The Carthaginians were an ancient Semitic people known for establishing one of the most powerful and enduring civilisations in the Mediterranean region. Originating from the Phoenician city-state of Tyre (in modern-day Lebanon), they settled in Carthage, located near present-day Tunis in Tunisia, around the 9th century BCE. Carthage became a major power due to its strategic location for trade and its naval dominance. The Carthaginians were heirs to the maritime and commercial legacy of the Phoenicians, expanding their influence through trade networks, colonisation, and military prowess across the Western Mediterranean.
Foundation and expansion
According to ancient sources, Carthage was founded by Phoenician settlers led by the legendary Queen Dido (Elissa). The city’s location made it a hub for trade between the Mediterranean’s eastern and western parts and between the Mediterranean and the interior of North Africa. Over time, Carthage established a vast network of colonies and trading posts along the North African coast, on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and even as far as the Iberian Peninsula. This expansion facilitated the control of trade routes and resources, contributing to Carthage’s wealth and power.
Economy and society
The Carthaginian economy was based on agriculture, trade, and manufacturing. They were renowned for producing and trading goods such as textiles, metals, and the famous Tyrian purple dye. Carthage’s society was hierarchical, with a powerful aristocracy controlling the city’s wealth and political power. Despite this, Carthage was also known for its advancements in governance, including establishing a republic with elected officials and a system of checks and balances that influenced later civilisations.
Military and naval power
Carthage’s military might was one of its defining features, particularly its navy, which was the most powerful in the ancient Mediterranean until the rise of Rome. The Carthaginians also employed mercenary armies from various ethnic backgrounds, reflecting their extensive trade connections and influence. These forces were pivotal in Carthage’s conflicts with Greek city-states, indigenous North African peoples, and, most famously, Rome.
The Punic Wars
The Carthaginians are perhaps best known for their conflicts with Rome, known as the Punic Wars (264-146 BCE). These wars were fought over control of the Western Mediterranean. They included some of the most famous battles in ancient history. The Second Punic War is particularly notable for the Carthaginian general Hannibal’s daring crossing of the Alps with his army, including war elephants, to invade Italy. Despite initial successes, Carthage was eventually defeated by Rome, leading to its decline.
Religion and culture
Carthaginian religion was deeply influenced by their Phoenician roots, with a pantheon of gods similar to those worshipped in the Levant, including Baal Hammon and Tanit. They practised elaborate rituals and, according to some ancient sources, child sacrifice, although this claim is debated among historians. Carthaginian culture, language, and writing system were also derived from their Phoenician ancestry, preserving the legacy of their forebears.
Destruction and legacy
The Third Punic War ended with Rome’s complete destruction of Carthage in 146 BCE. The city was razed, and its lands were reportedly sown with salt to ensure nothing would grow there again. Despite this, the legacy of Carthage lived on through Roman and later historical accounts, archaeological discoveries, and the enduring impact of Phoenician and Carthaginian contributions to Mediterranean culture and civilisation.