The great captains of antiquity were not often given to bouts of melancholic introspection. They were a hardened lot, largely inured to the carnage and suffering they caused.
Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, commander of the Roman legions that besieged Carthage in the mid–second century BC, was not a typical great captain of the ancient world. A Roman aristocrat, he was the son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, victor of the 168 BC Battle of Pydna, and the adoptive grandson of Scipio Africanus, who had vanquished Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC. Scipio Aemilianus was also the patron of the eponymous Scipionic Circle, a gathering of literary and philosophical luminaries that included the Greek historian Polybius, the Roman African playwright Terence and the Stoic philosopher Panaetius. Scipio and friends were foremost among Romans who embraced Greek culture and refinement.
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In the spring of 146 BC once mighty Carthage fell to Scipio’s troops. Observing the city in its death throes, he began to weep and quoted aloud a line from the Iliad: “The day shall come in which our sacred Troy, and Priam, and the people over whom spear-bearing Priam rules, shall perish all.” Polybius was at Scipio’s side when he spoke Homer’s words and asked what the consul meant by them. Scipio, believing Carthage’s doom was the ultimate fate of all great nations and empires, expressed his fear Rome would one day suffer a similar fate.
Rome and Carthage had previously fought two long wars. While the First Punic War (264–241 BC) centered on Sicily, the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) engulfed Iberia, North Africa, Sicily, Sardinia and mainland Italy. (The Latin word punicus derives from the Greek term Phoinix, a reference to the Carthaginians’ Phoenician origins.) Each conflict had been enormously costly to the warring empires. Rome had outlasted Carthage both times, despite having been brought to the verge of ruin by Hannibal in the Second Punic War. The latter ended with Carthage agreeing by treaty in 201 BC to relinquish its overseas territories and pay Rome a massive indemnity over the next half century.
Contrary to expectation, Carthage prospered greatly in the wake of its second defeat, its people focusing on trade and the agricultural development of their remaining North African holdings. The result was a robust economy that enabled Carthage to shoulder the heavy burden of the annual indemnity payments to Rome.
One Roman in particular, the octogenarian consul and statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, was dismayed by Carthage’s resurgence. On paying a visit to the flourishing city in 157 BC and recalling the prior Punic wars, Cato perceived a mortal threat to Rome in the making. Back home he ended all of his public speeches with the same refrain: “I am also of the opinion that Carthage should cease to exist.” The phrase is remembered today in its pithier form: “Carthage must be destroyed.” During at least one speaking occasion Cato held aloft a ripe, three-day-old North African fig to illustrate just how dangerously close Carthage lay to Italy. He argued for a pre-emptive war to eliminate their long-standing nemesis before it did the same to Rome.
Cato and his fellow war hawks only needed a proper casus belli against Carthage to have their way. They got it when the aged Massinissa, king of Numidia and an ally of Rome since the closing days of the Second Punic War, became embroiled in a territorial spat with Carthage over the North African region of Emporia (present-day western Libya). Under the terms of the 201 BC treaty Rome was compelled to adjudicate the dispute. Not surprising, the Senate came down heavily, even outrageously, in favor of Massinissa’s rather dubious claim to Emporia. Adding insult to injury, it also imposed an indemnity of 500 talents (a talent was roughly 70 pounds of silver) on Carthage for having enjoyed the fruits of the region.
Thus emboldened, the Numidian king continued to encroach on Carthaginian territory, eventually claiming just about all of it, with the exception of the city of Carthage itself. Realizing Rome would never rein in Massinissa, Carthage went on the offensive against Numidian raiders at Oroscopa (in present-day northwestern Tunisia) in 151 BC. Its 30,000-man army, under the command of Hasdrubal the Boetharch, aggressively pursued the Numidians, only to be encircled in a hilltop camp and starved into submission. Notwithstanding its abject failure, the campaign represented a blatant breach of the peace of 201 BC, which forbade Carthage from waging war without first seeking Roman approval. That was all the excuse Rome’s pro-war party needed.
