Ancient Tunisia

Tunisia is home to the ruins of the Carthaginian Empire that was defeated in the Punic Wars by Rome, before it could have become the cradle of the western world.

Hannibal Crossing the Alps (Detail) via Nicholas Poussin (1625-1626)
The Ancient Punic and Carthaginian Empires

Head of the Punic Goddess Tanit, Terracotta 4th to 3rd century BCE

At the beginning of recorded history, Tunisia was inhabited by Berber tribes. Its coast was settled by Phoenicians starting as early as the 10th century BC. The city of Carthage was founded in the 9th century B.C. by settlers from Tyre, now in modern day Lebanon. Legend says that Dido founded the city in 814 B.C., as retold in by the Greek writer Timaeus of Tauromenium. The settlers of Carthage brought their culture and religion from the Phoenicians and other Canaanites. After a series of wars with Greek city-states of Sicily in the 5th century BC, Carthage rose to power and eventually became the dominant civilization in the Western Mediterranean. The people of Carthage worshipped a pantheon of Middle Eastern gods including Baal and Tanit. Tanit’s symbol, a simple female figure with extended arms and long dress, is a popular icon found in ancient sites. The founders of Carthage also established a Tophet which was altered in Roman times. Though the Romans referred to the new empire growing in the city of Carthage as Punic or Phoenician, the empire built around Carthage was an independent political entity from the other Phoenician settlements in the Western Mediterranean.

Early Carthage

A statue found at Carthage, possibly of Dionysus or Apollo, deities imported from Greek colonists

While the culture and commercial genius of the cities of Phoenicia enabled them to preserve their independence through many centuries, in a sort of scornful supremacy over earth’s military conquerors, they never themselves attained, nor did they seem to aspire to, the physical dominion over the world. A far nearer approach to this was made by their celebrated colony, Carthage.

Starting from Utica or Carthage on the African shore, the earliest explorers searched the entire coast of western Africa. Tradition tells us of their strange “silent trade” with the Negroes there. A Phoenician ship-captain would land and spread his goods upon the shore. Then he would light a big fire to notify the savages of his presence and would withdraw to his ship so that they might not fear to approach. The Negroes would then, without touching the goods, place beside them on the beach as much gold as they were willing to offer in exchange, and would retire so that the ship-captain might in his turn approach without danger. If he thought the gold sufficient, he took it and went his way, leaving the merchandise to the negroes. If he did not, he returned again to his ship, leaving both gold and goods untouched, whereupon the savages would increase their offering for what they wanted, until the “silent trade” was completed.

An early Tunisian gravestone showing Christian writings

An early Tunisian gravestone showing Christian writings

Most impressive of all the Phoenician explorations was the complete circumnavigation of Africa by King Hanno of Carthage. The account of this has come down to us, and though long doubted and derided by a world that knew little of Africa, the voyage of Hanno is now generally accepted as an actual fact. He met gorillas whom his men mistook for human savages and tried to carry into slavery; but found them wholly untamable. He planted colonies. He sailed past rivers and mountains of fire, and lands of almost insupportable heat. In the end he reached Arabia, or so at least the Roman writer Pliny tells us, and came thence to Egypt, having accomplished, about the year 500 B.C., the remarkable voyage which was not duplicated for two thousand years, not until the days of Vasco da Gama, in 1498 A.D.

Carthage, the chief of all the Phoenician colonies, was founded by the Tyrians in 813 B.C. It was no ordinary little town planted for purposes of trade. A queen of Tyre herself went thither, accompanied by most of the chief people of her city, an aristocracy leaving their ancient homes to the lesser folks of Tyre and seeking a haughty isolation among newer and more congenial surroundings. They called their new home Kirjath-Hadeshath, “the new town,” which later ages have corrupted into Carthage.

