Third Punic War (149-146 BC)

The Third Punic Was was an example of Roman brutality and imperial ambition at its worst.

Rome And Carthage After The War With Hannibal

Following the peace that was made in 201, at the end of the Second Punic War, Rome and Carthage remained at peace for fifty years.

The Carthaginians quickly recovered their economic strength. In the 190s Hannibal became active again in domestic Carthaginian politics and seems to have brought about the removal of a particularly corrupt set of officials.

In 195 the Romans, incited by Hannibal's Carthaginian political opponents, forced the Carthaginians to exile him. Carthage's state finances improved, something that was presumably helped by the state's greatly reduced military burden (Carthage's armies were mainly mercenaries).

Already by 191 the Carthaginians offered to pay off at once the annual tribute they owed as a war indemnity for the next forty years. (Since Carthage owed 200 talents per year, the offer amounted to 8000 talents.) The senate refused the offer, not wishing to allow the Carthaginians to cease to be obligated to Rome.

The same year the Carthaginians offered a large amount of grain to help the Romans in their war in Greece. In order to avoid any Roman obligation, the senate insisted on paying for the grain. (In effect, the Romans were refusing to engage in the kind of relationship involving the exchange of favors: if the Romans accepted a favor from their subordinates the Carthaginians they would in some sense be beholden to them. By paying money for the grain the Romans made sure that the exchange was a purely monetary arrangement that had no furtherimplications. This rather uncharactistic behavior shows the extent of Roman dislike of the Carthaginians after the war with Hannibal.)

Massinissa stirs up trouble

The Role of Cato

Cato was the Roman on whom rests chiefly the responsibility for the destruction of Carthage. In public and in private, by direct denunciation, by skilful innuendo, by appealing to the fears of some and to the interests of others, he laboured incessantly towards his end.

Cato and the Carthaginian figs

In any case, Cato from now on was a determined advocate of war with Carthage. Every time he gave his opinion in the senate, he ended with the famous word ceterum censeo delendam esse Carthaginem ("Besides which, my opinion is that Carthage must be destroyed"). Cato was opposed by P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, a collateral relation of the family of Scipio Africanus, who apparently argued that without the nearby danger of a serious enemy the Romans would grow weak. (An idea already foreshadowed in the speech that Cato had given inopposition to the proposal to declare war on Rhodes in 167.)

By the late 150s many senators were clearly looking for an excuse to attack Carthage.
  • It would seem from Nasica's argument that the Romans genuinely felt some concern about a possible threat from Carthage, but it is at the same time quite clear that Carthage posed no serious danger to Rome. Nonetheless, there was doubtless lingering hostility to the Carthaginians as a result of the war with Hannibal (Cato certain had fought for many years in that war).
  • Certainly, there must have been the usual mid-Republican desire to make a profit from war booty. Carthage was still one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world, and if the legation of 153/2 was impressed with the wealth of the Carthaginian hinterland, that was all the more reason for magistrates to be eager for war. The soldiers too were favorably inclined on these grounds. Whereas the Roman state had recently had major problems in finding men willing to serve in the unremunerative wars in Spain, when war came with Carthage there was no shortage of volunteers.
  • It appears to have been a general Roman policy at this time to act aggressively with any power that had any semblance of independence (as Rome's old ally Rhodes could attest).

Given these propensities it is hardly surprising that the senate adopted a more hostile attitude toward Carthage as the old treaty approached its conclusion.

Beginning Of War

The continued Roman support of Masinissa against Carthage led to the rise to power in Carthage of a "democratic" government that was opposed to the old oligarchy that had co-operated with the Romans. In 151, when Masinissa besieged a Carthaginian town, the new government sent 25,000 troops to relieve it. As it turned out, the inexperienced Carthaginian force was wiped out by Masinissa, but more importantly, the Carthaginians had violated the provision of the peace treaty that they not wage war without Roman consent.

On a hill near the battle-field sat a young Roman officer, Scipio Aemilianus, the granson by adoption of the man who had defeated Hannibal. He had been sent over from Spain for a squadron of elephants, and arrived in Masinissa’s camp at this interesting crisis. The news of the battle was soon despatched by him to Rome.
For some reason war was not declared in 150. Perhaps the year was already advanced before the Romans were in a position to declare war (the force sent to Carthage was to be unusually large) and they decided to wait until the next year and let Carthage be weakened by Masinissa in the meanwhile. Certainly, the senate gave unhelpful responses to two Carthaginian embassies in 150 (basically they said the Carthaginians knew what they had to do). It was so clear what was in the air that the town of Utica made a deditio ("unconditional surrender") to Rome before any hostilities started, a demonstration of the hopelessness of resistance.

