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Did Ancient Romans sprinkle with salt Carthage’s ground?

There is a popular belief that ancient Romans after defeating Carthage in 146 BCE not only razed the city to the ground but also sprinkled it with salt, in order to make sure that nothing would grow in these hated areas.

Carthage dominated the waters of the Mediterranean Sea for several hundred years of the first millennium BCE. With the expansion of the Roman republic, there was a conflict of interest that led to the devastating three Punic wars. The first two clashes were a levelled struggle between the powers, from which Rome emerged victorious; mainly due to determination and endless human resources. The Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) was largely just an execution made by the powerful Republic on the weak and subordinate Carthage. The elites of the Roman state (including the famous Cato the Elder) sought to destroy the hated Punians who once dared to set foot in Italy and threaten the existence of the Republic. Carthage after the defeat in the Second Punic War was forced to pay enormous war contributions and limit its sovereignty and foreign policy for Rome. After years of meticulous repayment of financial obligations, the city was rising from its knees, which caused concern among many Roman politicians, who were looking for more profits. By using the conflict of Carthage with Numidia, another war was forced. After three years of the siege on the well-fortified Carthage, the city was conquered by the army of Scipio Africanus Minor in spring 146 BCE.

Reading the history of the Punic Wars, we can find in many books information that after the destruction of Carthage, the Romans sprinkled salt on her land so that nothing else grew on it. It was to be a full highlight of the fall of a former rival. This message, however, has no mention in ancient sources. Thanks to a Greek writer from the 1st century BCE – Diodorus Siculus – we know that the city has been razed and Carthaginians destroyed1. In turn, e.g. Horace or Propercius claim that after the city was destroyed, the land was symbolically ploughed, emphasizing full annihilation. The most reliable ancient source is the message of Polybius in “The Histories”. Polybius was a friend and companion of Scipio Minor in the African campaign. In his work, we will not find any information about the salting of the land, but only mention that the city was full of ruins; not that it was completely destroyed. A later author – Appian of Alexandria – reported that the reconstruction of the city took place at the request of Augustus at the end of the 1st century BCE. However, to avoid the evil spells that were cast on the ground where Carthage stood, it was decided to build the city in the near distance.

Absolutely, however, there is no mention of the saltiness of Carthaginian land, so as to prevent future cultivation of the land. Certainly, this statement appeared in nineteenth-century historiography, which was then regularly reproduced. Authors from the mentioned age referred to the ancient Middle East, where, among others in Assyrian or Hittite sources one can find information that salting the land was a curse and ritual aspect.

Interestingly, the lands surrounding Carthage were recognized as ager publicus (public lands), and were handed over to the local community and to Roman and Latin colonists. Shortly after the defeat of Carthage in the Third Punic War, this area was an important source of grain that was transported to Rome. Another interesting issue is that the Romans used salt as a deterrent to grazing animals. Pliny the Elder mentions this in his encyclopedia “Natural History”2.

Footnotes
  1. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historica, XXXII
  2. Pliny the Elder, Natural History, 17.29
Sources
  • Monica M. Bontty, Ancient Rome: Facts and Fictions

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