Ancient History & Civilisation


The Desolation of Carthage


By the 180s BC the benefits of no longer being a great power were becoming increasingly apparent for many Carthaginians. In what has been termed the ‘revenge of the losers’, Carthage was freed from the burdens and responsibilities of war and empire, and thus staged a remarkable economic recovery. Reportedly, just ten years after the end of the war, the Carthaginians were able to offer to settle, forty years early, the entire indemnity that was owed to Rome, a proposal that the latter refused.1 How had this economic miracle been achieved? The answer lies in a number of developments that had taken place in the years after the end of the First Punic War.

First, the loss of Sicily and Sardinia had led to a huge expansion of the settlement and agricultural exploitation of Carthage’s North African hinterland.2 The agricultural infrastructure appears to have survived Scipio’s African campaign relatively unscathed. Despite the Roman military campaign in the last years of the Second Punic War, North Africa did not suffer the same devastation as certain parts of Italy. Even Scipio Africanus’ scorched-earth policy in the Medjerda valley had been a strictly limited operation, designed solely to force Hannibal into open battle. Just one year after the end of the war, therefore, the Carthaginians were able to supply 400,000 bushels of corn to Rome and to the Roman army in Macedonia.3 This was followed in 191 by the offer of a gift to Rome of 500,000 bushels of wheat and 500,000 bushels of barley for its war with Antiochus.4 Twenty years after that a further 1 million bushels of corn and 500,000 bushels of barley were sent for Roman forces fighting in Macedonia.5

Carthage’s thriving trade with Italy was also a significant boon. This trade had first expanded in the period between the First and Second Punic Wars, but had grown enormously in the first decades of the second century BC. Of particular importance are the vast quantities of ceramics and general kitchenware from Campania and other parts of central Italy.6 This archaeological data paints a picture of a booming Carthaginian agricultural economy able to produce enough surplus not only to provide produce for the Roman military machine, but also to act as a lucrative market for central-Italian merchants. Moreover, there is good evidence that the Carthaginians were involved in the transportation of Campanian wine to Spain, although their own consumption of Italian wine appears to have dropped off, probably because they were now producing large amounts of their own.7

Whereas Carthage could continue to rebuild its economy in peace, Rome was involved for much of the first half of the second century BC in a series of draining wars in Greece and Asia Minor, and was reliant on its allies periodically to provide large quantities of money and supplies. Rome’s economic exhaustion is also reflected in the vast amount of bronze coinage which was minted to pay its armies, when at the same time very little new silver and no gold issues were being produced.8 Carthage too had been forced by economic pressures to mint large quantities of bronze coinage in lieu of silver during this period, but, in contrast to the Roman situation, the Carthaginian reliance on bronze coinage should probably not be taken as a sign of economic privation.9 The Carthaginians had historically paid their mercenary troops with silver, gold and electrum coinage, while primarily using bronze coinage for the domestic market. Therefore, the exclusive usage of bronze coinage in this period may simply be a sign that they had neither an overseas empire to protect nor the need for a standing army.

Further evidence of Carthage’s renewed prosperity at this time derives from archaeology, for it was now that a number of ambitious construction and renovation projects were taking place in the city. The most extraordinary of these building works was the new port complex. Appian quotes Polybius’ marvellously vivid description of this:

The harbours had communication with each other and a common entrance from the sea 21 metres wide, which could be closed with iron chains. The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships’ tackle. Within the second [circular] port was an island, and great quays were set at intervals around both the harbour and the island. These embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels. In addition to them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbour and the island. On the island was built the admiral’s house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself overlooked everything. The island lay near the entrance to the harbour and rose to a considerable height, so that the admiral could observe what was going on at sea, while those who were approaching by water could not get any clear view of what was taking place within. Not even incoming merchants could see the docks at once because a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards.10

Archaeologists have been able to show that this account is remarkably accurate, although the number of berths for the warships was in reality around 170, rather than 220. That so many vessels could be accommodated in such a confined area was the result of an ingenious use of the space available. On the island itself there were thirty covered dry docks that symmetrically fanned out, separated by a hexagonalshaped open space with a watchtower on its southernmost side. This area could also be accessed from the north by a narrow gangway. The craft were hauled on to dry land by the use of wooden ramps. Along the circumference of the island, a further estimated 140 boats could have been accommodated.11 It is, however, very unlikely that the whole fleet would have spent much time in the harbour except during the winter period, when sea travel was considered to be too hazardous. During the rest of the year, the island docks would have been used for repairing and re-equipping craft.12

The commercial port also suffered from a certain restriction, with only about 7 hectares of usable space, including its quays. Extra space was created through the construction of a vast platform built out into the sea, in an irregular trapezoid shape near the mouth of the channel that led into the new internal harbour complex, where goods could be loaded, unloaded and stored.13


