by Jonathan Mann

Gold Stater of Alexander the Great (323 BC)

Courage and conquest

What remains of the ancient city of Carthage, near the modern city of Tunis in North Africa, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1971. The ruins tell a story of total destruction and annihilation. Here lived a people who were one of the most influential civilisations in the ancient world, a people who almost changed the course of Western civilisation so how could it be that virtually all trace of their being was put to the torch? This is the story of Carthage, its rise to glory and its demise at the hands of one of Rome’s great generals, Scipio Aemilianus. Apart from the beautiful coins produced within Carthage’s powerful empire, all that survives are the accounts of ancient Greece and Rome, both vengeful enemies of the state. We hear of a group of depraved monsters, greedy, treacherous and brutal who readily sacrificed their own children to cruel gods. However, we need to remember that both ancient Greece and Rome had an axe to grind. Carthage was one of the largest and richest cities in antiquity and the power it held within the mediterranean was a threat. Carthage was founded a hundred years earlier than Rome in c.814, it’s said by an exiled priestess fleeing her native city of Tyre in ancient Phoenicia, now Lebanon. The Greeks named her Dido and legend told of how she came to found Carthage and become its queen. Upon landfall in north Africa she led her people to a local Berber chieftain in the hope of acquiring some land to settle and make home. The chieftain replied that she could have  “as much land as could be encompassed by an oxhide.”. Thinking on her feet, Dido cut the hide into strips and stretched them around a large hill name Byrsa or “hide”, an alternative name for Carthage. In carving out the earth for their new settlement the Tyrians discovered an ox’s head and all activity came to a halt. This was a bad omen that foretold the city would be wealthy but “laborious and always enslaved”. The decision was taken to dig elsewhere and fortune smiled upon the tired colonists for a horse’s head was found in the freshly dug earth. In Phoenician culture the horse was a symbol of courage and conquest, foretelling that Dido’s new city would rise to greatness. And so it was that Carthage, a name which derived from the Phoenician Qart-Hadasht meaning “New City”, came into being. 

Mother of pearl, coral, amber and ebony

For centuries Carthage was a mere outpost of its mother city, Tyre, but by 509 B.C. it was independent enough to negotiate a commercial treaty with the new Republic of Rome. Bringing with them their Phoenician penchant for seafaring and trade, the Carthaginians set about establishing themselves in the mediterranean as its most dominant power. One of its main advantages was the supremely dominant position it held in the Gulf of Tunis. Here it was close to Sicily, Italy, Sardinia and Corsica and not too distant from the Balearic Islands, Spain and Gaul (modern day France). From Carthage, trade could be completely controlled. Through domination of the seas it became the overlord of a vast network of trade which stretched to the west of Africa and into northern Europe. It’s even said that Britain’s first contacts with the classical world were through Carthaginian merchants who came in search of tin. Commodities from all over the ancient world flowed in and out of Carthage and its network of cities and satellite states which was larger than any other power in the region. Within his poem, Ithaca, the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, gives a vivid recounting of the lush goods which would have abounded in and around these ports; ‘…May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy, you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time; may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, sensual perfume of every kind, as many sensual perfumes as you can’. This great source of richness was coupled with ready access to abundant fertile land and an enterprising culture in the working of it. The writings of Mago of Carthage on farming and animal husbandry were considered as being of such importance that they were among the few to be spared by the Romans after their destruction of the city. This innovation was coupled with Carthage’s revolutionary idea of the ‘flat pack’ ship which was the first to have been produced using a standardised design and construction. This was part of the foundation which saw Carthage secure itself as one of the largest and most powerful navies in the ancient Mediterranean. 

As long as money clinks, my captain i’ll obey

Both Carthage’s army and its navy were lead by powerful families, mainly the Magonids and Barcids, who spent vast sums on piecing together a burgeoning force of foreign mercenary soldiers. One of the main struggles which ancient Carthage sought in expanding its sphere of power and influence was over the island of Sicily and its main city-state of Syracuse. Beginning in the 480s B.C., two centuries of bitter warfare would see Carthage establish a network of fortresses and mints which protected and paid its mercenary forces both in Sicily and in its hard-fought lands in Spain and Sardinia. This network first came into being when Carthage established its coinage c.410 B.C. in Sicily itself. Control of the island and beyond could only be secured if Carthaginian coins chinked in the purses of its soldiers of fortune. To this end, Carthaginian ships made daring voyages as far as West Africa to trade for gold. In around 350 B.C. a super-attractive new gold stater was produced specifically to pay Carthage’s forces. It was adorned with two of the powerful city-state’s most potent symbols, the Phoenician goddess, Tanit, and Dido’s omen of good fortune, the horse. Tanit was Carthage’s patron deity, bestowing protection and good fortune upon it. She was a mother goddess, representing fertility, love, the moon, stars and sky, cycles of life, strength, abundance and much more. Tanit was worshipped throughout North Africa, Spain, Malta, Sardinia and Rome but her most well known temples were found in Carthage itself. Her bust closely resembles coins which were produced by Carthage’s nemesis in Sicily; Syracuse, which depict their own deities such as the nymph Arethusa. It should be said that these coins of Syracuse have been identified by numismatists as being the very pinnacle of ancient art, unsurpassed until at least the nineteenth century, so this is a proud numismatic heritage to speak of. Tanit wears a wreath of grain, referencing fertility and abundance. Her neutral facial expression is said to denote nobility and a transcendence of earthly concerns, just like the Greek coins from which she is modeled. According to Carthage’s enemies, this beauty and divine wonder was underpinned by a much darker side. Ancient writers say that zealous Carthaginians gladly gave their children’s lives as sacrifices to honour their patron goddess, Tanit, and her consort Baal-Hamon. Nowadays, however, these claims have been questioned as ancient attempts to paint the Carthaginians in a bad light although it is still a possibility. This being as it may be, Tanit’s status as the primary deity of ancient Carthage is undeniable. The choice of a horse as her counterpart on Carthage’s gold staters too shows the significance which they gave to this majestic animal. To the Carthaginians it may have been a proud representation of their foundation story, a subject which was commonly depicted on coins of the ancient city-states. However, because the myth was recounted by a later Roman writer named Justin, its uncertain whether or not the Carthaginians knew of it. Another interpretation of the horse is that it refers to the military purpose of the staters. On some Carthaginian coins the horse is shown with the goddess of victory, Nike, who holds a wreath and a caduceus. The wreath was a symbol given to victors in contests and battles and so the horse may represent the military might and success of Carthage. Military success, though, in the ancient world required money and a lot of it. 

