A map of the central , showing the location of Carthage (near modern ). The map also shows  and the islands of , , and .
A map of the central Mediterranean Sea, showing the location of Carthage (near modern Tunis). The map also shows Italy and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

Carthage (from the Phoenician Qart-Hadasht "New City" (written without vowels as QRT HDŠT), was an ancient city in North Africa located on the eastern side of Lake Tunis, across from the center of modern Tunis in Tunisia. It remains a popular tourist attraction.


Founding of Carthage

In approximately 814 BC, Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers from the city of Tyre, bringing with them the city-god Melqart. Traditionally, the city was founded by Dido, and a number of foundation myths have survived through Greek and Roman literature.

Carthage's early years were defined by a long rivalry between the landholding and maritime families. In general, due to the city's dependence on maritime trade, the maritime faction controlled the government, and during the 6th century BC, Carthage began to acquire dominance over the Western Mediterranean. Merchants and explorers established a vast network of trade, bringing wealth and power to the city-state. In the early 6th century BC, Hanno the Navigator is supposed to have sailed down the African coast, perhaps as far as Sierra Leone. Meanwhile, under a leader named Malchus, the city began a systematic conquest of both the African interior and the coastal lands.

By the beginning of the 5th century BC, Carthage was the commercial center of the region, a position it would retain until overthrown by the Roman Republic. The city had conquered the territory of the old Phoenician colonies, such as Hadrumetum, Utica and Kerkouane, and the Libyan tribes, spreading its control along the North African coast from modern Morocco to the borders of Egypt. Its influence had also spread into the Mediterranean, with control over Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic Islands and the western half of Sicily. Colonies had also been established in Iberia.

Ruins of Carthage
Ruins of Carthage

Life in Carthage

Carthaginian Commerce

The early trading empire of Carthage depended heavily on its trade with Tartessos and other cities of the Iberian peninsula, from which it obtained vast quantities of silver and, even more importantly, tin ore, which was essential to the manufacture of bronze objects by the civilizations of antiquity. Carthage followed trade routes already established by her parent city, Tyre. When Tartessos fell, the Carthaginian ships went directly to the primary sources of tin in the northwestern section of the Iberian peninsula and further north, in Cornwall in the British Isles. Other Carthaginian ships went down the Atlantic coast of Africa and brought back gold from as far as Senegal.

If the epic poetry of Greece and the contemporary historians of imperial Rome record the military opposition of Carthage to the forces of the Greek city states, and later to Rome, then it is very much to the Greek theatre and Greek comedies that we are indebted for depictions of the generic Carthaginian merchant, hawking cloth, pots and jewellery. He was usually portrayed as an amusing scoundrel, a relatively peaceful and colourful trader intent on making a profit and cheating noble but innocent Greeks of every spare penny they might have. Diggings show evidence of all kinds of exchanges, from the vast quantities of tin needed for a bronze-based metals civilization to all manner of textiles, ceramics and fine metalwork. Before and in between the wars Carthaginian merchants were in every port in the Mediterranean, buying and selling, establishing warehouses where they could, or just bargaining in open-air markets after getting off their ship.

The Etruscan language has not yet been deciphered, but archaeological excavations of Etruscan cities show that the Etruscan civilization was for several centuries a customer and a vendor to Carthage, long before the rise of Rome. The Etruscan city-states were, at times, both commercial partners of Carthage and military allies.

Carthaginian Government

Carthage's government was an oligarchy, not unlike that of republican Rome, but few details are known. Its heads of state are commonly referred to as sōftīm "judges" (Roman writers referred to them in Latin as reges "kings"), which might originally have been the title of the city's governor installed by the mother city of Tyre. Later, one sōfet or two sōftꭧ', who were believed to have exercised judicial and executive (but not military) functions, were elected annually from among the most wealthy and influential families. These aristocratic families were represented in a supreme council comparable to the Roman senate that had a wide range of powers. However, it is not known whether the sōftīm were elected by this council or by an assembly of the people. Although the people might have had an influence on legislation, democratic elements were rather weak in Carthage, and the city's administration was firmly controlled by oligarchs.

