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Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE):

The Third Punic War, 149-146 BCE
[The Histories, Book XXXVI-XXXIX]

The Histories


It may occur to some to ask why I have not given a dramatic turn to my narrative, now that I have so striking a theme and a subject of such importance, by recording the actual speeches delivered; a thing which the majority of historians have done, by giving the appropriate arguments used on either side. That I do not reject this method altogether I have shown in several parts of my work, in which I have recorded popular harangues and expositions delivered by statesmen; but that I am not inclined to employ it on every occasion alike will now be made clear; for it would not be easy to find a subject more remarkable than this, nor material more ample for instituting a comparison of such a character. Nor indeed could any form of composition be more convenient to me. Still, as I do not think it becoming in statesmen to be ready with argument and exposition on every subject of debate without distinction, but rather to adapt their speeches to the nature of the particular occasion, so neither do I think it right for historians to practice their skill or show off their ability upon their readers: they ought on the contrary to devote their whole energies to discover and record what was really and truly said, and even of such words only those that are the most opportune and essential. . . .

This idea having been firmly fixed in the minds of all, they looked out for a suitable opportunity and a decent pretext to justify them in the eyes of the world. For indeed the Romans were quite rightly very careful on this point. For instance, the general impression that they were justified in entering upon the war with Demetrius enhances the value of their victories, and diminishes the risks incurred by their defeats; but if the pretext for doing so is lame and poor the contrary effects are produced. Accordingly, as they differed as to the sentiments of the outer world on the subject, they were very nearly abandoning the war.

When the Carthaginians had been some time deliberating how they should meet the message from Rome [an ultimatum to break up their army and navy] they were reduced to a state of the utmost embarrassment by the people of Utica anticipating their design by putting themselves under the protection of Rome. This seemed their only hope of safety left: and they imagined that such a step must win them favor at Rome: for to submit to put themselves and their country under control was a thing which they had never done even in their darkest hour of danger and defeat, with the enemy at their very walls. And now they had lost all the fruit of this resolve by being anticipated by the people of Utica; for it would appear nothing novel or strange to the Romans if they only did the same as that people. Accordingly, with a choice of two evils only left, to accept war with courage or to surrender their independence, after a long and anxious discussion held secretly in the Senate-house, they appointed two ambassadors with plenary powers, and instructed them, that, in view of the existing state of things, they should do what seemed for the advantage of their country. The names of these envoys were Gisco Strytanus, Hamilcar, Misdes, Gillimas, and Mago. When they reached Rome from Carthage, they found war already decreed and the generals actually started with their forces. Circumstances, therefore, no longer giving them any power of deliberating, they offered an unconditional surrender.

I have spoken before about what this implies, but I must in this place also briefly remind my readers of its import. Those who thus surrender themselves to the Roman authority, surrender all territory and the cities in it, together with all men and women in all such territory or cities, likewise rivers, harbors, temples, and tombs, so that the Romans should become actual lords of all these, and those who surrender should remain lords of nothing whatever. On the Carthaginians making a surrender to this effect, they were summoned into the Senate-house and the Praetor delivered the Senate's decision, which was to this effect: "They had been well advised, and therefore the Senate granted them freedom and the enjoyment of their laws; and moreover, all their territory and the possession of their other property, public or private." The Carthaginian envoys were much relieved when they heard this; thinking that, where the alternatives were both miserable, the Senate had treated them well in conceding their most necessary and important requirements. But presently the Praetor went on to state that they would enjoy these concessions on condition of sending three hundred hostages to Lilybaeum within thirty days, sons of members of the Hundred or the Senate, and obeying such commands as should be imposed on them by the consuls. This dashed their satisfaction for a time, because they had no means of knowing what orders were to be given them through the consuls; however, they started at once, being anxious to report what had occurred to their countrymen with all speed. When they arrived in Carthage and stated the facts, the citizens considered that the envoys had in all respects acted with proper caution; but they were greatly alarmed and distressed by the fact that in the answer no mention was made of the city itself.

