Phoenicians from Tyre Found Carthage Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The emergence of Carthage shifted political and economic power from the Middle East to the Western Mediterranean.

Summary of Event

The founding of Carthage represented a major shift in economic and political power in the Mediterranean world. Carthage represented the first major center of Western influence outside the Middle East, the traditional cradle of political influence represented by the Sumerians, Egyptians, Assyrians, and Hittites. As such, Carthage embodied the future of Western civilization, foreshadowing the rise of the Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans. By locating in the western Mediterranean, Carthage retained the best elements of the traditional empires of the east, while enjoying new discoveries and assets present only in the location that Carthage enjoyed. As a result, Carthage quickly emerged as a new political force that first surpassed its originating culture, then dominated the western Mediterranean until the rise of the Roman Republic. Dido

Like many ancient cities, Carthage had both mythological and empirical origins. According to Greek legend, the princess Dido founded the city as a haven after her brother, Pygmalion, murdered her husband and uncle Cicerbas. There she ruled as queen. Roman legend added to Carthage’s legend by casting Dido as the scorned lover of Aeneas, as described in Vergil’s Aeneid (29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553). The Roman story provided a mythological explanation for the Punic Wars between Carthage (the descendants of Dido) and Rome (the descendants of Aeneas).

On a more practical level, Carthage emerged because of shifting power in the eastern Mediterranean. By the eighth century b.c.e., the decline of the Hittite Empire permitted the rise of the Phoenician culture, a cluster of city-states on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean in the region now occupied by Israel and Lebanon. A commercial culture, Phoenicia established a wide-ranging trade network that soon expanded to modern-day Greece, Cyprus, Sicily, and Spain. Around 814 b.c.e. (the traditional date of the founding of Carthage), traders from the Phoenician city of Tyre, seeking additional trading opportunities and raw materials, planted a trading colony on the African coast opposite Sicily in modern-day Tunisia. The city was named Kart Hadasht (new city), later Romanized into Carthage.

The tiny city survived because of mutually beneficial trade agreements arranged between the Phoenicians and the indigenous peoples, the Berbers (from the Greek work barbaros meaning strange or savage, from which derives the word “barbarian”). Surrounded by the more numerous Berbers, the Carthaginians embraced local food and culture while exchanging the goods of the eastern Mediterranean for local products, chiefly gold and tin. As a result, the Berbers became a key element of Carthage’s success, comprising a large percentage of the city’s population and military force.

Carthage remained a remote Phoenician trading post for two hundred years, until events transformed it into a major commercial center. Just as the decline of the Hittites permitted the emergence of the Phoenicians, the expansion of the Babylonian Empire destroyed Phoenician influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and Carthage’s influence increased in proportion. At the same time, new economic powers changed the situation in the western Mediterranean. Greek trading colonies at Selinus and Syracuse challenged Carthaginian dominance in Sicily, forcing Carthage to fight a series of wars to halt Greek expansion. The wars between Greece and Carthage ended in 480 b.c.e. when the Greeks defeated a Carthaginian fleet at the Battle of Himera, temporarily giving the Greeks naval dominance in the western Mediterranean. The Greeks, however, faced a greater threat from the Persian Empire in the east and could not capitalize on their advantage.

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Although Carthage could never consolidate its control over Sicily, it emerged from the Greek wars as an empire in its own right, with commercial contacts expanded to modern-day Sardinia, France, and even the west coast of Africa beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Carthage jealously protected these commercial contacts, going so far as to mandate the execution of any foreign trader found in their ports, a practice that ensured the Carthaginians success and wealth. According to the Greek historian Strabo, Carthage boasted a population of 700,000 and controlled an empire of seven hundred cities. Carthage also benefited from trade contacts with the Romans, a new culture consolidating its power across the Mediterranean in modern-day Italy. Although Carthage would later fight a series of wars with the Romans, trade benefited both cultures, and the Romans signed treaties of peace and commerce with Carthage in 508 and 450 b.c.e.

