Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction

Patrick Lynch - June 5, 2017

The Third Punic War (149 – 146 BC) was the last in the trilogy of conflicts between Rome and Carthage. While the first two wars were among the largest ever fought at the time and took place all over Europe and North Africa, most of the Third Punic War took place in and around Tunisia. Ultimately, the war ended in a decisive Roman victory and the utter destruction of Carthage as an independent state. Let’s now take a look at the important events of the Third Punic War.

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction
Action from the Third Punic War. Weapons and Warfare

1 – Carthage Breaks the Peace Treaty, War is declared

Carthage was the big loser in the two previous Punic Wars. After defeat in the First Punic War in 241 BC, Carthage lost control of Sicily. Although Hannibal caused havoc and destruction during the Second Punic War, Carthage surrendered in 201 BC and lost its empire in Spain, its fleet, and independence of military action. However, although Carthage had to pay massive reparations after the Second Punic War, it seemingly recovered well and became prosperous due to trade.

Carthage even stayed friendly with Rome and declared Hannibal an enemy of the state when he went on the run and fled to Antiochus III. As well as receiving money from Carthage, Rome benefitted from grain and military help in other campaigns. However, Carthage became more agitated with its lack of power; the state was especially angry at the loss of territory to Numidia. By 150 BC, the Carthaginians were fed up with Numidian expansion, which incorporated old Carthaginian territory, so they attacked Numidia.

The campaign was a failure, and its army suffered enormous losses. In Rome, there was concern over Carthage’s renaissance and a desire amongst some members of the Senate to destroy the old enemy once and for all. In 153 BC, Cato the Elder visited Carthage during a diplomatic visit and was impressed and alarmed at how the Carthaginians were flourishing. By 151 BC, Carthage had fully repaid its debt to Rome and believed the treaty of 201 BC had expired.

Rome didn’t agree and saw the treaty as a guarantee of permanent Carthaginian obedience. For the previous half century, Carthage was required to take all border disputes with Numidia to the Roman Senate which always found for the Numidians. The Roman Senate was probably secretly delighted that Carthage provided an excuse to go to war. The city of Rome had expanded to 40,000, and a food shortage was possible if the Romans coffers lost a major source of income. The end of the Carthage payments in 151 BC was such a scenario, so Rome already had a tailor-made reason for invading its old enemy.

Carthage offered fertile lands and easy booty in the event of another victory so when it invaded Numidia, Rome had no hesitation in declaring war. Cato the Elder regularly finished speeches in the Senate by saying: “Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed.” However, Rome initially offered the pretense of diplomacy, but its leading citizens were adamant that war was inevitable.

Carthage sent envoys to Rome to explain its actions against Numidia, but they were rebuffed. A long-term ally of Carthage, Utica, defected to Rome. This was good news for the Romans because Utica was just one day away from Carthage by sea and made an excellent harbor for Roman ships. In 149 BC, the Senate asked for 300 Carthaginian noble children as hostages, but it quickly revealed its intentions by declaring war on Carthage. Rome sent approximately 4,000 cavalry and 80,000 infantry to North Africa; the Third Punic War had begun.

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction
Depiction of Carthage. Realm of History

2 – The Battle of Carthage Begins

It initially appeared as if there wouldn’t be a Third Punic War when Manius Manilius landed in Africa with his army in 149 BC. Carthage surrendered and offered hostages and weapons to the invaders. Rome issued a series of demands; it ordered Carthage to surrender unconditionally and agree to disband its army. Next, it was to hand over all weapons and release all prisoners. Finally, the citizens of Carthage were to leave the city and settle in another location that was at least 10 miles from the coast.

Rome was probably shocked when Carthage rejected the terms. The order to leave the city made the Carthaginians realize that no matter what happened, the Romans were determined to destroy them. With nothing to lose, Carthage held firm and recalled its 30,000 man army from the Numidian border and freed slaves to fight in the war. There were as many as 400,000 people in Carthage, and it prepared itself for the lengthy siege that was to come.

