A History of Africa
Chapter 3: CARTHAGE
814 to 264 B.C.
This chapter covers the following topics:
Elissa's New City
Taharqa's experience showed how risky it was to fight the Assyrians; at this stage the only ones who did better were the Jews, the Scythians, and the Phoenician city-state of Tyre. Tyre survived because of its geographical position, on an offshore island. When the Assyrians went after Tyre, they had to blockade it for nearly thirty years (701-672 B.C.), and in the end it appears that the main reason Tyre gave up was because its king saw no point in continuing the struggle any longer. Another very long siege took place when the successor of the Assyrians, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, tried to take the city (587-574 B.C.) Equally important to Tyre's survival was the fact that by this time, it got most of its wealth from the other side of the Mediterranean; lacking a navy, the Assyrians and the Babylonians simply couldn't get at this.
Whereas the Greeks had many reasons to build overseas colonies, including population pressure and political struggles at home, the Phoenicians had one overpowering reason: to promote trade. Building colonies near the sources of raw materials like tin helped to protect them from rivals, especially the Greeks. In addition, the ships of ancient times weren't as seaworthy as those built in later eras, so the typical captain kept the shore in sight whenever possible, and avoided sailing at night; thus, spacing outposts about thirty miles apart made commercial sailing a lot safer. Planted in Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia, and Spain, these colonies brought civilization to the whole western half of the Mediterranean basin.
We believe that the Phoenicians were traveling to Spain as early as 1000 B.C., where they obtained silver and tin, metals which were becoming hard to find in the Middle East. The traditional founding dates for some of the colonies they established on the way--Gades in Spain, Lixus in Morocco, and Utica in Tunisia--range from 1110 to 1101 B.C. These dates are almost certainly false; no Phoenician artifacts have yet been found anywhere in North Africa that predate 760 B.C. The largest and most successful colony, Carthage,(1) claimed a founding date of 814 B.C., just two generations removed from the archaeological date, so it is more likely that the other Phoenician outposts got started around this time.
Source: Carthage, A History, by B. H. Warmington, New York, Barnes & Noble Books, 1960.
As with so many ancient cities, legends surround the founding of Carthage. According to the Greeks, the founder was a princess named Elissa; later on the Romans called her Dido. She and her brother Pygmalion (no relation to Pygmalion the sculptor) were supposed to share the throne when their father, the king of Tyre, died; instead Pygmalion kept the throne for himself, killed Acerbas, the rich priest husband of Elissa, and tried to confiscate his wealth. Elissa got together with some other Tyrians who disliked the new king, outfitted some ships, loaded the family fortune in the hold of one, and had a bunch of sandbags placed on deck. When she was ready to leave, she sailed across the harbor to a spot where her brother was sure to see what was happening, and started mourning for her husband, shouting, "This money is tainted with your blood, take it back!" Then her servants pushed the bags of "gold" overboard. This performance guaranteed that Pygmalion would show no mercy to anyone associated with Elissa, so her frightened followers stayed loyal after that.
"Stroke, stroke . . ."
From Tyre Elissa went to Cyprus, where she picked up a priest and eighty virgins to serve in the temple of Asherah she was planning to build at her destination. The priest agreed to come along when Elissa promised that his family would always supply the high priests for her colony; the virgins insured that the colony would not suffer from a shortage of women (remember the legend of the Sabine women from Roman history). Then she went to North Africa, following the Libyan coast until they reached a more pleasant area--Tunisia. A Berber tribe just west of the Cap Bon peninsula was friendly, but when she tried to buy some land, the tribesmen said they would only sell as much land as one oxhide can cover. Inheriting the shrewd business sense of her people, Elissa beat the natives at their own game; she had an oxhide cut into narrow strips, and laid the strips out in a circle that completely surrounded a nice-looking hill she had seen from the ships. That hill became Byrsa, the main citadel and the oldest neighborhood of Carthage.(2)
Another difference between the Phoenician and Greek colonies was that the Phoenician ones grew more slowly, and they weren't independent from the start. In fact, it now looks like Carthage received its independence by default, when the Babylonians conquered Tyre. After they were on their own, the Carthaginians continued to send gifts and temple offerings to the mother city, for sentimental reasons.
Carthage's early constitution provided for a king, aristocratic senate, and popular assembly. Perhaps originally hereditary, the kingship was generally elective but was held for life. In the 3rd century B.C. the king was replaced by two chief magistrates, called shophets(3), elected annually from the aristocracy, and by elected generals who held their commands as long as they didn't lose battles. Membership in the senate, which was several hundred strong and discussed all important business, was for life. The assembly voted only on great issues such as war and peace or on issues that the other branches of government failed to resolve. In the mid-5th or early 4th century BC, a body of 104 senatorial judges was created to oversee the king. They later oversaw the magistrates and generals, but a reform of Hannibal, as shophet (c.196 BC), mandated their annual election and forbade consecutive terms. In the late fourth century Aristotle compared the Carthaginian government with similar Greek ones, and concluded that it was the best of the non-Greek republics.
Though the Carthaginian government resembled the Roman Republic, in practice it often didn't work as well. In fact, it was a plutocracy (government or rule by the richest), whose main policy always seems to have been "let those in charge get more money." Unlike the Romans, they saw no shame in letting their leaders pursue their own businesses for personal gain.(4) What's more, there was no system of checks and balances, so when somebody held more than one office at the same time, abuses were likely to happen. Usually the generals and shophets came from two rival families, the Magonids and the Barcids, whose fortunes regularly rose and fell throughout Carthaginian history. Around 520 B.C., Carthage abandoned a citizen army and began to rely heavily on mercenaries. Modern historians often criticize this shift, but Carthage's small population base forced it; the practice allowed them to concentrate their manpower in the navy. It did have a drawback in that the Carthaginian forces came from an assortment of nationalities, which made leading them a challenge, and even the purebred Phoenicians had no common interest, like patriotism or a love of freedom, to keep their morale up, the way the Greeks and Romans did. On a positive note, the rebellions and usurpations that made up much of Greek and Roman history seldom occurred in Carthage; the typical Carthaginian's sense of loyalty to the state must have been quite strong.