At this juncture they say that Mago Brettius delivered a manly and statesmanlike speech. He said:

"The Carthaginians had two opportunities of taking counsel in regard to themselves and their country, one of which they had let pass; for in good truth it was no use now to question what was going to be enjoined on them by the consuls, and why it was that the Senate had made no mention of the city: they should have done that when they made the surrender. Having once made that, they must clearly make up their mind to the necessity of submitting to every possible injunction, unless it should prove to be something unbearably oppressive or beyond what they could possibly expect. If they would not do this, they must now consider whether they preferred to stand an invasion and all its possible consequences, or, in terror of the attack of the enemy, accept without resistance every order they might impose upon them." But as the imminence of war and the uncertainty of the future made every one inclined to submit to these injunctions, it was decided to send the hostages to Lilybaeum. Three hundred young men were forthwith selected and sent to Lilybaeum amidst loud expressions of sorrow and tears, each of them being escorted by his nearest friends and relations, the whole scene being made especially moving by the lamentations of the women. On landing at Lilybaeum the hostages were at once handed over by the consuls to Quintus Fabius Maximus, who had been appointed to the command in Sicily at that time. By him they were safely conveyed to Rome and confined in the dockyard of the six-benched ships.

The hostages being thus disposed of, the consuls brought their fleet to the citadel of Utica. When news of this reached Carthage, the city was in the utmost excitement and panic, not knowing what to expect next. However, it was decided to send envoys to ask the consuls what they were to do, and to state that they were all prepared to obey orders. The envoys arrived at the Roman camp: the general's council was summoned: and they delivered their commission. The senior Consul thereupon, after complimenting them on their policy and readiness to obey, bade them hand over all arms and missiles in their possession without subterfuge or concealment. The envoys answered that they would carry out the directions, but begged the Consul to consider what would happen if the Carthaginians surrendered all their arms, and the Romans took them and sailed away from the country. However, they gave them up. . . .It was clearly shown that the resources of the city were enormous, for they surrendered to the Romans more than two hundred thousand stands of arms and two thousand catapults. . .

The people had no idea what the announcement was going to be, but suspecting it from the expression of the envoys' countenances, they immediately burst into a storm of cries and lamentations.

[Shuckburgh: The consuls demanded that the whole people of Carthage should remove to some other spot, to be not less than ten miles from the sea, and there build a new city ---Livy, Ep. 49].

Then all the Senators [of the Carthaginian Gerousia], uttering a cry of horror, remained as though paralyzed by the shock. But the report having quickly spread among the people, the general indignation at once found expression. Some made an attack on the envoys, as the guilty authors of their misfortunes, while others wreaked their wrath upon all Italians caught within the city, and others rushed to the town gates. . . .

[Shuckburgh: The Carthaginians determined to resist, and the consuls, who had not hurried to Carthage, because they believed that resistance from an unarmed populace was impossible, found, when they approached Carthage, that it was prepared to offer a vigorous resistance. Scipio Aemilianus, on the strength of his family name, was elected Consul for 147-146 B.C., and immediatly began operations to confine the Carthaginians to the city itself --Appian, Pun. 91ff; Livy, Ep. 49]

Hamilcar Phameas was the general of the Carthaginians, a man in the very prime of life and of great physical strength. What is of the utmost importance too for service in the field, he was an excellent and bold horseman. . . . When he saw the advanced guard, Phameas, though not at all deficient in courage, avoided coming to close quarters with Scipio [military tribune in 149-148 B.C.]: and on one occasion when he had come near his reserves, he got behind the cover of the brow of a hill and halted there a considerable time....The Roman maniples fled to the top of a hill; and when all had given their opinions, Scipio said, "When men are consulting what measures to take at first, their object should be to avoid disaster rather than to inflict it." . . .It ought not to excite surprise that I am more minute than usual in my account of Scipio and that I give in detail everything which he said. . . . . . When Marcus Porcius Cato heard in Rome of the glorious achievements of Scipio he uttered a palinode to his criticisms of him: "What have you heard? He alone has the breath of wisdom in him: the rest are but flitting phantoms."


THERE was a great deal of talk of all sorts in Greece, first as to the Carthaginians when the Romans conquered them, and subsequently as to the question of the pseudo-Philip. The opinions expressed in regard to the Carthaginians were widely divided, and indicated entirely opposite views. Some commended the Romans for their wise and statesman-like policy in regard to that kingdom. For the removal of a perpetual menace, and the utter destruction of a city which had disputed the supremacy with them, and could even then if it got an opportunity have still been disputing it---thus securing the supremacy for their own country---were the actions of sensible and far-sighted men. Others contradicted this, and asserted that the Romans had no such policy in view when they obtained their supremacy; and that they had gradually and insensibly become perverted to the same ambition for power, which had once characterized the Athenians and Lacedaemonians; and though they had advanced more slowly than these last, that they would from all appearances yet arrive at the same consummation. For in old times they had only carried on war until their opponents were beaten, and induced to acknowledge the obligation of obedience and acceptance of their orders; but that nowadays they had given a foretaste of their policy by their conduct to Perseus, in utterly destroying the Macedonian dynasty root and branch, and had given the finishing stroke to that policy by the course adopted in regard to the Carthaginians; for though this latter people had committed no act of irretrievable outrage, they had taken measures of irretrievable severity against them, in spite of their offering to accept any terms, and submitting to any injunctions that might be placed upon them.

