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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor

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THE CARTHAGINIANS DEFEND THEIR CITY

[249] THE ambassadors of Carthage had a hard task before them, a task it needed all their courage to perform.

Some of them, indeed, were not brave enough to face their countrymen with the dire tidings of the city's doom, and these did not go back to Carthage.

Others begged the Consuls to send a squadron to the mouth of their harbour, that the citizens might see how impossible it was to defy Rome. This the Consuls agreed to do.

Then the ambassadors who had not shirked their mournful task went back to the city with downcast and gloomy faces. They knew that the fury of the inhabitants would be roused when they heard the last cruel demand of Rome.

Even as they entered the gates, the people thronged around them, and seeing their stricken faces, they clamoured to be told what had happened. But the ambassadors pushed their way in silence through the crowds until they reached the Senate-house. Here, in faltering tones, they told the cruel sentence that had been pronounced upon their city.

As they listened, a great cry burst from the lips of the assembly, and was heard by the people without. Then silence, desperate, despairing silence, settled down upon the senators, until, unable longer to bear the suspense, the crowd thrust open the door, rushed into the Senate-house, and demanded to be told the truth.

It was told. Then the citizens in their anger abused the senators who had first advised the city to submit to [250] Rome, while many of them rushed into the streets and ill-treated every Italian whom they could find. An outlet for their passion they needs must find.

Some hastened to close the city gates, as though the Roman legions were already marching upon them, others crowded into the temples to pray, or to curse the gods who had failed to save them from this great disaster.

Little by little the frenzy of the rabble died away, and then senators and people met, and with one voice declared that they would die in defence of their city, rather than give her into the hands of their enemy.

It is true that they had no allies to help them, no arms, no ships. Yet it was better far to die within the walls of Carthage than to live in exile.

No sooner was their decision made than the people, knowing that there was not a moment to spare, set to work.

Day and night men and women toiled without ceasing, until the whole city seemed turned into a huge workshop.

One hundred shields, three hundred swords, five hundred missiles, and a large number of catapults were made each day by the untiring labours of the citizens. It is said that the women in their zeal cut off their hair and twisted it into cords for the catapults.

The slaves in the city were all set free, that they might fight the more whole-heartedly in the struggle that had now begun in grim earnest.

Hasdrubal, who had been condemned to death in an attempt to pacify the Romans, but whose sentence had not been carried out, was now reinstated in favour, and given the chief command of the army.

Although he had been so harshly treated by the Senate, Hasdrubal had been, all this time, working for his country, and had raised an army of twenty thousand men.

Meanwhile, the Consuls had yet to learn that Rome, by [251] the severity of her conditions, had passed the limits of Carthaginian endurance.

They made no haste to march to the capital, deeming that it was already theirs. The last thing they expected was that the citizens, who had no arms, would offer any resistance when they appeared before her gates.

But when at length they reached the town they were speedily undeceived.

Arms the Carthaginians seemed to have in plenty, and as missiles were hurled at the Roman troops, and a heavy rain of arrows descended upon them, the Consuls were forced to attack the town which they had imagined was defenceless, and ready to receive them.

Twice the Roman army was repulsed. It was plain that the city would have to be besieged.

For a whole year the Consuls did their utmost to take the town, but it defied all their efforts. Even on the battlefield the Roman arms had no greater success than before the walls of Carthage.

Cato died while the city was still being bravely defended by its inhabitants. Masinissa who, like Cato, had been a bitter enemy of Carthage and the source of much of the evil that had befallen her, was also dead, and still the Romans remained without the walls of the city.

The year 148 B.C. passed, and the Senate at Rome began to grow impatient. It was plain that the Consuls would never be able to take the city, and it determined to find a general who could, and place him at the head of the army.

There was, indeed, even then, a soldier serving under the Consuls who was fitted to command. This was Scipio, the adopted grandson of the great Scipio Africanus.

Already the army was devoted to him, for he had shown his courage and skill more than once in helping the Roman legions out of difficult positions in which they had been placed by their incompetent leaders.

Before his death Cato had heard of the exploits of the [252] young soldier, and while he scorned his commanders, he admired Scipio.

"He alone has the breath of life in him, the rest are but flitting phantoms," said the old man, who had begun to learn Greek and to love Homer, from whom he was now quoting, only when he was about seventy years of age.

According to Roman law, Scipio was still too young to be elected Consul. Nevertheless he returned to Rome in 147 B.C., and in spite of his youth was chosen Consul, and given the command of the army in Africa.


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