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Ibiza’s History - Part Two: The Carthaginians

By Emily Kaufman

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Published in Ibicasa Magazine on 15/02/2018

The Carthaginians have come down in history as more notorious than glorious. Rivals of Rome and thorns in the side of Greece, they are regularly airbrushed from the classical legacy handed down to us by their vanquisher, Rome. Consequently, although Carthage was a major player on the classical world stage, it has been denied membership in the exclusive Greco-Roman club, once extolled by Edgar Allen Poe as, “the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome.” Carthage, the outcast, hovers on the fringes - an Iron Age culture only dimly remembered. That memory is a bit brighter here on Ibiza which was one of Carthage’s most stalwart colonies. For over four hundred years the island’s population and society were predominantly Punic, and those centuries constitute the glory days of Ibiza’s historical legacy.
A bit of background will help us to navigate the chronological context. Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians in 814 BCE (over 2,800 years ago), and its rise was meteoric. By actively developing the naval prowess and commercial expertise it inherited from its founders, Carthage became the preeminent Mediterranean city prior to the ascent of Rome. Politically and civically, the Carthaginians were among the most advanced societies of their day. In 480 BCE, they evolved from a monarchy to a republic, replete with representative institutions such as trade unions, general assemblies and elected legislators. With a sophisticated system of checks and balances as well as enforced public accountability, the Carthaginian republic was upheld by Aristotle as a paragon of good government.

At around the same time Rome established its own republic after overthrowing its monarchy. Rome was an aspiring empire that vied with Carthage for supremacy of the seas and domination of trade. Over the centuries tensions rose between the two cities and war finally erupted in 264 BCE. A ferocious struggle ensued over the course of three Punic Wars and, although Carthage started as the stronger power, the scales of fate tipped in Rome’s favour. The deep-seated enmity between these two Mediterranean cultures can perhaps be epitomized by their two most famous generals: Hannibal of Carthage and Scipio of Rome. They were the nemeses to each other and the protagonists in our story. How did these larger events play out in Ibiza? Quite vividly, as we shall see. All three Punic Wars affected the island, the first indirectly, the second directly and the third disastrously.
Let us look in on Ibiza at the start of its Punic phase. The year is circa 550 BCE and Rome is still a minor city-state on the Italian peninsula. Ibosim has been a small Phoenician outpost for about a century and is on the verge of developing into a dynamic Punic satellite. This transition occurred peacefully as Carthage took over Phoenicia’s western trade routes. Of paramount importance was the trade triangle formed by Ibiza, Cádiz and Carthage - the bedrock upon which the Punic empire would build its maritime strength. As one of the geographical coordinates of this triangle, Ibiza flourished as never before. The civilizing effect of the Phoenicians, sustained by the human resources of Carthage, combined to make Ibiza one of the few bona fide cities in Western Mediterranean antiquity.
The Carthaginian influence increased not only the island’s population, which spread out across the whole of its territory, but also stepped up the pace and volume of trade. Ibiza became an emporium for exotic goods and commodities. Vases, scarabs, perfumes, oils and tableware streamed in from all over the Mediterranean, to either be channelled on to their final destinations or warehoused near the harbour. As an offshoot of this high volume of trade the island also became a manufacturer and large-scale exporter of goods in its own right. Local pottery developed into a thriving industry, and the abundance of Ibicenco amphorae unearthed in archaeological digs throughout the Mediterranean attests to Ibiza’s commercial vitality. Salt, that engine of ancient commerce, was obviously a prime commodity, as was salazón (salt fish) - an ideal marriage between two abundant resources. Local wine and honey were also important Ibiza exports.
Let’s fast forward to the mid-3rd century BCE: Ibiza continues to be a going concern and Carthage is the greatest sea power in the Western Mediterranean. Rome has just consolidated its hegemony over most of the Italian peninsula and is ready for a fresh conquest. In 264 BCE, a conflict of interest arose over Sicily, partially controlled by Carthage, and this became the casus belli of the first Punic War. After 23 years of naval combat Carthage lost Sicily, and eventually Corsica and Sardinia as well. Rome also imposed harsh indemnity payments, which prompted Carthage to expand its dominions in Iberia in order to exploit that region’s rich silver mines to pay these debts. This expanding Punic presence on the mainland buoyed maritime traffic in Ibiza due to the island’s pivotal position on the increasingly busy sea lanes.

In 218 BCE, contention over Iberia sparked the second Punic War, with Ibiza’s geopolitical relevance drawing her into the fray. Famously, Hannibal marched his Carthaginian army into Italy. This prompted his archrival Scipio to invade Hispania, but along the way his attention was diverted by a tempting war prize: Ibiza - a prosperous, strategic island crowned by a fortified city. However, after besieging Ibosim for three days in 217 BCE, Scipio quickly realized its walls could never be breached. Instead, he redirected his forces to raid the countryside, reaping booty, (according to Livy) that was the equivalent of a year’s plundering in Hispania. This was undoubtedly an exaggeration, but the claim does shed light on Ibiza’s prosperity in Punic times. The Romans never attempted another siege, but Ibiza, loyal polity that she was, continued to participate in the war effort by providing manpower, money and a safe harbour for Punic vessels. In fact, Ibiza was second only to Carthage in funding the war, having minted 8% of all the silver coins used to support the effort.
Cádiz, however, ended up betraying Carthage in 206 BCE by negotiating a pact of pre-surrender with the Romans. As a result Hannibal’s brother Admiral Mago, whose fleet was based in Cádiz, was forced out to sea. Rather than accept defeat, the admiral gathered his ships and set sail for the only safe harbour left in the region: Ibiza. From here the plan was to enlist the aid of Majorca and Minorca to form a triple Balearic base from which to recapture Cartago Nova, the Punic capital that Scipio had just seized. Majorca rebuffed Mago, but Minorca allowed him to moor at the port which today bears a Latinized version of his name, Mahón. Alas, by the time these preparations were complete, Hannibal had been defeated by Scipio at Zama (202 BCE), and the war was over… though our tale is not. In the next Ibicasa we will pick up the thread of our story at the start of the Third Punic War.

This is the second in a continuing series of articles on the history of Ibiza that will be published in subsequent editions of Ibicasa. 

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