A Punic mask in the Carthage museum

A Punic mask in the Carthage museum

This remarkable migration from Tyre took place in the days when Pygmalion was its king. He was a grandson of that Eth-baal who had seized the throne as high priest and had spread the worship of Baal to Israel by his daughter’s marriage. Pygmalion ascended the throne as a child, and the real power remained in the hands of his elder sister Elissa and her husband, who was the high priest. Pygmalion, supported apparently by the ruder classes of the populace, asserted his power, and the high priest was slain. Thereupon the widowed Elissa and her adherents, including many of the wealthier citizens, both priests and merchants, abandoned the city.

This fairly trustworthy story has been woven about with legends, often self-contradictory. Pygmalion slew his brother-in-law, the priest, upon the high altar before all the people; or, again, he murdered him secretly while hunting, and the ghost of the slain man appeared to Elissa to accuse the king. Pygmalion plotted to get the vast wealth of his widowed sister; and she, pretending to believe his assurances of affection, asked him for ships to transport her treasure to his palace. He sent the ships in charge of men ordered to make sure of the treasure; but Elissa deceived them by suddenly throwing from the ships various bags of sand. These she told them were her treasures, which in her grief she had determined to sacrifice to the gods. Convinced that the treasure had escaped them, and not daring to return to the king without it, the ship masters agreed to sail with Elissa and her attendants to seek new homes.

Carthaginian coins depicting a goddess and a winged horse

Carthaginian coins depicting a goddess and a winged horse

Amid all these fanciful details the central fact stands clear. A princess of Tyre, head of the aristocratic party, led her adherents from the city because of the ascendancy of those same wilder forces which had once before seized the rule in the days preceding her grandfather, Eth-baal. This aristocratic band of colonists founded Carthage, the most aristocratic of republics or oligarchies, a city of mighty merchants, wherein severest laws held the “many” of the lower classes in helpless subjection to the wealthy few.

Roman legend changed the name of Carthage’s first queen to Dido, and linked her fate with that of Rome’s own ancestor Aeneas. He said the Romans visited Carthage and there wooed and deserted Dido, who killed herself for sorrow; and hence arose the eternal enmity between the two cities. The enmity was a tragic fact of Roman history, but its causes were, as we shall see, far more practical than a vengeance many centuries old.

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The Carthaginian Empire

Map depicting the Carthaginian Empire at it’s height


Carthage, situated in Africa on the southern shore of the Mediterranean about midway between its two extremes, grew rapidly in wealth and fame. As the cities of native Phoenicia crumbled beneath the repeated assaults of Assyrians, Babylonians, and Greeks, Carthage, secure in her distance and solitude, rose to be the chief trading-city of the world. By deg, though the details are lost to us, she became mistress of all north Africa west of Egypt. The other Phoenician colonies became her subjects; their walls were torn down and they were made incapable of resistance. The merchant princes of Carthage were as cruel, as merciless, as they were powerful. Their fields were tilled by slaves in chains, sometimes one merchant held twenty thousand of the joyless wretches in this miserable bondage.

We first gain a clear view of Carthage when, in the fifth century before Christ, she came in conflict with the Greeks in Sicily. The Greeks, successors to the Phoenicians as the chief maritime nation of antiquity, had quite won the upper hand of exhausted Sidon and Tyre in the eastern Mediterranean. Now their colonies were spreading toward the west. Carthage stopped them. The island of Sicily was the dividing line, the chief battle-ground of the contending nations. The Greeks tell us in triumph that on the same day on which they defeated the Persians at Salamis they also defeated the Carthaginians in an equally decisive battle at Himera, in Sicily (480 B.C.). We do not find, however, that the Greeks succeeded in extending their colonies beyond Sicily, or even in driving their rivals from that island. If the Carthaginians made little effort at conquest in their turn, we must remember that they remained to the last a merchant community, seeking dominion only where it could be exercised with profit, never where it meant continued and expensive war. Let us be thankful that at least one human race, the Phoenicians, were never seized with the mad earth-hunger for universal empire.