The Romans considered the Carthaginians greedy, untrustworthy and cowardly; they sometimes referred to the breaking of a promise as "Punic Faith."(5) Even worse, from their point of view, was the Carthaginian's cruel streak. If a general lost a battle, it was considered a crime against the state, and he would be exiled or even tortured to death if it looked like he was making a habit of losing.
The Carthaginians taught their people to fear the gods as well as the state. They worshiped Canaanite/Phoenician deities like Baal and Asherah, though they called the chief god Baal Hammon (the meaning of the second name is not clear to us). Later on several local deities (Tanit, Melkart and Eshmoun) became as popular as the old ones. Although the Romans denounced Carthaginian religious practices, the cults around these gods survived long after Africa became a Roman province. In fact, they lasted until the arrival of Christianity, and the emperors had to use their soldiers to tear down the main temple of Tanit in 421 A.D.
What made the Carthaginian religion notorious was that its followers often sacrificed their children to them, feeling that the gods would cause misfortune to fall on the state if they didn't. The Romans had been just as superstitious in their early days, having inherited this trait from the Etruscans, but at least they preferred killing animals when the call went out for sacrifices. It is worth noting that when the Greeks learned about the Carthaginian gods, they decided that Baal was another name for Kronos, not Zeus; Kronos had been the king of the Greek gods in the Bronze Age, but later on was portrayed as a cruel tyrant who ate his children. This somber attitude that the Carthaginians showed to their gods can also be compared with the often flippant attitude the Greeks had for theirs. Late in the fifth century B.C., the Athenian ruler Cleon told the democratic assembly of his city that he wanted them to adjourn, because he had a sacrifice to offer, and friends to entertain. The people only laughed at the request, and immediately separated. According to Plutarch, such irreverence at Carthage would have cost a man his life.(6)
The seventh century B.C. saw the Greeks colonize the northern and southern coasts. Then in 580 they made their first attempt to drive the Phoenicians off the island. Details are few at this early date, but trade must have been a factor; if the Greeks could conquer the whole island, it would be easy for them to send ships into the Phoenician-dominated areas of the western Mediterranean. The Carthaginians also realized this, and in every war they would defend Sicily to the last man for this reason. At this stage the Greeks did not coordinate their efforts with the native Sicilians who supported them, allowing Carthage to defeat Greek and Sicilian separately. Here we can already see the behavior that characterized Carthage in later periods. The Carthaginians were not warlike by nature, because merchants always count the cost of waging war, and will back away if it looks like an unprofitable business. Thus, they made fewer efforts than the Greeks to conquer all of Sicily, and preferred to keep the peace through alliances. They got along best with those Greek city-states run by aristocracies and oligarchies, because their leaders had more to lose than those from the other types of governments (monarchy, tyranny and democracy) if a war went against them, and consequently were less likely to start one. We noted in the previous section that the Carthaginians inherited the tendency toward cruelty that characterizes several Middle Eastern cultures; for example, they invented crucifixion as a way to kill criminals as slowly as possible. What all this means is that the Carthaginians didn't start many of the fights they got involved in, but they would do whatever it took to finish them.
In the Etruscans, the most advanced people of pre-Roman Italy, the Carthaginians found a natural ally against the Greeks. The Etruscans were at the height of their power in the sixth century B.C., so the Greeks, who were normally a very tough opponent to beat, now found themselves under some serious pressure. In the middle of the century the Carthaginians began the conquest of Sardinia, to check the new Greek colony on Corsica; in 535 the two allies worked together to take Corsica, which then went to the Etruscans. In 514 a Spartan prince named Dorieus attempted to found a Greek colony in Tripolitania. Just eleven years earlier the Persians had tried to attack Carthage from that direction, so the Carthaginians found this especially alarming. With some help from the Libyans, they drove away the settlers (511). Not willing to admit defeat, Dorieus moved to western Sicily and tried again there; this time a force of Carthaginians, Sicilian Phoenicians and Sicilians overwhelmed the colony and killed him. Then around 510 the Carthaginians conquered Tartessos, the native kingdom in southern Spain, a move which restricted Greek activity in the west to the Catalonian and southern French coasts.
The political situation on Sicily grew ugly as the fifth century began; the Greek city-states now imitated the pattern of the homeland, overthrowing kings and aristocrats to replace them with tyrants (dictators). The first tyrant worth noting here was Hippocrates of Gela, who conquered the northeastern corner of Sicily between 498 and 491. He was succeeded by Gelon, one of his officers, and in 485 he captured Syracuse without a battle. This immediately made Gelon the most powerful man on the island, so he promptly moved his capital to Syracuse. No details are available, but it appears that he had already picked a fight with the Carthaginians; in 481 a delegation of Athenians and Spartans arrived, seeking aid to defend Greece from the upcoming invasion of Xerxes, and Gelon told them he couldn't spare anything because the Carthaginians were a menace to Greek civilization as well. To make sure the visitors would go home empty-handed, Gelon offered to send 200 ships and 28,000 men if he was made commander-in-chief against the Persians; the Spartans, who were already in command, refused to step down; then he offered to leave command of the army to the Spartans so long as he commanded the navy; the Athenians, who had supplied most of the ships, sailors and oarsmen so far, wouldn't stand for this.
