Carthaginian Empire: The Phoenician city-state of Carthage

map showing extent of Carthaginian Empire (265 BC-201 BC)

The Carthaginian Empire established around 814 BC was spread over North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, Sardinia and Sicily. The ancient city of Carthage was the central hub of the Empire which was located in modern day Tunis of Tunisia. The growth of the Carthaginian Empire can be traced to its first humble establishment as a port city of the Phoenician city state which over the time grew into an empire with a control of much of the Phoenician Empire. The rise of the city of Ancient Carthage and the empire as an absolute power can be attributed to its continued trading activities, colonizing as well as maintaining it, along with developing its own society and culture. Led by the greatest general of the time, Hannibal Barca, the ancient city of Carthage became the leading power in the Atlantic and the Adriatic region. The three consecutive wars commonly known as the First, Second and the Third Punic War or the Battle of Carthage closed the final chapter for the Ancient city of Carthage.


Rise of the Carthaginian Empire

Adopting the nature of the Phoenician Empire of trading extensively, trade remained an important economic activity for Ancient Carthage although over the time other industries took shape. While many of the settlements of Carthaginian Empire had a characteristic pattern, it was open to changes giving it scope to grow and accommodate more city states to its empire. The Carthaginian also employed a strong military policy to enforce its power to the people of the conquered land. In short, Carthaginian Empire was highly diplomatic in dealing its ever growing empire as they understood that a single military policy would not suffice for the empire.

To facilitate trade, Carthage created new settlements or go to war to either protect or expand settlements and trade routes. Hence the foreign policy of Carthage and military activities focused on trade and its related activities. With this, the naval forces became the most important military arm of the Empire. On the other hand, merchants held an important role in the political affairs of the Empire.

Foundation of Carthage

ruins of Carthage CityThe strategic location of Carthage in a natural harbor sets the foundation for a strong empire. The Carthaginian Empire had the advantage of dominating the Gulf of Tunis that in turn ensured a flow of trade from the Western Mediterranean. The city of Carthage grew rapidly with high volume of trade passing through the area. In later stage, it also developed many artificial harbors known as Cothons which further helped in developing a network of trade oriented cities. These cothons were not restricted to Carthage only but many cities constructed it to increase their trade traffic.

Although trade was the mainstay economy, agriculture too flourished with favorable weather conditions. Carthage developed as a strong agricultural base in its hinterland. Hence, the empire enjoyed a diverse range of prosperity making its foundation much stronger in the long run.

The decline of the Egyptian Empire and other civilization nearby further led to its rise as an ultimate power with not much to compete with. However, the period of success ended with the arrival of Assyrian rulers but in this conflicting period too, they remained active traders.

Government, religion and the people of Carthage


The development of Carthage as an autonomous state began early and this was the defining moment in the rise of the Empire. Carthage started on an ambitious military expedition aimed in increasing its territory making it one of the most dominant states in the Western Mediterranean. Over time, monarchy got replaced by aristocracy which consisted mostly of wealthy merchants and displaced ruling class from Tyre. Many historians claims Carthage being very successful in managing its political affairs along with a presence of a well laid out constitution. Around fifth century BC, there has been evidence of two elected consular positions long with the presence of an executive body. Even though the citizens were believed to exercise same rights, inequalities of wealth, birth, education and opportunity were prevalent too.


The religion of Carthage can be again traced to Tyre which included transporting fire from the primary temple to the city state along with worshiping the main deity of Meqart. Another important divinity adopted from Tyre was the Ba’al Hammon till the rise of female deity Tanit. It is also believed the religion involved sacrificial activities including child sacrifice which is still under constant debate. The belief system of life after death seems prevalent suggested by presence of utensils in tombs and paintings on it.

The Priests held an important place in the society and were often considered leaders in the public life. It is also mentioned that aristocratic families adopted a particular god or goddess and paid special respect as their protector or patron. The city too had many temples dedicated to the divinity.


Like religion, the identity of Carthage is believed to be evolved from Phoenician culture. Rather than developing into a more homogenous group, the people of the Carthaginian Empire developed into a distinct majority which became more recognizable with the advent of time. The people of Carthage became the dominant group dominating its various civic centers. With time and further expansion, Carthage became more cosmopolitan with a mixture of many nationalities. Agricultural regions consisted of a vast slave population. Another distinctive class of population was the military which included foreign military forces too. Farmers on the other hand remained as the lower section of the society with no political rights. With trading as one of the major economy, the population of the Carthaginian Empire consisted of temporary visitors in most times consisting of traders, merchants, sailors etc.

