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The Story of Rome by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE DESTRUCTION OF CARTHAGE

[253] UNDER the rule of the previous Consuls the discipline of the army had been slack. When Scipio returned to Africa, his first work was to restore strict discipline.

The soldiers were no longer allowed to stray out of the camp when they chose in search of plunder; while bands of traders and a crowd of idle folk who had followed the army, also in hope of plunder, were banished. Luxuries which had abounded in the camp were forbidden by the young commander. Plain fare and regular drill soon made the army more anxious to meet the enemy than to plunder and waste its days in idleness.

Now Carthage stood on a peninsula, a narrow isthmus joining it to the mainland. Beyond this isthmus lay Megara, a suburb from which Carthage procured most of her provisions.

When his army was ready for work, Scipio determined to cut Carthage off from Megara, so that she might no longer be able to get food for the city.

Across the narrow isthmus the Consul therefore ordered trenches to be dug, three miles in length. Along the trenches, fortifications and towns were speedily built, and when these were finished it was impossible to get a morsel of food into the city by land.

Megara was then taken, and Hasdrubal was forced to retire with his army into Carthage itself, of which he was at once made governor.

[254] The Carthaginians could now only bring food into the city by sea, and this was no easy task.

But with a strong wind blowing, there were many brave sailors daring enough to risk being able to run past the Roman cruisers, and thus to carry food into the harbour. So, although Megara was taken, the city was able to still hold out against the enemy without being starved.

Scipio saw that he must now block the sea passage as he had already blocked the land, if he meant to starve the city into submission, and he ordered a strong barricade to be built across the mouth of the harbour.

The Carthaginians mocked at the Roman soldiers as they watched them bringing great stones to the harbour, for they thought that the enemy had undertaken a task it would never be able to complete.

But as they saw that the Romans worked night and day, and as the huge embankment rose before their eyes, they mocked no more. Perhaps after all the Romans would succeed in blocking the harbour, and if that were done they must starve.

So they, too, set to work, but in secret, to make a new opening from the harbour to the sea.

Men and women, and even children, joined in the work, and at the same time workmen in the city built a new fleet. It is true the ships had to be built of old timber, or any wood that could be found, but this was not enough to daunt the indomitable courage of the besieged.

Noiselessly the work was done, so that Scipio knew nothing about what was going on, until one day when his barricade was almost finished.

Then, to his astonishment, he saw a fleet of fifty ships, which was plainly but just built, sail out of a newly-cut passage from the harbour.

The Roman was ill-pleased to be thus outwitted by his foe, yet perhaps he also felt that here was a people worthy of his skill.

[255] Three days later a great battle was fought at sea. From morning until evening the battle raged, but neither side could claim the victory.

At length the Carthaginian fleet attempted to sail back to its harbour. But the smaller vessels blocked the passage so that the large ships were forced to stay without.

The Romans seized their chance, and attacked the enemy in this position.

A desperate struggle followed, and the Carthaginians, who were as used to the sea as to the land, fought with unfailing courage. But at length they were beaten, and the greater part of the new fleet was destroyed.

Winter was approaching, and Scipio had at length succeeded in closing every approach to the city. Neither by sea nor by land could the wretched people now get food.

As the weeks dragged slowly by, the misery in the besieged city grew terrible. Many of the citizens killed themselves rather than endure a day longer the pangs of hunger, while others in their desperate need even ate the dead bodies of their fellows. Some gave themselves up to the Romans, and were then sold as slaves.

In the early spring of 146 B.C. the Carthaginians were so exhausted that they had little strength left to withstand the attack which Scipio now made upon the town. Yet still they would not yield.

Hasdrubal, seeing that the enemy could not be repulsed, ordered the outer harbour to be set on fire.

But as the flames leaped up, Lælius succeeded in scaling the wall, and entered the city with his men, unnoticed in the confusion caused by the fire. They soon reached the gates, and opened them to their comrades, and in a short time the Forum was in the hands of the Romans.

From the Forum, three narrow streets led up to the Byrsa or Castle of Carthage. The houses on either [256] side of these streets were six storeys high, and to these the inhabitants of the city rushed.

As the Romans pushed their way along the narrow streets, the Carthaginians flung down upon them from windows and roofs every missile or weapon on which they could lay their hands.

At length Scipio ordered his men to storm the houses. Then a terrible hand-to-hand fight began with the starving citizens.

Clambering on to the roofs, which were flat, the soldiers stretched boards or beams across from one house to another, and hurled out of the way those citizens who still tried to hinder their progress.

For six days and nights the desperate townsfolk continued to baffle the efforts of the Romans to reach their last stronghold, the Byrsa.

During this awful struggle, Scipio himself sent forward continually new companies of men, and in his anxiety he scarcely found time to sleep or to eat.

At length, however, the foot of the citadel was reached, and Scipio ordered the narrow streets to be set on fire.

Then the Carthaginians knew that they could do no more, and those who had taken refuge in the Byrsa surrendered, on being promised that their lives should be safe.

Fifty thousand men, women, and children, pale and haggard with all that they had gone through during the long drawn out siege, left the castle and were carried off as prisoners.

Hasdrubal, who had defended the city so bravely, was still untaken. He, with his wife and children, as well as about nine hundred Romans who had deserted their own camp, now took refuge in the temple of Æsculapius, and set fire to it themselves.

But Hasdrubal, feeling, it may be, that he could not help his country by his death, resolved to save his life.

[257] He escaped from the burning temple, and, with an olive branch in his hand, threw himself at the feet of Scipio, begging for life. And the Roman commander granted his request.

It is told that the wife of Hasdrubal stood on the roof of the temple and cursed her husband as she saw him crouching at the feet of the conqueror.

Calling aloud to him that he was a traitor and a coward, she flung first her two sons and then herself into the flames before the eyes of her horror-stricken husband.

Meanwhile, with all speed a ship was sent to Rome, laden with the spoils of Carthage.

Great was the rejoicing in the city when it was known that her ancient rival was in ruins. Orders were at once sent to Scipio, bidding him complete his work by destroying the town.

So Carthage was given to the flames, and for seventeen days the fire blazed untiringly. Scipio, as he watched the doomed city, thought of other great countries that had been destroyed by their enemies—Assyria, Persia, Macedonia. In the unknown future would Rome fall even as these?


[Illustration]

The city was given to the flames.

Thinking thus, Scipio murmured the lines of Homer:

"The day shall come when holy Troy shall fall,

And Priam, lord of spears and Priam's folk."

When the flames had at last died out, a plough, drawn by oxen, was driven over the site of the town, and Scipio uttered a solemn curse against any one who should venture to build a new city on the ancient site of Carthage.


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