The Destruction of Carthage: Scipio's Curse

Katie Walton
Summer 2010



War at Carthage

Scipio_Drawing_of_an_embossed_steel_shielf_reveiving_keys_Hulton_Archive_Getty_Images.jpg
Scipio Drawing of an embossed steel shield receiving keys (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Third Punic War lasted from 149 to 146 BCE and was fought mainly in the city of Carthage .Though this war was smaller thanthe two previous, the repercussions from its outcome changed the direction of the Roman World. Unlike the First and Second Punic Wars,the Romans were determined to see the city of Carthage destroyed and with it the threat that she posed. Carthage sued for peace at the start of the war, but Rome was not easily appeased. Rome established troops at Utica. After a series of demands, including that the city of Carthage be moved inland in order to diminish her maritime power, it was decreed that the current city of Carthage be razed to the ground. After several months of fighting, Scipio Aemilanus , the grandson of Scipio Africanus, entered the city and destroyed the buildings and wiped out much of the Carthaginian people. Upon the completion of this utter destruction, the general Scipio and his troops plundered the town.

Scipio's Curse in the Literature

After the destruction of the city, a curse is reported to have been placed on the city by Scipio so that the city might never rise to the level of prosperity that it enjoyed during its heyday. For information regarding the sack of the city, we must first look to the ancient sources. Several authors describe the destruction of Carthage, but do not mention a curse placed on the city by Scipio. Polybius, who traveled with Scipio to Carthage and was his tutor, describes the sack of the city (38.19-22). However, Polybius’ work is fragmentary and much of it has been lost. As a result, we do not have any mention of a curse. Livy also provides an account of the destruction of the city, but fails to account for a curse (Book 51). Finally, the historian Diodorus compares the sack of Carthage to the sack of Corinth, which took place the same year (32.4.5). He describes the leveling of the city, but again, does not mention a curse placed on the city. The first account of a curse placed on the city is described by Appian in Pun. 135. While Appian does not mention an actual curse being placed on the city, he reports that the Senate decreed that no one should live in Carthage and that direful threats were made to those who might rebuild the Byrsa area. Astin postulates that both Appian and Diodorus base their accounts from Polybius[1] . It is interesting to note that as far as our primary sources are concerned, we have no mention of an actual curse against the city of Carthage. Only the destruction of the city and warnings against its resettlement are extant in the literature to this point. In the early fifth century c.e., we have a work from the author Macrobius. In book three, chapter nine of the Saturnalia, Macrobius describes the methodology of calling forth a “divine protector” of a city and devoting the city to destruction. He is careful to note that only dictators and supreme commanders have the power to use this formula of cursing a city (9.3.9). He then provides the curse as it would have been used at Carthage (9.3.10). He mentions several other cities that were sacked by the Romans and devoted to destruction including Gabii, Veii, and Corinth. This is the first source to delve into the nature of the curse at Carthage. He does not specifically name Scipio in the passage. It is interesting to note that few other ancient sources address the curse. On the contrary, modern historians rarely mention the destruction of Carthage without the curse placed on it by Scipio. One of the earliest historical sources, Theodor Mommsen describes in detail the capture and destruction of the city. He describes the senate’s demands that the city not only be burned to the ground, but also “to pass the plough over the site of Carthage so as to put an end in legal form to the existence of the city, and to curse the soil and site forever, that neither house nor cornfield might ever reappear on the spot. The command was punctually obeyed”[2] . Other historians describe the curse as an exaggerated precaution by Rome[3] . Most of the modern historical evidence stems from Macrobius’ description of the actual curse. While this text is one of the few curses extant that describes the ruin of a city, the language found with in Macrobius’ curse contains characteristics of defixiones and curses found throughout the ancient world.


