During the beginning of
the last millennium BC, the Phoenicians began establishing colonies
around the Mediterranean to compete with the Greeks for trade. The most
important Phoenician colony was Carthage. It was founded around 800 BC
near modern Tunis in North Africa. Although the home cities in Phoenicia
were repeatedly conquered and subjugated, the colony of Carthage
prospered and expanded to become one of the great powers of the Western
True to their Phoenician
heritage, the Carthaginians became great seafarers, traders, and
colonizers. There is some evidence that they circumnavigated Africa and
very questionable evidence that they reached the Americas. They
capitalized on the trade of Spanish silver and British tin. Carthaginian
settlements spread along the North African coast, into western Sicily,
Sardinia, Corsica, Minorca, and much of Spain (modern Cartagena in Spain
was called Carthago Nova, or New Carthage). During the fifth and fourth
centuries BC they fought with the Greeks for trade and colonies,
especially in Sicily. In the third century, they began a titanic clash
with the rising power of Rome.
The Punic Wars between
Rome and Carthage were fought to decide which power would dominate the
Western Mediterranean. The first war (264–241 BC) was fought over
Sicily. The Romans were not a naval power but built fleets from scratch
based on the plans of a captured ship. Their first two fleets defeated
Carthaginian fleets but were in turn lost to storms. Their third fleet
completed the defeat of the Carthaginians at sea.
The Carthaginians were
forced out of Sicily, and lost Corsica and Sardinia as well. The Second
Punic War (218–201 BC) was a temporary improvement of Carthaginian
fortunes and a near victory. The war was triggered by the great general
Hannibal who marched out of modern Spain, across modern France, and into
modern Italy across the Alps with a large army, including war elephants.
In a brilliant campaign of 16 years, Hannibal defeated the Romans at
every turn, although he lacked the critical strength to take Rome itself
and end the war. Unable to defeat Hannibal’s army in Italy, the Romans
attacked the Carthaginians first in Spain and then in North Africa.
Hannibal was called out of Italy to defend the homeland. At the decisive
battle at Zama, the Romans destroyed the Carthaginian army.
Carthage was forced to
give up its overseas possessions, pay a large indemnity, reduce its
fleet, and become subservient to Rome. By 150 BC the city had recovered
and was seen again as a threat. When the Carthaginians attacked Numidia,
a Roman ally, the Romans responded by attacking Carthage once more. This
time the city was destroyed utterly and its power broken forever. A
symbolic furrow was plowed through the city and sown with salt to show
that the city would not be allowed to revive.