Ancient Carthage
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Ceterum autem censeo Carthaginem esse delendam
(additionally I consider that Cathage must be destroyed)

Cato the Censor.

Basic Information

The city known as Carthage was the one of the wealthiest and most important trading hubs of the Ancient World. It was the capital city of the Carthaginian Empire (also sometimes known as Ancient Carthage, or the Phoenician Republic of Carthage), a powerful Thalassocracy that competed with and alternately traded or warred with Ancient Rome.

Confusingly, the term "Punic" is another way of saying "Carthaginian". So if you're reading a history book that mentions the Punic Wars, it's not talking about a bardic battle with really bad jokes and wordplay. It's talking about a struggle between Carthage and Rome. If it says "Greco-Punic War", that's referring to conflicts between Ancient Greece (especially those in Sicily) and Carthage.

Much of the struggles between Carthage and either Greece or Rome were all about Sicily. That's a large island in the sea between Carthage and Rome, which had great weather and soil, and served as the "bread basket" for whatever nation controlled it. Carthage and Rome both considered Sicily to be strategically necessary to their Imperial plans, and allied themselves with locals to help secure their hold on it. Carthage teamed up with the Sicilian city of Syracuse, and Rome teamed up with the city of Messina.

Carthage was founded by Phoenicians1 in 814 BC, rose to be the dominant power of the Western end of the Mediterranean Sea (and thus the Northern coast of Africa, and the Southern coast of the Iberian Penninsula) from the 7th Century BC to the 4th Century BC. The city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, effectively ending the nation's existence. (For more on the story of the city post-empire, see our Carthage page.)

Punic Military

The Military of Carthage was large and powerful. The Navy of Carthage was the best of the era, comprised of at least 300 warships, with highly skilled sailors. Faced with a superior sailing force, the Romans invented the Corvus (boarding device) so that they could storm aboard the Punic vessels and defeat them hand-to-hand.

The bulk of the Punic army were mercenaries or conscripts from vassal states, like the Numidians and Balearics described below. The navy, by contrast, was mostly made up of citizens of Carthage itself. The Carthaginian army had specialized units for various battlefield roles.

You've probably heard about Hannibal bringing an army of Elephants, and it's impressive even if you don't know they were a now-extinct species of Elephant that were raised and trained for war. In it's prime, Carthage could field a couple hundred of them.

Probably more important than the elephants were the Numidian Cavalry, almost certainly the greatest light cavalry of the Ancient and Classical Era. They rode a small breed of horse known for its speed, and they wore no armor, but carried a leather shield. This gave them the agility to scout and skirmish, hurl the javelins they carried to great effect, and then fade away before the enemy could mount a concerted counter-attack.

The Numidian Cavalry were not the only swift skirmisher force employed by the Carthaginians. Carthaginian armies often also had units of Balearic Slingers, who were likewise very lightly armored, or even unarmored. These slingers were often employed in ambush, appearing without warning at the flanks of the enemy army, devastate them with massed sling bullets, and then dispersing and withdrawing before the heavier enemy infantry could get close enough to engage them. The Balearics were also used when a Carthaginian army needed to ford a river. The slingers would go first, because they were able to provide a significant deterrant to an enemy charge, and could then cover the fording of the rest of the army.

Carthaginian Religion and Mythology

See Also: Carthaginian Mythology

The main deities of Carthage were Tanit and Baal Hammon. It is noteworthy that a goddess, Tanit, was very active at the top of the power structure.

Other deities worshiped in Ancient Carthage include Astarte and Baal-Saphon. The local cults drew heavily from Canaanite mythology of the Phoenician variety. No doubt Interpretatio Graeca and all those lucrative trade partnerships led to at least some level of cross-culturalism with figures from Classical Mythology.

One of the most disturbing and controversial religious rites in Ancient Carthage was Child Sacrifice in a firey pit at the feet of a golden statue of Tanit.


4. Non-Fiction Book: Mythology for Dummies by Blackwell & Blackwell

Game and Story Use

  • Carthage and the Carthaginian Navy are likely to play a role in any game set in the Ancient World. They might be the big bad evil empire, or they might be friendly sea-going intrepid merchant types, depending on the year, location, and themes of the game.
  • Ancient Carthage and it's merchants are the people to talk to when you need rare trade goods from the Mediterranean or Africa, such as Tyrian Purple or Silphium. Or tin for that matter - Carthage dominated the tin trade between the Mediterranean and the major source in the British Isles.
  • Child Sacrifice is a pretty astoundingly villainous practice. If you have an evil cult in your game, they might trace their origin or practice back to Carthage.
  • Or Ancient Rome might be your big bads, and the whole child-murder thing written off as exaggeration for the sake of propaganda. If there's anyone able to stand up against the evils of Rome, it's the ships and armies of Carthage.
  • An alternate history where Carthage prospered and Rome dwindled into obscurity would be really cool if you've got the time to world-build the necessary details. Classical Mythology and much of Western Civilization would be radically different if another set of victors were writing it instead of the Romans.
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