Why the idea of Carthage survived Roman conquest

The Romans burnt Carthage's books and buildings - but 'Punic' identity remained influential throughout Antiquity.

Idealized depiction of Carthage from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff - Self-scanned
Idealized depiction of Carthage from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle, Michel Wolgemut, Wilhelm Pleydenwurff - Self-scanned. Wiki Creative Commons.

The destruction of the city of Carthage at the hands of Roman legions in 146BC is infamous even by the brutal standards of the ancient world.

After breaking into the city following three long years of siege, the Roman forces under their general Scipio Aemilianus launched a final assault on the Byrsa, the citadel of Carthage and the religious and administrative heart of the city. The legionaries were, however, forced to fight every step of the way on the narrow streets that led up the hill as desperate defenders rained missiles down on them. Painstakingly, Scipio ensured that those who had sought refuge in the tall houses that flanked the streets were flushed out by setting fire to them.

The main surviving historical account of the fall of Carthage, written by Appian, was based faithfully on the eyewitness testimony of his fellow Greek historian, Polybius, who as a member of Scipio’s entourage acted as an ‘embedded historian’ on the Roman side. His account of the horrors that subsequently unfolded do not spare the reader from the brutality of this form of warfare as men, women and children were slaughtered, their corpses dragged out of the way by the hooks of the Roman cleaning squads.

The slaughter continued for a further six days and nights, with Scipio rotating his troops so that he could maintain the attack at a high tempo. Eventually the morale of most of the remaining Carthaginian defenders was broken and, after a negotiated truce, 50,000 or so of them, we are told, surrendered and left the city for a life of slavery. Those that remained – the Carthaginian commander-in-chief, Hasdrubal and his immediate family, and 900 Roman deserters who could expect no mercy – took refuge first in the temple of Eshmoun on the summit of the Byrsa Hill, before making a final stand on the roof of the building after they had set it ablaze. The siege ended in fittingly dramatic fashion with Hasdrubal losing his nerve and sneaking off to surrender to Scipio. It was left to his wife to have the final word as she heaped scorn and abuse on her husband for his cowardly behaviour before throwing herself and their children into the flames, in full view of Hasdrubal and the Roman army below.

The brutal destruction of Carthage by the Romans has retained its power to both shock and provoke up to the present day. For instance, when the poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht cast around for a historical metaphor to remind his fellow Germans about the dangers of remilitarisation in the 1950s, he instinctively turned to an event that had taken place over two thousand years before: ‘Great Carthage drove three wars. After the first one it was still powerful. After the second one it was still inhabitable. After the third one it was no longer possible to find her.’

Brecht has certainly not been alone. Comment pieces in newspapers across the globe were awash with references to Carthage during both the first and second Iraq wars. The American sociologist and historian Franz Schurmann noted: ‘Two thousand years ago the Roman statesman Cato the Elder kept crying out, ‘Delenda est Carthago’. Carthage must be destroyed! To Cato it was clear either Rome or Carthage but not both could dominate the western Mediterranean. Rome won and Carthage was levelled to the ground. Iraq is now Washington’s Carthage.’

The lasting infamy of Carthage’s destruction has little to do with its bloody nature but the cool and methodical totality of its execution. After the initial ravaging of the city by the legions, the senate sent a ten-man commission from Rome to supervise a series of measures designed to ensure that Carthage remained uninhabited. Although the story of the site being ploughed with salt is a modern fabrication, Scipio was ordered to raze the remainder of the city to the ground, and a solemn curse was put on any persons who might in future attempt to settle there.

Just as shocking as the destruction of the city and its people was the care taken by the Romans to delete over half a millennium of Carthaginian learning. Those of Carthage’s libraries that survived the fire had their contents scattered across Africa. Only one exception was made. After the capture of the city, the Roman senate ordered that all 28 volumes of a famous agricultural treatise by the Carthaginian Mago be brought back to Rome and translated into Latin.

Tantalising clues remain. Within the burnt-out structure thought to have been the temple of Apollo that was ransacked by Roman soldiers in 146, were the remains of an archive thought to have contained wills and business contracts, stored there so that their integrity and safekeeping were guaranteed by the sacred authority of the son of Zeus. The papyrus document was rolled up and string wrapped around it before a piece of wet clay was placed on the string to stop the document from unravelling, and a personal seal was imprinted upon it. However, in this particular case, the same set of circumstances that ensured the seals were wonderfully preserved because they were fired by the inferno which engulfed the city also unfortunately meant that the precious documents they enclosed were burnt to ashes.

There is of course always a danger of over-romanticising the corpus of lost knowledge housed in the libraries of Carthage, when compared to the great intellectual centres of Babylon or Athens. However, in their chilling decision not even to spare Carthage’s past after obliterating its present and future, the Roman senate was surely making a powerful warning to those who chose to resist its relentless rise to supremacy. Rome was also casting its conflict with Carthage as being a struggle between civilisation and barbarity, and between faithfulness and deceit, rather than a mere imperial land grab.

