My family and I went on vacation in Europe earlier this summer. We began in Barcelona and ended up in Rome. One of the stops was at Cartagena, Spain. It’s a small city on the south-eastern coast on the Mediterranean, across from Algeria. This was a very exciting stop to me, because the city had been very prominent during the 2nd Punic War between Carthage and the Roman Republic (I’m a major “history nerd”).
The city was founded in 228 BC as “Qart Hadasht” or “New City” by the Carthaginians as a base for their operations in Spain. The Romans would later call it “New Carthage.” The city had a good port and was strategically situated. When the war with Rome started in 218 BC, Cartagena was the focal point of the Carthaginian war effort, and the Carthaginians stored supplies, food, and silver (from nearby silver mines). Therefore, the Romans desired to take the city in order to end Carthaginian control of Spain.
Publius Cornelius Scipio, who would later be given the honorarium “Africanus” for defeating the Carthaginian general Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC, was a young man when the war started. His father and uncle led Roman armies in Spain, but were eventually killed by the Carthaginian forces.
Scipio survived the massacre at Cannae in 216 BC, where the Romans lost up to 75,000 soldiers in a single day of battle. This was the third major loss for Rome against the Carthaginians, having previously lost armies at Trebia (nearly 30,000 men dead) and Lake Trasimene (15,000 men dead). Rome miraculously survied these disasters, and Scipio himself eventually went to Spain to take over leadership of the Roman forces in the region after his father and uncle were killed in battle there.
Finally, in 209 BC, after rallying the Roman forces in Spain, Scipio was prepared to assault Cartagena.
In Scipio’s time, the city was situated on a penninsula, with the bay on one side and a shallow lagoon on the other. The lagoon, however, was filled in during the 19th century AD. During the war, however, the city appeared impregniable, due to the large walls and the water which surrounded three sides.
Scipio knew, therefore, that he had to find a way into the city to capture it. He laid seige to the city and as his naval admiral Gaius Laelius sailed into the bay, Scipio’s legionaries pressed the attack. Laelius’ naval marines began an effort to scale the city walls which faced the sea, while Scipio led a contingent of troops into a shallow section of the lagoon (pointed out to them by a local guide) and climbed a relatively undefended section of wall in order to enter the city. The city fell soon afterwards, and Scipio bestowed honors upon the two men, a marine and a soldier, who had claimed to have been first over the walls.
The capture of Cartagena by Scipio ended Carthaginian control in Spain and helped pave the way to ultimate Roman victory in the war. In addition to the large quantity of silver and supplies which were taken, it was also a personal triumph for Scipio, serving as retribution of sorts for the deaths of his uncle and father in the Spanish campaign.
It was great to be able to see the city, sail into the bay, walk on the hill, and drive around where the old lagoon used to be.
Docked at the port, looking into the city. The ancient citadel was on the top of the hill in the foreground:
The view from the citadel, looking into the bay. The Carthaginians would have seen a similar sight as Laelius’ naval forces entered the bay:
Looking down on the Roman theater from the top of the citadel:
Remains of the old Punic wall:
Catacombs at the Punic wall museum:
Beautiful sunset off the coast of Spain: