Carthago Delenda Est: The Third Punic War

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Podcast Transcript

In 201 BC, the Romans were victorious over their archrivals, the city-state of Carthage, in the Second Punic War. 

This was was the closest which Rome had ever come to defeat and almost spelled the end of the republic. 

50 years later, some Romans felt that they left the job unfinished. In fact, some Romans could talk about nothing else. 


Learn more about the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


To understand why Carthage was destroyed, it is important to understand the events which led up to its destruction. 

As I explained in my previous episode on the Phonecian Civilization, Carthage was a Phonecian colony that eventually grew to outshine its parent cities in Lebanon. 

Carthage, located in what is today northern Tunisia, had an extensive trading network as well as colonies scattered about the Mediterranean. 

As the young republic of Rome began expanding out of the Italian peninsula, it started to butt heads with the Carthigians, especially on the island of Sicily. 

This resulted in a series of wars between Rome and Carthage called the Punic Wars, which is derived from the Latin word for Phonecia. 

The First Punic War lasted 23 years, from 264 to 241 BC. It was primarily fought on Siciliy and at sea, and it was arguably the largest naval conflict ever fought in the ancient world. 

The war was won by Rome, who managed to exact reparations from Carthage and completely annexed Sicily as a Roman province. 

Twenty-three years later, in 218 BC, another war erupted between Carthage and Rome. 

The Second Punic War was the largest war that Rome had ever seen up until that point, and it almost destroyed the Roman Republic. 

The Carthaginian forces were led by their brilliant general Hanniball, who was perhaps the greatest general in the ancient world. 

He imported African elephants to Europe and fought the Romans on the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. 

Hannibal delivered two of the greatest defeats to Rome in its history. At the Battle of Lake Trasimene, Hannibal’s forces killed approximately 25,000 Romans in one of the greatest ambushes in history. 

Then at the Battle of Canne, on which I did a previous episode, Hannibal killed almost 50,000 Romans in what is considered one of the greatest set piece battles in history. 

The Romans eventually learned that the best way to fight Hannibal was not to try and defeat him but just to keep him at bay and to try not to lose. This strategy, developed by Quintus Fabius Maximus, became known as a Fabian Strategy, and it worked insofar as it kept Rome alive. 

Eventually, the Romans realized that if the main Carthigian threat was in Italy, then no one was minding the store back in Carthage.  Rome sent a general, Publius Cornelius Scipio, to Africa, which managed to get Hanibal out of Italy. 

It was there that the Romans finally beat Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC, and Publius Cornelius Scipio became Scipio Africanus. 

Carthage agreed to punishing peace terms, abandoning all of their overseas colonies, the loss of most of their land in Africa, and an enormous war reparation of 10,000 silver talents which had to be paid over the course of 50 years.  

There was one other term to the peace which became relevant later on. Carthage could not wage war with anyone unless it was first approved by Rome. 

Carthage was effectively rendered a single city-state and was no longer a threat to Rome for supremacy of the Mediterranean. 

At the Battle of Zama, there was a local ruler by the name of Masinissa, who was the leader of the Numidians. Masinissa was a staunch ally of Rome and supported them against the Carthaginians. 

Numidia was basically everything on the coast of North Africa, from the middle of Libya, through the coast of Algeria, to northern Morocco. Masinissa and the Numidians were Berbers, ancestors of the Berber people who live in the region today. 

After the end of the Second Punic War, Masinissa took advantage of his relationship with Rome and the onerous peace treaty with Carthage. He would constantly attack Carthaginian territory, and the Carthaginians couldn’t do anything about it. 

They would appeal to Rome to let them go to war, but the Roman would always deny their request. 

Masinissa ruled for a really long time. Having come to power just before the Battle of Zama, he spent the next 50 years harassing Carthage. 

Back in Rome, Carthage had been put on the back burner. They weren’t a threat anymore, and Rome had bigger things to worry about. 

That changed in the year 152 BC when a delegation of senators was sent to Carthage to mediate a dispute between Carthage and Masinissa, who was now 87. 

One member of the Roman delegation was an elderly 82-year-old senator by the name of Marcus Porcius Cato, better known to history as Cato the Elder…not because of his age, but because another notable Cato came 100 years after him. 

Cato was a veteran of the Second Punic War and was shocked at what he saw in Carthage. Carthage was still an incredibly wealthy city.  What he saw convinced him that Carthage was still a threat to Rome. Their wealth made them an economic rival, and with enough money, they could easily become a military power once again. 

When Cato got back to Rome, he made the destruction of Carthage his primary mission. In particular, every time he got up to talk in the senate, regardless of the subject he was talking about, he would always end his speech by saying in Latin, Carthago delenda est, or Carthage must be destroyed. 

Here I should note that he actually didn’t use those words. The phrase is just a modern shortened version that is easy to remember. 

What he most probably said was something along the lines of Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam, which means, “Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed,” which, if you actually think about it, makes a lot more sense. 

The shorter phrase, Carthago delenda est, is often adapted as a reference for anything which should be destroyed. 

For example, sicagae ursae delenda est means the Chicago Bears must be destroyed…..an opinion of which I’m sure we can all agree. 

While Cato was adamant that Carthage had to go, most of the Senate did not share his opinion.

In fact, one senator Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum, the son-in-law of Scipio Africanus, basically countered Cato by saying the exact opposite after the end of each of his speeches. 

