Ancient History & Civilisation


Punic Faith


As an intense fire raged on the Byrsa, Scipio ordered his troops to demolish Carthage’s walls and ramparts. Following military custom, the Roman general also allowed the soldiers to loot the city, and rewards were handed out to those legionaries who had displayed conspicuous bravery during the campaign. Scipio personally distributed all gold, silver and religious offerings, and other spoils were either sent to Rome or sold to raise funds. The surviving arms, siege engines and warships were burnt as offerings to the gods Mars and Minerva, and the city’s wretched inhabitants were sent to the slave markets—with the exception of a few grandees (including Hasdrubal) who, after being led through Rome as part of Scipio’s triumph, were allowed to lead a life of comfortable confinement in various Italian cities.1

Besides these few commanders, the only Carthaginians who fully escaped their fellow citizens’ collective fate were those who had been absent from the city during the siege. One was a well-known philosopher called Hasdrubal, who had relocated to Athens further to pursue his academic career. After arriving in Greece, where he had wisely changed his name to Clitomachus, in 129 he had eventually risen to the headship of the prestigious Athenian Academy. During a long and illustrious career, Clitomachus wrote an astonishing 400 treatises, which earned him praise from a number of prominent Romans. Besides his philosophical works, he reportedly addressed a work to his fellow Carthaginians after the destruction of the city, in which he opined that at such calamitous times much comfort was to be gained from philosophy (a sentiment that would no doubt have been appreciated by his fellow citizens as they were murdered by marauding Roman soldiers or dragged into a life of miserable slavery).2

After the initial ravaging of the city by the legions, the Senate sent a ten-man commission from Rome in order to supervise a series of measures designed to ensure that Carthage remained uninhabited. To that end Scipio was ordered to raze the remainder of the city to the ground, and a solemn curse was put on any persons who in the future attempted to settle on the Byrsa or in the Megara district. Moreover, those cities that had remained loyal to Carthage would pay for their loyalty with utter destruction, while Roman allies in the region were rewarded with Carthaginian territory. Those that had remained neutral were placed under the control of a senior senatorial official who would be sent out from Rome each year.3

When word of final victory reached Rome, there was an extraordinary outpouring of happiness and relief on the streets of the city. According to Appian, the news was greeted with understandable joy, for ‘no other war had so terrified them at their own gates as the Punic wars, which ever brought peril to them by reason of the perseverance, skill, and courage, as well as the bad faith, of those enemies.’4 While most surviving accounts of the Punic wars contain a high degree of hyperbole, in this instance such extravagant language perhaps accords well with the general reaction of the Roman public. The end of a series of wars which had seen Rome’s divine sanction undermined, and the enemy at the very gates of the city, can surely only have brought relief.5 The extraordinary outpouring of Roman religious and literary activity in the course of the wars, at least, demonstrates the extent to which success or failure on the battlefield was bound up with the Romans’ perceptions both of the world and of themselves.

While the Second Punic War was perceived as the confirmation of predestined Roman hegemony, for many it simultaneously signalled the start of a long decline. For Polybius, whose views appear to have been shared by many of the Roman senatorial elite (and the wider intellectual community of the Hellenistic world), it was the unavoidable fate of all great powers that they should eventually fall.6 Thus, while the well-balanced Roman constitution would help prevent decline for a time, the fate of Carthage also awaited Rome. In Polybian political philosophy, however, future decline lay less in the rise of alternative powers than in destructive internal conflict and the rise of irrationality. The decline, defeat and eventual destruction of Carthage were thus attributed to the demagogy of the Barcids and the increasing influence of popular politics within the city. Even Hannibal, whom Polybius greatly admired as a military commander, was viewed as being fatally flawed by an irrationality and impulsiveness that symbolized the last years of the city.7In destroying Carthage, therefore, the Romans had confirmed a theory that forecast the eventual doom of their own city.

