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Near East Kingdoms

Ancient North Africa


Utica (Phoenician Colony)

In the mid-third millennium BC, city states began to appear in Syria as people benefited from interaction with Sumer and from improvements in irrigation. Within five hundred years, around 2000 BC, the same process was happening farther south and west, in the Levant, along the Mediterranean coast.

Semitic-speaking Canaanite tribes occupied much of the area, creating a patchwork of city states of their own. The Phoenicians of the first millennium BC were those Canaanites who still occupied the Mediterranean coastal strip following the Near East's climate-induced social collapse of the thirteenth and twelfth centuries BC.

They became hemmed in on their long Mediterranean coastal strip by various more recent arrivals, such as the Israelites, Philistines, Sea Peoples, and Aramaeans. Still relatively unscathed by the chaos, they quickly prospered in their fertile coastal home. Each city state was self-governed, or looked to one of its larger neighbours for support and alliances.

Even so the Phoenicians worked towards a similar goal, with very little internecine strife. They created a trading empire which stretched across the Mediterranean, founding as they went seasonal trading posts along the sea's northern and southern shores. Many of these posts gradually developed into colonies, but the conquest of the homeland in the seventh century BC by Assyria forced many of the colonies to develop into self-governing city states of their own.

The earliest of the Phoenician colonies in North Africa, Utica was founded on the modern Tunisian coast by explorers and colonists from Tyre as a stopping-off point along the route across the Mediterranean. Traditionally, it was founded in 1101 BC, very shortly after Gadir was founded in Iberia. It enjoyed an advantageous position thanks to being situated on the Lake of Tunis at the outlet of the River Majardah (or Medjerda, the only river in Tunisia which flows throughout the year).

Its original name may have been different, as 'Utica' comes from the Phoenician word for 'old town' to contrast against the later colony of Carthage, which was the 'new town'. 'Old town' areas usually lie at the heart of historic cities, but this one has either lost the name of the town itself, with only 'old town' surviving, or 'old town' was always its name for some reason.

No archaeological remains have so far been dated to the early Phoenician period, but that may be due to posts such as Utica being very seasonal in nature at first, and therefore temporary. Only some centuries later did they grow into full cities. Utica's surviving archaeological remains date back to the eighth century BC, the point at which it probably became a permanent town and port. It was built across several low hills, around thirty kilometres from modern Tunis, and today its ruins still provide a very clear picture of its spread and development.

However, its first millennium BC position as an important port town came to an end at the start of the first millennium AD. The silting which occurred during the Roman period was due to massive deforestation and poor agricultural practices in the area. It meant that the town entirely lost its access to the Majardah, and today it lies far inland.

Phoenicians shifting cedarwood from shore to land

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Encyclopaedia of the Roman Empire, Matthew Bunson (1994), from The World of the Phoenicians, Sabatino Moscati (New York, 1968), from Geography, Strabo, the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, William Smith, from the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, from The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, Volume III: AD 527-641, John R Martindale, A H M Jones, & John Morris (Cambridge University Press, 1992), from The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium: Niketas, Walter Emil Kaegi (Alexander P Kazhdan, Ed, Oxford University Press, 1991), and from External Links: The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Classical Sites, Richard Stillwell and others (Perseus Digital Library), and Carthage (Ancient History Encyclopaedia).)

1101 BC

This is the traditional date at which the North African colony of Utica is founded by traders and explorers from Tyre. At this point in time, although remnants of the Phoenician port cities have often survived to the present day, documentary evidence of their existence has not survived.

Ruins of Utica
Around thirteen hundred years after being destroyed by the invading Islamic empire, Utica's ruins today still show clear evidence of streets and buildings - almost a Pompeii without the volcanic ash

c.950 BC

It is during Hiram's reign that Tyre grows to become the most important Phoenician city. Hiram also puts down a rebellion in Utica, showing that Tyre remains the principal authority for the colony (it also shows that Utica already feels strong enough to be able to rebel against its king).

In fact, the method of organisation of any authority within Utica remains unknown, although it is possible that it mirrors the set-up which is adopted in the growing city of Carthage.

814 BC

Carthage becomes an official colony of Tyre when it is founded by Elissa, sister of the king of Tyre. The men of Utica greet their brother Phoenicians warmly, and the 'king of Libya', Iarbos, gives them free entry into his territory.

He allows Elissa (whom the natives call Deido or Dido, the 'wandering one') to select the hill of Byrsa, where the city is built and named Qarthadasht, or 'new city', perhaps in reference to Utica, the 'old city'.

Ruins of Carthage
The city of Carthage existed in its original glory for at least four hundred and twenty-eight years before it was destroyed by the Romans - and possibly another two centuries before that as a developing colony which was founded by Phoenicians

8th century BC

The first archaeological evidence for Utica's existence can be dated to this century, showing that it becomes a permanent settlement by a date of 700 BC at the very latest. The push for this change could be Assyrian pressure in the Levant, while the empire undergoes one of its spells of aggressive conquest. All of the Phoenician states become Assyrian vassals in 738 BC.

