The Kingdom of Carthage was the major power in the western Mediterranean from its establishment by the semi-legendary Queen Dido in 814 B.C. until its fall following its struggles against the rising Roman Republic. Carthage was one of the great trading powers of the Mediterranean and had relatively few rivals until its fall from grace, namely the Etruscans and the Greek city-states of Sicily and Cyrenaica. Much of Carthage's foreign policy depended on maintaining its mercantile dominance and expanding its control over island territories with which it could base its powerful navies and trade fleet.
For a long time Carthage was the dominant power in the western Mediterranean and had little to fear from other possible rivals. As a result, there was much cultural and economic development that resulted from this durable peace. While there was such a peace internationally, Carthaginian politics was considerably more fraught, with constant struggles between the ruling monarchs called Shophets and the aristocratic legislative, which saw the power of the monarchy as a threat to their interests. Many times the Shophet would be overthrown and replaced by a more amiable one if it benefited the legislative. Despite this, there were limits on both Shophet and legislative, and the balance of power shifted back and forth throughout the years.
Carthage's main opposition in its early years were the Greek colonies on the island of Sicily and the Etruscan cities of northern Italy. Over time the Etruscans waned in influence and the Greek colonies fell under the control of the Macedonian Alexander the Great and his successors. Despite these events, Carthage was slow to take advantage, preferring to make deals with the Greeks in Sicily and Cyrenaica rather than risk a disastrous war. Upon Alexander's death, however, the Carthaginians were much more willing to resort to war and eventually seized the entirety of Sicily by 314 B.C.
Despite this conquest, Carthaginian rule over the island was not absolute, and there were many Greek and Italic revolts against their control. Carthaginian rule gradually grew more heavy handed as a result, further breeding popular discontent. Eventually, Pyrrhus of Epirus turned to Italy and Sicily to reconquer them for the Greeks. Concerned with this new opponent, Carthage entered into an alliance with the Roman Republic in order to defeat Pyrrhus. They were unable to do so and Carthage lost most of Sicily, only to regain it upon Pyrrhus' withdrawal. After the war both Carthage and Rome worked together do maintain their possessions.
By 268 BC, despite the alliance, tensions between the two powers reached a breaking point. Rome disputed the Carthaginian treatment of Sicily while Carthage considered the island to be outside Rome's sphere of influence. A revolt by northern locals started a war, as they turned to Rome for protection and Rome felt honor-bound to intervene. While Carthage's powerful navy stymied Roman efforts for a while, Rome eventually gained a powerful navy and won the war by 260 BC, driving the Carthaginians off the island. The islands of Corsica and Sardinia also left to Rome during the Mercenary War in 240 B.C., when Carthage's mercenary army revolted. Carthage felt betrayed and hurt as a result of these two wars.
In 218 B.C., Carthage had its chance. Political instability during the Mercenary War allowed a new family to accede to the throne, the Barcids, who rapidly began to reform Carthage's military along semi-professional lines supplemented by mercenaries rather than rely upon them. Political disputes of influence, particularly in Spain, would ultimately be the flashpoint of the next conflict, and both powers soon declared war. Hannibal, the new Shophet of Carthage, amassed his armies and, with no naval power to safely transport them, took the overland route through Hispania and southern Gaul, gathering mercenaries along the way.
Rome, already in control of the sea, rallied forces to oppose Hannibal's entry to Italy, but could not defeat him in battle, no matter how many men they gathered to fight him. As Hannibal marched through Italy and gathered disaffected Italians to his side, the Romans were forced to adapt. Named after the consul at the time, the Fabian strategy called for Roman generals to avoid Hannibal on the battlefield while launching attacks against his supply lines and Carthage's territories. Conversely, Hannibal was unable to persuade many of the Italian cities to abandon Rome or siege the city.
Roman forces under Scipio managed to capture most of Carthaginian Hispania by 206 BC, meaning the only territory left was Carthage itself. Chosen to lead the attack, Scipio dismantled many of Carthage's cities and rallied the Numidians to his side. Aware of the threat, Hannibal stealthily retreated to Africa at the cost of Carthage's partially rebuilt fleet. At the Battle of Zama, in 202 BC, Hannibal was defeated by Scipio, who was given the name Africanus for his victory. As a result of this defeat, Carthage was subjected to Roman rule for a short time, much of Carthage's territory was stripped away, a large indemnity demanded, and the Shophet was made powerless, with the Carthaginian Council now the ultimate authority. Hannibal himself was nearly exiled.
Effectively broken, Carthage remained a Roman puppet for the rest of its existence. Unable to conduct foreign policy without the approval of the Roman Senate, Carthage had no direct will of its own. To that end, both the Carthaginian Council and the Shophets after Hannibal desired to return Carthage to great economic strength. After fifty years, this process had begun to bear fruit, and Carthage was again a dominant mercantile city-state. This growth concerned Rome, who feared the competition from a city that historically had done so much damage to the Roman homeland. These issues would later boil down to war in 159 B.C.
Carthage was swiftly surrounded and put under siege. The Carthaginian leaders hoped that they could outlast any siege and force the Romans to come to some sort of compromise that would restore some of Carthage's power. For their part, the Romans hoped to end the Carthaginian question once and for all, whether it meant merely seizing the city or completely destroying it. While Carthage had some success at delaying the Roman advance, they were ultimately unable to prevent them entirely and Rome eventually captured the city two years later in 157 B.C.
The Romans were divided regarding what to do with the fallen city. Many Romans wanted the city to be burned or otherwise crippled to the point of no recovery in retaliation for Carthage's continued resistance and impudence. Others wanted the city incorporated within the Roman republican system, citing their historical connections and the advantages that capturing the city intact would offer Rome's military and trade forces. The commander of the Roman forces that captured the city, Scipio Aemilianus, refrained from a total destruction of the city, instead only slightly sacking it and enslaving portions of the population, leaving much of it intact for Roman governance. By 155 B.C. the situation had been largely resolved, giving part of the Carthaginian upper class Roman citizenship. From thenceforth the city would play an important role within Rome's internal politics as master of the Western Mediterranean.
Carthaginian society was heavily derived from its Phoenician founders, incorporating much of its culture, religion, and language from this source. Local Berber influences such as Numidian and Mauritanian were also incorporated. Other cultures like Iberian, Greek, and Italic were also present, but considerably reduced on their imprint. Carthaginian trade was dominated by valuable ores in Hispania as well as other luxury goods between Carthage and various Berber and Italic peoples.
Carthaginian government was divided between the monarchy, consisting of kings called Shophets, and the Supreme Council, sometimes referred to as a Senate. Both had the support of different segments of the population, with the monarchy commanding the allegiance of the priests and military while the Council had the support of the merchant class and the common people. Both sides typically vied for greater power, which fluctuated over the kingdom's history. Most of the time the monarch held more power, but over time, and especially as Carthage began to lose against the Romans, the Council began to control most political affairs.
The list of Shophets is displayed below, grouped according to dynasty.
- Dido - 814-760 BC
- Hanno I 580–556 BC
- Malchus 556–550 BC