by: R. Aurelius Orcus

Carthage was a Phoenician colony of Tyrus which was the capitol city of the Phoenician Empire. This city was founded in the 9th century BCE, two centuries before the founding of the city of Rome in 753 BCE. The name "Carthage" comes from the Phoenician language and means "New City". The Phoenicians themselves were conquered around the 6th century BCE by the Assyrian Empire and later by the Persian Empire which gave them their independence back but not as a state. The Phoenician State would never rise again in the Middle East. This is the cause of the Carthaginian independence. Carthage also appears in the Aeneid explaining the feud between Rome and Carthage. The stories concerning Aeneas tell us how he fell in love with Dido, the queen of the newly founded Carthage, but he had to leave North Africa to found a new Troy. This also shows how historically inaccurate Vergilius was in his stories. Historically Aeneas arrived in Italian peninsula around 1100 BCE, more than 200 years before the founding of Carthage. Or did Aeneas arrive at the Italian peninsula in the 9th century BCE? Who will tell? This isn't the only mythical history of Carthage. There is also a Phoenician side to it.


Tired out, / Aeneas' people made for the nearest land, / Turning their prows toward Libya. There's a spot / Where at the mouth of a long bay an island / Makes a harbor, forming a breakwater / Where every swell divides it as it comes in / And runs far into curving recesses. / There are high cliffs on this side and on that, / And twin peaks towering heavenward impend / On reaches of still water. Over these, / Against a forest backdrop shimmering, / A dark and shaggy grove casts a deep shade, / While in the cliffside opposite, below / The overhanging peaks, there is a cave / With fresh water and seats in living rock... (Aeneid, Book 1. 216-230, tr. R. Fitzgerald)

According to the mythical tradition Elissa (Elishat), a group of Tyrians first conquered Cyprus, then the North coast of Africa opposite of Sicily. After her brother killed her husband, she received the name Dido (Deido: means wanderer). The early Roman poets used her name and from then on, this is how we remember her. Her mythical fate was the same as that of her husband. She killed herself out of love for Aeneas and swore that Carthage would never be friend with the descendants of Aeneas. She climbed the pyre and bared the Dardan sword- / A gift desired once, for no such need. / Her eyes now on the Trojan clothing there / And the familiar bed, she paused a little, / Weeping a little, mindful, then lay down / And spoke her last words:....(Aeneid, Book 4. 898-903, Fitzgerald translation)


The history of Carthage doesn't just begin with the founding of the city but with the Phoenicians. This culture profited from the collapse of the Hittite Empire. They began to prosper. They were a known seafaring people which is also mentioned in the Odyssey where Odysseus meets the Phoenicians known under their Greek name: Phaekes. Their interest was not in territorial hegemony but in trade. The pressure of the Assyrian Empire and the increase of the population in the 9th century BCE made it clear that Tyrus needed a colony. The colonists settled in North Africa, the closest point to Europe, and founded Carthage, 'New City'. Carthage would grow and prosper to the point it became the rival of its mother city, Tyrus. Carthage was also the only colony that had other colonies in Spain, Sardinia and Sicily. When the settlers arrived in what now is Tunisia, they encountered the native population of Berbers who had been in the area since the ninth millennium BCE. The resulting culture we call Punic was an amalgamation of native and Punic elements. The Berbers, who had been semi-nomadic, adopted urban living. These are the most important dates in Carthaginian history:
  • 814 BCE: According to Timaeus (350-260 BCE), Carthage was founded in 814. Timaeus was a historian from Taormina in Sicily.

  • 6th century BCE: Oligarchic Constitution was founded. Originally a governor was to report to the king of Tyrus.

  • 508 & 450 BCE: Carthaginians and Romans signed treaties.

  • 480 BCE: The Greek colonies under the Tyrants Gelon and Theron defeated Hamilcar Barca and his Carthaginian army at Himera in Sicily, therefore impeding the interests of Carthage in that area. Note: while the Western Greeks were fighting this battle, the Eastern Greeks of their mother country were fending off Persian attacks under Xerxes. Under Hamilcar's grandson, Hannibal, Himera was destroyed in 409 BC. The Greeks built a temple in honour of Athena on the spot.

  • End 5th century BCE: Carthage took over the Greek colonies in Western Sicily, including Selinus.

  • Hellenistic period (323-30 BCE): Carthage at its peak. About 200,000 people were living there at the end of the 4th century BCE, an extraordinary number for cities in the ancient world.

  • 264-240 BCE: First Punic War between the Carthaginians and Romans. The consequence was that Sardinia and Sicily fall into Roman territories.

