A DISPUTED WORLD
The dark giant lay sprawled on the sands of Tunis. Far to the north the new champion of the arena lifted his arms in triumph. The galleys passed upon the sea, the soldiers laid down their arms, cities were rebuilt and peace was everywhere welcomed. The supine giant was unconscious, but not dead. Slowly he began to raise himself upon his elbows.
Hannibal was born six years before the end of the first great war between Rome and Carthage. He was the son of Hamilcar Barca, Barca being one of the most distinguished families in Carthage. Their name meant ‘Thunderbolt’, and they could trace their descent back to Queen Elissa (Dido), the legendary founder of the great North African city. Hannibal’s birth in 247 B.C. coincided with the appointment of his father to the supreme command of the city’s forces by land and by sea. There is a legend that his birthplace was the small island of Malta, a Carthaginian colony, but it is almost certain that it was Carthage itself. Hamilcar’s palace lay in that city of tall white buildings climbing the hill of Byrsa. It overlooked the deep Gulf of Tunis and the African Mediterranean flickering to the north.
Hannibal was only to know Carthage in the early years of his life, after which, throughout the formative years of young manhood and into middle age, he would be in Spain and Italy. He would see the city again only when, to all intents and purposes, his cause was lost and Carthage was ultimately doomed. Yet it was this city that inspired him to lead her armies against Rome, that fired him to lead them across the Alps and to carry into Italy a war that lasted for sixteen years and was described by the Roman historian Livy as ‘the most memorable of all wars ever waged’.
Qart Hadasht, New Town, Carthage to the Romans, was traditionally said to have been founded in 814 B.C. by Phoenician traders who had discovered an ideal site for a trading settlement on a small peninsula well sheltered and deep in the Gulf of Tunis. The Phoenicians were not colonisers in the customary sense of the word: they were merchants backed by the greatest seagoing tradition in the ancient world. Carthage, at any rate to begin with, was no different from most of their other trading posts. They had already established these in Sicily and Sardinia, along the North African coast, and as far westward as Gades (Cadiz) where the Atlantic beats against Spain. Following the pattern of their great city of Tyre and other later foundations, they had chosen a place easily defendable against attacks from the hinterland, and one which provided a suitable anchorage for their trading vessels in the summer months, as well as a separate harbour for the lean war-galleys that protected their shipping. The Phoenicians were sailors, not soldiers. But instead of remaining no more than a trading post, Carthage rapidly developed into the greatest mercantile city in the Mediterranean. This in itself lends support to the story that it was founded by the exiled Queen Elissa and a group of nobles; for no ordinary Phoenicians would have been interested in expanding in such a manner—or have had the resources to do so.
The small bay, El Kram, protected by its headland, was almost certainly the site of the original trading post, and the long sand beaches in the area were ideal for drawing up their ships so that they would be safe from strong winds from the north. A little inland from the bay the colonists proceeded to construct an artificial harbour (Cothon) for their warships, where they could be safely moored all year round. This was circular, about a thousand feet in diameter, with an island in the middle for the naval headquarters. A similar but square-shaped merchant harbour lay to seaward of this, connected to the warship harbour, although the latter preserved its secrecy by being surrounded by a double wall. No one, not even from the mercantile harbour, could see what new construction or repair work was being carried out there. These two harbours, with their surrounding outbuildings, sheds and quays, were the heart of the city—its very raison d’ętre. Nearby was the sacred enclosure of Tanit, the Canaanite goddess of fertility, who had assumed a greater significance in Carthage than in her native Levant. Perhaps this was because she had absorbed a local nature goddess, perhaps also because the land by which Carthage itself was surrounded was so exuberantly fertile that even the Phoenicians, whose main concern had always been trade and manufacture, and the necessary dominance of the ‘fish-infested’ sea, now looked inland towards the rich earth of what is today called Tunisia. Eastwards the extent of their dominion ran along the coastal areas of Libya and Tripolitania. To the west, again extending along the limit of cultivatable earth, they gradually embraced Algeria and Morocco—lands which, like all the others, they farmed not themselves but with the enforced labour of the native population.
