Ancient History & Civilisation


Traditionally, the Council of Elders should have selected his successor; however, that precedent had been ignored since the tumultuous events of the Mercenaries’ Revolt. Before any decision could be made in Carthage, the army in Spain took matters into their own hands and acclaimed Hasdrubal, Hamilcar’s son-in-law, as their new leader. The Popular Assembly then enthusiastically endorsed this decision.26 Appian relates that tensions were generated when, after he had been appointed commander of the Spanish armies, Hasdrubal returned to Carthage, with the express aim of overthrowing the constitution and introducing his own monarchical rule. After the Council of Elders managed to rebuff this putsch, Hasdrubal returned to Spain in high dudgeon and henceforth ruled the Iberian dominions without taking instruction from the Council. Polybius hotly denied the veracity of this story, but Hasdrubal’s previous history of buying public support, and his subsequent actions, suggest it is true.27

Increasingly the modus operandi pursued by Hasdrubal in Spain came closely to resemble that of the Hellenistic kingdoms that succeeded the empire of Alexander the Great in the East. Like there, in Barcid Spain a small population of an alien elite backed up by a large mercenary army ruled over a much larger indigenous population. As in the successor kingdoms, considerable emphasis was placed on the founding of new urban centres and the replenishment of old cities in order to consolidate power over conquered territory and generate much-needed markets and transport hubs. The fiscal structure of the state also reflected a form of apartheid within it, with the coinage being divided between high-value issues for the troops and copper for the local market.28 There were also similarities in the way that the Barcids ruled through a patchwork of alliances made with the tribal leaderships of both the peninsula and the old Phoenician cities. Like Alexander, Hasdrubal attempted to make himself more acceptable to the indigenous population by marrying the daughter of a local king. Diodorus states that Hasdrubal was acclaimed by all the Iberians as strategos autokrator, a title which (as we have already seen) had strong associations with Syracusan tyranny and kingship. Most strikingly of all, Hasdrubal built a new city on the south-eastern coast of Spain. Founded in 227 BC, it carried the same name as the mother city, Qart-Hadasht (Carthage).29


This new foundation, modern Cartagena, was built to be no ordinary city. Polybius has supplied a vivid description of what it was like in his day:

New Carthage lies halfway down the coast of Spain, in a gulf which faces south-west and is about twenty stades [3.7 kilometres] long and ten stades broad at the entrance. This gulf serves as a harbour for the following reason. At its mouth lies an island which leaves only a narrow passage on either side, and as this breaks the waves of the sea the whole gulf is perfectly calm, except that the south-west wind sometimes blows in through both the channels and raises some sea. No other wind, however, disturbs it as it is quite landlocked. In the innermost nook of the gulf a hill in the form of a peninsula juts out, and on this stands the city, surrounded by the sea on the east and south and on the west by a lagoon which extends so far to the north that the remaining space, reaching as far as the sea on the other side and connecting the sea with the mainland, is not more than two stades in breadth. The town itself is low in the centre, and on its southern side the approach to it from the sea is level. On the other sides it is surrounded by hills, two of them lofty and rugged, and the other three, though much lower, yet craggy and difficult of access. The biggest of these hills lies on the east side of the town and juts out into the sea, and on it is built a temple of Aesculapius. The second is opposite it on the western side in a similar position, and on it stands a magnificent palace said to have been built by Hasdrubal when he aspired to royal power. The three other smaller eminences are to the north of the city, the most easterly being called the hill of Vulcan, the next one the hill of Aletes, who is said to have received divine honours for his discovery of the silver mines, while the third is known as the hill of Saturn. An artificial communication has been opened between the lagoon and the neighbouring sea for the convenience of shipping, and over the channel thus cut through the tongue of land that separates lagoon and sea a bridge has been built for the passage of beasts of burden and carts bringing in supplies from the country.30

Strategically, this Spanish Carthage was perfectly placed not only for fishing and trade, but also as a transit point for the precious silver brought from the interior. Although it is unlikely that Hasdrubal had any pretensions to become a Hellenistic-style monarch by adopting the trappings of kingship, the Barcids nonetheless added to their prestige and their aura of personal power, essential in their dealings with the leadership of the Spanish tribes and their own mercenaries, many of whom were drawn from lands where charismatic autocracy was the rule. It is also clear that the Barcids increasingly saw the Spanish territories as their own personal fiefdom, and any outside intervention, even from Carthage itself, was unwelcome.31 This situation was only exacerbated by the economic discrepancy between Barcid Spain and Carthage. The former enjoyed an economic boom, with many settlements being enlarged in this period, and a triple-shekel coin was added to the currency, indicating that after 228 BC, when the final indemnity payment was made to Rome, there was plentiful silver in circulation. In contrast, the silver content in the bullion coinage being minted in Carthage appears to have continued to diminish, and overvalued bronze coinage was still the main currency.32

Indeed, when the Roman Senate, probably after receiving reports from their concerned allies in Massilia, decided to find out more about what the Barcids were doing in Spain (first in 231 and again in 226), they did not travel to Carthage, but went directly to Hamilcar and then later to Hasdrubal in Spain.33 On the first occasion Hamilcar had stated that his sole intention was to pay off Carthage’s war indemnity.34 On the second visit, according to Polybius, the hard-pressed Romans played for time through flattery and conciliation, and an agreement was reached with Hasdrubal that the Carthaginians would not ‘cross the river Hiberus [now generally thought to be the river Júcar] bearing arms’.35

In 221 BC the question of succession arose again, when a vengeful servant whose previous master had been murdered on the general’s orders assassinated Hasdrubal in his palace in New Carthage.36 The succession was, however, never in doubt. The Spanish army quickly acclaimed Hannibal, the 26-year-old son of Hamilcar, as their new leader, and the Carthaginian Popular Assembly then ratified the appointment.

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