Eratosthenes, head of the Greek library of Alexandria, noted that the Greeks had been wrong to describe all non-Greeks as barbarians, since the Carthaginians as well as the Romans had a constitution. Aristotle also knew and wrote about the Carthaginian constitution in one of his books. This book has been lost but descriptions of some of its contents have survived.

Carthaginian Religious Practices

Carthage under the Phoenicians was notorious to its neighbors for child sacrifice. Plutarch (ca. 46-120 CE) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius and Diodorus Siculus. Livy and Polybius do not. Modern archeological excavations could be taken to confirm Plutarch's view. In a single child cemetery called the Tophet an estimated 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BC and 200 BC. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds. These remains have been interpreted to mean that in the cases of stillborn babies, the parents would sacrifice their youngest child. It is sometimes argued, however, that these bodies were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally, although in light of other Canaanite evidence this seems less likely. The few Carthaginian texts which have survived make absolutely no mention of child sacrifice. It has been argued by some modern scholars that evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice is sketchy at best and that it is far more likely to have been part of Roman propaganda against the Carthaginians to justify their conquest and destruction. The debate is ongoing among modern archeologists and other antiquarians.

While the surviving Punic texts mention no practices of religious sacrifices, they are detailed enough to give a portrait of a very well organized caste of temple priests and acolytes performing different types of functions, for a variety of prices.

Carthage had many gods. The supreme divine couple was that of Tanit and Ba`al Hammon. Priests were clean shaven, unlike most of the population. In the first centuries of the city ritual celebrations included rhythmic dancing, derived from Phoenician traditions. The goddess Astarte seems to have been popular in early times. At the height of its cosmopolitan era Carthage seems to have hosted a large array of divinities from the neighbouring civilizations of Greece, Egypt and the Etruscan city-states.

Conflict with the Greeks and Romans

First Sicilian War

Carthage's success led to the creation of a powerful navy to discourage both pirates and rival nations. This, coupled with its success and growing hegemony, brought Carthage into increasing conflict with Greece, the other major power contending for control of the central Mediterranean.

The island of Sicily, lying at Carthage's doorstep, became the arena on which this conflict played out. From their earliest days, both the Greeks and Phoenicians had been attracted to the large island, estblishing a large number of colonies and trading posts along its coasts. Small battles had been fought between these settlements for centuries.

By 480 BC, Gelon, the tyrant of Greek Syracuse, backed in part by Greek support, was attempting to unite the island under his rule. This imminent threat could not be ignored, and Carthage - possibly as part of an alliance with Persia, then engaged in a war with Greece - fielded its largest military force to date, under the leadership of the general Hamilcar. Traditional accounts give Hamilcar's army a strength of three hundred thousand men; though these are almost certainly exaggerated, it must nonetheless have been of formidable force.

En route to Sicily, however, Hamilcar suffered losses (possibly severe) due to poor weather. Landing at Panormus (modern-day Palermo), he was then decisively defeated by Gelon at the Battle of Himera. He was either killed during the battle or committed suicide in shame. The loss severely weakened Carthage, and the old government of entrenched nobility was ousted, replaced by the Carthaginian Republic.

Second Sicilian War

By 410 BC Carthage had recovered under a series of successful rulers. It had conquered much of modern day Tunisia, strengthened and founded new colonies in North Africa, and sponsored Mago Barca's journey across the Sahara Desert and Hanno the Navigator's journey down the African coast. Although, in that year, the Iberian colonies seceded—cutting off Carthage's major supply of silver and copperHannibal Mago, the grandson of Hamilcar, began preparations to reclaim Sicily, while expeditions were also led into Morocco and Senegal, and also into the Atlantic.

