Mosaic at the Parc des Villas Romaines in Carthage
“And by the way, I think that Carthage should be destroyed!” Cato the Elder never forgot to mention this before he finished one of his speeches in the Senate of Rome. He held a lot of speeches and was finally successful: the senate launched the third Punic war against Carthage (149-146 BC).
At least since 750 BC, the first Punic settlements have existed on a hill called Bysra (cow hide) near today’s Tunis. “Just as much land as fits in a cow hide, pleaaaase!” pleaded Dido, the legendary founder of Carthage. She was a Phoenician princess from Tyre (today in Lebanon), who had landed with a bunch of followers on the territory of a Numidian king, and they hoped to settle there. Impressed by her beauty, the king granted her this wish. A promise he was soon to regret. Dido cut the cow hide into thin strips that could be laid around a broad area including a strategically important harbour.
Well, the Phoenicians were sea traders, and they knew what a good harbour was. By the 4th century BC, Carthage grew into one of the largest and richest cities in the Mediterranean. Rome’s fear of her North African rival finally led to the three Punic Wars, trade wars over the economic dominance in the region. During the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) the famous Punic general Hannibal crossed the Alps with 37 war elephants and thousands of troops to march on Rome. “Hannibal ante portas!” When he stood at the gates of the city, the Romans were terrified by those weapons of mass destruction of their time. Although Hannibal could inflict massive damage on the Roman army, he was finally defeated and committed suicide. Today mostly remembered for his march over the Alps, he was also the Punic leader who introduced elections into a formerly hereditary oligarchy.
The increasing similarities with Rome – both were republics, both were rich and influential centres of trade – did not prevent another war: The third Punic war. Cato got his way, and Carthage was utterly destroyed after a three-year siege. The whole city was ploughed over and then strewn with salt to make it uninhabitable. Only a hundred years later, the Romans started to build a new city on the rubble. Democracy never quite recovered, but Carthage became a commercial centre again. As Christianity spread, numerous of its followers lived in the town and got martyred in the local amphitheatre.
Today Tunis-Carthage is a leafy affluent suburb, and the mansions of the rich and powerful are interspersed with the ruins (mostly Roman and some Punic ones).
“Just imagine all the pomp they indulged in!” a German in shorts, a green Polo-Shirt spanning over his immense pot-belly, tells his surprisingly thin friend. “These Roman emperors!” he adds reproachfully. As if emperor Antonius Pius had wasted his tax money on the large Roman public bath. Although the guide book labels the bath of Antonius Pius as the most impressive site in Carthage, there is not much to see, apart from a few pillars, walls and vaults. Undeterred, we proceeded to visit about 20 other, less impressive sites. With the help of three guide books and our school memories, we managed to breathe life into the antique Carthage. And by the way, we think that Carthage should not have been destroyed.