The Ghost of Carthage

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The wars between Rome and Carthage in the 3rd and 2nd Century BC were the most remarkable conflicts in the history of the ancient world. They led to the death of up to 1.85 million people, gave Rome its first provinces outside of mainland Italy and made the Republic the most powerful force in the Mediterranean. However, these wars would prove to be as culturally significant as they were politically significant. Later Roman writers, such as Livy, Virgil and Horace, saw these wars as the height of Rome and its ideals. Looking back through the prism of the brutal civil wars in the 1st Century BC, they decried the recent degeneration of values and forever cemented the Punic’s wars as Rome’s finest hour.

By 264 BC the Roman Republic had gained control of all the Italian peninsula, except for the northern regions bordering the Alps, which were still ruled by the Gauls. Carthage, a city in modern day Tunisia, was the most significant naval power in the Mediterranean, controlling Sardinia, Corsica, swathes of North Africa and western Sicily. War first broke out between Rome and Carthage over this island, and they fought bitterly on land and sea for 25 years. During this period Rome built up their navy to compete with Carthage’s, and their victory in 241 BC made them the new dominant naval power in the Mediterranean. Hostilities began again in 218 BC, and Hannibal famously marched his army from Spain over the Alps into Italy, annihilating Roman armies at Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae. Most of southern Italy defected to Hannibal, and for the next twelve years the Romans employed ‘Fabian tactics’, named after the consul and dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus. They never engaged Hannibal in a large set piece battle, but instead disrupted his supply lines and fought smaller, more favourable engagements. By 204 BC Hannibal had been pressured into a small territory in the south of Italy at a city named Croton. The victories of the Roman general Scipio in Spain led him to invade Africa and finally attack Carthage directly. In response to this, the Carthaginian Senate recalled Hannibal and ordered him to fight against Scipio at Zama in 202 BC. Here Hannibal was finally defeated, and Rome forced Carthage to pay 10,000 talents (around 265 tons) of silver over fifty years in indemnities, abandon most the lands they ruled in Africa and all their territories outside the continent, and restrict their navy to ten warships. Carthage again seemed to be recovering from their defeat, and Cato the Elder, a Roman politician, became famous for his speeches, at the end of which he would declare Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed). His wish became reality, and the great city of Carthage was sacked by Scipio’s grandson, Scipio Aemilianus, in 146 BC. Once their rival was finally defeated, the Romans ploughed salt into the ground where the great city had stood, to ensure it would never rise again.

These victories over Carthage were hugely important to the further rise of the Republic. Rome’s naval engagements with the Carthaginians in the First Punic War led them to build a thousand galleys, and the naval experience gained in this war meant they dominated the Mediterranean for centuries. These wars were Rome’s first major conflict outside of Italy, and from them the Romans gained territories including Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, parts of Iberia and a foothold in North Africa. This was the war wherein Rome’s existence was most greatly threatened, and their victory led to six centuries of control over the known world.

At first it seems paradoxical that Rome would remember these wars with any fondness, let alone as the epitome of their history. Throughout all these wars Rome was humiliated, outsmarted and almost driven to its knees. In the First Punic war, Rome suffered terrible losses. Though they won at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus in 256 BC, arguably the largest naval battle in history in, it came at the cost of 10,000 men. The next year a force led by the consul Marcus Aetilius Regulus invaded Africa and was defeated, with another 13,500 men killed. In 249 BC at the battle of Drepana, 20,000 Romans were killed or captured. These were no small losses and took an enormous chunk out of Rome’s citizen body. Yet Rome’s greatest defeats were to come in the Second Punic War. At the battle of Lake Trebia, the Roman consul Sempronius Longus led an army of 40,000 men against Hannibal, only to be surrounded by cavalry and hidden troops. He was soundly defeated, with only 10,000 Roman soldiers fighting their way through the centre and managing to escape. The next year at Lake Trasimene Hannibal ambushed a Roman army of 25,000 men led by the consul Gaius Flaminius and only a handful managed to escape. This caused a major panic in Rome, to the point they temporarily suspended their political system and endowed one man with absolute power. Quintus Fabius Maximus was appointed as dictator, and the aforementioned Fabian tactics were employed. However, we should remember that, to the Romans, this was humiliating. The Roman way of warfare focused on finding an enemy army, smashing it and dictating terms of surrender. Hiding behind city walls appealed to few, and the populace decried Fabius as Cunctator (the delayer). There was nothing glorious in the first two years of the war for the Senate and People of Rome. But the worst battle was yet to come. With Fabius’ dictatorship finishing in 216 BC, the newly elected consuls Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paulus marched against Hannibal with 86,000 men, satisfying the angry calls of the people. They engaged him at Cannae and Hannibal, with a mere 40,000 infantry, managed to surround the Roman army and use his superior cavalry to trap and rout the largest force Rome had ever fielded. Almost all of Republic’s army was annihilated, and this battle was not merely the worst defeat in Roman history, but perhaps the bloodiest day in human history, with more dying on the plain of Cannae than on the first day of Somme. Livy relates how after the battle, the Carthaginians surveying the battlefield saw Romans “found still alive with the sinews in their thighs and behind their knees sliced through, baring their throats and necks and begging who would to spill what little loos they had left. Some had their heads buried in the ground, having apparently dug themselves holes and by smothering their faces with earth had choked themselves to death.”

