How did Rome benefit from the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC?

Ruins of Carthage

The final defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War transformed the history of Ancient Europe. For over a century the Romans and the Carthaginians had fought for control of the Mediterranean. However, by 146 BC, the Romans had achieved a total victory over Carthage and had wiped the city from the face of the earth. This victory had significant repercussions on Roman politics and society. The defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War allowed the Roman Republic to become the superpower of Europe and allowed its influence to expand to North Africa. North Africa become the breadbasket of Rome for centuries. The victory also ensured that Rome was the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean and aided its economic expansion over the next 500 years.

Background

The prow of a Carthaginian Ship in a modern museum

Rome and Carthage came into conflict in the First Punic War of 264-241 BCE. They fought for the control of Sicily. The Romans, after a brutal struggle, emerged victoriously and gained possession of the island. This assured that Rome would be the dominant Italian power. The Second Punic War (218-201 BC), often known as Hannibal’s War was the greatest challenge that Rome ever faced.[1]

Hannibal was a military genius, who had greatly expanded the Punic Empire in Iberia and invaded Italy after traversing the Alps. After his decisive victory at Cannae it seemed that the Romans were defeated, but remarkably they survived. The Romans eventually wore Hannibal down in a war of attrition. Then one of the greatest Roman generals Scipio Africanus defeated the Carthaginians in Spain and invaded their homeland (in modern Tunisia).

This invasion forced Hannibal to return from Italy, and Scipio later defeated him at the Battle of Zama. The Carthaginians were defeated, and Rome forced Hannibal into exile. A vengeful Rome imposed a peace treaty on the city that was punitive. By the end of the second Punic War, the Carthaginians had lost all their Empire and Rome confined them to their original territory. Rome had achieved a total victory in the Second Punic War. The war transformed Rome's military. Its army grew and became an extraordinarily professional army. Rome also became a significant naval power.

After its defeat, Carthage was too weak to oppose Rome’s ambitions in the Mediterranean. Under the harsh terms of the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, the Carthaginians had been reduced to the status of a dependency of the Italian city-state.[2] Not only had they been forced to relinquish their Empire and limit their navy, the Punic state was obliged to pay a massive indemnity to their old enemies’ treasury every year.

Furthermore, the Roman Republic oversaw the foreign relations of the city-state. The Romans also encouraged Numidians to raid Carthaginian areas frequently. The Romans also ruled in favor of the Numidians in their favor in their border disputes with Carthage. [3] The peace terms that the Romans had imposed on the North African city-state were onerous and framed in such a way as to permanently weaken it.

The descendants of the Phoenician settlers were a bold race of mariners, entrepreneurs, and traders. Despite the treaty, Carthage was able to pay the reparations and even to expand its trade network. The recovery of the city was remarkable, and it became, once more an economic powerhouse, despite all the efforts of the Romans.[4]

This alarmed some of the Senators, who were the ruling elite in the city on the Tiber. Many had fought in the Second Punic War and knew that Rome had come close to defeat and possible extinction at the hands of Hannibal. The distinguished senator Cato the Elder demanded that ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ at the end of every speech he made in the Senate </ref> Appian, History of Rome, v, iii</ref>. However, many Romans did not want war as they had come to rely upon the payments from Carthage.


Third Punic War

Modern map of Carthage before its destruction 146 BC

By 151 BC the Carthaginians had fully repaid the indemnity that had been imposed on them by the victors of Zama. The oligarchy that ruled the city believed that the treaty was now expired. This development alarmed Rome, who continued to fear the North African city. Moreover, they believed that it was re-building in secret its navy. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that the Carthaginian shipyards were secretly building large war galleys despite the treaty.

Moreover, many in Italy were covetous of the famously rich agricultural lands of Carthage and its trade network. By 151 BC there was a general agreement among the Roman elite that a final confrontation with their great rivals was inevitable and even desirable. The Numidians invaded Carthaginian lands and the North Africa city-state engaged in a brief war. Rome claimed that under the treaty that the city had to obtain its permission to wage war and that thereby Carthage had broken the peace agreement. The Senate declared war on their old enemies in 149AD.

Carthage tried to appease Rome, but the Roman Senate was committed to war. The Romans landed in modern Tunisia and they conquered Carthage’s outposts, and defeated its army and besieged the city. The ever-resourceful Punic population turned their metropolis into a fortress, and they resisted many fierce assaults from the legions. Such was the stubbornness of the defense of the inhabitants that many in Rome feared that they would have to abandon the siege.

Eventually, the legionnaires acclaimed Scipio Aemilianus as their leader, and he changed the course of the siege.[5] He built a mole that cut the besieged city from the sea and soon the defenders' supplies ran low. In desperation, the Carthaginians began to carry out large numbers of human sacrifices to enlist the support of the Gods in their hour of need.

