Plutocracy in Ancient Carthage and Rome
By Dr. Hendrik Willem van Loon
Late Professor of the Social Sciences
The Semitic colony of Carthage on the northern coast of Africa and the Indo-European city of Rome on the west coast of Italy fought each other for the possession of the western Mediterranean, and Carthage was destroyed.
The little Phoenician trading post of Kart-hadshat stood on a low hill which overlooked the African Sea, a stretch of water ninety miles wide which separates Africa from Europe. It was an ideal spot for a commercial centre. Almost too ideal. It grew too fast and became too rich. When in the sixth century before our era, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed Tyre, Carthage broke off all further relations with the Mother Country and became an independent state–the great western advance-post of the Semitic races.
Unfortunately the city had inherited many of the traits which for a thousand years had been characteristic of the Phoenicians. It was a vast business-house, protected by a strong navy, indifferent to most of the finer aspects of life. The city and the surrounding country and the distant colonies were all ruled by a small but exceedingly powerful group of rich men, The Greek word for rich is “ploutos” and the Greeks called such a government by “rich men” a “Plutocracy.” Carthage was a plutocracy and the real power of the state lay in the hands of a dozen big ship-owners and mine-owners and merchants who met in the back room of an office and regarded their common Fatherland as a business enterprise which ought to yield them a decent profit. They were however wide awake and full of energy and worked very hard.
As the years went by the influence of Carthage upon her neighbours increased until the greater part of the African coast, Spain and certain regions of France were Carthaginian possessions, and paid tribute, taxes and dividends to the mighty city on the African Sea.
Of course, such a “plutocracy” was forever at the mercy of the crowd. As long as there was plenty of work and wages were high, the majority of the citizens were quite contented, allowed their “betters” to rule them and asked no embarrassing questions. But when no ships left the harbor, when no ore was brought to the smelting-ovens, when dockworkers and stevedores were thrown out of employment, then there were grumblings and there was a demand that the popular assembly be called together as in the olden days when Carthage had been a self-governing republic.
To prevent such an occurrence the plutocracy was obliged to keep the business of the town going at full speed. They had managed to do this very successfully for almost five hundred years when they were greatly disturbed by certain rumors which reached them from the western coast of Italy. It was said that a little village on the banks of the Tiber had suddenly risen to great power and was making itself the acknowledged leader of all the Latin tribes who inhabited central Italy. It was also said that this village, which by the way was called Rome, intended to build ships and go after the commerce of Sicily and the southern coast of France.
Carthage could not possibly tolerate such competition. The young rival must be destroyed lest the Carthaginian rulers lose their prestige as the absolute rulers of the western Mediterranean. The rumors were duly investigated and in a general way these were the facts that came to light.
The west coast of Italy had long been neglected by civilisation. Whereas in Greece all the good harbours faced eastward and enjoyed a full view of the busy islands of the Aegean, the west coast of Italy contemplated nothing more exciting than the desolate waves of the Mediterranean. The country was poor. It was therefore rarely visited by foreign merchants and the natives were allowed to live in undisturbed possession of their hills and their marshy plains.
The first serious invasion of this land came from the north. At an unknown date certain Indo-European tribes had managed to find their way through the passes of the Alps and had pushed southward until they had filled the heel and the toe of the famous Italian boot with their villages and their flocks. Of these early conquerors we know nothing. No Homer sang their glory. Their own accounts of the foundation of Rome (written eight hundred years later when the little city had become the centre of an Empire) are fairy stories and do not belong in a history. Romulus and Remus jumping across each other’s walls (I always forget who jumped across whose wall) make entertaining reading, but the foundation of the City of Rome was a much more prosaic affair. Rome began as a thousand American cities have done, by being a convenient place for barter and horse-trading. It lay in the heart of the plains of central Italy The Tiber provided direct access to the sea. The land-road from north to south found here a convenient ford which could be used all the year around. And seven little hills along the banks of the river offered the inhabitants a safe shelter against their enemies who lived in the mountains and those who lived beyond the horizon of the nearby sea.
The mountaineers were called the Sabines. They were a rough crowd with an unholy desire for easy plunder. But they were very backward. They used stone axes and wooden shields and were no match for the Romans with their steel swords. The sea-people on the other hand were dangerous foes. They were called the Etruscans and they were (and still are) one of the great mysteries of history. Nobody knew (or knows) whence they came; who they were; what had driven them away from their original homes. We have found the remains of their cities and their cemeteries and their waterworks all along the Italian coast. We are familiar with their inscriptions. But as no one has ever been able to decipher the Etruscan alphabet, these written messages are, so far, merely annoying and not at all useful.
