Why Did Rome Spare the City of Carthage after the Second Punic War and then Destroy it Fifty Years Later?

It was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus who finally defeated Hannibal at the end of the Second Punic war. He imposed Roman terms on the city. They were generous terms in that they allowed Carthage autonomy with their own laws and government. The treaty forced Carthage to destroy all but five of their battleships, stop training war elephants, and pay ten thousand talents of gold to Rome over the next fifty years. Carthage lost all of its possessions outside of Africa. The Carthaginians were forbidden by this treaty to go to war without Roman permission.

By Roman standards Scipio was a moderate and generous soul. He would be considered a liberal in today’s terminology.

Not all Romans were as forgiving as Scipio when it came to Carthage. Rome and Carthage had engaged in two long wars resulting in literally hundreds of thousands of Roman and allied deaths. Animosity to Carthage remained strong in the 2nd century B.C.

Carthage not only recovered after the Second Punic war but prospered.

The foremost advocate for the destruction of Carthage was Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder. In modern terms he would be called a reactionary. Cato was part of a diplomatic delegation to Carthage around 152 B.C. and he was shocked at how prosperous the city was. He thought that it was an economic rival to Rome and that it would benefit Rome to destroy it. Whenever he gave a speech in the Senate or the Forum, no matter what the subject, he ended it with the words “Cetera censeo Cartaginem esse delendam” And furthermore I advise that Carthage should be destroyed.”

In 150 B.C. Carthage went to war with the Numidian Kingdom under Masinissa, who had invaded its territory. This gave the Romans the pretext they needed to destroy Carthage because it violated Scipio’s treaty since the Carthaginians had not asked Rome’s permission to go to war. Rome declared war and sent 80,000 legionaries to Africa under Consul Censorius.

Historian Adrian Goldsworthy writes this about Rome’s imposition of the Third Punic War on 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.’”

Considering Carthage’s military weakness and Rome’s great military might, the Carthaginians did a creditable job of holding the Romans off for three years. It was only after the Romans elected Scipio Aemilianus who understood siege tactics that they were finally able to conquer and destroy Carthage. By this time there were only about 50,000 survivors in a city that had once housed several hundred thousand, and these were sold into slavery.

Incidentally, the story that the Romans salted the agricultural fields around Carthage is a myth. There is nothing in the ancient writings to support this, and salt was a valuable commodity which the Romans wouldn’t have used profligately. Besides, having conquered the area, they would have wanted it to grow food for their hungry population. Twenty four years after the destruction of Carthage, Gaius Gracchus attempted to start a Roman colony there. It failed for several reasons, but he wouldn’t have proposed it if the land surrounding Carthage had been salted.


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