Carthaginians were a nasty lot – probably

The Carthaginian Empire supposedly came into being with the Phoenician Queen Elissa (better known as Dido) sometime around 813 BCE. It reached its zenith around 500 years later  and by 264 BC controlled the Western Mediterranean.

Carthage in 264 BC (Ancient Encyclopedia)

Carthage in 264 BC (Ancient Encyclopedia)

But they made the mistake of expanding into Sicily and this was the start of their conflict with Rome:

Ancient Encyclopedia:

The Carthaginian trading ships sailed daily to ports all around the Mediterranean Sea while their navy, supreme in the region, kept them safe and, also, opened new territories for trade and resources through conquest.

It was this expansion which first brought Carthage into conflict with Rome. When Rome was weaker than Carthage, she posed no threat. The Carthaginian navy had long been able to enforce the treaty which kept Rome from trading in the western Mediterranean. When Carthage took Sicily, however, Rome responded. Though they had no navy and knew nothing of fighting on the sea, Rome built 330 ships which they equipped with clever ramps and gangways (the corvus) which could be lowered onto an enemy ship and secured; thus turning a sea battle into a land battle. The First Punic War (264-241 BCE) had begun. After an initial struggle with military tactics, Rome won a series of victories and finally defeated Carthage in 241 BCE. Carthage was forced to cede Sicily to Rome and pay a heavy war indemnity.

The Carthaginian Empire effectively came to an end when they lost the third Punic War against Rome

A Roman embassy to Carthage made demands to the senate which included the stipulation that Carthage be dismantled and then re-built further inland. The Carthaginians, understandably, refused to do so and the Third Punic War (149-146 BCE) began. The Roman general Scipio Aemilianus besieged Carthage for three years until it fell. 

It is not surprising that most Roman and Greek writings are quite disparaging about Carthage and the customs of the Carthaginians. It is from these accounts by the victors that we learn that the vile Carthaginians were a very nasty lot who indulged in child sacrifice. Many have put this down as black propaganda and a biased view. But apparently this is still a hot topic among archaeologists with the same bones leading to diametrically opposite conclusions.

Past Horizons: Just as ancient Greek and Roman propagandists insisted, the Carthaginians did kill their own infant children, burying them with sacrificed animals and ritual inscriptions in special cemeteries to give thanks for favours from the gods, according to a new study.

“This is something dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn’t want to believe it,” said Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford, who is behind the study, with international colleagues, of one of the most bitterly debated questions in classical archaeology.

“But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made. This was not a common event, and it must have been among an elite because cremation was very expensive, and so was the ritual of burial. It may even have been seen as a philanthropic act for the good of the whole community.”

Argument has raged on the subject since cemeteries known as tophets – after the biblical account of a place of sacrifice – were excavated in the early 20th century on the outskirts of Carthage in modern Tunisia, and then at other Carthaginian sites in Sicily and Sardinia. The graves held tiny cremated bones carefully packed into urns, buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods. One has a carving which has been interpreted as a priest carrying the body of a small child. Some archaeologists and historians saw the finds as proving ancient accounts of child sacrifice; others insisted they showed tender respect for cherished children who died before or soon after birth.

Quinn and her colleagues, a group of Punic archaeologists and historians from Italy and the Netherlands, who publish their findings in the journal Antiquity – where the argument has been rumbling on for several years – completely reject the latter theory. ……

The argument has been passionate for years, with scientists often reaching opposed conclusions from the same bone fragments: four years ago a group of scientists published a paper saying the cremated remains did not indicate infant sacrifice.

Now in the same issue as Quinn’s research, Antiquity is publishing a new paper on the same bones, insisting that the earlier study got the science of burnt infant bones wrong, and therefore greatly overestimated the number who died before birth rather than being murdered in infancy. ….

I don’t buy the argument that the sacrifice of infants is so far removed from “normal” human behaviour that it is unlikely to have occurred in Carthage. There are other references (including in the Bible) to infants being sacrificed to Baal in Carthage.  Considering the barbarism that is still so evident today, with rape being used as a weapon of war in Africa and as a means of punishment by rural courts (salishi sabha) in India and instances of ritual cannibalism in Syria and the Central African Republic, human behaviour has not changed so very much in 2300 years. I suspect there must be some kernel of truth in the accounts.

But we shall never know for sure.

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