Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Siege and Fall of Carthage

The Carthaginian government did their best to defend their city. One Hasdrubal, the same that had been condemned to death in the vain hope of propitiating the Romans, was appointed to command the forces outside the city; another had the control of those within the walls. The manufacture of arms was carried on night and day, by men and women alike, even the temples and sacred enclosures being turned into workshops. A hundred shields, three hundred swords, a thousand javelins to be thrown by the catapults, were made daily. The women are said to have cut off their hair for the cords of the catapults, for which the horsehair that was commonly used was wanting.

The wall of Carthage had a circumference of about eighteen miles. It was about forty-six feet high, and thirty-four feet thick. The height is that of what is called the curtain  of the wall, i.e.  the portions between the towers. The towers were of four stories, and much higher. Where the sea came up to the fortifications—and as the city was built upon a peninsula, this was the case with the greater part of the circuit—a single wall was deemed sufficient; but on the land side, i.e. to the north and south, the wall was triple. Appian tells that the three walls were of equal height and breadth. This is incredible, because such an arrangement would have been useless. The first wall once taken would have given the besiegers such an advantage that the second would have soon become untenable. No trace of any such kind of fortification can be discovered either at Carthage or in any ancient town. The real meaning of the author—possibly Polybius—from whom Appian quoted, seems to have been this. There were three ditches. Behind the inner of the three, the wall proper was built. Then came the advance wall, much lower than the wall proper, and in front of this the second ditch; possibly there was an outer defense of palisades, itself protected by a third ditch. The traces of exactly such a system of fortification are to be found at Thapsus. Within the casemates of the main wall there was room for three hundred elephants, four thousand cavalry, and twenty thousand infantry.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The harbours were so arranged that ships had to pass through the one to reach the other. The outer harbour was meant for merchant ships, and its entrance from the sea was closed with iron chains. In the inner harbour were kept the ships of war. There was an island in it, and on this island, as well as round the sides of the harbour, were slips in which two hundred and twenty vessels could be placed. The island also contained the admiral's house. This was so high that he could get a view of all that was going on outside. Between the two harbours there was a wall so high that it was not possible to look from the outer into the inner. There was a separate entrance from the town to the outer harbour. The inner or military harbour was evidently guarded with the greatest care.

Manilius directed his attack on the landward side of the wall; Censorinus attempted a part which, being partly protected by a lagoon, was less strongly fortified than the rest. The outer fortifications were carried, but no further progress was made. Indeed the besiegers had some serious losses, as Hasdrubal, with his lieutenants, among whom a certain Himilco, surnamed Phamaeas, was conspicuously active, continually attacked any detached parties.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


Things seemed more hopeful when Censorinus, having filled up part of the lagoon, brought two battering-rams to bear on the wall, one of them worked by six thousand soldiers, the other by as many sailors. The force of these brought down part of it; and the Carthaginians built up again this portion in the night. The new work was not very strong. Then the besieged made a furious sally, set some of the works on fire, and made the whole, for a time at least, unserviceable. The next day the Romans attempted an assault by a part of the breach which had not been repaired, but were repulsed with heavy loss.

Censorinus now found that his crews suffered from the climate, for it was the height of summer. Accordingly he transferred his ships from the lagoon to the open sea. The Carthaginians took every opportunity, when the wind favoured, of sending fire ships among the Roman fleet, and thus did it a great deal of damage.

The Roman commanders continued to conduct their operations, with little skill and as little success. And just at the time when they most needed his help they had the misfortune to lose their ally Masinissa. There had been a coolness between the old man and his Roman friends, he conceiving that he had been rudely put aside, and that the task of dealing with Carthage had been unfairly taken out of his hands. And now when the consuls sent to ask his help—he had promised to give it when they asked for it, and this they had been too proud to do—they found him dying. He had completed his ninetieth year, retaining to the last his vigour of mind and body. The other inveterate enemy of Carthage, the old Cato, had died a few months before. Scipio, who had been distinguishing himself during the siege, was entrusted with the task of dividing the old king's dominion and wealth between his three sons. One of these, Gulussa by name, became at once an active ally, and was found especially helpful in repelling the attacks of Phamaeas with his light cavalry. It was not indeed long before Phamaeas himself was induced by Scipio to desert his friends.