Corculum was probably the most powerful man in the Senate at the time, and there was a good chance he was in the same delegation as Cato to Carthage. 

He felt that Carthage was necessary so Rome would have a rival. While in reality, Carthage was no threat at all, they could be used as an excuse to increase support for Rome amongst the plebians. The stories of Hannibal were burned into the minds of Roman citizens, and a neutered Carthage could keep the threat alive.

He would end each of his speeches, regardless of the topic, with Carthago servanda est, or “Carthage must be saved.” 

In 151 BC, Carthage had paid off its 50-year debt, and in 150 BC, they finally got fed up with the constant attacks by now 89-year-old Masinissa. 

So they did was any country would do. They raised an army and set out to take care of the Numidians once and for all. 

The Carthaginian army was led by the general Hasdrubal, and they met the Numidians at the Battle of Oroscopa.

Masinissa’s 50 years of battle experience proved no match for the now inexperienced Carthaginians who hadn’t really fought anyone in 50 years. 

Carthage was decisively beaten. Hasdrubal was no Hannibal. 

Say what you will about the Romans, but they were very legalistic. One of the reasons why no one previously followed Cato’s advice on destroying Carthage was that they had no excuse to go to war. 

Now, because Carthage raised an army and fought the Numidians without prior Roman approval, they broke the terms of their now 50-year-old peace treaty. 

Rome had their Casus belli, aka their excuse for war. 

In early 149 BC, Rome formally declared war on Carthage. Corculum was conveniently in Greece

The Romans sent over an army and a navy headed by both consuls for that year. 

This should have been a cakewalk. Carthage didn’t have much of an army, and what they did have had been soundly beaten by the Numidians.

The Romans landed an army of 20,000 soldiers at Utica, which was about 35 kilometers north of Carthage. When the Romans landed, the Carthigians tried to negotiate to get out of this predicament. 

The Romans demanded that Carthage hand over all of their weapons….so they did. The records show that 200,000 sets of armor and 2,000 catapults were given to the Romans. They also sailed all of their warships out of Carthage and burned them. 

The next Roman demand was something that went too far for the Carthaginians. The Romans demanded that they evacuate Carthage and move somewhere else along the coast.  The Romans would destroy Carthage. 

The Carthaginians went back to their city to defend it. 

Things after this did not go well for the Romans. 

The Carthaginians hadn’t given up all their weapons. The Romans attempted to scale the walls of the city but failed. The Carthaginians made repeated forays outside the city walls and were more often than not successful. 

The siege of Carthage actually lasted several years without any success. The only real success the Romans had came from a military tribune by the name of Scipio Aemilianus, who just so happened to be the grandson of Scipio Africanus. The general who defeated Carthage in the Second Punic War.

In 147 BC, Scipio Aemilianus was 36 and was going to run for the position of Aedile. However, his battlefield success, plus his name and lineage, resulted in a grassroots campaign for him to be elected consul. 

The age requirement for consul was waived, and Scipio Aemilianus was elected. 

The tide began to turn for the Romans. Scipio Aemilianus moved the Roman camp closer to the city walls, removed ineffective troops, and began creating siege works to control the harbor.  It was a slow process, but the Romans made advancements throughout the year. 

By 146 BC, Scipio Aemilianus had his command extended by a year, which was all that was needed. 

In the spring of that year, the Romans finally breached the walls of Carthage. 

It was a slaughter. Literally. 

For six days, the Romans methodically worked their way through Carthage, killing everyone they found and burning the buildings as they advanced. 

The death toll was staggering. Upper estimates place the population of Carthage at 800,000 people, which would have made it about the same size as Rome. 

There were only 50,000 survivors, all of which were enslaved. 

Scipio Aemilianus received a hero’s welcome and triumph back in Rome. It was again elected consult in 134 BC and was sent to Hispania, where he defeated the Celtiberian tribes and was again awarded another triumph. 

Cato and Masinissa both died of old age during the war. 

The Romans wanted to ensure that no one ever lived in Carthage again, so they sent a team back after the war to destroy any buildings that were still standing.  Despite legends to the contrary, the soil at Carthage was not salted. That is a 19th-century invention. 

A curse was also placed on anyone who might decide to live there. 

In the year 29 BC, over 100 years after its destruction, the city was rebuilt as a Roman city named Carthage by the Emperor Augustus. 300 years later, New Carthage was one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. 

Today, you can visit the ruins of Carthage, which lie 16 kilometers east of the modern city of Tunis.  There is a modern area called Carthage, which is a suburb of Tunis. 

In 1985, the mayors of Rome and Carthage signed a peace treaty 2,131 years after the end of the Third Punic War.

There are a great many ancient cities that are still vibrant cities today: Rome, Athens, Alexandria, and Beruit are all examples. 

Carthage, however, is not one of them, and this is largely due to what happened by a Roman army over 2,000 years ago who made the decision that Carthage must be destroyed.


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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Thank you to everyone. I’m sure there is close to a 100% chance that I’m missing people given how many people have been boosting over on the Fountain app. 

If you are curious as to what this boosting stuff is all about, I recommend checking out the Fountain podcast app at Fountain.fm. They have versions for both iPhone and Android. They will set you up with some free sats when you sign up. 

If you want to get your boostagram message read, make sure to send at least 1,000 sats, which is the equivalent of about 20 cents, otherwise there are just too many.