In 814BC, Phoenician settlers left their homeland on the coast of modern Lebanon, establishing colonial port cities along the Mediterranean coast. They built safe harbors for their merchant fleets in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Libya, among others. The largest they built on the North African Gulf coast of Tunis, calling it “Carthage”, meaning “New City”.
According to legend, the orphaned twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war, were suckled by a she-wolf on the Italian Peninsula, 61 years later. Their names were Romulus and Remus. They would found a city on the site of their salvation, a city which would come to be called Rome.
Carthage and Rome coexisted for hundreds of years, forming a relationship mostly based on trade. Carthaginian traders were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as ‘traders in purple’, referring to their near-monopoly in the precious Royal Purple dye derived from the Murex snail. They’re also known for the first “abjad”, (consonant based writing system) to gain widespread usage, the antecedent to almost all modern phonetic alphabets in use today.
As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash. Carthage held undisputed mastery of the seas in the third century BC, while the rapid expansion of the Roman Republic brought them into conflict in Sicily, at that time partly under Carthaginian control.
The first of three Punic Wars, from Punicus (latin: of or relating to Carthage), began in 264BC. At the time, the Roman Legions were the most powerful land army in the region, while having little to oppose Carthage at sea. Their introduction of the Corvus, a gangway with a heavy spike mounted to its underside, allowed the Romans to convert sea battles onto their “turf”, as Roman soldiers boarded enemy ships and defeated their crews in hand to hand combat. It was over by 241BC, with Carthage paying heavy indemnities and ceding much of their territory in the western Mediterranean.
Carthage rebuilt its finances in the following years, expanding its colonial empire in Spain under the warlike Barcid family. There were several trade agreements between Rome and Carthage, even a mutual alliance against king Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Hamilcar Barca, Strategus of Iberia, expanded influence on the southeastern Iberian Peninsula, near what is now Cartagena (“New Carthage”) Spain.
Eight years earlier, Hamilcar Barca made his then 12 year old son Hannibal swear undying hatred of the Romans. In 219BC, Rome and Carthage found themselves in conflict over the Roman protectorate of Saguntum, in modern Spain. The Roman senate demanded that Carthage hand over Hannibal, the Carthaginian oligarchy refused. In 218BC Rome declared war.
No longer a maritime power, Hannibal set out in the spring of 218BC, crossing into hostile Gaul (France) and arriving at the Rhône River in September with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants. His crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing him almost half of his force before entering Italy in December.
The first of several major battles took place on this day, December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River. The Roman General, consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus (no relation) allowed himself to be drawn into a trap and crushed. Two legions were victorious on their part of the battlefield and retreated with honor to the Province of Piacenza, but overall Trebia was a resounding defeat for Rome.
The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major
engagement after another. Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae; for sixteen years, they were virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another, only to see them crushed yet again. Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided. Hannibal never did receive any significant support from home. In the end, he had to leave Italy to defend his homeland in North Africa. Hannibal was soundly defeated by his own tactics on October 19, 202BC, at the Battle of Zama, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.
Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but he remained the bogey man whom Rome could not let go. The Roman Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, would end every speech by saying “Carthago delenda est”. “Carthage must be destroyed”. Roman mothers told misbehaving children that Hannibal would come and get them if they didn’t behave.
The third Punic War saw the Romans besiege Carthage itself. The city didn’t have a chance. Thousands of Carthaginians were slaughtered as the city fell in 146BC. As many as 70,000 more were sold into slavery.
Hannibal was quite elderly by this time, fleeing from one city to another to escape his Roman pursuers. Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, he poisoned himself and died some time later that year. In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man”.