Like its mortal enemy Rome, Carthage was both a city and an empire, famous throughout the Mediterranean for its material wealth, strong thalassocracy, and the strength of the walls protecting its capital and namesake located in the center of the coast of the Gulf of Tunis in what is today a seaside suburb of modern Tunis, the capital of Tunisia. The site chosen for Carthage (Kart-hadasht in Phoenician, Karchedon in Greek, and Carthago in Latin) was on a triangular peninsula covered with low hills and backed by the Lake of Tunis, a location that provided a safe anchorage and an abundance of seafood. The city gradually expanded from its central location, the citadel on the Byrsa Hill, which was easily defensible.  Most importantly, Carthage’s proximity to the Strait of Sicily between Sicily and North Africa placed it near a strategic chokepoint in east-west Mediterranean trade. Carthage was also famous for the engineering wonders that were its tall and wide white-washed city walls and its double harbor, a connected rectangular and circular complex serving both civilian and military purposes. Together, this remarkable urban fortification and its innovative ports protected this North African city from numerous sieges, ensuring Carthage’s reputation as the crown jewel of the Western Mediterranean for centuries until Rome’s successful siege and storm at the culmination of the three Punic conflicts in 146 BCE.

The legendary founding of Carthage in 814 BCE is associated with Queen Dido of Phoenicia, famous in Roman history as the consort to the Aeneas, the Trojan refugee who became the famous ancestor of Romulus and Remus in Virgil’s (70-19 BCE) unfinished masterpiece, the Aeneid. By that time, Rome’s preoccupation with Carthage was already centuries-old, with the Romans describing the Carthaginians by the Latin noun Poenus for Phoenician, from which the adjective Punicus was derived, and later the modern term Punic when describing Carthaginian civilization. Since the founding of the “City of Dido” by Phoenician colonists in the late ninth century BCE, this transplanted Semitic civilization put most of its energy into creating a formidable Western Mediterranean maritime empire. The original Phoenicians were linguistic cousins of the Hebrews who settled along the Lebanese coast of the Levant just north of ancient Palestine. The collapse of the Late Bronze Age empires around 1000 BCE freed this entrepreneurial people from the grasp of their powerful Egyptian and Hittite neighbors, allowing them to use the valuable cedar trees found in their territory to construct a merchant navy consisting of sleek bireme war galleys and high-decked round ships. From their chief cities of Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre, Phoenician sailors carried the famous Tyrian purple dye, glass, wine, and lumber to markets in Egypt, Syria, and the Aegean coastline.  Eventually these ships sailed into the western Mediterranean and colonized port cities along the northern coast of North Africa before sailing past the Strait of Gibraltar and onward into the Atlantic, reaching Britain and the west coast of Africa. However, Phoenician independence was short-lived. In the eighth century BCE, the Phoenicians were conquered by the Assyrians, and later in the sixth century, by the Chaldean and Persian empires. With Phoenicia absorbed into regional Iron Age empires, Carthage inherited the Phoenician settlements on the coasts of western Sicily and southern Spain and on the adjoining isles. These islands were valuable possessions—Malta as a cotton plantation, Elba as an iron mine, and the Balearic Islands of Majorca and Minorca as a recruiting ground for light infantry slingers. They also served as naval stations to preserve Carthage’s monopoly of the sea-lanes.  After Alexander the Great’s (336-323 BCE) conquest of Phoenicia in 332 BCE, the new center of gravity of Phoenician civilization was their former colony on the Gulf of Tunis.


Photo one:  (Left) The triple walls of Thapsus. These defensive works were constructed in a similar manner to those that protected Carthage. From Alfred J. Church’s Story of Carthage (1886). THE TRIPLE WALL OF THAPSUS church. Source: Bing images, in the Public Domain. (Right) A close-up cross-section line drawing of the main curtain wall at Thapsus, constructed in a similar manner as Carthage. From Alfred J Church’s Story of Carthage (1886). Walls of Carthage. Source: Bing images, in the Public Domain.

Photo two: The extent of the Carthaginian Empire in the Western Mediterranean on the Eve of the First Punic War, c.264 BCE. Source: Wikimedia, in the Public Domain.



As Carthage’s population grew and outstripped its local resources, it expanded along the littoral of North Africa into a region called the Maghreb (modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya), creating a substantial empire by the late third century BCE. The Carthaginians first traded with, and later subdued, many of the indigenous Berber tribes there, building colonies and intermarrying freely with these subject peoples. Those tribes which would not assimilate were pushed to the fringes, where they either raided Punic territory or offered their services as allies or mercenaries. The light horsemen from Numidia are perhaps the most famous of these warriors, serving in the Carthaginian army for generations.