Others again said that the Romans were generally a truly civilized people; and that they had this peculiarity, on which they prided themselves, that they conducted their wars openly and generously, not employing night surprises or ambuscades, but scorning every advantage to be gained by stratagem and deceit, and regarding open and face-to-face combats as alone becoming to their character: but that in the present instance their whole campaign against the Carthaginians had been conducted by means of stratagem and deceit. Little by little---by holding out inducements here, and practicing concealment there---they had deprived them of all hopes of assistance from their allies. This was a line of conduct more appropriate by rights to the intriguing chicanery of a monarchy, than to a republican and Roman policy.

Again, there were some who took the opposite line to these. They said that if it were really true that, before the Carthaginians had made the surrender, the Romans had behaved as alleged, holding out inducements here, and making half revelations there, they would be justly liable to such charges; but if, on the contrary, it was only after the Carthaginians had themselves made the surrender---acknowledging the right of the Romans to take what measures they chose concerning them---that the latter in the exercise of their undoubted right had imposed and enjoined what they determined upon, then this action must cease to be looked on as partaking of the nature of impiety or treachery.

And some denied that it was an impiety at all: for there were three ways in which such a thing could be defined, none of which applied to the conduct of the Romans. An impiety was something done against the gods, or one's parents, or the dead; treachery was something done in violation of oaths or written agreements; an injustice something done in violation of law and custom. But the Romans could not be charged on any one of these counts: they had offended neither the gods, their parents, nor the dead; nor had they broken oaths or treaties, but on the contrary charged the Carthaginians with breaking them. Nor again had they violated laws, customs, or their own good faith; for having received a voluntary surrender, with the full power of doing what they pleased in the event of the submitting party not obeying their injunctions, they had, in view of that eventuality having arisen, applied force to them.

Such was the view taken of these things in Greece....

A despatch from Manius Manilius to the Achaeans having reached the Peloponnese, saying that they would oblige him by sending Polybius of Megalopolis with all speed to Lilybaeum, as he was wanted on account of certain public affairs, the Achaeans decided to send him in accordance with the letter of the consul. And as I felt bound to obey the Romans, I put everything else aside, and sailed at the beginning of summer. But when we arrived at Corcyra, we found another despatch from the consul to the Corcyreans had come, announcing that the Carthaginians had already surrendered all the hostages to them, and were prepared to obey them. Thinking, therefore, that the war was at an end, and that there was no more occasion for our services, we sailed back to the Peloponnese....

It should not excite surprise that I sometimes designate myself by my proper name, and at other times by the common forms of expression---for instance, "when I had said this," or "we had agreed to this." For as I was much personally involved in the transactions about to be related, it becomes necessary to vary the methods of indicating myself; that I may not weary by continual repetition of my own name, nor again by introducing the words "of me," or "through me," at every turn, fall insensibly into an appearance of egotism. I wished, on the contrary, by an interchangeable use of these terms, and by selecting from time to time the one which seemed most in place, to avoid, as far as could be, the offensiveness of talk about one's self; for such talk, though naturally unacceptable, is frequently inevitable, when one cannot in any other way give a clear exposition of the subjects. I am somewhat assisted in this point by the accident that, as far as I know, no one up to our own time has ever had the same name as myself.

Massanissa, king of the Numidians in Africa, was the best man of all the kings of our time, and the most completely fortunate; for he reigned more than sixty years in the soundest health and to extreme old age---for he was ninety when he died. He was, besides, the most powerful man physically of all his contemporaries: for instance, when it was necessary to stand, he would do so without moving a foot all day long; and again, when he had once sat down to business he remained there the whole day; nor did it distress him the least to remain in the saddle day and night continuously; and at ninety years old, at which age he died, he left a son only four years old, called Sthembanus, who was afterwards adopted by Micipses, and four sons besides. Owing, again, to the affection existing between these sons, he kept his whole life free from any treasonable plot and his kingdom unpolluted by any family tragedy. But his greatest and most divine achievement was this: Numidia had been before his time universally unproductive, and was looked upon as incapable of producing any cultivated fruits. He was the first and only man who showed that it could produce cultivated fruits just as well as any other country whatever, by cultivating farms to the extent of ten thousand plethra for each of his sons in different parts of it. On this man's death, then, so much may reasonably and justly be said. Scipio arrived at Cirta on the third day after his departure, and settled everything properly and fairly. . . . A little while before his death he was seen, on the day following a great victory over the Carthaginians, sitting outside his tent eating a piece of dirty bread, and on those who saw it expressing surprise at his doing so, he said. . . .