The ruins of Carthage as they have been excavated today

The ruins of Carthage as they have been excavated today

For two centuries Sicily continued the center of conflict between Greece and Carthage. Finally, in the year 310 B.C., Agathocles, king of Syracuse, the chief Greek city of the island, finding himself close pressed by the Carthaginian forces, boldly crossed from Sicily and besieged Carthage itself. Great was the terror of the merchant city, and we are told that a holocaust of a hundred children of the richest families was sacrificed to their grim god Moloch to avert the peril. Rebellion in Syracuse forced Agathocles to abandon his siege; but the Carthaginians now felt the full danger of their laxity, and set themselves determinedly to clearing Sicily of their enemies. This work was almost, but not quite, completed when Rome entered the field of strife.

In speaking of Carthage we are constantly confronted by the difficulty that we know of her only through her enemies. Like all the Phoenicians, her people seem to have cared as little for renown as for dominion. They have left neither history nor justification, either of themselves or of their deeds. The Romans have given us as an expression of contempt the words “Punic faith,” which means false Phoenician faith. But it is open to question whether the Romans were in any way more trustworthy than their “Punic” rivals in Carthage. These, as they had opposed the spread of Greek dominion, now endeavored also to check that of Rome, but with less success.

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The Punic Wars

No image from ancient Tunisia is as engraved in peoples minds as that of Hannibal's army of elephants

No image from ancient Tunisia is as engraved in peoples minds as that of Hannibal’s army of elephants

The Punic Wars were a series of three wars fought between Rome and Carthage between 264 and 146 BC, and were probably the largest wars yet of the ancient world. They are known as the Punic Wars because the Latin term for Carthaginian was Punici (older Poenici, from their Phoenician ancestry). The main cause of the Punic Wars was the clash of interests between the existing Carthaginian Empire and the expanding Roman Republic. The Romans were initially interested in expansion via Sicily, part of which lay under Carthaginian control.

At the start of the first Punic War, Carthage was the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean, with an extensive maritime empire, while Rome was the rapidly ascending power in Italy. By the end of the third war, after more than a hundred years and the deaths of many hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides, Rome had conquered Carthage’s empire and razed the city, becoming the most powerful state of the Western Mediterranean. With the end of the Macedonian wars — which ran concurrently with the Punic wars — and the defeat of the Seleucid King Antiochus III the Great in the Roman-Syrian War (Treaty of Apamea, 188 BC) in the eastern sea, Rome emerged as the dominant Mediterranean power and one of the most powerful cities in the classical world.

This was a turning point that meant that the civilization of the ancient Mediterranean would pass to the modern world via Europe instead of Africa. The Roman victories over Carthage in these wars gave Rome a preeminent status it would retain until the division of the Roman Empire into the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire by Diocletian in 286 AD.

Carthage and Rome, the two most powerful fighting forces of their age, the one mistress of the seas, the other monarch of the land, met for the first time in clash of battle in 264 B.C. Rome had taken possession of a Greek city in Sicily. The city did not belong to Carthage, but she would not brook this intrusion into her field of power. She demanded that the Romans return to Italy; they refused, and war followed. For a time the Carthaginians were successful; Rome could not make her strength felt beyond Italy, while the Phoenician ships ravaged her shores in triumph. But the Romans built fleets of their own; they devised new tactics of naval warfare; and by defeating their enemy in three great sea fights, at Mylae, Ecnomus, and AEgates, they overthrew forever the boasted naval supremacy of the Phoenicians.

Oddly enough, as the Romans had been successful on Carthage’s own element, the sea, so were the Carthaginians successful on land. The earlier of Carthage’s two great military heroes, Hamilcar Barca, with a mere handful of troops, resisted all the efforts of the Roman armies to drive him out of Sicily. The last crushing defeat of his country’s fleet at AEgates found him still unconquered and defiant. But Carthage hastened to make peace; the war had become too unprofitable. She surrendered Sicily to Rome and paid a war indemnity, which she could easily afford.