In 409 BC, Hannibal Mago set out for Sicily with his force. He was successful in capturing the smaller cities of Selinus (modern Selinunte) and Himera, before returning triumphantly to Carthage with the spoils of war. But the primary enemy, Syracuse, remained untouched, and in 405 BC Hannibal Mago led a second Carthaginian expedition, this time to claim the island in its entirety. This time, however, he met with fierce resistance and ill-fortune. During the siege of Agrigentum, the Carthaginian forces were ravaged by plague, Hannibal Mago himself succumbing to it. Although his successor, Himilco, successfully extended the campaign by breaking a Greek siege, capturing the city of Gela and repeatedly defeating the army of Dionysius, the new tyrant of Syracuse, he, too, was weakened by the plague and forced to sue for peace before returning to Carthage.

In 398 BC, Dionysius had regained his strength and broke the peace treaty, striking at the Carthaginian stronghold of Motya. Himilco responded decisively, leading an expedition which not only reclaimed Motya, but also captured Messina. Finally, he laid siege to Syracuse itself. The siege met with great success throughout 397 BC, but in 396 BC plague again ravaged the Carthaginian forces, and they collapsed.

Sicily by this time had become an obsession for Carthage. Over the next sixty years, Carthaginian and Greek forces engaged in a constant series of skirmishes. By 340 BC, Carthage had been pushed entirely into the southwest corner of the island, and an uneasy peace reigned over the island.

Third Sicilian War

In 315 BC Agathocles, the tyrant of Syracuse, seized the city of Messene (present-day Messina). In 311 BC he invaded the last Carthaginian holdings on Sicily, breaking the terms of the current peace treaty, and laid siege to Akragas.

Hamilcar, grandson of Hanno the Navigator, led the Carthaginian response and met with tremendous success. By 310 BC he controlled almost all of Sicily and had laid siege to Syracuse itself. In desperation, Agathocles secretly led an expedition of 14,000 men to the mainland, hoping to save his rule by leading a counterstrike against Carthage itself. In this, he was successful: Carthage was forced to recall Hamilcar and most of his army from Sicily to face the new and unexpected threat. Although Agathocles' army was eventually defeated in 307 BC, Agathocles himself escaped back to Sicily and was able to negotiate a peace which maintained Syracuse as a stronghold of Greek power in Sicily.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

Between 280 BC and 275 BC, Pyrrhus of Epirus waged two major campaigns in an effort to protect and extend the influence of Greece in the western Mediterranean: one against the emerging power of the Roman Republic to defend the Greek colonies in southern Italy, the other against Carthage in a renewed attempt to wrest Sicily wholly from their control.

Pyrrhus lost in both Italy and Sicily. For Carthage, this meant a return to the status quo. For Rome, however, it meant capturing Tarentum and holding the entirety of Italy. The result was a shift in the balance of power in the western Mediterranean: Greece was effectively reduced to its toehold upon Sicily, while Rome's growing strength and territorial ambitions brought it directly into conflict with Carthage for the first time.

The Messanan Crisis

When Agathocles died in 288 BC, a large company of Italian mercenaries who had previously been held in his service found themselves suddenly without employment. Rather than leave Sicily, they seized the city of Messana. Naming themselves Mamertines (or "sons of Mars"), they became a law unto themselves, terrorizing the surrounding countryside.

The Mamertines became a growing threat to Carthage and Syracuse alike. In 265 BC, Hiero II, the new tyrant of Syracuse, took action against them. Faced with a vastly superior force, the Mamertines divided into two factions, one advocating surrender to Carthage, the other preferring to seek aid from Rome. As a result, embassies were sent to both cities.

While the Roman Senate debated the best course of action, the Carthaginians eagerly agreed to send a garrison to Messana. A Carthaginian garrison was admitted to the city, and a Carthaginian fleet sailed into the Messanan harbor. However, soon afterwards they began negotiating with Hiero; alarmed, the Mamertines sent another embassy to Rome asking them to expel the Carthaginians.

Her intervention had placed Carthage's military forces directly across the narrow channel of water that separated Sicily from Italy. Moreover, the presence of the Carthaginian fleet gave them effective control over this channel, the Strait of Messina, and demonstrated a clear and present danger to nearby Rome and her interests.