Weathering the storm

The wars in Sicily against Syracuse and beyond required huge resources and over time Carthage’s gold staters contained more and more silver. From 320 B.C. they have been classed as electrum which is a mixture of silver and gold. A further draw on resources came when North Africa was invaded by Agathocles of Syracuse in 310-307 B.C.. Agathocles sought to subdue Carthage and use its wealth to fund his wars. Allied with Libyans and Berbers, Carthage was able to see off Agathocles and continued to prosper until it came into conflict with a new enemy, then just a small city-state on the Tiber River in Italy; Rome. While the electrum staters ceased to be produced in around 280 B.C., their designs remained the staple of Carthage’s coinage right until the bitter end. Carthage would soon, in 264 B.C., embark on a series of three wars with Rome, known as the Punic Wars (deriving from the Phoenician word for the citizens of Carthage and in Latin reading Punicus), which would ultimately spell disaster and utter destruction for this once great city-state. Not even the efforts of one of their most famous names, the distinguished general, Hannibal Barca, could save them. After the loss of the first Punic War in 241 B.C. Carthage’s treasury was so depleted that it was reduced to coining debased silver and over-valued bronze coins. Under the terms of the treaty devised by Rome, Carthage had to pay 1,000 talents of gold immediately, plus another 2,000 talents over the next decade, amounting to an eye-watering 78,000 kilograms of bullion, or some 8.3 million gold staters! The second Punic War was meted out between 218B.C. and 201 B.C. and again Carthage was overcome. This time Rome stripped Carthage of its hard-fought colonies, denied it of its navy and forced it to pay another huge indemnity. 

Carthago delenda est

By the time of the third Punic War of 149 B.C. to 146 B.C. Rome had come to the end of its tether. Its elite came to believe that only total annihilation of Carthage could ensure Rome’s security. It was in the build-up to this last and most famous phase of the wars that Roman Republican politician, Cato, ended all his speeches with the words; Carthago delenda est, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’. And so it was that the might of the Roman Republic came down on Carthage in the form of a three-year siege, beginning in 149 B.C. The city had a population estimated at 700,000 and the vast majority of them were wiped out. In the spring of 146 B.C the Romans launched their final assault and over seven days systematically destroyed the city and slay its inhabitants. Only on the last day was the order given by Rome’s commander, Scipio Aemillianus, to take prisoners. 50,000 citizens were rounded up to be sold into slavery. Carthage’s top-of-command, Hasdrubal, pleaded for his life and freedom. This was observed by his wife who cursed her husband and with her children walked into a temple engulfed with flames. The ancient historian, Polybius, was present at the final destruction of Carthage alongside Scipio and it’s said that; ‘Scipio, when he looked upon the city as it was utterly perishing and in the last throes of its complete destruction, is said to have shed tears and wept openly for his enemies.’. Such was the destruction that apparently not one stone was left on top of another. The site was cursed and according to a 19th century myth, sown with salt to prevent any crop ever growing there again. Despite this inglorious end and scornful treatment, a century after the war ended, Julius Caesar planned to rebuild Carthage as a Roman city but little work was done. Augustus revived the project in 29 B.C. and by the time of the Empire it had become one of the main cities of Roman Africa. It appears from the history books that Rome had a grudging respect for Carthage as confirmed by the Roman politician, Cicero, who wrote; ‘Carthage would never have held an empire for six hundred years had it not been governed with wisdom and statesmanship.’. Such sentiments developed into full-scale equanimity on 5 February 1985 in a symbolic peace treaty which was signed by the mayors of Rome and modern Carthage, 2,131 years after the war ended.

Jonathan Mann is a numismatist specializing in medieval British coinage and is a member of the British Numismatic Society. His experience comprises over a decade in the British coin trade, as well as a position at the UK’s leading coin auctioneer, Spink & Sons as their hammered coin specialist. Jon has also represented Mayfair auctioneer, Dix Noonan Webb as their rep in the north of England. One of his biggest claims to numismatic fame is being responsible for handling and cataloguing a gold sovereign of Henry VII which set a world record as the highest price ever achieved at auction for a Tudor coin; £372,000. Jon is also proud to have represented the finder of the 2014 Lenborough hoard of Anglo-Saxon coins, helping him and the landowner to achieve an award of £1.35m from the British Museum Treasure Valuation Committee.

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