Carthage – The Shit Blizzard – Jan 12

Okay. Carthage. Let’s begin.

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(Forensic reproduction)

First, the name. Carthage is an Anglicization of Carthago, which was a Romanization of Qart Hadasht. Qart Hadasht comes from Phoenician, the language of one of the many Semitic-speaking peoples of the Eastern Mediterrenean Basin (from Syria to the Sinai basically). It means “New City.” The Phoenicians were the best shipbuilders and traders of the Bronze Age and maintained that reputation well into the Iron Age. The Roman alphabet is Phonecian in origin. These were the fellows tooling around the Mediterranean trading things like the Hittite bronzework seen in the OP or Egyptian fiber products for Celtic craftsmanship in what’s now southern France and coastal Spain, or whatever raw materials the goatherding primitives of the Italian Peninsula could scrounge up. Their principle city was Tyre, which maintained its status as a dominant force in international trade until Alexander the Great burned it down in a fit of pique. I may do another post about that episode later.

Like the Greeks after them, the seaborne Phonecians had a bit of a mania for founding colonies. They’d settle new cities in areas with good harborage, commanding positions along trade routes; or, ideally, both. Phoenician colonization is one hypothesis for the origin of the Etruscans, the Italian group who lorded over the Romans until their indigenous nobles drove out the last Etruscan king.

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Etruscans: Secret duck nazis?


Somewhere between 1300 and 1200 BCE Qart Hadasht was founded as a colony of old Tyre. The Since Tyre was already old by the 14th Century BCE, you can get some idea of just how long Mediterranean civilization had been kicking around by then. We don’t have a very clear understanding of this period because, some thousand years later, the Romans killed and burned all the people and records that might’ve informed us about it. Now, remember that the Phoenicians liked to site their cities in places that either had good harbors or were conducive to trade? Well, look at this location:

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Carthaginian Empire

Carthage sat at the elbow of modern Tunisia, on the shores of a natural harbor. A fleet based out of that location can command the straits on either side of Sicily without needing a single pair of sandals on Sicily proper (though that couldn’t hurt). Control those straits and you control trade between the eastern and western halves of the Mediterranean. Suddenly all those traders from Tyre, Sidon, Antioch and the rest are paying you protection money to get to and from the cities of Spain, France and western Italy. Or they’re saving some time and doing business in The Markets of Carthage–the New City was roughly equidistant from the capital-rich Eastern Mediterrenean kingdoms and the resource-rich Celtic kingdoms of the west. It doesn’t take long in this position before the people of Carthage are spectacularly, fabulously rich.

Trade and wealth were such important features of Carthaginian life that they eventually became the lone determinants of social standing. The Carthaginians were a naked plutocracy: their government was quite literally a gathering of the wealthiest citizens of the city. The Roman senate was similar, you had to have a certain net wealth to be a Roman senator or equestrian, but unlike their Italian blood-enemies the Carthaginians placed no stigma on the noveau riche. It didn’t matter how you came by your money, or how recently. As long as you had it, you could hang with the big boys in the smoke-filled rooms. By the same token, they didn’t have the Roman legacy of destitute aristocrats clinging to legal titles even when their wealth was gone. If a storm wiped out your family’s trading fleet, you were mucking it out in the gutters with the rest of the vermin and none of your old friends were obligated to care.

If this sounds like Ayn Rand’s fantasy civlization, well. Yeah. It was. It was the kind of society Gordon Gekko dreams about.


So we’ve got a society ruled by the very wealthy, whose station in society is based entirely on that wealth. They used their money the same as our wealthy do: to make more money. Specifically, they set out to conquer more key areas of the Mediterrenean trade routes. See, even as late as the 1600s AD Mediterrenean shipping stayed very close to shore. Whoever holds the coastal cities also holds the places where merchant vessels and travellers stay the night or put in during bad weather. The residents of those cities sell the captains their supplies and the sailors their wine. And you’ll note, coastal cities are rather more difficult to sink than ships. The more coastal territory you have, and the more businesses you control in those territories, the more money you rake in by the great greasy handfulls every year.