Our best guess is that the Etruscans came originally from Asia Minor and that a great war or a pestilence in that country had forced them to go away and seek a new home elsewhere. Whatever the reason for their coming, the Etruscans played a great role in history. They carried the pollen of the ancient civilisation from the east to the west and they taught the Romans who, as we know, came from the north, the first principles of architecture and street-building and fighting and art and cookery and medicine and astronomy.
But just as the Greeks had not loved their Aegean teachers, in this same way did the Romans hate their Etruscan masters. They got rid of them as soon as they could and the opportunity offered itself when Greek merchants discovered the commercial possibilities of Italy and when the first Greek vessels reached Rome. The Greeks came to trade, but they stayed to instruct. They found the tribes who inhabited the Roman country-side (and who were called the Latins) quite willing to learn such things as might be of practical use. At once they understood the great benefit that could be derived from a written alphabet and they copied that of the Greeks. They also understood the commercial advantages of a well- regulated system of coins and measures and weights. Eventually the Romans swallowed Greek civilisation hook, line and sinker.
They even welcomed the Gods of the Greeks to their country. Zeus was taken to Rome where he became known as Jupiter and the other divinities followed him. The Roman Gods however never were quite like their cheerful cousins who had accompanied the Greeks on their road through life and through history. The Roman Gods were State Functionaries. Each one managed his own department with great prudence and a deep sense of justice, but in turn he was exact in demanding the obedience of his worshippers. This obedience the Romans rendered with scrupulous care. But they never established the cordial personal relations and that charming friendship which had existed between the old Hellenes and the mighty residents of the high Olympian peak.
The Romans did not imitate the Greek form of government, but being of the same Indo-European stock as the people of Hellas, the early history of Rome resembles that of Athens and the other Greek cities. They did not find it difficult to get rid of their kings, the descendants of the ancient tribal chieftains. But once the kings had been driven from the city, the Romans were forced to bridle the power of the nobles, and it took many centuries before they managed to establish a system which gave every free citizen of Rome a chance to take a personal interest in the affairs of his town.
Thereafter the Romans enjoyed one great advantage over the Greeks. They managed the affairs of their country without making too many speeches. They were less imaginative than the Greeks and they preferred an ounce of action to a pound of words. They understood the tendency of the multitude (the “plebe,” as the assemblage of free citizens was called) only too well to waste valuable time upon mere talk. They therefore placed the actual business of running the city into the hands of two “consuls” who were assisted by a council of Elders, called the Senate (because the word “senex” means an old man). As a matter of custom and practical advantage the senators were elected from the nobility. But their power had been strictly defined.
Rome at one time had passed through the same sort of struggle between the poor and the rich which had forced Athens to adopt the laws of Draco and Solon. In Rome this conflict had occurred in the fifth century B. C. As a result the freemen had obtained a written code of laws which protected them against the despotism of the aristocratic judges by the institution of the “Tribune.” These Tribunes were city- magistrates, elected by the freemen. They had the right to protect any citizen against those actions of the government officials which were thought to be unjust. A consul had the right to condemn a man to death, but if the case had not been absolutely proved the Tribune could interfere and save the poor fellow’s life.
But when I use the word Rome, I seem to refer to a little city of a few thousand inhabitants. And the real strength of Rome lay in the country districts outside her walls. And it was in the government of these outlying provinces that Rome at an early age showed her wonderful gift as a colonising power.
In very early times Rome had been the only strongly fortified city in central Italy, but it had always offered a hospitable refuge to other Latin tribes who happened to be in danger of attack. The Latin neighbours had recognised the advantages of a close union with such a powerful friend and they had tried to find a basis for some sort of defensive and offensive alliance. Other nations, Egyptians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, even Greeks, would have insisted upon a treaty of submission on the part of the “barbarians,” The Romans did nothing of the sort. They gave the “outsider” a chance to become partners in a common “res publica”–or commonwealth.
“You want to join us,” they said. “Very well, go ahead and join. We shall treat you as if you were full-fledged citizens of Rome. In return for this privilege we expect you to fight for our city, the mother of us all, whenever it shall be necessary.”
The “outsider” appreciated this generosity and he showed his gratitude by his unswerving loyalty.
