The first millennium B.C. is the great age of Carthage in western North Africa, from its founding by Phoenician merchants in the ninth century B.C. to its destruction by Roman armies in the second. During its heyday, Carthage is a cosmopolitan center of commerce, culture, and the arts, where influences from across the Mediterranean world converge.
Tradition preserves this date as the year in which Phoenician colonists from the Levant establish the city of Carthage on the coast of modern-day Tunisia. The native peoples are hostile to the Phoenicians and require tribute, such as rent on their land, through the fifth century B.C. With the decline of Phoenician power and the destruction of Tyre in the sixth century B.C., Carthage emerges as a trading center in its own right.
Carthaginian ships carry metals, oil, wine, grain, and other products to ports throughout the western Mediterranean. In order to protect their mercantile interests, they establish trading posts in Sicily and Sardinia and on the southern coast of modern France. Competition for control of shipping leads them into sporadic armed conflict with Greek and Etruscan forces. Through trade, Carthage emerges as one of the richest and most powerful cities in the Mediterranean. Objects made in Carthage reflect artistic styles imported from the Near East, Etruria, Egypt, and the Greek city-states. Among the luxury goods manufactured here are perfume, glassware, ivory carvings, fine woodwork, and precious purple dye.
Rome, which has subdued its Greek and Etruscan neighbors, continues an expansion that threatens Carthaginian trade concerns. The First Punic (Carthaginian) War breaks out, with many major battles fought on sea. In 241 B.C., peace is declared, and the Carthaginians are forced to pay a large indemnity to Rome. Hamilcar Barca, commander of the Carthaginian army, goes to Spain in 237 B.C. and begins to conquer territory along the Mediterranean coast, ostensibly to raise money for the indemnity. In Hamilcar’s entourage is his nine-year-old son Hannibal.
Masinissa becomes king of the united Numidian tribes. The many groups of Numidian nomads had begun to confederate in the third century B.C. Masinissa encourages settled agriculture, urban developments, and Carthaginian customs.
Hannibal (247–183 B.C.), commander of the Carthaginian forces, leads his troops from Spain through the passes of the Pyrenees and Alps into Italy. With him are thirty-seven elephants of war. These events mark the outset of the Second Punic War, another long campaign that drains the strength not only of Rome and Carthage but also of the Greek-speaking kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean. The Roman general Scipio Africanus eventually destroys Hannibal’s forces at Zama, North Africa, in 202 B.C., and the Roman terms of peace dismember the Carthaginian empire. Hannibal continues to scheme against the Romans until his death, perhaps by suicide, in 183 B.C.
Despite defeat, Carthage regains its economic strength. New buildings are raised, including a residential quarter. Recovery in Carthage causes anxiety in Rome. The Romans send an army to besiege the city. When it surrenders in 146 B.C., the Romans wreak merciless destruction, leveling the once proud city, enslaving the people, and cursing the very ground against any subsequent habitation.
A richly colored marble, called giallo antico in the Renaissance, is first quarried in Chemtou (in present-day Tunisia). The characteristic color of Chemtou marble is a golden yellow, but it also contains streaks of rose, blood red, and green. The quarries, first operated by the Numidian kings and later by the Roman emperors, supply stone for lavish building enterprises throughout the Mediterranean, including the Forum of Augustus (ca. 12 B.C.) and the Pantheon (ca. 130 A.D.) in Rome.
The Numidian kingdom comes to an end under Juba I, who entered the fierce civil wars among the Romans on the side of Pompey, defeated by Julius Caesar. Receptive to both Carthaginians and Hellenistic Greek customs, the Numidians had splendid palaces in the Hellenistic style, Greek philosophers to counsel them, and temples dedicated to the Phoenician god Baal Hammon, sometimes assimilated into the Greek Zeus. In Caesar’s triumphal procession, resplendent booty worthy of Numidian wealth and taste is paraded through the streets of Rome, along with Juba II, infant son of the defeated king.
Augustus, who emerges victorious at Rome after a century of war, grants Juba II the client kingship of Mauritania. His domain corresponds to a portion of the former Numidian kingdom. Reared at Rome, Juba II is a man of extraordinary learning, a collector and a patron of the arts. He marries Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the great Cleopatra defeated by Augustus. Copies of Greek statues adorn his palace, and he authors several volumes in Greek on a wide range of subjects, including a history of Rome, the antiquities of various nations, and research on language and the theater.
“Western North Africa, 1000 B.C.–1 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=04®ion=afw (October 2000)