Hoping to placate the Romans, the Carthaginians condemned Hasdrubal and sent an embassy to Rome but were coldly rebuffed. The Senate then approved a formal declaration of war against Carthage and dispatched an expeditionary force of 80,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry and 150 war galleys to Africa under the two consuls for 149 BC, Manius Manilius and Lucius Marcius Censorinus. The North African port city of Utica, within 30 miles’ march of Carthage, went over to the Romans and became a base for their army.
Wholly unprepared to contend with such an immense invasion force, Carthage rushed another embassy to Rome. The envoys were instructed to deliver 300 children from aristocratic Carthaginian families as hostages to the consuls, then en route to Africa, and to obey the latter’s commands in all other respects. If they did these things, the Senate declared, then Rome would respect Carthaginian sovereignty, freedom, property and laws. Out of options, Carthage agreed and surrendered the nobles’ children to the consuls.
The consuls next ordered the Carthaginians to disarm, which they promptly did. But Rome’s bad faith became manifest when the consuls ultimately proclaimed their standing orders: Carthage was to be razed and its populace displaced at least 10 miles inland. The Carthaginians would never again be a maritime people.
Facing the wholesale destruction of their capital city and way of life, the Carthaginians finally resolved to fight. They produced weapons at a breakneck pace to replace those they had handed over. Military operations in the hinterlands were entrusted to Hasdrubal, who remained at the head of some 30,000 soldiers.
The consuls would have to secure victory the hard way. Laying siege to a sprawling city of as many as 800,000 inhabitants was a daunting prospect. Not only did Carthage boast a 20-plus-mile perimeter of stout, tower-studded walls some 40 feet high and 30 feet thick, but also its topography rendered it a formidable challenge. The city lay on a peninsula connected to the mainland by a 3-mile-wide isthmus, a difficult expanse for any besieger to effectively guard. Thus Hasdrubal, having access to cities deeper in Carthaginian territory, was able to run supplies straight into Carthage, right past the Romans’ porous blockade.
Neither Manilius nor Censorinus made much initial headway, as Hasdrubal’s men continually harried both consuls’ rear-area operations. Censorinus brought up giant battering rams and opened a breach in the walls, but counterattacking Carthaginians readily repulsed the legionaries. Only the levelheadedness of a single tribune, Scipio Aemilianus, prevented a catastrophe. As the main body of legionaries surged inside the walls, Scipio wisely held back his men in the event the attack failed. When it did, Scipio’s troops plunged in to fend off the enemy and spare the retreating Romans from total destruction.
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From within the city the enterprising Carthaginians successfully sortied with fireships to burn much of the Roman fleet at anchor. A follow-up attack one night very nearly overran Manilius’ camp. On that occasion Scipio intervened to strike at the rear of the Carthaginian force, prompting it into a hasty retreat. During a subsequent abortive attack by Manilius against the nearby city of Nepheris, four Roman cohorts found themselves trapped atop a hill ringed by enemy troops. Again riding to the rescue, Scipio led a small force of cavalry to drive off the Carthaginians and escort the legionaries to camp.
The aged Massinissa, though his greed had been an underlying cause of this war, was conspicuous by his absence. Displeased the Romans had not conferred with him in advance about the campaign, he refrained from taking part. After the grasping king died in 148 BC, at around age 90, Scipio received welcome help from his son, Gulussa, whose incomparable light cavalry helped suppress mounted Carthaginian marauders harrying the Romans in the hinterlands.
By then Manilius and Censorinus were reaching the end of their annual terms, and incoming consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso and his fleet admiral, Lucius Hostilius Mancinus, were en route to Africa. Scipio dutifully sailed back to Rome, where he planned to stand for election as aedile, a mid-level post in the Roman government.
Over the course of the coming year reports from the Carthaginian front were no better than they had been under Censorinus and Manilius. Piso was thrown back when he attacked the city of Aspis, and for the entire summer he lay stymied before the city walls of coastal Hippo Acra. Forced to abandon the siege, the humiliated consul led his men on the ignominious march into winter quarters in Utica.