How could this be seen as glorious? What justification did the later writers have for looking back on this humiliation and writing about it in such heroic terms? The phrase Hannibal ad portas (Hannibal is at the gates) came into common usage at this time, and lodged itself so firmly in the Roman psyche that it was used for centuries to terrify children. Within the first three years of the war, a fifth of Rome’s adult male population had been killed, and when drawing up new armies the Senate militarised slaves, something unheard of in Roman history. The Sybilline books, religious Roman collections of prophecy that were only looked at in the most dire times, were consulted. On their advice, four men were buried alive in the forum, a horrifying example of human sacrifice. This practice was usually despised by the Italians but, in their terror, they would do anything to appease the gods. For the next twelve years, Rome subjected itself to the humiliating tactics of Fabius, allowing Hannibal to ravage half of their peninsula, until he was recalled to Africa and subsequently defeated. To modern readers, this seems more like a war where Rome was brought to its knees, a war one would want to destroy all evidence of and forget for eternity. Even the Third Punic War was an embarrassment for the Republic. Carthage had been confined to its city, while Rome had the resources of most of the Western Mediterranean. Still, the siege dragged on for three years and was a catalogue of reversals.

It is Livy who gives us an idea of why this war was so important to later Romans. The defeat at Cannae, “left Rome without a force in the field, without a commander, without a single soldier, Apulia and Samnium in Hannibal’s hands, and now nearly the whole of Italy overrun. No other nation in the world could have suffered so tremendous a series of disasters, and not been overwhelmed.” This was why this war was glorious. When the city was in the depths of its disaster, no other state in history could have recovered its poise, except for Rome. Yet in conquering, Rome was conquered. By the time of the Third Punic War, the politician Scipio Nasica was calling for Carthage to preserved, arguing that without a rival to make their qualities a necessity for survival, Roman values would decline and anarchy would ensue.

In a sense, his words proved prophetic. Sixty years after salt was ploughed into North African soil, Sulla marched on the eternal city, beginning generations of civil war. Roman writers in the age of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, looked back to the Punic Wars as the height of Rome’s glory and values, a time before the state’s virtues had begun to decline. The fall of the Republic was thought by Romans to have been caused by the neglect of the gods and the abandonment of traditional Roman ideals such as the strong structure of family and their agricultural roots, the ideals that had defeated Hannibal.

This is exemplified by Horace, a poet writing under the indirect patronage of Augustus, who in his Odes describes how “Neglected, the gods have visited many woes upon grief-stricken Italy” and “Fertile in sin our times stained first the marriage-bed, the family, the home.” He goes on to say how “Not from such parents sprang the youths who stained the sea with Punic blood, smote…dread Hannibal.” It was clear to Horace that the people who lived in his day were not the same Romans as the ones that fought the Punic wars. Horace also wrote of “mighty Carthage, made mightier now because of Italy’s disgraceful decadence” further displaying that the fall of the Republic and the breakdown of Roman values made the fight with Carthage all the more glorious. When describing Pompey, Julius Caesar’s enemy in the civil war of 49-45 BC, he says “Nor was Africanus, whose courage made a tomb for himself of Carthage, such.” This was referencing Scipio Aemilianus, who sacked the city of Carthage in 146 BC, showing that the great men of Rome back in the time of the Punic Wars were wholly different to the ones who led armies during the civil wars of the 1st Century. The significance of the Punic wars was clear to Horace: they were the perfect examples of how Romans should be: “For these were manly offspring of a rustic stock, the sons of soldiers”.

The first four books of Virgil’s masterpiece, the Aeneid, focuses on the arrival of Rome’s mythical founder, Aeneas, to Carthage and his tragic love story with the city’s founder, Queen Dido. In the first lines of the epic poem, we are told of Juno, the Queen of the Gods, and her favour towards Carthage: “But she heard a race of men, sprung of Trojan blood, would one day topple down her Tyrian stronghold, breed an arrogant people ruling far and wide, proud in battle, destined to plunder Libya.” The race of “Trojan blood” referenced is the future Roman people and the “Tyrian stronghold” is the new-found city of Carthage. The significance of the Punic Wars to Rome is shown here in its full light. When writing his epic of the founding of Rome, the event which Virgil foreshadows, the one war that he creates a mythical background to, is the relationship between Rome and Carthage. Similarly, the Roman historian Livy, wrote 145 books on the history of Rome –from its mythical founding to his present day. In that huge amount of time, around a millennium, ten books were dedicated solely to the Second Punic War, again showing that, for him, this was the defining moment in Roman history. This was the war that made Rome. 

The Roman martial character was forged in this period. Like the furnace which burns out the impurities of metal, the Punic Wars strengthened the Romans, both physically and mentally. Rome emerged with a veteran army, brilliant leaders and a burgeoning empire. Yet they also ended the war with the ideology and psyche needed to maintain that empire. The ideals of patriotism, martial vigour, stoicism and national confidence were stronger than ever. For centuries Romans would look back to the men that had won the Punic Wars as their greatest generation, the group that each subsequent decade should aspire to follow, the measure of all things. In some ways, Roman writers would look back pessimistically, comparing the virtue of external conquest with the savagery of the civil wars and then the servitude of the principate. Yet there was optimism for the future, for no matter how dark the situation was, they could recall that in Rome’s darkest hour the ideals of the state had sharpened into focus. That generation had emerged from darkness to go on to conquer Spain, Cisalpine Gaul, Tunisia, Greece, Macedon, crush the Seleucid superpower and dominate North Africa.

Horace’s famous words Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori (It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country) were later satirised by Wilfred Owen, during the horrors of the First World War. But these words sat at the centre of the Roman mindset forever. The reflective Romans would always believe that, no matter how many Romans were slain in Numidia, butchered by Cimbri and Teutones, or killed in Parthia, Gaul and Germany, they would emerge triumphant. As one centurion later noted of his countrymen “they were never so much to be feared as when they had real danger to fear.” The Punic Wars had proven for Rome that if they simply refused to give in, they would claim victory. Carthage had taught them that hundreds of thousands of deaths were never for naught, but had made their victory all the sweeter.