Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

Carthage and Her Mercenaries

We have seen more than once that Carthage had much trouble with her mercenary troops. This trouble now came upon her again, and in a worse form than ever. The fact was that five and twenty years of war had exhausted even her vast wealth, and she could not meet her engagements with the soldiers whom she had hired. These, on the other hand, were more powerful than they had ever been before. They were not troops hired for a campaign, and discharged after a few months' service, but a standing army trained by a long war to know each other and to act together; and many of them had been taught the art of war by a great soldier, Hamilcar Barca.

As soon as peace was concluded, Gesco, Governor of Lilybaeum, had begun sending the mercenaries to Carthage in small detachments. He hoped that as they came they would be paid off and dismissed to their homes. Had this been done, all would have been well. But the government either would not or could not find the money. Shipload after shipload of the men arrived till the city was full of them. After a while, so troublesome and disorderly were they, they were collected in a camp outside the walls, and left there with nothing to do but talk over their grievances and plot mischief.

When at last the money, or part of the money, was forthcoming, it was too late. The troops had found leaders, and the interest of these leaders was not peace but war. One of them was a certain Spendius, a runaway slave from Campania, who dreaded, of course, that when everything was settled he might be sent back to his master, that is to torture and death. He is said to have been a man of enormous strength, and brave even to rashness. The other was a free-born African, of the name of Matho. He had been a ringleader in all the disturbances that had taken place since the return of the mercenaries, and he dreaded the vengeance of his employers. Matho found his fellow Africans ready to listen to him; and there was probably much truth in what he said. "The Carthaginians," he told his comrades, "are going to send to their homes the troops belonging to other nations; when you are left alone they will make you feel their anger." A pretext for open revolt was soon found. Gesco, who had been sent to settle with the troops, handed over the arrears of pay, but put off the question of allowances for corn, horses, etc., to another time. At this proposal there were loud cries of discontent, and in a few minutes a noisy crowd of troops was assembled. Spendius and Matho harangued the assembly, and were received with shouts of applause. Anyone else that attempted to speak was killed. "Kill," says the historian, was the only word that everyone in this motley crowd, gathered from almost every country of Western Europe, could understand. The two speakers were chosen generals. Gesco and his staff were seized, fettered, and thrown into prison. There was now open war between Carthage and her mercenaries.

The African towns at once joined the rebels. They were always discontented with their masters, and this discontent had now reached its height. The necessities of Carthage during the war just ended had compelled her to increase the taxes of her dependencies, and to exact these taxes to the uttermost farthing. The rent in kind paid by the cultivators of the soil had been raised to a half of the produce, and the tribute paid by the towns had been doubled; and any default in payment had been cruelly punished. So fierce was the wrath raised by this oppression that the very women brought their ornaments—and her ornaments were no small part of an African woman's wealth—and threw them into the common stock. From these and other sources, Spendius and Matho received so much money that they settled all the claims of the troops, and had still abundance of means for carrying on the war.

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


Two towns only, Hippo and Utica, remained loyal. These were at once besieged. The mercenaries had three armies in the field. One was before Hippo, another before Utica; the third held an entrenched camp at Tunes. Carthage was thus cut off from all communication by land with Africa: but she still retained command of the sea.

The Carthaginian commander-in-chief, Hanno, marched against the rebel force that was besieging Utica. He had as many as a hundred elephants with him. These broke through the entrenchments of the rebel camp, and the mercenaries fled in confusion. Hanno, accustomed to have to do with half savage enemies, who, once defeated, could not easily be rallied, thought that the victory was won; and, while he was amusing himself in Utica, allowed his troops to be as idle and as careless as they pleased. But the enemy were soldiers trained by Hamilcar Barca, and accustomed to retreat and rally, if need was, more than once in the same day. They rallied now, and seeing that the Carthaginian camp was left unguarded, attacked it, and got possession of a quantity of stores, and, among them, of some artillery which Hanno had sent for out of the city.

The conduct of the war was now committed to Hamilcar. The strength of his force was a corps of ten thousand native Carthaginians. Besides these he had a body of mercenaries, a number of deserters from the enemy, and seventy elephants. His first operation was to relieve Utica. The chief difficulty was to break the blockade which the rebel general Matho had established round Carthage. The hills at the land end of the isthmus on which the city stood were held in force by the rebels; as was the only bridge over the river Macar. But Hamilcar had noticed that a certain wind brought up such quantities of sand to the bar of the Macar as to make it easily fordable. Taking advantage of this, he marched his army across the river by night, and, to the surprise of both friends and enemies, appeared in the morning on the other side, and hastened to attack the rear of the rebel force that was guarding the bridge. A strong detachment from the besiegers of Utica advanced to support their comrades. Hamilcar was marching with his elephants in front, his light-armed troops behind them, and his heavy-armed in the rear. On coming in sight of the enemy, he changed this disposition. Spendius mistook the movement for a flight, and ordered a charge. The rebels found the heavy troops quietly waiting to receive them, while the cavalry and the elephants fell upon their flanks. They were soon broken. Six thousand were slain upon the field of battle, and two thousand taken prisoners. Hamilcar had broken the blockade; but Hippo and Utica were still besieged, and the rebels were still in force at Tunes.

