Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Growth of Carthage

I have said that it was a bold change by which Virgil sought to shape the legend of Elissa or Dido to suit the purpose of his own poem. Bold indeed it was, for he brings together in the Queen of Carthage and the Hero of Troy, persons who must have been separated from each other in time by more than two hundred years. Ascanius, he tells us himself in the Aeneid, was to found Alba, and at Alba the kingdom should remain for three hundred years, till the priestess of Vesta should bear a son to Mars, who should found the great city of Rome. There must therefore have been more than three hundred years between the coming of Aeneas into Italy and the founding of Rome. But, on the other hand, it was commonly agreed that Carthage was not a hundred years older than Rome. If we are to follow Justin, from whom I have taken the legend told in the first chapter, its foundation may be put in the year 850; but it must not be supposed that this date is as certain as that of the Declaration of American Independence, or that of the Battle of Waterloo.

The legend tells us that the first founders of Carthage came from Tyre. Very likely this is true; it is certain that they belonged to the nation of which Tyre was the chief city, the Phoenicians. This people dwelt in the little strip of land (not much larger than the American State of New Hampshire, or about twice the size of the English county of Yorkshire) which is called Palestine, and which occupies the southeastern corner of the Mediterranean coast. The inland tribes of this people, who are known to us in the Bible history under the name of Canaanites, were subdued and nearly destroyed by the Hebrews, when, after their escape from slavery in Egypt, they invaded the country about fourteen hundred years before Christ. But many of the dwellers of the coast remained unsubdued. In the south were the Philistines with their five cities, almost always at war with their Hebrew neighbours, sometimes almost conquering them, and sometimes, as in the days of David and Solomon, paying tribute.

In the north, again, were the great cities of Tyre and Sidon. Between these and the Hebrews there seems to have been commonly friendship. They were a nation of seamen and traders, and they had to import the food which they did not wish, or perhaps were not able, to grow for themselves. For this food they paid either with the produce of their own artists and handicrafts men, with timber cut in the cedar forest of Lebanon, or work in bronze and iron, or rich purple dyes, or with merchandize which they had themselves imported. As traders, indeed, they travelled very far, and while seeking new markets in which to buy and sell, they made great discoveries. They went as far south, some say, as the Cape of Good Hope, certainly as far as Sierra Leone; and as far north as Britain, from which they fetched tin, and probably copper. But I shall have more to say of this hereafter. It was, however, chiefly the coasts of the Mediterranean that they were accustomed to visit; and along these it was that they established their trading posts. It is the story of the most famous of these posts that I have now to tell.

The word Carthage—in Latin Carthago, and in Greek Karchedon—contains in another form, changed to suit European tongues, the word Kirjath, a name familiar to us in the Bible in the compounds Kirjath-Arba and Kirjath-Jearim. Kirjath means "Town," and the name by which Carthage was known to its own inhabitants was Kirjath-Hadeschath, or the "New Town"—new, to distinguish it either from the old town of Tyre, from which its settlers had come forth, or from the older settlement of Utica, older by nearly three hundred years, which lay about fifteen miles to the northwest.

The "New Town" was built in a little bay of the great natural harbour, the finest and most commodious that is to be found along the whole of the north coast of Africa, which is now called the Bay of Tunis. The site was very happily chosen. A river, the Bagradas (now the Mejerda) was near. The land was well watered and fertile, rich with corn and wine and oil. It is a proof of its natural advantages that within two centuries of its total destruction, Carthage became the third city of the Empire, and that its modern successor is one of the largest and most prosperous of all the purely Mahometan cities of the world.

Of the city's early history we know very little; indeed, it may be said, nothing. More than two centuries are an absolute blank. We hear nothing for certain of Carthage and its doings, though we may guess that it was busy trading, and sometimes fighting with its neighbours and with the inhabitants of the African coast, of Sicily, and of Spain. Then about the middle of the sixth century B.C. (but the date is quite uncertain) we hear of a certain king or chief who bore the name of Malchus. Malchus made war against the African tribes in the neighbourhood of the city, and subdued many of them. From Africa he crossed over into Sicily, and conquered a part, doubtless the western part, of the island. From Sicily, again, he went on to Sardinia. There he was beaten in a great battle. The Carthaginians, who were always cruel and often unjust to their defeated generals, condemned him to banishment. Malchus refused to obey, and led his army against his native city. The magistrates sent out his son Carthalo to intercede with him, but in vain; Carthalo was seized by his father, and actually crucified in sight of the city walls. After a while the city was compelled to surrender; but Malchus was content with putting to death ten of his chief opponents. Those whom he spared not long afterwards brought him to trial, and condemned him to death.