Carthage now realized that Gelon was planning to attack, so it made the first move. In 480 Carthage assembled a mixed army of Carthaginians, Libyans, Iberians, Sardinians and Corsicans, placed them under the command of Hamilcar the Magonid, and shipped them to Panormus on Sicily. From Panormus they marched to the nearest hostile Greek town, Himera, where Gelon showed up with his own men and ships and defeated them. Hamilcar disappeared in that battle and was probably killed, but his body wasn't found. According to Herodotus, Hamilcar stayed in the middle of his camp while the battle went on, hoping to win the favor of the gods by giving them enough burnt offerings; when the battle continued to go badly after he made the last offering, he threw himself on the altar fire in frustration! Even worse, from the Carthaginian point of view, was the destruction of their ships, which were harder to replace than mercenaries. Carthage immediately sued for peace, and Gelon chose to be lenient; instead of demanding land, he asked for two thousand talents of silver.(7) Even so, the Greeks saw the battle of Himera as a dramatic deliverance, which they compared with the victory they won against the Persians at Salamis in the same year; later on, historians improved this coincidence to the same day.(8)
Carthage now turned its attention from Sicily to Africa. The next seventy years (480-410) saw the Phoenician colonies in North Africa, Spain and the Mediterranean islands transformed into an empire run by Carthage. This was also the period when two Carthaginian explorers, Hanno and Himilco, explored the lands beyond the empire, following the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Europe as far as possible.
As with so many other aspects of early Carthaginian history, details on the empire's formation are not available, but we can make guesses. Except for the conquest of Tartessos, we don't hear of any armed struggles in the unification process, so most of it probably happened peacefully. In fact, more than half of the Phoenician colonists who went west settled in Carthage, so it must have been seen as the dominant colony long before this time.(9) What's more, Carthage was already founding its own colonies by now, so it was just a matter of persuading old Phoenician colonies like Utica to submit to Carthaginian direction. In Greece and Rome we have examples of how this might have happened; the Delian and Latin Leagues were both dominated by the strongest city in it, and were eventually fused into a single state under that city. Therefore I will propose a that similar league was formed among the Phoenicians; the only missing step in our records is the stage where Carthage had a first-among-equals status in the alliance. By the time the Carthaginians and Greeks fought again, the Carthaginians held onto as much territory (except for Corsica and central Spain) as they were ever going to have.
It took Greek raids on the western part of Sicily to change their minds about intervention. In 453 a petty war took place between two Greek towns in the west, Selinus and Segesta; Segesta called upon Carthage for aid, and the Carthaginians refused. They had a rematch in 410, and this time Syracuse intervened on the side of Selinus. Again Segesta called for help, and Carthage knew that if Segesta lost, Syracuse would gain control over the whole island except for the three Carthaginian outposts, an unacceptable situation. Furthermore, the leading figure in Carthage at this time was Hannibal the son of Gisgo (not the Hannibal who marched over the Alps to fight the Romans), a grandson of the Hamilcar who died at Himera; naturally he would see this as an opportunity for revenge.
It took a year for Carthage to get a good-sized mercenary army together, so Hannibal only had 5,800 men available when the ships were ready. He took them anyway, drove the Selinites back to their home territory, and waited through the winter until the main army, which may have numbered 50,000, landed at Motya. 409 saw him take Selinus by direct assault, followed by the usual looting, rape and massacres inflicted upon captured cities; the Greeks were particularly horrified by the custom of mutilating the dead, which the Iberian mercenaries practiced on their victims. It was also enough to make Segesta join the Carthaginian Empire, before an army with a reputation for superstitious cruelty turned against it.
Now Hannibal was ready to go after Himera. Unlike what happened at Selinus, Syracuse was able to get troops to the scene in time, allowing Himera to beat off the first Carthaginian assault. Then Syracuse recalled twenty-five ships from the Aegean, where they had been fighting in the Peloponnesian War, and sent them to Himera. Their arrival gave the Greeks control of the sea, so Hannibal resorted to a trick; he broke camp and marched directly to Syracuse. The Syracusans couldn't defend an ally if their home city was under attack, so they withdrew both their ships and men; about half of Himera's population managed to escape on the ships. Then Hannibal doubled back, captured Himera, and destroyed it completely. The captured women and children were given as prizes to the soldiers, while Hannibal took 3,000 male prisoners to the spot where Hannibal had died, and tortured and killed them as a sacrifice to the spirit of his grandfather.
Hannibal returned to Carthage and disbanded his army when he was done with Himera, but the Syracusans didn't know when to quit; they raided the territory of Motya and Panormus after the Carthaginians departed. Considerable discussion followed at Carthage, on whether they should maintain the status quo or conquer the whole island. Eventually the war party had its way, and Hannibal led a second army to Sicily in 406. First he took back the ruins of Selinus, which the Syracusans had used as a base for their raids; then he marched to Acragas, another Greek city on the southern coast. Acragas required a siege, which lasted for seven months because Syracuse was able to get reinforcements in. For the first attack, Hannibal threw up banks of earth as high as one wall, and demolished the tombs in the local cemetery so he could use stones from them in his earthworks. Suddenly a plague infected the army, and took away a great number of soldiers, including the general. The survivors saw this as a punishment from the gods, for violating the homes of the dead, whose ghosts they imagined were walking in their camp at night. No more graves were desecrated, prayers and human sacrifices were ordered, and a younger relative of Hannibal named Himilco took charge. Then the Carthaginian fleet showed up and captured a fleet bringing supplies to Acragas; morale on the Greek side dropped fast, and their mercenaries deserted. The residents of Acragas decided to abandon the city, and Himilco didn't keep them from leaving; soon enough, he captured a deserted city full of loot.