His success, however, had a good effect on the African tribes. One of the chief Numidian princes came into his camp with a force of two thousand men, and Hamilcar felt himself strong enough again to offer battle. The fight that ensued was long and obstinate. At last the Carthaginians prevailed, chiefly by the help of the elephants. Ten thousand rebels were killed, and four thousand taken prisoners. To these latter Hamilcar, with a wise mercy, offered liberal terms. They might take service with Carthage, or they might go home. But if they were found in arms again, they must expect no further mercy.

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


The rebel generals were dismayed when they heard of this politic act. Their only plan was to commit their followers to deeds which could not be pardoned. Accordingly they called an assembly of the soldiers. Into this was brought a courier who professed to come with a dispatch from the rebels in Sardinia. This dispatch contained a warning of a plot that was being hatched in the camp for setting Gesco and the other prisoners free. Then Spendius stood up to speak. "Do not trust Hamilcar," he said. "His mercy is a mere pretense. When he has got you all in his power, he will punish you all. And meanwhile take care that Gesco, who is a most dangerous man, does not escape you." When he had finished speaking, a second courier arrived, this time professing to come from the camp at Tunes, and bearing a dispatch to much the same effect as the first. On this Antaritus, a Gaul, who had shared the command with Spendius and Matho, rose to address the assembly. He had the advantage of being able to speak in Carthaginian, a language of which most of his hearers, from long service with the State, knew something. He told his hearers that it was madness to think of concluding peace with Carthage. Anyone who advised such a thing was a traitor, and they had better make it impossible by putting the prisoners to death.

This horrible advice was followed. Gesco and his fellow-prisoners, seven hundred in number, were cruelly murdered, and from that time till the end of the war no mercy was showed on either side.

For a time everything went ill with the Carthaginians. Hanno had been joined with Hamilcar in the command; but the two could not agree, and the army suffered greatly in consequence. Sardinia was lost to Carthage, and now Utica and Hippo revolted, after massacring their Carthaginian garrisons. At this crisis the foreign allies of the State stood faithfully by it. Hiero of Syracuse gave them help. It was not to his interest that Carthage should be destroyed. Rome left without a rival would be too powerful, and Syracuse would soon be swallowed up. And Rome, without the same reason, behaved equally well. She would not take possession either of Sardinia or of Utica, though both were offered to her by the rebels. And she allowed traders to send supplies into Carthage, while she forbad them to have any dealings with the rebels.

And now the tide turned against the mercenaries. They were besieging Carthage, but they were also besieged themselves. Naravasus, a Numidian prince, with his cavalry cut off all supplies from the country, and they were reduced to the most frightful extremities. Spendius and his colleagues endeavoured to make terms. Hamilcar agreed to let the rebels go free, with ten exceptions such as he should choose. When the treaty was concluded, he said, "I choose among the ten those that are now present." Spendius and Antaritus were two of them.

The siege of Carthage was now raised, and Hamilcar advanced against the camp at Tunes. He posted himself on one side, while his lieutenant, Hannibal, took up his position on the other. Spendius and his fellow-prisoners were crucified before the walls. Unfortunately Hannibal was an incompetent general. Matho, who was in command of the rebels, made a sally, stormed the camp, and took Hannibal himself prisoner. In retaliation for the death of Spendius he was fastened alive to the same cross on which the body of the rebel leader was still hanging.

Carthage now made a last effort to bring the war to an end. Every citizen that was of an age to bear arms was forced to serve. Hamilcar and Hanno agreed to forget their differences and to act together. And now everything went well. Matho was compelled to risk a battle, and was defeated and taken prisoner. All the African towns, except Utica and Hippo, at once submitted, and these, finding themselves alone, did not long hold out.

"Such," says Polybius, "was the conclusion of the war between Carthaginians and their mercenaries, after a continuance of three years and about four months; a war by far the most impious and bloody of any that we find in history."

Carthage came out of the struggle much weakened. Besides men and money she lost her province of Sardinia. The Romans seem to have repented of their moderation, and did not refuse the island when it was offered them by the rebel mercenaries a second time, and when Carthage prepared to retake the island by force, Rome declared war. The unfortunate State had to give way, and to pay besides an indemnity of twelve hundred talents.