“Carthago Delenda Est”, originally said by Cato the Elder when referencing the shining city of Carthage translates directly to “Carthage must be destroyed.” The Carthaginian empire and the Roman empire had been fighting for nearly 100 years, and the growth of Carthage’s military strength in the years before 146 BCE was enough to provoke Roman officials to clamor for the utter destruction of the city.
How is it then, that a city that was able to stand toe to toe with the Roman empire holds so little memory in the modern day? Most people have heard of Carthage, several have heard of Hannibal, some may even know that he wasn’t the guy from Silence of the Lambs. The city of Carthage was wiped off the map. Its people enslaved, its city literally torn stone from stone, its books burned or scattered, and its memory made something that people would speak about in hushed tones. There is a reason why so little is known about something that so many have heard about, and it starts nearly 3000 years ago.
One of these things is not like the other…
The legend is that Carthage was founded by an exiled princess from the Phonetician city of Tyre. Queen Elissa escaped from a murderous brother and started the small city on the northern tip of Tunisia, where modern day Tunis is located. The story is that Aeneas came to the city as an exile, fell in love with the Queen but went out to meet his destiny by founding the city of Rome. When Elissa found out about this, she threw herself on his sword and invoked a spirit of vengeance to fall upon Rome (that was a direct reference to Hannibal, the poem was written after Rome splattered Carthage). In all honesty, the city was likely just a 9th century BCE colony of Phonetician traders who broke away from the greater empire as the classic Phonetician cities were ransacked by Assyrians in the 600s. When Alexander the Great crushed the Tyrians in 332 BCE, the fleeing remains of the Phonetician empire consolidated at their city in Carthage, where they set about conquering the Libyan and Numidian people who lived in the area to create the new Punic empire.
Seriously, this empire was HUGE for how little people know about it.
Carthage quickly rose to be a wealthy and successful merchant city, with vast amounts of wealth at sea and connections to many kingdoms of the era. They were rivaled by only a few empires of the era, chief among them was Rome. Shaky alliances between the two kingdoms held together as Carthage and Rome conquered Sicily and a host of other Greek colonies. In a last ditch effort, King Pyrrhus of Epirus tried to fight back against the Romans and Carthaginians by raiding their holdings rather than defending his kingdom. When he attacked Roman coastal colonies, Carthage did little to help (why would they, it was Roman land after all..), and when he turned his focus on Sicily, a Carthaginian settlement, the Romans did little to help (why would they, Carthage didn’t help them after all…). The Carthaginian response to Pyrrhus’ attacks was to sign a peace treaty, hand him a fleet of ships and point him back towards Rome with their blessings. The treaty with Pyrrhus permanently damaged relations between the two empires.
Pyrrhus’ attack patterns. If you squint, you can almost feel the Romans getting back-stabbed in Western Sicily.
Shortly after Pyrrhus’ attacks in the third century BCE, the Syracusan King Hiero began attacking a city called Massana in the norther most tip of Sicily. The Carthaginians rushed to the defense of the Mamertines (people who controlled Massana) and fought off the fleets of Syracuse. Within a few short years, the Mamertines began to resent Carthage’s occupying force, instead requesting Roman help to throw off the yoke of Carthaginian oppression. This essentially began the First Punic War, with Rome and Carthage bashing against each other for nearly 4 years before the Romans conquered the seas. In the end, the Roman navy bested the Carthaginian one, and the agreement was that Carthage would pay the Roman’s reparations to reduce the damages of the war. Though Carthage lost the First Punic War, a general named Hamilcar Barca was undefeated in battle with the Romans, and his shame of losing a war while never losing a battle was grafted onto his son Hannibal Barca.
Hamilcar Barca rose to the power in the military when the First Punic War ended. A large portion of Carthage’s troops were mercenaries and they were not paid for the war because Carthage was monetarily stripped from a 4 year long war and paying Rome at the same time. Hamilcar had to put down a mercenary uprising and did so with ease, earning himself the name of Supreme Military Commander of the Carthaginian forces. He immediately set sail for Sardania to claim it before the Romans could occupy the land. News of Hamilcar’s mobilization spooked the Romans into demanding Carthage recall him from his mission and pay an additional 1200 talents of silver for their worries. Rome then sent forces to occupy Sardania and further humiliated Hamilcar and Carthage.
Hamilcar shortly thereafter invaded Spain for the silver and minerals that could be found on the peninsula. Rome had no interest in the Spanish lands in 235 BCE, and they allowed Carthage to conquer most of the area until some Greek settlements in northwestern Italy began to lodge complaints that Hamilcar was dangerously close to their borders. When Roman agents checked in on what he was doing, Hamilcar welcomed them in and showed them around the silver mines explaining how it would help them to pay Rome back for the Punic War. With that explanation Rome was happy and left him to his devices in Spain, unaware that the money was refueling Carthage’s war engine.
This time they would bring Elephants. Angry, Drunken pachyderms
Hamilcar died in 229 BCE in a conflict with the Celtiberians, sending his sons one direction as he led the enemy another. Hannibal Barcar took command shortly thereafter, considered to be the incarnation of his father, with a fierce hatred of the Romans. He is still considered to be one of the greatest generals of all time.
The Carthaginians signed a Peace Treaty with Rome in 226 BCE that agreed to hold borders at the Iberus river in Spain. Rome however, had a colony that extended South of the river into Punic territory, and Hannibal desired it. Within a few years, the Second Punic War was raging, and Hannibal would leave his mark on history as the foil to one of Rome’s greatest generals of all time, Scipio Africanus.
There’s going to be a part two to this story, detailing the Second and Third Punic Wars and the destruction of Carthage.
TL;DR, People don’t know anything about Carthage because Rome wiped it from memory. People do, however, remember the name and understand the significance of Hannibal and Carthage because Rome continually referenced Scipio’s victory while trying to stamp out mention of Carthage. It was the greatest success and failure of propaganda of all time. Carthage is now just a bogeyman of history, used to explain how Rome could be met with monumental adversity while still succeeding. Carthage’s memory is both the ghosts of a failed empire and the boasts of a conqueror.