The Language of Scipio's Curse


Ancient spells and curses where common in the ancient world. Several have been excavated in both public and private arenas of Greco-Roman daily life. The curse that Scipio placed on the city of Carthage in 146 BCE is what scholars classify as a ‘performative’ act. The ritual of cursing, containing both verbal and nonverbal elements stands to “brings about a change in the extra-linguistic world” through magic[4] . The physical element on a performative act is equally as important in the dedication as the words spoken. In the curse on Carthage, Macrobius describes the verbal element as well as the physical actions that Scipio makes:

manibus terram tangit…manus ad caelum tollit…manibus pectus tangit (3.9.12) he touches the ground with his hands… he raises his hand to the sky… he touches his breast with his hands


Through this combin
cursetablet.jpg
Defixiones. Roman. Necropolis on the Via Benedetto Bompiani. 1st-2nd century CE. Rome, Olearie Papali alle Terme di Diocleziano. Credits: Ann Raia, 2007.
ation of elements Scipio is indicating his actions to the gods to which he is dedicating the city. In addition to the non-linguistic aspects of the curse, thelanguage used within the curse has been identified as characteristic to ancient curses. Scipio begins his curse, like most curses, with the invocation of certain deities associated with the Underworld. He calls on two beings specifically, Dis Pater and Veiovis Manes. We commonly see Dis in association with curses, but the name Veiovis Manes is more obscure. Perhaps this name isan unknown name for the guardian of Carthage. Several cities in the ancient world, including Rome, were known to have secretive names unknown to most of its residents. However, in the oral reading the curse, specific names are not important. In fact, the difficulty and obscurity of a name act on behalf of the speaker. It was also common in Roman practice to include those deities whose names the speaker does not know in order the increase the effectiveness of the curse. Not simply the words themselves, but also elements within them were believed to have “magical” powers and connections to the gods of the Underworld. The prefix of “de-” has been associated with the gods of the Underworld. More specifically, the verb devoveo, which is used throughout the curse, was used in times that an army general is avoiding defeat. Kropp breaks ancient curses into several categories, manipulation, committal, and request[5] . In the curse of Carthage, Scipio utilizes the Committal Formula for cursing. After committing the victims, in this case the city of Carthage and its inhabitants. He uses several manipulation verbs:

lumine supero privitis ‘may you deprive the light from the sky’ devotas consecratasque ‘considered accursed and doomed’ sunt maxime…devoti ‘cursed to the greatest extent possible’ (Sat. 9.3.10)

These verbs are direct in the performance of the curse. The next element found in the in Scipio’s curse is the presence of verbs of giving. He uses do and devoveo in order to place Carthage in the hands of the gods to which he dedicated it. Kropp compares this formula of dedication and giving to that of those employed at public ceremonies to Jupiter. The success of this “committal” hinges on the correct performance of the curse. Upon its completion, it allows the victim to pass into the hands of the divine. Though this transition is not visible, the notoriety of the curse upon the place in turn brings about the situation described within the curse. The curse on Carthage was well known throughout the Roman world and in addition, the obliteration of the city by the Roman army would serve to keep many away. This allows Rome to have control of the area and settle how they wished. We have seen the result of total destruction at the hands of the Romans in other parts of the empire as well. The same year that Carthage was destroyed, Corinth was also reduced to rubble.

Destruction of Carthage and Other Sites

The parallel destruction of Carthage and Corinth within only a few months of each other is an example of Rome’s ability to exercise its power. Both cities were large, prosperous, and threatening to the prospect of Roman expansion. Purcell describes the ruin of not only independent civil existence, but also the physical identity of these cities as a carefully considered statement on Rome’s part[6] . In his description of the curse placed on Carthage, Macrobius states that other towns were “devoted” in the same manner as Carthage, including Corinth. Although we do not have a description of an actual curse made by Mummius, it is very possible that the city of Corinth experienced the same committal to the gods of the underworld. Completely wiping out an entire city and culture in a way can be seen as a curse to the city itself. The destruction is both physical and symbolic. In addition to this symbolic desecration of the cities, the Romans went a step further to remove spoils from the cities and place them in their own temples and shrines.

One interesting aspect of the curse on Carthage is the so-called “furrowing of the ground and sowing of salt ”. This act is described in several modern accounts, but does not show up anywhere in the ancient sources. How could a seemingly large aspect of the curs on Carthage be left out by ancient sources and be so abundant in the modern? For help on this issue, R.T. Ridley offers his theories. He traces the story of the salt plowing and finds that it first appears in the modern account of in Cambridge Ancient History. When looking through city destructions through time, one example stands out as being sown with salt. The destruction of the city Shechem, involves the sowing of salt after cursing and the annihilation of the city. This fictitious addition to the Carthage is described by Ridley as a “contamination from the widely known rituals of city destruction”[7] . Based on the information presented above, he must be correct in this assumption. In no other ancient literary text is the city sewn with salt. In the analysis of defixiones from the ancient world, we see no sowing of salt either. This aspect of the story has been added for effect by modern historians and has continued to pass through the stories although it has no historical backing.


