“Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”, says Cato the Elder, Roman statesman, finishing his speech; “Furthermore, I think that Carthage must be destroyed.” However, that speech had not been about Carthage, a city lying opposite to Italy on the North African shore, at all. Yet Cato would always end his speeches with that quote, related or unrelated to Carthage. It was almost absurd.
How in the world did Carthage and Rome come to such hatred against each other?
Welcome to a new series from History Republic! We recently ended our series on the French Revolution, and now we’re entering our third series. I’d been looking at the previous two series that we did here- one had been about the French Revolution, and another about the Mughal dynasty of India– and we decided that we should do one series about events in antiquity. Antiquity, however, is extremely eventful and interesting- and so deciding on one topic would be difficult. The Pelopponesian war would be interesting- it certainly would get a series to itself in the future- but in the end I settled on this- the Punic Wars.
The Punic Wars were a series of war between Rome and Carthage, the two superpowers of the Western Mediterranean in antiquity. Imagine, for a second, a boxing ring- with Rome on one side and Carthage on the other. They were both champions, neither feeling themselves anything less than superior to the other- and they were about to clash. This series will be looking into the story of that very fight. But first, however, let me tell a tale of two cities, as they slowly conquered their way towards each other that would make them inevitably clash.
As Rome Conquers Southwards…
And let’s begin, without further ado. Sitting to the north was the Roman Republic, overlord of Italy. Rome at this period was not yet the undisputed master of the Mediterranean sea that she would be in a few centuries. She was getting there, however.
Founded, according to legend, in 753 B.C, Rome had slowly expanded its power across the Italian peninsula. Freeing itself from the domination of the Etruscans, Rome conquered the Latin cities around her and established herself as the master of a mutual military alliance. A brief alliance agains Rome then expanded towards central Italy, conquering the Samnites, and also north. Finally, Rome began to go against the Greek cities of Southern Italy. The Greeks called in Pyrrhus, ruler of Epirus from across the Adriatic sea- who would be defeated and allow Rome to take control over the Greeks, too. The Italian peninsula was the Republic’s to rule.
Why, one might ask, was Rome so victorious in her wars? The answer was her formidable military. Organized into various legions, the Roman army was mobile and effective, as shown when the legions managed to defeat the traditional Greek phalanx (which was a packed formation of soldiers).
The rise of Rome would shape the ancient world irreversibly and its legacy would still be felt today. However, the importance of Rome would not be so important if it had not ruled the Western world; and it is Rome’s conquest southwards, towards Sicily, that Rome would come into contact with another great power- Carthage, a Phoenician city lying on the North African shore.
…Carthage Moves Northward
To the East in the Levant (modern day Syria and Lebanon) laid a patchwork of states that were inhabited by a common people: the Phoenicians. According to legend, Queen Elissa, from the Phoenician city of Tyre, was forced to flee after her husband was murdered by the King. Carthage would henceforth be independent from Tyre, but would continue to hold links to the mother city.
A nation of merchants, the Phoenicians built hundreds of ships to accommodate their businesses all over the Mediterranean world. If Rome had a mighty military, Carthage had a navy to match. (As a side note: Rome had no navy, while Carthage relied mostly on foreign mercenaries for her own army). The city became the commercial hub of the sea, and empire was to follow as well. Much of North Africa, Sardinia and Corsica, parts of Spain and the Western portion of Sicily would come under Carthaginian rule, while Rome was still struggling to build up her Italian empire.
Sicily would prove to be a problematic area for Carthage, who was forced to fight a series of wars against various Greek tyrants that ruled over the area; again and again the Greeks of Sicily would try to fight or remove Carthaginian dominance. Pyrrhus, who had fought the Romans, would also fight Carthage. Ironically, although Pyrrhus, himself a good general, would defeat Carthage, the Greeks would be the ones to rise in revolt against their new master from Epirus. Pyrrhus would be forced to leave; Romans coming from the north, Carthaginians attacking from the south- the position was hardly tenable for him.
As Pyrrhus sailed from Sicily, he looked back one last time. “What a wrestling ground we are leaving, my friends, for the Carthaginians and the Romans”, he said, perhaps ominously.
Next week, we look at the starting of the first Punic Wars, and how Sicily was about to become a battlefield between Roman and Phoenician forces. As Cato the Elder would say- ‘Carthago delenda est!’