Economy and social affairs

Carthage - the first capitalist state ?

(Published April 2014)

Long before the industrial age, an ancient city was an example of capitalist economics. The progressive economy of Carthage ensured the trading power great successes, but came at the cost of many human lives. After their destruction by the Romans, they took over the successful model, but were now inexorably towards their decay ...

Ancient New York
In ancient times, North Africa - where there were still plenty of forests at that time - was an agriculturally very productive area that remained the breadbasket of Rome until the fifth century AD.
The Carthaginians, called "Punians" by the Romans, had developed a well-organized agriculture in what is now Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. In addition to cereals, olive trees, grapevines, fig trees and date palms were grown (8). With intensive cultivation and artificial irrigation, excellent harvests were achieved. These large Carthaginian estates were far more productive than the plots of small Roman farmers. For the Romans, the North Africans were unpleasant competitors in long-distance trade.

In the third century BC, Carthage, the "New York of antiquity", had developed into the largest trading empire of its time thanks to its geographically favorable location. Carthage was the wealthiest and most magnificent city in the Mediterranean area; far richer than Athens had been in its heyday.
The rulership of the city-state of Carthage comprised coastal strips in North Africa and Spain, cities on the Mediterranean and several islands. Carthage's trading port was the largest hub for Mediterranean trade, and the interior of its fabled, tightly-screened warport was one of the best-kept secrets. Like all Phoenician cities, the cosmopolitan Carthage was famous for its maritime achievements and above all for its skilled traders who knew just about every trick. The Phoenicians' war galleys ruled the Mediterranean and their barges dominated maritime trade between the Azores and the Greek coasts.
In Carthage, as the most important of the Phoenician cities, wealthy merchants were in charge. The city-state promoted trade and enforced trade monopolies.
For example, in the Balearic Islands (Mallorca, Menorca, etc.), farmers were banned from growing grain. Only wine and oil were allowed to be produced there. In return, the cultivation of olives and vines in Sardinia was forbidden on the death penalty. So these islands were dependent on the deliveries of the missing products by the Carthaginians, who knew how to use their monopoly (7, p. 48).
The idea of using military force to force entire states into economic dependency and to make a profit from this does not come from the time of modern colonialism, which started in Europe in the 15th century.

War with Rome
In the middle of the third century BC, the increasingly powerful Roman Empire opposed the Carthaginians, who wanted to take over the island of Sicily in order to stop the piracy that began there. Sicily was not yet part of Rome at that time.
The armed conflicts that this triggered led to fierce decision-making battles for leadership in the Mediterranean, the result of which had a lasting impact on the history of the next centuries.
Carthage lost its influence on Sicily, which now became Roman, in the First Punic War (264–241 BC).
Forty years later, after the Second Punic War, the "Hannibalian War" (218–201 BC), Carthage had to renounce all of its non-African possessions after a decisive defeat. Thus the political importance of the former great power had shrunk considerably. Carthage was no longer a military threat to Rome.
But economically, the defeated city-state soon developed so well that it was able to successfully compete with the Romans and aroused their envy.

The first theory of capitalism?
Some time after the end of the Second Punic War, a Roman embassy traveled to Carthage for political talks. One of the senators who led this delegation was Marcus Porcius Cato the Elder (234–149 BC). As a civil servant, he tried to preserve ancient Roman virtues. In his private life he owned a large estate and remained interested in farming all his life. Now he found the opportunity to study the very productive Punic farming methods on the spot.
In the library of Carthage (which was later totally destroyed by the Romans), Cato had an interpreter show him a famous work about which rumors were already circulating in Rome. The Punic writer Mago wrote a comprehensive agrarian encyclopedia in the second century BC, which has not survived. We are only aware of its content from quotes by other authors who praised him as the “father of agriculture”.
Mago begins in his work “With the estate purchase. He reveals right at the beginning of the first book that he is completely capitalist. To him earth, rain and sunshine are only forces with which, with some skill, one can produce merchandise for sale. Land is not home for Mago, and plants, animals and weather are not a piece of nature for him, in whose cycle the fate of man is tied up; For the Carthaginian, the farmer is not the rooted person who is connected to the heart of his farm: he only knows human and animal labor to cultivate the fields and gardens. His investigations are aimed at the most expedient use of the work: he tries to create the scientific basis of a purely capitalist land management, the highest goal of which is the highest possible return on the capital invested. " (7, p. 47).

