Showing posts with label Carthage. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Carthage. Show all posts

Thursday, August 8, 2013

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.’

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.

Friday, August 2, 2013

History mystery: Carthage Gateway to rich Western trade -2

In Tunisia, they looked inland. Some of the most fertile land in North Africa was within reach of their city. By the time of Agathocle’s invasion they were farming it, producing cereals, livestock, fruit, and vegetables. A Sicilian historian, Diodorus, gives a vivid impression of Agathocle’s soldiers gazing open-mouthed in awe at the abundant orchards and rich country houses of Cape Bon, north-west of the city. Meanwhile, Carthage extended control over the trading bases on the North African coast and the Mediterranean islands. Almost accidentally, an empire was born, and Carthage came to rival the most advanced cities of the Greek world.

Its population was estimated by the geographer Strabo at 700,000. This seems excessive; Athens itself had no more than about 250,000 inhabitants. The figure may refer to Carthage and the territories it administered but a six-figure population is plausible for a city which, at its height, covered an area of 5km2 (nearly 2sq miles), with a further 15 to 25km2 (6 to 9½ sq miles) of suburban villas. Archaeological evidence, once meagre, has grown rapidly since UNESCO launched a ‘Save Carthage’ campaign in 1972. It has emerged that Carthage was every bit as magnificent as the descriptions suggest.

The heyday of the city is termed Late Punic, referring roughly to the years between 30 and 146 BC. (Punic is simply a term of Phoenicians of the west.) The key period in the city’s expansion corresponds with the era when the Carthaginians started farming and established themselves as an imperial power. But remains of an earlier, more modest Carthage have also been found – tombs, a sacrificial precinct, and the debris of a few buildings. The position of these tombs provides fascinating evidence of the city’s growth. Historians believe that, like the Greeks and Romans, the Carthaginians had religious taboos about burial within the city limits, and moved their burial places farther out as the settlement grew bigger. But early cemeteries lie beneath the later town.

For example, 6th century BC burials lie under 3rd and 2nd century BC houses on the hill which dominates the city. The hill is the Byrsa, or citadel, of Carthage – mentioned in ancient texts as the last bastion of the defenders under the final Roman onslaught. On its slopes, archaeologists have discovered one complete insula or block of buildings, with its surrounding streets, and parts of neighbouring insulae and streets. From this evidence the shadowy city begins to take form and substance. The main buildings were grouped around a large market square, which served as a meeting place. On top of the Byrsa was the Temple of Eshmun, the Carthaginian god of healing. The other buildings on the Byrsa – shops and houses – date back to the city’s later days. They seem to have been two storeys high, built of sun-dried brick and stone. Their walls were faced with plaster, and their floors decorated with mosaic and coloured cements. The shops opened onto the street, and people gained access to the houses behind them through corridors leading to small courtyards. Other houses, found by German archaeologists working down on the coast, reveal the same basic plan, but are larger, with colonnades surrounding the courtyards. These were the seaside homes of the wealthy – though the sea view must have been obstructed by the massive city wall in front of them.

 The wall, according to an ancient text, was over 12m (39ft) high and 9m (29½ ft) thick, with arsenals and even stabling for elephants set into its stones. This daunting fortification enclosed the whole of the city, including the harbours and some suburban areas, over a circuit of 32km (20 miles). The harbours were among the most striking feature of ancient Carthage. The two man-made basins, one for merchant shipping and one for military fleets, were connected by a channel of water. Covered dry docks could take in a fleet of 220 vessels. British excavations in the military basin revealed sheds for vessels measuring about 5m (16ft) across and 30m (98 ft) in length. The warships would have been shallow-bottomed oared galleys, which relied on speed for their effectiveness in battle. The harbours were only about 2m (6½ ft) deep, but were extensive; the merchant basin covered some 6ha (15 acres) or more, and the military some 5ha (12 acres). Scooping them out was an impressive feat – it would have yielded some 191,150m3 (6.75 million cu ft) of soil. The work seems to have been carried out as late as the 3rd century BC.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

History mystery: Carthage Gateway to rich Western trade -1

Ancient Carthage was once Rome’s most dangerous rival, but the Phoenician city perished in a single orgy of destruction, leaving barely a trace of a powerful civilization that embraced both high culture and horrific ritual. CARTHAGE STANDS BESIDE ATHENS AND ROME as one of the main centres of wealth and power in the ancient Mediterranean. In fact, it almost supplanted them both as the forerunner of the Western civilization. In 216 BC, the Carthaginian general Hannibal came within a shade of destroying Rome and changing the course of history. But it was Carthage’s fate to be wiped off the face of the earth only 70 years later.

