Ancient Carthage

Carthage was a city-state founded by the Phoenicians on the coast of North Africa some time in the early first millennium BCE. The traditional date of its founding was 814 BCE, with a group of Phoenician settlers from Tyre, a great port city on the coast of present-day Lebanon.

Historical overview

The story goes that they were led by a Tyrian princess called Dido, who had to flee the home city as a result of political rivalries amongst the royal family.

Early History

Carthage was only one amongst several colonies which the Phoenicians planted along the coasts of the western Mediterranean.

The Carthaginians faced constant threats from the native inhabitants of the area which they had colonized, the Berbers (many of these would later become organized into the powerful kingdoms of Numidia and Mauritania, who, through their alliances with Rome, would help to overthrow Carthage before themselves succumbing to Roman power). From the outset, therefore, Carthage had to maintain itself as a military power.

The city seems to have started out as a dependency of Tyre, but later (c. 650 BCE) gained its independence.

A great trading center

Carthage was exceptionally favored by its geographical position, which commanded the narrow strip of sea which separates the large island of Sicily from North Africa. Through this maritime corridor passed all the ships carrying goods from the Atlantic coast of western Europe, as well as from the Mediterranean coasts of Spain, France, western Italy and western North Africa, on their way to the wealthy markets of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Moreover, Carthage was located on a natural harbor which offered shelter to passing ships. It soon became the busiest port in the region, and the city grew to be one of the great trading states of the ancient world.

Another element in Carthaginian commercial success was that trade across the Sahara desert first developed during their period. This must have been at a low level, and carried out by a series of local exchanges rather than by means of desert-crossing caravans. The camel did not come into use in this region until later, and without this animal, large-scale over-desert trade was not possible. Nevertheless, products from south of the Sahara – ostrich feathers, ivory, gold, black human captives and so on, had an exotic appeal which gave them a high price in Mediterranean markets.

The interest the Carthaginians had in this trade may be behind the story of an undated Carthaginian voyage down the west coast of Africa. This may have reached lands south of the Sahara, though it is hard to know how they could have navigated so far given the desert coast and the contrary ocean currents.

A center of production

Carthage itself was a center for the production of fine textiles. The Phoenicians were famed for the purple dye they manufactured, and archaeological remains show that Carthage participated fully in this industry. They also produced fine cloth and beautifully embroidered textiles. The city had many highly skilled craftsmen in ivory-, wood- and metal-work.

Undoubtedly stimulated by the markets that their international commerce brought them, the Carthaginians developed the agricultural resources of their homeland to a remarkable degree. Using careful irrigation and well thought-out methods of husbandry, they grew abundant wheat, as well as a wide range of other crops. The sold their agricultural produce – olive oil,  wine, dates, figs, pears and pomegranates – in ports across the Mediterranean.

Overseas empire

At some point, the Carthaginians assumed some kind of control over other Phoenician colonies in North Africa, Sicily and Spain, and much of their surrounding territory. By the 6th century BCE Carthage dominated the trade of the western Mediterranean, and had become a formidable political power.

It dominated the (frequently rebellious) Berber tribes of North Africa, from the Atlantic coast in the west to the borders of Egypt. It also controlled the Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Malta, and the Balearics. In the 3rd century its generals brought much of southern and eastern Spain into subordination to Carthage.

The Greek wars

Above all, Carthage engaged in repeated wars with the Greek cities in Sicily (from c. 600 to 265 BCE). Centuries of hostilities were brought to a head in the early 5th century when Gelo, the tyrant of Syracuse, the leading Greek city, sought to bring the entire island under his rule.  He thus set in train a series of wars which swung back and forth, neither side ever decisively being able to conquer the island, though each coming near to doing so on more than one occasion.