Means of production man
Then Cato found the opportunity to see for himself how Mago's theories worked in practice:
In an almost endless field “The brown-golden grain billows on strong, short stalks [...] A line of several hundred slaves of all races moves slowly against the standing grain. Each of these men and women is equipped with a sharp sickle knife and a sack. They cut the ears of wheat from the stalk and put them in the sacks at the rate given by some overseers. Behind the first row of men and women there is a second chain that cuts the straw close to the ground, and behind it some flute players dance, according to whose music the work has to go on.
Sometimes the guards' long hippopotamus whips clap their bare, brown, black and red-tinged backs. Curses and screams then ring out over the glowing, dusty fields of the 'grain factory'.
And these long lines of slaves are tied together with leather straps. They only have so much freedom of movement that they can do their work [...] All these hundreds of people on the miles-wide fields of the plantation together form only one big harvester ... " (7, p. 49).

Carthage could no longer wage wars to win slaves after the Second Punic War. The ongoing replenishment of "human material" required by its type of management came to a standstill. As a result, the highly productive Carthaginian agriculture had a problem. Because the "man as a means of production" was subject to great wear and tear.
In the farm business, a slave, with a life expectancy of barely twenty years, could produce his full labor for a maximum of more than a dozen years. The lifespan was shorter in the workshops. The mill slaves were mostly only usable for four years and in the mine and on the galleys the workforce wore out even faster (7, p. 49) [2]. Insubordinate slaves were cruelly punished.

Cato's only success and Rome's penance
"The old censor [5] had a profound effect on Roman history. For centuries he was looked back on as the typical Roman of the republic: Cicero [Note: Roman writer and speaker 106–43 BC Chr.] idealized him in his De senectute; his great-grandson [6] reincarnated his philosophy without his humor; Marc Aurel [Note: Roman Emperor 161–180 AD] took him as a role model; Fronto [7] called on the Latin writers to return to the simplicity and straightforwardness of his style. Yet the destruction of Carthage was its only real success. His campaign against Hellenism failed completely; Literature, philosophy, rhetoric, science, art, religion, manners, customs and clothing were subject to Greek influence in every respect. Cato hated the Greek philosophers; his famous descendant [Note: Cato the Younger, see footnote 6] surrounded himself with them. The religious belief that he had lost could not be revived by him and went on towards doom. Above all, however, the political corruption that he had fought so hard in his youth grew and deepened the more lucrative the offices became with the expansion of the empire; each new conquest made Rome richer, more corrupt, more merciless. Rome had won every war - except the domestic social war, and with the destruction of Carthage, the last obstacle that stood in the way of the class struggle came to an end. Now, in a hundred bitter revolutionary years, Rome should repent for conquering the world. "
Will Durant (2, p. 197 f.). 

The sudden end of Carthage ...
Slavery was not an issue for the Roman Cato. All ancient states were more or less based on cheap slave labor, which was also the rule in Rome. And as long as successful wars brought in enough prisoners, there was no shortage of slaves.
What was new for the Romans was the consistent capitalist thinking of the Carthaginians and their well-organized land management. As an experienced economist, he quickly recognized why the Punians were so successful in competing with the Romans. The future lay in the large estates managed by slaves. The small farmers on the Italian peninsula with their mixed cultures were perhaps more crisis-proof, but not competitive!
Back in Rome, Cato wrote a book about what he experienced in Carthage "From Agriculture" (1) called. A copy of this work was soon to be found in many Roman manors. The conclusions that Cato drew from his observations ring in the ears of all high school students. From now on, each of Cato's speeches to the Senate ended with the familiar sentence:
"Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam" (By the way, I think Carthage must be destroyed).

So far, the predominantly rural Roman militias had fought mainly defensive wars. Now they followed Cato's raging voice.

The Third Punic War (149–146 BC) was the first of many subsequent Roman raids that exclusively served the imperialist economic and power interests of Rome.

Marcus Porcius Cato did not live to see the destruction of Carthage he carried out in the Third Punic War. But it is thanks to his influence that Mago's textbook, as the only work in all of Punic literature, was translated by the Romans after the complete destruction of Carthage. Roman authors then quoted it a lot.