Out of this richness, coupled with their command of the western sea-routes, their artisans’ skill, and their inherited ability as the greatest entrepreneurs of the ancient world, the Carthaginians had gradually dissociated themselves from their ancestry. They had become a people in their own right and turned their port and trading depot into the greatest city of the day. Carthage ran back from the small headland and the artificial harbours towards the hill of Byrsa which formed the inner citadel. It was here that the temples of the other gods were sited, palaces of the nobles, and the tall many-storeyed buildings housing merchants and workmen and the skilled craftsmen of a nation which relied for its raw materials and sources of riches largely upon the mines and the materials of the lands that lay far away to the west. Principal among these was Spain—the peninsula which, as they had steadily retreated over many centuries before the advance of the Greeks, the Carthaginians had carefully preserved as their own and secret treasure-trove.
Carthage was cooled often in summer by the north wind, but it was also harassed by the easterly Levanter, and sometimes it sweltered under the simoon off that great desert to the south. The town itself, on its peninsula and its hill, was almost an island. In this respect it resembled in microcosm nearly all the North African coastal belt, where a combination of sea on the one hand and mountains and desert on the other produces a curious feeling of remoteness from the giant continent of Africa.
This was the home that Hannibal knew as a boy. It would have been impossible for him, even during that great war against Rome which was being waged across the sea to the north, to have been unaware that Carthage was a spider’s web of trade and communications that spread eastward to Egypt and the Levant, and westward as far as scarcely imaginable places beyond Spain. Where the Mediterranean issued between the giant Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar and Ceuta) into the misty Ocean that lapped the whole world round, the Carthaginians had planted trading posts. Their interests extended as far north as Britain and the Baltic, as well as to the Canary Islands, the Cameroons, and possibly even the Azores. In the Mediterranean, apart from western Sicily, the Maltese islands and the Lipari islands were Carthaginian ports of call, and Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics were in their sphere of influence. The boy would have been early familiar with the multitudinous things that filled the warehouses of Carthage—gold from Africa, silver and tin from Spain, the skins of deer, lions and leopards, elephant tusks and hides, Greek pottery, faience from Egypt, perfumes from the East, Ionic columns for temples or the homes of the rich, marble from the Aegean islands, and dressed stone from the quarries of the Sacred Mountain (Cape Bon). Carthage was the great mart of the ancient world and the words of Ezekiel, in his prophetic lament for the fall of Tyre some centuries earlier, were even more apt for the colonial city that had far eclipsed its founder:
Thy borders are in the midst of the seas, thy builders have perfected thy beauty…. Fine linen with broidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail; blue and purple from the isles of Elisha was that which covered thee. The inhabitants of Zidon and Arvad were thy mariners: thy wise men, O Tyrus, that were in thee, were thy pilots. The ancients of Gebal and the wise men thereof were in thee thy calkers: all the ships of the sea with their mariners were in thee to occupy thy merchandise…. These were thy merchants in all sorts of things, in blue clothes, and broidered work, and in chests of rich apparel, bound with cords, and made of cedar, among thy merchandise. The ships of Tarshish did sing of thee in thy market: and thou wast replenished, and made very glorious in the midst of the seas. Thy rowers have brought thee into great waters….
Young Hannibal grew up as the eldest son of one of the leading men of Carthage, and he inherited a fierce pride in his ancestry and the city, the Queen of the Mediterranean.
Nearly three hundred years before he was born Carthage had established her dominance over the central and western Mediterranean. In the eastern basin of the sea, like the Phoenicians before them, they had yielded before the pressure of the seafaring Greeks. As the struggle for land (largely on the Greek part) and trade (largely on the Carthaginian) had developed in the central Mediterranean there had been more or less incessant warfare between the Carthaginians and the Greeks. These battles on land and sea centred on and around the rich island of Sicily. The importance of this great island was clear enough to the ancients with their eyes fixed only upon this sea, but for the modern visitor, who observes its largely worked-out barrenness, it requires some imagination to realise that Sicily, to the land-hungry Greeks especially, had everything to commend it. There was good vine-growing country and ample regions for pasturage as well as for agriculture; there was all-important water, and there were harbours for a seafaring people, trees for fuel and boat-building, and craggy uplands for goats and even sheep. As well as the vine, the hardy olive flourished—that stone-fruit with its pulpy flesh which lies at the heart of all Mediterranean civilisation.
