Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Stern Decree

Carthage soon learned that it was with Rome, and no longer with Masinissa, that she had now to deal.

That she would be punished for having taken up arms against her troublesome neighbour she knew. So she determined if possible to disarm the anger of Rome.

She therefore condemned Hasdrubal and the leaders of the war party to death, and sent ambassadors to Rome to say that they only were guilty of breaking the treaty. We do not know if Hasdrubal and his fellows were content to be made the scapegoat of their people.

In Rome, the ambassadors were coldly treated, and told that not only the leaders, but Carthage herself, must atone for the broken treaty.

Meanwhile, to the dismay of Carthage, Utica, which was strongly fortified and almost as rich and powerful as the capital, surrendered to Rome.

With Utica in their hands, the Romans had a convenient port at which to land their forces, and they at once declared war. The two Consuls for the year 149 b.c. were sent to Sicily with a large force, and ordered to sail from Lilybæum to Africa, nor were they to think that their work was ended until Carthage was destroyed.

When the Carthaginians received the declaration of war, they decided to send another embassy to Rome, with an offer to surrender.

If the offer was accepted, Carthage could be treated as a town conquered in war. But this right was often put aside when a town surrendered of its own free will. It was in the hope that Rome would prove merciful that Carthage now offered to submit.

The Roman Senate accepted the surrender of Carthage, demanding that the city should send three hundred hostages to Sicily within thirty days. Then these ominous words were added: "Carthage must also obey the further commands of the Consuls." When they had obeyed these "further commands," Rome promised that the Carthaginians should be granted liberty, and that their possessions should not be taken away.

It was with a sinking heart that Carthage complied with the first condition. Three hundred hostages were sent to Sicily within thirty days. Many of them were but children, whose mothers were in despair at being separated from them.

When the ships which were to carry the hostages away were ready to sail, the miserable parents gathered at the water's edge. In their agony, scarce knowing what they did, some of the mothers ran into the sea and held on to the ropes which tied the ships to the harbour. Others, as the ropes were loosened and the ships began to move off, swam after the vessels, weeping and uttering pitiful cries that their children might be restored to them. But the ships sailed relentlessly on their course.

In spite of the arrival of the hostages, the Consuls sailed from Lilybæum and landed at Utica.

Here ambassadors from Carthage came to learn the meaning of the words that had sounded ominous in their ears. What were the further commands to which they must bow?

"The Carthaginians must disarm," was the sentence that fell like lead on the hearts of the ambassadors.

But the Romans had their reason for this demand, and saw no hardship in it.

"How," said the Consuls, "could those want arms who were resolved to live in peace, who were protected from their enemies by the strong arm of Rome, and had their liberty, independence, and possessions guaranteed them?"

It was a hard decree. Yet to appease the wrath of Rome the ambassadors agreed that this condition also should be fulfilled. They did not dream that worse could be in store.

So one day a long procession of wagons set out from Carthage, laden with suits of armour and catapults. Not catapults as you think of them, small and easily handled, but great heavy slings for hurling stones at the walls of besieged cities. Two hundred thousand suits of armour were carried away and two thousand catapults, and the walls of Carthage were left defenceless.

The procession was a solemn one. Ambassadors, priests, members of the Senate, most noble citizens, all went with the wagons to the Roman camp to deliver their contents to those who claimed this mighty sacrifice. "Surely now," they said to one another, "Rome will be content, and we shall be able to go back with glad tidings of certain peace to our defenceless town."

But a still more bitter blow was to fall upon the ambassadors, a blow bitter as death itself. The "further demands" had not yet been exhausted.

Rome now decreed that the Carthaginians should leave their town, nor would they be allowed to settle within ten miles of the sea. Carthage herself must be destroyed.

When the ambassadors heard this last terrible sentence, their distress was profound. No humiliation was too great could they but obtain mercy.

They threw themselves at the feet of the Consuls, with tears streaming down their cheeks, and with cries of anguish pleaded that they might be spared this last bitter ordeal.

But no cries, no tears could change the stern decree. Nor was Carthage even allowed again to send messengers to Rome to plead her cause before the Senate.