The city of Carthage was not only physically destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE, but the land was also salted.
The idea that the Romans salted the city of Carthage following their victory in the Third Punic War (146 BCE) is used to highlight the fierce enmity felt between two of the the most powerful Mediterranean rivals of the ancient period. This salting has become almost a modern rhetorical marker to emphasise the purposeful destruction and eradication of an enemy.
But did it actually happen?
The fall of Carthage
For what must have been one of the major historical events during the Roman Republican period, we do not have much in the way of direct evidence for the destruction of Carthage itself.
Our main source for the Punic Wars is Polybius but his account of the actual fall of Carthage is fragmentary and does not describe anything close to a salting of the earth. The missing section of his history is all the more frustrating as Polybius was an eyewitness to the events.
In the remnants that we do have, he describes conversations he had with Scipio Aemilianus, the commander that oversaw the taking of Carthage (18.21):
Turning round to me at once and grasping my hand Scipio said, “A glorious moment, Polybius; but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my own country.” It would be difficult to mention an utterance more statesmanlike and more profound.
An epitome of Livy’s book 51 describes a siege taking place, but no more than that (51.1):
Carthage, which had a circumference of thirty-four kilometers, was besieged with much labor, and captured part by part
Diodorus of Sicily may have written about it, but his narrative of the fall of Carthage does not survive. We do have surviving sections that describe Carthage being razed to the ground, or that the city was destroyed, but these are not particularly illuminating descriptions and, once again, there is no surviving mention of salt.
Our most detailed account comes from Appian’s Punica who described the siege itself in greater detail. He also mentions that the Roman senate sent ten officials to Carthage to make an important decree (Punica 135):
They decreed that if anything was still left of Carthage, Scipio should obliterate it and that nobody should be allowed to live there.
Our later sources have nothing of value to add. They focus on the destruction of Carthage (undefined), the length of time Carthage was said to be in flames, and the enslavement of the people. Indeed, the destruction of Carthage appears in other, non-historical works on a rather regular basis, such as the speeches and writings of Cicero and the biographies of Plutarch, but there is no mention of this salting story.
The salty tale
The idea that the city of Carthage was destroyed does come from the ancient evidence; most notably Appian’s account given above. Later sources suggest that it was not only destroyed, but reduced to dust (Orosius 4.23.5-7) and even ploughed over (Justinian, Digest 7.4.21). There is even mention of a curse by Macrobius (Saturnalia 3.9.7), writing in the fifth century CE, which is mentioned by Appian (Punica 28) and possibly alluded to in the works of Cicero as well (On the Agrarian Law 1.2.5).
But the idea of a complete eradication of the city is made all the more complicated by a claim in Plutarch (Life of Marius 40.4) that the Republican politician and commander Gaius Marius actually went to the ruins of Carthage.
If we accept that the destruction of Carthage was devastating, but perhaps not literally reduced to dust, there is still the question of salt. The idea behind the claim is that the military process of salting the earth would render the land uninhabitable (a claim in its own right that has been challenged by some), which fits many of the later sources’ descriptions of the cursed lands of Carthage. But there are two issues: the first is that there is no record of the Romans ever salting a city; the second is that Carthage was refounded by the Romans during the reign of Augustus, sharing much of the same land (Appian, Punica 28).
The seminal paper on this question, written by R.T. Ridley, argues convincingly that the story of Carthage’s destruction has been morphed with authentic ancient accounts of cities being salted, namely the destruction of Shechem (Judges 9: 45).
The original culprit for this conflation of historical events is thus far unknown. The claim has been identified as early as 1858, in the New American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge; but no doubt its appearance in the 1930 edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 8 is responsible for its persistent endurance in the modern day.
The claim that Carthage was salted is a contamination of the story of the city’s destruction at the end of the Third Punic War. The city was set aflame, the people were either killed or enslaved, and the land was cursed and abandoned for a short time before the Romans decided to colonise the area during the reign of Augustus. The story of salt is a modern invention, there is no ancient evidence to support it.
For these reasons we have rated this claim as false.
- R.T. Ridley, “To be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: the destruction of Carthage”, Classical Philology 81 (1986), pp. 140-146.
- Peter Gainsford, “Salting the earth”, Kiwi Hellenist (2016).
- Monica M. Bontty, Ancient Rome: Facts and Fictions (2020).
- Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization (2011).
- Nicholas Purcell, “On the sacking of Carthage and Corinth”, in: Doreen Innes, Harry, Hine, and Christopher Pelling (eds), Ethics and Rhetoric: Classical Essays for Donald Russell on His Seventy Fifth Birthday (1995), pp. 133-148.