The senate, egged on by Cato, and having already made plans for such an occurrence, voted for war in 149 BC.
"When the Carthaginians had been some time deliberating how they should meet the message from Rome [an ultimatum to break up their army and navy] they were reduced to a state of the utmost embarrassment by the people of Utica anticipating their design by putting themselves under the protection of Rome. This seemed their only hope of safety left: and they imagined that such a step must win them favor at Rome: for to submit to put themselves and their country under control was a thing which they had never done even in their darkest hour of danger and defeat, with the enemy at their very walls. And now they had lost all the fruit of this resolve by being anticipated by the people of Utica; for it would appear nothing novel or strange to the Romans if they only did the same as that people. Accordingly, with a choice of two evils only left, to accept war with courage or to surrender their independence, after a long and anxious discussion held secretly in the Senate-house, they appointed two ambassadors with plenary powers, and instructed them, that, in view of the existing state of things, they should do what seemed for the advantage of their country. The names of these envoys were Gisco Strytanus, Hamilcar, Misdes, Gillimas, and Mago. When they reached Rome from Carthage, they found war already decreed and the generals actually started with their forces. Circumstances, therefore, no longer giving them any power of deliberating, they offered an unconditional surrender." (Polybius XXXVI)

The Carthaginian senate, in great anxiety, now sent an embassy to Italy (in 149) with the power to offer any reparation the Romans might demand. When they got to Rome, they found that the Romans had already declared war. They were told that if they would give three hundred hostages, children of the noblest Carthaginian families, the independence of their city should be respected. They eagerly complied with this demand.

But no sooner were these hostages in the hands of the Romans than the two consular armies - a total force of 80,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry, thus secured against attack, crossed from Sicily into Africa, and disembarked at Utica, only ten miles from Carthage. They demanded the surrender of Carthaginian arms. Still hoping to win their enemy to clemency, they complied with this demand and the Romans received 200,000 sets of armor and 2,000 catapults.

Now they consuls made known the final demand that the senate had intentionally withheld from the Carthaginian envoys in Rome. The Carthaginians had to abandon the town itself for destruction and could settle wherever they wanted in Carthaginian territory, provided that the new site was at least ten miles from the sea. Such a move was clearly impossible for a trading city, and the Carthaginians refused, finally declaring war on the Romans.

The desperate war party took control of the city of Carthage. Moderate men, who had tried to save peace, were massacred together with the Italian residents. A army was raised from the city itself and its neighbouring towns and tribes. Meanwhile the Roman army, having allowed the Carthaginians too much time to organize, was losing more men through sickness (due to camping out in marshes) than it lost by fighting the enemy.

At Nepheris as many as 70,000 African soldiers and civilians were killed, while 10,000 were captured and only 4,000 escaped.

The Carthaginians prepare to defend their City

The Carthaginians once more proved that when push came to shove, they would fight fiercely. It was resolved to resist to the bitter end the execution of the cruel decree. The gates of the city were closed. They made huge numbers of weapons (and presumably had not surrendered everything) and freed their slaves. Men, women, and children set to work and labored day and night manufacturing arms. The entire city was converted into one great workshop. The utensils of the home and the sacred vessels of the temples, statues and vases, were melted down for weapons. Material was torn from the buildings of the city for the construction of military engines. The women cut off their hair and braided it into strings for the catapults. By such labor and through such sacrifices the city was soon put in a state to withstand a siege.

When the Romans advanced to take possession of the place, they were astonished to find the people they had just so treacherously disarmed, with weapons in their hands, manning the walls of their capital and ready to bid them defiance.

Surprisingly, the initial naval and ground operations went in favour of Carthage.

The consuls of 149 were not very successful. They were not forceful in prosecuting the war (apparently expecting that delay would make things easier, as the Carthaginians lost their initial enthusiam), though one did temporarily breach Carthage's walls. The Carthaginians maintained an army outside the walls, which made matters difficult for the Romans.

One consul returned to Rome at the end of the year to hold elections and the other suffered losses in trying to find a base for his huge force in the winter of 149/48. (The Romans had apparently not counted on a major campaign, and even though a number of towns had gone over to them, none were near Carthage. Hence, provision an army stationed in the open was difficult.)

The consul of the next year (148) was kept busy with attacks on various towns around Carthage, though at the end of the year another ultimately unsuccessful breach was made in the wall.

At the consular elections for the next year, popular dissatisfaction with the slow course of the campaign came to be felt. After two years of blundering, Scipio Aemilianus was elected to be consul and commander in Africa (147 BC). He was the son of one great Roman general (L. Aemilius Paulus who destroyed the Macedonians at Pynda) and adopted grandson of another (Scipio Africanus). Since the late 180s one had to hold successively the offices of quaestor, praetor and consul, and the age for the praetorship was set at 39 and for the consulship 42. Scipio was under-age and had not been praetor, so he was doubly debarred from holding the consulship. Yet popular feeling ran so high, that the senate arranged for the electoral law to be suspended in that year to allow Aemilianus to become consul.

With good leadership Roman victory was inevitable, for Carthage was a mere shadow of the power she had once been. In 147 Scipio spent much time restoring discipline to the Roman army. He also secured his rear, forcing the Carthaginian army in the field to withdraw into the city (this allowed the Romans freedom of movement in the countryside).