The creation of these new harbours constituted an enormous investment on the part of the Carthaginians. It has been estimated that around 235,000 cubic metres of earth would have had to have been excavated from what had previously been coastal marshland. Some 10,000 cubic metres of this soil would then have had to have been deposited on the island of dry earth in the middle of the circular basin in order to create enough of a gradient for the ship-sheds. Despite the speed with which one might imagine that these structures were constructed, there is plenty of evidence that they were well built. Even the quaysides of the commercial harbour were built of large sandstone ashlar blocks, with a coffer-dam technique used in the lower courses, whereby parallel wood barriers were created temporarily to exclude the water so that the blocks could be laid.14

The design of the harbours, with the external platform sheltering the port from the elements, appears to confirm Polybius’ statement that they had been built also to be protected from prying eyes. Indeed, all that one would have seen when approaching the city from the sea were the stout defensive walls and external harbour. In fact the inner dockyards, with their berths for 170 ships, constituted a transgression of the 201 treaty with Rome, which limited the fleet to just 10 vessels. However, it seems inconceivable that the Roman Senate, which had continued to send intermittent embassies to the city to arbitrate in disputes with Numidia, did not know about the existence of this new harbour complex. Besides Polybius’ account, moreover, there is no other evidence that categorically states that the circular port, at least in its earliest stages, was used exclusively for warships rather than merchant vessels. The new ports, therefore, probably represented not continued defiance or remilitarization, but a Roman willingness to allow the rebuilding of the Carthaginian commercial fleet at a time when Rome needed the city to supply huge amounts of foodstuffs, particularly to its armies in Greece and Asia Minor. The Carthaginian harbours were built to be discreet, but certainly not invisible. The very existence of the circular harbour might in fact indicate that the Roman Senate no longer saw Carthage as a serious military threat.

The Senate nevertheless continued to conduct its relations with Carthage in an atmosphere of terse hostility, despite the numerous services which the Carthaginians now provided for the Roman cause. Particularly damaging to the Carthaginian cause was the Numidian king Masinissa, who continued to play on Roman insecurities concerning his North African neighbours, perhaps jealous of their new success. Historically dominated by their more powerful neighbour, the Numidians, under Masinissa, took advantage of the result of the Second Punic War by becoming increasingly assertive in their dealings with an economically prosperous but militarily weak Carthage. The third and second centuries BC had witnessed ever-closer ties between the higher echelons of the Carthaginian and Numidian elites, often through intermarriage, and relations were sufficiently close that within Carthage itself there was a pro-Numidian political faction led by a certain Hasdrubal. 15 In the religious sphere, Carthaginian deities such as Baal Hammon and Tanit appear to have become increasingly popular with Numidian worshippers,16 and what remains of Numidian elite material culture from this period often displays a strong Punic influence. A number of royal mausoleums, for example, including the so-called Souma of Khroub, perhaps built for Masinissa himself, all follow the eclectic melange of styles and motifs associated with Punic architecture.17

The most striking example of the openness of the Numidian elite to Punic culture is found at the town of Thugga, in modern-day Tunisia, where a three-storeyed funerary monument, put up for a Numidian chief called Atban, sometime around the cusp of the third and second centuries BC, still stands today.18 Like the mausoleum at Sabratha, the Thugga memorial successfully manages to maintain architectural coherence while including an extraordinarily diverse collection of artistic genres and elements: Aeolic capitals decorated with lotus flowers, decorative fluted Ionic columns, Egyptian moulding, etc. The influence of the Punic world is further proclaimed by its bilingual Libyan–Punic inscription, which states that, although the client and the workmen were Numidian, the architect was Carthaginian.19

This cultural assimilation took place against the backdrop of increasingly close economic ties between Carthage and Numidia. Such was the level of interaction that the Numidian kingdom began minting heavy bronze coins that bore a strong enough resemblance to their Carthaginian counterparts to suggest that they were designed to be used in both states.20 Masinissa was also credited with bringing about an agrarian revolution in his kingdom, probably by copying Carthaginian agricultural techniques.21 He could in consequence match the Carthaginians in the cereals and other supplies that he sent to his Roman allies.

Masinissa, however, now calculated that the Romans would do little if he seized a greater share of the lucrative North African agricultural and commercial markets for himself. On a number of occasions, tensions and confrontations led to both Carthage and Numidia sending envoys to Rome to argue their respective cases. For the Carthaginians, these appeals often ended in a decision against them, for the Roman Senate was clearly inclined to support the claims of a loyal ally over those of a state which still inspired grave suspicions. An important component of the Numidian strategy was to play on these Roman suspicions of Carthage. Hence, in 170, Gulussa, one of the sons of Masinissa, travelled as part of a Numidian embassy to Rome, where, according to Livy, he warned the Senate ‘to beware of treachery from the Carthaginians; for they had adopted the plan, he added, of preparing a large fleet, ostensibly for the Romans and against the Macedonians; when this fleet should be ready and equipped, the Carthaginians would be free to decide for themselves who should be considered an enemy or an ally.’22