Conclusion


The destruction of Carthage in 146 b.c.e. is a fact supported by literary and archaeological evidence. It seems that based on the archaeological evidence provided by the excavation of numerous defixiones as well as the ancient literary sources that the curse of Carthage is also factual. We can see parallels to Carthage in other cities’ destructions and conclude that the ritual of cursing was almost synonymous with the destruction of the city itself. However, we must be wary of modern embellishments on the story added for effect.



Macrobius' Curse

Full Text Version
DIS PATER VEIOVIS MANES, SIVE QUO ALIO NOMINE FAS EST NOMINARE, UT OMNES ILLAM URBEM CARTHAGINEM EXERCITUMQUE QUEM EGO ME SENTIO DICERE FUGA FORMIDINE TERRORE CONPLEATIS, QUIQUE ADVERSUM LEGIONES EXERCITUMQUE NOSTRUM ARMA TELAQUE FERENT, UTI VOS EUM EXERCITUM EOS HOSTES EOSQUE HOMINES URBES AGROSQUE EORUM ET QUI IN HIS LOCIS REGIONIBUSQUE AGRIS URBIBUSVE HABITANT ABDUCATIS LUMINE SUPERO PRIVETIS EXERCITUMQUE HOSTIUM URBES AGROSQUE EORUM QUOS ME, SENTIO DICERE, UTI VOS EAS URBES AGROSQUE CAPITA AETATESQUE EORUM DEVOTAS CONSECRATASQUE HABEATIS OLLIS LEGIBUS QUIBUS QUANDOQUE SUNT MAXIME HOSTES DEVOTI. EOSQUE EGO VICARIOS PRO ME FIDE MAGISTRATUQUE MEO PRO POPULO ROMANO EXERCITIBUS LEGIONIBUSQUE NOSTRIS DO DEVOVEO, UT ME MEAMQUE FIDEM IMPERIUMQUE LEGIONES EXERCITUMQUE NOSTRUM QUI IN HIS REBUS GERUNDIS SUNT BENE SALVOS SIRITIS ESSE. SI HAEC ITA FAXITIS UT EGO SCIAM SENTIAM INTELLEGAMQUE, TUNC QUISQUIS HOC VOTUM FAXIT UBI FAXIT RECTE FACTUM ESTO OVIBUS ATRIS TRIBUS. TELLUS MATER TEQUE IUPPITER OBTESTOR. Cum Tellurem dicit, manibus terram tangit: cum Iovem dicit, manus ad caelum tollit: cum votum recipere dicit, manibus pectus tangit.



  1. ^ Astin, Scipio Aemilianus, 282.
  2. ^ Mommsen, 257-258.
  3. ^ Astin, CAH, 160.
  4. ^ Kropp, 358-364.
  5. ^ Kropp, 370.Here Kropp provides a table of the types of curses and their characteristics.
  6. ^ Purcell, 133-140.
  7. ^ Ridley, 145.


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Annotated Bibliography


Primary Sources

Appian of Alexandria, Roman History 128-35
Appian is the first author to mention the “direful threats” made against the city of Carthage and the rebuilding of the Byrsa. No further details are given about the curse made by Scipio.

Diodorus Siculus,
Bibliotheca Historica 32.4.5, 32. 14.1
Diodorus compares the destruction of Carthage and Corinth in brief detail and goes on to describe the annihilation of the city of Carthage.

Livy,
Ab Urbe Condita 51
In this book, Livy provides a short description of the city’s destruction, but does not mention a curse by Scipio.

Macrobius,
Saturnalia 3.9.7-13
Marcrobius is one ancient source that provides us with specific information on the curse. However, like many ancient authors, he does not mention the ritual sowing of salt in the ground. This source serves to provide us with a detailed account of what was supposedly said by Scipio, but brings forth questions as to the validity of his actions as described by modern historians.

