Chronicle 25. “CARTHAGO DELENDA EST!”
Back to the ancient Mediterranean troubled waters
IF PLUTARCH’S PARALLEL LIVES PORTRAYED peoples in pairs, one could very well parallel the Minoans to the Canaanite Phoenicians, and the Mycenaeans to the Carthaginian Punics:(a) the latter expanded not only founding colonies, but also through conquests. Crete and Phoenicia, by contrast, with their limited territories, could not become springboards for war expeditions. Expansion was only possible through trade and colonization, thanks to their navigators.
The restrictions the Greeks faced, as soon as they awoke from their “Dark Ages”, in order to expand anew to the West, were the “faits accomplis” the Phoenicians had set up in the meantime. The Hellenes had no problem to cross the Aegean as it was a Greek sea. With Troy burned down, no one could block their entrance to the Black Sea – only Nature. That’s why they euphemistically called it Euxine Pontus, “hospitable sea”, trying to appease Poseidon, and dominate there. But they knew that in the Mediterranean competition was fierce. The Phoenicians, who avoided “cruises” in the Aegean and the Black Seas,(b) were “omnipresent” anywhere else, having created their commercial network while they voyaged on the seas almost alone. They were motivated by profit through exchange. Part of the profit, though, had to be paid as tribute to the metropolises, or the empires, which took turns in the role of the master of Phoenicia.
Generally speaking, an ancient colony differed from a contemporary one in that the former was a polis (not a country) founded by another polis, the metropolis. In addition, a Hellenic colony was usually sovereign from its inception. However, in the Phoenician world, a colony, although autonomous, had to pay tribute to the metropolis: Carthage e.g. was a dependency of Tyre. This was out of need: the Phoenicians lacked the population to found large self-sustaining colonies and most of them had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, with Carthage being one of the few exceptions.
The Greeks had other problems or incentives: hunger, wars, or various disputes, drove many to other lands. Population growth and cramped spaces in Hellas, in combination with a desire to expand the sphere of economical influence, had motivated them to settle in Italy c. 800 BCE. It was the next place to colonize and Hellenize after the shores of Asia Minor or the Black Sea. In the next 150 years, several poleis founded their colonies along the coast of southern Italy and Sicily, controlling trade routes and dominating the Strait of Messina. This zone came to be known as Magna Graecia. The Phoenicians generally avoided any military confrontations with the Hellenes, unless a land of strategic importance was at stake, e.g. Sicily. To the north, the Greeks faced another adversary, the Etruscans, who had risen to the status of a regional power in Italy, and also expanded in the western Mediterranean, due to the mining and trade of metals. The Hellenic presence was undermining their interests, especially since the Phocaeans began founding colonies on the coasts of Corsica, Gaul, and Iberia. This obliged the Etruscans to ally themselves with the Punics, whose interests also collided with those of the Greeks.
The situation began to change dramatically sometime after 640 BCΕ, when the first Hellene trader dropped anchor at Tartessos. It was possibly the first arrival of a Greek at Iberia in historical times, after the voyages of the Mycenaeans and their legendary heroes (e.g. Heracles) to the peninsula. This sailor was Colaeus (Κωλαῖος), a Samian silver explorer and trader, who arrived at Tartessos c. 640 BCΕ, according to Herodotus. In an era when merchants were anonymous, the “father of history” thought that Colaeus was important enough to note. Since no other Greek merchant had previously sailed to Tartessos, Colaeus was able to obtain a cargo of metal (150 kg of silver) and take it back safely to Samos, thus realizing one of the greatest trade profits at the time. The Massalian Phocaeans followed Colaeus’ route many years later and also dropped anchor at Tartessos. Herodotus wrote that the Phocaeans were the first Hellenes to make long sea-voyages, having discovered and explored the coasts of the Adriatic, Tyrrhenia, Iberia, and Tartessos. He added that Arganthonios, the famous Tartessian king, welcomed the Greeks and urged them in vain to settle there. But why “in vain”? After all they did settle there. And why was the king so anxious to have them in his land? The answer to this question is given by the historical developments.
Hearing that the Persians were becoming a dominant power in the area of their metropolis, Phocaea, the king 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, they founded Elea c. 540 BCΕ, and some eventually returned to Phocaea. It is the period when Persia captured the Hellenic cities on the Asia Minor coast. Ironically, the Greeks were not alone in this tragedy; the Canaanites suffered even more: the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Tyre 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; the Canaanites moved to their colonies, even to the new rising metropolis. 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 BCE proved to be a major turning point.
The consolidation of the Achaemenids rearranged the map of the
entire Mediterranean, East and West. It was a major turning point.
PHOENICIAN COLONIES were founded on both routes to Iberia and its mineral wealth: a) along the North African coast, and b) on the northern island route (Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearics).(c) As we mentioned before, they paid tribute to either Tyre or Sidon, but neither had actual control on them. This rule changed c. 650 BCΕ, when Carthage gained independence from Tyre, establishing hegemony over other Phoenician colonies in the West. While some of them willingly submitted, giving up their foreign policy, and paying tribute to the Punics, 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 would become the undisputed leader of all Phoenicians, and resulted in a number of Iberian towns siding with the Romans. If that was the treatment reserved for their kindred, their brothers, one can easily imagine what would happen to all the rest.
