When Carthage and Rome finally signed a peace treaty - in February 1985 - Ugo Vetere, the mayor of Rome, seemed deeply moved by the still existing traces of the catastrophe at Carthage - which he described as "blackened by fire." The catastrophe, he said, "... should be regarded, not just with curiosity, or with a love for archeology, but... with the eyes of those who wish for and... work for peace today."
Carthage today, of course, is at peace. Now a quiet suburb of Tunis, it bears no resemblance to the magnificent city whose power once made Rome tremble. Indeed, the paucity of visible ruins is testimony to the savage fate that the Romans inflicted on their great enemy when Scipio, a Roman general, conquered Carthage after a siege that lasted two years - and literally leveled it.
The destruction of Carthage, until then the leading power in the western Mediterranean, was the last act in a story that had begun many centuries before in the city of Tyre on the coast of today's Lebanon. Founded in 2750 B.C. according to Herodotus, Tyre was the leading city of the Phoenicians, a Semitic-speaking people from northwest Arabia who settled the littoral of the eastern Mediterranean sometime in the third millennium B.C.
Their name - Phoenicians - was derived from the Greek word for "purple" and was adopted, presumably, because one of their principal exports was a valuable purple dye made from a species of shellfish. They called themselves "Canaanites," from the Semitic root kn'n, which also means "purple."
In the early ninth century B.C., while a Phoenician king named Pygmalion ruled Tyre, his sister Elissa married her uncle Acherbas, one of the richest men in Tyre. Pygmalion, however, objecting to the marriage had Acherbas assassinated, and Elissa, with a band of citizens loyal to her husband, fled to Cyprus. After a brief stay in Cyprus, then under Phoenician control, Elissa and her followers set sail again and landed on the coast of North Africa, where the Phoenicians had founded other settlements; having penetrated the western Mediterranean very early, according to Pliny, the far-ranging Phoenician traders had founded the city of Utica, not far from what would become Carthage.
In Utica, Elissa and her group were welcomed by the citizens, from whom, legend says, Elissa purchased the site of Carthage by paying for a piece of land the size of a bull's hide - in Greek a byrsa - and then cutting the hide into very thin strips until she had one strip long enough to surround the hilltop upon which Carthage was later built. This legend, to which Virgil alludes in the Aeneid, obviously arose among Greeks puzzled by the Phoenician word byrsa, which means "acropolis," or "fortress." (Today, Byrsa is the name of the train stop near Carthage on the line that runs from Tunis to Sidi Bou Said.)
Next, according to legend, Hiarbas, the ruler of Utica, demanded Elissa's hand in marriage, threatening war if she refused. Since Carthage was not yet strong enough to resist, Elissa, loyal to the memory of her dead husband, built a sacrificial pyre at the gate of Carthage and threw herself into the fire. Her subjects elevated her to divine status, and her cult was maintained until the fall of Carthage, when the wife of the ruler, rather than submit to the Romans, repeated Elissa's desperate act. Thus the history of Carthage began and ended with a woman's suicide.
All this took place in 813 B.C. - 60 years before the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C., thus making Carthage not only the older city, but also the heir to a very ancient and sophisticated civilization - the civilization that helped develop, and then spread, the alphabet, one of man's greatest achievements.
It is hard for the modern mind, so used to thinking in decades, to conceive just how long ago that was. In 813 B.C., when Carthage was founded, its parent city of Tyre had already existed for 1,937 years -almost as long as the time that separates us from the Carthaginians. It is, therefore, amusing that from the Phoenician point of view, Carthage was a "new town." But that is what qart hadasht - the origin of the Greek name "Carthage" - means.
Though Carthage was not a colony of Tyre, the two cities shared a common language, a common religion and long centuries of common history. These links, in fact, explain why the Romans called the settlers in Carthage and other cities in North Africa "Puni," and why their civilization and dialect were called "Punic." The word "Punic" is the Latin deformation of the Greek word Phoinikes - Phoenician.
Early in their history, the Carthaginians began to establish colonies along the Mediterranean coast and the Atlantic coast of North Africa. They sailed as far south as Cameroon in 425 B.C. - a feat not to be repeated until the great age of the Portuguese exploration 2,000 years later - and as far north as the Cornish coast of Britain where they traded luxury goods for tin. It was Carthage's expansion in the Mediterranean itself, however, that brought it into conflict - first with the Greeks and then with the Romans.
In 654 B.C., Carthaginians founded a colony at Ibiza, one of the Balearic Islands. About the same time they also established themselves in Sardinia and Sicily. Then, around 600 B.C., when the Greeks attempted to move into the western Mediterranean, Carthage allied itself with the Etruscans and in 535 B.C. their allied fleets defeated the Greeks off Corsica, closing the area between Corsica and Sardinia to Greek colonists.
This alliance was to have political implications beyond the western Mediterranean. As it was really part of Persian opposition to the rise of the Greeks it subsequently pitted Carthage against Rome; in a sense the Romans, who borrowed so much from the Greeks, also inherited their war against Carthage.
These wars had no particular racial or cultural basis; they were certainly not confrontations between "West and East," and still less conflicts between opposing political systems or religions - or even linguistic groups. The population of Carthage was very mixed, and although the language spoken was Semitic,the people, then as now, were of standard Mediterranean types. Even their religion was not dissimilar to Greek and Roman paganism, and politically there were similarities.