Polybius,
The Histories 38.19-22
This fragmentary work by the tutor of Scipio Aemilianus offers a description of the sack of Carthage, but any mention of a curse has been lost.

Online Sources

Wikipedia: Carthage
This site provides a wealth of information relating to Carthage, its history, culture, and religion. It is a nice starting point for information regarding the city and finding other web resources on the site.

Wikipedia: Salting the Earth
This site briefly explains the background behind the “furrowing with salt” often associated with Carthage. It debunks the myth of salting at Carthage and provides links to scholarly articles to support its argument.

Encyclopedia Britannica: Scipio Aemilianus
A background is given on the general behind the curse. Links are provided to other articles related to Scipio.

Secondary Sources for Teachers

Astin, A.E.. Scipio Aemilianus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967.
While this source does not deal with the curse directly, it discusses Scipio’s feelings and actions directly after the sack of the city. It is helpful in presenting the various arguments for why Scipio was moved to tears and is helpful in providing insight as to why he did what he did.


Astin, A.E., M.W. Frederiksen, R.M. Ogilvie, F.W. Walbank, eds. The Cambridge Ancient History. Cambridge: Univeristy Press, 1989.
The destruction of Carthage is described as well as the Roman reaction. While this source does not elaborate on Scipio’s methodology in his curse, it does provide the reader with the possible reasoning behind the act.

Flint, Valerie, Richard Gordon, Georg Luck, Daniel Ogden.
Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. London: The Athlone Press, 1999.
This source provides a nice overview of curse tablets and the “powers” addressed. In addition to curse tablets, the book provides information regarding an array of magical practices in the ancient world. It refers specifically to several players in the magical world that would be useful in the classroom.

Gevirtz, Stanley. “Jericho and Sechem: A Religio-Literary Aspect of Destruction.”
Vetus Testamentum 13, Fasc. 1 (January 1963): 52-62.
This article provides information on other cities with similar destructions and cursings. From this article, it has been postulated that the story of the salt at Carthage stems from the salting of other cities, mostly Assyrian. Gevirtz compares Carthage to the city of Sechem, described in the Bible, Judges 9:45.

Kropp, Amina. “How Does Magical Language Work? The Spells and
Formulae of the Latin Defixionem Tabellae.” Magical Practice in the Latin West. (2005): 357-380.
This article provides a wealth of information about the linguistic structure of Roman curses. Kropp points out specific aspects of the language of curses and how it affects the outcome of the curse, making the passage from Macrobius more meaningful to the reader.

Purcell, Nicholas. “On the Sacking of Carthage and Corinth.”
Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical Essays for Donald Russell on his Seventy-Fifth Birthday. (1995): 133-148.
In this essay, Purcell compares the sacks of Carthage and Corinth. Purcell describes the nature of the curse at Carthage and provides a parallel (which was also seen by the Romans) to Corinth. This is valuable because if provides information about the sacks of 146 b.c.e., as well as providing other examples where similar curse and destruction techniques were used.

Ridley, R.T. “To be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage.”
Classical Philology 81, no.2 (April 1986): 140-146.
In this article, Ridley provides a very well supported argument against the notion that the city of Carthage was symbolically ploughed with salt as many have suggested. This very well supported argument provides the reader with several primary and secondary sources that describe both the sack of Carthage and the curse placed upon it.

Secondary Sources for Students

Lloyd, Alan. Destroy Carthage!: The Death Throes of an Ancient Culture. London: Souvenir Press, 1977.
Lloyd describes the final days of Carthage in the last chapter of his book. Entitled,
The Salted Furrow, this description provides graphic details of the final days of Carthage with more grandiosity than needed. As for the curse of Scipio, he asserts that the “sowing of salt in a furrow was enacted to symbolize eternal desolation”. This source is nice for telling a story, but does not necessarily offer a wealth of information regarding the curse itself.

Mommsen, Theodor.
The History of Rome. London: Macmillan and Co., 1901.
Mommsen is one of the first modern historians to describe the destruction of Carthage including the curse. This source supports the account from Macrobius, but does not provide a detailed description of the curse itself, or the actions taken.