Throughout the year 147 B.C., Roman senators became accustomed to attending a duel of clichés with which two obstinate political opponents always concluded their speeches. One was Cato the Elder, a defender of the most traditional values, who systematically ended his speeches exclaiming “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed). The other, Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum, son-in-law of the famous Scipio Africanus, did the opposite, stating, “Carthago servanda est” (Carthage must be saved).

Both phrases were incorporated at the end of any discourse they delivered, regardless of the topic, even if it had nothing to do with the original context. They served as a kind of signature for their respective speakers, who represented opposing political positions regarding the decision to be made in the face of Carthage’s alarming recovery after its defeat in the two Punic Wars.

Cato, a writer and military figure who held nearly all of Rome’s magistracies in his cursus honorum (tribune of the plebs – he came from a plebeian family, quaestor, praetor, consul, and censor), was an ultra-conservative who disdained Romans’ admiration for Greek culture. He advocated for the simplicity of rural life and lived a frugal life in habits and clothing (he refuses to abolish the Lex Oppia), making him a leader of a faction opposed to the orientalizing trend embodied by some patrician families, including the Scipios.

Furthermore, under the command of Quintus Fabius Maximus – another ally – Cato had fought against the Carthaginians during Hannibal’s invasion of Italy, actively participating in the defeat of Hannibal’s brother, Hasdrubal, at the Battle of the Metaurus. This earned him the title of proconsul of Hispania Citerior, where he showed unprecedented harshness in suppressing rebellions and exploiting mineral resources. He left the position to face Scipio Africanus in Rome, but still had time to take up arms again against Antiochus III, the king of the Seleucid Empire, whom he defeated at Thermopylae.

Upon his return, he was elected censor, a position from which he applied his strict way of life by enacting the Orchian and Voconian laws against luxury. He retired in 149 B.C., but a few years earlier (eight according to some sources, twelve according to others), the Senate had entrusted him with a delicate mission: to lead a diplomatic delegation to Carthage to arbitrate the territorial conflict that the city had with the Numidian king Masinissa. Masinissa had taken advantage of one of Rome’s conditions imposed on the Carthaginians – the prohibition of expansion – to seize some areas.

Obviously, the Romans did not intend to defend the Carthaginians, especially considering that Masinissa had not only declared himself an ally of Rome but also sent grain and cavalry. Aware of this and free from military expenses due to the Roman veto, the Carthaginians focused on the economy and boosted maritime trade, which soon began to yield substantial profits. The city became so prosperous that, during his stay, Cato was unpleasantly impressed; such prosperity, he judged, was a danger if Carthage eventually decided to rearm.

Therefore, upon returning to Rome, he informed the Senate of what he had seen, and that’s when he began to include in his speeches an ad hoc expression mentioned in various sources. Thus, in his Natural History, Pliny the Elder says, “[Cato] when he shouted to the entire Senate to destroy Carthage, …”. Lucius Anneus Florus, in his Epitome of Livy, puts something similar: “Cato, with implacable hatred, even when consulted on another matter, uttered the phrase ‘Carthage must be destroyed’.” And in On the Illustrious Men of Rome, Aurelius Victor recounts, “[Cato] decided to destroy Carthage.”

Also, in his treatise De senectute, Cicero includes a more free version: “de qua vereri non ante desinam quam illam exscissam esse cognovero” (I will never cease to fear it until I know it has been destroyed). Finally, Plutarch, in his Parallel Lives, introduces a paraphrased version of the phrase in Greek: “Videtur et hoc mihi, Carthaginem non debere esse” (It is my opinion that Carthage should no longer exist). Plutarch’s version would later be reformulated in a different way: “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (Furthermore, I think Carthage must be destroyed).

However, over time, it was condensed into “Carthago delenda est” (Carthage must be destroyed), much like other famous speeches in history (such as Philip II’s elements, General Sheridan’s dead good Indian) or in cinema (the order to the pianist Sam in the movie Casablanca). Shorter and, therefore, easier to remember, but also gaining an added level of expressiveness and force.

This reduction is traditionally attributed to the Englishman Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, founder of the Whig (liberal) party and patron of John Locke. He allegedly uttered it in 1673 in a speech to Parliament, comparing England to Rome and the United Provinces of the Netherlands to Carthage, in the context of the Third Anglo-Dutch War, without imagining that he was making history.

A century later, the French philologist and educator Charles François Lhomond wrote a book for French students to learn Roman history and Latin titled De viris illustribus urbis Romae a Romulo ad Augustum. Published in 1779 with widespread distribution throughout Europe, it attributed to Cato the expression “Hoc censeo, et Carthaginem esse delendam” (I believe that Carthage must be destroyed). But the version that endured was the other one, and subsequently, paraphrasing “Carthago delenda est” to fit each particular situation became a common political resource.

For example, in the last decade of the 19th century, the London newspaper Saturday Review published several Germanophobic articles under the common heading Germania est delenda (“Germany must be destroyed”). Conversely, Jean-Hérold Paquis, a Radio Paris announcer in occupied France between 1940 and 1944, exclaimed, “England, like Carthage, will be destroyed!” In contrast, Leo Tolstoy titled an essay he wrote for The Westminster Gazette in 1899 “Carthago delenda est“, expressing pacifist and anti-militaristic views.

The usage remains relevant today; we even find it as the title of a Latin song by Franco Battiato or in the mouth of the lawyer defending Asterix and Obelix in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath, something that would probably have satisfied Cato, who nevertheless achieved his goal.

Although his father-in-law gained fame by defeating Hannibal, the conflict with the ultra-conservative Cato faction and a practical outlook led Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Corculum to his “Carthago servanda est“. Not because he did not consider the increasingly powerful Carthaginians dangerous, but precisely because of that.

Corculum believed that the Romans needed a permanent external enemy to keep them united and obedient to authority, under the risk of falling into a relaxation of customs. However, Masinissa directly attacked the city of Oroscopa in 151 B.C., and the Carthaginians could no longer evade the provocation, sending an army in their defense under the command of Hasdrubal the Boeotarch. Although that force failed, Rome could not ignore the treaty violation and declared war. Cato thus won the long debate, and his phrase became a reality.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 18, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en «Carthago delenda est» y «Carthago servanda est», las frases de Catón y Escipión a favor y en contra de la Tercera Guerra Púnica


Plutarco, Vidas paralelas | Cicerón, Acerca de la vejez | Lucio Anneo Floro, Epítome de la Historia de Tito Livio | Plinio el Viejo, Historia natural | Aurelio Víctor, De los varones ilustres romanos | Tito Livio, Los orígenes de Roma | Charles François Lhomond, De viris illustribus urbis Romae a Romulo ad Augustum | Sergei Ivanovich Kovaliov, Historia de Roma | Charles E. Little, The authenticity and form of Cato’s saying ‘Carthago Delenda Est’ (en The Classical Journal) | Wikipedia

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