Taking Carthage was no easy task since the city had approximately 20 miles of walls to hide behind along with a triple defensive line and further protection from ditches, palisades, and the sea. Crucially, it was impossible for the Romans to cut off supplies to the city completely, so there was no possibility of simply starving the inhabitants out. To make things more complicated for the invaders, the Carthaginians regularly carried out counter-attacks and used fire ships to burn the Roman fleet.

Along with his fellow consul, Marcius Censorinus, Manilius tried to break the siege without much success. His first action was to advance from the mainland and fill up the ditch near the city, bypass the parapet that overlooked the ditch and use it to scale the wall. According to Appian, Manilius expected the enemy to be unarmed and was shocked by the scale of the resistance. Censorinus lost around 500 men in his attempt to get timber for building engines. The Carthaginians set fire to the Roman siege machines and drove the enemy back.

During the long, hot summer of 148 BC, an epidemic broke out in Censorinus’ camp. Further disaster struck when the Carthaginians set a group of small boats on fire and sent them towards the Roman fleet. Appian suggests that the entire fleet was almost destroyed in one stroke. After Censorinus had returned to Rome to conduct an election, the Carthaginians moved more aggressively on Manilius.

Manilius decided to launch an attack on the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal and led an expedition to Nepheris. By now, Scipio Aemilianus, grandson of Scipio Africanus, was on the scene and he disagreed with Manilius’ strategy. Scipio warned him about the dangers the army faced and pointed out that the enemy held the higher ground. Manilius and other tribunes ignored his advice and suffered a defeat.

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction
Roman Expansion up to 100 BC. Prezi

3 – Carthage Continues to Hold Firm

Manilius was replaced by Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, but he didn’t fare any better than his predecessor as Carthage refused to fold. According to Appian, Manilius sent Scipio to Rome when he learned about Piso’s appointment. The army hoped that Scipio would return because it believed that he was the only man capable of leading it to victory. In Rome, Scipio was lauded by the Senate.

Piso arrived in Carthage in early spring 148 BC and failed in his attempts to take Aspis by land and sea. The angry commander moved on to another town which he captured and destroyed. Piso then tried to capture Hippagreta but was repulsed as the enemy burned Roman siege engines once again. The frustrated Piso returned to Utica where he set up his winter quarters.

Back in Rome, the people were growing anxious at the lack of progress and once again, all eyes turned towards Scipio who was a candidate for the aedileship because he was too young to become consul. Nonetheless, the Romans were desperate enough to break the rules to allow Scipio to be elected consul. He sailed first to Sicily, then to Utica as he looked to turn the tide of the siege.

Meanwhile, Manilius made a terrible blunder, and his men became trapped after an ill-timed attack on the Carthaginians. Fortunately for him, Scipio had arrived in Utica that very day and quickly came to the aid of his fellow commander. Scipio sent Manilius back to Rome because Serranus had arrived to help Scipio take control of the fleet. Scipio also noticed that Piso’s men showed ill-discipline and were prone to idleness and avarice. He made a stirring speech where he ordered the men to follow the example of him and his industry.

Scipio angrily pointed out the army’s excesses to that point and chastised them by saying they were more like robbers than soldiers. He told those who were not interested in being soldiers to leave and marched on with the remaining men in awe of him. Scipio immediately got to work by setting fire to the camp of the enemy. Then, he intercepted all supplies sent to Carthage from the interior so now; the Carthaginians had to rely on food sent from Africa alone. Hasdrubal was in an awkward position as he had to serve his men first and foremost, so he decided to share the provisions amongst the army while the non-combatants in the siege suffered. Scipio was starting to take control.