Hasdrubal, the general of the Carthaginians, was a vain ostentatious person, very far from possessing real strategic ability. There are numerous proofs of his want of judgment. In the first place he appeared in full armor in his interview with Gulussa, king of the Numidians, with a purple-dyed robe over his armor fastened by a brooch, and attended by ten bodyguards armed with swords; and in the next place, having advanced in front of these armed attendants to a distance of about twenty feet, he stood behind the trench and palisade and beckoned the king to come to him, whereas it ought to have been quite the other way. However, Gulussa, after the Numidian fashion, being not inclined to stand on ceremony, advanced towards him unattended, and when he got near him asked him "Whom he was afraid of that he had come in full armor?" And on his answering, "The Romans," Gulussa remarked: "Then you should not have trusted yourself to the city, when there was no necessity for your doing so. However, what do you want, and what do you ask me to do?" To which Hasdrubal replied: "I want you to go as our ambassador to the Roman commander, and to undertake for us that we will obey every injunction; only I beg of you both to abstain from harming this wretched city."

Then said Gulussa: "Your demand appears to me to be quite childish! Why, my good sir, what you failed to get by your embassies from the Romans, who were then quietly encamped at Utica, and before a blow had been struck, how can you expect to have granted you now, when you have been completely invested by sea and land, and have almost given up every hope of safety?" To which Hasdrubal replied that "Gulussa was ill-informed; for they still had good hopes of their outside allies,"---for he had not yet heard about the Mauretanii, and thought that the forces in the country were still unconquered, ---"nor were they in despair as to their own ultimate safety. And above all, they trusted in the support of the gods, and in what they might expect from them; for they believed that they would not disregard the flagrant violation of treaty from which they were suffering, but would give them many opportunities of securing their safety. Therefore he called on the Roman commander in the name of the gods and of Fortune to spare the city; with the distinct understanding that, if its inhabitants failed to obtain this grace, they would be cut to pieces to the last man sooner than evacuate it." After some more conversation of the same sort, these men separated for the present, having made an appointment to meet again on the third day from that time.

On Gulussa communicating to him what had been said, Scipio remarked with a laugh: "Oh, then, it was because you intended to make this demand that you displayed that abominable cruelty to our prisoners! And you trust in the gods, do you, after violating even the laws of men?" The king went on to remind Scipio that above all things it was necessary to finish the business speedily; for, apart from unforeseen contingencies, the consular elections were now close at hand, and it was only right to have regard to that, lest, if the winter found them just where they were, another Consul would come to supersede him, and without any trouble get all the credit of his labors. These words induced Scipio to give directions to offer Hasdrubal safety for himself, his wife and children, and ten families of his friends and relations, and permission to take ten talents of his private property and to bring out with him whichever of his slaves he chose. With these concessions, therefore, Gulussa went to his meeting with Hasdrubal on the third day, who again came forward with great pomp and at a dignified step, clothed in his purple robe and full suit of armor, so as to cast the tyrants of tragedy far into the shade. He was naturally fat, but at that time he had grown extremely corpulent, and had become more than usually red from exposure to the sun, so that he seemed to be living like fat oxen at a fair; and not at all like a man to be in command at a time of such terrible miseries as cannot easily be described in words. When he met the king, and heard the offer of the Consul, he slapped his thigh again and again, and appealing to the gods and Fortune declared that "The day would never come on which Hasdrubal would behold the sun and his native city in flames; for to the nobly-minded one's country and its burning houses were a glorious funeral pile."

These expressions force us to feel some admiration for the man and the nobility of his language; but when we come to view his administration of affairs, we cannot fail to be struck by his want of spirit and courage; for at a time when his fellow-citizens were absolutely perishing with famine, he gave banquets and had second courses put on of a costly kind, and by his own excellent physical condition made their misery more conspicuous. For the number of the dying surpassed belief, as well as the number who deserted every day from hunger. However, by fiercely rebuking some, and by executing as well as abusing others, he cowed the common people: and by this means retained, in a country reduced to the lowest depths of misfortune, an authority which a tyrant would scarcely enjoy in a prosperous city. Therefore I think I was justified in saying that two leaders more like each other than those who at that time directed the affairs of Greece and Carthage it would not be easy to find. And this will be rendered manifest when we come to a formal comparison of them....


