History mystery: Carthage Gateway to rich Western trade -4
There is no question of the nightmarish ceremonies being merely an invention of enemy propaganda. At Carthage and other Punic sites, archaeologists have discovered sanctuaries with urns containing the ashes of infants. The sanctuaries, known by modern writers as tophets after a place of sacrifice in the Bible’s Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, are walled enclosures, open to the sky. The urns were buried in pits, and a stone monument or stele about the size of a modern gravestone was erected nearby.
The Carthage tophet contains some of the earliest reliable evidence of Phoenician settlement in the West: fragments of pottery discovered at its lowest level date back to about 725 BC. From then until the city’s fall, layer upon layer of urns containing the remains of thousands of sacrificed children were deposited, along with commemorative steles. The area of the Carthage tophet eventually stretched across some 2ha (5 acres).
Most children seem to have been sacrificed individually, and the studies of teeth found among the charred bones confirm that most were two years old or younger.
Some were newborn. Occasionally, two children have been found in one urn, characteristically a newborn with a small child. Perhaps the parents promised to surrender a child in advance of its birth – if the child was stillborn, they would have to present their elder infant.
Why did this barbaric practice persist among such a sophisticated people living in one of the most advanced civilizations of the classical world?
During the last 200 years or so of Carthaginian civilization, the grave steles are often inscribed with a standard dedication: ‘To the lady Tanit and her consort Baal Hammon, -, the son of the son of -, dedicates this in fulfillment of a vow.’ The family’s social status is frequently indicated – those sacrificed were always the property-owning class.
Trying to understand why only the children of the rich were sacrificed, and why the brutal tradition survived for so long, American excavators speculated that the practice may have had a social purpose: the sacrifices may have been a convenient form of family planning, allowing the property-owning class to prevent their wealth being divided between two many heirs. Cynical as it sounds, there are parallels elsewhere. The Greeks, for example, used to expose unwanted children on hillsides.
Carthage was unusual in the ancient world in having a constitution acknowledged by the Greeks. In the Greek’s opinion, the Carthaginians, like the Romans, did not entirely qualify for the label ‘barbarians’. Although evidence of the city’s constitution is sketchy, it is clear that by the 4th century BC, three elements of authority existed side by side: monarchy, oligarchy (rule by a small dominant faction), and democracy.
Before about 450 BC, something approaching kingly authority had been held by one family, the Magonids (among whom was Hanno the navigator). But later, the great merchant families and the landowners used their political muscle to guarantee a share in government. The kingly element survived in the role of two principal officers of state, known as the suffetes. They were similar to the Roman consuls: two were elected annually from among the most influential families.
Leading citizens were represented in a Council comparable to the Roman Senate. From the several hundred Council members, who held their positions for life, two powerful committees were chosen: one to carry out day-to-day policy, the other to administer justice and review the actions of the generals.
A citizen body represented the democratic element in the constitution. The body could vote on proposals put before it, and had the power to elect certain administrators. In practice, its influence was small throughout most of Carthage’s history. When the suffetes and Council decided on a course of action, they rarely allowed the issue to go to a popular vote.
The closing chapters of the city’s history began in the 3rd century BC, when Rome moved into the world of Mediterranean politics after taking control of the Greek cities in southern Italy.
Almost by accident the Romans and Carthaginians – previously allies in wars against the Greeks – fell out over the control of Sicily. The disagreement was to spark the first of the three great Punic wars.
The first brought 23 years of intermittent fighting by land and sea (264-241 BC). It ended in victory for the Romans, and Sicily became their first overseas province. Following the loss of Sicily, and later of Corsia and Sardinia, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca launched a masterly campaign to seize the southern half of Spain. Here, Carthagena, ‘the New Carthage’, was founded in 221 BC. But the contest with Rome had not been resolved. Hannibal Barca, son of Hamilcar, now led the army. When a second Punic War broke out in 218 BC he crossed the Alps with an army of 35,000 men and 37 elephants, but narrowly failed to take Rome.
In the treaty that followed a later defeat, Carthage lost all its possessions in Europe, its fleet except for ten ships, and with it control of the Mediterranean. And yet the city still prospered. Cato the Elder, a Roman ambassador to Carthage in 153 BC, was so awed by the city’s grandeur that he was consumed with jealous rage. On returning to Rome, he would conclude every speech he made, on whatever subject, by declaring that ‘Carthage must be destroyed’.
That destruction came at the end of the third Punic War (149-146 BC). The inhabitants of the ancient city held on with heroic tenacity against the Roman onslaught. Their last stand was made in the Temple of Eshmun. When the temple fell, the invading troops plundered and burned, leveling the city.
Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who presided over the destruction of Carthage, wept over the rubble of the ruined city. He was moved less by pity than by awe that so gigantic a power could be laid so low. ‘This is a glorious moment,’ he observed, ‘and yet I am seized with fear and foreboding that some day the same fate will befall my own country.’