Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Fate of Carthage

In all the history of Rome there is no act of more flagrant treachery and cruelty than that of her dealings with the great rival city of Carthage. In the whole history of the world there is nothing more base and frightful than the utter destruction of that mighty mart of commerce. The jealousy of Rome would not permit a rival to exist. It was not enough to drive Hannibal into exile; Carthage was recovering her trade and regaining her strength; new Hannibals might be born; the terror of the great invasion, the remembrance of the defeat at Cannæ, still remained in Roman memories.

Cato the Censor, a famous old Roman, now eighty-four years of age, and who had served in the wars against Hannibal, hated Carthage with the hatred of a fanatic, and declared that Rome would never be safe while this rival was permitted to exist.

Rising from his seat in the senate, the stern old man glowingly described the power and wealth of Carthage. He held up some great figs, and said, "These figs grow but three days' sail from Rome." There could be no safety for Rome, he declared, while Carthage survived.

"Every speech which I shall make in this house," he sternly declared. "shall finish with these words: 'My opinion is that Carthage must be destroyed (delenda est Carthago.)' "

These words sealed the fate of Carthage. Men of moderate views spoke more mercifully, but Cato swayed the senate, and from that day the doom of Carthage was fixed.

The Carthaginian territory was being assailed and ravaged by Masinissa, the king of Numidia. Rome was appealed to for aid, but delayed and temporized. Carthage raised an army, which was defeated by Masinissa, then over ninety years of age. The war went on, and Carthage was reduced to such straits that resistance became impossible, and in the end the city and all its possessions were placed at the absolute disposal of the senate of Rome, which, absolutely without provocation, had declared war.

An army of eighty thousand foot and four thousand horse was sent to Africa. Before the consuls commanding it there appeared deputies from Carthage, stating what acts of submission had already been made, and humbly asking what more Rome could demand.

"Carthage is now under the protection of Rome," answered Censorinus, the consul, "and can no longer have occasion to engage in war; she must therefore deliver without reserve to Rome all her arms and engines of war."

Hard as was this condition, the humiliated city accepted it. We may have some conception of the strength of the city when it is stated that the military stores given up included two hundred thousand stand of arms and two thousand catapults. It was a condition to which only despair could have yielded, seemingly the last act of humiliation to which any city could consent.

But if Carthage thought that the end had been reached, she was destined to be rudely awakened from her dream. The consuls, thinking the city now to be wholly helpless, dropped the mask they had worn, and made known the senate's treacherous decree.

"The decision of the senate is this," said Censorinus, coldly, to the unhappy envoys of Carthage: "so long as you possess a fortified city near the sea, Rome can never feel sure of your submission. The senate therefore decrees that you must remove to some point ten miles distant from the coast. Carthage must be destroyed."

The trembling Carthaginians heard these fatal words in stupefied amazement. On recovering their senses they broke out into passionate exclamations against the treachery of Rome, and declared that the freedom of Carthage had been guaranteed.

"The guarantee refers to the people of Carthage, not to her houses," answered the consul. "You have heard the will of the senate; it must be obeyed, and quickly."

Carthage, meanwhile, waited in gloomy dread the return of the commissioners. When they gave in the council-chamber the ultimatum of Rome, a cry of horror broke from the councillors. The crowd in the street, on hearing this ominous sound, broke open the doors and demanded what fatal news had been received.

On being told, they burst into a paroxysm of fury. The members of the government who had submitted to Rome were obliged to fly for their lives. Every Italian found in the city was killed. The party of the people seized the government, and resolved to defend themselves to the uttermost. An armistice of thirty days was asked from the consuls, that a deputation might be sent to Rome. This was refused. Despair gave courage and strength. The making of new arms was energetically begun. Temples and public buildings were converted into workshops; men and women by thousands worked night and day; every day there were produced one hundred shields, three hundred swords, five hundred pikes and javelins, and one thousand bolts for catapults. The women even cut off their hair to be twisted into strings for the catapults. Corn was gathered in all haste from every quarter.