[Shuckburgh: After various operations during the autumn of 147 B.C., the upshot of which was to put the whole of the open country in Roman hands, in the beginning of spring, 146 B.C., Scipio delivered his final attack on Carthage, taking first the quarter of the merchants' harbor, then the war harbor, and then the market-place. There only remained the streets leading to the Byrsa and the Byrsa itself. ---Appian, Pun., 123-126; Livy, Ep. 51].

Having got within the walls, while the Carthaginians still held out on the citadel, Scipio found that the arm of the sea which intervened was not at all deep; and upon Polybius advising him to set it with iron spikes or drive sharp wooden stakes into it, to prevent the enemy crossing it and attacking the mole [the mole of huge stones constructed to block up the mouth of the harbor], he said that, having taken the walls and got inside the city, it would be ridiculous to take measures to avoid fighting the enemy. . . .

The pompous Hasdrubal threw himself on his knees before the Roman commander, quite forgetful of his proud language. . . When the Carthaginian commander thus threw himself as a suppliant at Scipio's knees, the proconsul with a glance at those present said: "See what Fortune is, gentlemen! What an example she makes of irrational men! This is the Hasdrubal who but the other day disdained the large favors which I offered him, and said that the most glorious funeral pyre was one's country and its burning ruins. Now he comes with suppliant wreaths, beseeching us for spare life and resting all his hopes on us. Who would not learn from such a spectacle that a mere man should never say or do anything presumptuous?" Then some of the deserters came to the edge of the roof and begged the front ranks of the assailants to hold their hands for a little; and, on Scipio ordering a halt, they began abusing Hasdrubal, some for his perjury, declaring that he had sworn again and again on the altars that he would never abandon them, and others for his cowardice and utter baseness: and they did this in the most unsparing language, and with the bitterest terms of abuse. And just at this moment Hasdrubal's wife, seeing him seated in front of the enemy with Scipio, advanced in front of the deserters, dressed in noble and dignified attire herself, but holding in her hands, on either side, her two boys dressed only in short tunics and shielded under her own robes. First she addressed Hasdrubal by his name, and when he said nothing but remained with his head bowed to the ground, she began by calling on the name of the gods, and next thanked Scipio warmly because, as far as he could secure it, both she and her children were saved. And then, pausing for a short time, she asked Hasdrubal how he had had the heart to secure this favor from the Roman general for himself alone, and, leaving his fellow-citizens who trusted in him in the most miserable plight, had gone over secretly to the enemy? And how he had the assurance to be sitting there holding suppliant boughs, in the face of the very men to whom he had frequently said that the day would never come in which the sun would see Hasdrubal alive and his native city in flames....

[Shuckburgh: Hasdrubal's wife finally threw herself and her children from the citadel into the burning streets. ---Livy, Ep. 51].

After an interview with [Scipio], in which he was kindly treated, Hasdrubal desired leave to go away from the town....

At the sight of the city utterly perishing amidst the flames Scipio burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men. This, he thought, had befallen Ilium, once a powerful city, and the once mighty empires of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and that of Macedonia lately so splendid. And unintentionally or purposely he quoted---the words perhaps escaping him unconsciously---

"The day shall be when holy Troy shall fall
And Priam, lord of spears, and Priam's folk."

And on my asking him boldly (for I had been his tutor) what he meant by these words, he did not name Rome distinctly, but was evidently fearing for her, from this sight of the mutability of human affairs. . . . Another still more remarkable saying of his I may record. . . [When he had given the order for firing the town] he immediately turned round and grasped me by the hand and said: "O Polybius, it is a grand thing, but, I know not how, I feel a terror and dread, lest some one should one day give the same order about my own native city." . . . Any observation more practical or sensible it is not easy to make. For in the midst of supreme success for one's self and of disaster for the enemy, to take thought of one's own position and of the possible reverse which may come, and in a word to keep well in mind in the midst of prosperity the mutability of Fortune, is the characteristic of a great man, a man free from weaknesses and worthy to be remembered.


From: Polybius, The Histories of Polybius, 2 Vols., trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (London: Macmillan, 1889), II.499-507, 511-515, 528-530.

Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.

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