Whenever a Greek city had been attacked, the foreign residents had moved out as quickly as they could. Why defend something which meant nothing to them but a temporary boarding house in which they were tolerated as long as they paid their bills? But when the enemy was before the gates of Rome, all the Latins rushed to her defence. It was their Mother who was in danger. It was their true “home” even if they lived a hundred miles away and had never seen the walls of the sacred Hills.
No defeat and no disaster could change this sentiment. In the beginning of the fourth century B.C. the wild Gauls forced their way into Italy. They had defeated the Roman army near the River Allia and had marched upon the city. They had taken Rome and then they expected that the people would come and sue for peace. They waited, but nothing happened. After a short time the Gauls found themselves surrounded by a hostile population which made it impossible for them to obtain supplies. After seven months, hunger forced them to withdraw. The policy of Rome to treat the “foreigner” on equal terms had proved a great success and Rome stood stronger than ever before.
This short account of the early history of Rome shows you the enormous difference between the Roman ideal of a healthy state, and that of the ancient world which was embodied in the town of Carthage. The Romans counted upon the cheerful and hearty co-operation between a number of “equal citizens.” The Carthaginians, following the example of Egypt and western Asia, insisted upon the unreasoning (and therefore unwilling) obedience of “Subjects” and when these failed they hired professional soldiers to do their fighting for them.
You will now understand why Carthage was bound to fear such a clever and powerful enemy and why the plutocracy of Carthage was only too willing to pick a quarrel that they might destroy the dangerous rival before it was too late.
But the Carthaginians, being good business men, knew that it never pays to rush matters. They proposed to the Romans that their respective cities draw two circles on the map and that each town claim one of these circles as her own “sphere of influence” and promise to keep out of the other fellow’s circle. The agreement was promptly made and was broken just as promptly when both sides thought it wise to send their armies to Sicily where a rich soil and a bad government invited foreign interference.
The war which followed (the so-called first Punic War) lasted twenty-four years. It was fought out on the high seas and in the beginning it seemed that the experienced Carthaginian navy would defeat the newly created Roman fleet. Following their ancient tactics, the Carthaginian ships would either ram the enemy vessels or by a bold attack from the side they would break their oars and would then kill the sailors of the helpless vessel with their arrows and with fire balls. But Roman engineers invented a new craft which carried a boarding bridge across which the Roman infantrymen stormed the hostile ship. Then there was a sudden end to Carthaginian victories. At the battle of Mylae their fleet was badly defeated. Carthage was obliged to sue for peace, and Sicily became part of the Roman domains.
Twenty-three years later new trouble arose. Rome (in quest of copper) had taken the island of Sardinia. Carthage (in quest of silver) thereupon occupied all of southern Spain. This made Carthage a direct neighbour of the Romans. The latter did not like this at all and they ordered their troops to cross the Pyrenees and watch the Carthaginian army of occupation.
The stage was set for the second outbreak between the two rivals. Once more a Greek colony was the pretext for a war. The Carthaginians were besieging Saguntum on the east coast of Spain. The Saguntians appealed to Rome and Rome, as usual, was willing to help. The Senate promised the help of the Latin armies, but the preparation for this expedition took some time, and meanwhile Saguntum had been taken and had been destroyed. This had been done in direct opposition to the will of Rome. The Senate decided upon war. One Roman army was to cross the African sea and make a landing on Carthaginian soil. A second division was to keep the Carthaginian armies occupied in Spain to prevent them from rushing to the aid of the home town. It was an excellent plan and everybody expected a great victory. But the Gods had decided otherwise.
It was the fall of the year 218 before the birth of Christ and the Roman army which was to attack the Carthaginians in Spain had left Italy. People were eagerly waiting for news of an easy and complete victory when a terrible rumour began to spread through the plain of the Po. Wild mountaineers, their lips trembling with fear, told of hundreds of thousands of brown men accompanied by strange beasts “each one as big as a house,” who had suddenly emerged from the clouds of snow which surrounded the old Graian pass through which Hercules, thousands of years before, had driven the oxen of Geryon on his way from Spain to Greece. Soon an endless stream of bedraggled refugees appeared before the gates of Rome, with more complete details. Hannibal, the son of Hamilcar, with fifty thousand soldiers, nine thousand horsemen and thirty- seven fighting elephants, had crossed the Pyrenees. He had defeated the Roman army of Scipio on the banks of the Rhone and he had guided his army safely across the mountain passes of the Alps although it was October and the roads were thickly covered with snow and ice. Then he had joined forces with the Gauls and together they had defeated a second Roman army just before they crossed the Trebia and laid siege to Placentia, the northern terminus of the road which connected Rome with the province of the Alpine districts.
