Carthaginian Supremacy


Ancient Carthage



By the 5th century bce active military participation in the west by Tyre had doubtlessly ceased; from the latter half of the 6th century Tyre had been under Persian rule. Carthage thus became the leader of the western Phoenicians and in the 5th century formed an empire of its own, centred on North Africa, which included existing Phoenician settlements, new ones founded by Carthage itself, and a large part of modern Tunisia. Nothing is known of resistance from the indigenous North African populations, but it was probably limited because of the scattered nature of local societies and the lack of state formation. The actual stages of the growth of Carthaginian power are not known, but the process was largely completed by the beginning of the 4th century. The whole of the Sharik (Cap Bon) Peninsula was occupied early, ensuring Carthage a fertile and secure hinterland. Subsequently it extended its control southwestward as far as a line running roughly from Sicca Veneria (El-Kef) to the coast at Thaenae (Thyna, or Thinah; now in ruins). Penetration occurred south of this line later, Theveste (Tbessa, Tébessa) being occupied in the 3rd century bce. In the Sharik Peninsula, where the Carthaginians developed a prosperous agriculture, the native population may have been enslaved, while elsewhere they were obliged to pay tribute and furnish troops.

Carthage maintained an iron grip on the entire coast, from the Gulf of Sidra to the Atlantic coast of Morocco, establishing many new settlements to protect its monopoly of trade. These were mostly small, probably having only a few hundred inhabitants. The Greeks called them emporia, markets where native tribes brought articles to trade, which could also serve as anchorages and watering places. Permanent settlements in modern Libya were few and date to after the attempt by the Greek Dorieus to plant a colony there. Though in time fishing and agriculture played a part in their wealth, Leptis Magna with its neighbours Sabratha and Oea (Tripoli) became wealthy through trans-Saharan trade; Leptis Magna was the terminus of the shortest route across the Sahara linking the Mediterranean with the Niger River. A Carthaginian named Mago is said to have crossed the desert several times, but doubtless much of the trade (in precious stones and other exotics) came through intermediate tribes. Other stations on the Gulf of Gabes included Zouchis, known for its salted fish and purple dye, Gigthis (Boughrara, or B. Ghir. rah), and Tacape (Gabes, or Q. bis). North of Thaenae were Acholla, traditionally an offshoot of the Phoenician settlement on Malta, Thapsus (near T_Eabulbah, Tun.), Leptis Minor, and Hadrumetum, the largest city on the east coast of Tunisia. From Neapolis (N. bul, or Nabeul) a road ran direct to Carthage across the base of the Shark Peninsula.

West of Carthage there have been changes in the course of the Majardah River; as a result, Utica, a port in Carthaginian and Roman times, is now some 7 miles (11 km) from the sea. Utica was second only to Carthage in importance among the Phoenician settlements and always maintained at least a nominal independence. Beyond Cape Sidi Ali el-Mekki (Farina) as far as the Strait of Gibraltar, the coast offered a number of anchorages, but few of the stations reached anything like the prosperity of those on the Gulf of Gabes and the east coast of Tunisia. One of the more important was Hippo Diarrhytus (Bizerte, Banzart), whose natural advantages as a port were utilized at an early date; another Hippo, later called Hippo Regius (Bone; modern Annaba, Alg.), was also probably of Carthaginian origin. Along the same stretch of coast were Rusicade (Skikda, or Philippeville) and Collo. Still farther west a number of place-names known from the Roman period show an earlier Phoenician interest, through the incorporation of a Phoenician linguistic element, rus, meaning “cape”-e. g., Rusuccuru (Dellys) and Rusguniae (Borj el-Bahri). Tingis (Tingi, or Tangier, Mor.) was already settled in the 5th century bce.

Wars Outside Africa

Except in politically backward or thinly populated areas, Carthage’s foreign policy was non-expansive. One major departure from this policy was a disaster: in 480 bce Carthage intervened in intercity struggles among the Greeks of Sicily and suffered a heavy defeat at Himera. After a long period of peace, it went in 410 to the aid of Segesta, an ally in Sicily, and turned the war into one of revenge for the earlier defeat. After initial successes, including the destruction of Himera, a treaty confirmed Carthage’s control of the west of the island. During the 4th century most of the region’s wars were caused by the attempts of various rulers of Syracuse to drive the Carthaginians out of Sicily; three of these (398-392, 382-375, and 368) were with Dionysius I of Syracuse. Most of the time the eastern limit of Carthaginian power in the island was recognized as the Halycus (Platani) River. The only occasion in which Carthage suffered directly (since its armies were largely mercenary) was in 310, when the ruler of Syracuse, Agathocles, under heavy pressure in Sicily, launched a daring invasion of Africa, the first experienced by Carthage. Over a period of three years he caused great devastation in Carthaginian territory in eastern Tunisia, but in the end he was defeated.

