Carthage, located in present-day Tunisia, was founded by Phoenicians from Tyre in the ninth century B.C. That, at least, is the date of the earliest archeological evidence. Tyre and its sister cities, Sidon, Byblos, Beirut, and Arvad, all on the Lebanon and Syrian coasts, made their living as mercantile intermediaries between the Greek colonies scattered throughout the Mediterranean Sea and the Assyrian Empire.
To protect their trade, these Phoenician cities soon founded their own colonies on the African littoral of the Great Sea, but also in Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain. Originally fortified settlements, they functioned as transit points for the Punic trade. Carthage prospered carrying agricultural goods from food-surplus to food-deficient areas. Carthaginian ships that have been recovered recently from the bottom of the sea, however, also contained luxury items and olive oil.
Richard Miles’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed covers the millennium between the city’s founding and its destruction by Roman Legions after a siege in 147-146 BC. Miles argues that the accounts of ancient Greek historians on which the city’s literary traditions rest generally held the Carthaginians to be cruel, decadent, impious, arrogant, greedy, and untrustworthy.
Archeologists are more complimentary, suggesting that they were a successful and wealthy seafaring people if also ambitious and imperial. Carthaginian armies, Miles contends, were the biggest challenge that Rome faced in its rise to dominance. Rome suffered its single greatest defeat at the Battle of Cannae, 216 B.C., loosing to a Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War. Led by the famous Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginians had been marauding up and down the Italian Peninsula for fifteen years prior to that defeat.
Before Carthage battled Rome, it had a long struggle with Syracuse, the most important Greek colony in the Western Mediterranean. Miles suggests that Carthage, like Rome, sought to expand its power over other states in the region. Though, unlike Rome, it mostly employed mercenaries. Raising and equipping mercenary armies wasn’t cheap.
Ultimately, but too late, Carthaginians learned that the military investment necessary to protect their dominance in Sicily, Sardinia, and Spain may not have been worth the commitment of human and monetary resources. After the Roman defeat of the Carthaginians in the Second Punic War, Carthage recovered surprisingly rapidly as a commercial city though no longer imperial. The speed of that recovery convinced Rome that Carthage must be destroyed.
One of the most severe indictments in the eyes of the Greeks was that the Carthaginians routinely sacrificed their children. Special cemeteries for children called tophets have been excavated by archeologists. Miles speculates that these may have been stillborn children and the burial ceremony involved the introduction of the dead child to the gods. However, he agrees that child sacrifices may have been performed on occasions when the gods seem to have deserted the city. He speculates that this practice may have been Levantine; recall the Abraham-Isaac story in the Book of Genesis.
Miles has given an excellent account of Carthaginian diplomacy. Less clear is the leadership of Carthaginian state. Were the city and its hinterland run by a state bureaucracy, like Egypt? By amateurs in turn, like Greece and Rome? Was trade dominated by a merchant class or by the powerful clans like the Barcas who ran the military machine? The archeological evidence does suggest a great disparity in welfare.
Perhaps most intriguing, Miles describes how Carthage controlled its image. He considers their production and dissemination of controlled messages in conjunction with military campaigns to be propaganda in the present-day sense of the term. This propaganda often used stories and traditions already in circulation. For example like the Romans they likened their military successes to those of Alexander the Great. Like Alexander, Hannibal carried his “story tellers,” with him. And from time to time, he issued “press releases.”
The best example of this shaping of foreign traditions for propaganda purposes was the career of the Greek god, Heracles, associated with the Phoenician god, Melqart. The wanderings of Heracles were said to be the origins of Carthaginian trade routes. One of the laborers of Heracles, according to Greek legend, was to kill the nine-headed beast, an event often placed on the Italian peninsula. The Carthaginians associated the beast with the Roman state and themselves with Heracles.
Miles credits both the Carthaginians as tolerating a Mediterranean world of great diversity. That changed with the challenges to Carthaginian imperialism presented by first Syracuse and then Rome. Ultimately the Greek sources give accounts of Carthage engaging in what the twentieth century calls ethnic cleansing.