The Senate, surprised but calm and energetic as usual, hushed up the news of these many defeats and sent two fresh armies to stop the invader. Hannibal managed to surprise these troops on a narrow road along the shores of the Trasimene Lake and there he killed all the Roman officers and most of their men. This time there was a panic among the people of Rome, but the Senate kept its nerve. A third army was organised and the command was given to Quintus Fabius Maximus with full power to act “as was necessary to save the state.”
Fabius knew that he must be very careful lest all be lost. His raw and untrained men, the last available soldiers, were no match for Hannibal’s veterans. He refused to accept battle but forever he followed Hannibal, destroyed everything eatable, destroyed the roads, attacked small detachments and generally weakened the morale of the Carthaginian troops by a most distressing and annoying form of guerilla warfare.
Such methods however did not satisfy the fearsome crowds who had found safety behind the walls of Rome. They wanted “action.” Something must be done and must be done quickly. A popular hero by the name of Varro, the sort of man who went about the city telling everybody how much better he could do things than slow old Fabius, the “Delayer,” was made commander-in-chief by popular acclamation. At the battle of Cannae (216) he suffered the most terrible defeat of Roman history. More than seventy thousand men were killed. Hannibal was master of all Italy.
He marched from one end of the peninsula to the other, proclaiming himself the “deliverer from the yoke of Rome” and asking the different provinces to join him in warfare upon the mother city. Then once more the wisdom of Rome bore noble fruit. With the exceptions of Capua and Syracuse, all Roman cities remained loyal. Hannibal, the deliverer, found himself opposed by the people whose friend he pretended to be. He was far away from home and did not like the situation. He sent messengers to Carthage to ask for fresh supplies and new men. Alas, Carthage could not send him either.
The Romans with their boarding-bridges, were the masters of the sea. Hannibal must help himself as best he could. He continued to defeat the Roman armies that were sent out against him, but his own numbers were decreasing rapidly and the Italian peasants held aloof from this self-appointed “deliverer.”
After many years of uninterrupted victories, Hannibal found himself besieged in the country which he had just conquered. For a moment, the luck seemed to turn. Hasdrubal, his brother, had defeated the Roman armies in Spain. He had crossed the Alps to come to Hannibal’s assistance. He sent messengers to the south to tell of his arrival and ask the other army to meet him in the plain of the Tiber. Unfortunately the messengers fell into the hands of the Romans and Hannibal waited in vain for further news until his brother’s head, neatly packed in a basket, came rolling into his camp and told him of the fate of the last of the Carthaginian troops.
With Hasdrubal out of the way, young Publius Scipio easily reconquered Spain and four years later the Romans were ready for a final attack upon Carthage. Hannibal was called back. He crossed the African Sea and tried to organise the defences of his home-city. In the year 202 at the battle of Zama, the Carthaginians were defeated. Hannibal fled to Tyre. From there he went to Asia Minor to stir up the Syrians and the Macedonians against Rome. He accomplished very little but his activities among these Asiatic powers gave the Romans an excuse to carry their warfare into the territory of the east and annex the greater part of the Aegean world.
Driven from one city to another, a fugitive without a home, Hannibal at last knew that the end of his ambitious dream had come. His beloved city of Carthage had been ruined by the war. She had been forced to sign a terrible peace. Her navy had been sunk. She had been forbidden to make war without Roman permission. She had been condemned to pay the Romans millions of dollars for endless years to come. Life offered no hope of a better future. In the year 190 B.C. Hannibal took poison and killed himself.
Forty years later, the Romans forced their last war upon Carthage. Three long years the inhabitants of the old Phoenician colony held out against the power of the new republic. Hunger forced them to surrender. The few men and women who had survived the siege were sold as slaves. The city was set on fire. For two whole weeks the store-houses and the pal- aces and the great arsenal burned. Then a terrible curse was pronounced upon the blackened ruins and the Roman legions returned to Italy to enjoy their victory.
For the next thousand years, the Mediterranean remained a European sea. But as soon as the Roman Empire had been destroyed, Asia made another attempt to dominate this great inland sea.
Originally published in 1921, republished under public domain.