Lords of the World - Alfred J. Church

The Storming of the Upper City

The actual fortifications of the Upper City did not offer any serious resistance to the assailants. They were of extreme antiquity, and were not only greatly decayed, but were inadequate to meet, even had they been in the best condition, the improved methods of attack which had been introduced since the time of their erection. Some attempt had been made to put them into repair within the last few months, but to very little purpose. Nothing short of a complete reconstruction would have been of any practical use. The Roman battering-rams had not been at work for a day before it became evident that several breaches would speedily be made in the walls. In fact, so many weak spots had been revealed, that even the most determined and powerful garrison could not have hoped to make them all good. In the course of the night the whole line was evacuated.

Still, Carthage was not to be taken without a desperate struggle. Twice already had her mother-city Tyre defended herself with fury against assailants of overwhelming strength, and the world was to see a still more terrible scene of rage and madness some two centuries later, when the Hebrew people defended its last stronghold, Jerusalem, against the legions of Rome. The Carthaginians were now to show themselves not unworthy of these famous kinsfolk.

The Upper City was penetrated by three streets, all of them built on steep inclines, and converging on the summit of the hill. On this the citadel stood, itself crowned by the famous Temple of ∆sculapius. This was built on a rock, three sides of which displayed a sheer descent of some sixty feet, while the fourth was ascended by a long flight of steps. The three streets were built to suit the oriental taste, perhaps we should rather say the oriental need, which prefers shade to the circulation of air and light. They were so narrow that the inhabitants of opposite houses—the houses commonly inclined outward—could almost shake hands from their windows. The houses were not of equal height, but they were all lofty, sometimes having as many as seven or eight stories. At the back of these main thoroughfares was a wilderness of lanes and alleys, consisting for the most part of smaller houses, with now and then a paved yard or small garden.

Up these streets the Romans had to force their way. Almost every house was a fortress which had to be separately attacked and separately taken. The first danger that had to be encountered was a shower of tiles and bricks from the roofs and upper stories. These missiles, heavy themselves, and falling with tremendous force from the lofty buildings, would have been terribly destructive, had not the assailants protected themselves by the formation of the testudo  or tortoise. This was made by the men ranging their shields over their heads in a close impenetrable array, under cover of which they broke down the doors of house after house. Sometimes even the testudo  reeled under the shock of some more than usually heavy mass; more than once it was actually broken when the defending party contrived to detach and send down upon it the whole of a parapet. Whenever this happened no small loss of life was the result.

When an entrance had been forced into the house, every storey became the scene of a fresh conflict. Driven at last to the roof, the defenders would sometimes prefer to hurl themselves down to the street below rather than fall into the hands of the enemy. Some would take a desperate leap across the space that separated them from the houses opposite; others crossed on bridges of planks or doors which they hastily made, or, in some cases, had prepared in anticipation.

It is needless to say that a conflict of such a kind was fought with the greatest ferocity. It was a struggle, for the most part, between a people and an army. The inhabitants, seldom, if ever, protected by armour, and furnished with the weapons that chance supplied, often, indeed, reduced to nothing more effective than sticks or household implements, fought desperately against well-protected, well-armed, well-disciplined men. The women were even more frenzied than the men. Driven to bay, they flew like wild-cats at the Romans, and bit and scratched till they were slain or disabled. There was no question of quarter; it was not even asked. The assailants, as they slowly advanced, winning their way yard by yard, left a lifeless desolation behind them, with the dead lying as they had fallen, on every staircase and in every chamber.

This battle of the streets lasted with unabated fury for six days. The besiegers, of course, fought in relays; there were three detachments, and each had its regular time of service, four hours twice in the day, for of course no cessation of the attack was possible. One man allowed himself no rest, and this one man was Scipio. During the whole of the six days he never slept, or, at least, never composed himself to sleep, for nature would sometimes assert itself, untiring as was the spirit which dominated his physical frame, and he could not help a brief slumber as he sat at his meals. These he took as chance gave him the opportunity. They were hurried repasts of the simplest kind—a piece of dried flesh, a crust of bread, or a biscuit, with now and then a bunch of raisins. His drink was rigidly limited to water, for in battle he always acted on the principle which made Hector refuse the wine-cup which his mother proffered him in an interval of battle.

At sunset on the sixth day the Upper City was practically held by the Romans. Nothing but the citadel remained to be taken, and that was so arduous an undertaking that the attack was necessarily postponed till the troops had had some rest.