The founder of Carthage, according to Greek historians, was Elissa, renamed as Dido in Virgil’s Aeneid. The city was built on a promontory, making it master of maritime trade in mare nostrum. 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 controlled trans-Saharan trade routes and ruled the hinterland of North Africa. Besides, 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. Exempt from taxation, the citizens were primarily involved in this domain as traders or workers. As a result, Carthage could not afford to wage long wars, because 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 a low cost, while the army included the now extinct North African elephants trained for war. Carthage turned west and became the “middleman” between mineral resource-rich Iberia and the Orient. The eastward expansion along the African coast was blocked by the Greek colony of Cyrene, founded in 630 BCΕ. The wars against Hellenes were due to the vulnerability of the Punic economy to Greek competition, since 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.
Wars against Hellenes due to the vulnerability of Punic economy to
Greek competition: Punic products were inferior to Hellenic goods.
The Greeks posed a twofold threat to: a) undercut the Phoenicians by
offering better products, and b) take 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 cassiterite that 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 tin broker and bronze maker. 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 mare nostrum and control of the waters between Sicily and Tunisia (the Pillars of Heracles within the Mediterranean) allowed it to check the Orient’s supply of tin, as well. Carthage was also the largest producer of silver, mined in Iberia or 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 agree 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. Its leaders should have been aware of this fact when they replaced the Canaanites as overlords of Iberia c. 575 BCΕ. Sometime afterwards the Massaliote Phocaeans turned up at Tartessos. King Arganthonios’ friendship with the Hellenes must have greatly annoyed Carthage that felt its monopoly was at stake. It was urgent to take action against the “intruders”, in order to establish itself as the greatest economic and military power in the West of the Mediterranean.
The Punic Empire was inconceivable without Iberia.
The Battle of Alalia: a Grecian “Cadmean victory”…
This “action” took place in the Tyrrhenian Sea c. 537 BCΕ: it was the historic naval Battle of Alalia. When the metropolis Phocaea fell to Persia, most citizens chose to move to Alalia (or Aléria in Roman times), their colony in Corsica. But this led to a decline of Punic and Etruscan trade in the island and to an alliance between Carthage and Etruria. Their joint fleet of 120 ships, disguised as a pirate force, was defeated by just 60 Phocaean ships carrying people to Alalia. It would have been a great tactical victory of the Greeks, who wiped out an enemy force twice as large; but they lost almost two-thirds of their own fleet. Herodotus said it was a Cadmean victory – what would later be 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 Strait of Gibraltar, to Hellenic shipping, thus containing Grecian expansion in Iberia until 480 BCΕ. The Massaliotes made no gains and just kept control of their Iberian colonies. It seemed as if the Iberian status quo remained in place; but in fact, a great tragedy was unfolding in Andalusia with the collapse and demise of the Tartessian polity and civilization.
Tartessos… delenda est!
SOME AUTHORS CONSIDER that this Phocaean victory/defeat in Alalia and the absence 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 presence became so vital for the Tartessians’ survival that they died out when the Punics cut their “oxygen” off! Other scholars offer the alternative of an “armed conflict”, but in general terms, and 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 should have put Tartessos in “quarantine”, sometime after the death of Arganthonios c. 550 BCΕ. This was the reason why ten years later, with the Punics and Etruscans allied against the Hellenes, the Tartessians did not remain “prudently neutral”; so, they stood by the Greeks and paid dearly. 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 kindred in Gadir turned against them. The Punics besieged promptly the fraternal Canaanite colony 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 Gadir fell to the Romans, they hailed the victors. Certainly, the new overlords were no better: just one year later, the Roman presence was shaken by a mutiny and an Iberian uprising against them. There was at least one aspect where the Canaanites proved to be superior to the Punics: just after the fall of Gadir, the Persian king Cambyses became master of Egypt 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 brothers. It seems that at least for the Canaanites, unlike the Punics, blood ties were still important. But even without losing a war, the Punic Empire may have paid tribute irregularly to the Great King of Kings.
The Punics were spared a trial of arms against the Persians, because the
Canaanites did not lend ships for a Persian expedition against Carthage.
Carthage proceeded to destroy Tartessos and drive Greeks away from southern Iberia, defending its trade monopoly in the western Mediterranean, with attacks even 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 it. There should have been defensive walls and deterrent land and sea forces, that is, army and navy. As for the date of the catastrophe, in several historical texts we can find one that sets the date as 533 BCΕ, i.e. it is consistent with what was cited before (“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 Punics and Tartessians 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.
“Tartessos was attacked by the Punics, who destroyed
the capital and left it without protection from the sea.”
The abrupt disappearance, and the fact that its capital has never been found, led to a lot of speculation: how could such an important civilization disappear with no traces left behind? If the capital eludes us, there are Tartessian cities that can “speak” the truth. Balsa–Tavira in the Algarve was 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”. Maenaca (Mainake), the Hellenic colony founded close to Málaga under the aegis of Tartessos, is claimed it was also destroyed c. 500 BCE. We additionally know that many Canaanite colonies were deserted at the same time. We cannot be sure if this was connected with Phoenicia’s decline, or Carthage’s “ethnic cleansing” operations, or some local rebellions. Despite the numerous excavations, it has not been possible to locate with certainty either Maenaca, or Acra Leucá at Alicante, or the city of Tartessos. Whatever the result of these continuous 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…
There is a tendency to present the Canaanites as “peaceful colonists”, while the Punics as “warlike colonialists”. However, we have seen the Phoenicians acting in a manner anything but peaceful whenever they could “manage” the adversary.(f) In a text on the History of old Onuba (Huelva), except numerous open questions and hypotheses, we have some interesting data presented. Tartessos, it seems, began gradually sinking into crisis and decline in the 8th century BCΕ, at a time when there was a co-existence of Phoenician and Grecian colonies such as Gadir and Portus Menesthei, which was identified as a Phocaean site.(g) The author was impressed by the closeness of the Greek site to the Tartessian capital and noted what the archaeologists in Huelva had observed, i.e. a decrease in Phoenician pottery, in parallel with an increase in Hellenic ceramics of far better quality.(h)
The worsening of the situation in the next century is manifested by the almost total disappearance of open settlements, with the walling of cities. During 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 was an ally of the Greeks. The conquerors, nota bene, had no intention to eliminate just the resistance of the conquered, indicating how merciless this confrontation had been, equivalent 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 two or three centuries.
The Phoenicians’ double crushing defeat in Sicily and Salamis
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 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 with no 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 Hellenes, nor even aided any of their rivals. Economically, sea trade with the Orient 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 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. Athens began massive exports of pottery in this period to Iberia, especially in the southeast. But again, as in the previous Canaanite era of Iberia, the archaeologists do not know yet if the ships that transported the ware were 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 submitted except Tyre that was besieged and sacked in 332 BCΕ. The thriving Greeks in the Hellenistic period gradually ousted the last remnants of the formerly dominant Phoenicians over trade routes in the eastern Mediterranean, while their culture disappeared entirely in Canaan. So, the Punics were the last of the Phoenicians. And they were spared another perilous ordeal when Alexander died in Babylon, in 323 BCΕ, while raising a fleet in Cilicia to invade Carthage, Italy, and Iberia…
The Punics were spared another ordeal when Alexander died,
while raising a fleet to invade Carthage, Italy, and Iberia…
Battles of the Diadochi with the three-way struggle among Antigonid Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria were also good news for Carthage avoiding unnecessary 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. But the confrontation with Rome would prove inevitable. The Punic Wars were a series of three conflicts lasting from 264 to 146 BCΕ. The first one was fought for the control of Sicily. Carthage, finally, evacuated it and paid heavy war indemnities. 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. At last, the most powerful state that emerged in the western Mediterranean was Rome.
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 unable to cause a break between Rome and its allies. Equally important, despite his many pleas, he never received sufficient reinforcements, because Carthage opted to send extra forces only to its source of wealth, Iberia. Thus Hannibal was not able to achieve his goal of ultimately conquering Rome and winning the war. This gave the Romans self-confidence, while they were fighting simultaneously in Italy, Sicily, Iberia, and also against Carthage’s ally, Macedonia. Finally, the war was taken to Africa, where Carthage was defeated and its control reduced to only the city itself.
“Ceterum censeo, Carthago delenda est!” (Cato)
The resurgence of hostilities fifty years later, when Carthage recovered its wealth and power, was linked with anti-Roman agitations in Iberia and Hellas. Cato the Elder gave the “motto” for the annihilation of Carthage, ending all his speeches, no matter what the topic, saying: “Carthago delenda est!”, “Carthage must be destroyed!”.(j) Rome presented a series of unacceptable demands, claiming that Carthage must 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 ground completely infertile and useless for future generations.(k) No Punic war records exist, since the books of the Library of Carthage were distributed among African tribes and none remain on Punic history.
In the end, Elissa-Dido was deprived of her immortal fame – by Aeneas…
- Ares Alexandrou, Ascent (conclusion):
(…) remain there and look on to the end
look at them, those with keys and others with handcuffs
who’ll be demolishing
roofs bridges wells
look at them
while they’ll be leveling down the town you’ve built
and sowing it with salt.
Elissa-Dido was finally deprived of her immortal fame – by Aeneas…
Next Chronicle 26. IBERIAN CROSS(-CHECK) ● Emporia On the Nile ● Rebels and Mercenaries
● Metal Attraction ● Cassiterides ● Balearics ● Arganthonios ● Graeco-Tartessian Friendship
Against Phoenicians and Punics