Ancient Carthage: Mediterranean Powerhouse

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Part 2: Arc of an Empire

The Phoenician expansion into Crete and Cyprus conflicted with Greek ambitions in the central Mediterranean, and the two civilizations fought off and on for a number of years until the conflict widened into a pair of wars on and over Sicily. The Syracuse tyrant Gelo by 480 B.C. had laid claim to the whole of Sicily. Carthage had ruled over settlements on Sicily for quite awhile before this and wasn't about to hand them over. The general Hamilcar (not the famous father of Hannibal) led a large force from Carthage to Sicily, landing at Panormus. A combination of bad weather and poor tactics resulted in a Carthaginian defeat, at the Battle of Himera.

Carthage wasn't finished trying to rule Sicily, however, and another expedition landed there in 409. The result was a small victory, in that Carthaginian forces captured a couple of small cities. Four years later, Hannibal Mago again led more forces in pursuit of breaking Syracuse's hold on the island, but the result was again the same. Struggles continued between the two powers during the next couple of decades, with Carthaginian forces succumbing more than once to plagues as well as Syracusean battle dominance.

Nearly a century later, in 310, Carthaginian forces under Hamilcar, grandson of the famed Hanno the Navigator, struck tremendous success and ended up controlling most of Sicily, after a siege of Syracuse itself. In a feint that would not be the last of its kind, the Syracusean leader Agathocles did an end-around and invaded the area surrounding Carthage. Hanno and a large number of his forces hurried home and succeeded in saving their state, but the struggle went on for a few years and Carthage lost serious momentum in its drive to control Sicily. The result was yet another peace treaty between the two powers.

Carthage found itself fighting another power in Sicily in 280. Pyrrhus of Epirus, who also took on the Roman Republic in southern Italy during this time, sent a large force to Sicily and reduced the Carthaginian presence considerably. In the aftermath, however, Pyrrhus left Sicily entirely to concentrate on his struggles against Rome.

A group of Italian mercenaries had, in the meantime, given themselves the name Mamertines ("sons of Mars") and seized control of the Sicilian city of Messana. A subsequent campaign to expand their influence on Sicily brought them into concurrent conflict with Rome, Syracuse, and Carthage. Hiero II, the new tyrant of Syracuse, fought back, forcing the Mamertines to divide into two groups, one asking for Roman help and the other asking for help from Carthage. The Carthaginian government responded by sending a few boatloads of forces to Messana. When Hiero threw in his lot with Carthage, an alarmed Roman Assembly authorized an attack on Carthaginian ships and soldiers, and the First Punic War was on.

Most historians date the start of the First Punic War to 264 B.C. It was in this year that Rome, under Consul Appius Claudius Caudex, captured Messana. Rome followed with more victories but eventually realized that an enhanced military effort would be needed to conquer the entire island of Sicily. Roman naval technology wasn't nearly as advanced as Carthage's at this time, and Carthage had more ships as well, and they certainly were experienced sailors.

Roman ingenuity solved the problem by changing the situation, employing a movable wooden-and-metal bridge called a corvus to turn a sea war into a land war: A Roman ship would get close enough to a Carthaginian ship to "connect" the two, using the corvus, and then Roman soldiers would storm aboard the Carthaginian ship and press the Roman advantage in hand-to-hand combat. This strategy was effective at Mylae, in 260, and several times thereafter.

Even so, Carthage defended the western part of the island for several years more. Finally, a combination of violent weather (which claimed a large number of Carthaginian ships) and Rome's greater ability to produce new armed and naval forces resulted in Roman victory, with the two sides signing a peace treaty in 241. Carthage gave up all claims to Sicily and paid Rome a lot of money.

Not long after, Carthage was forced to go to war with its own mercenaries, who had taken the end of the war with Rome as opportunity for an uprising. The Mercenary War lasted nearly four years, during which time Rome occupied Corsica and Sardinia, both Carthaginian colonies.

Also at this time, Carthage, under General Hamilcar Barca, had taken over much of Spain. Hamilcar's son Hannibal was made supreme commander of Iberia (Spain). In 219, Hannibal attacked Saguntum, a Roman city, in what is now Valencia. This triggered the Second Punic War.

Historians date the beginning of this war to 218. Hannibal was certainly the main force of this war. His march over the frigid Alps with a large army (including war elephants) is a historical highlight for many. Hannibal proved himself a brilliant tactician in every battle he fought against Rome, the three most well-known being Lake Trasimene, Trebia River, and Cannae. The combination of the Alps march, having to slog his way through enemy territory the entire way, and Rome's neighbors refusing to join Carthage resulted in Hannibal's resources being depleted at the exact moment that Rome launched an end-around attack on Carthage itself. Following in the footsteps of Agathocles of Syracuse, Roman Consul Scipio (later named Africanus) led a large force of troops to North Africa. A terrified Carthage called Hannibal home, and the two forces met at the Battle of Zama in 202. Rome finally bested Hannibal, who left Carthage, never to return.

Carthage remained an important trade center until Rome decided to destroy the city, in 149. This was named the Third Punic War, but it was largely a one-sided affair. Roman forces sacked the city in 146.

Carthage didn't last long in destruction however. The Roman tribune Gaius Sempronius Gracchus founded a colony there in 122. Julius Caesar refounded Carthage proper in 44. Five years later, Carthage reigned anew, as capital of the Roman provide of Africa, once again serving as a prosperous Mediterranean trade center.

Carthage lived on as a conquered city, being taken over by the Vandals and then the Byzantines, before it was sacked for good in A.D. 698.

The modern city of Tunis is on the site once frequented by Carthage.

First page > Rise of a Naval Power > Page 1, 2

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David White