Carthago Delenda Est

That is, “Carthage must be destroyed”. These words were spoken by the Roman statesman and Senator Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder at the end of every speech from around 157 BC to the beginning of the third and last Punic War. Who was Cato and why was he determined to have Carthage destroyed?

Carthage was a city in North Africa that was founded by Phoenicians, or Punics as the Romans rendered the name, about the same time as Rome. Carthage proved to have an excellent harbor and an advantageous position for commerce and soon came to dominate the western Mediterranean, rivaling the Greek colonies at Sicily and southern Italy. While Rome was slowly gaining the mastery of the Italian peninsula, Carthage built an empire based on trade along the North African coast and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, along with the western half of Sicily. Carthage was originally ruled by kings, but they steadily lost power and by 300 BC, Carthage was, like Rome, a republic. The Carthaginians spoke the Semitic language language of their ancestors in Phoenicia and their culture was much the same as that found in ancient Phoenicia or Canaan. Unlike the Romans, the Carthaginians were never a particularly warlike or militaristic people. They preferred to hire mercenaries to do their fighting. They were excellent sailors however, and had a first class navy.

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd centu...

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd century BC. It was one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Rome grew in power and completed its conquest of Italy, it was inevitable that the two powers would clash. The First Punic War lasted from 264 to 241 BC. The war began in Sicily between allies of the Romans and Carthaginians. Although there was fighting in Sicily, most of the First Punic War was a naval conflict. This was a problem for the Romans because they had no navy but the Romans proved to be determined and resourceful. They built a navy of ships copied from a shipwrecked Carthaginian warship.  Since the Romans were unused to battles between ships, they invented a sort of boarding ramp with a claw or beak which they called a “corvis”, the Latin word for crow. Instead of outmaneuvering the Carthaginian ships, the Romans would lower the corvis onto the enemy ship and Roman soldiers would board and capture it. In this way, Rome’s greatest disadvantage in the war was changed into their greatest advantage.

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they c...

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they could board and seize enemy vessels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Romans won the First Punic War. They gained control of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia and Carthage was obliged to pay a heavy indemnity. Naturally, the Carthaginians were unhappy with the outcome and wanted revenge. Carthage continued to prosper and the Carthaginians built a new empire in Spain under the command of one of their leading generals Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar was determined to avenge the loss of the First Punic War and and his son Hannibal, considered to be the greatest general and tactician of ancient times, swore an oath of undying enmity towards Rome.

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing th...

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps during the Second Punic War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Punic War was fought between 218-201 BC. This was largely Hannibal’s war. Hannibal concluded that the best way to defeat the Romans was to take the fight to Italy and so he gathered his army of Carthaginians and Spanish allies and march overland from Spain, through the Alps to Italy. Hannibal defeated every Roman army sent against him, often inflicting devastating casualties, but he lacked the men and siege equipment to actually capture Rome. Moreover, the Italian cities did not defect to his side in the numbers he hoped. Most Italians remained loyal to Rome. Once again,the Romans proved to be resourceful and they decided that if they could not defeat Hannibal, they could defeat Carthage by fighting where he was not. The Romans sent expeditionary forces into Spain and Africa under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Eventually the Carthaginians recalled Hannibal to defend his homeland where the Romans under Scipio Africanus finally defeated him at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War. This time Rome wasn’t taking any chances that Carthaginian power might revive as a threat. Carthage had to surrender its possessions in Spain to Rome and pay a huge indemnity. The Carthaginian army was disbanded and Carthage was forbidden to raise another army or to declare war without the permission of the Roman Senate, which had no intention of ever granting such permission.

Here Cato the Elder enters the picture. Cato was born in the year 234 BC in an old, rural plebeian family. He fought in the Second Punic War with some distinction and then entered politics. Cato was a “new man”, that is, he did not have any ancestors who held high office in the Republic. Since the Romans preferred political dynasties, he would normally be expected to rise very high in Roman politics.  Such was Cato’s ability and reputation for virtue, however, that the Roman electorate was willing to overlook such a handicap. Cato was appointed quaestor in 204 and helped to supply the army that was sent to Africa. He was elected aedile in 199, praetor in 198 and Consul in 195. The following year he was sent to Spain to subdue the natives who had rebelled against Roman rule. He put down the revolt swiftly and ruthlessly and brutally and won a triumph in Rome for his successes. He also led military campaigns in Greece against the Seleucid Empire. His last public office was that of Censor in 184 but he continued to play a leading role in the Roman Senate for the rest of his life.

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder was much admired by the Romans, both of his time and afterwards for his virtues.  He was conservative and upheld the Roman traditional way of life and he detested the Greek culture that the Roman elite had begun to adopt. He was frugal, stern, disciplined, honest, and brave. Cato seemed to embody all the virtues the Romans admired. He does not seem to be all that attractive a figure in modern terms. He was stern to the point of cruelty to his family and slaves. He was a miser who worked his slaves almost to death and then sold them so that he could avoid the expense of caring for slaves too old to work. He was self righteous, very conscious of his own virtues, and I imagine, very conscious of others failings. He was kind of a jerk.

In 157 BC, Cato was part of a delegation sent from the Senate to Carthage. He was alarmed to see that despite every Roman effort, Carthage was again prospering. Upon returning to Rome, He began to urge the destruction of Carthage. At the end of every single speech he made in the Senate, he would add, “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” or, “Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed”. This is usually shortened to Carthago delenda est.

In 151, Carthage finally paid off the indemnity and the Carthaginians considered themselves free of any further obligations to Rome. When Numidia, a neighboring kingdom and an ally of Rome invaded, the Carthaginians fought back. Cato and Rome was not pleased. The Carthaginians tried to negotiate peace with Rome and Numidia but the Romans were looking for any excuse to start another war. When the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland, they refused and in 149 BC, Rome declared war on Carthage.

This was not Rome’s finest hour. Carthage was defenseless and was no longer any threat to Rome. Nevertheless, the Romans acted as bullies provoking a fight against a weak adversary. The Third Punic War lasted from 149 to 146 and was essentially a siege of Carthage. The Carthaginians knew they had no hope to survive and fought a ferociously as those who have nothing to lose. In the end, the Romans captured and destroyed Carthage, killing or enslaving the entire population. Cato was not around to see his wish granted. He had died in 149.

Hannibal had his revenge, eventually. Carthage was at too good a location to remain uninhabited forever and Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman colony about a century later by none other than Julius Caesar. No doubt Cato was rolling over in his grave. Carthage survived as the leading Roman city in North Africa until it was captured by the Vandals, a germanic tribe that had made its way all the way across France and Spain, into Africa, in AD 430. In 455, the Vandal king Genseric invaded Italy and sacked Rome. One can imagine the ghost of Hannibal smiling with satisfaction as soldiers from Carthage finally sacked his hated enemy, Rome.

In 534 Carthage was taken back by the Romans under the the command of Belisarius, as part of the Emperor Justinian’s attempt to recapture the western half of the Empire. In 698, the Islamic armies captured and destroyed Carthage. This time Carthage was not rebuilt and the nearby town of Tunis took its place as the leading city of North Africa. Carthage still survives as a suburb of Tunis and is a major tourist attraction in Tunisia. Finally in 1985, the mayors of the cities of Rome and Carthage signed a treaty formally ending the Third Punic War and establishing a pact of friendship. There is no word on how Hannibal or Cato the Elder felt about that.

Ruins of Carthage

Ruins of Carthage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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