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The Port at Carthage

PortandTerminal.com, November 1, 2019

TUNIS, TUNISIA – Founded by a seafaring people known as the Phoenicians in 814 BCE, the ancient city of Carthage, located in modern-day Tunis in Tunisia, was a major centre of trade and influence in the western Mediterranean.

Ancient Carthage occupied a strategic position on the Mediterranean’s key maritime trade routes

The empire extended over much of the coast of Northwest Africa as well as encompassing substantial parts of coastal Iberia (modern-day Spain) and the islands of the western Mediterranean Sea. In this article, we’ll look at the Port of Carthage, where most of the nation’s economic and military naval power was cocentrated.

Trade at the Port at Carthage

In its day, Carthage was widely considered to be the most important trading hubs of the Ancient Mediterranean and was arguably one of the most affluent cities of the Ancient World.

The Carthaginians, like their Phoenician forefathers, were highly successful traders who sailed the Mediterranean with their goods. Metals, foodstuffs, slaves, and high-quality manufactured goods such as fine cloth and gold jewellery were bought and sold to anyone who could afford them. 

“Merchants from Carthage selling slaves and other wares to Romans”
 Mosaic of the “Lady of Carthage” from the Bardo Museum showing the typical dress of a wealthy woman being attended to by her slaves. Cloth from Carthage was prized for its quality and would have been actively traded by its merchants.

Foodstuffs traded from Carthage included olives, olive oil, wine, cereals, salted fish, garlic, pomegranates, nuts, herbs, and spices. Two Punic shipwrecks, one discovered off Ibiza (5th century BCE) and the other off Marsala on Sicily (3rd century BCE), both had large cargoes of fermented fish sauce, called garum which the Romans would become addicted to.  (Editor’s note: fish sauce remains a popular ingredient in many Asian cuisines to this day)

Garum was an immensely important fish sauce beloved by the Romans shown here being manufactured. Two 5th century BCE trading ships from Carthage, both carrying cargos of Garum were discovered off of Ibiza

The Port at Carthage

With its futuristic design, the Port at Carthage was made up of two harbors as shown in the artist’s depiction of the port above. Both harbors were manmade, about two metres deep, and date to approximately 210 BCE. 

  1. The first was the large rectangular commercial harbor which had direct access to the sea, although this would be chained off at night for security reasons. It was from here that Carthaginian ships and those of foreign merchants conducted their trade.
  2. The second was the military harbor with space for 220 military vessels. For defensive reasons, there was no direct access to this harbor from the sea. To get to the military harbor one would need to pass through the commercial harbor first.
  3. In the centre of the military harbor (highlighted in the picture above as “3”) were the Admiral’s quarters.

There were also high defensive walls surrounding the military harbor as there were around most of the city.

On the island a flag had been built for the admiral, from which the trumpet signals and the herald’s calls were issued, and from which the admiral exercised his surveillance.

Roman text from the 1st century AD describing the Admiral’s quarters at Carthage

In 1993, archaeological research concluded that the port was built after the Second Punic War (218 BCE – 201 BCE), at a time when, according to the Roman version of the facts, “Carthage was not allowed to have a navy”.

Battle of the Port of Carthage (146 BC)

Artist’s impression of Roman naval vessels attacking the Port of Carthage

The Battle of the port of Carthage was a naval battle that took place during the third Punic War fought in 147 BCE. It was fought between the Carthaginians and the Roman Republic and happened during the siege of Carthage by the Roman navy.

Despite the Roman navy blockading their port, the Carthaginians managed to find a war to put 50 of their vessels to sea to try and break the blockade. Initially, the smaller Carthaginian navy was successful in pushing back the stronger Roman navy and managed to inflict heavy casualties on them.

Rome’s siege of the city of Carthage was ultimately successful and lead to the city’s complete destruction

This small victory though by the Carthaginian navy was in no way though enough to break the Roman blockade on the city of Carthage. In the spring of 146 BCE, the Roman succeeded in bringing Carthage to its knees and proceeded to sack and completely destroy the city.

Carthage, which at one time had been home to 450,000 people, saw its surviving 50,000 people after the siege all sold into slavery by the Romans.

The destroyed city of Carthage was then re-developed as Roman Carthage, which became the major city of the Roman Empire in the province of Africa. 

What’s left of the Port at Carthage today

The original circular military harbor at the Port of Carthage is still clearly visible in modern-day Tunis, as is the round Admiral’s quarters in the centre of the military harbor. Remnants of the former rectangular commercial harbor are also visible to this day.

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