Settlement, planning and architecture

Remains of Carthage city after Punic WarsGrowing urban population called for a change and upgradation of the existing urban fabric. Along with the fortification and building of a massive new gate, an important feature of the urban expansion was the development of garden suburb Megara. Megara were large districts located next to the city wall, planted with gardens and large fruit bearing trees.

Megara were not really a planned settlement but more like an urban sprawl which continue to grow like a semi-rural district. The old city on the other hand was fortified with the presence of city square similar to an Agora. The Megara or the new city was also believed to have been built as a measure to accommodate the huge number of armies.

The cityscape was dotted with numerous temples dedicated to its many Gods and Goddesses. Temples were usually flat roof like the temples of Phoenicians and Egyptian traditions. The entablatures of these temple roofs were intricately carved with geometric patterns and motifs influenced from Egyptian culture. Each temple or a worship place had an inner sanctum with the deity’s image and offerings.

There are also existences of the architecture dedicated to the death mostly in the form of towers with either two or three tiers usually with a rectangular plan. Another important element in the scared architecture was the Tophet where cremated remains of the children were deposited.

Houses in the ancient city of Carthage were mostly large dwellings with flat roofs. There was no standardized floor plan but large houses usually had an interior courtyard. Similar to Romans, there were apartment like buildings too with residences on upper floor and shops on the ground floor plan.

There have been instances of urban improvement projects. Workshops were replaced with structures laid out along the streets in a grid plan. There was a well-planned drainage system too. Much of the city was laid out for a pedestrian system. Not much has been found about the existence of public buildings other than temples.

Carthaginian colonies

Ancient Carthage adopted many traditions from Phoenicians along with their policies. It also adopted the legacy of colonizing states. These colonies developed their own characteristics to suit the needs of the ever expanding empire. However, there was no clear distinction between Carthaginian and original Phoenician colonies making it difficult to attest the size and scale of the colonies.

Presence of a good harbor among other things was a major deciding factor in establishing a colony for the Carthaginians. Apart from trading, presence of commodity like pine wood, wool, olive etc. was attracted the Carthaginians to colonize. The presence of resources like silver and lead made Ibiza and Mallorca colonies.

In later phases, apart from presence of resources, strategic location became an important factor for establishing colonies so as to dominate more geography.

Punic War and the end of the Empire

The Punic wars were raged between Rome and Carthage for over a century. There were three Punic wars in which the First Punic War went on for over 20 years; however Rome could gain only a small territory of Carthage. The First Punic war which was mostly land based helped Rome established as a naval power which was non-existent for a long time. The war ended with the yielding of Sicily to Rome. Carthage struggled to recover the huge cost of the war. In a few years, Rome seized two more colonies by breaking the peace treaty.

Second Punic WarThe Second Punic War started about 20 years later with the young Hannibal Barca as the new general setting the stage to avenge the loss. Hannibal Commander was that charismatic leader which was elected by the citizen troop and the army which a rarity in those times. Awed by his chivalry and defeating the Spanish Army, many communities sent their offers for submission. In just about a year time, he added as much territory to the Empire as his predecessors did in more than 16 odd years.

portrait showing the Hannibal Barca, Commander General of Carthaginian EmpireThe powerful Hannibal of Carthage defeated Roman legions in every encounter however he never captured the city of Rome. Had the Hannibal the commander marched directly to Rome, Carthage would have had an upper hand in the Second Punic War. The government of Carthage slowly started divulging its support owing to the rising cost of the never ending war. The Second War proved a major setback for Carthage losing almost all its colonies except for immediate cities surrounding it. Even Hannibal the Conqueror could not save the Carthaginian Empire from its ill fate.

Rome still felt the need to destroy Carthage completely as it was still envious of the continuing commercial success. The Final Punic War was fought without much provocation from Carthage and simply with the reason of destroying it altogether. The Battle of Carthage lasted for only about three years and ended with the complete destruction of Carthage with the slaughter or slavery of about half its million population.


Carthage had a choice of continuing the peace tradition of Phoenicians however the greed for more land and power led to its complete destruction. The success in the war with the Greeks made it believed it was invincible. However, Carthaginian Empire made a lasting impact on the Mediterranean culture, political and practical life. Carthage was a cultural hub which adopted and adapted various other cultures such as the Libyan and its neighbors making it into a lively civilization.


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