Carthage is the largest of the towns founded by the Phoenicians on the north African coast. It rapidly assumes a leading position among the neighbouring colonies. The traditional date of its founding (by Dido) is 814 BC, but archaeological evidence suggests that it is probably settled around the middle of the 8th century.
The subsequent spread and growth of Phoenician colonies in the western Mediterranean, and even out to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Spain, is as much the achievement of Carthage as of the original Phoenician trading cities such as Tyre and Sidon. But no doubt links are maintained with the homeland, and new colonists continue to come west.
Colonies and rivals: 6th – 3rd century BC
In the 6th century the Carthaginians establish colonies beyond the straits of Gibraltar – southwards on the Moroccan coast at Larache and to the north at Cadiz (where they conquer a city already founded by settlers from Phoenicia).
And there is trade much further afield in both directions. A colony is established on the African coast near Essaouira (by this time the Phoenicians have sailed all round Africa). Carthaginian coins have been found in the Azores and in Britain. The tin mines of Cornwall are the focus of trade with Britain, just as the gold, silver and copper of southern Spain are the important commodities of Cadiz.
Carthage’s main rivals for economic power in the western Mediterranean are their nearest neighbours – the Greeks of Sicily, separated from them only by the Sicilian Channel.
For more than a century, from 409 BC, there is almost continual warfare between Carthaginians and Greeks for the control of Sicily. By about 275 BC the advantage has gone to the Carthaginians. But by then a third power is in the field, and one with which Carthage will be less evenly matched – Rome.
The Punic Wars: 264-146 BC
The three wars between Carthage and Rome include astonishing Carthaginian successes – in particular the 15-year campaign of Hannibal in Italy, after his famous crossing of the Alps.
But the end is disaster for the Carthaginians. The final event of this long and brutal conflict is a siege of Carthage by a Roman army and fleet.
The city’s defences are so strong, and the resistance of the Carthaginians so desperate, that the siege lasts for three years. When Carthage is finally starved into submission, in 146 BC, a population of 250,000 has been reduced to 50,000. These survivors are sold into slavery. The city burns for seventeen days, after which the ground is cleared and ploughed. Salt is scattered in the furrows, and a curse is pronounced to ensure that neither houses nor crops ever rise here again.
This obsessive frenzy of destruction has a sting in the tail for the Romans. When they later wish to found a new city on this strategic site, the curse proves something of a psychological obstacle for potential settlers.
Colonia Julia Carthago: from 122 BC
A first attempt to establish a Roman colony on the site of Carthage is made within a quarter of a century, in 122 BC. The place is considered ill-omened from the start. Macabre tales circulate in Rome of wolves tearing up the boundary markers. Within thirty years the scheme is abandoned. But a new colony is proposed by Julius Caesar. After his death it develops into a thriving Roman city, known as Colonia Julia Carthago.
By the middle of the 1st century AD Carthage is the second largest city (after Rome) in the western half of the empire and is the hub of the prosperous Roman provinces of north Africa.
These provinces, rich from agriculture, run in a continuous coastal strip along the northern parts of present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya before linking with the province of Egypt, where the Nile allows Roman penetration further south into the continent.
Carthage also plays an important part in Christian history. The most poignant martyrdom of early Christians is that of a young Carthaginian woman, Perpetua. In 313 the city provides the emperor Constantine with his first Christian dispute. In 439 Carthage falls to an Arian Christian – Gaiseric, king of the Vandals.
The Vandals in Carthage: AD 439-533
With Carthage as his base, Gaiseric dominates the western Mediterranean – much as the Carthaginians once did. He annexes Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic islands. In 455 he even invades Italy, reaching and capturing Rome. His troops plunder systematically for two weeks, carrying off many treasures (including those which Titus, in this game of imperial plunder, has taken four centuries previously from the Temple in Jerusalem). The empress and her two daughters are taken as hostages.
The independent Vandal kingdom, a thorn in the side of Rome, lasts almost a century – until destroyed by a Byzantine expedition in 533.
The last years of Carthage: AD 533-698
Justinian, the Byzantine emperor, orders the restoration of the city and gives it its final name – Colonia Justiniana Carthago, commemorating himself and echoing the earlier involvement of Julius Caesar. Its last chapter comes to an end with the Arab conquest of north Africa. The governor of Egypt, Hasan ibn Noman, captures Carthage from the Byzantines in 698 and orders its complete destruction.
But this strategic site on the Mediterranean coast is too valuable to waste. Another city grows a little to the south of ancient Carthage. It thrives today as Tunis.