Like city-states in Italy and Greece during the Archaic period (c.800-c.500 BCE) Carthage was ruled by kings with divine right rule and broad powers in war making, religion and governance. Carthage went through a gradual transformation from monarchy to a representative legislature consisting of two chief executive positions held by elected magistrates known as suffetes (“judges”) who governed in conjunction with a Senate of between 200-300 members who held the position for life. Below the Senate was a popular assembly that met in the main market square and voted on issues proposed by the suffetes and Senate. The Carthaginians also had a special wartime assembly consisted of 100 senators, both chief executives, the state treasurer and the high priest of the state religion who convened to assess the military performance of commanders on the completion of their campaigns. This government was very similar to that of Rome, with political power concentrated in the hands of a few very wealthy families in a classic oligarchy. Among the most important of these families were the Barcid dynasty, who produced Hamilcar (c.275-228 BCE) and his son Hannibal Barca (247-182 BCE), two Carthaginian generals who figured prominently during the first two Punic conflicts as the architect of the end of the First Punic War (264-241) and the major antagonist to Rome during the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE).

By 300 BCE Carthage was the largest and richest city in the western Mediterranean, encompassing an area of over seven square miles. Over the next hundred and fifty years, the city would continue to grow in population, taking over a green space on the inside of the inner walls, while growing upward with more multi-story buildings, with modern estimates placing the population of Carthage at 700,000 inhabitants by the middle of the second century BCE.  The city itself was built on a naturally defensible position on the eastern side of a triangular peninsula and then heavily fortified. The peninsula was protected to the north, east, and southeast by the sea and two restricted land approaches or isthmuses, one to the north and the larger 3,000 yard wide to the west, connecting the peninsula to the mainland. South of the larger isthmus and west of the city was the Lake of Tunis, an unfordable body of water.  An eighteen-mile-long city wall (perhaps twenty-two miles in length by some accounts) enclosed the city and the great harbors, the entrance of which lay to the west of an unprotected southern sandbar. Carthage was famous for its fine public buildings and four residential areas, all centered around the Byrsa Hill. The name Byrsa may be a corruption of Phoenician barsat, which means “stronghold,” or it could be related to the Semitic word bostra (cliff) or Akkadian birtu (fortress).  Whatever the origin of the name, the Byrsa Hill was the location of an ancient temple dedicated to Eshmun, the Phoenician God of healing, but would later become a walled citadel that served as the city’s principal military complex. Like similar cities in the Hellenic and later Hellenistic East, Carthage featured civic halls, theaters, large and small marketplaces, necropoleis, and numerous temples, including a main civil temple to their patron deity, the goddess Tanit and her consort Baal-Hamon. Outside the city walls Carthage was known for its extensive agriculture lands consisting of olive groves, grape vineyards, and wheatfields watered by a sophisticated system of irrigation ditches, making the city-state an important exporter of these Mediterranean staples and an economic rival to its northern neighbors in Greek-controlled Sicily and a Rome relentlessly expanding across the Italian peninsula. However, by the third century BCE Carthage’s most impressive and imposing features were its city walls and its complex of harbors and docks.

12698994093?profile=RESIZE_400xAccording to the Greco-Egyptian historian Appian (c.95-c.165 CE), whose account is based on lost writings from Polybius (200-118 BCE), the walls of Carthage were single on the seaside, but triple on the vulnerable western approach. Appian describes the landward curtain walls as three walls of equal height and breadth, but this detail is probably inaccurate as this type of construction would prevent the walls from supporting one another. It is more likely the triple walls were designed to be progressively higher from the outside inward beginning with a sixty-foot-wide ditch and timber palisade, a second taller stone wall, and the main curtain wall so that the taller inward walls could support the shorter outward walls. This design and construction would bring Carthage’s walls in line with another important Carthaginian fortification at the site of Thapsus on the eastern Tunisian coast, today located at Bekalta, Ras Dimas Lamta (ancient Leptiminus) and Mahdia (ancient Gummi). Appian describes immense dimensions for the main wall at Carthage, towering fifty feet in height and thirty-two feet in width with a four story tower every 200 feet. White-washed in plaster to protect from the elements, the walls produced a marble-like shimmering effect when seen from ships approaching the harbors by sea. He also tells of an unusual feature within these massive landward walls, specifically stables for 300 elephants with fodder rooms below, while above the pachyderm stalls were stables for 4,000 horses and barracks for the garrison of 24,000 men, both Carthaginian and mercenary. A common site on the battlefields of the Hellenistic East, war elephants provided Carthaginian generals with a new dangerous but unpredictable weapon against their enemies, one that fused shock and missile elements. A crew of three normally manned the turret mounted on the pachyderm’s back: a driver or mahout, a spearman for shock combat and an archer or javelin thrower for missile fire. Although slow and vulnerable to enemy missile attack, the war elephant’s main advantages in combat were its size and the terror it inspired in troops and enemy horses unused to fighting the pachyderm. Moreover, war elephants were sometimes used as living siege engines, forcing the entrance to cities. Normally, larger Indian elephants were used in Hellenistic warfare, though Carthage preferred the smaller African forest elephants because they were easier to acquire and train. Dedicated stables built into the walls of Carthage for 300 of these awe-inspiring beasts indicate their importance to the Carthaginian art of war, as does their presence with Hannibal’s campaign in Europe at the beginning of the Second Punic War.     