The next city on the coast was Gela, but it was now December, so Himilco waited until spring to resume the march. In the meantime a new tyrant, Dionysius the Elder, seized power in Syracuse, and he used the crisis to depose the previous generals, whom he charged with incompetence, and took their powers for himself. He arrived at Gela with 30,000 men and fifty ships, right after Himilco had established camps on the western and eastern sides of the city. Himilco promptly evacuated the eastern camp, fearing it would be surrounded, but when Dionysius attacked the western one, his soldiers went forth one unit at a time, instead of together, allowing Himilco to defeat them piecemeal before Dionysius himself could get to the battle. Now Gela had to be abandoned as well, and so was the town of Camarina, because Dionysius wouldn't even try to defend it. Himilco had a wide-open road to Syracuse, but instead he made peace with Dionysius in 404. Why he did this is unclear, but it must have been a really compelling reason, most likely the plague, which had reportedly killed half of the Carthaginian troops by now. Another may have been the end of the Peloponnesian War; Syracuse's allies in Greece, especially Sparta, now had a free hand to help if necessary. Whatever the reason, Himilco must have dictated the terms of the treaty, because the only thing Dionysius got was recognition as ruler of Syracuse; the rest was highly favorable to Carthage, putting two thirds of Sicily in Carthaginian hands.
The fifth-century B.C. wars on Sicily are worth mentioning because this is where the practice of siegecraft was introduced to Western civilization. Before 1000 B.C., an army could only take a city with an all-out assault, which tended to be a very bloody affair when it involved street fighting, or by blockading the city so that the defenders had no access to the outside world. Blockades would last until the defenders were forced to surrender, and often lasted for years, so they only worked if the defenders ran out of food before the attackers did. Then in the early years of the first millennium B.C., the Assyrians invented the siege tower, the battering ram, the catapult and the ballista (giant crossbow); with these they could take cities in a matter of weeks or months, rather than years. The Carthaginians learned about these weapons from the Assyrians, and introduced them to Sicily when Hannibal and Himilco marched on Acragas and Gela. We know their Western opponents did not have siege weapons before 400 B.C., because two of the most celebrated sieges before this time, the Greek siege of Troy and the Roman siege of Veii, both lasted for a decade; nor is their any mention of such weapons during the Athenian siege of Syracuse. Anyway, because he survived his first encounter with the Carthaginians, Dionysius in turn learned to use siege weapons from them, and introduced this knowledge to the rest of the Greek-speaking world, which included Italy. Consequently, the new weapons and tactics surrounding them would be a regular part of warfare from now on.
The epidemic of Acragas went home with the Carthaginians, and they suffered from it for the next few years. This allowed Dionysius to break the treaty without much fear of retaliation. Himilco may have allowed him to remain in charge because he thought that the Syracusans would get rid of a leader who had been humiliated in battle--we noted earlier that the Carthaginians were always willing to do that to their own! Instead, Dionysius used his skills and personal energy to ruthlessly strengthen his position. He conquered Naxos, Catania, and Leontini, the other remaining Greek cities on Sicily, which the treaty had declared independent. Back in Syracuse he built a powerful fortress on Ortygia, an easily defended island in the harbor, and only allowed his most trusted men in there. Most of all, he put the people to work making arms and armor, using words of praise and gifts to increase production whenever possible. We also credit Dionysius with inventing a new ship with four banks of oars, the quadrireme, which was larger than other war galleys (pentekonters, biremes and triremes). Normally the Syracusans hated tyranny, but their fear and hatred of Carthage allowed them to go along with Dionysius and his ultimate plan--the conquest of all Sicily and southern Italy.
By 398 Dionysius was ready. He marched 80,000 troops across the island, making a beeline to Motya; in each Greek city he passed the residents rose up and massacred their Carthaginian garrison. The Syracusan fleet followed and blockaded Motya; by throwing everything he had against Motya at once, Dionysius was able to capture and destroy the city before the Carthaginians could get reinforcements to the scene. Then, because it was late in the year, Dionysius returned to Syracuse.
The Carthaginian response came in the following spring. Himilco, now one of the shophets, brought a larger army to Panormus than he had commanded on his first expedition. He quickly recovered Motya, and persuaded all other cities in the area to switch their allegiance back to Carthage. Motya was never rebuilt, but later Carthage built Lilybaeum (modern Marsala) on the western tip of the island to take its place.
Now Syracuse was in danger of the fate it had inflicted on Motya. Himilco marched east along the coast, accompanied by his fleet, only making a detour to get around Mt. Etna while it erupted. Offshore from Catania, 200 Carthaginian ships met 180 Syracusan ones, and sank or captured a hundred of them. Then Mago, the pursuing Carthaginian admiral, entered the outer harbor of Syracuse, while Himilco pitched a camp just outside the city walls. This time the defenses Dionysius had been working on saved the day; Ortygia and the walls held firm until another epidemic hit the Carthaginians. When Dionysius launched an attack of his own, he managed to capture the headquarters of Himilco and destroy most of the Carthaginian ships, which had been pulled ashore during the siege. Without the ships Himilco couldn't supply his army, so he withdrew with the forty triremes he had left.
At home there was an African revolt in Tunis, and the Carthaginians concluded that the gods must be angry at them, if they would cheat them of their best opportunity to conquer all of Sicily. During the campaign, they had destroyed temples belonging to Demeter and Persephone, two of the most popular Greek goddesses, and tried to end their misfortune by building two new temples to them in Carthage, using advice from Greek residents to make sure that the appointed priests would perform their rites correctly. As for Himilco, he committed suicide, and Mago succeeded him.
