Punic Tragedy, Roman Genocide
It did not matter what the subject was.
Each time that the Roman statesman Cato the Elder
rose to speak, he ended it with these words:
'Also, I think Carthage must be destroyed'.
Carthage was a powerful city-state,
a prosperous North-African urban center, standing
on the Mediterranean coast, near the site of
modern day Tunis.
The people of Carthage were Phoenicians
by descent whom the Romans called Poeni.
As a colonial power they threatened the supremacy
of the Roman Empire. The conflicting imperial interests
between these two rival powers in the Mediterranean
region resulted in three Punic Wars that determined
the historical course of Western civilization.
The First Punic War,264-241 BCE, turned
on the competition for the control of
the strategically significant island of Sicily.
In the decisive sea battle fought at the Aegadian Isles
in 241, the Romans destroyed the Carthaginian fleet,
and their naval superiority thenceforth
The Second Punic War,218- 202 BCE, was provoked
by Roman attempts to stop Carthaginian expansion
in Iberia. In the course of the war, Hannibal,
the brilliant Carthaginian military commander,
brought Rome to the brink of a humiliating defeat.
He surprised the Romans by crossing the Alps
from the North and invading Italy with around
40,000 seasoned troops and a force of elephants.
He defeated Roman armies at the Trebbia River,
at Lake Trasimene and at Cannae. Hannibal occupied
much of Italy for 15 years, but the Romans
launched a counter invasion in North Africa
and at last defeated him in the Battle of Zama.
Cato the Elder visited Carthage in 153 and found
the city impressively large and its citizens wealthy.
Following Cato's return from his visit to the city,
says the Roman historian Appian, the Senate of Rome
had sought pretexts to attack Carthage.
At any event, Roman fears, hatred and mistrusts
of Carthage as a reborn mercantile power led to the
Third Punic War in the years of 149-146 BCE.
It ended in the total destruction of the city and
the loss of Carthage's independence.
In 149 BCE Rome declared war against Carthage.
A Roman army under Manius Manilius landed
on the African shore and demanded the surrender
of the city. Carthage handed over hostages and arms
But the Romans demanded unconditional surrender.
Although the war party overturned the faction
advocating submission only by one vote,
the Carthaginians decided to defend the city.
For two years, under the command of the Carthaginian
general Hasdrubal they resisted the Roman siege.
The city's half million inhabitants had transformed
the Punic capital into a fortress, where factories
sprung up producing swords, arrows, spears and
On their part, the Romans intensified their attacks
and revised their strategies. They appointed a new
military commander, Scipio Aemilianus, who assumed
now in his hand the reins of the siege. Distinguishing
himself already in the early operations of the war,
in 147 BCE, Rome elected him as consul. A strong
disciplinarian, Scipio besieged Carthage tightly and
constructed a mole to block the harbor.
In the spring of the following year, the Romans
succeeded to break through the city walls, but
the Carthaginians continued to fight heroically.
Every house, building and temple in the city had been
turned into a fortification. The Roman soldiers were
forced to capture Carthage in fierce battles of brutal
house by house and street by street combat.
In order to advance through the narrow streets
to the citadel, Scipio ordered residential buildings
to set on fire and thousands of children, women
and elderly perished in the flames. The Roman
soldiers raped the women in the city. And by the end
of the siege, they slaughtered about 450,000 people.
When finally Carthage surrendered only 50,000 of its
population remained alive and they were sold on the
slave markets. The Romans sacked the city for
several days and then razed it to the ground.
Roman losses were heavy, too.
Historians estimate that from the 84,000 strong
Roman army 17,000 was killed.
The destruction of Carthage mirrors
disturbing parallels with modern genocides.
Throughout history terrible atrocities and crimes
against humanity have been perpetrated
in recurring ideological patterns,
rooted in biased mindsets.
The Romans had their own propaganda campaigns
that vilified Hannibal and demonized Carthaginian
culture and religion.
The thinking of Marcus Porcius Cato, also known as
Cato the Elder, or of Scipio Aemilianus, for that matter,
is characterized by deep-seated racial and religious
prejudices, hatred for Carthage and the will for
territorial expansionism. Besides, Cato idealized
the Roman peasant as superior in character and race to
the merchant of Carthage.
Post-war Roman propaganda
depicted Punic society as cruel and uncivilized.
Historians, among them Plutarch, Orosius and Diodorus,
accused Carthaginians for practicing a religion that
involved child sacrifice. On the other hand, neither Livy,
nor Polybius—who was a friend of Scipio and an
eyewitness to the siege of Carthage—allege in their
writings that the people of that city- state sacrificed
their children to the Punic gods.
Genocidal propaganda dehumanizes targeted groups
of people. It incites for violence by vilifying and
demonizing the other. It sets in motion psychological
conditions eventuating in atrocities and mass murder.
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Edgar Allan Poe
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