Meanwhile, Hasdrubal remained at large with his army. At that juncture Carthage’s prospects didn’t look so bleak. It had proven Rome anything but invincible. Yet infighting had taken a toll. Hasdrubal the Boetharch, scheming for more power, brought an accusation before Carthage’s popular assembly, alleging that the city’s commander, also named Hasdrubal and a nephew of the Numidian Gulussa, was plotting to betray Carthage. Swallowing the rumor, the assemblymen beat Hasdrubal to death with the very benches on which they sat. They replaced him with his accuser, Hasdrubal the Boetharch.
Meanwhile, Rome was keen to find a new commander to take the reins of its floundering army in North Africa. Scipio, the only success story of the war, proved a natural choice. Though he was a candidate for an aedileship and, according to Roman law, was too young (at age 37) to stand as consul, the Senate voted him to the consulship regardless. In an additional gesture of confidence the Roman people voted directly to place Scipio in charge of the latest Punic war, instead of allowing his post to be determined by lot, as was customary.
After collecting fresh troops, Scipio sailed for Africa. In his absence Mancinus had mounted an amphibious attack on Carthage itself. After seizing a sally port, however, the operation had floundered, leaving the consul, his 3,500 men and their ships stranded inside, unable to advance or retreat, as night came on.
Mancinus sent an urgent plea for reinforcements to Utica, where he expected Piso to be, but the latter was off besieging other towns in Carthaginian territory. As fortune would have it, arriving that very night in Utica was Scipio, Piso’s replacement as consul. Scipio simply sailed on to Carthage, boarded Mancinus’ stranded men on his own ships and spirited them to safety.
After formally assuming command, Scipio assessed his army. What he found was not to his liking. Two years of abject failure had led to a serious decline in morale and discipline. Some legionaries were conducting unauthorized looting expeditions into the countryside. Others had deserted to the Carthaginians, a truly reprehensible step for any Roman soldier. Furthermore, lax security had allowed a force of Carthaginians to set up camp scarcely a half mile from the city. They were soon joined by Hasdrubal, who brought with him 6,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry.
Scipio moved quickly to restore order and discipline, first casting out the camp followers and other assorted hangers-on. Having secured a firm grip on his army, Scipio made his first move as commander, leading an assault force equipped with axes, ladders and pry bars against Megara, a suburb abutting the city walls of Carthage. Its defenders ultimately spotted the Roman force and repelled the main attack, but a handful of legionaries managed to capture a deserted tower almost adjoining the city walls. From this redoubt they ran planks across the gap, dropped into Carthage and broke open a gate. Scipio rushed inside at the head of 4,000 legionaries.
Its defenders, thinking the city lost, retreated within Byrsa, Carthage’s fortified central citadel. Megara, however, proved a bewildering maze of streets and water-filled ditches. Scipio, concerned his men might fall into an ambush in the darkness, again showed his coolness under pressure by withdrawing his troops.
Hasdrubal the Boetharch, who had taken over Carthage’s defense after his successful takedown of the previous Hasdrubal, vented his rage at the Roman attack on Megara by having Roman prisoners tortured within view of Scipio’s besieging forces and then tossed from the city walls. Though intended to stiffen Carthaginian resolve, his cruelty instead drew the ire of internal critics. Hasdrubal had several such “domestic enemies” summarily executed. As the siege dragged on, he increasingly became a tyrannical commander, seeking to cow his terrified men into compliance.
Scipio understood the only way to capture Carthage would be to sever its links to the outside world, for while those remained, its defenders could still bring in food and other supplies to sustain its huge population. Accordingly, he had his men torch the Carthaginian encampment outside the city walls, which Hasdrubal had abandoned amid the attack on Megara. Scipio then built an enormous fortified camp, with trenches and palisades extending from one side of the isthmus to the other, thus cutting off the capital’s landward communication with the rest of Africa. As food supplies dwindled, Hasdrubal gave what little remained to his soldiers, leaving citizens to starve.