Both sides were busy recovering from their losses, so their was little activity in 395 and 394. Mago brought over another army in 393, but in the battle that followed Dionysius slew him, so the next commander, a son of his who was also named Mago, made peace in 392. This time the peace treaty restored the Greek-Carthaginian border to where it had been before 410, and Syracuse regained its reputation as protector and master of the western Greeks.
Now Dionysius had a free hand to deal with the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia--southern Italy. On the mainland an Italian tribe, the Samnites, had conquered Capua in 423 and Cumae in 420. To avoid the same fate, the other Greek city-states became protectorates of Syracuse, but the "Athens of the West" exacted as a high a tribute from her subjects as the original Athens did in the Aegean. Her aims were selfish, her rule tyrannical, and her performance hair-raisingly erratic. In Greece itself, Dionysius had his representatives call him a second Themistocles, the savior of Greek civilization against foreign barbarism, but most Greeks felt that because he had enslaved many Greek city-states, he was really no better than Xerxes. It is also worth noting that of the many wars Dionysius fought in during his 40-year career, he started all but one of them.
With the heel and toe of the Italian "boot" under his belt, Dionysius tried his luck against the Etruscans; in 384 his fleet sacked Pyrgi, the Carthaginian port in Etruscan territory, and he planted a base on Corsica, which both protected his shipping and put the pressure on Sardinia. Then he returned to Sicily and started a new war against Carthage in 382. There were only small skirmishes for several years, and we hear of Mago commanding an army on the Italian mainland, but the big battle occurred at Cabala, in western Sicily, in 375; 10,000 Carthaginians were killed, including Mago. The survivors opened negotiations for peace; Dionysius demanded heavy reparations and a complete Carthaginian evacuation of Sicily. However, he agreed to a truce while the terms were sent to Carthage. No doubt the Carthaginians were buying time, knowing that the government would not surrender the whole island. They were right; the official answer came back in the form of a new commander, Mago's son Himilco. He organized another army and succeeded in avenging the defeat at Cabala; Dionysius lost 14,000 men at Cronium, near Panormus. Thus, the shoe was on the other foot when peace returned; this time Syracuse had to pay a thousand talents and the boundary was fixed at the Halycus River, giving Carthage a third of the island.
Dionysius made one more attempt in 367, when he heard about another epidemic in North Africa, and anti-Carthaginian unrest in Sardinia. Using a frontier incident as his excuse, he marched west and besieged Lilybaeum. He didn't take the city, though, due to a false report of the destruction of the Carthaginian fleet. The news caused him to send part of his own fleet home, while he beached the rest (130 triremes) at Drepana, the nearest harbor to Lilybaeum. Then the "destroyed" Carthaginian fleet showed up, under the command of Hanno from the Barcid family ("Hanno the Great"(10)), and Hanno captured most of the Syracusan ships. Dionysius had to abandon the siege, and he died in Syracuse while peace talks were underway. His son, Dionysius the Younger, signed a treaty that restored the balance of power to where it had been in 375.
Dion himself returned from exile in 357 with 1,500 men. The wind blew him to Heraclea Minoa, the current border town between Greek and Carthaginian Sicily on the southern coast, and there he got a pledge of aid from the Carthaginians. Soon after that, Syracuse became the focus of a struggle between three factions: one that was loyal to Dionysius, one that preferred Dion, and those who wanted democracy instead of tyrants. The Italian mercenaries of Dionysius plundered and destroyed half of Syracuse during the fighting, but Dion won in 355; then he was assassinated a few months later, because it looked like he was going to become another tyrant. Several years of anarchy followed, until Dionysius regained control in 347; during this time Syracuse lost control of the cities on the southern coast (Acragas, Gela and Camarina), and they became dependencies of Carthage. Observing from the sidelines, Plato predicted that Punic or Oscan (the language of the mercenaries from southern Italy) would replace Greek as the most widely used language on Sicily if the chaos continued. The Carthaginians probably did whatever they could to keep the Greeks from getting their act together, because it suited them fine to have a bunch of petty states replace the Syracusan empire.
Back in Africa, Hanno the Great also tried to make himself tyrant, replacing the Carthaginian oligarchy with one-man rule. He tried to make himself popular by giving out free food, and then called upon the slaves, non-Phoenician Africans, and the chieftain of Morocco to back him with arms. The uprising failed, Hanno was tortured to death, and most of his family were executed. However, it was hard to wipe out a ruling family completely, and the Barcids made a comeback, ruling Carthage again at a later date.
Because Dionysius was unpopular, a group of aristocrats fled to nearby Leontini, and sent a letter to Corinth, the mother city of Syracuse. In the letter they pleaded for Corinth to help them in getting rid of tyranny and anarchy, because these made Syracuse weak, and the Carthaginians were preparing to conquer them (They weren't really getting ready, but how would anyone in Greece know that?). Corinth's response was extraordinary: it could only send 700 soldiers, but leading them was Timoleon, an aristocrat with such a reputation for hating tyranny that he was involved in the plot to kill his own brother, to keep him from becoming a tyrant over Corinth. When Timoleon reached Rhegium, on the toe of the Italian "boot," the Carthaginians tried to stop him with twenty ships, but he slipped through the blockade and landed on the east coast of Sicily, halfway between Messina and Syracuse. Another one who wasn't thrilled was Hicetas, a former friend of Dion who had just become tyrant of Leontini. In the time it took Timoleon to come from Greece, Hicetas had captured all of Syracuse except Ortygia; he felt he could get rid of Dionysius without any help, and sent a letter to Timoleon stating that he wasn't needed anymore, except maybe as an advisor.
