Ancient Carthage: Mediterranean Powerhouse

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The Topography and Might of Ancient Carthage

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Part 1: Rise of a Powerful City

Carthage inherited the Phoenician tradition of maritime power and rose to dominance in the Mediterranean in the 1st Century B.C., ultimately clashing with and then falling victim to the expanding Roman Republic.

The traditional founding date of the city of Carthage, on the Gulf of Tunis, near what is now Tunis, in Tunisia, is 814 B.C. Legend says that Tyrian princess Dido (sometimes known as Elissa) founded the city.

Carthage was one of several Phoenician cities that dotted the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, to form a network of literal safe harbors for the expanding Phoenician fleet, made up of traders and explorers. The Phoenician civilization spread from the eastern Mediterranean coast, in places like Byblos and Sidon and Tyre, across the Mediterranean, including outposts in Cyprus, Crete, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily. Other Phoenician outposts could be found in what is now Morocco, France, and Italy.

The leading Phoenician state for much of this period was Tyre. The island state came under attack from various eastern rulers, until it submitted to the Persian king Cambyses in 539 B.C. Other Phoenician cities rose in stature as Tyre declined. After the sack of Tyre by Alexander the Great, in 332 B.C., Carthage grew quickly in prominence, eventually becoming the most famous Phoenician city ever.

Carthage had, by various turns, a changing system of government. Aristotle wrote about the Carthaginian Constitution. Oligarchs ruled for most of this time, by defeats to Syracuse and Rome brought about governmental change, such that the Carthaginian state was eventually ruled by two annually elected Suffets, who presided over a governmental structure that also included junior officers, responsible for such mundane elements as tax collection and administration of public works, and a commonly elected Popular Assembly. Greek and Roman sources called the Suffets kings, but modern sources have interpreted their role as more of an executive officer. Also part of the government was the Tribunal of the Hundred and Four, a body of judges who functioned as a high court and had the ability to reprimand generals and other public officials.

Carthaginian religion was polytheistic, with a supreme pair of gods in Tanit and Baal Hammon, and also incorporated deities from various other civilizations.

Carthage flourished as a leader in agriculture practice and techniques, employing advanced methods such as irrigation and crop rotation and, especially, the use of iron plows. Among the Carthaginian exports of food and drink were fish, figs, pears, pomegranates, nuts, grain, grapes, dates, olives, and wine.

By the 5th Century B.C., Carthage had developed a powerful navy, to protect the state's areas of influence on land and sea. Carthage's harbor became one of the largest and most famous in the ancient world.

Carthage thrived as a trade power in the Mediterranean region. Carthage itself churned out great numbers of silks, textiles, pots, and perfumes, as well as furniture, mirrors, and other household items. What Carthage didn't produce it traded, in ports across the Mediterranean, including many in Italy (and even Rome, which had a special affinity for the Tyrian purple dye for which Tyre itself had become so famous). Carthaginian ships are known to have reached Britain, Persia, and many African settlements down the western coast and into the hinterlands.

Next page > The Arc of an Empire > Page 1, 2

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