Africa was important to the Ancient Romans. The Romans ruled the Mediterranean (including North Africa) from the 1st century BCE to 5th century CE, but they would not have survived without Africa’s wealth and fertile plains. Firstly, it has been estimated that African Romans were richer than European Romans. Secondly, the historian Josephus, writing in the 70s CE, noted that Africa’s grain fed Rome for 8 months of the year. Africa was also a cultural centre, producing writers and emperors.
How Romans and Africans came into contact?
When Rome was founded in the 8th century BCE by the brothers Romulus and Remus, there was already a huge empire in Africa: Egypt. It began to develop around 3,100 BCE, and reached its peak between 1550 and 1069 BCE. However, another city, called Carthage, was founded near modern-day Tunis around the same time as Rome. There is a legend that this city was founded by Queen Dido, a refugee from Phoenicia, in modern-day Lebanon. The city quickly grew in power through trade, becoming the most important commercial centre in the Mediterranean. It spread across North African coast, Spain, and Sicily. At the same time, Rome began to control more and more of Italy. Rome and Carthage signed agreements many times. However, military conflict soon broke out.
Rome and Carthage
Rome and Carthage fought three wars, called the Punic Wars. The first war broke out in 264 BCE. Rome invaded a Carthaginian city in Sicily. This began a conflict lasting 23 years. Hundreds of ships were sunk and hundreds of thousands were killed. Rome was victorious in 241 BCE, but Carthage was not destroyed. In 218 BCE, war started again, lasting 17 years. The Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked a Spanish city allied to Rome. Hannibal was an extraordinary general. He marched from Spain to Italy through the Alps with 37 war elephants. Hannibal stayed in Italy for almost 15 years. The Romans were defeated several times. However, Hannibal eventually returned to Carthage. Rome declared victory in 201 BCE. Carthage agreed to pay money to Rome for the next 50 years. Afterwards, Rome attacked Carthage in 149 BCE. They captured and destroyed the city three years later. Romans and Africans became one community.
Carthage was Rome’s greatest enemy, but the Romans tolerated the local population and their customs. There were few Roman soldiers in Africa. Many were African in origin. Carthage was rebuilt between 49 and 44 BCE by the Roman general Julius Caesar. It then grew to a size of 500,000 inhabitants.
Carthage also remained culturally important. Take the Aeneid, an epic poem published by the Roman poet Virgil in 19 BCE. It tells the story of Aeneas, the legendary descendant of the Romans. He escapes from the ancient city Troy (located in modern-day Turkey), and travels to Italy. On the way, he stops in Carthage. He meets Queen Dido, the city’s founder. They fall in love. But Jupiter, the most powerful Roman god, forces Aeneas to leave Carthage. Dido tragically kills herself. Virgil encourages us to sympathise with her. Her sad story in one of the most important pieces of Roman literature shows how significant African culture was for the Romans.