 Today, little remain of the great city which once overlooked the Gulf of Tunis. It was so thoroughly obliterated by the Romans that only a shadowy idea of Carthaginian achievements survives, gleaned from the biased and incomplete writings of its Greek and Roman enemies – and from the patient work of archaeologists. Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians, ancient inhabitants of the modern Syrian and Lebanese coasts in the eastern Mediterranean. The Phoenicians were related to the Jews of the Old Testament, sharing their Semitic languages and cultural heritage. The Bible refers to them as Canaanites or Tyrians, and the Hebrew patriarchs were scandalized by their idolatry. The Bible also portrays them as businessmen and seafarers who voyaged to distant lands in search of valuable minerals. The Greeks knew the Phoenicians mainly as merchants, in particular through their exports of a highly-prized purple dye extracted from a shellfish native to the Lebanese coast. The eastern cities of the Phoenicians enjoyed their heyday between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. The mineral riches of the West drew the Phoenicians like a magnet, and it is known that voyages to the western end of the Mediterranean were taking place as early as the 12th century BC. They set up new trading bases, and established regular communications with outposts as far away as the Atlantic coast, at Lixus in Morocco, and at Gadir (Cadiz) in Spain – an area especially valued for its precious ores.

Carthage was founded on the route to these treasures. Some uncertainty surrounds the city’s origins. The traditional date of its foundation – 814 BC, as recorded by the Greek historian Timaeus – was long considered an exaggeration. But recent discoveries of remains form the early 8th century BC give the date some credibility. Carthage is said to have been founded by a group of exiles from Tyre (in present-day Lebanon), under the leadership of the king’s sister, Elissa (or Dido, as the Roman poet Virgil calls her). The reality is probably that political rivalries forced a section of the Tyrian ruling class into exile with their followers, and that they eventually settled at a key point on the trade routes. Virgil’s story makes Dido, founder of Carthage, a contemporary of the Trojan prince Aeneas, founder of Rome, and tells of their love but ends with Dido’s suicide as Aeneas follows the instructions of the gods and sails away to Italy and his destiny. The name Carthage derives from the Phoenician Qarthadasht, or New City. Occupying the seaward end of a peninsula jutting out from Tunisia’s northern coast, it is not far from the point where the southern and western shores of the Mediterranean are closest. Carthage, then, had strategic importance, commanding the narrow passage between the Mediterranean’s eastern and western seas.

 Nestling on its promontory, Carthage began to profit by an expansion of commerce in the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, in the east, Phoenicia’s light was failing. Its small city-states of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos (present-day Jubayl) were being eclipsed by the growing might of Assyria. After the Assyrian Empire collapsed at the end of the 7th century BC, Babylon and Persia successively cast long shadows over the Phoenician homeland. Phoenician culture maintained its characteristics over the centuries (its bold seafarers are even credited with having sailed round Africa in about 600 BC), but it was left to Carthage to carry the torch as the centre of Phoenician civilization. Carthage began to develop colonies of its own. By the 4th century BC, settlements with Phoenician-speaking inhabitants dotted the coast of North Africa. Parts of southern Spain, the whole of Sardinia and western Sicily were also settled. Rivalries with Greece and Etruria (in northern Italy) led to warfare over trading frontiers such as Corsica and Sicily. Carthage suffered a dark period towards the end of the 4th century BC when Agathocles, ruler of Syracuse (the chief Greek power in Sicily), took in army to North Africa. After the wars, the Carthaginians relied less exclusively on commercial networks and more on territorial control as the basis of their power.