The consuls were astonished and disappointed. They had not counted on such energy as this. They did not know what it meant to drive a foe to desperation. They laid siege to Carthage, but found it too strong for all their efforts. They proceeded against the Carthaginian army in the field, but gained no success. Summer and winter passed, and Carthage still held out. Another year (148 B.C.) went by, and Rome still lost ground. Old Cato, the bitter foe of Carthage, had died, at the age of eighty-five. Masinissa, the warlike Numidian, had died at ninety-five. The hopes of the Carthaginians grew. Those of Rome began to fall. The rich booty that was looked for from the sack of Carthage was not to be handled so easily as had been expected.

What Rome lacked was an able general. One was found in Scipio, the adopted son of Publius Scipio, son of the great Scipio Africanus. This young man had proved himself the only able soldier in the war. The army adored him. Though too young for the consulship, he was elected to that high office, and in 147 B.C. sailed for Carthage.

The new commander found the army disorganized, and immediately restored strict discipline to its ranks. The suburb of Megara, from which the people of the city obtained their chief supply of fresh provisions, was quickly taken. Want of food began to be felt. The isthmus which connected the city with the mainland was strongly occupied, and land-supplies were thus cut off. The fleet blockaded the harbor, but, as vessels still made their way in, Scipio determined to build an embankment across the harbor's mouth.

This was a work of great labor, and slowly proceeded. By the time it was done the Carthaginians had cut a new channel from their harbor to the sea, and Scipio had the mortification to see a newly-built fleet of fifty ships sail out through this fresh passage. On the third day a naval battle took place, in which the greater part of the new fleet was destroyed.

Another winter came and went. It was not until the spring of 146 B.C. that the Romans succeeded in forcing their way into the city, and their legions bivouacked in the Forum of Carthage.

But Carthage was not yet taken. Its death-struggle was to be a desperate one. The streets leading from the Forum towards the Citadel were all strongly barricaded, and the houses, six stories in height, occupied by armed men. For three days a war of desperation was waged in the streets. The Romans had to take the first houses of each street by assault, and then force their way forward by breaking from house to house. The cross streets were passed on bridges of planks.

Thus they slowly advanced till the wall of Bosra—the high ground of the Citadel—was reached. Behind them the city was in flames. For six days and nights it burned, destroying the wealth and works of years. When the fire declined passages were cleared through the ruins for the army to advance.

Scipio, who had scarcely slept night or day during the assault, now lay down for a short repose, on an eminence from which could be seen the Temple of Esculapius, whose gilded roof glittered on the highest point of the hill of Bosra. He was aroused to receive an offer from the garrison to surrender if their lives were spared. Scipio consented to spare all but Roman deserters, and from the gates of the Citadel marched out fifty thousand men as prisoners of war.

Hasdrubal, the Carthaginian commander, who had made so brave a defence against Rome, retired with his family and nine hundred deserters and others into the Temple of Esculapius, as if to make a final desperate defence. But his heart failed him at the last moment, and, slipping out alone, he cast himself at Scipio's feet, and begged his pardon and mercy. His wife, who saw his dastardly act, reproached him bitterly for cowardice, and threw herself and her children into the flames which enveloped the Citadel. Most of the deserters perished in the same flames.

"Assyria has fallen," said Scipio, as he looked with eyes of prevision on the devouring flames. "Persia and Macedonia have likewise fallen. Carthage is burning. The day of Rome's fall may come next."

For five days the soldiers plundered the city, yet enough of statues and other valuables remained to yield the consul a magnificent triumph on his return to Rome. Before doing so he celebrated the fall of Carthage with grand games, in which the spoil of that great city was shown the army. To Rome he sent the brief despatch, "Carthage is taken. The army waits for further orders."

The orders sent were that the walls should be destroyed and every house levelled to the ground. A curse was pronounced by Scipio on any one who should seek to build a town on the site. The curse did not prove effective. Julius Cæsar afterwards projected a new Carthage, and Augustus built it. It grew to be a noble city, and in the third century A.D. became one of the principal cities of the Roman empire and an important seat of Western Christianity. It was finally destroyed by the Arabs.