After Malchus came Mago, who still further increased the military power of the city. His reign or chief magistracy—Carthage once had kings, but it is not easy to say when the title was abolished; indeed it is sometimes given to the chief magistrate down to a late period of her history—may be said to cover the latter part of the sixth century B.C. And now for the first time, the State takes a definite place in history. The inhabitants of Phocaea, one of the Greek colonies on the western coast of Asia Minor, had fled from their native city rather than submit to the rule of the Persians, binding themselves by an oath never to return till a lump of iron which they threw into the harbour should rise to the top of the water. But before they had been long gone, home-sickness proved stronger than their oath, and more than half of them returned. The remainder pursued their journey with their wives and children, and settled at Alalia in Corsica, a place which had been already colonized by Greeks. There they took to the trade of piracy, a more respectable employment, it must be remembered, then than now. After five years the Carthaginians and the Etruscans, Rome's neighbours on the north, and then an independent and a powerful nation, combined against them. A great sea-battle followed. The Phocaeans had the sixty ships in which they had migrated from their native town; their enemies had double the number, half coming from Carthage, half from the seaports on the Etrurian coast. The victory fell to the Greeks; but it was a victory which was as bad as a defeat; for they lost forty out of their sixty ships, and they were compelled to leave their new settlement and to seek refuge elsewhere. This battle is supposed to have happened in the year 536 B.C.

Twenty-seven years later we hear of Carthage again. Polybius z tells us that he had himself seen in Rome copies of the three treaties which had been made between that State and Carthage. The oldest of the three, written, he says, in language so antiquated that even the learned could scarcely understand it, was concluded in the year 509, the next after that in which the kings had been driven out from Rome. The provisions of this treaty are interesting. "The Romans and their allies shall not sail beyond the Fair Promontory." The "Fair Promontory" was to the north of Carthage. Polybius thinks that the Romans were forbidden by this article of the treaty to sail southwards to the country of the Little Syrtis (now the Gulf of Cabos), then one of the richest in the world, and for that reason called the Markets. It seems more probable that "beyond the Fair Promontory" meant westward of it, and that it was specially intended to protect the Carthaginian markets in Spain. "Merchants selling goods in Sardinia and Africa shall pay no customs, but only the usual fees to the scribe and crier." The Carthaginians, it seems, were, so far, "free traders." "If any of the Romans land in that part of Sicily which belongs to the Carthaginians, they shall suffer no wrong or violence in anything." Finally, Carthaginians bind themselves not to injure any Latin city, whether it was subject to Rome or not. Some years later—how many we cannot tell—we hear of another treaty made between the same parties. The conditions are now much less favourable to Rome. Two other limits besides the Fair Promontory (unfortunately we do not know what places are meant by them) are imposed on the Roman traders. These, too, are now forbidden to trade either in Sardinia or Africa. They must not even visit these countries except to get provisions or to refit their ships. In Sicily and at Carthage they were allowed to trade. The Carthaginians claim the power to take prisoners and booty out of any Latin city not subject to Rome. The city itself, however, they must yield up. In other words, they were not to get a footing in Italy. It is clear that in the interval the power of Carthage had increased and that of Rome had decreased. The latter city did indeed suffer many losses during the first hundred years after the driving out of the kings. So much we may see even from the flattering accounts of the Roman historians.

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


We can thus get some idea of the power and dominions of Carthage. It has power over much of the coast of Africa, though it still continues to pay a ground rent for the soil on which its capital was built. We hear, indeed, of this payment having been refused in the days of Hasdrubal and Hamilcar, sons and successors of Mago, of the African tribes making war for the purpose of enforcing it, and compelling the Carthaginians to renew it. Sardinia it claims as entirely its own. This island is said to have been conquered by the Hasdrubal and Hamilcar mentioned above, Hasdrubal dying of his wounds in the course of the war. Of Sicily it has a part, of which I shall say more hereafter. Malta probably belongs to it. Of Spain, which was afterwards to form an important portion of the Empire, for the present we hear nothing.

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

While Carthage was thus busy extending and strengthening its dominions, it narrowly escaped a great danger from what was then the most powerful empire in the world. In the year 525 Cambyses, the second king of Persia, conquered Egypt, a task which he seems to have accomplished with great ease. He then looked about for other countries into which he might carry his arms. The great cities of Cyrene and Barca, lying about five hundred miles to the west of the mouths of the Nile, submitted to him. He thought that he might push his conquests still further in the same direction and make Carthage itself a tributary. But a distance of two thousand miles and more was too much for his army, and the conquest would have to be made by his fleet. Here he met with an obstacle which he could not overcome. The fleet consisted for the most part of Phoenician ships, and the Phoenicians refused to take part in the expedition. "We are bound," said they, "to the Carthaginians by solemn oaths. They are, too, our children; and it would be wicked in us to make war against them." The Great King was obliged to be content with this answer and to give up his scheme.