Chronicle 8. “CARTHAGO DELENDA EST”
THE WESTWARD EXPANSION of the Hellenes ought to be gradual and cautious. Crossing the Aegean was no problem for it was a Greek sea. After Troy had been destroyed, there was no-one to block the entrance to the Black Sea – only nature. That is why it was euphemistically named Pontus Euxinus, ‘hospitable sea’, to placate Poseidon. The Hellenes became masters of that sea and spread all over. But they knew very well that in the Mediterranean there was fierce antagonism. The Canaanite Phoenicians, who avoided trespassing into the Aegean and the Black Seas,(a) were found in all other places, having built up their trade web at a time when they were sailing almost alone. Their motive was profit out of exchange. Part of the gains, however, was spent as tribute to the succession of empires ruling Phoenicia.
The Greeks had more to motivate them: famine, wars and civil disorders drove many to other lands; migrations took place in order to avoid those ills. Population growth and cramped spaces at home, combined with a desire to expand their sphere of economical influence, were what motivated them and that is why they appeared in Italy ca 800 BCΕ. It was the next place to colonize and Hellenize after Asia Minor and the Black Sea. Within the next 150 years, several cities founded colonies along the coast of southern Italy and most of Sicily, controlling trade routes and dominating the Strait of Messina. This zone came to be known as Magna Graecia. The Phoenicians generally avoided military confrontations with the Greeks, unless a strategic land was at stake, e.g. Sicily. To the north, the Hellenes faced another adversary, the Etruscans, who had risen to the status of a regional power in the same period. The mining and commerce of metals led to their enrichment and expansion in the Italian peninsula and the western Mediterranean. The Greek presence was in fact disturbing their interests, especially since the Phocaeans of Italy founded colonies along the coast of Corsica, Gaul, and Iberia. This led the Etruscans to ally themselves with the Carthaginian Punics,(b) because their interests too collided with those of the Hellenes.
The situation began to change dramatically sometime after 640 BCΕ, when the first Greek trader sailed to Tartessos. Probably it was the first arrival of a ‘historical’ Hellene at Iberia, after the voyages of the Mycenaeans and those of legendary heroes such as Heracles to the peninsula. This sailor was Colaeus (Κωλαῖος), a Samian silver explorer and trader who arrived at Tartessos ca 640 BCΕ, according to Herodotus. In an era when merchants were anonymous, the historian thought Colaeus was important enough to note. Since no other Greek trader had previously sailed to Tartessos, Colaeus was able to obtain a cargo of metal (150 kg of silver) and return it safely to his island, realizing one of the greatest trade profits at the time. The Phocaeans of Massalia followed Colaeus’ route many years later and dropped anchor at Tartessos. Herodotus says that the Phocaeans were the first Hellenes to make long sea-voyages, having discovered the coasts of the Adriatic, Tyrrhenia, Iberia, and Tartessos. He also notes that Arganthonios, the famous Tartessian king, welcomed the Greeks and urged them in vain to settle there. But why “in vain”? They finally settled there. And why was the king so eager to have them there? The answer to this question would be given by the historical developments.