A change of commanders, Manilius and Censorinus giving place to Piso and Mancinus, did not bring a change for the better in the conduct of the siege. This, in fact, was almost given up, the new consuls busying themselves with assaults on the neighbouring towns. Calpurnius was particularly unfortunate at Hippo (now Bizerta), where all his siege works were destroyed by a sally of the townspeople.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The spirits of the Carthaginians rose in proportion to the discouragement of the Romans. Some of Gulussa's cavalry had deserted to them; and the two other sons of Masinissa, though nominally friendly to Rome, stood aloof and waited for what might happen. Envoys were sent to them and to the independent Moors, representing that if Carthage fell they would be the next to be conquered. Communications were also opened with the Macedonian pretender who was then at war with Rome. Unfortunately the Hasdrubal who commanded outside the walls coveted the position of his namesake in the city. He accused him of treachery—it was his misfortune to be closely related to Gulussa; the unhappy man, surprised by the charge, faltered in his defense, and was murdered in the Senate-house, his senators striking him down with the fragments of the benches.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


At Rome everyone had expected a speedy end to the siege, and there was great vexation and even alarm at these long delays. All eyes were fixed on the one man who had showed real capacity for command, and fixed the more earnestly on account of the fortunate name that he bore. It had been a Scipio who had brought the war of Hannibal to an end; it was to be a Scipio who should complete his work and destroy Carthage itself. The young soldier went to Rome to stand for the office of Aedile—not, we may guess, without some notion of what was going to happen. The people elected him' to the consulship. The consul, who was presiding, protested. Scipio was thirty-seven years old, and was therefore under the legal age. The people insisted; they were the masters of the elections and could choose whom they would. The tribunes threatened to suspend the presiding consul, unless he gave away. He yielded; as did Scipio's colleague when it came to choosing the province which each consul should have. This was commonly determined by lot, but the people was resolved that Scipio should have Africa, and it was so arranged.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The new commander's first exploit was to rescue Mancinus from a dangerous position into which he had got himself. Anxious to do something before he was superseded, he led a storming party against a weak point in the wall, and actually made his way into the town. But he was not strong enough to advance, and could barely maintain his hold of what he had gained. His colleague Piso, though summoned to help him, made no movement; but Scipio, who, on reaching Utica, had received a dispatch describing the situation, hastened to the spot, and carried off Mancinus and his party in safety. The two consuls shortly afterwards returned to Rome, and Scipio set himself to restore the discipline and order which the lax rule of his predecessors had suffered to decay. He purged the Roman camp of a crowd of idlers and plunderers which had collected there, and left nothing but what was manageable and serviceable. His first operation was to storm a quarter of the city which went by the name of the Megara, and was, it would seem the abode of the wealthier class. The assault was made by two parties, one of them led by Scipio in person. Neither could make its way over the wall; but a tower, belonging to some private dwelling, which had been unwisely allowed to stand though it commanded the fortification, was occupied, and some of the besiegers made their way from it on to the wall, and from the wall into the Megara. They then opened one of the gates, and Scipio with a force of four thousand men entered. He did not, however, feel it safe to remain, for the place was full of gardens, and its hedges and watercourses made it difficult ground for the action of troops; but the operation had its results, the most important of which was that the army outside the walls, fancying that the city was taken, abandoned its camp, and retreated into the Byrsa or Upper City.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


Hasdrubal, enraged at this movement, retaliated by a barbarous massacre of all the prisoners in his hands. He brought the poor wretches to the edge of the wall, subjected them to the cruelest tortures, and threw them down still alive from the height. After such an act the besieged would feel that they had no hope of mercy.

The siege now became almost a blockade. Scipio burnt the camp which the outside army had deserted in their panic, and was now master of the neck of the peninsula on which the city stood. No more food could be introduced overland, and the supplies which came by sea were small and precarious. The next step was to block up the harbour. Scipio constructed a great wall across the mouth. So huge was the work that the besieged at first believed it impossible, but when they saw it advance rapidly, the whole army labouring at it night and day, they began to be alarmed. Their own energy was not less than that of the besiegers. They dug a new channel from the harbour to the open sea, and, while this work was being carried on, they built also fifty ships of war. The besiegers knew nothing of what was being done, though they heard a continual sound of hammering. Their astonishment was very great when a fleet, of whose existence they had not an idea—for all the ships had been given up and destroyed—issued forth from a harbour mouth which had never been seen before. The Carthaginians, in great glee, manoeuvred in front of the Roman fleet. If they had attacked it promptly, they might have done it irreparable damage, for the ships had been left almost entirely without protection. As it was, they contented themselves with a demonstration, and then returned to the harbour. It was an opportunity which never returned. It was fated, says the historian, that Carthage should be taken. Two days afterwards the two fleets fought; but by this time the Romans were prepared, and the battle was drawn. The next day it was renewed, and then the Carthaginians were decidedly worsted.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


A determined effort was now made on the harbour side of the city. The rams were brought to bear upon the walls, and brought down a considerable part of it. But the Carthaginians made a furious sally. They plunged naked into the lagoon, carrying unlighted torches. Some waded through the shallows; others swam. Reaching the land, they lighted their torches and rushed fiercely on the siege works. Many were killed, for they had neither shields nor armour; but nothing could resist their charge. The Romans gave way in confusion, and the siege works were burnt. Even Scipio, though he ordered the flying soldiers to be cut down, could not check the panic. The day ended in a great success for the besieged.