The Wars with Rome

In the 3rd century, opposition to Carthaginian power passed to the rising power of Rome. In the First Punic War (264-41: the Romans called the Carthaginians “Phoenicians”, the Latin for which is “Punicus”), the Romans, hitherto a purely land-based power, built up their naval forces to the point where they successfully challenged Carthage for supremacy at sea. They did this by carefully studying the design of Carthaginian warships; incorporating technical innovations such as the corvus, a light mobile bridge which allowed troops to cross from one warship to another and fight as if on land; recruiting experienced Greek sailors to man their ships; assiduously training raw crews in oarsmanship; and sheer weight of numbers.


Nevertheless, the Romans came to regard the Carthaginians as the most dangerous of all their foes. This was largely because Carthage produced one of the most brilliant military commanders in the whole of world history. His name was Hannibal. In the Second Punic War (218-202 BCE), he conducted a dramatic campaign by marching his army from Carthaginian-controlled territory in Spain, through southern Gaul, across the Alps and down into Italy. There he recruited a large army of Celtic mercenaries and destroyed three large Roman armies sent against him; the Romans would ever after remember the third of these battles, at Cannae in southern Italy, as the most terrible defeat they ever suffered.

Hannibal came within a whisker of defeating Rome, but in the end Rome’s large reserves of manpower won the day, and he was finally defeated at the battle of Zama, just outside the gates of Carthage itself, in 202 BCE.

The destruction of Carthage

After the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE), the home territory of Carthage was occupied. The city itself suffered the rare fate of being systematically destroyed by the Romans, her population sold into slavery.

Thus ended the history of Phoenician Carthage. During the course of the second and first centuries BCE, all the former Carthaginian territories came under Roman control.

At the end of the second century BCE the Romans planted their own colony on the site of the former city. Such was the commercial and strategic advantages of the location that this settlement (also called Carthage) soon grew into one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the Roman Empire.

It finally lost its position many centuries later, to the rising city of Tunis. This was founded by the Arabs after their conquest of North Africa in the 7th century AD and rapidly became the chief political center of the region, as well as a major trade entrepot.

The Carthaginian State


Internally, the Carthaginians got rid of their monarchy and replaced it with a republican constitution somewhat similar to Rome’s. The city-state was ruled by two chief magistrates, called suffets, elected annually. More junior magistrates handled affairs in public administration, taxation and so on. A council of state (the One Hundred and Four) limited the authority of the suffets, supervised the junior magistrates, and dealt with matters of war and foreign policy.

This council was filled by members of the aristocracy, and Carthage remained dominated by a closed group of powerful families down to the end of its independent existence.

There was also a popular assembly, which at times made its views felt in a decisive way. Nevertheless it was the factional struggled between the leading families which provided the meat of Carthaginian politics. In the 3rd century the Barcid family came to the fore, and provided many of the generals, including Hannibal, who fought against Rome.

The Army

Carthage’s army was built around a core of Carthaginian and Berber troops recruited from the city’s home territory in North Africa. However, these were greatly outnumbered by foreign mercenaries, fighting in their own national units. Spaniards and Gauls probably formed the majority of these. They were used especially in wars fought overseas.

The Carthaginian cavalry was composed chiefly of Berber mercenaries fighting n horseback, but it famously included a corps of elephants. These were drawn from elephant populations native to North Africa (which have been extinct since Roman times, thanks to the popularity of animal games in amphitheaters). These elephants were effective at frightening the enemy, but as the Romans showed, once tactics had been developed to deal with them, they proved to be more of a liability than an asset.

The Navy

During the wars with the Greeks, Carthage became probably the most powerful naval power in the ancient world. The city-state maintained a fleet of more than 300 galleys, which were manned mainly by Carthaginian citizens rather than foreign mercenaries. These developed a reputation for skilled seamanship and maneuver.


Carthaginian religion was that of their Phoenician forebears. This was a branch of the polytheistic religion of the ancient Canaanites. It was polytheistic, in which worship of the goddess Tanit and her consort, Ba’al Hammon, were prominent.

As with the Canaanites, the Carthaginians seem to have practiced child sacrifice, sometimes on a large scale, especially at times of crisis.