According to Roman sources, Phoenician colonists from modern-day Lebanon, led by Dido (also known as Queen Elissa), founded Carthage c. 814 BC. Queen Elissa (also known as "Alissar") was allegedly an exiled princess of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. At its peak, the metropolis she founded, Carthage, came to be called the "shining city", ruling 300 other cities around the western Mediterranean Sea and leading the Phoenician world.
Elissa's brother, Pygmalion of Tyre, had murdered Elissa's husband, the high priest. Elissa escaped the tyranny of her own country, founding the "new city" of Carthage and subsequently its later dominions. Details of her life are sketchy and confusing, but various sources give some details. According to Justin (2nd century AD), Princess Elissa was the daughter of King Belus II of Tyre. When he died, the throne was jointly bequeathed to her brother, Pygmalion, and her. She married her uncle Acerbas, also known as Sychaeus, the High Priest of Melqart, a man with both authority and wealth comparable to the king. This led to increased rivalry between the religious élite and the monarchy. Pygmalion was a tyrant, a lover of both gold and intrigue, who desired the authority and fortune enjoyed by Acerbas. Pygmalion assassinated Acerbas in the temple and kept the misdeed concealed from his sister for a long time, deceiving her with lies about her husband's death. At the same time, the people of Tyre called for a single sovereign.
Virgil's Roman epic, the Aeneid, first introduces Queen Dido (the Greek name for Elissa) as a highly esteemed character. In just seven years since their exodus from Tyre, the Carthaginians have built a successful kingdom under her rule. Her subjects adore her and present her with a festival of praise. Virgil portrays her character as even more noble when she offers asylum to Aeneas and his men, who had recently escaped from Troy. A spirit in the form of the messenger-god, Mercury, sent by Jupiter, reminds Aeneas that his mission is not to stay in Carthage with his new-found love, Dido, but to sail to Italy to found Rome. Virgil ends his legend of Dido with the story that, when Aeneas farewells Dido, her heart broken, she orders a pyre to be built where she falls upon Aeneas' sword. As she lies dying, she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas' people and her own: "rise up from my bones, avenging spirit", she says (an invocation of Hannibal). Aeneas goes on to found the predecessor-state of the Roman Kingdom. The details of Virgil's story do not, however, form part of the original legend and are significant mainly as an indication of Rome's attitude towards the city Dido had founded, an attitude exemplified by Cato the Elder's much-repeated utterance, "Carthago delenda est", "Carthage must be destroyed".
The Phoenicians established numerous colonial cities along the coasts of the Mediterranean to provide safe harbors for their merchant fleets, to maintain a Phoenician monopoly on an area's natural resources, and to conduct trade free of outside interference. They were also motivated to found these cities by a desire to satisfy the demand for trade goods or to escape the necessity of paying tribute to the succession of empires that ruled Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, and by fear of complete Greek colonization of that part of the Mediterranean suitable for commerce. The Phoenicians lacked the population or necessity to establish large self-sustaining cities abroad, and most of their colonial cities had fewer than 1,000 inhabitants, but Carthage and a few others developed larger populations.
Although Strabo's claim that the Tyrians founded three hundred colonies along the west African coast is clearly exaggerated, colonies arose in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Iberia, and to a much lesser extent, on the arid coast of Libya. The Phoenicians were active in Cyprus, Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, Crete, and Sicily, as well as on the European mainland at present-day Genoa in Italy and at Marseille in present-day France. The settlements at Crete and Sicily continually clashed with the Greeks, but the Phoenicians managed to control all of Sicily for a limited time. The entire area later came under the leadership and protection of Carthage, which in turn dispatched its own colonists to found new cities or to reinforce those that declined with the loss of primacy of Tyre and Sidon.
The first Phoenician colonies grew up on the two paths to Iberia's mineral wealth — along the Northwest African coast and on Sicily, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands. The centre of the Phoenician world was Tyre, which served as its economic and political hub. The power of this city waned following numerous sieges by Babylonia, and then its later voluntary submission to the Persian king Cambyses (r. 530–522 BC) and incorporation within the Persian empire. Supremacy passed to Sidon, and then to Carthage, before Tyre's eventual destruction by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. Each colony paid tribute to either Tyre or Sidon, but neither of these cities had actual control of the colonies. This changed with the rise of Carthage, since the Carthaginians appointed their own magistrates to rule the towns and Carthage retained much direct control over her colonies. This policy resulted in a number of Iberian towns siding with the Romans during the Punic Wars of 264 to 146 BC.
In 509 BC Carthage and Rome signed a treaty, indicating a division of influence and commercial activities. This is the first known source indicating that Carthage had gained control over Sicily and Sardinia.
