Whenever we fill out personal information forms that demand for our details, we often associate the ‘City/State’ portion with Singapore. But unbeknownst to many, city-states began many centuries ago. Carthage was one of the greatest city-states in the world. Founded in 813 BCE, Carthage at its peak was the most powerful city in the Mediterranean before the rise of Rome, and monopolized much of the trade in the region with trading stations all across North Africa and Southern Europe. Carthage faced constant hostility from the Greeks and the Romans, and fell to the Romans after the Third Punic War in 146BCE. This post aims to draw parallels between Carthage and Singapore in a bid to bring comprehension of the fallen empire.
1) They had a dramatic founder, and an equally dramatic story.
As conveyed by Roman poet Virgil in his romantic legend Aeneid, Dido was the beautiful bride of Sychaeus, one of the richest men in ancient Tyre, a Phoenician port city. Amidst jealousy and avarice of their wealth and their devotion, her brother Pygmalion ruthlessly killed Sychaeus - and Dido fearing her life, fled as far as possible (or in modern day context, 4086 km) from Tyre to the coast of North Africa, where she agreed with local leaders to settle in an area that an ox hide would cover. “Only so much could be bought as their wit could surround by a bull’s hide”, as Dido cleverly cut the oxhide into strips, and laid them out on a sizeable area of fertile land. There, Carthage, or in Phoenician, Qart-ḥadašt, or “New City” was founded in 814 BC.
Could it be more dramatic than the legends surrounding the founding of Singapore? From the romanticised historical text Malay Annals, Sang Nila Utama was a prince of the Srivijaya Empire, and while on a hunting expedition, spotted the beautiful island of Temasek. After deciding to visit Temasek, a huge storm hindered their way, and the ship started to take in water. The storm did not waver, even after his men threw all the heavy things overboard. At his captain’s advice, he threw his crown as a gift to the sea, and immediately the storm died down. Upon safely reaching the island, he saw an alluring animal with immense speed, and being told it was a lion, renamed the island Singapura, or in Old Malay, “Lion City” in 1323.
2) It was a prosperous hub for trade.
With its strategic location on the trade routes between the western Mediterranean and the Levant, Carthaginians engaged in foreign trade to for business. Carthage was a place where exports of a wide variety of items and materials could be obtained. One of Carthage’s natural exports was their wines which they marketed in Greek letterings to pass off as an elite Greek product (McGovern, Fleming & Katz, 2004). Despite neighbouring Greek cities being relatively more well-known for their quality of wines, Carthaginians' trade tactics succeeded to the extent that even those cities imported Carthage’s wines for consumption.
Carthage's prosperity through trade is very much linked to the success of Singapore. Located along the southernmost tip of the Peninsular Malaysia, with the Singapore Strait occupying an economically viable geographical location, Singapore became a bustling port of trade. The Republic is also reputable for trade with early founders of the nation that sought lucrative free trade agreements with neighbouring countries in exchange for the usage of the ports for various purposes from refueling to imports. Today, Singapore is ranked first for trade stability by a US-based research institute Business Environment Risk Intelligence (BERI, 2016) that assesses operations, politics and foreign exchange.
3) DIY: Carthage style
Singaporeans growing up would have played with many different forms of toys and games but not many can be compared to the common DIY toys such as the Flying Glider foam planes and pre-cut wooden blocks that have inspired many engineers wannabes. Even today, many people opt to purchase their meatballs (or sometimes furniture) from IKEA where assembling instructions are comprehensive (to most people). Well, Carthage had their own version of DIY, except that it was in the form of real ships used to
Carthaginians had markings on materials for their ships for building which made shipbuilding a task that even novice shipbuilders could be engaged to complete. Pre-fabricated parts of the ship was then produced and put on an assembly line for labour workers and slaves to put together, allowing for the mass production of these massive 120m long Greek-inspired ships called quinqueremes. Unfortunately, this would also contribute to the downfall of Carthage when Roman soldiers reverse-engineer a wrecked quinquereme and began to similarly mass produce these ships to fight the Carthaginians.
With these powerful ships equivalent to the modern day weapons of mass destruction, Roman troops and Carthaginians met on the west coast of the disputed island Sicily, Aegates in 241 BCE during the First Punic War. This would turn out to be a key battle which would turn the tides of the powers of the Mediterranean Sea from Carthage to Rome.
