Carthage (/ˈkɑːrθɪdʒ/) was a settlement in modern Tunisia that later became a city-state and then an empire. Founded by the Phoenicians in the ninth century BC, Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC, who later rebuilt the city lavishly. At its height in the fourth century BC, Carthage was one of the largest metropolises in the world and the center of the Carthaginian Empire, a major power in the ancient world that dominated the western Mediterranean.
Carthage was settled around 814 BC by colonists from Tyre, a leading Phoenician city-state located in present-day Lebanon. In the seventh century BC, following Phoenicia's conquest by the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Carthage became independent, gradually expanding its economic and political hegemony across the western Mediterranean. By 300 BC, through its vast patchwork of colonies, vassals, and satellite states, Carthage controlled the largest territory in the region, including the coast of northwest Africa, southern Iberia (Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar) and the islands of Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Malta, and the Balearic archipelago.
Among the ancient world's largest and richest cities, Carthage's strategic location provided access to abundant fertile land and major maritime trade routes. Its extensive mercantile network reached as far as west Asia, west Africa, and northern Europe, providing an array of commodities from all over the ancient world, in addition to lucrative exports of agricultural products and manufactured goods. This commercial empire was secured by one of the largest and most powerful navies in the ancient Mediterranean, and an army composed heavily of foreign mercenaries and auxiliaries, particularly Iberians, Balearics, Gauls, Britons, Sicilians, Italians, Greeks, Numidians, and Libyans.
As the dominant power of the western Mediterranean, Carthage inevitably came into conflict with many neighbors and rivals, from the indigenous Berbers of North Africa to the nascent Roman Republic. Following centuries of conflict with the Sicilian Greeks, its growing competition with Rome culminated in the Punic Wars (264–146 BC), which saw some of the largest and most sophisticated battles in antiquity. Carthage narrowly avoided destruction after the Second Punic War and was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC after the third and final Punic War. The Romans later founded a new city in its place. All remnants of Carthaginian civilization came under Roman rule by the first century AD, and Rome subsequently became the dominant Mediterranean power, paving the way for its rise as a major empire.
In spite of the cosmopolitan character of its empire, Carthage's culture and identity remained rooted in its Phoenician-Canaanite heritage, albeit a localized variety is known as Punic. Like other Phoenician people, its society was urban, commercial, and oriented towards seafaring and trade; this is reflected in part by its more famous innovations, including serial production, uncolored glass, the threshing board, and the cothon harbor. Carthaginians were renowned for their commercial prowess, ambitious explorations, and unique system of government, which combined elements of democracy, oligarchy, and republicanism, including modern examples of checks and balances.
Despite having been one of the most influential civilizations of antiquity, Carthage is mostly remembered for its long and bitter conflict with Rome, which threatened the rise of the Roman Republic and almost changed the course of Western civilization. Due to the destruction of virtually all Carthaginian texts after the Third Punic War, much of what is known about its civilization comes from Roman and Greek sources, many of whom wrote during or after the Punic Wars, and to varying degrees were shaped by the hostilities. Popular and scholarly attitudes towards Carthage historically reflected the prevailing Greco-Roman view, though archaeological research since the late 19th century has helped shed more light and nuance on Carthaginian civilization.
The specific date, circumstances, and motivations concerning Carthage's founding are unknown. All surviving accounts of the city's origins come from Latin and Greek literature, which are generally legendary in nature but may have some basis in fact.
The standard foundation myth across all sources is that the city was founded by colonists from the ancient Phoenician city-state of Tyre, led by its exiled princess Dido (also known as Queen Elissa or Alissar). Dido's brother, Pygmalion (Phoenician: Pummayaton) had murdered her husband, the high priest of the city, and taken power as a tyrant. Dido and her allies escaped his reign and established Carthage, which became a prosperous city under her rule as queen.
The Roman historian Justin, writing in the second century AD, provides an account of the city's founding based on the earlier work of Trogus. Princess Dido is the daughter of King Belus II of Tyre, who upon his death bequeaths the throne jointly to her and her brother Pygmalion. After cheating his sister out of her share of political power, Pygmalion murders her husband Acerbas (Phoenician: Zakarbaal), also known as Sychaeus, the High Priest of Melqart, whose wealth and power he covets Before her tyrannical brother can take her late husband's wealth, Dido immediately flees with her followers to establish a new city abroad.
Upon landing in North Africa, she is greeted by the local Berber chieftain, Iarbas (also called Hiarbas) who promises to cede as much land as could be covered by a single ox hide. With her characteristic cleverness, Dido cuts the hide into very thin strips and lays them end to end until they encircle the entire hill of Byrsa. While digging to set the foundation of their new settlement, the Tyrians discover the head of an ox, an omen that the city would be wealthy "but laborious and always enslaved". In response, they move the site of the city elsewhere, where the head of a horse is found, which in Phoenician culture is a symbol of courage and conquest. The horse foretells where Dido's new city will rise, becoming the emblem of Carthage, derived from the Phoenician Qart-Hadasht, meaning "New City".