In the Spring of 146 BC, Scipio launched a daring attack on the walls of the city and seized a section of it. This seizure enabled his army to enter Carthage. There was vicious street fighting and no quarter was given by either side.[6] After nearly a week the Romans seized the city, and the Carthaginians surrendered. Many of the city’s inhabitants refused to surrender, and they committed suicide in mass by flinging themselves into the many fires in the devastated city.[7] It is estimated nearly all of the surviving population was sold into slavery by Rome. Carthage once the greatest city of the Western Mediterranean was a ruin.

Rome masters of the Mediterranean

Ruins of Carthage today

Carthage had always been a great maritime power and dominated the trade networks of the Mediterranean. Even after their defeat in the Second Punic war, they remained a formidable naval power.[8] Their naval technology was much more advanced than the Romans. While the Carthaginian navy was limited by the terms of the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, they could quickly build a powerful fleet of ships.[9]

Moreover, the Carthaginians were expert traders and talented businessmen and even after the loss of their possessions in Spain they continued to trade extensively in Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean. Many Roman merchants resented this, and they actively lobbied for the war against the North African city. The defeat of Carthage allowed Rome to become the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean. Their control was unchallenged for almost 700 years until the Germanic invasion of the 5th century AD.[10]

The control of the sea was essential to the growth of Rome. It not only gave it naval supremacy it also allowed Italian merchants to dominate the sea’s trade routes and this significantly enriched the Republic. The destruction of their enemy allowed Rome to become the unchallenged power in the Mediterranean.

Roman Africa

In legend, the Romans wanted to eradicate everything Carthaginian, so much so that they sowed salt on its soil to make it a desert. This did not happen, and this legend was a 19th-century fabrication. The Romans were too pragmatic for that and instead they declared the lands around the ruins of the great Punic city to be public lands. They encouraged Italian settlers to farm this land and much of it was also distributed to local farmers. The victors turned the area into a province and called it Africa. This eventually became the name of the entire continent.

The Romans appointed a governor to the new province and they made Utica the capital. The large Punic population in the area was left alone if they were peaceful and paid their taxes. Julius Caesar later rebuilt Carthage and it became one of the great cities of the Empire and a cultural and artistic centre. The province of Africa became partially Romanized over the centuries. The Punic culture of Carthage survived in the area for many centuries, possibly until the Arab conquests.

Over a period of decades, the Romans expanded from Tunisia and came to dominate the entire coastline of North Africa. They first conquered Numidia (Algeria), under Marius and eventually established a client kingdom in present-day northern Morocco.[11] The victory over Carthage allowed Rome to dominate the North African coastline from the Sinai to Morocco.

Roman Food Supply

The population of Rome grew rapidly in the second century BC and many Roman feared that food production would be insufficient. This shortage could limit Rome's growth or lead to social unrest. The vast city was placing an intolerable burden on the agricultural resources of Italy. One of the reasons why Rome initiated the Third Punic War was to seize the rich farmlands of Carthage. The Carthaginians were not just great mariners and traders but also accomplished farmers. The Romans seizure of the lands of their enemies was very important, it allowed them to secure grain for their ever-expanding population.

The climate in North Africa in Antiquity was much wetter than today and it was excellent for the growing of grains such as wheat. The Province of Africa became the breadbasket of the Roman Empire for centuries. Over this period, the Annonae system was established and allowed the free distribution of grain to Roman citizens.[12]. Most of this grain came from the province of Africa and the former territories of Carthage. The conquest of the former lands of their bitter enemies allowed them to develop a secure and cheap food source for the city. This allowed the economy to grow in Rome and helped to maintain social stability in the sprawling metropolis for over seven centuries.

Conclusion

The rivalry between Rome and Carthage was one of the greatest in Antiquity. The victory of the Romans in the Third Punic War was total and led to the disappearance of the Carthaginian State. The destruction of Carthage was critical in the rise of Rome and helped it to become the superpower in the Mediterranean. The destruction of Carthage allowed Rome to become the only significant naval power in the sea and this was essential in the growth and maintenance of its Empire. The control of the Mediterranean allowed the Roman Republic to dominate trade and this allowed it to grow rich.

The victory of Scipio Aemilianus also led to the establishment of the province of Africa and eventually led to the colonization of North African territories. The destruction of the great city of Carthage, in 146 BC, marks a new phase in the history of Rome. Without a dangerous rival, the Romans would expand their Empire and dominate much of Europe, the Near East, and North Africa for centuries.

Recommended Reading

References

  1. Chris Scarre, "The Wars with Carthage," The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome (London: Penguin Books, 1995), pp 24–25
  2. Scullard, Howard Hayes: A History of the Roman World, 753 to 146 BC (New York, Routledge, 2002), p 316
  3. Scarre, p. 24
  4. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (London, Allen Lane, 2010), p. 45
  5. Miles, p 345
  6. Appian, 130, 132
  7. Appian, 130, 133
  8. Goldsworthy, Adrian The Fall of Carthage (London, Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2010), p. 178
  9. Miles, p. 355
  10. Scullard, H. H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68 (New York, Routledge, 1968), p. 167
  11. Scullard, p. 189
  12. Erdkamp, Paul The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome. United Kingdom (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000), p 213