The Death of the Carthaginian Empire 149-146 BCE


Carthage had already been put at a huge disadvantage as the majority of their weapons and armor were taken and they had recently lost a large battle against the Numidians. Nevertheless the citizens of Carthage rallied together and killed any anti-war parties in Carthage as well as any unlucky Italians who happened to be in the city. Men, women and even children worked to forge new weapons and to strengthen fortifications around the city. Appian says that the women even sacrificed their hair for the tension fibers needed for the catapults.

Despite the initial setbacks, Carthage was not going to fall easily. Carthage was one of the most heavily fortified and naturally defensible cities in the ancient world. The city was located at the end of a peninsula and had naturally protected military and civilian harbors. The only side of the city approachable by land was protected by huge walls thirty feet wide and fifty feet high with towers dispersed evenly about every two hundred feet. Within the walls was space for 300 elephants, 4,000 horses and barracks for 20,000 soldiers. In front of the walls was a sixty foot ditch and a wooden palisade. The Romans quickly discovered that the Carthaginians were more than ready for an assault. Before even setting up camps, the Romans attacked the walls with the army going against the triple line of palisade, ditch and walls stretched across the isthmus and the navy throwing up ladders against the weaker side of the wall that led into the sea and the harbor.

The attacks faltered under a hail of missiles. The consuls tried again soon after only to be repulsed once more. There were simply too many obstacles to get through under such heavy missile fire. The Carthaginians had an army outside of the walls led by Hasdrubal, possibly the same one condemned to death who had escaped, or perhaps a different Hasdrubal, who had gathered a fairly large army. This convinced the consuls to build camps before they tried another assault. The third assault was also a failure for the Romans as Manilius was only able to cross the wooden wall and fill the ditch before retreating with heavy losses. The consuls then decided to build two very large battering rams one manned by soldiers the other by marines. It soon became a competition between the two of who could breach the walls first. Both of the rams were successful in breaching the main wall. The Carthaginians were able to push the Romans back and repair the walls. Under cover of darkness a group of Carthaginians went out and set fire to the rams and succeeded in destroying their functionality despite resistance from the Romans. This type of behavior shows how brave and determined Carthage was and also showed that they were planning the defense of their city intelligently, as this was a risky but high reward operation. The Carthaginians had withstood a fierce early onslaught and had early successes to raise the whole city’s morale.

map showing the walls and harbors of Carthage
map showing the walls and harbors of Carthage. The Byrsa sat atop a hill overlooking the harbor. The southern peninsula was defended by a much weaker single wall.

The next morning the Romans discovered that the breaches they had made still appeared practical and assault parties were hurriedly organized and sent through a gap in the wall. The assault initially succeeded however thousands of citizens took to the roofs and rained missiles on the Romans. This is where the Romans finally showed some promise from their officers, who had performed poorly so far. Scipio Aemilianus, a military tribune, who had earlier arbitrated disputes between Carthage and Numidia, realized that the assault party was overzealous and stationed his men at the breach and organized a successful retreat when the assaulting party became bogged down. By doing so he prevented a full collapse of the assault which would have led to the loss of nearly every soldier within the walls.

Scipio Aemilianus had gained a reputation for bravery with enthusiastic pursuit of the enemy after the battle of Pydna as a teenager and he later killed an enemy in single combat in Spain. He was adopted into the Scipio family by Africanus’ son Publius Cornelius Scipio. This left him with high expectations as he was looked upon to continue the glory of the Scipiones. He was one of the few competent officers at Carthage and he began to be noticed by his superiors as well as the masses in Rome.

Later Censorinus’ camp was moved to the isthmus which separated the Lake of Tunis and the sea and led up to the slightly weaker section of the wall. The Carthaginians seized every opportunity to unleash fire ships on the coastal Roman camp and later assaulted the camp at night, surprising the Romans. Fortunately for the Romans, Scipio was in that camp. He recognized the problem, took a group of cavalry out of the opposite gate and flanked the Carthaginians, driving them back to the city with heavy losses. Censorinus subsequently fortified his camp and took the opportunity to fortify the seaside beach landing as well.

Though it can be argued that some of the sources such as Polybius are biased towards the Scipio family, Scipio continued to be the only one achieving renown as an officer, and maintained such order over his men that they were the only ones who were not attacked while foraging. As winter approached the Romans under Manilius went south to forage. Hasdrubal had been camped in the area and took a fortified position in the city of Nepheris which Manilius hoped to assault. Scipio opposed this because the approach to Nepheris was across a river and up a hill. Manilius was still set on attacking and his army paid for it as they were halted on the hill after already crossing the river. They were bottled up between the summit of the hill and the river; Hasdrubal knew it and attacked down the hill with vigor. Once again Scipio rescued the army, taking around 300 cavalry and leading them on a series of controlled charges allowing Manilius’ army to escape across the river.

The battle was a disaster for all but Scipio who continued to gain fame and popular support in Rome, likely aided by the fact that he was a Scipio and many people began to believe that the Scipio’s were blessed by the Gods in battle especially in Africa. Scipio went back to Rome during the winter and was nominated for the consulship despite being a few years shy of the legal age. There was some opposition to this by some prominent politicians but the matter was put to a popular vote which Scipio won without any problems. He was allowed to raise an army and take with him any volunteers of which there were quite a few. This was very reminiscent of Scipio Africanus’ invasion of Africa in which he also received a great number of volunteers.

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