539 BC

After about a century of Assyrian dominance, followed by half a century more of Babylonian dominance, all of Phoenicia is now submerged within the Persian empire. As a result, many Phoenicians emigrate to the colonies, especially Carthage, which quickly rises to become a major power.

Although important in its own right up to this point, the smaller trading town of Utica quickly becomes a dependency of the by-now increasingly mighty Carthage.

264 - 241 BC

The First Punic War erupts between Rome and Carthage. Following its conclusion, there is a rebellion amongst mercenaries who have not been paid. The leader of the Libyan mercenaries, Spendius and Matho, lay siege to Utica and nearby Hippocritae.

Hamilcar on Sicily
The Carthaginians and Greeks seemed pretty evenly matched in their struggle for dominance of the western Mediterranean - this time around, Hamilcar's defeat on Sicily (shown here in a Victorian print of the event) merely triggered a series of conflicts

Despite being rescued by generals Hanno and Hamilcar of Carthage, both cities defy Carthaginian governance and have to be brought into line by force.

215 - 205 BC

The Second Punic War is fought by Rome and Carthage, starting at Saguntum (near modern Valencia) in Iberia. Using Gadir as a base, Hannibal Barca sets out to attack Rome, leading his armies over the Alps into Italy. He has to fight off resistance by Gaulish tribes such as the Allobroges along the way but is supported by other Gauls such as the Insubres.

At first he wins great victories at Trasimeno and Cannae which all but destroys Roman military strength, but he is denied the reinforcements he needs to pursue his victory thanks to an opposing political faction back at home.

The majority of Rome's Italian allies remain loyal and Rome is able to rebuild its strength. In 206 BC, Gadir is lost, and in 202 BC a force is landed in North Africa thanks to which, Hannibal is defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama, thereby ending the war.

Roman mosaic floor in Utica
Roman mosaics still survive in Utica's ruins, revealing a little of how the town was developed during its almost-five-hundred-years of Roman control

146 - 40 BC

The Third Punic War witnesses the fall of Carthage. Utica defies the bigger city to surrender to Rome and become an ally. It is made the capital of the North African region as a result.

However, grain cultivation in the local mountains causes large amounts of silt to erode into the river, which in turn causes silt to built up in the main harbour. Eventually the harbour is rendered virtually useless, so Carthage is rebuilt (44 BC).

34 - c.27 BC

Around 34 BC, Utica is made a municipium and the capital of the province of Africa Proconsularis, probably by Statilius Taurus. Probably due to Utica's silted harbour and Carthage's revival as a major port, Emperor Augustus appoints Carthage as the provincial capital. Utica remains one of the region's leading centres.

46 BC

Following the Roman Civil War and defeat at the Battle of Thapsus, the surviving Pompeians, including Cato 'the Younger', flee to Utica. Pursued by Julius Caesar, Cato ensures the escape of his fellow Pompeians before committing suicide. He is given a burial near the coast with full stately honours by the people of Utica.

Roman Carthage ruins
Roman Carthage, when it was finally constructed over the ashes of the original city, was of course bigger and better and even more grand than the original city had been

AD 439 - 534

The Vandali (and their associates, the Alani) have already become a federate kingdom of Rome after crossing from Iberia to Africa, but they don't stop there. Carthage itself, the capital of the province of Africa Proconsularis, is conquered along with Utica in 439, the Vandali simply walking into Carthage while the populace is occupied with a day of games.

Weakening Roman control has been thrown off and a large swathe of the North African coast is now a barbarian possession for the space of about a century.

534 - 695

In response to the usurpation of the Vandali throne by Gelimer, General Belisarius is sent by Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian with an army to North Africa.

Gelimer has already sent the bulk of his forces to Sardinia to recapture the island, so the invasion by Belisarius begins with an immediate victory at the Battle of Ad Decimum.

In one campaigning season the Vandali are conquered. Sardinia becomes an Eastern Roman possession, as does North Africa, with Carthage becoming the capital of the regional prefecture.

Byzantine coins of Justin I
Shown here are two sides of a typical coin issued during the reign of Justin I and then Justinian I of Byzantine Constantinople between AD 518-565, at the very beginnings of restored Roman control of Africa

695 - 698

In 695, the wali of Ifriqiyya and the Maghreb, Hasan ibn al-Nu'man, captures Carthage and advances into the Atlas Mountains. Taking advantage of his absence, an Eastern Roman fleet arrives to retake Carthage in 697, but within a year Hasan returns and defeats Emperor Tiberius III at the Battle of Carthage.

Africa is abandoned to the Islamic empire. Both the cities of Carthage and Utica are destroyed and are never rebuilt. Only ruins survive into the twenty-first century.

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