Military of ancient Carthage
|Active||650 BC - 146 BC|
The military of Carthage was one of the largest military forces in the ancient world. Although Carthage's navy was always its main military force, the army acquired a key role in the spread of Carthaginian power over the native peoples of northern Africa and southern Iberian Peninsula from the 6th century BC and the 3rd century BC. Carthage's military also allowed it to expand into Sardinia and the Balearic Islands. This expansion transformed the military from a body of citizen-soldiers into a multinational force composed primarily of foreign mercenary units.
The Carthaginian military was a combined arms force, which provided for light and heavy infantry, siege engines, skirmishers, light and heavy cavalry, as well as war elephants and chariots. Supreme command of the military was initially held by the civilian Suffetes until the third century BC. Thereafter, professional military generals were appointed directly by the Carthaginian Senate.
Carthage's military battled the Greeks over control of the island of Sicily. These encounters influenced the development of the Carthage's weapons and tactics, causing Carthage to adopt the Greek-style hoplite soldier fighting in the phalanx formation. However, the Carthaginian war machine faced its biggest challenge in the military of the Roman Republic during the Punic Wars. While Carthage was finally defeated by Rome in 146 BC, its military achieved notable success under the command of Hamilcar Barca and his son Hannibal.
- 1 Overview
- 2 History
- 3 Structure
- 4 Carthaginian military tradition
- 5 Mercenaries in the forces of Carthage
- 6 Formation and structure
- 7 Carthaginian navy
- 8 Military campaigns
- 9 Citations
- 10 References
The most distinct feature of the Carthaginian army was it composition. Contrary to most other states in the Mediterranean at the time, the army was composed almost exclusively of foreign mercenary units while its navy was manned by citizens. Carthage lacked a history of citizen infantry forces, requiring its army be composed mainly of foreign troops, particularly Libyans, Numidians, Iberians, Gauls, and Greeks. Its Phoenician origins, however, granted Carthage a long history as a seafaring people. Additionally, while the navy was a permanently manned force, the army would be enlisted only for a particular campaign and then demobilized. Only when the city of Carthage itself was threatened would citizens be conscripted into infantry service.
Ancient authors, such as Polybius and Livy, tend to stress Carthage's reliance on mercenary units. The term "mercenary", however, is misleading when applied to the entire Carthaginian army. While Cartage did employ mercenaries in the true sense of the word, Carthage's usage of native African and Iberian recruit would not be true mercenaries as these peoples were subjects of Carthage. Also, Carthage's army was composed of recruits from its allies fighting for Carthage in accordance with bilateral treaties. For example, the Numidian kingdoms provided extensive light cavalry units due to the close relationship between the two states.
Establishment under Mago
In 550 BC, Mago I of Carthage became king of Carthage and sought to establish Carthage as the dominant military power in the western Mediterranean. Though still economically dependent on its mother city of Tyre, Carthage was growing in stature. Under Mago, Carthage allied with the Etruscans of northern Italy against the Greek city-states in southern Italy, an alliance that would last until Rome expelled its Etruscan kings.
Mago also set about a series of military reforms designed to strengthen Carthaginian power, including copying the army of Timoleon, Tyrant of Syracuse. The core of Carthage's military was the Greek-style phalanx formed by citizen hoplite spearmen who had been conscripted into service.
During the 4th century BC, the maximum number of troops Carthage was able to conscript into service can be estimated from the capacity of the barracks located in the three rings of walls that protected the city, offering accommodation to 24,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, and 300 elephants. In addition to the conscripted forces, large contingents of mercenaries and auxiliaries would be employed. Appian mentions that in total 40,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry, and 2,000 heavy chariots were recruited to oppose the invasion of Agathocles of Syracuse.
Growth of Mercenary Forces
After the Punic defeats during the Sicilian Wars of the 5th and 4th centuries BC, in which large numbers of Carthaginian citizens had been killed, the Carthaginian Senate set about enlisting mercenary forces in order to replenish the ranks of the Carthaginian army, an extraordinary technique that Carthage had employed since the late 6th century BC. Beginning with the reign of King Hanno the Navigator in 480 BC, Carthage regularly began employing Iberian infantry and Balearic slingers to support Carthaginian spearmen in Sicily, a practice that would continue until the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.
Punic recruiters toured all corners of the Mediterranean, attracting mercenaries and fugitive slaves. Gauls, Ligurians, Numidians, Libyans, Greeks, and especially Iberians were extensively recruited by Carthage. Troops were recruited both by simple monetary contracts and through partnerships established through treaties with other states and tribes.
Reforms of Xanthippus
In 256 BC, during the First Punic War with the Roman Republic for domination over Sicily, the Roman Consul Marcus Atilius Regulus defeated the Carthaginian navy at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus and landed a Roman army on Carthaginian territory in Africa. Regulus then inflicted a crushing defeat on the Carthaginian army at the Battle of Adys near Carthage. Though Carthage was inclined towards a peace deal, the terms that Regulus demanded were too harsh, causing Carthage to continue the war.
The Carthaginians replaced the defeated general Hamilcar with new leadership in 255 BC by recruiting the Spartan mercenary captain Xanthippus, who was charged with retraining and restructuring the Carthaginian army. Xanthippus adopted the combined arms model of the Macedonian army, developed during the time of Phillip II. Xanthippus split his cavalry between his two wings, with mercenary infantry screening the cavalry, and a hastily raised citizen phalanx in the center screened by a line of elephants in front of the spearmen. Previously, Carthaginian generals have placed the elephants behind the central phalanx.
Xanthippus also realized the mistakes that the Carthaginians were making by avoiding open ground battles against the Romans, instead seeking only uneven terrain. This was done out of fear of the Romans' superior infantry. Such a strategy, however, restricted Carthage's strongest elements: its cavalry and elephants. The uneven terrain also disrupted the phalanx and favored the more flexible legion. By seeking battles on open plains, Xanthippus was able to make the fullest use of Carthage's strengths, where Roman formations broke under attack from the elephant and cavalry charges.
Under the leadership of Xanthippus, the reformed Carthaginian army completely defeated the Romans at the Battle of Tunis.
In 247 BC, after eighteen years of fighting in the First Punic War, the Carthaginian Senate appointed Hamilcar Barca to assume command of Carthage's land and naval forces in the struggle against the Roman Republic. Though Carthage dominated the sea following its victory in the Battle of Drepanum in 249 BC, Rome controlled Sicily. Until this point, Carthage had been led by the landed aristocracy and they preferred to expand into Africa instead of pursuing an aggressive policy against Rome in Sicily. Hanno "The Great" had been in charge of operations in Africa since 248 BC and had conquered considerable territory by 241 BC.
Carthage at this time was feeling the strain of the prolonged conflict. In addition to maintaining a fleet and soldiers in Sicily, they were also fighting the Libyans and Numidians in Africa. As a result, Hamilcar was given a fairly small army and the Carthaginian fleet was gradually withdrawn so that, by 242 BC, Carthage had no ships to speak of in Sicily.
The Sacred Band was an elite unit of the Carthaginian army. Since its formation in the 4th century BC, the unit consisted exclusively of the sons of the noble Carthaginian citizens. The unit usually did not fight outside of Africa. As a unit of heavy spearmen, the unit was placed in the center of the army formation immediately behind the row of elephants and protected by auxiliary wings of mercenaries and cavalry.
The presence of Carthaginian citizens fighting as infantry in the army is unusual as Carthaginian citizens usually served only as officers or cavalry, while the bulk of Carthage's infantry units were generally made up of mercenaries, auxiliaries from allied communities (who might be Punic colonists), and conscripts from subject territories.
With their elite status, members of the Sacred Band received the best equipment in the Carthaginian army. Their weapons and training were similar to those of the Greek hoplites: heavy spear, sword, hoplon shield, and bronze greaves, helmet, and breastplate. The hoplites also fought in a phalanx formation. However, despite their elite status, the unit numbered only around 2,500 soldiers according to Diodorus
Carthaginian military tradition
According to the historian A. Heuss:
"The central problem concerning Carthaginian political institutions is their relation to military aspects." ("Das zentrale Problem des karthagischen Staatslebens ist sein Verhältnis zum Militärwesen.")
Carthage was founded by nobles from the Phoenician city of Tyre and from Cyprus. From the start it was a complete and independent city on a spot with favorable access to important resources, such as clay and sea salt. Carthage in North Africa then became the cradle and center of the Punic state that spread across the Mediterranean. Carthage's military traditions showed its Phoenician roots and reflected native Libyan and Greek influences.
It has traditionally been argued that Carthage was a peaceful city of merchants or a brutal colonial power and both theories were rather dependent on modern perceptions. Almost all approaches towards Carthage have in common the fact that they do not look at Carthaginian policy-making as such, but rather its structure in a fundamental contrast to that of Rome. However, the polis Carthage was over the course of several centuries the dominant power in the Western Mediterranean and could establish its symmachy over large territories which were also deeply influenced by the Punic culture. It played a very important role in the urbanization of Northern Africa, where the Punic language was to persist until the 5th century AD.