By the beginning of the 5th century BC, Carthage had become the commercial center of the West Mediterranean region,
a position it retained until overthrown by the Roman Republic. Carthaginians had conquered most of the old Phoenician colonies (including Hadrumetum, Utica, Hippo Diarrhytus and Kerkouane), subjugated the Libyan tribes (with the Numidian and Mauretanian kingdoms remaining more or less independent), and taken control of the entire Northwest African coast from modern Morocco to the borders of Egypt (not including the Cyrenaica, which eventually became part of Hellenistic Egypt). Their influence had also extended into the Mediterranean, taking control of Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands, and the western half of Sicily, where coastal fortresses such as Motya or Lilybaeum secured their possessions. Important Carthaginian colonies also grew up on the Iberian Peninsula. Carthaginian cultural influence in the Iberian Peninsula is documented, but the degree of Carthage's political influence before the conquest (237-228 BC) by Hamilcar Barca is disputed.
First Sicilian War
Bust of the Punic goddess Tanit
found in the Carthaginian necropolis of Puig des Molins
, dated 4th century BC, housed in the Museum of Puig des Molins in Ibiza
Carthage's economic successes, and its dependence on shipping to conduct most of its trade, led to the development of a powerful Carthaginian navy. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with the Greeks of Syracuse, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.
The island of Sicily, lying at Carthage's doorstep, became the arena on which this conflict played out. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, establishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts; battles raged between these settlements for centuries.
By 480 BC, Gelo, the tyrant leader of Greek Syracuse, backed in part by support from other Greek city-states, was attempting to unite the island under his rule. This imminent threat could not be ignored, and Carthage — possibly as part of an alliance with Persia — engaged military force under the leadership of the general Hamilcar. Traditional accounts, including those of Herodotus and Diodorus, give Hamilcar's army a strength of three hundred thousand men; though this is certainly exaggerated, it must nonetheless have been of formidable strength.
En route to Sicily, however, Hamilcar suffered losses (possibly severe) due to poor weather. Landing at Panormus (modern-day Palermo), Hamilcar spent 3 days reorganizing his forces and repairing his battered fleet. The Carthaginians marched along the coast to Himera, and made camp before engaging in the Battle of Himera (480 BC). Hamilcar was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. As a result, the Carthaginian nobility negotiated peace and replaced their old monarchy with a republic.
Second Sicilian War
, during the occupation by Hannibal
, circa 212-209 BC. AR Reduced Nomos (3.70 g, 8h). ΚΛΗ above, ΣΗΡΑΜ/ΒΟΣ below, nude youth on horseback right, placing a laurel wreath
on his horse's head; ΤΑΡΑΣ, Taras riding dolphin left, holding trident
in right hand,
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By 410 BC Carthage had recovered after serious defeats. It had conquered much of modern-day Tunisia, strengthening and founding new colonies in Northwest Africa; Hanno the Navigator had made his journey down the West African coast, and Himilco the Navigator had explored the European Atlantic coast. Expeditions were also led into Morocco and Senegal, as well as into the Atlantic. In the same year, the Iberian colonies seceded, cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copper, while Hannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily.
In 409 BC, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with his force. He captured the smaller cities of Selinus (modern Selinunte) and Himera before returning triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war. But the primary enemy, Syracuse, remained untouched and, in 405 BC, Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition to claim the entire island. This time, however, he met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the siege of Agrigentum, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, Hannibal Mago himself succumbing to it. Although his successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege - capturing the city of Gela and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius, the new tyrant of Syracuse – he, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning to Carthage.
In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege was close to a success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed.
The fighting in Sicily swung in favor of Carthage in 387 BC. After winning a naval battle off the coast of Catania, Himilco laid siege to Syracuse with 50,000 Carthaginians, but yet another epidemic struck down thousands of them. Dionysius then launched a counterattack by land and sea, and the Syracusans surprised the enemy fleet while most of the crews were ashore, destroying all the Carthaginian ships. At the same time, Dionysius's ground forces stormed the besiegers' lines and routed the Carthaginians. Himilco and his chief officers abandoned their army and fled Sicily. Himilco returned to Carthage in disgrace and was very badly received; he eventually committed suicide by starving himself.
Sicily by this time had become an obsession for Carthage. Over the next fifty years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant series of skirmishes. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island, and an uneasy peace reigned over the island.
Third Sicilian War
Eurasia and Africa, circa 323 BC.
In 315 BC, Agathocles, the tyrant (administrating governor) of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene (present-day Messina). In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, breaking the terms of the current peace treaty, and laid siege to Akragas.
Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Great, led the Carthaginian response and met with tremendous success. By 310 BC, he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself. In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. Although Agathocles's army was eventually defeated in 307 BC, Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and was able to negotiate a peace which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily.
Between 280 and 275 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus waged two major campaigns in the western Mediterranean: one against the emerging power of the Roman Republic in southern Italy, the other against Carthage in Sicily.
Pyrrhus sent an advance guard to Tarentum under the command of Cineaus with 3,000 infantry. Pyrrhus marched the main army across the Greek peninsula and engaged in battles with the Thessalians and the Athenian army. After his early success on the march Pyrrhus entered Tarentum to rejoin with his advance guard.
In the midst of Pyrrhus's Italian campaigns, he received envoys from the Sicilian cities of Agrigentum, Syracuse, and Leontini, asking for military aid to remove the Carthaginian dominance over that island.