The complaint made by the Numidian embassy played not only to Roman military anxiety, but also to negative perceptions of Carthaginians as dishonest tricksters–perceptions that had become firmly entrenched in Roman public opinion since the Second Punic War (and perhaps intensified by the staggering rise in Carthaginian mercantile activity). A fascinating window into the strength of such stereotyping in Rome is provided by a Greek play adapted contemporaneously for the Roman stage by the Umbrian playwright Plautus in 194.23 The Poenulus was a knockabout caper typical of so-called Roman New Comedy. Although it was set in the Greek city of Calydon, four of its main characters were not Greeks but, unusually, Carthaginians. Although it was an adaptation of an earlier Greek play, The Carthaginian , it is unlikely that Plautus’ decision to use it as the basis for his own work was unrelated to recent political events,24 and indeed he evidently inserted some original and highly topical dialogue.25

The caustic tone of the play is set by its insulting and diminutive title, The Little Carthaginian. Much of the play centres on the travails of Hanno, a Carthaginian merchant who has travelled to Greece to search for, and then rescue, his kidnapped daughters, who have been sold into sexual slavery. From his first appearance in the play, Hanno is subjected to xenophobic ridicule. In the prologue he is referred to as deceitful, manipulative and licentious—all characteristics that Plautus sets out as being typically Carthaginian. The audience are told how:

On arriving at any city, he at once tracks down all the prostitutes at their homes; he pays his money, hires one of them for the night, and then asks where she is from, what country, whether she was captured in war or kidnapped, who her family and parents were. So cleverly and cunningly does he seek out his daughters. He knows all languages too, but, knowing, conceals his knowledge. A Carthaginian to his fingertips! Why say more?26

In addition to the more obvious slurs, therefore, is the intimation of potential incest, adding the charges of perversion and sacrilege to an already considerable list of sins.27 Moreover, Hanno is lampooned for the outlandishness of his dress, for his lack of a cloak and his unbelted tunic were signs of effeminacy to a Roman, as were the earrings worn by his companions.28

In an apparent highlight of the play, Hanno pretends that he can speak only Punic to two other characters, Agorastocles, a young gentleman, and his rascally slave Milphio. The latter, after erroneously leading his master and the audience to believe that he is proficient in Punic, proceeds to mistranslate, to great comic effect. Whether the language Hanno speaks is Punic or not (which has never been conclusively demonstrated or disproved), the joke lies in the bizarreness and incomprehensibility of the language to the audience.29 Furthermore, Hanno, who is in fact a wealthy gentleman, is portrayed by Milphio as a pedlar of a ridiculously diverse range of products, including African mice, cutlery, farming tools, nuts and maybe sewage pipes, all of which was surely a play on the Carthaginian reputation for mercantile trade. In the ensuing farce, Milphio also suggests to Agorastocles that he should be wary of being scammed by the Carthaginian.

Throughout the play, even when the probity of Hanno’s intentions has been ascertained, the abuse and ridicule that his character is subjected to continue. In one particularly raucous scene, a soldier mistakes Hanno for a client of his daughters when he comes across the Carthaginian embracing them:

What’s this twosing? What’s this twinsing?

Who’s the chap with the long tunics like a tavern boy?

Eh? Is my eyesight failing? Is that my girl Anterastilis?

It is! It certainly is! I’ve felt for a long time that she was making light of me!

Isn’t the wench ashamed to be petting a porter in the middle of a street?

By the Lord, I’ll give him to the hangman this instant for torture from top to toe!

They’re nothing but a set of ladykillers, these dangle-tunics.

But I’m certainly going to get after this African amorosa.

Hi, you! I mean you, woman! Have you no shame?

And you! What is your business with that wench?

Answer me!30

Instead of placating the soldier by explaining his familial relationship with the girls, Hanno further winds him up by suggesting that he is in fact a punter looking for some business. The soldier explodes again into another round of racist abuse:

You shriveled sardine and semi-sarrapian,
you pelt, saltsouk and olive pulp, yes and stinking of garlic and
onions worse than a bench of Roman rowers!31

George Franko has commented, ‘Plautus sought to make his audience laugh, and these remarks presumably catered to a racist element in the Roman audience. Veterans of the Hannibalic War might well have enjoyed such anti-Carthaginian abuse. The soldier’s remarks indicate that sharing a Carthaginian’s joy at the recovery of his daughters will not have precluded laughing at the abuse of that Carthaginian.’32

At the same time, however, the Poenulus conveyed a far more subtle message, for, despite portraying Hanno as licentious and deceitful, Plautus lays a heavy emphasis on his protagonist’s true pietas, the recognition and discharge of one’s duties to the gods and family. Pietas was a particularly Roman virtue, and it was truly extraordinary, and indeed provocative, that it should be ascribed to a Carthaginian, even in a comic context. Hanno’s pietas, furthermore, is matched by another (perhaps bizarre) accomplishment: his seemingly expert knowledge of Roman law, which he uses to great effect to retrieve his daughters from their pimp. The message of the Poenulus, therefore, was that the Roman virtue of pietas and the rule of Roman law were the route to success, rather than Punic trickery and deceit–the strategies that Hanno had first used in the play. The Poenulus thus not only pandered to popular prejudices against Carthaginians, it also emphasized the superior nature of Roman values and institutions.33 While the play had been based on a Greek original, its message was unmistakably contemporary.

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