The idea that mercantile business and warlike spirit are contradictory dates to the Age of Enlightenment and is generally not shared by ancient sources such as Virgil, who writes in Aeneid 1,444f. on Carthage: for this reason shall the people be glorious in war and acquire food easily for centuries (sic nam fore bello / egregiam et facilem victu per saecula gentem). Livy already points out that Carthage did house a body of professional soldiers until sometime after the Second Punic War. Other sources can be interpreted to refer to a high degree of military professionalism in the small Punic population whose constitution Aristotle groups along with those of Sparta and Crete. So there is an ongoing debate among historians about the extent of Carthage's military spirit. It should be pointed out that the sources on the Punic forces are rare and not easily accessible because they are almost exclusively written by their opponents in war. An inscription discovered in Carthage seems to confirm the doubts raised by the lack of sources concerning members of the nobility in the trading business. The translation (which is, like all translations from the Punic, disputed in details) only mentions in the existing parts merchants among the people with little money, while owners of producing facilities are mentioned among those with more money. 
Similar doubts were raised earlier because our only source on a Punic trader is the play Poenulus and the Carthaginian presented there is a rather humble merchant. An important part of the Punic culture seems to have consisted in their devotion to the gods, and their well-known units, called Sacred Bands by our Greek sources[specify], are regarded as the elite troops of their time. These consisted of infantry troops and cavalry units. The latter were formed by young nobles of the city devoting their life to military training.
Mercenaries in the forces of Carthage
Ancient authors, such as Polybius, tend to stress Carthage's reliance on foreign mercenaries. However, the term 'mercenary' is misleading when applied to the African and Iberian recruits, i.e. from areas controlled by Carthage. They were comparable to Roman Auxilia though Carthage did also employ mercenaries in the true sense as well. These units were mostly deployed in the expeditionary armies overseas, while in Africa Punic militias formed the backbone of the troops.
Units were generally segregated by ethnicity, which was also a criterion for the respective specialisation. While within a unit communication in the native tongue was possible, between units Greek and Punic helped to establish communication. According to Polybius, this enabled the insurgents during the Mercenary War, which is also the only recorded large mutiny of Carthage's troops, to communicate with each other on higher levels.
The reported causes for this conflict were that following the First Punic War against Rome, payment of the mercenaries was delayed for over a year. When finally arrangements for payment were made, the mistrust between the mercenaries and their employer helped to kindle the war. The native African Libyans, the largest contingent of the 'mercenaries', objected to being paid last while their comrades had been shipped home. Fear had spread that this might be a Carthaginian trap to exterminate them without payment and save their silver, after having crippled their army of the specialized supportive arms units. The conditions for the payment were rejected, although their former commander, Gisco, had provided them with his own person and 500 other nobles as hostages to reassure them of Carthage's sincere and honest intentions. The mercenaries and supporting native insurgents began attacking Carthaginian targets and urging the Libyan natives to rise. According to our sources, the war was conducted in a particularly brutal fashion and ended, after three years, with the total destruction of the mercenary and insurgent forces.
It would be difficult to say precisely what a typical make-up of a Carthaginian army would be, but in the Punic wars, they are reported to have included Iberians, Celts (Gauls), Balearic slingers, Italians (e.g.Ligures), native Sicilian tribesmen, Numidian cavalry, Libyans and Lybophoenicians (also called Africans), Greeks, and naturally Punics from Carthage and its external settlements.
Formation and structure
The Greek sources referred to the commander of Punic forces as a strategos or boetarch. The former could at the same time also be a military governor and is known to have had the authority to sign treaties. In areas of conflict, we often find dual command and not all of these strategoi seem to be concerned with governing provinces. It seems that Carthage's nobles could afford, and were legally allowed, to sustain their own armies. Furthermore, we tend to find evidence that many individuals from the leading families of Carthage served in the military forces.
Notably the hired units were deployed with their own command structure. As Carthage sent out specific recruiters who bargained contracts with each soldier/corps of soldiers, it is possible that these also served as officers responsible for the integration of their units into the army. Polybius noted for the mercenary war that the mercenaries were told to ask their commanding officers for payment, which frustrated them to such an extent that they elected new ones. In the army, payment was done per unit with subordinates responsible for the further distribution.
We have no written records of Carthage's military activities from the Punics, only from Greek and Roman writers and these are limited to a few wars.