The result of centuries of warfare was that the Greeks controlled most of the eastern coast of Sicily, nearest to their homeland, while the Carthaginians had retreated largely to the west and north. They were not eager for the acquisition of land, having enough in the area around Carthage, but harbours, repair depots and trading posts were essential for maintaining their contacts with Sardinia and then—looking westwards—as staging-posts to the Balearic islands and, beyond them, their ‘secret’ and immeasurably rich territory in Spain.
The two marine contestants for the dominance of this sea and the harbours around it had almost, after much bloodshed, reached an unspoken truce when a newcomer upon the scene set the clock back by two or three hundred years—thus introducing a third party into a power-game that had almost been resolved into an agreed draw. This newcomer was Rome, the relatively little-known state to the north of Italy, which had been steadily consolidating its gains on the mainland while Carthage and the Greek states snapped and fought around the bone of Sicily and the sea-routes to the south. Neither the Greeks nor the Carthaginians had paid a great deal of attention to the Romans until this dour and tough land-based power arrived at the very gates of Sicily. Confronting both of them across the narrow Strait of Messina, Rome was now evidently interested in the rich island to the south. Such knowledge as the Greeks and Carthaginians had of this Latin power cannot have been comforting, but at the same time scarcely threatening. Carthage had concluded two treaties with Rome in the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., both designed to assure the Romans that they had no intentions against the mainland of Italy while the Romans, for their part, agreed to accept Carthaginian influence in Sicily. But as Roman interests expanded and the whole of southern Italy came under their sway, it became clear that they would not stop there.
It was the Carthaginians who were always prepared, whenever possible, to reach an accommodation with these powerful new neighbours who—so long as they had been content with the land—seemed no threat to them. It was Rome which was the military and expansionist power. The Carthaginians, as they had shown in previous centuries during their struggles with the Greeks, were often prepared to back down, provided that their vital concerns were not endangered. The wars which followed between Carthage and Rome, wars of exceptional scope covering the whole Mediterranean sea, were always triggered off by Rome. The Carthaginians had no territorial designs on Europe; they wished only to be left in peace in their North African territory, to conduct their manufacturing and trading. As a race they were few in number—with the result that, when they became involved in a large-scale war, the armies that they fielded had necessarily to be composed largely of mercenaries. Carthaginian-generalled, and with an elite of Carthaginian officers and troops, these armies comprised the many races that came within the sway of their sea-empire. (Some points of similarity can be found between the military systems of the British and Carthaginian empires.) Infantry came from Libya and all the other areas of North Africa while Numidian tribesmen provided what was later to become, under Hannibal, Carthage’s greatest arm, the superb cavalry which astonished the world.
In the years following Hannibal’s birth, his father Hamilcar had fought doggedly and with great skill to preserve the remnants of the Carthaginian garrisons in western Sicily. That he was finally unsuccessful was because the Romans had been quick to learn an all-important lesson—to succeed in the Mediterranean theatre it is essential to have command of the sea. In the early stages of this great war the Carthaginians, with centuries of experience behind them, had found little difficulty in trouncing the Romans in naval engagements and in harrying their coastline. But one of the Roman qualities which would greatly assist them to their successful imperial role was an ability to learn from mistakes. Taking as a model, so it is said, a Carthaginian warship that had run aground and been captured intact, the Romans built in a short space of time a fleet of a hundred and twenty ships. Before very long they had become so adept at handling them that they mastered their enemies at sea. The decisive battle took place off western Sicily—decisive because it rendered untenable the hold that Hamilcar Barca still had upon the last of the Carthaginian bases in the island.