Never a huge population, instead of pressganging their peasants to fight wars they used some of that incredible wealth to hire mercenaries from all over the Mediterrenean. Infantry from Greece and Spain, cavalry from Numidia, elephants from further inland Africa, as long as the merchant families could meet the payments they could instead focus their manpower on building a huge navy to connect and protect all these far flung coastal and island territories, staffed by skilled sailors from their trade fleets and built with superlative Phoenician maritime engineering. They planted colony cities along the coast between Carthage and the straits of Gibraltar, conquered all the island principalities between Spain and Sicily, and as you can see from the map above, even took a sizeable chunk of western Sicily for themselves. Then, of course, came the Romans.


The Punic Wars aren’t really my specialty, and definitely deserve a post to themselves. Suffice it to say, the Romans were pulling themselves together in the 3rd Century BCE. They fought Pyrrhus, the king of Greco-Macedonian Epirus, and proved for the first time that an Italian city could stand up to the long-time powers of the Mediterranean world. Pyrrhus ‘won’ the conflict, but since it gave us the term ‘Pyrrhic Victory’ you can imagine the margins of his success. The First Punic War (Punicus being a Latin word for the Carthaginians) was a long, ugly conflict Betweem the Romans and Carthaginians over who got to control Sicily and the western Mediterranean trade routes. The Romans won, but they never took the city of Carthage itself and couldn’t break the Carthaginians’ power entirely.

After that the main Carthaginian general and leading politician of his day, Hamilcar Barca (father of Hannibal), went out and conquered southern Spain. Cartagena and Barcelona were both originally founded around this time, as Carthago Nova and Barkeno respectively. It’s kind of ironic: back then, Spain was famous for its rich silver veins and general mineral wealth. Like the Spanish conquistadors of later eras, the Carthaginians came to exploit the hell out of the place, both for resources and manpower. All that wealth went towards gearing up for the next showdown with the Romans, which was not long in coming.

Hamilcar died in 228 BCE. His son, Hannibal, who’d accompanied his father in the Iberian wars, became the greatest Carthaginian general of the Second Punic War. The Romans won again, but not before Hannibal butchered several Roman armies to a man and spent years on end pillaging the Italian countryside. His devasations altered the domestic Roman economy for the duration of the empire in ways I’ll need to get to in another post. The end of the Second Punic War was much more one-sided than the first. The Carthaginians forfeited their empire, paid huge reparations to the Romans, and basically limped along for a generation until the Romans came in and stomped them into the ground one last time. They actually levelled the city and salted the earth, then forbid the survivors by law from refounding it. Then they built their own Carthage nearby, to take advantage of the same strategic location.

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Roman Carthage, fully assimilated.

Roman Carthage

Carthage became the capital of Roman Africa. The farms of Africa were the breadbasket of Italy for ages, alongside grain shipments from the Nile Delta, and the city retained its importance as one of the key trade cities of the Mediterranean. The Roman Empire eventually succeeded in conquering every inch of Mediterrenean coastline. They called it the Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea,” and Carthage profited from its position as a handy midway point between the eastern and western markets. After a while it was just another imperial metropolis. The natives were Roman citizens: they paid taxes and elected magistrates and joined the legions and all the rest. Emperor Gordian III came from Carthage, as did the Christian writer St. Augustine. A lot of City of Man is Augustine reflecting on his youth spent with his live-in pagan girlfriend in Carthage. Augustine died in the sack of Carthage by the Visigoths, a German people who fought their way through spain before they slipped over Gibraltar and conquered Roman Africa in the 5th Century CE. They founded their kingdom on top of the old imperial province.

The Roman Empire, now based in Constantinople, recovered its African territories in the 500s and held them until the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. In 695 the Umayyad general Hasan ibn Al-Nu’man took the city and proceeded west towards Gibraltar. The Romans landed a counterinvasion force and took the city back, but Al-Nu’man swung east in 698, defeated the Romans again, and levelled the city just as the Romans did its predecessor in the Third Punic War. The ruins of Carthage now lie in the suburbs of Tunis, which was founded in the Muslim era to take advantage of the same excellent strategic position that drew Phoenician settlers in two thousand years previous. Some of the old ruins of Carthage still stand, and you can go see them the next time you happen to be in Tunisia.

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Carthage, once the jewel of the Mediterranean, now a sand-blasted tourist site.