for him. The wealth of Spain was used not only to pay off Carthage’s war debts, but also to ensure the support of his army, the Popular Assembly and his own faction in the Council of Elders. Despite his absence from Carthage, Spanish gold and silver guaranteed Hamilcar’s political influence by proxy.5

In a depressing sign of Carthage’s diminished maritime status, the expeditionary force did not have the means to sail directly to Spain, as it would have done in previous times, but marched along the coast of North Africa before making the short crossing at the Pillars of Hercules.6 Nor, once it got to Spain, could Hamilcar expect that the task that lay ahead would be an easy one. Carthage had maintained trading relations with the old Phoenician settlements of the Iberian peninsula as well as the Greeks at Ampurias, but it was not certain that Hamilcar and his army would receive a warm welcome, and the Iberian and Celtiberian tribes of the interior proved almost uniformly hostile.7

For Hamilcar, the lack of united political leadership in Spain may have made military campaigning easier, but it made diplomacy far harder, as an ad-hoc patchwork of individual treaties had to be agreed with the different tribal confederations and communities. Understandably, his priority was to secure control of the all-important gold and silver mines of the Sierra Morena.8

To start with, even those Spanish tribes who had previously cooperated with the Phoenician settlers resisted the Carthaginian advance. In his dealings with the hostile Celtiberian tribes Hamilcar exported much of the brutality of the Mercenaries’ Revolt. While releasing many of the defeated enemy so that they could return home, he publicly tortured and then crucified one of the chieftains. By carefully juxtaposing clemency with this display of severe punishment, Hamilcar sent out a powerful message to the Spanish tribal leadership of the rewards of cooperation and the consequences of further resistance. This strategy soon bore fruit, as the Turdentani capitulated.9 Hamilcar quickly set about a thorough reorganization of the mining operation. In contrast to the old Tyrian system, which had left production under indigenous control, a number of mines were taken over by the Barcids.10

Furthermore, in order to increase efficiency and production, new techniques were brought in from the eastern Mediterranean. Large numbers of slaves, controlled by overseers, did the manual labour. Underground rivers were redirected through tunnels and shafts, and new technology was used to pump water out of shafts. The process by which the metal ore was extracted was laborious. First the rock containing the silver ore, usually mixed with lead, was crushed in running water. It was then sieved, before going through the same process twice more. The ore was then put in a kiln so that the silver could be separated out from the stone and lead before being transported, often by river, to the main cities on the coast.11 For the Carthaginians these mining operations were hugely profitable. Although no actual figures exist for the Barcid era, in the Roman period from the second century BC to the fifth century AD it was calculated that at any one time some 40,000 slaves toiled in the Spanish mines, producing 25,000 drachmas of profit a day.12 Indeed, the colossal scale of both the Punic and the Roman mining operations can be ascertained by the 6,700,000 tonnes of mainly silver slag found at Rio Tinto that can be dated to those periods.13

For the next four years, and despite fierce local opposition, Hamilcar consolidated his hold over the coastline of lower Andalusia, and the essential Guadalquivir and Guadalete river routes, as well as pushing eastward to the coastline opposite the island of Ibiza. In order to strengthen further his control over the region, he founded a new city, Acra Leuce (‘White City’ in Greek), near to the modern town of Alicante.14 As the occupation of southern Spain progressed, there is some evidence that the relationship between the Barcids and Carthage began to change. The annual military campaigns in Spain required a huge standing army of mercenaries, and one Greek historian even puts the figure at 50,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry and 200 elephants.15 Now that the metal mines had been brought under control and production greatly increased, the Barcids could pay their own mercenaries with their new coinage, which was of exceptional purity.16

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