But the spirit of the Carthaginians was at last broken. Just as the troops told off for the first assault had finished mustering, and before the trumpets had sounded the signal for the advance, a procession, headed by a herald who carried a flag of truce in his hand, was seen to be descending the steps that led from the temple of ∆sculapius. Lost to sight for a short time as it came under cover of the outer wall of the citadel, it next became visible as it issued from one of the gates. Scipio, who was about to address his troops, went forward to meet the newcomers. Their leader, whose style and title were given by the herald as chief priest of the temple of ∆sculapius, addressed him, his words being interpreted by a Roman prisoner.

"Leader of the armies of Rome," so ran the speech, "the gods have given thy country the final victory over her rival. Four centuries ago Rome felt it to be an honour to be acknowledged by Carthage as an ally on equal terms. Since then there has been continued rivalry and frequent war between the two nations. More than once it has seemed likely that the Fates had decreed that the seat of empire should be in Africa rather than in Italy. But this was not their will. We have long been convinced that we were not to rule; we now perceive that we are not even to be permitted to exist. But though it is necessary for the honour, if not for the safety, of Rome, that Carthage should be destroyed, it is not necessary that a multitude of innocent persons, whose sole offence is to have been, born within the walls of a doomed city, should also perish. There are some, a few thousands out of many, who have, it is true, committed the offence of defending their country; these also implore your mercy. That they can resist your attack they acknowledge to be impossible; but they can at least claim this merit, that by a prompt surrender they will save the lives of some of your soldiers. Your nation, man of Rome, has been ready beyond all others to show mercy to the conquered, and your family, Scipio, has been conspicuous in this as in all other virtues. Be worthy, we beseech you, of your country, your house, and yourself."

It was without a moment's hesitation that Scipio replied to this harangue. Nor had he to use the services of an interpreter. With that indefatigable energy which distinguished him he had employed the scanty leisure allowed by his duties to learn the Carthaginian language, of which at the beginning of the siege he had been as ignorant as were the rest of his countrymen.

"I will not use many words, for time presses, and there is much to be done. The multitude of unarmed persons may come forth without fear. Their lives are assured to them. Nor do we bear any enmity against brave men who have fought against us. They shall not be harmed. I except only from my offer of mercy those who have betrayed their country by deserting it."

The answer had scarcely been spoken before a huge multitude, to whom its purport had probably been communicated by some preconcerted signal, poured out from the gates. Seldom has a more piteous sight been seen. With faces wan with famine, and clothed, for the most part, in squalid rags, the long lines of old men, women, and children defiled before the Roman general as he stood surrounded by his staff. True to his gentle and kindly nature, he busied himself in making provision for their immediate wants. The whole number—there were fifty thousand in all, a great crowd, it is true, but pitiably small in comparison with the supposed total of non-combatants when the siege began—was divided into companies, each of which was assigned to the commissariat department of one or other of the legions. At the same time instructions were given to the officers in charge of the stores that their immediate necessities—and many of them were actually starving—should be relieved.

The non-combatants thus disposed of, the soldiers that had surrendered followed. There may have been some six thousand in all, of whom five-sixths were mercenaries, one-sixth only native Carthaginians. They were in much better case than the rest of the population; in fact, as far as provisions were concerned, they had not been subjected to any hardship. The mercenaries had, for the most part, an indifferent look. It was depressing, doubtless, to have been serving for now three years an unsuccessful master, and to have missed the good pay which they might have earned elsewhere. But this was one of the chances of their profession, and they might hope to recoup themselves for their loss by another and more fortunate speculation. The Carthaginian minority were in a different temper. There was no future for them. Their country was gone, and if the love of life, which asserts itself even over the fiercest and bitterest pride, had bent their haughty temper to supplicate for mercy, it could do nothing more. Each man as he passed in front of the general laid down his arms upon the ground. These, again, were piled in heaps, to be carried off in due time to the stores in the Roman camp.

This business was just completed when a solitary figure was seen to issue from one of the gates in the citadel walls, and hurriedly to approach the Roman lines. As he ran he was struck by a missile from the walls. The blow levelled him to the ground, but he regained his feet in the course of one or two minutes, and hastened on, though with a somewhat limping gait. It was observed that he was dressed as a slave, and, as he came nearer, that his face was so closely muffled that his features could not be recognized. Nevertheless, his figure, which was short and corpulent, seemed to many to be familiar. Reaching the Roman lines, he threw himself at Scipio's feet, caught him by the knees, and in broken Greek begged for his life. The general, stretching forth his hand, raised him from the ground. It was Hasdrubal, the commander-in-chief of the armies of Carthage.