During the fourth century B.C., the political organization of Carthage consisted of two magistrates, who were elected by the people, a senate of 300 members and a council of 100, which put questions concerning the city to the senate and served as a check on the rule of the magistrates. This system was much admired by Aristotle.
The conflict between the two powers was almost entirely economic: the rise of Rome, a new and belligerent power in what had been a Carthaginian lake, threatened Carthage's network of colonies and shipping lines. From the Carthaginian point of view, the Romans were upstarts - barbarians intent on destroying the delicate balance of power they had worked so hard to establish.
The two powers, nonetheless, did at first try to negotiate and the first treaty between Carthage and Rome, signed in 509 B.C., bears witness to Carthage's power.
There will be friendship between the Romans and their allies and the Carthaginians and their allies on these conditions: neither the Romans nor their allies shall sail past the point called Bello unless forced to do so by bad weather or enemy pursuit. Whoever is forced to do so shall make no purchases in the market, nor under any circumstances take anything that is not absolutely essential for refitting their ship or for performing the sacrifices, and they shall stay no longer than five days. If a Roman should come to the parts of Sicily possessed by the Carthaginians, he will enjoy equal rights with them. The Carthaginians, in their turn, shall do no harm to the peoples of Ardea, Anzio, Laurento, Circeo, Terracina, or any other of the Latin cities subject to Rome; they must abstain from aggression against the Latin cities subject to the Romans, and whatever they take from any of them must be restored intact to the Romans. They must not build any fortified places in Latin territory. Whoever sets foot in the country armed for war shall not pass the night.
This treaty basically marked out the spheres of influence of two peoples, who as yet were not in conflict because their areas of influence did not overlap. Rome was a continental European power, Carthage a seafaring, African one. But after Rome's conquest of Greece and its attempt to annex Sicily, the first of the three major confrontations between the two powers broke out: the famous "Punic Wars."
In the first war, which lasted from 264-241 B.C., Carthage lost Sicily and paid heavy reparations to Rome. And Hamilcar Barca, the general who had fought the Romans and lost, had to seek refuge in Spain.
In Spain, however, Hamilcar raised a large and well-disciplined army and placed at its head his son Hannibal. Raised to hate Rome, and groomed to take revenge for the humiliation imposed on Carthage, Hannibal, when he succeeded his father in 221 B.C., soon attacked Roman territory - to open the Second Punic War.
Never had Rome been in such danger - as Hannibal marched on Rome, crossing the Pyrenees and the Alps with troops and war elephants. Even before he encountered any Roman troops, Hannibal lost half his men, but still defeated a Roman army at Lake Trasimeno, not far from Rome, and the capital was only saved because Hannibal lacked siege engines.
At Cannae, Hannibal won yet again, but that was the peak; his troops exhausted, he retired to Capua to wait for reinforcements.
He waited in vain. The Carthaginian Senate, jealous and fearful of his power, refused to send aid.
Meanwhile, the Roman general Scipio, taking advantage of Hannibal's absence, attacked Carthage. Carthage, in desperation, putting aside its jealousies, summoned Hannibal to its aid. But, it was too late. When Hannibal finally faced Scipio in 202 B.C. at Zama, his exhausted troops were no match for the Romans and again humiliating terms and heavy reparations were forced on Carthage. They were forced to destroy their fleet and disband their army and Hannibal had to seek refuge in Syria - where, in 183 B.C. he committed suicide.
The Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) was a cynical expression of Rome's growing power. Cato's repeated cry in the Roman senate, "Delenda est Carthago" - Carthage must be destroyed - was motivated solely by the fact that despite the heavy financial burden placed on Carthage by the Romans, the city was once again beginning to prosper. When Carthage had the temerity to defend herself from an attack by Rome's ally Masinissa, Rome invaded Africa.
At first, Carthage surrendered unconditionally. But when the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians destroy their own city and that the 700,000 inhabitants settle elsewhere, Carthage decided to fight, and though hopelessly outnumbered tried every means in their power to defend themselves. They built a clandestine fleet from the roof-beams of their houses - the rigging, said to be made from the hair of their women. The Romans also tried to starve the city into submission but Carthage held out.
Scipio finally did force the walls, but still took six days to reach the citadel, the Carthaginians defending every inch of their beloved city. On the seventh day Scipio reached the Byrsa - marked out by Elissa's bull's hide so many years before - and in the temple of Eshmoun, on the summit of the Acropolis, faced 1,000 men led by the general Hasdrubal. Because they were dying of hunger, Hasdrubal, unable to bear the sight of the suffering of his wife and children, sought terms from the Romans. But his wife took her children and mounted a terrace of the temple and called out to Scipio: "O Roman, I beg you and the gods of Carthage to punish Hasdrubal as he deserves, for he has betrayed his city, his gods, his wife and his children." So saying, she threw herself and her children into the flames of the sacrificial fire, and according to the story, the 1,000 remaining warriors followed suit, choosing death rather than surrender.
Though Carthage was razed by the Romans, a Roman Carthage subsequently rose on the ruins of the city founded by Elissa, and North Africa became a prosperous Roman colony, Punic speech lingering on in the countryside until about the fourth century. Rome's power also waned, however, and Carthage eventually fell to the Byzantines and then, in 690, to the Arabs, under whom it eventually became the quiet - and peaceful - suburb seen today.
Paul Lunde is a contributing editor of Aramco World magazine.