Carthaginian soldiers from the Punic wars

Carthaginian soldiers from the Punic wars

A more serious difficulty followed. Carthage had carried on the war by means of mercenaries, or hired soldiers. This was her usual practice, her own citizens serving only as officers. These mercenaries, left without employment by the establishment of peace, and little in love at best with the harsh methods of the merchants who hired and despised them, burst into revolt. The first general sent against them was decisively defeated; and it took the great Hamilcar himself three years to overthrow them and destroy their power.

With his long list of triumphs to enforce his words, Hamilcar persuaded the Carthaginian senate to approve the stupendous plan which he had formed for ultimately defeating Rome. He went as governor to Cadiz and the other Phoenician colonies in Spain, and here for seven years he devoted himself to consolidating the Carthaginian strength and building up an army which he meant to hurl against Rome. He died before his work was completed, but he left it to his son-in-law Hasdrubal, perhaps an even abler statesman than himself. He left behind also a son, as yet only a child, from whom he had exacted a vow of eternal enmity to Rome. This boy was the mighty Hannibal.

Hasdrubal extended and perfected his power over almost all the Spanish peninsula. It was his personal power, not that of Carthage–so much so, indeed, that a treaty marking out the territorial limits there was signed not between Rome and Carthage, but between Rome and “Hasdrubal.” Finally, Hasdrubal also died, assassinated by a vengeful native, and his army, without waiting for assent from Carthage, promptly named as his successor Hamilcar’s young son, Hannibal.

At last the weapon which had been so long in forging seemed to Hannibal fully ready. He deliberately defied Rome to combat. The remarkable war that followed will be described in the Story of Rome. The naval supremacy of Carthage being gone, Hannibal marched his devoted troops from Spain to Italy, achieving his celebrated passage of the Alps. For fifteen years he maintained himself in Italy, defeating army after army of the Romans. The senate of Carthage, already suspicious of the independent action of this great family of its generals, gave Hannibal no help. Spain, the last independent seat of Phoenician cities, was crushed by a Roman force. A Roman army invaded Africa. Then at last the Carthaginians awoke, but only to summon Hannibal home to protect them. Heading their raw mercenary levies, he was defeated by Scipio at Zama (202 B.C.). Carthage promptly sued for peace, and the war closed under conditions that made her a helpless dependent upon Rome.

The third and final war with Rome, if this last one-sided struggle can be called a war, took place more than fifty years later. As the great commercial metropolis renewed her fortunes the Romans became increasingly fearful and suspicious of her. At length she was deliberately goaded into desperation. Her people were commanded to leave their city forever in a body, and to settle inland. This would have left them a helpless farming people, surrounded by savage tribes who hated them. Rather then obey this mandate, which meant death, they defied the Romans and withstood one last terrible siege. The struggle was hopeless from the start. Only the frenzy of despair had driven the Carthaginians to attempt it. Their weapons had been taken from them, so they forged new ones. The women gave their hair for cords and bow-strings, and their jewels to buy supplies. For two years the city withstood the siege. Then it was taken by storm, and the few surviving inhabitants perished or were sold into slavery (146 B.C.). Carthage was leveled to the ground by the vengeful Romans, and the spot where it had stood was sown with salt, that it might remain a desert forever.

Many years later another city of Carthage was built upon the same site. But this was wholly a Roman city. The last flash of the old Semitic genius for conquest had blazed and faded with the fall of Hannibal. The Semitic peoples lost their last grip upon the leadership of the world, and gave place and empire to the advancing Aryans.

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Hannibal, one of the greatest African generals of antiquity

In 218 B.C., Hannibal began the most daring military move in history, that of invading Rome by way of the Alps. But why did this African military genius decide to war against Rome? Before Hannibal’s birth, the Romans ruled Italy, and the Carthaginians ruled Carthage in North Africa. The Carthaginians also ruled the Mediterranean Islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Syracuse (now know as Sicily). The Carthaginians were content as things were, but the Romans were military expansionists. So the Romans broke their treaty with the Carthaginians by expanding their empire into Sicily, and the First Punic War began (264 B.C.).