A murmur of disgust at his poltroonery ran through the ranks. Here and there the kinsmen or comrades of the unhappy prisoners whom he had done to death in so barbarous a fashion a few months before gave vent to more menacing expressions of anger. Scipio silenced these manifestations of feeling by an imperative gesture of command.

"Your life is spared," he said. "See that you make a due return for the boon."

It must not be supposed that the Roman general was disposed to regard with any kind of leniency Hasdrubal's baseness and barbarity. It was from policy that he spared the miserable creature's life. In the first place, it was the custom, from which it would be injudicious to depart, to make the king or chief general of a conquered people an essential part of the triumph which would celebrate the victory. Secondly, he was aware that the prisoner would be useful in many ways, that there were important matters about which he could give the best, or, it might be, the only available information.

As to the boon of life, it seemed to his own noble nature to be a very small thing indeed. For himself he felt that, had such a situation been possible, he would far sooner have died than survive to face such shame and ignominy: the craven clinging to life which dominates such mean natures as Hasdrubal's was simply incomprehensible to Scipio. But if he despised Hasdrubal while he spared him, there were others among the Carthaginian leaders for whom he felt a genuine admiration and respect, and to whom he was willing to offer honourable terms of surrender.

"Where," he asked Hasdrubal, "are your colleagues in command, and the chief magistrates?"

"They are in the temple of ∆sculapius," replied the Carthaginian.

"Think you that they will be willing to surrender? They are brave men, and have done their best, and they shall be honourably treated."

"I know not what they intend," muttered the fugitive, with as much shame as it was in his nature to feel.

"I will at least try them," said Scipio, and he advanced towards the citadel, followed by some of his staff. Hasdrubal, much against his will, was constrained to accompany them.

A number of figures could be seen on the roof of the temple, which, as has been explained, formed the summit of the citadel. As soon as he came within earshot of the place he bade one of the prisoners step forward and communicate his ultimatum  to what may be called the garrison of the temple.

"Scipio offers to all free-born Carthaginian citizens, life on honourable terms. To all those who have deserted he promise a fair trial, so that if they can show any just cause for having left their country, even they may not despair of safety."

To this appeal no answer was made. After a while, as Scipio and his attendants waited for a reply, thin curls of smoke were seen to rise from the temple. Next a woman, leading a young boy by either hand, approached the edge of the roof. She was clothed in a flowing robe of crimson, confined at the waist by a broad golden girdle. Her long hair, which streamed far below her waist, was bound round her temples by a circlet of diamonds that flashed splendidly in the sun.

"By Baal," cried the Carthaginian prisoner who delivered Scipio's message, "it is the Lady Salamo herself."

"Who is it, say you?" asked Scipio.

"The Lady Salamo," answered the man, "the wife of my lord the general."

It was indeed the wife of Hasdrubal.

"Man of Rome," she began in a clear, penetrating voice, which made itself heard far and wide, addressing herself to Scipio, who was conspicuous in the scarlet cloak worn by generals commanding armies, "man of Rome, to thee there comes no blame from gods or men. Carthage was the enemy of your country, and thou hast conquered it. But on this Hasdrubal, this traitor who hath been false to his fatherland, to his gods, to me,—whose shame it is to have been his wife,—and to his children, may the gods of Carthage wreak their vengeance! And thou, Scipio, I charge thee, fail not to be their instrument."

Hasdrubal's wife


She then turned to Hasdrubal.

"Villain," she cried, "and liar, and coward, as for me and these children, we shall find a fit burial in this fire;" and as she spoke a great flame sprung up for a moment among the gathering clouds of smoke; "but thou, that wast the chiefest man in Carthage, what dishonourable grave wilt thou find? This only I know, that neither thy children nor I will live to see thy disgrace."

Turning from the wretched man with a gesture of contempt, she drew a dagger from her girdle and plunged it into the heart first of one then of the other of the two children who stood at her side. Then flinging the bloody weapon from her, she leapt into the midst of the flames, which by this time were rapidly gaining the mastery over the whole building. All her companions shared her fate. The Carthaginian nobles were too proud to live under the sway of Rome; the deserters were conscious of their guilt, or distrusted the justice of a Roman tribunal. Anyhow, not a single individual out of the desperate band to which Scipio had addressed his appeal availed himself of the opportunity. The temple of ∆sculapius perished with all its inmates; and along with it was lost to Rome and to the world a vast treasury of wealth.