Carthage was founded as a North African trading outpost by the Phoenicians about 800 BC. Located on a peninsula close to present day Tunis, Carthage rose to prominence following the fall of Phoenicia in 575 BC. Soon the Carthaginians established colonies along the south coast of Spain, the north coast of Africa, and in Sicily, Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic island of Ibiza.
The situation changed dramatically and assumed a much more militaristic tone after Carthage’s defeat at the hands of Rome in the first of the Punic Wars, 265-241 BC. Carthage not only lost Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, but was also encumbered by having to pay Rome financial compensation.
The clash between the two rivals was inevitable in view of the expansionist mood of the Romans. Three earlier treaties between the two nations (348, 306 and 279 BC) had intended to establish their spheres of influence in a civilised manner. But the presence of Carthage in Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and its influence along the eastern coast of Spain threatened to abort Roman progress in the Mediterranean.
After the loss of Sicily and, shortly after, of Sardinia and Corsica , Carthage called on its most experienced general, Hamilcar Barca, to establish a military presence in Spain to compensate for those humiliating losses. Accompanied by his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, and his son Hannibal, Hamilcar landed at Gadir (Cádiz) in 237 BC. Immediately the centuries of commercial exchange were transformed into military occupation, as Hamilcar ruthlessly subjugated the coastal and inland towns. Spanish silver was now used to pay for soldiers and mercenaries, and conquest of local tribes signified a rebuilding of Carthage’s power in preparation for another confrontation with the Romans.
Hamilcar’s ambitions ended in the winter of 229-28 when he drowned as he fled a counterattack. He was succeeded by Hasdrubal who promptly founded a new naval base and capital at Cartago Nova (Cartagena), and set about moving inland. Such blatant expansionism alarmed the Romans who negotiated a treaty with Hasdrubal in 226 BC, limiting Carthaginian activities to the south of the River Ebro. Hasdrubal’s plans came to a violent end when he was assassinated in 221 BC and command passed to the most famous of Carthaginian leaders, Hannibal.
Only 25 years old and apparently indoctrinated by his father to hate the Romans, Hannibal quickly moved to bring as much of the peninsula under his control as possible, advancing inland as far as Salamanca. Nevertheless, the real trigger that was to unleash the Second Punic War was the siege and conquest of Sagunto 219-18 BC. Although Sagunto was situated south of the Ebro and technically under Carthaginian command, it had placed itself under Roman protection sometime between 225 and 220. An attack on Sagunto was, therefore, a sign that Hannibal was ready to confront Rome directly. Only after the fall of the city, following a siege of some 8 months, did Rome declare war on Carthage, by which time Hannibal’s plans to cross the Ebro and invade Italy via the Alps were well under way.
Rome’s reaction following the fall of Sagunto was immediate. At the same time that Hannibal was crossing the Alps, Roman soldiers landed near Emporion (Ampurias, Catalan Empúries), north east of Gerona (Girona) thereby cutting Hannibal’s line of communications before moving down the Mediterranean coast. The struggle for Iberia lasted some 12 years (218-206 BC).
The Romans claimed to come as liberators, but local tribes fought on both sides. By 209 the Carthaginian stronghold of Cartagena had fallen and three years later Gadir (Cádiz) was in Roman hands. Carthage was now finished in Iberia, but the Romans, ever suspicious of their long time rivals, were bent on completing the job. With the defeat of its armies in Italy and Iberia, the city of Carthage itself was exposed; it did not take long for the Roman legions to land on the north shores of Africa and defeat Hannibal who had returned to North Africa. Hannibal was exiled and shortly after committed suicide.
By 201 the Second Punic War was over and the power of Carthage was no more. That was not the end of the story. The Romans, needled constantly by the senator Cato the Elder (who apparently ended every debate regardless of its subject with the words “Delenda est Carthago“ “Carthage must fall”) finally besieged the city and razed it to the ground.
With the Carthaginians gone, a new and significant chapter in the history of Iberia was about to begin. The Romans had come, and seen, and decided to stay!
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