The situation as it stood when Timoleon arrived at Syracuse (in 344 B.C.) was that the Carthaginians controlled the sea around it, Hicetas controlled the city, and Dionysius controlled the citadel. Since Hicetas was receiving aid from the Carthaginians, who saw him as a potential puppet ruler, Timoleon entered into negotiations with Dionysius. Surprisingly, Dionysius agreed to surrender Ortygia to Timoleon, and went into exile at Corinth. Hicetas called upon the Carthaginians for help in this new development, and they sent a force of 150 ships, loaded with soldiers and led by another commander named Mago. However, this Mago didn't really have the will for a fight, despite his numerical superiority. When the defenders of Ortygia told the troops of Hicetas that it was disgraceful for Greeks to use Carthaginians to conquer a Greek city, morale among the attackers slipped, and Mago used this as an excuse to leave. He had accomplished exactly nothing, and later committed suicide to avoid an inquiry into his handling of the mission. Hicetas couldn't hold out for long without the Carthaginians, so Timoleon and his Corinthians soon had the whole city.
Carthage now raised a second army of 70,000 Africans and mercenaries, this time commanded by two officers, Hasdrubal and Hamilcar. With it went two hundred warships, a thousand transports, and an elite force which the Greeks called the Sacred Band; it was composed of heavy infantry, trained to fight like a Greek phalanx. Because of the logistics involved in recruiting such a force, the Carthaginians weren't ready to move until 341. They landed at Lilybaeum, but Timoleon acted first; he ended his quarrel with Hicetas and marched out to meet the Carthaginians with 12,000 men. Near Segesta, he met the enemy crossing the little river Crimisos, and knowing that the whole island would be lost if he didn't win, he committed everything to a furious charge. It worked; a torrential rain caused a flash flood to sweep away much of the Carthaginian army; as many as ten thousand were slain, three thousand of them Carthaginian citizens. According to Plutarch, this was the heaviest loss Carthage ever suffered in a battle, which shows us how reluctant they were to use their own people as soldiers.
The Carthaginian response to Timoleon's victory was to recall Hasdrubal, replace him with Gisgo (a son of Hanno the Great who had escaped the massacre of the Barcid family by going into exile), and sue for peace. Both sides agreed to a treaty in 339 that was similar to those of 375 and 367, with the Halycus River marking the boundary between them. Then Timoleon went on to eliminate most of the tyrants in the Greek part of Sicily, and persuaded tens of thousands of settlers from other parts of the Greek world to move in and rebuild the cities that had been destroyed or damaged in recent wars. Despite his reputation as the enemy of tyrants, he was not a democrat, and the government he set up for Syracuse was an aristocracy with a constitution (call it a "timocracy" if you wish). Both the chief executive, who was chosen every year, and a governing council of 600 members, came from the city's upper class families, and to prevent a military coup, a general had to be invited from Corinth to take command whenever a war broke out. By the time he was finished making reforms, Timoleon had gone blind, so in 338 he resigned and lived out the rest of his life as a private citizen in Syracuse. This behavior by itself was remarkable, coming from an age full of ambitious leaders.
Almost immediately after that, Agathocles started a series of wars to expand Syracusan territory. First he went after the other Greek cities on Sicily, and Hamilcar changed his mind about the leader he had recently backed; now he used to diplomacy to keep Agathocles from conquering Acragas, and tried, but failed, to save Messina the same way. Carthage recalled Hamilcar for negotiating an unfavorable treaty without its permission, and sent another Hamilcar, the son of the recently mentioned Gisgo, in his place. Likewise, Agathocles changed his mind about Carthage, so when he made another attempt to take Acragas in 311, the Carthaginians sent sixty ships to stop him. His response was to declare war on Carthage itself, and invade the Carthaginian part of the island. This time Agathocles was clearly the aggressor, so there is no need for us to believe the Greek argument that Carthage threatened all of Greek civilization. Alexander the Great had just conquered everything between Macedonia and India a few years earlier, so in the east the Greeks were enjoying their best years. In fact, the influence of Greek culture was so strong that if the Carthaginian Empire had succeeded in conquering Syracuse, it would have been thoroughly Hellenized, just as the Romans were when they conquered the Greek-settled part of Italy.
In 310 Hamilcar the son of Gisgo brought 14,000 troops from Africa, set up a camp at Ecnomus (on the south coast, halfway between Acragas and Gela), and went to work recruiting allies among the native Sicilians. Agathocles attacked him here, presumably expecting an easy victory, but instead he lost 7,000 men. After this defeat most of the island rapidly went over to Hamilcar, because he did whatever he could to convince the Greeks and Sicilians that the Carthaginians were both generous and civilized. All that Agathocles had left was Syracuse itself, and because he was outnumbered in ships and men, he couldn't prevent the Carthaginians from surrounding the city. Nor could he get help from the rest of the Greek world; this was the period known as the "Wars of the Diadochi," when each of Alexander's generals was only interested in grabbing as much land as possible from the others. As his situation grew desperate, Agathocles made the boldest move of any Syracusan leader; he risked everything to stage a counter-strike in North Africa. At a minimum, it would persuade the Carthaginians to call off their siege of Syracuse, by moving the theater of war to their homes.
Agathocles loaded 14,000 men aboard sixty ships, somehow got them through the Carthaginian blockade, and managed to give them the slip when their ships pursued. He also was able to keep their ultimate destination secret from everyone; even his crew thought he was going to raid Sardinia or Carthaginian Sicily instead. Thus, when they reached Tunisia six days later, they found it unguarded; they had the element of surprise totally on their side. Agathocles burned the ships, so he wouldn't have to leave any men behind to guard them, and began to march to Carthage.