Hearing that the Persians were becoming a dominant power in the area of their metropolis, Phocaea, he gave them 1500 kg of silver to build a defensive wall about their city. Despite this wall, however, Phocaea was conquered in 546 BCΕ. Rather than submit to Persian rule, most Phocaeans abandoned their city. Some of them fled to Chios, others to their colonies in Corsica and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, with some eventually returning to Phocaea. Many became the founders of Elea ca 540 BCΕ. It is the period when Persia conquered the Hellenic cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Ironically, the Greeks were not alone in this misfortune; the Canaanites suffered even more: Tyre was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 572 BCΕ; then in 539, the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Canaan; Phoenicia declined further and was obliged to pass the baton to Carthage; many Canaanites also moved to the new rising metropolis and other colonies. The consolidation of the great Empire of the Achaemenids would re-arrange the map of the entire Mediterranean, not only in the Orient but also in the Occident. The 6th century proved to be a great turning point…
The consolidation of the great Empire of the Achaemenids would re-arrange the map of the entire Mediterranean, not only in the Orient but also in the Occident. The 6th century proved to be a great turning point…
If Plutarch‘s Lives were about peoples, one could very well parallel the Minoans to the Canaanites and the Mycenaeans to the Punics; a basic difference was that, unlike the Canaanites who lacked such potential, the Punics opted to expand by conquest. Generally speaking, there are two main differences between an ancient colony and one of our times: First of all, the former was a city founded by a metropolis, not a land conquered by another country; and, most important, the ancient colony was usually sovereign from its inception. Particularly in the Phoenician world, the colonies, although self-governing, had to pay tribute to the metropolis. Carthage e.g. was a dependency of Tyre. This was out of necessity: the Phoenicians lacked the population to establish large self-sustaining cities abroad and most of their colonial towns had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, with Carthage being one of the few exceptions. The settlements were made on the two paths to Iberia’s mineral wealth: a) along the North African coast, and b) on Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearics.(c) They paid tribute to either Tyre or Sidon, but neither had actual control on them. This rule changed ca 650 BCΕ when Carthage gained independence from Tyre, establishing hegemony over other Phoenician colonies in the West. While some of them willingly submitted, paying tribute and giving up their foreign policy, others in Iberia and Sardinia resisted. Carthage sent troops there and appointed magistrates, retaining direct control over them. It was a policy rigidly enforced during the Punic Wars, when Carthage had become the undisputed ruler of all Phoenicians, and resulted in a number of Iberian towns siding with the Romans. If that was the treatment reserved for their own people, their kindred, one can easily imagine what would happen to all the rest.
According to Greek historians, Elissa, renamed as Dido in Virgil‘s Aeneid, was the founder of Carthage. The city was built on a promontory – a location that made it master of maritime trade in the Mediterranean. All ships crossing the sea had to sail between Tunisia and Sicily, affording the city great power and influence. Founded in 814 BCΕ, it was one of the largest cities in Hellenistic times (by some estimates, only Alexandria was larger). The Punics, unlike other Phoenicians, had a landowning aristocracy who established a rule of the hinterland in Northern Africa and trans-Saharan trade routes. In addition, unlike the Romans, and despite the lack of manpower, Punic citizenship was exclusive, and the goal of the state was more focused on protecting commerce. The citizens were exempt from taxation and were primarily involved in this domain as traders or workers. As a result, Carthage could not afford to wage long wars, as commercial activities slowed down.(d) The war machine, however, was very efficient. Its navy was one of the largest in the Mediterranean, using serial production to maintain high numbers at low cost, while the army included the now extinct North African elephants trained for war. The city turned west and became the ‘middleman’ between mineral resource-rich Iberia and the East. The eastward expansion along the African coast (through Libya) was blocked by the Greek colony of Cyrene, established in 630 BCΕ. The wars against the Hellenes were due to the vulnerability of the Punic economy to Greek competition, as the products ‘Made in Carthage’ were inferior to Hellenic goods. The Greek colonists posed a twofold threat: a) undercutting the Phoenicians by offering better products; and b) taking over the distribution network.
The wars against the Hellenes were due to the vulnerability of the Punic economy to Greek competition, as the products ‘Made in Carthage’ were inferior to Hellenic goods. The Greek colonists posed a twofold threat: a) undercutting the Phoenicians by offering better products; and b) taking over the distribution network.
The empire depended heavily on its trade with Tartessos and Iberia in general, from which it obtained vast quantities of silver, lead, copper and, even more importantly, tin ore, which was essential for the manufacture of bronze. Carthage’s trade relations with the Iberians and the naval might that enforced its monopoly on this trade and with tin-rich Britain allowed it to be the sole significant broker of tin and maker of bronze. This monopoly, one of the major sources of power and prosperity for Carthage, should be maintained at any cost; a Punic sea merchant would rather crash his ship upon the rocky shores of Britain than reveal to any antagonist how it could be safely approached. In addition to being the sole significant distributor of tin, its central location in the Mediterranean and control of the waters between Sicily and Tunisia allowed it to check the eastern nations’ supply of tin, as well. Carthage was also the largest producer of silver, mined in Iberia and North Africa, and, after the tin monopoly, this was one of its most profitable trades. The purple dye was also one of the most highly valued commodities, being worth 15-20 times its weight in gold. Ancient sources concur that Carthage via its trade had become perhaps the wealthiest city in the world. However, without the monopoly on trade with Tartessos and Iberia at large, the Punic Empire was inconceivable. The leaders of Carthage should have been conscious of that when they replaced the Canaanites as overlords of Iberia ca 575 BCΕ. The voyage of the Massaliote Phocaeans to Tartessos might have taken place sometime afterwards. The friendship between king Arganthonios and the Greeks must have greatly annoyed Carthage that felt its monopoly was at stake. It was urgent to take some action against the ‘intruders’, in order to establish itself as the greatest economic and military power in the western Mediterranean.
