Carthage was founded (traditionally by Dido) from Tyre in the 9th cent. B.C. The city-state built up trade and in the 6th and 5th cent. B.C. began to acquire dominance in the W Mediterranean. Merchants and explorers established a wide net of trade that brought great wealth to Carthage. The state was tightly controlled by an aristocracy of nobles and wealthy merchants. Although a council and a popular assembly existed, these soon lost power to oligarchical institutions, and actual power was in the hands of the judges and two elected magistrates (suffetes). There was also a small but powerful senate.
The greatest weakness of Carthage was the rivalry between landholding and maritime families. The maritime faction was generally in control, and about the end of the 6th cent. B.C. the Carthaginians established themselves on Sardinia, Malta, and the Balearic Islands. The navigator Hanno is supposed to have sailed down the African coast as far as Sierra Leone in the early 5th cent. The statesman Mago arrived at treaties with the Etruscans, the Romans, and some of the Greeks.
Sicily, which lay almost at the front door of Carthage, was never brought completely under Carthaginian control. The move against the island, begun by settlements in W Sicily, was brought to a halt when the Carthaginian general Hamilcar (a name that recurred in the powerful Carthaginian family usually called the Barcas) was defeated (480 B.C.) by Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, in the battle of Himera. The Greek city-states of Sicily were thus preserved, but the Carthaginian threat continued and grew with the steadily increasing power of Carthage.
Hamilcar's grandson, Hannibal (another name much used in the family), destroyed Himera (409 B.C.), and his colleague Himilco sacked Acragas (modern Agrigento) in 406 B.C. Syracuse resisted the conquerors, and a century later Carthage was threatened by the campaign (310–307?) of the tyrant Agathocles on the shores of Africa. After his death, however, Carthage had practically complete control over all the W Mediterranean.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.