As a result, the Roman Assembly, although reluctant to ally with a band of mercenaries, sent an expeditionary force to return control of Messana to the Mamertines.

The Punic Wars

The Roman attack on the Carthaginian forces at Messana triggered the first of the Punic Wars. Over the course of the next century, these three major conflicts between Rome and Carthage would determine the course of Western civilization.

Rome consistently triumphed over Carthage during the Punic Wars. The end of the Third Punic War resulted in the end of Carthaginian power and the complete destruction of the city by Scipio Aemilianus: Roman soldiers went from house to house, slaughtering the people of Carthage and enslaving any who survived. Carthage's harbor was burned and the city razed.

Between the first and the second Punic war, Carthage faced a major mercenary revolt.

It is disputed whether the Carthaginian farmland was salted following the Battle of Carthage.

Late Antiquity Carthage

Missing image
Domitius Alexander on a follis. On the reverse, the personification of Carthage, his capital.

The site was too well-chosen to let it go to waste, however, and a new city grew up there, eventually becoming the second largest city in the western half of the Roman empire. By the late 2nd century, Carthage was the center of the Roman province of Africa, with a population of over 400,000 people. It briefly became the capital of an usurper, Domitius Alexander, in 308-311.

Carthage also became a centre of early Christianity. Tertullian rhetorically addresses the Roman governor with the fact that the Christians of Carthage that just yesterday were few in number, now "have filled every place among you—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market-places, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods." (Apologeticus written at Carthage, c. 197.) It is worth noting that Tertullian omits any mention of the surrounding countryside or its network of villas not unlike colonial hacienda society.

In the first of a string of rather poorly reported Councils at Carthage a few years later, no fewer than seventy bishops attended. Tertullian later broke with the mainstream that was represented more and more by the bishop of Rome, but a more serious rift among Christians was the Donatist controversy, which drew in the young Augustine of Hippo while he finished his education at Carthage before moving on to Rome. In 397 at the Council at Carthage, the Biblical canon for the western Church was confirmed.

The political fallout from the deep disaffection of African Christians was a crucial factor in the ease with which Carthage and the other centres were captured in the 5th century by Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, who defeated the Byzantine general Bonifacius and made the city his capital. Gaiseric was considered a heretic too, an Arian, and though Arians commonly despised Catholic Christians, a mere promise of toleration might have caused the city's population to accept him. After a failed attempt to recapture the city in the 5th century, the Byzantines finally subdued the Vandals in the 6th century. Using Gaiseric's grandson's deposal by a distant cousin, Gelimer, as a pretext, the Byzantines dispatched an army to conquer the Vandal kingdom. On Sunday, October 15 533, the Byzantine general Belisarius, accompanied by his wife Antonina, made his formal entry into Carthage, sparing it a sack and a massacre.

During the emperor Maurice's reign, Carthage was made into an Exarchate, as was Ravenna in Italy. These two exarchates were the western bulwarks of Byzantium, all that remained of its power in the west. In the early 7th century, it was the Exarch of Carthage, Heraclius (of Armenian origin), who overthrew Emperor Phocas.

The Byzantine Exarchate was not, however, able to withstand the Arab conquerors of the 7th century. The first Arab assault on the Exarchate of Carthage was initiated from Egypt without much success in 647. A more protracted campaign lasted from 670-683. In 698 the Exarchate of Africa was finally overrun by the rising forces of Islam.


  1. Hannibal's Campaigns. Tony Bath. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.
  2. Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Shelby Brown. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
  3. La vie quotidienne ࠃarthage au temps d'Hannibal. Gilbert et Colette Charles-Picard. Paris: Hachette, 1958.
  4. La l駥nde de Carthage. Azedine Beschaouch. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.
  5. Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia. David Soren, Aicha Ben Abed Ben Kader, Heidi Slim. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.
  6. The Phoenicians and the West: Poitics, colonies and trade. Maria Eugenia Aubet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

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