When the winter with its cooler weather drew on, Scipio turned his attention to the region from which Carthage drew what supplies it could still obtain. His lieutenant Laelius, in concert with King Gulussa, attacked and defeated with enormous loss (though it is difficult to credit the figures of seventy thousand slain and ten thousand prisoners) an army of native allies. The food supply of the besieged city was now almost cut off, but Hasdrubal had still enough to support his garrison. The rest of the population were left to starve.

With the beginning of 146 Scipio prepared for an attack on the Upper City and the Harbour of the War-ships, or Cothon, as it was called. The Harbour was taken first, the resistance of the besieged being feeble and desultory. From the Harbour Scipio made his way into the neighbouring market-place. Even he could not check his troops in the plunder of the rich temple of Apollo. They are said to have stripped from the statue and shrine as much as a thousand talents of gold.

The next thing to be done was the attack on the Upper City. Three streets led up to it from the market-place, each of six-storied houses, from which the garrison and many of the citizen population kept up an incessant fight with the besiegers. House after house was stormed, the defenders being gradually forced back by superior strength and discipline. Another conflict was going on meanwhile in the streets, the Romans struggling up each of the three roads till they gained the Upper City. When that was accomplished, Scipio ordered the streets to be set on fire. The scene of destruction which followed was terrible. A number of non-combatants, old men, women, and children, had hidden themselves in the houses that were now blazing. Some threw themselves on to the spears and swords of the soldiers; some were burnt in their hiding places; some flung themselves from the windows into the streets. Many were buried or half-buried under the ruins, for the pioneers were busy clearing a way for the troops, and did their work careless of the living creatures that came in their way.

For six days and nights these horrors continued, described, it must be remembered, by an eye-witness, the historian Polybius; for it is from him, there is little doubt, that Appian has borrowed his vivid description of the scene. The troops worked and fought in relief parties. Scipio alone remained unceasingly at his post. He never slept, and he snatched a morsel of food as the chance came to him. On the seventh day a train of suppliants came from the temple of Aesculapius, which stood conspicuous at the summit of the citadels. They begged that the lives of such as still survived might be spared. Scipio granted the request, but excepted the deserters, and fifty thousand men and women availed themselves of his grace. The deserters shut themselves up in the temple—there were nine hundred of them, all Romans—and with them Hasdrubal and his wife and their two sons. The place was impregnable, but their position was hopeless, for there was no fighting against hunger.

Hasdrubal contrived to escape from his companions, and threw himself, humbly begging for life, at the feet of Scipio. The boon was granted, and the Roman general showed his prisoner to the deserters, who were crowded on the temple-roof. They bitterly reproached the coward who had deserted them, and then set fire to the temple. When the flames were burning fiercely, the wife of Hasdrubal came forward. She had dressed herself with all the splendour that she could command, and had her two children by her side. Turning first to Scipio, she said, "On thee, man of Rome, I call no vengeance from heaven. Thou dost but use the rights of war. But as for this Hasdrubal, this traitor to his country and his gods, to his wife and to his children, I pray that heaven, and thou as the instrument of heaven, may punish him." Then she turned to her husband. "Villain, traitor, and coward," she cried, "I and my children will find a tomb in the flames, but thou, the mighty general of Carthage, wilt adorn a Roman triumph!" She then slew her children, threw their bodies into the flames, and followed them herself.

Thus, after seven centuries of greatness, Carthage fell. The conqueror, as he looked on the awful spectacle, burst into tears, and murmured to himself, as he thought of the fate which had overtaken empire after empire, and which would one day overtake his own country, the lines of Homer, in which Hector foretells the doom of Troy.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


The soldiers were permitted to plunder the city, but all the gold and silver and all the treasuries of the temples were reserved. Military decorations were liberally distributed, but none of the troops who had assisted in the spoliation of the temple of Apollo were thus distinguished. The Sicilian cities were informed that they might regain possession of the works of art which the Carthaginians had carried off during a century and a half of warfare. Agrigentum regained her famous Bull of Phalaris; Segesta her statue of Diana. The name of Scipio Africanus was long honoured by the Sicilians for this act of honesty. Before a hundred years had passed they were to lose their treasures again, not by the fortune of war, but by the shameless robberies of a Roman governor.

The city was razed to the ground, and a curse was pronounced on any one who should rebuild it. Notwithstanding this, some twenty years later the younger Gracchus carried a proposal for founding a colony of six thousand citizens on the site. It was never carried into execution. Neither was the similar plan which some eighty years afterwards was conceived by Julius Caesar. Augustus, however, founded a Roman Carthage, which soon became a prosperous city. But with this my story has nothing to do. This is finished with the fall of Rome's great Phoenician rival.