4) Public knowledge fuelled social mobility, which was the key to success
A famous Carthaginian agricultural writer, Mago’s works although simplistic, were significant in that period. Although there isn't a specific time Mago created his works, fragments of his writings were basically the encyclopedia to agriculture at that time - which included how to plant vines, olives, fruit trees, and harvest and maintain many other types of flora and fauna, like beekeeping. Hanno the Explorer, sent by Carthage also recorded his travels along the coast of Africa, which allowed fellow Carthaginians to trade and further their entrepreneurships (pun intended). Construction by numbers was also a form of public knowledge that allow citizens to construct better ships. Knowledge in niche areas were simplified and shared amongst Carthaginians to improve their standing, and created upward social mobility for all citizens.
Isn’t that similar for Singapore? Public education is the best example of providing upward social mobility for everyone - especially in the tertiary level has allowed many Singaporeans under 21 to start up their own companies and blaze on the entrepreneurship spirit many others seek to emulate. Niche skills that are high in demand in the workforce are readily accessible to all in polytechnics and technical institutions, where all can also improve their standing - creating the same upward social mobility Mago and many other Carthaginians did!
5) Maritime Military Might
Carthage ruled the Mediterranean Seas with their fleets which were unsurpassable by any of their neighbouring enemies. Carthage had a harbour which was magnificent in sight and purpose, a jewel to the Carthaginians. This harbour was a cothon, an artificial inner harbour which had merchant docks lined along the two-part harbour prior to the access to the military portion, which in itself was able to house 220 ships (Franco, 1996; Torr, 1891). This structure allowed the Carthaginian navy to oversee the surrounding activities of its port and to mount a defence whenever necessary.
The harbour then housed the deadliest naval fleets in the Mediterranean Sea, the quinqueremes. Quinqueremes were ships with 5 rows of oars on each side, which allowed the ships to travel at speeds far greater to the relatively more common triremes (3 rows). The Carthaginians had fortified their quinqueremes with bronze at the hull of the ship which would be the spearhead of attack when they rammed enemies’ ships at devastating speeds, revolutionizing the way sea battles were fought from the previously used method of ships coming into close contact with each other, followed by ‘land battles’ at sea. (Cartwright, 2016). These ships would eventually be superseded by even larger ships which could have up to forty rows of oars on each side.
As a small city-state, Singapore has a considerably potent navy. In a featured article by National Interest in 2015, author James Hardy ranks the Republic 4th in terms of its naval capacities in the region (Hardy, Svet, Johnson & Roblin, 2015). Despite being a small nation, Singapore has assets in the Navy that are not just numerically comparable to the surrounding countries but also in terms of the advancement of naval warfare technology.
As much as we would like to verify the information above with multiple sources, Carthage’s unfortunate encounter with Rome meant that many records were lost after the Third Punic War in 149 BCE (Yes, the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty wasn’t first to come up with information incineration). Rome saw the survival and remnants of Carthage as a sore thumb and sought to eliminate it at all costs. Buildings were burnt and records of Carthage were disposed off, leaving it be what is left of the city which is located in modern Tunisia today. Despite so, the fact that Carthage as a city-state is still known today and studied by many historians suggests that it was indeed a significant civilization that played a large role in the Mediterranean Sea.
Hardy, J., Svet, O., Johnson, G., & Roblin, S. (2015). The 5 Most Deadly Navies in Asia. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-5-most-deadly-navies-asia-12001
Koster, J. (2012). Mago: Father of Farming. Retrieved October 10, 2016, from http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Winter20112012/Mago/tabid/2050/Default.aspx.
Lendering, Jona (1998). Hanno the Navigator. Retrieved October 10, 2016 from http://www.livius.org/articles/person/hanno-1-the-navigator/
Mark Cartwright. “Carthaginian Naval Warfare,” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 09, 2016. http://www.ancient.eu /Carthaginian_Naval_Warfare/.
Patrick E. McGovern; Stuart J. Fleming; Solomon H. Katz (19 June 2004). The Origins and Ancient History of Wine: Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology. Routledge. pp. 324–326. ISBN 978-0-203-39283-6.
Torr, C. (1891). The Harbours of Carthage. The Classical Review, 5(6), 280-284. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/693421.
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