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Some features of the ideology motivating the Roman destruction of Carthage in 146 BC have surprisingly modern echoes in 20th-century genocides. Racial, religious or cultural prejudices, gender and other social hierarchies, territorial expansionism, and an idealization of cultivation all characterize the thinking of Cato the Censor, like that of more recent perpetrators. The tragedy of Carthage, its details lost with most of the works of Livy and other ancient authors, and concealed behind allegory in Virgil's Aeneid, became known to early modern Europeans from briefer ancient accounts rediscovered only in the 15th century, as Europe's own expansion began.
Delenda est Carthago ('Carthage Must be Destroyed!') may be the first recorded incitement to genocide. These were the words of Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor. (1) Plutarch tells us that Cato's call ended his every speech in the Roman Senate, 'on any matter whatsoever', from 153 BC to his death aged 85 in 149. Scipio Nasica--son-in-law of Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Hannibal in the Second Punic War (218-202 BC)--would always reply: 'Carthage should be allowed to exist'. But such challengers were silenced. (2) Rome decided on war 'long before' it launched the Third Punic War just prior to Cato's death. (3) 0ne of his last speeches in the Senate, before a Carthaginian delegation in 149, was critical:
Who are the ones who have often violated the treaty? ... Who are the ones who have waged war most cruelly? ... Who are the ones who have ravaged Italy? The Carthaginians. Who are the ones who demand forgiveness? The Carthaginians. See then how it would suit them to get what they want.
The Carthaginian delegates were accorded no right of reply. Rome soon began a three-year siege of the world's wealthiest city. (4) Of a population of 2-400,000, (5) at least 150,000 Carthaginians perished. Appian described one battle in which '70,000, including non-combatants' were killed, probably an exaggeration. But Polybius, who participated in the campaign, confirmed that 'the number of deaths was incredibly large' and the Carthaginians 'utterly exterminated'. (6) In 146, Roman legions under Scipio Aemilianus, Cato's ally and brother-in-law of his son, razed the city, and dispersed into slavery the 55,000 survivors, including 25,000 women. Plutarch concluded: 'The annihilation of Carthage ... was primarily due to the advice and counsel of Cato'. (7)
It was not a war of racial extermination. The Romans did not massacre the survivors, nor the adult males. (8) Nor was Carthage victim of a Kulturkrieg. Though the Romans also destroyed five allied African cities of Punic culture, they spared seven other towns which had defected to them. (9) Yet, the Carthaginians had complied in 149 with Rome's demand to surrender their 200,000 individual weapons and 2000 catapults. They did not know the Senate had already secretly decided 'to destroy Carthage for good, once the war was ended'. (10) The surprise new demand, that they now abandon their city, meant desertion of its shrines and religious cults. (11) This is what the Carthaginians vainly resisted. Rome decided on 'the destruction of the nation'. (12) Its policy of 'extreme violence', the 'annihilation of Carthage and most of its inhabitants', ruining 'an entire culture', fits the modern legal definition of the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention: the intentional destruction 'in whole or in part, [of] a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such'. (13)
It would be as unfair to condemn ancient Roman violations of 20th-century international criminal law, as to ignore the spirited opposition Cato's policy provoked in Rome itself. (14) But what ideology demanded the disappearance of a disarmed mercantile city? Whatever the military reasons for pursuing the siege after 149, the socio-political motivation of the destruction's leading proponent is significant. Cato ultimately won a Senate majority, but the depth of his personal preoccupation was unusual. His catalogue of Punic atrocities resonated with his audience, who remembered the suffering Hannibal's army had visited on Italy. Badian writes that 'hatred and resentment towards [Carthage] seem to have smouldered in the minds of the Senate, although right down to the fifties there was never any reasonable doubt of Carthaginian loyalty'. (15) Cato's purported list of Carthaginian treaty breaches was not only legalistic--no other writer 'put such emphasis on the topic'--but historically flimsy. (16)
Cato's broader thinking also shared more modern features with recent tragedies such as the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, and the Cambodian and Rwandan catastrophes. The perpetrators of these 20th-century crimes, like Cato, were preoccupied with militaristic expansionism, the idealization of cultivation, notions of gender and social hierarchy, and racial or cultural prejudices. (17)
Despite 'the amazing regularity with which Rome went to war' in this era, the policy to destroy Carthage was unusual. It was both decided in advance and pursued after the city's surrender. Authors differ on the threat Carthage posed, (18) and whether Rome's demands were calculated to minimize it, (19) or resulted from 'extreme power hunger'. (20) But to Cato, the danger was as much internal. A distinguished Roman administrator and orator, man of letters and action ('Stick to the point; the words will follow'), (21) he was a straight-talking veteran of the Second Punic War--when he had first criticized Scipio Africanus
for profligacy. With relentless corruption allegations, Cato hounded Scipio until his death in 183. Pliny noticed that Cato's history of the first two Punic Wars 'removed the names' of several Scipios and others who led legions, caustically naming only Hannibal's elephant, (22) Fame was a dangerous temptation. To Cato, 'avarice and extravagance ... have been the destruction of all great empires'. (23) And he insisted on Roman military domination. 'The Carthaginians are already our enemies; for he who prepares everything against me, so that he can make war at whatever time he wishes, he is already my enemy even though he is not yet using arms.' (24)
Elected consul in 195, Cato took command in formerly Carthaginian-ruled Spain, and put down major rebellions. He was a courageous and effective general, noted 'for his cruelty towards his defeated enemies'. (25) Livy sympathized: 'Cato had more difficulty subduing the enemy ... because he had, as it were, to reclaim them, like slaves who had …