Advertisement Close

The City of Carthage, Tunisia's Ancient Past

posted on: Apr 21, 2021

By: Christian Jimenez/Arab America Contributing Writer

When people think of Tunisia, they think of the Arab Spring or the years under French colonial rule.  However, Tunisia’s history is much broader than this. Their history dates to the time of antiquity when one of the greatest North African Empires, Carthage, strongly stood. This nation challenged the all-mighty Romans, and nearly brought them to a standstill.

Carthage’s Origins and Foundation

Phoenician Trade Routes
Image by

To learn about this ancient history of Carthage and Tunisia, we have to start somewhere else. The reason for this is that Carthage was a city settled by immigrants from Lebanon: the Phoenicians. They were some of the best traders during the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age.  However, with limited resources and the neo-Assyrian Empire at their front door, many Phoenicians started to settle abroad. They settled in Cyprus, Spain, and North Africa and were often competing with the Greeks who were also impelled to settle elsewhere due to limited resources.  This colonization of North Africa soon spread to Tunisia with the founding of Carthage in 814 B.C.E.  This foundation was said to be led by the famous, if somewhat legendary Phoenician, Queen Dido.  After Carthage’s foundation, the city would still stay in contact with the rest of Phoenicia, especially their mother city of Tyre

Carthage’s Relations with Neighbors

Meanwhile, during the 6th century, Carthage would establish its own colonies independent of Tyre, in Morocco and Spain. There, they would extract resources such as iron, gold, and silver.  Some of their Moroccan and Spanish colonies were founded even beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. They would use these colonies as outposts for trade as far away as Britain and Sub-Saharan Africa, according to  The Carthaginians were additionally known for their trade power because of the already mentioned colonies. They enabled trade routes throughout the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.  They would then ally with other Phoenician cities, such as Gades in Spain and Amazigh kingdoms of Northern Africa. From these cities, the empire would obtain tributes and taxes. Thus, it obtained more wealth and power according to

However, just like their Phoenician predecessors, the Carthaginians also became involved in wars with the Greeks. They mostly fought on the island of Sicily, against the powerful Greek colony of Syracuse.  Interestingly, while the Greeks were fighting the Persians at Salamis in 480 B.C., another important Greek victory took place against the Carthaginians on the island of Sicily at the Battle of Himera.  This battle was the first of seven so-called Sicilian Wars, which lasted from 480 to 265 B.C.

Carthage’s System of Government

Map of Carthage and Rome during the Punic Wars
Image by

Along with their history and trade power, Carthage also had an interesting system of government.  At first, being ruled by kings, the Carthaginians had a somewhat similar system of government to the Romans. Carthage had become a republic by the 4th century B.C.E.. Their main form of executive power was invested in the two Suffetes, similar to the Roman consuls.  However, they were kept in check by the aristocracy in the senate and the people in the assembly. They voted on laws passed by the Suffetes and the Senate.

Moreover, the Carthaginians were skilled in animal husbandry and agriculture, planting abundant fruit trees, grapes, figs, olives, etc.  This trade power and agricultural potential would later cause many nations to fear them, even the Romans.  Carthage’s power would later be enhanced, as Phoenicians from Tyre fled to Carthage after Alexander the Great’s siege of the city in the year 332 B.C.E., according to  However, Carthage’s prosperity would not last forever, as by the 3rd century B.C.E. the Punic Wars began.

The Punic Wars

The First Punic War between the titans of Carthage and Rome would begin in the place that Carthage had been fighting on for centuries, Sicily.  The reason for this was the two empires fighting for rival sides on the island.  At first, the war was a deadlock as Carthage was superior in the seas and the Romans dominated the land.  This stalemate would not last as the Romans would adopt and innovate naval technology. They were finally able to defeat the Carthiginains with an exclusive navy.  This soon caused the Carthiginains to give up the island of Sicily. Consequently, they lost Corsica and Sardinia to the Romans.  Despite this setback, the Carthigianins would rebuild their empire in Spain under the rule of Hannibal.  Their activities in Spain would soon start the second Punic War. Carthage attacked the Spanish town of Saguntum, which was a Roman ally. 

The Second Punic War is the most well known. It is famous for Hannibal’s crossing over the Alps and defeat of the Romans ceaselessly in Italy in the battle of Cannae.  However, the Romans then invaded Carthage itself, forcing Hannibal back to North Africa in the famous Battle of Zama in 202 B.C.E. Here they would eventually lose to the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  This time, the Carthignains lost everything except their homeland in North Africa.

But this war wouldn’t prevent the Third Punic War as Carthage would fight the Kingdom of Numidia, a former Carthaginian now turned Roman Amazigh ally.  The Romans saw this as an attack on their ally, even though Carthage was merely defending their land against Numidian expansion.  This issue would then lead to a Roman army demanding that the Carthiginains abandon the city. They refused, and in the Romans burned the city to the ground.  

What Became of Carthage?

Centuries after North Africa became a colony of Rome, Carthage would rise up again as an economic hotspot.  They would continue under the Vandals and the Byzantines until the Umayyad invasion which would also destroy Carthage.  However, this would then lead them to shift the administrative and economic center of power in Tunisia to the neighboring city of Tunis. It remains the dominant city of Tunisia today.  Despite the city no longer existing, the site is still a famous tourist attraction. It is a testament to Tunisia’s ancient past, home to empires that can stand up to superpowers such as Rome.

Check out Arab America’s blog here!