Ancient Carthage


Situated on a large peninsula, which stretched between salty lagoons to the furthermost part of the gulf of Tunis, Carthage was twice in antiquity a capital. Founded by Tyrians, who came from Phoenicia, the settlement quickly became the metropolis of an empire, at first essentially maritime. The Romans completely destroyed Carthage in 146 BC. But a century later built a new city on the site,Destroyed by the Romans, it was subsequently reconstructed by them and immediately raised to the rank of capital of the province of Africa, a position it held almost to the end of antiquity. This past, covering 15 centuries of history, has left relatively few traces which strike the imagination of the visitor of today. Since the end of the 19th c., modern life has progressively covered over much of the ancient site.

Virgil's description of the original city of Carthage was written at least 700 years after the city was founded and more than a hundred years after the Romans destroyed it. His description is more in keeping with the layout of a Roman city of his own time. Theatres such as he describes (Aeneid 1.427), for instance, were not built for a hundred years after the founding of Dido's alleged city.

The site of Carthage in North Africa was practically impregnable. It was built on a promontory jutting into the Gulf of Tunis with inlets to the sea to the north and south.

The city had massive walls, 23 miles in circuit (cf. the 5 miles of walls built for Rome after the Gallic sack). Most of the walls were along the shore, and thus could be less impressive as Carthaginian control of sea made attack from that direction difficult. The 2 1/2-3 miles on the isthmus to the west were truly gargantuan and in fact were never penetrated.

Carthage had two splendid artificial harbours built within the city, connected by a canal. Here their fleet was stationed. Above the harbors on a hill was the Byrsa, a walled fortress.

The name of Carthage comes from the Phoenician "Qart Hadasht" (New Town). The name probably signifies nothing more than a new settlement founded by Greeks already settled in Campania.

Because of its complete destruction and subsequent rebuilding, little is known of the physical appearance of the Phoenician city.

Carthage Foundation:

The rise of Carthage as mistress of the seas and commerce is associated with the Phoenicians. Carthage was one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean.

Around 1000 BC, the eastern Mediterranean shore was settled by various Semitic populations. Those in the area stretching from modern Israel north into modern Lebanon were called Canaanites (and it was from them that the Jews seized the so-called Holy Land). The Semites to the north of modern Israel in the area corresponding more or less to modern Lebanon were called Phoenicians by the Greeks (they are mentioned in Herodotus and Homer and the Hebrew Bible). Their chief cities were Tyre and Sidon. The Phoenicians had risen to power in the area of Tyre in the 11th c BC when the Hitite empire to the north relaxed its grip on the eastern Mediterranean Canaanite areas.

The Phoenicians were sea-faring who traded extensively throughout the Mediterranean. They invented the alphabet and transmitted it through trade to the developing Greek world, which adopted it.

From at least the 8th century BC and traditionally earlier (1186 BC), port areas such as Utica and Carthage were settled by these near Eastern navigators and traders from cities such as Tyre. No doubt they were seeking trading centres (emporia) and stepping stones to Spain and southern Portugal (the fabled Tartessos).

The Phoenician cities were very much involved in trade. There were a number of major ports in the area, and the leading city was Tyre. From Tyre (perhaps with assistance from other Phoenician towns) a number of trading posts were established overseas.

In the sixth century, the Phoenicians were conquered by the Assyrians, and later by the Persians, making Phoenicia virtually disappear. Carthage, however, remained not as a colony, but as an independent state.

Historically, the city was probably established as a trading post toward the end of the 9th century BC by Phoenicians from the Phoenician capital city of Tyre. The name is a corruption of "Kart Hadasht" ("the new town").


There are two foundation myths of Carthage (in Latin 'Carthago'), the great city of antiquity, on the northern coast of Africa, near modern Tunis:

The earliest datable archaeological remains are no earlier than 725, but some pottery seems to be earlier than this. Hence the traditional date may be slightly too early but is roughly correct.

The Phoenician settlements were at first independent of one another, but Carthage gradually obtained the supremacy as Tyre had obtained it in Phoenicia. The position of Utica towards Carthage was precisely that of Sidon towards Tyre. It was the more ancient city of the two, and it preserved a certain kind of position without actual power. Carthage and Utica, like Tyre and Sidon, were at one time always spoken of together.

Reconstruction of Carthage's military port. In the center of the lake, a man-made island supports the dockyards and shipyards of the warships and houses the headquarters of the Carthaginian admiralty.