Apparently Agathocles and his men landed near the tip of the Cape Bon peninsula, for the first city they encountered was Tunis. The country they marched through had a wetter climate than it does today, and showed all the luxury one would expect from a province at the heart of a great empire: gardens, orchards, country villas on rich estates, and sheep, cattle and horses in the areas that weren't irrigated. They took Tunis by storm, thereby gaining a stronghold close enough to threaten Carthage. In Carthage the two commanding generals, Hanno and Bomilcar(11), were bitter enemies, and appear to have been the leaders of rival factions. To defend the capital they assembled a force of 40,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 chariots, and probably hoped that their superior numbers would make up for lack of experience. Instead, the veterans of Agathocles carried the battle; Hanno was slain, and Bomilcar withdrew back to Carthage with the rest of the army. The historian Diodorus wrote that the Carthaginians were so confident that they would enslave their enemies, that they brought twenty thousand pairs of manacles with them; the Greeks found these when they looted the Carthaginian camp.
As one might expect, the Carthaginians asked themselves why their country was suffering from such a calamity, and true to character, concluded that the gods were punishing them for neglecting their offerings. The annual gifts to Tyre had stopped when Alexander destroyed the mother city in 332 B.C., so now an especially large load of treasure went to the temple of Melkart in Tyre. They also felt they had cheated Baal Hammon, because in recent years the nobility had been sacrificing the children of slaves instead of their own offspring; it took the sacrifice of 500 noble children to appease the wrath of this god.
Back on Sicily, Hamilcar was ordered to give aid to the armies at home, but before he did, he made one more attempt at Syracuse. To the Syracusans he sent envoys who claimed that the expedition to Africa had been a total failure, and they brought some iron rams from the destroyed ships of Agathocles to prove it. This didn't work because while they were discussing the terms of surrender, a small messenger galley from Agathocles made it into port past the Carthaginian fleet, and its crew told the defenders what really happened. A subsequent attempt to storm the city while the Syracusans were celebrating also failed, and Hamilcar raised the siege so he could send five thousand men back to Carthage. That winter, Hamilcar tried another siege with the men he had left, but while he was moving camp from the south to the north side of Syracuse, the Syracusans attacked and scattered the force; Hamilcar was captured, subjected to death by torture, and his head was sent to Agathocles.
The loss of the army in Sicily put the Carthaginians in a really bad situation. Not only were their recently acquired allies on the island defecting, but they had also lost their best tool for persuading Agathocles to leave. Now they could only get him out of Africa by defeating him. As for Agathocles, after the battle between Tunis and Carthage he had his army fan out across the countryside; they captured the entire east coast of Tunisia as far as Thapsus, and managed to beat off two Carthaginian attempts to take back Tunis. In Carthage, Bomilcar tried to seize control of the government in a bloody uprising, but it was put down, and he was crucified.
Agathocles couldn't take advantage of the turmoil in Carthage because he had a power struggle of his own at the same time. To the Greek-speaking world he sent forth a second request for assistance, this time inviting other Greeks to join him in plundering and conquering North Africa. The nearest Greek king was Ptolemy I in Egypt, and Ophellas, his governor over Cyrenaica, decided to try his luck. He and Agathocles worked out a deal where if they succeeded in conquering the Carthaginian Empire, Ophellas would get North Africa, and Agathocles would get all of Sicily; no doubt Agathocles gave Ophellas the larger share because he wouldn't settle for anything less. Then Ophellas marched across Libya with 10,000, arriving in the camp of Agathocles three months later. However, the two leaders couldn't get along after they met in person; a former companion of Alexander was not about to take orders from a petty tyrant. Agathocles solved this problem by having Ophellas murdered, and added the army of Ophellas to his own.
Next, Agathocles marched around Carthage and took Utica and Hippo Acra; the latter had an excellent harbor, so there he began building a new fleet. He did this because now it began to look like he could actually capture Carthage, but to do so he would need ships to keep supplies and reinforcements from getting through to the defenders. Since the situation was looking so good for him in Africa, he took 2,000 men back to Sicily at the beginning of 307 B.C.; the home city was now under pressure from Acragas and the native Sicilians. He left his son Archagethus in charge of the African expedition until he could get back.
His departure gave the Carthaginians new courage, and the expedition ran into trouble almost immediately. The Carthaginian senate voted to send out three armies of 10,000 men each; two of them successfully ambushed Greek forces, and they persuaded the native tribes that had defected to come back to the Carthaginian side. Archagethus was soon trapped in Tunis with the remaining troops. When Agathocles heard the news, he only stayed long enough to drive away the thirty Carthaginian ships blockading Syracuse, before hurrying back. However, the situation in Africa was now beyond even his ability to fix. The army Archagethus left for him consisted of six thousand Greeks, six thousand mercenaries (Celts, Samnites and Etruscans), and ten thousand Libyans; at the next battle the Libyans deserted, and three thousand of the others were killed. Nor could he hope to make peace with the enemy, for the Carthaginians wouldn't negotiate with one who had dared to ravage their country.
At this point the soldiers probably would have killed Agathocles, so he deserted the army and secretly fled to Sicily. His soldiers, seeing themselves betrayed, murdered his sons and surrendered. Since Carthage was mainly interested in getting rid of them quickly, it offered lenient terms: in return for giving up the places they still occupied, they would be paid 300 talents of silver. Any who were willing to enter Carthaginian service as mercenaries would be hired, those who did not would be settled in the Sicilian port of Solus; a few soldiers wouldn't accept these terms, and ended up as slaves repairing the damage they had done to the land. Once again the Halycus River became the boundary between Greek and Carthaginian Sicily.