Scipio next constructed a breakwater, extending across the harbor mouth from a finger of land called the Taenia, to sever Carthage’s seaward communications. Recognizing the existential threat the barrier posed, the Carthaginians constructed war galleys in secret from whatever scrap wood they could find. Then one day at dawn they emerged suddenly from a newly built entrance beyond the reach of the breakwater, taking the Romans completely by surprise. But the Carthaginians squandered their opportunity, merely rowing about in a show of force before retiring within the confines of the harbor. When they emerged again three days later, this time for battle, the Roman fleet was ready for them and mauled the Carthaginian ships, which stacked up along a merchant quay as they sought to retreat back inside the harbor.
Scipio promptly assaulted the quay and brought up siege engines, but Carthaginian swimmers managed to stage a surprise nighttime raid and set fire to the rams and other engines. Refusing to relent, Scipio ultimately captured the quay, from which his soldiers began to launch burning missiles into the city.
In the winter of 147 BC Scipio struck at neighboring Nepheris, which fell after a three-week siege. With its capture the last store of food destined for Carthage was in Roman hands, and the famine within its walls deepened.
The end for Carthage came in the spring of 146 BC. After breaching a harbor wall, Scipio’s troops assaulted the citadel of Byrsa and its surrounding district. Braving a rain of missiles hurled from the district’s six-story houses, the Romans engaged in house-to-house fighting and a vicious rooftop brawl for control. Scipio then ordered the district set ablaze. The fire quickly spread, claiming the lives of scores of innocent civilians who had sought refuge in Byrsa. As the houses collapsed in flames, the streets filled with shrieking burn victims and scorched and crushed corpses and body parts.
What followed over the next six days and nights was pure butchery. Scipio had his units fight in rotation, swapping in fresh soldiers for tired ones. On the seventh day of the battle for Byrsa, Carthaginian civilians sued for safe passage, and Scipio allowed 50,000 of them to depart, though they were later sold into slavery. Not as fortunate were some 900 Roman deserters who had holed up with Hasdrubal in the lofty Temple of Eshmun, the Phoenician god of healing. Knowing all too well what fate awaited them if captured, the turncoat legionaries fought with the courage of desperation. After a period of bitter resistance, they made their last stand on the temple roof. Meanwhile, Hasdrubal left behind his wife and two sons with the holdouts at the temple to surrender himself to Scipio, cravenly hoping to save his own skin. Scipio had Hasdrubal paraded before the diehards.
Cursing their faithless erstwhile ally, the surviving defenders set fire to the temple and leaped to their deaths in the blaze. Hasdrubal’s wife, clad in the best clothes left to her and showing far more courage than her husband, let loose a torrent of insults against him. She then slew her sons, tossed their bodies into the flames and jumped in after them. With that horrific end to all resistance, the sack of the city began.
In the aftermath Scipio found himself standing beside Polybius and quoting Homer as they watched Carthage die. The young Roman consul had good cause to ponder the vicissitudes of fortune as his soldiers plundered the fallen city. Though he was certain to receive a triumph for his successful campaign, his mind dwelled on less fortuitous fates. Troy had fallen, as had Assyria, Media, Persia, Macedon and now Carthage. He envisioned a similarly bleak fate for Rome. Half a millennium would pass, but Scipio’s vision ultimately came to fruition with the fifth century collapse and fall of the Western Roman empire.
Marc G. DeSantis is the author of Rome Seizes the Trident: The Defeat of Carthaginian Sea Power and the Forging of the Roman Empire (2016) and A Naval History of the Peloponnesian War: Ships, Men & Money in the War at Sea, 431–404 BC (2018). For further reading he recommends Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization, by Richard Miles; The Punic Wars, by Adrian Goldsworthy; and A History of the Romans, by Robert Forman Horton.