Pyrrhus agreed, and fortified the Sicilian cities with an army of 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry and 20 war elephants, supported by some 200 ships. Initially, Pyrrhus's Sicilian campaign against Carthage was a success, pushing back the Carthaginian forces, and capturing the city-fortress of Eryx, even though he was not able to capture Lilybaeum.
Following these losses, Carthage sued for peace, but Pyrrhus refused unless Carthage was willing to renounce its claims on Sicily entirely. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus set his sights on conquering Carthage itself, and to this end, began outfitting an expedition. However, his ruthless treatment of the Sicilian cities in his preparations for this expedition, and his execution of two Sicilian rulers whom he claimed were plotting against him led to such a rise in animosity towards the Greeks, that Pyrrhus withdrew from Sicily and returned to deal with events occurring in southern Italy.
Pyrrhus's campaigns in Italy were inconclusive, and Pyrrhus eventually withdrew to Epirus. For Carthage, this meant a return to the status quo. For Rome, however, the failure of Pyrrhus to defend the colonies of Magna Graecia meant that Rome absorbed them into its "sphere of influence", bringing it closer to complete domination of the Italian peninsula. Rome's domination of Italy, and proof that Rome could pit its military strength successfully against major international powers, would pave the way to the future Rome-Carthage conflicts of the Punic Wars.
Carthaginian dependencies and protectorates through the Punic Wars.
When Agathocles died in 288 BC, a large company of Italian mercenaries who had previously been held in his service found themselves suddenly without employment. Rather than leave Sicily, they seized the city of Messana. Naming themselves Mamertines (or "sons of Mars"), they became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the surrounding countryside.
The Mamertines became a growing threat to Carthage and Syracuse alike. In 265 BC, Hiero II, former general of Pyrrhus and the new tyrant of Syracuse, took action against them. Faced with a vastly superior force, the Mamertines divided into two factions, one advocating surrender to Carthage, the other preferring to seek aid from Rome. While the Roman Senate debated the best course of action, the Carthaginians eagerly agreed to send a garrison to Messana. A Carthaginian garrison was admitted to the city, and a Carthaginian fleet sailed into the Messanan harbor. However, soon afterwards they began negotiating with Hiero. Alarmed, the Mamertines sent another embassy to Rome asking them to expel the Carthaginians.
Hiero's intervention had placed Carthage's military forces directly across the narrow channel of water that separated Sicily from Italy. Moreover, the presence of the Carthaginian fleet gave them effective control over this channel, the Strait of Messina, and demonstrated a clear and present danger to nearby Rome and her interests.
As a result, the Roman Assembly, although reluctant to ally with a band of mercenaries, sent an expeditionary force to return control of Messana to the Mamertines.
The Roman attack on the Carthaginian forces at Messana triggered the first of the Punic Wars. Over the course of the next century, these three major conflicts between Rome and Carthage would determine the course of Western civilization. The wars included a Carthaginian invasion led by Hannibal, which nearly prevented the rise of the Roman Empire.
In 256–255 BC the Romans, under the command of Marcus Atilius Regulus, landed in Africa and, after suffering some initial defeats, the Carthaginian forces eventually repelled the Roman invasion.
Shortly after the First Punic War, Carthage faced a major mercenary revolt which changed the internal political landscape of Carthage (bringing the Barcid family to prominence), and affected Carthage's international standing, as Rome used the events of the war to base a claim by which it seized Sardinia and Corsica.
The Second Punic War lasted from 218 to 202 BC and involved combatants in the western and eastern Mediterranean, with the participation of the Berbers on Carthage's side. The war is marked by Hannibal's surprising overland journey and his costly crossing of the Alps, followed by his reinforcement by Gaulish allies and crushing victories over Roman armies in the battle of the Trebia and the giant ambush at Trasimene. Against his skill on the battlefield the Romans deployed the Fabian strategy. But because of the increasing unpopularity of this approach, the Romans resorted to a further major field battle. The result was the crushing Roman defeat at Cannae.
In consequence, many Roman allies went over to Carthage, prolonging the war in Italy for over a decade, during which more Roman armies were destroyed on the battlefield. Despite these setbacks, the Roman forces were more capable in siegecraft than the Carthaginians and recaptured all the major cities that had joined the enemy, as well as defeating a Carthaginian attempt to reinforce Hannibal at the battle of the Metaurus. In the meantime in Iberia, which served as the main source of manpower for the Carthaginian army, a second Roman expedition under Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Major took New Carthage by assault and ended Carthaginian rule over Iberia in the battle of Ilipa. The final showdown was the battle of Zama in Africa between Scipio Africanus and Hannibal, resulting in the latter's defeat and the imposition of harsh peace conditions on Carthage, which ceased to be a major power and became a Roman client-state.
The Third Punic War (149 to 146 BC) was the third and last of the Punic Wars. The war was a much smaller engagement than the two previous Punic Wars and primarily consisted of a single main action, the Battle of Carthage, but resulted in the complete destruction of the city of Carthage, the annexation of all remaining Carthaginian territory by Rome, and the death or enslavement of thousands of Carthaginians. The Third Punic War ended Carthage's independent existence.