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction
Scipio Aemilianus. mmdtkw

4 – The Battle of Nepheris 147 BC

Before the timely arrival of Scipio, there was a danger that the Third Punic War could become an extremely long and drawn out affair. As well as offering stiff resistance in the countryside, the Carthaginians were showing no signs of succumbing to hunger thanks to their steady supply chain. However, Scipio’s commitment to blockading the city completely changed the course of the war. He ordered the creation of a siege wall around the city and a giant structure was built to block access to Carthage’s mercantile harbor.

Nonetheless, the Carthaginians refused to concede defeat and bravely fought to protect their very existence. The Battle of Port Carthage in 147 BC was the last notable Carthaginian victory over the Romans. They found an escape route to the sea that the Roman navy had not yet blocked and sent a fleet of 50 triremes and other smaller vessels to face the enemy ships. The Romans suffered heavy casualties, but the Carthaginians were forced to return to port. Although it was an impressive act of defiance, it wasn’t enough to break the Roman blockade, and a decisive defeat wasn’t far away.

Scipio decided to face the enemy army at Nepheris, the scene of a Roman defeat only a year or so before. Once again, he used the power of the blockade to cut off the supplies to the enemy defenders, led by Diogenes of Carthage. The Carthaginian camp was surrounded so they had to face the Romans in an open battle. Although the size of the Roman army is unknown, it was certainly larger than the 7,000-10,000 Carthaginians. Also, the Romans had the enemy surrounded on all sides. Diogenes and his army suffered a heavy defeat, and only a couple of thousand Carthaginians avoided death or imprisonment.

The defeat at Nepheris was practically the final nail in the Carthaginian coffin as their army was too small to sustain many more losses. The blockade was weakening their remaining members and morale was at an all-time low. Up until that point, the people within the city retained hope as long as the army of Diogenes was out in the field providing resistance. The 22-day siege ultimately broke the Carthaginian spirit, and Scipio was able to take the rest of the area surrounding the city without much resistance. The end was near.

Third Punic War: 5 Crucial Events That Lead to Carthage Destruction
A Carthaginian surrenders. Ancient History Encyclopedia

5 – Total Destruction of Carthage 146 BC

Scipio knew that victory was within his grasp so, in early 146 BC, he launched an all-out attack with the goal of achieving total victory. In spring, he ordered an attack on Byrsa and Cothon harbor, and soon, the Romans broke through the Carthaginian defenses and made their way towards the city. They took the wall around Cothon and took its neighboring forum. Scipio brought in 4,000 more troops and spent the night in the Temple of Apollo. Once again, the ill-discipline of the army came to the fore as its men disobeyed orders by breaking the gold statue and plundering the loot.

Even with defeat a certainty, the Carthaginians refused to surrender so when the Romans finally entered the city; the result was six days of brutal fighting. The Carthaginians turned every house and building into a stronghold, and every inhabitant had a weapon. The Romans had to continually change soldiers to ensure they did not become exhausted although Scipio fought for most of the time with little sleep. Eventually, the Romans took control as the inhabitants fought themselves to exhaustion. All but 50,000 Carthaginians died, and they were sold into slavery.

However, the war was not quite over. 900 people, most of them Roman deserters, hid in the Temple of Eshmun in the citadel of Byrsa despite the fact it was on fire. Hasdrubal was among the men in the citadel, and although they tried to negotiate their surrender, Scipio said that Rome could not forgive them or Hasdrubal. Apparently, the Carthaginian commander’s wife emerged, insulted her husband and jumped into the flames with her two children. The rest of the deserters followed suit; an act that caused Scipio to weep. He lamented the fate of Carthage and said that the same thing might happen to Rome one day.

The city was razed although the notion that the Romans spread salt into the land to prevent growth is a myth. A curse was placed on anyone who attempted to enter the area, and North Africa became a province of Rome. Cities such as Utica that was loyal to Rome received privileges such as freedom from taxation. Scipio received a triumph in Rome and enjoyed further success in the Numantine War (143-133 BC). Carthage remained uninhabited until Caesar re-founded it almost 100 years later and Octavian encouraged further growth while he was emperor.