Treatment of Subject Peoples Carthage was accused by its enemies in antiquity of oppressing and exacting excessive tribute from its subjects. There were, however, different categories of subject communities, the most-favoured being the original Phoenician settlements and the colonies of Carthage itself. There is little evidence of opposition among them to Carthaginian control. Similar institutions and laws may be attributed to a common cultural background rather than to an attempt to impose uniformity. Carthage exacted dues on imports and exports and levied troops and probably sailors. Carthaginian subjects of various nationalities in Sicily also received favourable treatment, at least in economic matters. Relatively free trade was allowed until the end of the 5th century bce, and a number of cities had their own coinage. In the 4th century some Sicilian Greek states became subject to Carthage, paying a tribute amounting apparently to one-tenth of their produce. It was the Libyans of the interior who suffered most, though few were reduced to slavery. During the First Punic War (264- 241 bce) Libyans are said to have had to pay half their crops as tribute, and it is supposed that the normal exaction was one-fourth-still a burdensome imposition. They were also required to provide troops, and from the early 4th century they formed the largest single element in the Carthaginian army; it is unlikely that they received pay except in booty before the Punic Wars. The Carthaginians are said to have “admired not those governors who treated their subjects with moderation but those who exacted the greatest amount of supplies and treated the inhabitants most ruthlessly.” This hostile judgment (by the Greek historian Polybius) was made in connection with the Libyans and a destructive revolt-one of a number known-that followed the First Punic War. In that revolt (241-237 bce) mercenaries, unpaid after the Carthaginian defeat in the First Punic War, revolted and for a while controlled much of Carthage’s North African territory. Great atrocities were committed on both sides during the fighting, and the Libyans were among the most fervent of the rebels. They even issued coins on which the name Libyan appears (in Greek), which probably indicates a growing ethnic consciousness. Notwithstanding this relationship, Carthaginian civilization had profound effects on the material culture of the Libyans.

Political and Military Institutions

Hereditary kingship prevailed in Phoenicia until Hellenistic times, and Greek and Roman sources refer to kingship at Carthage. It appears to have been not hereditary but elective, though in practice one family, the Magonid, dominated in the 6th century bce. The power of the kingship was diminished during the 5th century, a development that has its parallels in the political evolution of Greek city-states and of Rome. Roman sources directly transcribe only one Carthaginian political term-sufet, etymologically the same as the Hebrew shofet·, generally translated as “judge” in the Hebrew Bible but implying much more than merely judicial functions. At some stage, probably in the 4th century, the sufets became the political leaders of Carthage and other western Phoenician settlements. Two sufets were elected annually by the citizen body, but all were from the wealthy classes. Real power rested with an oligarchy of the wealthiest citizens, who were life members of a council of state and decided all important matters unless there was serious disagreement with the sufets. A panel of judges chosen from among its members had obscure but formidable powers of control over all organs of government.

During the 6th and 5th centuries bce most military commands were held by kings, but later the generalship was apparently dissociated from civil office. Even in the time of the kings, military authority appears to have been conferred upon the kings only for specific campaigns or in emergencies. The generals are said to have been regarded as potential overthrowers of the legal government, but in fact there is no record that any army commander attempted a coup d’état.

Until the 6th century bce the armies of Carthage were apparently citizen levies similar to those of all city-states of the early classical period. But Carthage was too small to provide for the defense of widely scattered settlements, and it turned increasingly to mercenaries, who were under the command of Carthaginians, with citizen contingents appearing only occasionally. Libyans were considered particularly suitable for light infantry and the inhabitants of the later Numidia and Mauretania for light cavalry; Iberians and Celtiberians from Spain were used in both capacities. In the 4th century the Carthaginians also hired Gauls, Campanians, and even Greeks. The disadvantages of mercenary armies were more than outweighed by the fact that Carthage could never have stood the losses incurred in a whole series of wars in Sicily and elsewhere. Little is known about how the Carthaginian fleet was operated; technically, it was not overwhelmingly superior to those of the Greeks, but it was larger and had the benefit of experienced sailors from Carthage’s maritime settlements.


The Romans completely destroyed Carthage in 146 bce and a century later built a new city on the site, so that little is known of the physical appearance of the Phoenician city. The ancient artificial harbour-the Cothon-is represented today by two lagoons north of the bay of Al-Karm (El-Kram). In the 3rd century bce it had two parts, the outer rectangular part being for merchant shipping, with the interior, circular division reserved for warships; sheds and quays were available for 220 warships. The harbour’s small size probably means that it was used chiefly in winter when navigation almost ceased. The city walls were of great strength and were 22 miles (35 km) in length; the most vulnerable section, across the isthmus, was more than 40 feet (12 metres) high and 30 feet (9 metres) thick. The citadel on the hill called Byrsa was also fortified. Between Byrsa and the port was the heart of the city: its marketplace, council house, and temples. In appearance it may have been not dissimilar to towns in the eastern Mediterranean or Persian Gulf before the impact of modern civilization, with narrow winding streets and houses up to six stories high. The exterior walls were blank except for a solitary street door, but they enclosed courtyards. A figure of 700,000 for the city population is given by the geographer Strabo, but this probably included the population of the Sharik Peninsula. A more reasonable figure could be about 400,000, including slaves, a size similar to that of Athens.

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