The great double harbor complex consisted of a rectangular commercial port near the entrance and a circular military harbor (cothon or artificial inner harbor) protected by a double set of walls. These vast man-made structures were an engineering feat all on their own. Together they covered an area of around thirty-two acres and required manual excavation of some 308,000 cubic yards of soil.  Again, according to Appian:

“The harbors had communications with each other, and a common entrance from the sea, seventy feet wide, which could be closed with iron chains.  The first port was for merchant vessels, and here were collected all kinds of ships’ tackle.  Within the second port was an island, and great quays [docks] were set at intervals round both the harbor and the island.  The embankments were full of shipyards which had capacity for 220 vessels.  In addition to them were magazines for their tackle and furniture. Two Ionic columns stood in front of each dock, giving the appearance of a continuous portico to both the harbor and the island.  On the island was built the admiral’s house, from which the trumpeter gave signals, the herald delivered orders, and the admiral himself oversaw everything….  Not even incoming merchants could see the docks at once, for a double wall enclosed them, and there were gates by which the merchant ships could pass from the first port to the city without traversing the dockyards. Such was the appearance of Carthage at that time.”


Photo three: A schematic of the layout of Carthage during the Republic. Source: Wikimedia. In the Public Domain.

Photo four: An image of Roman Carthage (146 BCE-439 CE), complete with gladiatorial amphitheater and chariot racing stadium. This image also does a good job showing the magnificent agricultural potential of the peninsula. Source: flickr. In the Public Domain.

Photo five: A Google map image of what remains of Carthage’s double harbor in the twenty-first century. Source: Google. In the Public Domain.


Modern archaeological surveys validate Appian’s account; however, they lower the capacity of the cothon berths from 220 to 170 warships. Even so, the ability to accommodate so many vessels was due to its innovative design. On the island itself there were thirty covered dry docks that symmetrically fanned out, separated by a hexagon will shaped open space with the watchtower on its southernmost side.  This area could also be accessed from the north by a narrow gangway, with ships hauled onto dry land and portaged by the use of wooden ramps and ropes.  Along the circumference of the island, another 140 boats could have been accommodated, giving the Carthaginian admiralty the ability to protect the majority of its fleet during the winter months within the safety of its capital’s walls.

12698993694?profile=RESIZE_584xDuring the Carthaginian Republic (c.814-146 BCE) the great city of Carthage withstood numerous sieges, ultimately falling to the Romans at the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE).  Between 310-307 BCE, Carthaginian North Africa was invaded by Agathocles of Syracuse (r.317-289 BCE) who failed in his attempts to take the Carthaginian capital because of the strengths of its urban defenses.  Near the end of the Second Punic War, the Roman general and consul Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE) landed in expeditionary force north of Carthage in 204 BCE and ravaged the countryside but refused to engage in a precarious siege of Carthage due to the strength of its fortifications, with the war concluding after Hannibal’s defeat at Zama in 202 BCE.  A half-century later, the Romans returned to North Africa on a mission to annihilate the Carthaginian capital and its civilization, culminating in the three-year siege and eventual storm of the city during the Third Punic War, fulfilling the Roman statesman Cato the Elder’s (234-149 BCE) famous proclamation, Carthago delenda est (“Carthage must be destroyed”). Carthaginian territory was annexed and made into the first North African Roman province of Asia, with Carthage serving as the provincial capital. 

Despite Cato’s assertion, Roman Carthage (146 BCE-439 CE) would enjoy a half millennium of prosperity as the economic hub of Rome’s western possessions in its Mare Nostrum. True to other important Roman cities, Carthage added baths and basilicas, an amphitheater for spectacles, and even built the empire’s second largest circus for chariot racing within its walls.  Roman Carthage fell in 439 to the marauding and entrepreneurial Germanic Vandals, who made Carthage the capital of their North African Germanic kingdom and thalassocracy. Vandal Carthage (439-534) fell to the Byzantine general Belisarius (505-565), with the captured Vandal territory extending Emperor Justinian the Great’s (r.527-565) imperium into the Western Mediterranean.  Byzantine Carthage (534-698) served as the capital of Byzantium’s North African province but would fall to Arab-led Berber armies during Islam’s age of expansion across North Africa, with neighboring Tunis replacing Carthage as the most important regional city. In 1270, the French king and crusader Louis IX (“Saint Louis,” r.1226-1270) landed in North Africa during the first leg of his ill-fated Eighth Crusade (1270 CE), dying among the ruins of the once great city before he could reach the Holy Land. The site of Carthage continued as a small village until it was eventually absorbed as a western suburb of a sprawling Tunis before international archaeological digs in the 1970s began to protect and uncover its past greatness.  In 1979 the ancient ruins of Carthage was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Suggested Readings:

Primary sources

Appian. The Roman History (Volume I: The Foreign Wars). Translated by Horace White. Macmillan, 1899.

Polybius. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert.Penguin Books, 1979.


12698994475?profile=RESIZE_584xSecondary sources

Lancel, Serge. Carthage. Trans. Antonia Nevill. Blackwell Publishing, 1995.

Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. Penguin, 2011.  

Soren, David, Ai͏̈cha Ben Abed-Ben Khader, and Hedi Slim. Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of ancient Tunisia. Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Wise, Terrence.  Armies of the Carthaginian wars: 265-146 BC.  Osprey, 1982.


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