  • 218 BCE: Second Punic War. Hannibal Barca precipitated war against Rome when he besieged Saguntum in Spain. He escaped with his army from the Roman army sent to stop him, and defeated three consular armies in 218-217 and in 216 BCE after he marched through the Alps during the winter.

  • 202 BCE. Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal Barca and his army at Zama in Tunisia. Second Punic War ended. During the siege of Syracuse, Archimedes died in 212 BCE.

  • 149-146 BCE: Third Punic War, which ended in the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC by L. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus.

  • Late 1st century BCE: Augustus, following the intentions of his adoptive father Julius Caesar, created a colony of veterans on the site of the Punic Carthage.

  • 101-200 CE: Carthage was at this time the third largest city in the Empire, and second largest city in the western part of the Roman Empire after Rome itself. Emperor Antoninus Pius had a large bathing complex constructed for the city, the ruins of which are still visible.

  • 201-400 CE: Carthage enjoyed prosperity and became a centre of the Christian Church in the West. Such notable Christian writers as Tertullian and Augustine lived there.

  • 439 CE: Carthage succumbed to Vandals and eventually to the Byzantine Empire.

  • 697 CE: Carthage fell into the hands of Muslims.

During the third century BC, Carthage was the greatest naval power of the Mediterranean Sea. While the Romans were busy trying to control the entire Italian peninsula, Carthage had already taken over the North African coast from Western Libya to the Strait of Gibraltar and ruled over most of southern Spain and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia. Carthage was a formidable power. It controlled almost all the commercial trade in the Mediterranean, had subjected vast numbers of people, all of whom sent soldiers and supplies, and amassed tremendous wealth from gold and silver mines in Spain. These two mighty empires came in contact in the middle of the 3rd century BC when Rome's power had reached the southern tip of Italy. The two cultures and peoples had been in sporadic contact before, but neither side felt threatened by the other. The Romans were perfectly aware of the Carthaginian heritage: they called them by their old name, Phoenicians. In Latin this means Poeni, which does explain the name of the wars between the two empires: Punic Wars. These conflicts, which were disastrous for Carthage, were inevitable. Between Carthage and Italy lay the huge island of Sicily. Carthage ruled the western part of Sicily while the Romans reached the southern part of Italy which put them within throwing distance of the island.

When the city of Messana revolted against the Carthaginians, the Romans intervened and the first Punic War erupted. The First Punic War was concentrated entirely on the island of Sicily and ended in 241 BC with no particular side winning over the other. Carthage had to give up Sicily. The Romans besieged many of the Carthaginian cities and when Carthage attempted to raise the siege with its navy, this navy was destroyed. For the first time, Carthage had lost the power of the seaways. Carthage had to pay up for the war, which it was well capable of, but soon it faced rebellion among its mercenary troops and in 338, Rome took advantage of this confusion by taking the island of Corsica. The Romans wanted to create a buffer zone between them and Carthage because they feared them. By gaining Sicily, Rome had expelled the Carthaginians from their back yard. Now they wanted them out of the front yard, that is, the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, west of the Italian peninsula.

The Carthaginians were furious because of these actions and began to shore up their presence in Europe by sending first General Hamilcar and then his son-in-law, Hasdrubal, to Spain to build colonies and an army. Both Hamilcar and Hasdrubal made allies along the native Iberians, and their armies, recruited from Iberians, grew ominous as Carthaginian power and influence crept up the Iberian peninsula. Also, the name Hannibal means 'favourite of Baal'.

By 218 BC, Carthage had a mighty, wealthy empire in Spain and when the city of Saguntum approached Rome for Roman friendship and alliance, Rome couldn't resist having a friendly ally in the heart of the Carthaginian-Iberian Empire. This city was conquered by Hannibal and he travelled on to the Alps into the heart of the Roman Empire during the Second Punic War from 218-202 BCE. But the Carthaginians gained during this war an ally on the east side of the Italian peninsula: Philip V of Macedonia. He attacked several cities in the Roman Empire and the end result was that Rome turned international empire by turning east with their wars and conquest. They conquered the Hellenic kingdoms and by the end of the Third Punic War, Rome controlled most of the known world. In Carthage, Roman soldiers went from house to house systematically killing most of the Carthaginians. Carthaginians who weren't killed were sold into slavery. The harbour and the city were demolished and all the surrounding countryside was sown with salt in order to render it uninhabitable.