The dispersal and destruction of Carthage’s own knowledge did not mean the end of Carthage. It would just be rewritten by Rome. The spoils of war included not only the ownership of Carthaginian territory, resources and people but also its past. Carthage was indispensable to Rome because of the central role it had played in Rome’s rise to imperial greatness. Roman historians such as Sallust claimed, in the first century BC, that Rome’s defeat of Carthage at the end of the Second Punic War had been the apogee of Roman success, and that its subsequent decline resulted from the loss of Carthage, the whetstone on which Roman greatness had been sharpened. The struggle with and eventual victory over Carthage in the Punic Wars was once what generations of Roman writers repeatedly revisited as they examined the causes of the rise and later the perceived decline of their city and empire.

In the annals of Roman history and literature, Carthage would live on as a foil to Roman greatness and as an antitype to Roman virtue rather than as the great mercantile superpower that it had been long before Rome had achieved any kind of prominence.

Carthaginian faithlessness, barbarity and greed were portrayed as the mirror images of Roman fidelity, civilisation and integrity. As with many aspects of Roman culture, the hostile ethnic profiling of the Carthaginians originated with the Greeks, who had long been rivals of Carthage in the western and central Mediterranean, but such was the emphasis placed by the Romans on Carthaginian treachery that the Latin idiom, fides Punica, literally ‘Punic faith’, became a widely used ironic expression denoting gross faithlessness. The Carthaginians would now be commemorated in the annals of their mortal enemies as mendacious, greedy, untrustworthy, cruel, arrogant and irreligious.

Carthage’s most celebrated sons and daughters were recast – or even invented – as foils for Roman greatness. Carthage’s greatest general, Hannibal Barca, who so nearly captured the city of Rome and brought the Romans close to total defeat in the Second Punic War, was presented as an inspired commander but one with fatal flaws that eventually sabotaged the Carthaginian war effort. In particular, the Roman historian Livy portrayed Hannibal as a general whose genius was impeded by his impiety, cruelty and treachery. Hannibal also suffered the indignity of being unfavourably compared with Scipio Africanus, the young Roman general who had finally defeated him at the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Unlike his moral disposition, Hannibal’s reputation as a general was never denigrated because the glorious reputations of Scipio and Rome, as the victors, depended upon it. Greatness can only be secured by defeating greatness, not mediocrity. Yet the victor often undermines the heroic status of the loser through small indignities. A good example of this can be found in Apsley House, the London residence of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. In the entrance hall stands a colossal 11ft-high statue of Napoleon by the celebrated Italian sculptor, Canova. It was not originally commissioned by Wellington but by the pocket-size emperor himself. After Napoleon’s defeat, the statue was placed in the Louvre, from where the British government acquired it in 1816. It was then presented to Wellington by the Prince Regent as a gift from the nation. Napoleon never liked the statue, as it depicted him as a muscular heroic nude with just a vine leaf preserving his modesty. Was Wellington mocking his adversary by placing the statue in such a prominent position? Or was the huge, well-muscled, long-legged frame meant to emphasise the scale of Wellington’s achievement in vanquishing Napoleon? The answer was both. The position of the noble vanquished brought with it both praise and humiliation in equal measure.

The famous romance of Dido and Aeneas, often used by early modern and modern writers to chide the ruthless ambition of Rome, was in fact the invention of the great Roman poet Virgil, long after the destruction of the city. Dido herself, although the product of an earlier Phoenician or Greek Sicilian story, was only fully developed as a character by later Roman writers, particularly Virgil, in the first century AD. In his Aeneid, the Roman imperialism and militarism that led directly to the Punic Wars and the final destruction of Carthage was replaced by a much older enmity founded on the doomed love affair between Dido, the Carthaginian queen, and Aeneas, the Trojan prince and forebear of the Roman people. In one of the poem’s most powerful scenes, the jilted Dido, preparing for her own impending death by suicide, issued a curse that explained the Punic Wars in terms of Carthage’s appetite to extract revenge for their founder, rather than Roman geopolitical ambitions. Virgil wrote:

Then, O Tyrians, pursue my hatred against his whole line And the race to come, and offer it as a tribute to my ashes. Let there be no love or treaties between our peoples.

Rise, some unknown avenger, from my dust, who will pursue The Trojan colonists with fire and sword, now,

Or in time to come, whenever the strength is granted him. I pray that shore be opposed to shore, water to wave,

Weapon to weapon: let them fight, them and their descendants.

Thus, the deletion of Carthaginian history was followed by its recreation as an aide memoire for generations of Romans to bask in the glorious deeds of their forebears and the might of their imperial destiny.

