Why Did the Romans Destroy Carthage?

The Punic wars were a pivotal point in Roman history. Rome emerged from them literally ready and able to conquer the world.

     After the Second Punic War, Carthage was subdued. They were devoid of warships, war elephants and sources of mercenary soldiers. They could not even effectively defend themselves against their Numidian neighbors who periodically raided and annexed their lands. They were forbidden to make war without Roman permission. They were required to pay ten thousand talents of gold to the Romans over the course of fifty years.

     Nevertheless, during the fifty years after the Second Punic War, Carthage prospered by trade. When the aged Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato visited Carthage on a diplomatic mission, he was amazed and appalled by its prosperity. He was determined to see the city destroyed. In every speech he made to the Senate or to the assemblies, no matter what the subject, he would end it with the words “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam”-“And furthermore I think that Carthage must be destroyed.”

     Carthage did not pose a military threat to Rome, but it was an economic rival.

     For insight into the thinking of highly ranked Romans, there is a quote attributed to the Consul Lucius Marcius Censorius by Appian of Alexandria. It is 149 bc and Censorius has come to Africa with 80,000 Roman soldiers. He is trying to convince the Carthaginians to abandon their city and move at least ten mile inland.

   “What is the use of repeating what the Senate has ordered? It has issued its decrees and they must be carried out. We have not power to alter the commands already laid upon us. If we were addressing you as enemies, Carthaginians, it would be necessary only to speak and then to use force, but since this is a matter of the common good (somewhat of our own and still more of yours), I have no objection to giving you the reasons, if you may be thus persuaded instead of being coerced.

     “The sea reminds you of the dominion and power you once acquired by means of it. It is inevitable that someday you will want to acquire these things again, for who does not seek to retrieve what he has lost? When you behold the barracks of your soldiers, the stables of your horses and elephants, and the storehouses alongside them, all empty, what do these things put into your mind? What else but grief and intense longing to get them back again if you can. When we recall our departed fortune it is human nature to hope that we may recover it. The only way in which you will give up these ambitions is through oblivion, which you will achieve by moving yourselves inland.

     “Why should we spare our captured enemies? If you have abdicated dominion sincerely, not in words only, but in fact, and are content with what you possess in Africa, and if you honestly desire peace with us, prove it by your acts. Move into the interior of Africa, which belongs to you, and leave the sea, the dominion of which you have yielded to us.”

     The Romans wanted the Mediterranean Sea, “mare nostrum,” to be exclusively theirs.

     The Carthaginians refused to abandon their city even in the face of Roman might, and waged a three year campaign to remain where they were. The Roman effort to take the city went poorly for the Romans for two years, but then they found an able general in Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, the adoptive grandson of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus and natural son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus. Scipio besieged the city and eventually gained access after breaking down the walls with siege engines. There was resistance and street fighting for six days before the 50,000 survivors taking refuge in the citadel surrendered. All of them were sold into slavery.

     Historian Adrian Goldsworthy has this to say about the Roman destruction of Carthage:

    “There is no doubt that the Third Punic War was deliberately provoked by the Romans, who had made a conscious decision to destroy their old enemy. Roman negotiators shamelessly exploited the Carthaginian’s willingness to grant concession in their desire to avoid war with Rome, stealthily increasing their demands to force a conflict on a weakened enemy. It was a far worse display than any of the recorded examples of ‘Punic treachery.’”

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