50,000 survivors were sold into slavery -- 4/14/15

Today's selection -- from The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor by Martin Meredith. In 218 BCE, the Carthaginian general Hannibal and his elephants set out to invade Rome:

"Located on a promontory overlooking the Bay of Tunis, Carthage stood at the gateway to the western Mediterranean, with command over shipping passing through the Strait of Sicily. ... By the fifth century BCE, Carthage had emerged as an independent mercantile power with one of the largest navies in the Mediterranean at its disposal, Its ruling elite constantly sought to extend its commercial empire as well as the boundaries of its own territories in Africa. New settlements were established on the coastline to the east of Carthage in an area now known as Tripolitania. Naval expeditions were sent beyond the Mediterranean into the Atlantic. ...

"As Rome grew from a small city-state in central Italy into a regional power, the Carthaginians took a pragmatic approach, encouraging trade and signing a series of treaties that set out their separate zones of influence, first in 509 BCE, then in 348 and again in 278. But their ambitions collided over the divided island of Sicily, part of which was occupied by Carthaginians. The first Punic war, as it was called -- a Latin name used by the Romans to describe the Carthaginians and their language -- lasted for twenty-four years. As part of the expeditionary army they sent to Sicily, the Carthaginians deployed nearly a hundred elephants which had been trained at their base in Carthage to launch cavalry charges, intimidate infantry and tear down fortifications -- the tanks of the ancient world. In their north African domain, the Carthaginians had ready access to large herds of elephants which populated the coastal plains of modern Tunisia and Morocco and the forests and swamps at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. Known as 'forest' elephants, they belonged to a smaller breed than the African savanna species and were easier to control. The use of elephants as war machines had some success. The outcome of the war, however, was finally decided in 241 when the Carthaginian navy suffered a crushing defeat. The Carthaginians sued for peace and were forced to evacuate Sicily.

Carthaginian war elephants engage Roman infantry at the Battle of Zama (202 BC).

"The next stage in the long struggle for supremacy between Carthage and Rome in the western Mediterranean began in Spain. When the young Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca embarked on a campaign to extend Carthage's territory in southern Spain, Rome decided to intervene in support of allies there. Because the Roman navy had gained ascendancy in the western Mediterranean, Hannibal devised a daring plan to attack Rome on its home ground by marching an army 1,500 miles overland, across the Pyrenees, into the unknown lands of France, over the high passes of the Alps and through northern Italy, hoping to catch the Romans by surprise. The expeditionary force he assembled in 218 included a large contingent of infantry and cavalry from north Africa, notably Berber horsemen from Numidia who rode without saddle, bit or bridle. Another key element was an elephant corps numbering thirty-seven. Hannibal expected that Roman forces, unprepared for an elephant attack, would retreat in disarray.

"Five months after setting out from Spain, Hannibal reached the plains of northern Italy, but lost half of his army along the way. As snow fell across the Alps, men, horses and pack-animals slid over precipices and perished in the hundreds from exposure and exhaustion. Corpses littered the way. But all thirty-seven elephants survived.

"Hannibal's army roamed about Italy for fifteen years. He reached the gates of Rome but failed to take the city. Roman armies meanwhile expelled the Carthaginians from Spain and then invaded north Africa, forcing Hannibal to withdraw from Italy to defend his homeland.

"In the deciding battle in 202 BCE, the two armies met at Zama to the south-west of Carthage. In the opening phase, Hannibal sent eighty elephants charging into Roman ranks. But, terrified by the blare of bugles, some rampaged back into their own lines, others were channelled through gaps the Romans made in their ranks and were speared to death. After heavy fighting, Hannibal conceded defeat.

"The terms of peace dictated by Rome were humiliating. The Carthaginians were henceforth forbidden from fighting any wars outside Africa; they were required to surrender all their elephants and to undertake not to train any more for military purposes; and their navy was to be reduced to just ten warships. As citizens watched, Carthage's remaining fleet was burnt to cinders.

"In the aftermath of defeat, Carthage, no longer burdened by the cost of wars and empire, regained much of its prosperity, concentrating on agriculture and trade. Production of wheat and barley soared, enabling Carthage to become a major exporter, principally to Rome. War reparations were quickly paid off. New harbours were built, with extensive quays and warehousing, capable of holding 270 ships.

"But the wealth that Carthage enjoyed was too great for Rome to ignore. Some Roman politicians portrayed it as a threat. After visiting Carthage in 152 BCE, Marcus Porcius Cato, well known for his hatred of the Carthaginians, repeatedly warned the Senate that Carthage had to be destroyed: 'Delenda est Carthago!' On one occasion, with a flourish, he produced a ripe fig from his robes, telling his colleagues that it had been picked in Carthage just three days before, a reminder of its proximity to Rome. As well as the potential danger, Cato pointed out the agricultural wealth that could be appropriated if Carthage were destroyed and replaced by Roman rule.

"The war party in Rome decided the matter. In 149 BCE a Roman army sailed for north Africa and laid siege to Carthage. For nearly three years, the Carthaginians held out, sealed off from food supplies, half-starving and subject to repeated attacks. The final assault came in 146. Breaking through the last pockets of resistance, Roman soldiers went from house to house slaughtering men, women and children. The carnage went on for six days and nights. Some 50,000 survivors were sold into slavery. Carthage was then set on fire. Annexed by Rome, the land of the Carthaginians was called Provincia Africa. It was a name taken from a small Berber tribe known as Afri, but later used to describe an entire continent."


Martin Meredith


The Fortunes of Africa: A 5000-Year History of Wealth, Greed, and Endeavor


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Copyright 2014 by Martin Meredith


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