Written by C. Christian Monson
For students of history in the West, Carthage is largely known for one thing: losing to Rome, thus paving the way for the Roman Empire’s dominance of the Mediterranean and Western civilization as we now know it. However, if you asked someone living in the Mediterranean at the time or even centuries later, they’d tell you something very different.
Before her ultimate defeat to the Romans in the Third Punic War, Carthage was a formidable naval power in the region, having conquered most of the Western Mediterranean and established trade networks around the world. This was in large part due to the Carthaginians’ crowning invention: the Cothon, an artificial harbor to rival the ports and marinas of the modern day.
BEFORE THE ROMANS
Despite its location on the Gulf of Tunis in modern-day Tunisia in the western Mediterranean, the citizens of Carthage were actually Phoenicians from the Levant in modern-day Lebanon, hence the demonym Punic, from the Latin Punicus, the Romans’ name for them. They spoke Canaanite, a Semitic language, and followed the Punic variety of the polytheistic Canaanite religion.
The Phoenicians were prolific sea traders and set up some 300 trading posts every 30-50 kilometers along the North African coast and on islands like Cyprus, Sardinia, Corsica and Mallorca. In around 814 BC, decades before Rome was even founded, mariners from Tyre, the Phoenician capital in the Levant, settled Carthage about 30 kilometers down the coast from Utica, an already established trading post along Tyre’s important route to valuable metals they traded for on the Iberian Peninsula. This is the root of the name “Carthage” which is derived from the Canaanite word for “new city” while “Utica” means “to be old.”
Legend has it that the Queen of Tyre, Elissa, called Dido, or “beloved,” established Carthage herself. Whether this is true or not, the city quickly grew from a small trading post to the dominant Phoenician settlement, more important and powerful than Tyre itself, which was ultimately subjugated by the Neo-Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II in the 6th Century BC.
The Phoenician network of settlements was never particularly centralized anyway, though, and Carthage was probably an independent city-state long before that. She founded her first colony in 650 BC in Ibiza and was waging her own wars against the Greeks by 600 BC while Rome was still a small backwater kingdom in central Italy.
The Carthaginians inherited an avid sea-faring culture from the Phoenicians, and instead of conquering lands around them, they used their naval prowess to form a large coastal empire across the Mediterranean emanating from their innovative harbor.
A FOCUS ON TRADE
Unlike the Romans whose imperial economy was based largely on conquering and looting new territory, the Carthaginians focused on trade and commercial infrastructure. Nothing was a greater manifestation of this than the Grand Harbor at Carthage, an impressive example of a cothon, or the Phoenician style of artificial, fortified harbor.
Cothons, whose name comes from the Greek word for “drinking vessel,” can be found in the remnants of Phoenicians settlements around the Mediterranean, but Carthage’s appears to be one of the most monumental. It consisted of a long rectangular harbor 456 by 356 meters (1,500 by 1,200 feet) with walls on either side and another circular section at the end. The rectangular section was for Carthage’s many merchant ships and had slips on either side with quick access to the city and its markets.
Though this commercial part of the cothon has been almost entirely destroyed over the last two millennia, historians believe it coincided with the city’s outer wall, which was roughly 13 meters tall, about 43 feet, and eight meters wide, about 26 feet. The walls extended into the dock itself to create an entrance way around 20 meters or 70 feet wide that could be closed off with iron chains.
With the merchant fleet housed in their cothon, Carthage ultimately achieved hegemony in the western Mediterranean. At their most expansive in the 3rd Century BC, their empire spanned most of the North African coast west of Italy, modern-day Spain and Sicily as well as the Balearic Islands, the southern part of Sardinia and the entire coast of Corsica.
However, their dominance was about to be threatened. Carthage had serious contact with the growing Roman Republic as early as 509 BC when the two signed a treaty, but it was clear Carthage didn’t see them as much of a threat. By the 3rd Century, though, Carthage apparently saw Rome as an equal force because they signed another treaty with them in an attempt to draw them into the Carthaganian war against Syracuse on Sicily.
Then, when a group of mercenaries called the Mamertines, or Sons of Mars, started wreaking havoc on the Sicilian countryside, Syracuse attacked them, so the Mamertines sent an embassy to Carthage to ask for help. Carthage eagerly accepted the chance to gain a foothold on Sicily and sent a full garrison backed by a fleet of warships to the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian peninsula.
Uncomfortable with the Carthaginians at their backdoor, the Roman people voted to attack. What both nations probably expected to be a minor skirmish over a single town in Sicily ultimately escalated into Europe’s largest war and the world’s most extensive naval conflict up to that point as well as the final crucible for Carthage’s harbor.
THE PUNIC WARS
The Punic Wars actually consisted of three separate conflicts between the Empire of Carthage and the Roman Republic.
The First Punic War was fought for 23 years between 264 and 241 BC almost exclusively on the island of Sicily and the surrounding seas. Rome first attacked and subdued Syracuse on the eastern part of the island, forcing the nation to provide Rome with soldiers. After that, Rome and Carthage fought for several years with little to show for it. Carthage had by far the superior navy, but Rome was more experienced in land warfare, leading to a stalemate.
Finally, in 260, Rome realized they would have to challenge Carthage at sea. They built 120 warships and sent them to Sicily. While they had little luck at first, their naval skills grew to the point they decided to try invading Africa.
In 256, a fleet of 330 Roman warships set sail for the north African coast and were met by 350 Carthaginian warships off the coast of southern Sicily. This led to the Battle of Cape Ecnomus, possibly the largest naval battle in history—still. Not up to that point, just ever. The Roman ships carried 140,000 crew and marines versus Carthage’s 150,000.