Following Agathocles, Syracuse saw rougher times. In fact, by now the situation was deteriorating for all Greeks in the western Mediterranean. Ironically, the reason for this may have been Alexander's success in the east; so many Greeks now went to seek their fortunes in the countries he conquered that other Greek-settled areas--even the Greek homeland--suffered a population decline, and possibly an economic slump. In eastern Spain, Carthage forced back the Greeks of Massilia, from the neighborhood of Saguntum (modern Valencia) to the Ebro River. Agathocles' gamble in Africa saved eastern Sicily for the duration of his lifetime, but still the struggle between Greek and non-Greek was becoming unequal. By 290 B.C. Rome had finished off the Etruscans and Samnites, and the direction of Roman expansion told the Greeks in southern Italy that they would be next. Between 280 and 271 B.C., Carthage took over Corsica.
Rome and Carthage had gotten along well previously; they had signed treaties in 510, 348 and 306 B.C. These agreements pledged cooperation against piracy; Rome also promised not to trade in the Carthaginian Empire without Carthaginian supervision, and if Roman ships were blown by storm to any place in the empire besides Carthage and Sicily, they would leave in five days. From the Carthaginian point of view, Rome was a useful ally in Italy at this stage, but not very important. Indeed, at the time of the first treaty, Carthage must have seen Rome as just another Etruscan community. What caused this to change was the Roman state's success, which would go to the heads of its leaders before long, as well as the fact that the Greek-speaking territory between the two republics was about to disappear.
However, there would be one more memorable episode before these partners became bitter rivals: the war of Pyrrhus. After the death of Agathocles, Syracuse saw strife between his mercenaries and those who wished for a more democratic regime, while Phintias, the ruler of Acragas, used the weakness of Syracuse to establish control over much of western Sicily. In 280 a new Syracusan tyrant, Hicetas, defeated Phintas and gained enough confidence to attack the Carthaginian zone, something which Phintas had avoided. The Carthaginian response was swift and effective; one year later we hear about Hicetas losing a battle in the vicinity of Leontini, meaning that the Carthaginians had marched almost all the way across the island. Now Carthage decided that it would never again allow Syracuse and Acragas to unite under one ruler, so in 278 a hundred ships and a full army began a full-scale assault on Syracuse. Hicetas was overthrown, but the Syracusans split into two factions instead of choosing another leader, while Acragas sat out the war altogether.
Carthage had come close to conquering all of Sicily before, only to be defeated by unforseen circumstances, so at this stage the main Carthaginian concern was to keep anybody else from getting involved on the other side. The one most likely to intervene was Pyrrhus, a king from the Greek mainland who was related to Alexander. Pyrrhus had just arrived in Italy to assist the city-state of Tarentum, and though he defeated the Romans twice, he lost too many men to continue his march on Rome (the original "Pyrrhic victories"). To make sure that the Romans would not surrender, or negotiate with Pyrrhus too quickly, Carthage sent 120 ships, under an admiral named Mago, to defend the coast of Italy, as well as a big gift of silver to pay Rome's wartime expenses. It didn't work, because the factions in Syracuse stopped squabbling long enough to call upon Pyrrhus to save them. Pyrrhus had married a daughter of Agathocles, so he eagerly came to the rescue without reaching any kind of cease-fire with the Romans, correctly reasoning that they would have too much on their hands in Italy to think about sending anything to Sicily.
What followed was a disaster for Carthage. Pyrrhus brought 10,000 men, and recruited 20,000 more from the local population. On the battlefield he had an extraordinary winning streak; within a year he had won over the Greeks, and had conquered all of the Carthaginian cities except Lilybaeum. Besides Lilybaeum, the only community that remained hostile to Pyrrhus was Messina, which had been occupied by some Italian mercenaries of Agathocles after their employer's death. This group was called the Mamertines because their chief god was Mamers (Mars), and they used Messina as a pirate's base; no doubt they opposed Pyrrhus because he would have restored law and order had he succeeded. The Carthaginians were so desperate for peace that they considered a treaty that would have allowed Pyrrhus to keep everything he had captured so far, but Pyrrhus wasn't going to settle for part of Sicily when he could slay his enemies and have it all! Lilybaeum's fortifications, however, were too strong for Pyrrhus to take the city with the force he had, so he called on the Sicilians for more men and materiel. Instead, his new subjects refused to contribute; those in the west went over to Carthage, and some even joined the Mamertines. At this point, Pyrrhus showed that he didn't have the patience to finish what he started; in 276 he returned to Italy to help his allies on the mainland against the Romans. As he departed, the Carthaginian navy attacked his fleet, and sank 70 out of 110 ships. That left him without the resources to do much, and after losing a battle to the Romans, he decided to take his chances with the other kings back in Greece. Thus, Pyrrhus lost his western empire as fast as he had won it.
In the wake of Pyrrhus, the Romans occupied all of southern Italy, and Carthage took Sicily save Messina and Syracuse. This marked the end of independence for the western Greeks; within a few years their last cities, Syracuse and Massilia, would become Roman protectorates. In 273 the king of Egypt, Ptolemy II, established diplomatic relations with Rome; the Greek kingdoms in the east no longer regarded the Romans as a barbarian tribe. The Mamertines favored Carthage at first, but Carthage, being a nation of merchants, disliked pirates on principle, so one Mamertine faction asked the Romans to send troops, to defend them against Carthage and Syracuse. The arrival of the Romans on Sicily caused relations with Carthage to deteriorate rapidly, and a clash between Roman and Carthaginian soldiers led to the First Punic War in 264 B.C. At this point the author will break off the narrative, since the wars that resulted in the destruction of Carthage are well known, and have been covered elsewhere on this site. For those who want to read up on the Punic Wars, check out my European history paper on the rise of Rome.
This is the End of Chapter 3.
A History of Africa
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