Such was the Roman commitment to the rebirth of their age-old enemy that Rome’s first emperor ignored the curse placed on the site and built a new city of Carthage in the last years of the first century BC. The administrative and religious centre of the new foundation was built on top of the Byrsa, the heart of the old Punic city. The summit of the hill was now crowned by a series of magnificent monumental buildings and grand spaces, including a huge civil basilica, temples and a forum. This dramatic reshaping of the physical landscape not only proclaimed the absolute supremacy of Rome, but also the capacity of the Augustan regime to bring peace and concord even to Rome’s most bitter of enemies, sorely needed after decades of civil war. Carthage was reborn as Colonia Iulia Concordia Carthago.

The most extraordinary aspect of the foundation of the new city of Carthage was the extent to which the perceived negative attributes of the Punic Carthaginians – such as mendacity, faithlessness, impiety and cruelty – were transferred to the residents of the new city, most of whom were settlers from Italy with no African heritage. Roman texts from this period consistently questioned the loyalty of the new Roman Carthage and its inhabitants, despite the fact it was the administrative capital of the Roman province of Africa, as if the enmity of the ancient city had somehow seeped into the new foundations. The point was clearly made by the geographer Pomponius Mela: ‘Now it is a colony of the Roman people, but it was once their [the Romans’] determined rival for imperial power. In fact, Carthage is now wealthy again, but it remains more famous for the destruction of its ancestors’ claims than for the wealth of its present inhabitants.’

However, the development of a Punic identity for Roman Carthage did not remain as a canon of knowledge exclusively curated in a top-down fashion by Rome’s imperial authorities, but one which would be increasingly authored by those to whom it referred – the citizens of Roman Carthage themselves. They actively embraced the new Punic identity in their patronage of their guardian deity, the goddess Dea Caelestis, whose sanctuary and festival were the most prominent in Carthage, and whose figure was a common motif on the coins of the city. Although the rites and much of the iconography associated with the goddess were as unmistakably Roman as those who worshipped her, the antecedent of Dea Caelestis was the Punic deity Tanit, who had been the patron goddess of Punic Carthage.

Such was the tenacity of this new Roman-authored Punic identity for Carthage that it survived the collapse of Roman imperial power in North Africa and continued to develop in new and interesting ways. In 424 AD, the Vandals, a powerful barbarian confederation, had managed to cross into North Africa from Spain and, over the ensuing decade, overran much of the coastal belt of the Maghreb before finally capturing Carthage in 434 AD and establishing their own kingdom there. The Vandals were quickly portrayed by Latin poets based in the rump western Roman Empire of Gaul and Italy as the new Punic menace sent to ignite a ‘Fourth Punic War’:

For war and for a fourth bout of strife,

The perfidious bugles of Dido’s Byrsa sound forth.

However, intriguing evidence exists that the Vandals themselves might have played an active part in their representation as the heirs of Africa’s Punic inheritance, and used it as a propaganda tool against the Romans. The Vandal king, Geiseric, appears to have quickly reopened the mint at Carthage after the capture of the city, and over time produced coinage that used motifs last seen on Punic coinage nearly half a millennium before. Prominent was the horse’s head, a reference to the foundation myth of Carthage in which Elissa/Dido’s followers dug up a horse’s head on the site of the future city, and the palm – a symbol of fertility.

This coinage reveals a bold and partially successful attempt to seize control of the traditional Roman imperial narrative that highlighted the antagonistic relationship between Rome and Carthage. By claiming the mantle of Punic Carthage, the Vandals skilfully laid claim to the role of traditional protectors of Africa against Roman aggression. The ghoul of Punic Carthage that had for centuries acted as the ventriloquised foil to Roman greatness had once more acquired its own independent voice. Carthage, it proclaimed, was no longer in thrall to Roman oppression, and it could once more set its own independent course. It was a message skilfully aimed as much at creating solidarity with the Vandals’ new Romano-African subjects, who had long embraced their Punic identity, as it was at antagonising what remained of the Roman Empire.

To conclude, Rome’s obliteration of the physical fabric and citizenry of the ancient city of Carthage – and the deletion of the knowledge it had generated over the 500 years of its existence – stands as a testament to the brutal destructive force that underwrote the most successful empire of the ancient Mediterranean world. The subsequent recreation of a body of Roman-authored knowledge that typecast one of the great Mediterranean superpowers as little more than a foil for Roman imperial greatness stands as an even more chilling exemplar of Roman power. However, the most important historical lesson from the destruction and subsequent rebirth of Carthage, provided by the group of Germanic invaders who ended Roman control over the city, is a more hopeful one – namely that ‘knowledge’, however carefully created, manipulated and propagandised, will always break free eventually from its authors and develop in surprising and often subversive ways.


This essay by Richard Miles was originally published under the title Information Delete: The Case of Ancient Carthage in Knowledge and Information: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2018


Richard Miles