Without the monopoly on trade with Tartessos and Iberia at large, the Punic Empire was inconceivable.
This ‘action’ took place in the Tyrrhenian Sea ca 537 BCΕ. It was the historic Battle of Alalia, or of Sardinian Sea. When the metropolis Phocaea fell to Persia, most citizens chose to move to Alalia (Aléria since Roman times), their colony in Corsica. This resulted to a decline of Punic and Etruscan trade there and led Carthage and Etruria to become allies. Their joint fleet of 120 ships, disguised as a pirate force, was defeated by just 60 Phocaean ships carrying migrants to the colony. It would have been a great victory in tactics for the Hellenic side, which destroyed an enemy force twice as large; but the Greeks lost almost two-thirds of their own fleet. Herodotus commented that it was a Cadmean victory – what would soon be also described as a Pyrrhic victory.(e) Realizing that they could not withstand another attack, the Hellenes evacuated Corsica, and sought refuge in Rhegion. According to a legend, Greek prisoners were stoned to death by the Etruscans, while the (more practical) Punics sold them into slavery. Etruria got hold of Corsica, and Carthage kept Sardinia. The Punics would fight two more major naval battles with Massalia, losing both, but still managing to safeguard Iberia and close the Pillars of Heracles, the Straits of Gibraltar, to Hellenic shipping, thus containing the Greek expansion in Iberia by 480 BCΕ; the Massaliotes, nevertheless, made no gains and just kept control of their Iberian colonies. It seemed as if the status quo remained in place. But in reality, in southern Iberia a great tragedy had just unfolded with the collapse of the Tartessian civilization.
Some authors consider that this victory/defeat of the Phocaeans in Alalia and the lack of Greek traders in Tartessos led to the collapse… Here we go again! During all those centuries of development, these authors saw only Phoenicians trading there. But, all of a sudden, the Hellenic commerce became so vital for the Tartessians’ survival that they died out when the Punics cut the “oxygen” off! Some other scholars offer the alternative of an “armed conflict”, but in general terms, for they avoid being precise as to who was fighting whom. There are also versions of the Tartessian tragedy that specify both the perpetrators and time: “The Punics brought about the collapse by 530 BC”. Carthage must have put Tartessos in ‘quarantine’ sometime after the death of Arganthonios in 550 BCΕ. This is the reason why ten years later, with the Punics and Etruscans allied against the Greeks, the Tartessians did not remain ‘prudently neutral’: they stood by the Hellenes – and paid dearly for that. The situation did not allow ‘luxuries’ such as neutralities.
Emboldened by the outcome of the Battle of Alalia, the Punics unleashed such a ‘reign of terror’ that even their own kindred in Gadir turned against them. The Punics besieged promptly the fraternal Canaanite city and captured it. The Gaditans suffered so much and for so long that in 206 BCΕ, during the second Punic War, they rebelled against Carthage and, when their city fell to the Romans, they welcomed the victors. Of course, the new overlords were no better: in just one year the Romans’ presence was shaken by a mutiny and an Iberian uprising against them… There was at least one aspect where the Canaanites proved to be greater than the Punics: Some time after the latter had taken over Gadir, the Persian king Cambyses became master of Egypt and Cyrene in 525 BCΕ. Carthage was then spared a trial of arms against the Persian Empire, since the Canaanites refused to lend ships to the Persians for an African expedition against their own kindred. It seems that at least for the Canaanites, unlike the Punics, blood ties were still important. However, even without losing a war, the Punic Empire may have paid tribute irregularly to the Great King of Kings.
Carthage was spared a trial of arms against the Persian Empire, since the Canaanites refused to lend ships to the Persians for an African expedition against their own kindred.
