Tuesday, August 6, 2013

History mystery: Carthage Gateway to rich Western trade -3

Ancient Carthage is still being excavated, but only glimpses of the city are likely to be revealed. Not only is the site overlaid by the remains of a later Roman city, but modern Carthage, a suburb of Tunis, lies on top. The only overall view of a Punic city clear of the debris of later habitation lay to the north-west, at the small town of Kerkouane on Cape Bon. Little evidence of early Carthaginian produce has survived. Textiles were woven for the domestic market and for export and recent excavations uncovered purple-dye works in a suburb of the city, and in Kerkouane. Salted fish and slaves were major exports as well as being in great demand in the city. The eastern Phoenicians were renowned craftsmen in ivory and metals, and the Carthaginians maintained these high standards.

They took inspiration from the products of their neighbours and combined this with their own ideas to create distinctive Carthaginian pieces. Their workshops manufactured a wide variety of objects, from gaudy trinkets to exquisite jewellery and fine furniture. Domestic crafts were probable overshadowed by the city’s many imports, from Etruria, Egypt and Greece. Nearly all of the fine pottery found at Carthage is of Greek or Graeco-Italian origin. But Carthaginian workshops did produce small terracotta figurines and extraordinary terracotta images of grimacing faces, perhaps once hung in homes to protect against evil spirits. And Carthage excelled at food production. After the 4th century BC, shipments of Carthaginian grain are recorded in Athens.

In a famous incident in the Roman Senate, Cato the Elder brandished Carthaginian figs while expounding on the threat that the city posed to Rome. The Carthaginians were valiant seamen. A tantalizing reference in a later Roman text credits one Himilco with a northward voyage of many months that may have reached Brittany and even Cornwall. The merchants of Carthage are known to have dealt in Cornish tin ore, but there is no evidence that the city’s own ships made such a long and perilous voyage; Spanish or Gallic traders were probably the link with distant Britain. One great Carthaginian sea voyage has been recorded. In the 5th century BC, a man named Hanno is said to have travelled down the west coast of Africa, reaching as far perhaps as the modern Ivory Coast. On his return, he recorded his journey on a bronze tablet at Carthage, and a version of the text survives in Latin. The account remains controversial. Only part of the narrative is straightforward reporting – for example, a section describing how the explorers took colonists to Lixus in Morocco. More intriguing passages describe pygmies, wild animals, a volcanic eruption, and various geographical features such as rivers and mountains. The order of the text is jumbled, and the full length of the journey is unclear; colourful inventions seem to have been mixed with factual statements.

 In their more far-reaching ventures, Greek writers relate, the Carthaginians used a so-called ‘silent barter’ for trading with primitive tribes. Seeking gold, the Carthaginians would spread out their wares and signal to attract the natives. The natives would then present their offerings of the precious ore. If it was sufficient, the Carthaginians would take it, leaving their own goods in payment; if not, they would wait until more gold was brought. Both sides apparently respected the system. Like the Greeks and Romans, the Carthaginians believed in Gods and goddesses with their own special roles. There were two main deities: Tanit, who was patron goddess of Carthage and an earth mother who has presided over the moon; and Baal, the sky god. Between them they represented the very basic powers of human and agricultural fertility – powers that a primitive society depended on their survival. The people also worshipped various lesser deities – gods who sometimes corresponded to minor deities venerated in Greek and Roman religion. Where the Carthaginians differed most strikingly from their contemporaries was in the survival of primitive religious practices – in particular, the rite of human sacrifice. This dark practice had been known in Bronze Age Greece and elsewhere, but it horrified the writers of classical times. The Carthage ritual is described in detail by Diodorus, the Sicilian Greek historian. Sacrifices took place at night before a great bronze statue of the supreme god, Baal Hammon. The parents brought their sacrificial child to the site – an infant between two and three years old, sometimes older. The ceremony included loud music and a great deal of festivity (which would drawn out the crying of the child), and at the appropriate moment the child was taken by a priest to have his or her throat slit in a secret ritual. The body was then placed on the statue’s outstretched arms, from which it rolled off into the flames of a fire. During the crisis in the 4th century when Agathocles besieged Carthage, 200 children are said to have been sacrificed.

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