... and the creeping end of Rome
Carthage - probably the first "modern" capitalist state - was founded in 146 BC. Conquered from envy of competition in a treacherous, cruel way and completely destroyed. After that, the Roman victorious power took over its brutal methods of exploitation and lost its former virtues.
The Roman economy also came under pressure due to the constant “consumption of slaves”. New wars were always necessary to capture slaves or to gain access to the oriental slave markets.
After the destruction of Carthage, hundreds of thousands came to Italy as slaves. The Carthaginian estates were taken over by Roman administrators. And in the year Carthage was destroyed (146 BC), a Roman army also attacked the rich Greek city of Corinth, plundered it, burned it down and led 100,000 slaves away.
Ancient capitalism was dependent on a permanent supply of "human means of production" that predatory wars had to deliver!

The Punic Wars had dramatic consequences for the Roman peasantry. The majority of the legionaries who had fought Carthage in three wars were peasants. Her blood toll was high.
In the Second Punic War, Hannibal devastated large parts of Italy. Many of the free farmers got into economic hardship and had to go into debt. More and more arable land became large estates in the hands of only a few families. The new owners followed the teachings of the Carthaginian Mago and produced unrivaled cheap through slave labor. That was the end of the ancient Roman agrarian state.
A large part of the peasants who once founded Rome and then made it great through hard battles were impoverished by the wars. Often the only option left for them was to leave the country. The resulting urban proletariat grew and grew.

Abuse of power and corruption became the norm among those in power. Rome was on the way to the often denounced "late Roman moral decay", which reached its first climax under Nero (37-68 AD).

Of all people, Cato, once the staunch guardian of ancient Roman virtues, made a decisive contribution to the demise of the traditional peasant way of life and the decline of old customs!

The memory of the romantic country life from a time when an allegedly virtuous Rome striving for justice was preparing to conquer the world was soon only a subject of poetic transfiguration. The great poet Virgil (70-19 BC) wrote in the time of the Emperor Augustus:
“The peasants would be overjoyed / if they would become aware of their own possessions! / Because far from the noise of weapons / life in abundance let the all righteous, the earth thrive! " 

In the Roman Senate, the oligarchs [3] dominated, the rich merchants and large landowners who rigorously ignored the interests of the common people. There were protests and even uprisings by the plebeians [4], but the rulers were able to prevail with tricks and violence.
Rome squandered any moral legitimacy for its conquests and - despite its technical and organizational achievements - became an enemy image for the rest of the world.
Does anyone see a parallel to today?

Did slave labor block progress?
A much debated question is whether cheap slave labor slowed down the technological development of the ancient Romans. Actually, they already had much of the knowledge that more than a millennium later led to the scientific and technical breakthrough in the Renaissance and especially in the Baroque era.

Why didn't the Romans already invent gunpowder and the steam engine? Could they have saved their empire with cannons? Was it more convenient and cheaper to let slaves toil than to develop expensive machines?

Presumably such idle questions can never be resolved conclusively. But it seems indisputable that the excessive slave economy laid the germ for the downfall of Rome and contributed to the triumph of Christianity. 

[1] Phenicia, the "land of the red purple", was the name of a coastal strip on the Syrian Mediterranean coast in ancient times. Starting from the cities of Tire, Sidon, Berytus and Biblos Phoenician merchants founded from about 1200 BC. Trading colonies in the Mediterranean and beyond, of which Carthage became the most important.
[2] From Latin tombstones with age information, an average lifespan of 19 years for slaves and 32 years for free Romans was calculated. Stillbirths and deceased small children are not taken into account, so that the actual average life expectancy was even lower. (4, p. 6).
[3] Oligarchy = form of government in which state power lies in the hands of a small clique that came to power through origins and assets, not through performance.
[4] Plebeians = in the Roman state the middle and lower class that did not belong to the nobiles (the nobility).
[5] Censor = high official of the Roman Republic. Among other things, he was responsible for the tax assessment.
[6] Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger (95–46 BC), an opponent of Caesar.
[7] Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100–170 AD), grammarian, rhetorician and lawyer.

(1) Cato, Marcus Porcius, On Agriculture, Franz Steiner, Wiesbaden 2005.
(2) Durant, Will, Kulturgeschichte der Menschheit, Volume 7, Editions Rencontre, Lausanne no year.
(3) Huss, Werner, Karthago, CH Beck, Munich 1990.
(4) Krenkel, Werner A., Technology in antiquity, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1994.
(5) Schumacher, Leonhard, Slavery in antiquity, CH Beck, Munich 2001.
(6) Virgil, Landleben, Artemis, Munich, 1987.
(7) Zierer, Otto, From bondage to freedom, Das Bergland Buch, Salzburg 1979.