Scipio made the blockade stringent by walling off the isthmus on which the town lay. The northern suburbs of Carthage were soon occupied without difficulty.

In order to cut off Carthage totally he had a huge mole built to block the entrance of their harbor (the work is estimated to have involved the deposition of about 15,000 cubic meters of large rocks in the sea). The Carthaginians cleverly built another exit for their harbor and improvized a new fleet from old parts. Their efforts were not rewarded because when the new fleet amazingly appeared it did not immediately attack the unprepared Roman fleet due to inexperience, allowing the Romans to recover. In the actual battle three days later the Roman fleet won.

The Destruction of Carthage (146 BC)

Scipio waited for winter to pass before he ordered an assault on the city; by the spring of 146 he felt that Carthage was ready to be taken. His main attack was delivered on the harbour side, where he effected an entrance in the face of a determined and ingenious resistance. After the Romans captured the walls, the Carthaginians burned the streets nearby. The Roman took permanent possession of the wall this time, and now had to fight their way from the harbor district toward the citadel (Byrsa). For six days and six nights the Romans were forced to take one building after another. This sort of street fighting is virtually unheard of in antiquity; once the walls were breached resistance was pretty much hopeless and surrender followed. The continued Carthaginian resolve is a measure of their desperation.

By the seventh day the Romans reached the citadel and the Carthaginians offered to come out voluntarily if their lives were spared. Scipio agreed and 50,000 emerged. 900 Roman deserters refused to surrender and with the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal defended themselves in the precinct of the largest and most opulent temple in Carthage (that of Eshmoun). When they were forced onto the roof of the temple, Hasdrubal's courage failed and he surrendered with his wife and two children. The deserters asked for a moment's respite from Scipio, to which he assented. After hurling abuse at Hasdrubal for cowardice they set the temple on fire and died in the flames. Hasdrubal's wife then called him a coward too and threw herself and her children into the flames.

The slaughter that accompanied the house-to-house fighting is perhaps the greatest systematic execution of non-combatants before World War II. Of a city population that may have exceeded seven hundred thousand, only 50,000 remained at the final surrender.

Although Scipio Aemilianus sacked Carthage he wanted to spare the city further destruction. The Roman Senate decreed otherwise, completely destroying the city and selling some 50,000 citizens as slaves. The town was stripped of its valuables and burned for ten days. The harbor and the city were demolished. The land was then cursed (the story that it was sown with salt is a later invention). Carthage ceased to exist.

Such was the hard fate of Carthage. Polybius, who was an eyewitness of the destruction of the city, records that Scipio, as he gazed upon the smoldering ruins, seemed to read in them the fate of Rome, and, bursting into tears, sadly repeated the lines of Homer:

      The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam's folk [Iliad, vi. 448]

When asked what he meant he said that he was worried that a similar event might befall Rome, too. This moment is an odd indication of the Hellenism of the mid-Republic. Scipio can interpret what he is doing in light of Greek literature. Yet he nonetheless oversees the destruction of the city like a good Roman.

It was decided to annex the territory of Carthage. A board of ten was (unsually) elected to play the role of the senatorial legation of ten to assist Scipio in this. Towns that had remained loyal to Carthage were destroyed and those that had supported Rome were rewarded. A head tax was assessed on all adults in the province and a form of tribute based on land (stipendium) imposed (exceptions were made for the loyal towns).

Scipio returned to Rome and celebrated a triumph. Like his adoptive grandfather he received the honorary title Africanus (hence he is sometimes known as Africanus the Younger, though for convenience he is generally called Scipio Aemilianus).

The Carthaginian territory in Africa was made into a Roman province, with Utica as the leading city. The year 146 thus saw the establishment of two new provinces, Africa and Macedonia.

On the last occasion when new provinces had been created (in 195 for Spain), two new positions as praetor were created to provide magistrates for these positions, but this time the creation of two new provinces did not see an increase in the number of praetors. This guaranteed that in any given year some provinces would have to be governed by pro-magistrates. The reasons for this refusal to increase the number of praetors is not known but can be guessed at. The new positions created in 195 meant that there were six praetors created for every two positions as consul. This resulted in heightened competition for the consulship among the ex-praetors. Raising the number of praetors to eight would have meant increasing the number of disgruntled, frustrated ex-praetors seeking a consulship and using any means at their disposal (including bribery) to gain office. The needs of imperial administration and oligarchic harmony were coming into conflict.

By means of traders and settlers Roman civilization was spread rapidly throughout the regions that lie between the ranges of the Atlas and the sea. Numidia remained a free ally of Rome, but with Masinissa having died, it was now in the hands of his three quarreling sons and hence posed no threat. Tripolitania also came under Roman rule, but was purposely kept separate from the African province.

Account by Polybius | After the Third Punic War | The account of the destruction by Appian | Causes of the Third Punic War | The Third Punic (Polybius) |

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