In the last decades of the second century BC and into the first, as the Roman Republic plunged into political crisis and bloody civil war, that political philosophy which foretold the decline of Rome must have seemed all the more prescient. As well as providing an ominous blueprint for Rome’s troubled future, a fallen Carthage now played a conspicuous role in the genesis of the bitter discord that broke out among the ranks of the Roman Senate. In fact the internal dissension that Carthage would stir within the Roman senatorial elite had become apparent even before the city had fallen. The Roman commander Hostilius Mancinus, piqued at what he perceived as a lack of recognition of his achievements, in contrast to the plaudits and glory showered on Scipio Aemilianus, commissioned an elaborate painting of Carthage and the assaults that he had led against it, which he then erected in the Roman forum. Standing next to this billboard, Mancinus even went as far as to offer onlookers a commentary on how his heroic actions had helped bring about the capture of the city.8

Personal glory was not the only disputed spoil of the Third Punic War, however, for the extensive and fertile North African territories that had become Roman land became a major source of tension. Land reform–particularly for the military veterans who had played such a major role in the glittering successes on the battlefield, but afterwards had often indecorously ended up among the growing ranks of disenfranchised poor–became a point of increasingly bitter contention within the Senate. In 123 the senator Gaius Sempronius Gracchus and his supporters in the reformist faction successfully forced through a measure that allowed for not only the settlement of some old Carthaginian territory, but also the establishment of a new colony called Junonia on the site of the old city. The move had met with serious opposition from the conservatives led by Scipio Aemilianus, but Gracchus reportedly won the debate by citing the old argument of Scipio Nascia: that the destruction of Carthage would lead to the emergence of demagogues and would-be tyrants in Rome (a clear reference to Scipio Aemilianus). Aemilianus, understandably sensitive to such accusations, deflected the accusation by blaming factionalism in the Senate on luxury and greed spurred by Rome’s conquest of the East.9 Both sides were nevertheless seemingly agreed: Rome was in moral decline, and conquest was the cause.

The reformers, although they had scored a victory in this particular round of the battle, not long after found their efforts thwarted, for their opponents had turned the tide of public opinion by spreading rumours that the boundary markers of the new colony had been pulled up by wolves (which soothsayers considered an ill omen). The Junonia project was dramatically abandoned soon afterwards.10 The tensions between reformers and conservatives nevertheless continued, and culminated a year later, in 121, in a bloody putsch perpetrated by the consul Lucius Opimius, whereby Gracchus and 3,000 of his supporters were murdered. In an act of calculated brazenness, Opimius then controversially commissioned a temple on the Capitol to be dedicated to the divine virtue ofConcordia (Concord).11 For many it stood as an ironic and unwelcome reminder of the bloody discord that now stalked Rome. The following graffito had been inscribed on the building: ‘A work of mad discord makes a temple of Concordia.’12

The death of Gracchus did nothing to assuage the tensions between those who wanted to resettle Carthaginian land and those who would not countenance a new Carthage (even a Roman one). In 81 BC the Roman general Pompey, in an attempt to display his conservative credentials, solemnly renewed the curse on the site of Carthage,13 but in 64 a senatorial party once again attempted a reform by proposing to sell off the territory of Carthage in order to fund land distribution. Once more, however, these plans were successfully rebuffed by the conservatives, who argued that to ignore the curse that had been laid on it amounted to dangerous sacrilege and, furthermore, that a restored Carthage could pose a future threat to Rome.14

As the Republic lurched from one political crisis to another, the debate over Rome’s decline intensified. In fact the competing arguments earlier advanced by Gaius Gracchus and Scipio Aemilianus had been conflated into the bleak diagnosis that the destruction of Carthage by Rome had catalysed a swift decline fuelled by the greed and ambition of Rome’s ruling classes.15 Indeed, such was the low ebb to which Roman self-esteem had sunk that the story of the Philaeni, Carthaginian brothers who had sacrificed themselves by being buried alive so that Carthage’s eastern frontier could be secured, was used by the historian Sallust as an exemplar of selflessness that he saw as sadly lacking among the warring and competing Roman generals of his own time.16 Thus, only a century after its reduction to a series of uninhabited ruins, Carthage, rather than representing the indefatigable might of the Roman people, stood instead as a brooding monument to the debilitating discord that threatened to tear Rome asunder. Given its controversial status, it is surely unsurprising that the eventual self-proclaimed saviour of the Roman Republic looked finally to resolve the tortured and long-protracted Carthaginian question.

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