On this date: Two millennia later, the 3rd Punic War ends

Carthage, Tunisia (WHTM) In 1985, a war came to an official end – 2,131 years after its final battle.

For centuries during the pre-Christian era, two major powers in the Mediterranean Sea area vied for supremacy – the Roman Republic, with its capital in Rome, Italy, and the Carthaginians, with its city of Carthage located in what is now Tunisia. Over the course of almost 140 years they fought what became known as the Punic Wars:

First Punic War 264-241 BCE (23 years)

Second Punic War 218-201 BCE (17 Years)

Third Punic War 149-146 BCE (4 Years)

(The name Punic derives from the Romans’ word for the Carthaginians, Punicus or Poenicus, which refers to Carthage’s origin as a Phoenician colony.)

All three of the wars resulted in Roman victory: Carthage lost territories, and by the start of the third war was virtually a vassal state of Rome. But it was a very prosperous vassal state, serving (among other things) as a main source of grain to Rome. Some Romans feared their prosperity could lead to other mischief, and Warmongers in the Roman Senate finally prodded Rome into the Third Punic War.

Unlike the previous two wars, which involved much maneuvering and pitched battles (the Second Punic War saw the Carthaginian general Hannibal crossing the Alps) the third was mostly a siege of Carthage by the Romans. The siege would last three years. Finally, in 146 BCE the Romans breached the walls and captured the city after a week of brutal hand-to-hand, street-to-street fighting. The 50,000 survivors of the siege (out of a population of around 200,000) were sold into slavery, and the city was demolished.

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It’s said the Romans sowed the ground of Carthage with salt so nothing would ever grow there again. This is a myth – the area was too important, both strategically and economically, to lie fallow. In time a new “Roman Carthage” would rise, becoming an important city in the Roman Empire. Today it is a suburb of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. (one remnant of the original Carthage can still be seen – the city’s two harbors, a rectangular one for merchant shipping, and a circular one for warships.)

But a loose thread remained untied. No peace treaty ending the Third Punic War was ever signed. At the time it may have seemed superfluous, given the total destruction of Carthage, but in the 20th century someone brought up the fact that the Third Punic War had never officially ended.

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This was at a time when the Italian Republic and the Republic of Tunisia were establishing closer ties, starting with diplomatic relations in 1957. (Tunisia was a colony of France until 1956.) Tunisia has a large population of Italians, and Italy has a large population of Tunisians. Tunisian and Italian authorities talked for some time about a gesture of reconciliation over the Punic Wars.

So it was that on February 5, 1985, Ugo Vetere, the mayor of Rome, and Chedly Klibi, Arab League Secretary General and mayor of Carthage, met at the Tunisian president’s villa overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Declaring their desire to “reinforce the relations of friendship and cooperation between the two cities,” they signed a symbolic treaty “officially” ending the Third Punic War, after a delay of 2,131 years.

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