Rome managed to win the battle, sinking 30 of Carthage’s ships, mostly through ramming with bronze rams, many of which can still be found on the seafloor. This allowed the Roman navy to continue on to the Cape Bon Peninsula near Carthage.
Though the Romans took much of the surrounding countryside, the Carthaginians were ultimately able to fend them off, and the war continued for another 15 years, exhausting both nations’ economic and military resources. In fact, Rome lost 17% of her adult male citizenry. Nevertheless, it was Carthage who ran out of steam first, suing for peace in 241 BC.
The two powers signed the Treaty of Lutatius, granting Rome control of Sicily and requiring Carthage to pay reparations of 3,200 talents over the following 10 years. That’s roughly 90 tons of silver, or 82,000 kilograms, worth around $57 billion today.
The Second Punic War, lasting 17 years from 218 to 201 BC, is usually the most well-known because of the Carthaginian general Hannibal who famously invaded the Italian peninsula by crossing the Alps on elephant-back. Indeed, the war, which started after Carthage conquered much of the Iberian peninsula coming in direct conflict with Rome’s allies, went Carthage’s way for most of its length.
Although the conflict began with some naval skirmishes, the primary theater of war was the Italian peninsula. Instead of relying on her naval prowess as before, Carthage under Hannibal’s lead assembled a force at New Carthage (now Cartagena in southeastern Spain) of 90,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, many of which rode elephants.
With his army assembled, Hannibal marched along the Mediterranean coast until he crossed the Alps, likely at Col de la Traversette, to Turin. He then fought his way down the Italian peninsula where he gained control of most of the land south of Rome and convinced many of Rome’s allies to defect in support of Carthage.
Many territories and cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean changed hands multiple times, but the tide of the war didn’t change until 204 BC when Publius Scipio, who had orchestrated a number of victories against Carthage on the Iberian Peninsula, was elected as Roman consul.
Scipio collected a large force and sailed to Africa in a risky attempt to end the war. After razing Utica and Tunis near Carthage, Hannibal returned from Italy to defend the home turf. Scipio’s campaign came to a head at the Battle of Zama in 202, where Roman infantry were able to resist Hannibal’s attempts to break their lines with 80 war elephants.
Defeated, Carthage signed a peace treaty that stripped them of most of their possessions, banned them from waging war outside of Africa, and only allowed them to wage war within Africa with Rome’s permission. Carthage also had to pay Rome 10,000 talents over 50 years. By now, it was evident that Rome was the dominant force in the western Mediterranean, and Carthage was her subordinate.
Nevertheless, Rome was not satisfied with their subjugation of Carthage, and many prominent Roman politicians like Cato advocated for her complete destruction. Over the half century following the Second Punic War, a Roman ally, the Numidians, took advantage of Carthage’s military impotence to regularly raid Carthage’s African territories while Rome denied Carthage permission to retaliate. Eventually, the Carthaginians attacked anyway, and Rome used it as an excuse to initiate the Third Punic War.
This conflict only lasted from 149 to 146 BC and was a decisive victory for Rome. For three years, the Romans besieged the city and blockaded the port, finally facing the might of the Carthaginian cothon.
Taking the Harbor at Carthage was no small feat for the Roman navy. At the head of the long rectangular mercantile section was the circular military harbor. An elevated island stood at the center with a tower that allowed the Carthaginian admiral to see the entire harbor and the sea beyond so that he could direct naval traffic. With raised docking bays leading to warehouses with maintenance supplies, it could house a formidable 220 warships. Even today, the largest American naval base at Norfolk, Virginia, houses just 75 ships.
The cothon helped the Carthaginians hold off the Romans for most of the war, but the Romans finally attempted to take the harbor for themselves in the Battle of the Port of Carthage in 147. Carthage repelled their advances for a time, but the Roman navy finally trapped a number of their ships against the high seawall and sank them. The Romans then sailed into the cothon itself.
Carthage did not immediately fall after losing the harbor, but it was the beginning of the end. Over several months, the Romans built a brick structure inside the cothon level with the height of the city walls. This allowed them to fire at the Carthaginian defenses.
In the spring of 146, the Romans launched a full-scale assault on the city from the cothon. They breached the walls and spent six days working their way through the neighborhoods of the city, burning down buildings and slaughtering the inhabitants. The last Carthaginian holdouts fought from the Temple of Eshmoun and finally burned it down around themselves when defeat was imminent. The 50,000 Carthaginians who survived the siege were taken by Rome as slaves.
Though Julius Caesar ultimately rebuilt Carthage as a Roman city, Punic Carthage was gone forever and Rome had little standing in its way for complete hegemony of the Mediterranean. The direction of Western civilization shifted from North Africa to Southern Europe, determining much of the law, culture and history we know today. Carthage and its grand harbor were relegated to ruins.
THE HARBOR TODAY
Despite all the violence it’s seen over the millenia, you can actually still go visit the Harbor at Carthage almost 2,200 years after the Punic Wars. It’s located just a 30-minute drive from Tunis Carthage International Airport.
Because the Romans filled in the merchant part of the harbor after the Third Punic War, it’s mostly gone, but you can visit the National Institute of Marine Science and Technology Museum located on the land where it was and see the small amount of the harbor that remains.
Additionally, most of the circular military harbor is still intact, though the structures are mostly gone. However, you can view the ruins of the inner island and visit a small museum. It points out important locations and provides mockups so you can imagine what the grand harbor must have looked and felt like during the spectacular height of the Carthaginian Empire.
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