Scipio Aemilianus and Polybius at the fall of Carthage

One reason I blog so often about Virgil is my habit, in the middle of the university lectures on the Aeneid that I’ve been giving for years, of suddenly seeing things more clearly. This happened a couple of weeks ago, when I understood a moment in Aeneid 1 as I talked about it better than I ever have before. I then did most of the research for this blog sitting for fifteen minutes after a Covid booster, and I dunno, but maybe a blog about how everything is bound sooner or later to fail, as well as about bursting into tears at inappropriate moments, speaks a little to our current circumstances.

The moment in question is when Aeneas, accompanied by Achates, sets eyes for the first time upon Carthage (1.418-38):

Carthage in the first book of the Aeneid is presented by Virgil to his Roman readers as a place both alien and deeply (and because it’s Carthage, Rome’s historical bête noire, disconcertingly) familiar. I wrote here about passing hints of the Carthaginians’ most notorious religious practices within Virgil’s otherwise surprisingly appealing account of Carthage and its exemplary leader, Dido. In this passage we could point to the word magalia, “huts”, in the fourth line, a Punic term that defines the space as irrevocably foreign; but against that, the city being constructed before Aeneas’ eyes has theatres with columns, and in line 426 (suspected by some scholars, but present in all the manuscripts) even iura, “laws”, magistrates and a senate, more Roman words and concepts than which it would be hard to find.

Aeneas reacts to this scene with a kind of rueful recognition: the Carthaginians are realising the precise thing that he passionately wants but is constantly prevented from achieving, a new city for his Trojan followers. The readers of the Aeneid have also been promised that new city, Rome, from the very beginning of this national epic, and they are feeling pretty disorientated just four hundred lines into the poem when there is indeed a city being founded, but it’s Rome’s nemesis, Carthage.

This effect was all the sharper for the first Roman readers of the Aeneid, or so I tell the students in my lectures. Rome in the early Augustan period was a building site: Chapter 29 of Suetonius’ life of Augustus lists everything built by Augustus, or by other senior Romans with his encouragement, while 19-21 of the Res Gestae gives a longer list of his own construction projects. Augustus’ building programme, whereby he famously took a city of mud brick and left it made of marble (Suet., Aug. 28.3), was a way of giving concrete form to his claim to be refounding Rome: Suetonius again (7.2) records the perception of Augustus as a conditor urbis, a founder of Rome, by virtue of restoring harmony after decades in which Romans had fought fellow Romans. My point in the lecture is that if the scene of Carthage under construction evoked anything for contemporary Romans it was their own city.

So Aeneas is looking at Carthage and thinking of Rome, but Virgil ensures that his readers are doing the same, and I just say again that we can’t overstate how bold it is of the poet to present Carthage, of all places, to his Roman readership early in his poem as not only not demonically alien but actually familiar enough to provoke thoughts of home.

Another thing we can say about the scene of Aeneas contemplating the beginnings of Carthage is that I don’t think Romans could look at Carthage being founded and fail to think of Carthage getting destroyed. The name “Carthage” actually means “New City”, but the latter end of Carthage’s history, its capture and destruction in 146 BC, was an iconic moment in Roman history, the final defeat of their most daunting enemy. Something the historical sources and the archaeology agree on is how comprehensively the city of Carthage was made to disappear by its vengeful conquerors. The sources talk of a fire that lasted seventeen days, unrestricted looting by Roman troops, the city walls reduced to dust, all but the most senior men sold into slavery, and a ritual obliteration as important as the physical: the site was cursed, set aside for the gods by consecratio: no human was to live there again. The action of ploughing over the site mentioned by Modestinus (Digest of Justinian 7.4.21) reversed the ploughing that established the sacred boundary of the city at foundation, hinted at by Virgil at line 425. C. Marius, at a low ebb after defeat by Sulla, pondered his humiliation appropriately seated amid the ruins of the fallen city (Plutarch, Marius 40.4; Lucan 2.85-93).

The only thing the Romans didn’t do was sow the ground of Carthage with salt, for that is a factoid with no basis in the ancient sources: the ancient evidence for the destruction is collected by Ridley in the process of scotching that story, and supplemented in a more open-minded way by Purcell, and both citations are at the bottom.

Blyth after Mortimer, Caius Marius on the Ruins of Carthage

Archaeological work at Carthage tells a similarly terrifying story. In Virgil’s day, after false starts by Gaius Gracchus and then Julius Caesar, Augustus established a colony on the site of Carthage, the beginnings of a very successful future city. This looks at first glance like a contradiction of the consecratio in 146 BC, but archaeological discoveries suggest the efforts that were made to honour that original decision that Carthage was not in any way to be refounded. On the Byrsa, the citadel of the Punic city, Serge Lancel describes a “gigantic levelling” by Roman engineers in preparation for the new colony, “a resection that would seem to us almost unimaginable without the aid of our powerful public works machines.” The top of the Byrsa hill was effectively sliced off, 100,000 cubic metres of earth removed, and the character of the space utterly transformed, an astonishingly thorough intervention into the physical landscape of Carthage that clearly had the aim of “effacing any surviving trace of the past.” Deleta est Carthago.

This brings me to my final thought about Virgil’s scene, which is in fact something suggested to me a few years ago by Denis Feeney (it was Sandro Barchiesi who alerted me to the remarkable archaeology of the Byrsa, I should also say). Denis told me that he was pretty certain we were supposed to see, when Aeneas stands on the hill and contemplates Carthage rising, a strong hint of a famous anecdote from the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC involving the triumphant Roman commander Scipio Aemilianus. The story originates with Polybius, who was with Scipio Aemilianus at the time, but it is recorded by Diodorus and Appian (Diodorus 32.24, Pun. 132 = Polybius 38.22):

“When Carthage had been put to the torch and the flames were doing their awful work of devastation throughout the whole city, Scipio wept unabashedly. Asked by Polybius, his mentor, why he was thus affected, he said: ‘Because I am reflecting on the fickleness of Fortune. Some day, perhaps, the time will come when a similar fate shall overtake Rome.’ And he cited these lines from the poet, Homer: ‘The day will come when sacred Ilium shall perish,/ with Priam and his people.'”

The Homeric quotation is from Hector’s moving words to his wife Andromache in Iliad 6. Trojan Aeneas gazes at Carthage as it is being founded and is put in mind of his own hoped-for foundation, Rome; Scipio witnesses the fall of Carthage and thinks of Rome and the sack of Troy; and the readers of the Aeneid watch as their Trojan founder looks upon Carthage, and find themselves pondering their own city Rome at the end of the first century BC, subject to the ineluctable processes of construction and destruction, as they well knew, just like Troy and Carthage before it.

A insensitively named street in modern Carthage, photo by Vic Baines.

* * *

R.T. Ridley, “To be taken with a pinch of salt: the destruction of Carthage”, Classical Philology 81 (1986), 140-46;

N. Purcell, “On the sacking of Corinth and Carthage”, in D. Innes, H. Hines, and C. Pelling (eds.), Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical Essays for Donald Russell on his 75th Birthday (Oxford, 1995), 133-48;

J. Davidson, “Domesticating Dido”, in M. Burden (ed.), A woman scorn’d: responses to the Dido myth (London, 1998), 65-88;

S. Lancel, La colline de Byrsa à l’époque punique (Paris, 1983), 7-8.

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About Llewelyn Morgan

I'm a Classicist, lucky enough to work at Brasenose College, Oxford. I specialise in Roman literature, but I've got a persistent side-interest in Afghanistan, particularly the scholars and spies and scholar-spies who visited the country in the nineteenth century.

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