The success of Carthage rested on its population, stability, location, and ingenuity. Because of its close cooperation with the local Berbers, Carthage possessed wider opportunities to expand its commercial interests than other rising cultures, who faced opposition from local cultures who did not welcome outside influence. This advantage was particularly useful to the Carthaginians after their defeat in Sicily led them to emphasize expansion on the African continent instead of into the eastern Mediterranean. Also unlike other cultures, Carthage enjoyed relative political stability over the course of its history. Although a popularly elected assembly existed to manage city affairs, it had little influence, and political power rested instead with the wealthy commercial families. These families controlled the politics of the empire through a small but powerful senate, overseen by two magistrates (suffetes) named by the senate in manner reminiscent of the later Roman Empire. Although hardly a democratic government, the Carthaginian senate did at least rule consistently, balancing political power between the two major political interests: one that comprised the external commercial business of the empire and the other made up of the internal agricultural interests. Families engaged in external commerce tended to dominate in the senate, although they had to address the demands of the internal agricultural faction, which included the large numbers of Berbers essential for Carthaginian economic success.

The city of Carthage, which, according to legend, was founded by Dido.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

The next great advantage that led to Carthage’s success was a location well suited for both commercial expansion and long-term survival. From a commercial standpoint, Carthage is ideally located at the narrowest point of the Mediterranean Sea. Modern-day Tunisia is located at the northernmost point of Africa immediately opposite the point where Italy juts into the Mediterranean. In between, like a cork in a bottleneck, is Sicily. The only sea passage between Sicily and Italy is through the narrow and treacherous Straits of Messina, location of Scylla and Charybdis in Greek legend. The southern sea passage, much wider and less treacherous, passed right by Carthage, which was thus in a prime position to regulate not only the east-west sea traffic but also the north-south land traffic across the Mediterranean. This central location also meant that Carthaginian ships did not have to range the entire length of the Mediterranean, but instead sat in the middle.

From a military viewpoint, Carthage’s location was equally advantageous. Carthage sat on a peninsula jutting out from the mainland that limited landward access from the west. To the east was the open Mediterranean. Flanking the city to north and south were two enclosed bodies of water, the southern Bay of Tunis and the northern Stagnum Marinum (dead ocean), the shallow, salty mouth of the Medjerda River. All of these geographical features made Carthage a daunting place to attack. An immense wall, 18 miles (29 kilometers) long, surrounded the city, with the thickest defenses—40 feet (12 meters) high and 30 feet (9 meters) thick—across the base of the peninsula, which was 3 miles (5 kilometers) long. This sealed off any landward attack from the west. The northern and southern bodies of water also aided Carthage’s defense. With two access points to the sea, a sea-borne enemy had to possess a huge naval force to entirely blockade the Carthaginian navy or halt its sea trade. The Medjerda River was another factor that ensured Carthage’s survival. It provided a secure source of fresh water, its fertile banks kept the city fed, and it served as a natural highway into the African interior and to Carthage’s Berber allies.

Carthaginian ingenuity took these existing advantages and made them better. Chief among Carthage’s innovations were two titanic manmade harbors, each with an entrance to the sea and internally connected by a canal. Located in the southeast corner of the city off the Bay of Tunis, the harbors consisted of a large rectangular commercial harbor and a round harbor with an island in the center for military vessels. Each harbor was manmade, with the commercial harbor requiring the excavation of approximately 157,000 cubic yards (120,000 cubic meters) of earth and the military harbor 150,000 cubic yards (115,000 cubic meters ); the latter was capable of accommodating 220 warships.

Given these advantages, the long history of Carthage is no surprise. Utilizing the advantages of position, allies, and opportunities, Carthage soon emerged as a major Mediterranean power.

Significance

The creation of Carthage began a major transition of cultural, military, political, and economic power in the ancient world. As the first great civilization beyond the traditional cradle of civilizations in the Middle East, Carthage laid the groundwork for the elements of culture that marked a separate Western civilization. Although created by an eastern culture, Carthage soon developed its own identity and independence. Carthage pioneered the sense of nationalism, the diversified economy of agriculture and commerce, the military balanced between land and sea power, and the urge to explore and expand that led to the success of other empires, notably Rome.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aubet, Maria E. The Phoenicians and the West: Politics, Colonies, and Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. A study of Phoenician expansion into the Western Mediterranean.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charles-Picard, Gilbert. The Life and Death of Carthage. London: Sidgwick, 1968. A very comprehensive history of Carthage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. New York: Blackwell, 1997. A good history of Carthage, incorporating up-to-date archaeological research.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pisano, Giovanna. Phoenicians and Carthaginians in the Western Mediterranean. Rome: University of Rome, 1999. Emphasizes the Phoenician origins of Carthage and its connection to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Dido; Hamilcar Barca; Hannibal; Hanno.

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