The Smell Of Sunset

The burning of Carthage

“It was 146 B.C. and the sun was setting over the great city of Carthage on the north coast of Africa. A brisk breeze blew off the Gulf of Tunis, hurling breakers against the outer harbor, as General Scipio Africanus climbed to a hillside overlooking the city. Across the sea, mountain peaks carved a jagged horizon; to the north lay the marshy plain of Utica.

“Rome, the master Scipio served, had been dividing and conquering enemies like the Carthaginians for generations. Hundreds of thousands of troops and decades of war had expanded the powerful Roman Empire as far as its ambitions could reach.

“Then had come the gross insult of the Second Punic War. Hannibal, the brilliant Carthaginian general, had dared to cross the Alps and assault the city of Rome itself. Rome’s mighty army was pushed to the brink of defeat.

“But in Scipio Africanus, Rome had found its match for Hannibal. Son of a proud military family, the great general rallied the Roman troops and attacked Carthage. Spurred on by the city’s rich booty, Scipio’s soldiers fought fiercely for three years while the 700,000 citizens of Carthage resisted with equal fervor. Scipio lost legions to their cunning and endurance.

“In the end, however, the Roman army reduced the Carthaginians to a handful of soldiers huddled together inside the pillared temple of their god Eshmun. And with the enemy defeated, Scipio ordered his men to burn the city.

“Now, as the final day of his campaign drew to a close, Scipio Africanus stood on a hillside watching Carthage burn. His faced streaked with the sweat and dirt of battle, glowed with the fire of the setting sun and the flames of the city, but no smile of triumph crossed his lips. No gleam of victory shone from his eyes.

“Instead, as the Greek historian Polybius would later record, the Roman general ‘burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men.’

“In the fading light of that dying city, Scipio saw the end of Rome itself. Just as Rome had destroyed others, so it would one day be destroyed. Scipio Africanus, the great conqueror and extender of empires, saw the inexorable truth: no matter how mighty it may be, no nation, no empire, not culture is immortal.” —from the prologue of Charles Colson’s Against The Night: Living in the New Dark Ages, 1989, pp. 15-16.

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