Carthage proceeded to destroy Tartessos and drive the Greeks away from southern Iberia, defending its trade monopoly in the western Mediterranean vigilantly, with attacks on the merchant ships of its rivals. Historical reports indicate that Tartessos had little military defense as its success was always based on trade and friendly relations with its neighbours. This is hard to believe, however, for the kingdom was so wealthy that many Iberian tribes would covet this land. There should have been defensive walls and deterrent land and sea forces, that is, army and navy. As regards the date of the catastrophe, in several historical texts we can find one that sets the date as 533 BCΕ that is consistent with what was cited above (“by 530 BC”), and another one sometime later, around 500 BCΕ. We cannot be sure if the two dates refer to the same event or if there was an “armed conflict” between the Tartessians and the Punics that lasted about thirty years. “It is reported”, we can read in one of those texts, “that around 500 BC Tartessos was attacked by the Carthaginians, who destroyed the capital and left it without protection from the sea”. It makes sense if we remember those accounts that Tartessos had a sophisticated system to regulate the river flow, and also its supposed similarity to Atlantis.
The abrupt disappearance, and the fact that its capital has never been found, led to lots of speculation: how could such an important civilization disappear without leaving traces? If the capital eludes us, there are other Tartessian cities that can ‘speak’ the truth. Balsa and Tavira in the Algarve were violently destroyed in the end of the 6th century, probably together with the capital and other sites, when the Punics proceeded to impose their iron will. It is claimed that Mainake, the Hellenic colony founded near Málaga under the aegis of Tartessos, was destroyed at the same time, too. We also know that during that century many Canaanite colonies were deserted. We cannot be sure if this was connected with Phoenicia’s decline, or Carthage’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ operations, or both. It is a pity that, despite the numerous excavations, it has not been possible to locate with certainty either Mainake or Akra Leuké in Alicante, or even Tartessos, of course. Whatever the result of these efforts, the ancient texts that mention these cities cannot be ignored; otherwise, the story of Tartessos and its demise should be treated as fiction, as well…
“Tartessos was attacked by the Carthaginians, who destroyed the capital and left it without protection from the sea”. (“Tartesso delenda est”)
There is a tendency to present the Canaanites as “peaceful colonists”, while the Punics as “warlike colonialists”. We have seen the Phoenicians acting in a manner anything but peaceful whenever they could “manage” the adversary.(f) In a text about the History of old Onuba (Huelva), apart from numerous open questions and hypotheses,(g) we have certain interesting data presented. It seems that Tartessos began gradually sinking into crisis and decline in the 8th century BCΕ at a time when there was a co-existence of Phoenician and Hellenic colonies like Gadir and Portus Menesthei, which is identified as a Phocaean site.(h) The author is impressed by the closeness of the Greek site to the Tartessian capital and notes that the archaeologists in Huelva have observed a decrease in Phoenician pottery, in parallel with an increase in Hellenic ceramics of far better quality. The worsening of the situation in the next century is manifested by the almost total disappearance of open settlements together with the walling of cities. In the 6th century we notice the outbreak of another crisis evidenced by the decrease of mineral exports. Its tragic climax is attested with the destruction of Tartessos by the Punics because it sided with the Hellenes. It is worth noting that the conquerors had no intention to eliminate just the identity features of the conquered, indicating how merciless this confrontation had been, equal to what we now describe as ‘genocide’. The descendant culture of the Turdetani in southern Andalusia marks a return to the socio-economic features of the late Atlantic Bronze Age within the Iron Age conditions of the 5th century BCΕ, which is translated as a regression of at least three centuries.
