Never Give Up Your Weapons

History demonstrates that destruction awaits those who attempt to placate their enemies by surrendering their weapons. In 149 BC, half a million citizens of Carthage tried to appease Rome by turning over their armaments. But instead of buying peace, they only facilitated their own destruction. Ninety percent of the Carthaginians were killed, and the city of Carthage was razed. Those who survived were sold into slavery, and Carthaginian civilization was forever wiped from the face of the earth. The story of how the Carthaginians sealed their fate by delivering their weapons into the hands of their enemy is chronicled in my book, Science and Technology in World History, Vol. 1.

Carthage was founded on the shores of North Africa by Phoenicians in the 9th century BC. It was the center of a powerful and ancient empire, and as the power of Rome grew, it was inevitable that the Romans and Carthaginians would come into conflict. 

Between 264 and 146 BC, Rome and Carthage fought three Punic Wars for control of the Mediterranean. The Romans were victorious in both the First and Second Punic Wars. At the close of the Second Punic War in 202 BC, Carthage was forced to pay Rome 200 talents of silver a year for fifty years. An additional term of peace was that Carthage was forbidden from waging war without Rome's permission. Consequently, Numidians in North Africa began to raid Carthage without fear of reprisal. When the Carthaginians begged Rome for permission to defend themselves, they were refused.

In 157 BC, Cato the Censor visited Carthage and was alarmed to discover how quickly the Carthaginians had recovered from their defeat in the Second Punic War. He acquired the conviction that Rome would never be secure until Carthage was completely annihilated. Cato began to close every speech in the Roman Senate by exclaiming, "Carthage must be destroyed!"

As time passed, the Roman Senate became convinced that Cato was right and resolved to wipe Carthage off the face of the earth. But they needed a pretext for commencing hostilities. The Carthaginians unwittingly supplied one.

Under the terms of peace that had concluded the Second Punic War, Carthage was required to pay tribute to Rome for fifty years. When the fifty years passed, the Carthaginians reasoned that they were also free from the restriction that forbade them from waging war without the permission of Rome. A patriotic faction came to power in Carthage and formed an army to defend Carthage from the Numidian raids.

The war between the Carthaginians and Numidians provided Rome with the pretext it needed, and the Roman Senate promptly declared war on Carthage. When the Carthaginians learned that a state of war existed, they became alarmed and immediately dispatched a team of thirty ambassadors to Rome to plead for peace. Carthage was in no condition to fight a Third Punic War with Rome. Since its victory in the Second Punic War, Rome had grown immeasurably more powerful.

The Roman Senate had already resolved on the destruction of Carthage, but they reasoned it would be advantageous to first employ treachery. So they dealt with the Carthaginians in a way that was both brutal and deceitful.

The Carthaginian ambassadors were told that their desire for peace would be granted. Carthage would be allowed to retain its freedom, territory, and property. But as a condition and guarantee of peace, the Carthaginians were required to surrender three hundred male children from their most eminent families as hostages. Roman military forces were dispatched to Carthage to collect the captives. The commanding Roman consuls were secretly instructed to wage war until Carthage was "razed to the ground."

According to the historian Appian (c. AD 95-165), the Carthaginian children had to be ripped from the arms of their mothers. Some of the mothers were so distraught that they tore out their hair, beat on their breasts, or even swam out to sea, vainly following the ships carrying their sons off to Rome. They would never see their children alive again. But this sacrifice was judged necessary to purchase peace.

Once the hostages had been surrendered, the Carthaginian ambassadors expected peace. But the Romans had a new demand. They insisted that the Carthaginians surrender all of their weapons. The Roman Consul Censorinus explained, "If you are sincerely desirous of peace, why do you need any arms?" He continued, "Bring all your weapons and engines of war, both public and private, and deliver them to us." Oblivious to the Roman maxim, "If you want peace, prepare for war," the Carthaginians obsequiously complied. They turned over armor for two hundred thousand men, javelins, darts, and two thousand catapults. Appian said that it was an "unparalleled spectacle to behold the vast number of loaded wagons."

Having complied with the Roman request to surrender their weapons, the Carthaginian ambassadors foolishly thought they had bought peace by disarming themselves. The consul Censorinus praised the Carthaginians for having the wisdom to comply with the Romans' first two requirements. But there was yet another new demand. "Yield Carthage to us, and betake yourselves where you like within your own territory at a distance of at least ten miles from the sea, for we are resolved to raze your city to the ground."

The Carthaginian ambassadors finally realized they had been deceived into yielding to Rome, without a fight, everything it could have expected from waging and winning another war. There would be no peace, and they had been artfully deceived. The Carthaginian ambassadors "cursed the Romans ... flung themselves to the ground and beat it with their hands and heads. Some of them even tore their clothes and lacerated their flesh as though they were absolutely bereft of their senses."

Having surrendered their swords, the Carthaginians could only resort to words. So they appealed to the Romans for mercy and pity. But none was granted. The consul Censorinus stated "the Senate ... has issued its decrees and they must be carried out." He explained, "We do not make this decision from any ill-will toward you, but in the interest of a lasting peace and of the common security." The only consolation the Roman consul could offer to the Carthaginians was the observation that "the healing drug for all evils is oblivion."

When the Carthaginian ambassadors brought the fateful news back to Carthage, there followed "a scene of blind, raving madness." Some people fell upon the ambassadors and ripped them to pieces or stoned them to death. The Carthaginians went into their armories and collapsed, sobbing, when they found them empty. Most distraught of all were the mothers who had surrendered their children to the Romans. It was now apparent that the loss of their offspring had accomplished no good whatsoever.

The Carthaginians had been disarmed, but they nevertheless resolved to resist as much as possible. They worked day and night to forge new weapons. Statues were melted down for their metal. Women cut off their hair to provide strings for catapults. Assisting the belated resistance was Carthage's immensely strong fortifications. Most of the city was surrounded by a series of three walls, each forty-five feet high. The walls had been reinforced for centuries. It was the strength of these fortifications that had dissuaded the Romans from attempting the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Second Punic War.

The outcome was predetermined from the beginning, but the Romans were forced to resort to a long siege to finally subdue Carthage. To cut off the Carthaginian supply routes by sea, large engineering works had to be constructed, and this took time.

After three years, the Carthaginians were weakened by hunger and disease, and the Romans finally managed to breach the city walls. There followed six days of fighting, street by street, but the Carthaginian resistance was feeble.

The city was set on fire, and there followed endless scenes of horror as the fires consumed both buildings and people. The Romans killed everyone who resisted. The survivors, totaling 55,000, represented less than ten percent of the original population. They were sold into slavery. The Roman Senate decreed that what remained of Carthage be utterly destroyed. The ruins burned for seventeen days. Seven hundred years of Carthaginian civilization came to a bitter end.

Thus the lesson was learned.  Surrendering your weapons does not buy peace, but only paves the way for ultimate defeat. If you want peace, prepare for war.
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