Aristotle compares Carthage with Crete and Sparta in his book The Politics of Aristotle. He says that they nearly resemble one another and at the same time are very different from any other. He considered Carthage to have an excellent government which differs from that of any other state in several aspects, though it is in some ways very like the Spartans:

Many of the Carthaginian institutions are excellent. The superiority of their constitution is proved by the fact that the common people remain loyal to the constitution. The Carthaginians have never had any rebellion worth speaking of, and have never been under the rule of a tyrant. Among the points in which the Carthaginian constitution resembles the Spartan are the following: The common tables of the clubs answer to the Spartan phiditia, and their magistracy of the Hundred-Four to the Ephors; but, whereas the Ephors are any chance persons, the magistrates of the Carthaginians are elected according to merit---this is an improvement. They have also their kings and their Gerousia, or council of elders, who correspond to the kings and elders of Sparta. Their kings, unlike the Spartan, are not always of the same family, nor that an ordinary one, but if there is some distinguished family they are selected out of it and not appointed by seniority---this is far better. Such officers have great power, and therefore, if they are persons of little worth, do a great deal of harm, and they have already done harm at Sparta.

Most of the defects or deviations from the perfect state, for which the Carthaginian constitution would be censured, apply equally to all the forms of government which we have mentioned. But of the deflections from aristocracy and constitutional government, some incline more to democracy and some to oligarchy. The kings and elders, if unanimous, may determine whether they will or will not bring a matter before the people, but when they are not unanimous, the people decide on such matters as well. And whatever the kings and elders bring before the people is not only heard but also determined by them, and any one who likes may oppose it; now this is not permitted in Sparta and Crete. That the magistrates of five who have under them many important matters should be co-opted, that they should choose the supreme council of One Hundred, and should hold office longer than other magistrates (for they are virtually rulers both before and after they hold office)---these are oligarchic features; their being without salary and not elected by lot, and any similar points, such as the practice of having all suits tried by the magistrates, and not some by one class of judges or jurors and some by another, as at Sparta, are characteristic of aristocracy. The Carthaginian constitution deviates from aristocracy and inclines to oligarchy, chiefly on a point where popular opinion is on their side. For men in general think that magistrates should be chosen not only for their merit, but for their wealth: a man, they say, who is poor cannot rule well---he has not the leisure. If, then, election of magistrates for their wealth be characteristic of oligarchy, and election for merit of aristocracy, there will be a third form under which the constitution of Carthage is comprehended; for the Carthaginians choose their magistrates, and particularly the highest of them---their kings and generals---with an eye both to merit and to wealth.

But we must acknowledge that, in thus deviating from aristocracy, the legislator has committed an error. Nothing is more absolutely necessary than to provide that the highest class, not only when in office, but when out of office, should have leisure and not disgrace themselves in any way; and to this his attention should be first directed. Even if you must have regard to wealth, in order to secure leisure, yet it is surely a bad thing that the greatest offices, such as those of kings and generals, should be bought. The law which allows this abuse makes wealth of more account than virtue, and the whole state becomes avaricious. For, whenever the chiefs of the state deem anything honorable, the other citizens are sure to follow their example; and, where virtue has not the first place, their aristocracy cannot be firmly established. Those who have been at the expense of purchasing their places will be in the habit of repaying themselves; and it is absurd to suppose that a poor and honest man will be wanting to make gains, and that a lower stamp of man who has incurred a great expense will not. Wherefore they should rule who are able to rule best. And even if the legislator does not care to protect the good from poverty, he should at any rate secure leisure for them when in office.

It would seem also to be a bad principle that the same person should hold many offices, which is a favorite practice among the Carthaginians, for one business is better done by one man. The government of the Carthaginians is oligarchic, but they successfully escape the evils of oligarchy by enriching one portion of the people after another by sending them to their colonies. This is their panacea and the means by which they give stability to the state. Accident favors them, but the legislator should be able to provide against revolution without trusting to accidents. As things are, if any misfortune occurred, and the bulk of the subjects revolted, there would be no way of restoring peace by legal methods.


Phoenician religious practices have received a lot of attention, especially the child sacrifices that occurred in their cities to ensure the health and wellbeing of their community. The major gods were Baal (also known with other epithets or other names); Tanith, Baal's consort; Eshmoun; and Melqart, who was later assimilated into Hercules. At Carthage the most important deity of all was Tanith, Baal's consort. Her symbols include doves, palm tree, grapes, crescent moon ... . Like Isis, she is the goddess with many names, a queen of the Manes (shades of the dead).


The Tophet was the place where children up to four years old were sacrificed and buried. It lay to the south of Carthage and to the west of the harbour. Diodorus wrote about the religious practices of the Carthaginians: "They were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than 300. (Diodorus 20.14.1-7 and following).

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