After imposing ‘Pax Punica’ in southern Iberia, Carthage turned its attention to another land of strategic importance mostly controlled by the Hellenes: Sicily. The Punics planned the largest overseas expedition thus far: after three years of preparations, they sailed for Sicily. It was the outbreak of the first Sicilian War,(i) which coincided with Xerxes’ expedition against Greece in 480 BCΕ, prompting speculation about a possible alliance between Carthage and Persia. But even without an official pact, Carthage should have timed its expedition with that of the Achaemenids to exclude the possibility of any aid sent from Hellas to Sicily. The outcome of both expeditions was disastrous for the invaders. For the Phoenicians it was a double defeat: not only of the Punics in Sicily, but also of the Canaanites fighting in the naval Battle of Salamis under Persian orders. The repercussions brought sweeping changes in Carthage: an oligarchic Republic was then established, and also an isolationist policy was followed for the next 70 years when Carthage took no action against the Greeks, nor even aided any of their rivals. Economically, sea-borne trade with the East was cut off by the Greeks in Hellas, while the cities of Magna Graecia boycotted Punic merchants. This led to the development of trade with the West and of caravan-borne trade with the East. Focus was shifted on the exploration and expansion in Africa and Europe. This isolationism explains why the two great maritime empires in the 5th century BCΕ, Carthage and Athens, were not engaged in war. In this period Athens began massive exports of pottery to Iberia, especially in the southeast. But again, as in the previous Canaanite era of Iberia, the archaeologists do not know yet what ships transported the ware, Punic or Athenian.
While Carthage was engaged in another Sicilian War, the rise of Macedon under Philip II and Alexander the Great saw the defeat of the city-states in Greece and the fall of the Achaemenid Empire. All the Phoenician cities in Canaan had submitted except Tyre that was besieged and sacked in 332 BCΕ. The rise of Hellenistic Greece gradually ousted the last remnants of Phoenicia’s former dominance over the trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean, and its culture disappeared entirely in the motherland. The Punics were the last of the Phoenicians. Alexander was raising a fleet in Cilicia for the invasion of Carthage, Italy and Iberia when he died in 323 BCΕ, sparing Carthage a perilous ordeal. Battles of the Diadochi and the three-way struggle among Antigonid Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria were again good news for Carthage avoiding conflicts with the successors. Trade relations were reinstated with Egypt, together with sea-borne access to the eastern markets for the first time since 480 BCΕ. It seemed as if Carthage had also inherited the Phoenicians’ good fortune, since two superpowers, the Persian and Macedonian, could not realize their plans to campaign against its domain. The confrontation with Rome, however, would prove to be inevitable. The Punic Wars were a series of three wars that lasted from 264 to 146 BCΕ. The first one was fought for the control of Sicily. Finally, Carthage evacuated it and paid a large war indemnity. The end of the war found Rome with a large navy able to prevent sea-borne invasion of Italy, control sea trade routes, and invade foreign shores. Sardinia and Corsica were also seized, while Carthage had plunged into another war with its mercenaries. Rome finally emerged as the most powerful state in the western Mediterranean.
The rise of Hellenistic Greece ousted the remnants of Phoenicia’s former dominance over trade routes and its culture disappeared in the motherland. The Punics were the last of the Phoenicians. Alexander was raising a fleet for the invasion of Carthage, Italy and Iberia when he died…
Carthage spent the years after the war improving its finances and expanding its empire in Hispania (Iberia), preparing for the next war that is most remembered for Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps with elephants. He resoundingly defeated the Romans in several battles, but was not able to cause a break between Rome and its allies. Far more important, despite his many pleas, he never received sufficient reinforcements, as Carthage opted to send extra forces only to its source of wealth, Iberia. Thus Hannibal was unable to achieve his goal of ultimately conquering Rome and winning the war. This gave self-confidence to the Romans, while they were fighting simultaneously in Italy, Iberia, Sicily, and also against Carthage’s ally, Macedon. Finally, the war was taken to Africa, where Carthage was defeated and its control reduced to only the city itself. The resurgence of hostilities fifty years later was linked with anti-Roman agitations in Iberia and Hellas, and the recovery of Punic wealth and power. Cato the Elder gave the motto for the annihilation of Carthage ending all his speeches, no matter what the topic, by saying: “Carthago delenda est” – “Carthage must be destroyed”. Rome presented a series of unacceptable demands, finally claiming that Carthage be demolished and rebuilt away from the coast, deep into Africa. In 146 BCΕ, after a three-year siege, it was systematically sacked and burned to the ground, with the fields salted to make the land completely infertile and useless for future generations.(j) No Punic war records exist, since the books of Carthage’s library were distributed among the African tribes and none remain on Punic history: Elissa-Dido was finally deprived of her immortal fame…
“Ceterum censeo, Carthago delenda est”. (Cato the Elder)