The Libyans supplied both heavy and light infantry and formed the most disciplined units of the army. The heavy infantry fought in close formation, armed with long spears and round shields, wearing helmets and linen cuirasses. The light Libyan infantry carried javelins and a small shield, the same as Iberian light infantry. The Iberian infantry wore purple bordered white tunics and leather headgear. The Iberian heavy infantry fought in a dense phalanx, armed with solid metal javelins called "angon", long body shields and short Slashing swords called 'falcata". Campanian, Sardinian and Gallic infantry fought in their native gear, but were often equipped by Carthage. Polybius seems to suggest that Hannibal's heavy Libyan infantry was equipped with the sarissa (pike), thus forming a Macedonian style phalanx. Although this account is disputed by many experts, and Polybius himself is not clear in his descriptions of the great general's battles, he mentions Hannibal when he makes his famed comparison between the Roman maniple and the Macedonian phalanx.
The Libyans, Carthaginian citizens and the Libyo-Phoenicians provided disciplined, well trained cavalry equipped with thrusting spears and round shields. Numidia provided superb light cavalry, highly skilled in skirmishing tactics, armed with bundles of javelins, a small round shield and riding without bridle or saddle. Iberians and Gauls also provided cavalry that relied on the all out charge. The Libyans provided the bulk of the heavy, four horse war chariots for Carthage, used before the Second Punic War. Allied cities of the Punic hegemony also contributed contingents for the army. The carthaginian officer corps held overall command of the army, although many units may have fought under their chieftains.
Carthaginian forces also employed war-elephants, both within Africa and during overseas operations, including campaigns in Iberia and most famously Hannibal's invasion of Italy. These beasts were the now-extinct North African elephant (Loxodonta [africana] pharaoensis), probably a subspecies of the African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which is smaller than the African bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) and the Indian elephants (elephas maximus) used by the Seleucids. In battle, the elephants functioned as a psychological weapon, frightening the opposing men and horses into flight or creating gaps in the enemy line that could be exploited by Carthaginian cavalry and infantry. Modern scholars have disputed whether or not Carthaginian elephants were furnished with turrets in combat; despite frequent assertions to the contrary, the evidence indicates that African forest elephants could and did carry turrets in certain military contexts.
Polybius wrote in the sixth book of his History that the Carthaginians were, "more exercised in maritime affairs than any other people." Their navy included some 300 to 350 warships that continuously patrolled the expanse of the Mediterranean. The Romans, unable to defeat them through conventional maritime tactics, developed the Corvus, or the crow, a spiked boarding bridge that could be impaled onto an enemy ship so that the Romans could send over marines to capture or sink the Carthaginian vessels.
The sailors and marines of the fleets were recruited from the lower classes of Carthage itself, meaning that the navy was manned in the majority by actual Carthaginian citizens, this is in contrast to the largely mercenary army. The navy offered a stable profession and financial security for its sailors. This helped to contribute to the city's political stability, since the unemployed, debt-ridden poor in other cities were frequently inclined to support revolutionary leaders in the hope of improving their own lot.
- Greek-Punic Wars, about 600 BC - 265 BC:
- First Sicilian War, 480 BC
- Second Sicilian War, 410 BC - 340 BC
- Third Sicilian War, 315 BC -307 BC
- Pyrrhic War, 280 BC - 275 BC, allied with Rome
- First Punic War, 264 BC - 241 BC
- Mercenary War, 240 BC - 238 BC
- Iberian conquest, 237 BC - 228 BC
- Second Punic War, 218 BC - 201 BC
- Third Punic War, 149 BC - 146 BC
- Goldsworthy, Adrian (March 2008). The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC. p. 32.
- Justin, 19, 1.1
- Appian, The Foreign Wars: The Punic Wars, 80
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- Polybius 1.59.9
- Polybius, The Histories, Book I, Chapter 33.5-7
- Diodorus, Historical Library xvi.80.4-5.
- Ameling, Walter Karthago: Studien zu Militär, Staat und Gesellschaft p. 7, quoting A. Heuss Die Gestaltung des römischen und karthagischen Staates bis zum Pyrrhuskrieg in: RuK, p. 114
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The former (the Romans - editor's note) bestow their whole attention upon this department (upon military service on land - editor's note): whereas the Carthaginians wholly neglect their infantry, though they do take some slight interest in the cavalry. The reason of this is that they employ foreign mercenaries, the Romans native and citizen levies. It is in this point that the latter polity is preferable to the former. They have their hopes of freedom ever resting on the courage of mercenary troops: the Romans on the valour of their own citizens and the aid of their allies.
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