In 247 B.C., Hamilcar Barca took command of the Carthaginian army and his son, Hannibal, was born. Hannibal was born to one of the most distinguished families in Carthage–the Barcas. After losing a decisive sea battle, the Carthaginians recalled Hamilcar Barca and sued for peace. Rome, however, demanded not only Sicily, but Corsica, Sardinia, and all the islands between Sicily and Africa. In addition, the Carthaginians were compelled to pay a large tribute. In order to recoup their losses, the Carthaginians rebuilt their empire in Spain. In 237 B.C., Hamilcar and Hannibal left for Spain. It took nine years for Hamilcar to conquer or win over the native tribes of Spain. These tribes were no match for the Carthaginian’s training in disciplined warfare. As a result, all of the land south of the Ebro River in Spain became New Carthage. In 230 B.C., Hamilcar was killed in battle, and command of the army was left to his son-in-law, Hasdrubal.

The route used by Hannibal's army to cross the alps

The route used by Hannibal’s army to cross the alps

During all of Hannibal’s years in Spain, first under his father and then under his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, he was taught the world of the soldier. When Hasdrubal was murdered in 221 B.C., there was never a doubt as to his successor. It was inevitable that upon the death of Hasdrubal, Hannibal would succeed him. At the age of twenty-six, he was chosen by the army as their new commander.

Saguntum was a province of New Carthage inhabited by Greeks. After the Greeks attacked some of the tribes in New Carthage, the Romans sided with them and declared themselves protectorates of Saguntum. Knowing that the long term goal of the Romans was to gain control of New Carthage, Hannibal decided to make the first move. He attacked Saguntum, beginning the Second Punic War (218 B.C.) The Romans prepared to invade New Carthage, but Hannibal was not preparing a defense strategy.

With thirty-seven elephants, Hannibal’s army climbed through the Pyrenees, across the Rhone, over the Alps and into Italy. The Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio tried unsuccessfully to check Hannibal’s advances into Italy. Attempting another strategy, he attacked Carthage but was defeated and killed. For the next sixteen years, Hannibal successfully waged war against every Roman legion sent to defeat him. He left a path of destroyed cities and bridges and a huge Roman death toll.

The fact that Hannibal lost most of his elephants crossing the alps in no way discredits the success of his invasion of Italy

The fact that Hannibal lost most of his elephants crossing the alps in no way discredits the success of his invasion of Italy

Rome had lost half a million men in battle, when Publius Cornelius Scipio’s son, called Scipio the Younger, took command. Scipio the Younger decided to take the risk of striking at Carthage. In 204 B.C., Scipio and an army of 25,000 men landed in Carthage. Hearing of the invasion, Hannibal headed back to North Africa. On the plain of Zama, Scipio and Hannibal aligned their armies for battle. Hannibal’s soldiers fought a courageous fight, but they were outflanked and defeated by the powerful Roman legions. Hannibal then sent word to Carthage, “We have lost not only a battle, but the war. Accept the terms of peace offered.”

After the ratification of a peace treaty, Hannibal became the Chief Magistrate of Carthage. Hannibal increased the stability and prosperity of Carthage so well that Carthage soon regained its place as the commercial capital of the western Mediterranean. The Romans were not only nervous about a quick recovery for Carthage, but were afraid that Hannibal would wage another war. In 195 B.C., the Romans demanded his arrest. Hannibal fled Carthage beginning a life of wandering and exile. In 182 B.C., to avoid capture by the Romans, Hannibal committed suicide by drinking a vial of poison. An interesting fact: the Roman General, Scipio the Younger, became forever known as Scipio Africanus, honoring his defeat of the great African general Hannibal.

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