Siege of Carthage

Siege of Carthage

After its defeat at Zama, Carthage observed the terms of its treaty with Rome and abstained from any provocation. Hannibal Barca, the legendary Carthaginian general, put Carthaginian finances in good order and paid off the indemnity. When Carthage began to prosper again, Roman fears and hatred were again aroused. No Roman could forget that it had taken 25 legions to subdue Hannibal.

Roman leaders therefore schemed with Masinissa, the ruler of neighboring Numidia, encouraging him to encroach on what remained of Carthage’s territory. Finally after many vain appeals to Rome, Carthage was goaded into an attempt at self-defense. In 150 BCE Carthage declared war, sending an army under Hasdrubal against Masinissa. This was a violation of the peace that had ended the Second Punic War whereby Carthage could declare war only with Roman consent. The Roman Senate agreed that Carthage had to be destroyed and dispatched a sizable force to Utica in North Africa. This city had been Carthage’s most important ally but rallied to Rome just before the war. This provided Rome with an important base less than 30 miles from Carthage.

The Roman expeditionary force to North Africa was under two consuls, Manlius Manilus, who had command of four legions of some 40,000–50,000 men, and Lucius Marcius Censorinus, who had charge of the fleet with 50 quinqueremes. Thus began the Third Punic War (149–146 BCE), which was basically the siege of Carthage. The Romans fully expected a short, profitable, and virtually bloodless campaign.

The Carthaginians opened negotiations with the two consuls and were informed that they must surrender their fleet, arms, and missile weapons. The Roman position was that since Carthage would pass under Roman protection, the city would have no need of weapons. The Carthaginians agreed. They surrendered their fleet, which was burned in the harbor, as well as a reported 200,000 sets of infantry weapons and 2,000 catapults. The consuls then announced that the inhabitants would have to leave the city, as the Romans intended to destroy it. They could rebuild at any location so long as it was at least 80 stades (10 miles) from the sea.

The Carthaginian envoys returned to the city with the Roman demand. Following initial shock and despair, the Carthaginian Council rejected the Roman demand, declared war on Rome, shut the gates of the city, and commenced the manufacture of weapons. The Romans were surprised, having assumed that with Carthage virtually disarmed its leaders would have no choice but to accept their demands.

The Romans then mounted an assault, led by Manilus from the land side and Censorinus from the sea, on the city. Carthage had excellent defenses, being surrounded by three walls that were almost 50 feet high and sufficiently wide to contain stalls for elephants and horses as well as troop quarters. The Carthaginians easily repelled the first two assaults. When the Romans sent troops to find timber to build additional catapults, they were surprised by Carthaginian forces under Hamilcon that had been harassing their base camps. In one engagement a cavalry force led by Himilco Phameas inflicted some 500 casualties on the Romans and seized a number of weapons.

Despite this setback the Romans located the timber to build a number of new siege machines, including two large ones equipped with battering rams. The Romans employed these to make a breach in the wall, but the Carthaginians quickly repaired it and then mounted sorties from the city, setting fire to and destroying both machines. Scipio Aemilianus, tribune of the Fourth Legion, distinguished himself in the fighting both by rescuing some trapped legionnaires and in subsequent engagements against Hasdrubal.

In the spring of 148 Himilco defected, bringing over a reported 2,200 Carthaginian cavalry to the Romans. Two new Roman consuls, L. Calpurnius Piso Ceasonibus for the army and Lucius Hostilius Mancinus for the navy, arrived at Carthage. They concentrated their resources against minor cities close to Carthage and destroyed most of them. Piso then retired for the winter to Utica.

In Rome meanwhile Scipio was elected at age 37 as consul and set sail for Africa with additional forces in 147. He landed at Utica and then proceeded to Carthage, rescuing Mancinus and a number of his men who had been cut off by the Carthaginians. Mancinus returned to Italy, and Scipio undertook the construction of extensive siege works.

The Carthaginians secretly built 50 triremes. Instead of using the element of surprise to launch an attack on the unprepared Roman fleet, the Punic admiral paraded his ships (to give his crews practice) and returned to port. When he sallied out to do battle several days later the Roman fleet was ready, and the Carthaginians were soundly beaten.

At the beginning of the spring of 146 Scipio launched his major offensive. Employing Carthaginian deserters as guides, the Romans managed to overcome the three lines of Carthaginian defenses and penetrate the city itself, with vicious fighting in the narrow streets and in the six-story buildings along them. Fighting was house to house and room to room, and the Romans laid plank bridges from houses already taken to the remainder, eventually reaching the slopes of the Byrsa, where the citadel was situated. Once the buildings had been taken, Scipio ordered that the city be fired. The flames raged for six days and nights. Many Carthaginians were trapped in the buildings and died. Roman engineers then leveled what remained of the structures.

The Carthaginian leaders at Byrsa appealed to Scipio to spare the lives of those who wished to leave. He agreed except for any Roman deserters. Reportedly 50,000 people departed the Byrsa, to be held under guard. This left only some 900 Roman deserters and Hasdrubal and his wife and sons. Hasdrubal turned traitor, however, opening the gates to the Romans and begging Scipio for mercy. Hasdrubal’s wife then came out on the roof of the temple, which the defenders had set on fire; she denounced Hasdrubal for his treachery and leapt with her sons into the flames.

The Romans plundered the city (Scipio took nothing for himself) and utterly demolished it. The 50,000 survivors of Carthage, all that remained of a presiege population of 500,000, were sold as slaves. The terrible destruction gave rise to the term “Carthaginian Peace.” Africa now became a Roman province.


Craven, Brian. The Punic Wars. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1992.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. The Punic Wars. London: Cassell, 2000.