The city's wealth and prosperity attract both Phoenicians from nearby Utica and the indigenous Libyans, whose king Iarbas now seeks Dido's hand in marriage. Threatened with war should she refuse, and also loyal to the memory of her deceased husband, the queen orders a funeral pyre to be built, where she commits suicide by stabbing herself with a sword. She is thereafter worshiped as a goddess by the people of Carthage, who are described as brave in battle but prone to the "cruel religious ceremony" of human sacrifice, even of children, whenever they seek divine relief from troubles of any kind.
Virgil's epic poem the Aeneid—written over a century after the Third Punic War—tells the mythical story of the Trojan hero Aeneas and his journey towards founding Rome, inextricably tying together the founding myths, and ultimate fates, of both Rome and Carthage. Its introduction begins by mentioning "an ancient city" that many readers likely assumed was Rome or Troy, but goes on to describe it as a place "held by colonists from Tyre, opposite Italy . .. a city of great wealth and ruthless in the pursuit of war. Its name was Carthage, and Juno is said to have loved it more than any other place ... But she had heard that there was rising from the blood of Troy a race of men who in days to come would overthrow this Tyrian citadel ... [and] sack the land of Libya."
Virgil describes Queen Elissa—for whom he uses the ancient Greek name, Dido, meaning "beloved"—as an esteemed, clever, but ultimately tragic character. As in other legends, the impetus for her escape is her tyrannical brother Pygmalion, whose secret murder of her husband is revealed to her in a dream. Cleverly exploiting her brother's greed, Dido tricks Pygmalion into supporting her journey to find and bring back riches for him. Through this ruse, she sets sail with gold and allies secretly in search of a new home.
As in Justin's account, upon landing in North Africa, Dido is greeted by Iarbas, and after he offers as much land as could be covered by a single ox hide, she cuts the hide into very thin strips and encircles all of Byrsa. While digging to set the foundation of their new settlement, the Tyrians discover the head of a horse, which in Phoenician culture is a symbol of courage and conquest. The horse foretells where Dido's new city will rise, becoming the emblem of the "New City" Carthage. In just seven years since their exodus from Tyre, the Carthaginians build a successful kingdom under Dido's rule. She is adored by her subjects and presented with a festival of praise. Virgil portrays her character as even nobler when she offers asylum to Aeneas and his men, who had recently escaped from Troy. The two fall in love during a hunting expedition, and Dido comes to believe they will marry. Jupiter sends a spirit in the form of the messenger god, Mercury, to remind Aeneas that his mission is not to stay in Carthage with his new-found love Dido, but to sail to Italy to found Rome. The Trojan departs, leaving Dido so heartbroken that she commits suicide by stabbing herself upon a funeral pyre with his sword. As she lies dying, she predicts eternal strife between Aeneas' people and her own, proclaiming "rise up from my bones, avenging spirit" in an invocation of Hannibal. Aeneas sees the smoke from the pyre as he sails away, and though he does not know the fate of Dido, he identifies it as a bad omen. Ultimately, his descendants go on to found the Roman Kingdom, the predecessor of the Roman Empire.
Like Justin, Virgil's story essentially conveys Rome's attitude towards Carthage, as exemplified by Cato the Elder's famous utterance, "Carthago delenda est"—"Carthage must be destroyed". In essence, Rome and Carthage were fated for conflict: Aeneas chose Rome over Dido, eliciting her dying curse upon his Roman descendants, and thus providing a mythical, fatalistic backdrop for a century of bitter conflict between Rome and Carthage.
These stories typify the Roman attitude towards Carthage: a level of grudging respect and acknowledgment of their bravery, prosperity, and even their city's seniority to Rome, along with derision of their cruelty, deviousness, and decadence, as exemplified by their practice of human sacrifice.
Power and organization
Before the fourth century, Carthage was most likely a monarchy, although modern scholars debate whether Greek writers mislabeled political leaders as "kings" based on a misunderstanding or ignorance of the city's constitutional arrangements. Traditionally, most Phoenician kings did not exercise absolute power but consulted with a body of advisors called the Adirim ("mighty ones"), which was likely composed of the wealthiest members of society, namely merchants. Carthage seems to have been ruled by a similar body known as the Blm, made up of nobles responsible for all important matters of the state, including religion, administration, and the military. This cabal included a hierarchy topped by the dominant family, usually the wealthiest members of the merchant class, which had some sort of executive power. Records indicate that different families held power at different times, suggesting a non-hereditary system of government depends on the support or approval of the consultative body.
Carthage's political system changed dramatically after 480 BC, with the death of King Hamilcar I following his disastrous foray into the First Sicilian War. The subsequent political upheaval led to a gradual weakening of the monarchy; by at least 308 BC, Carthage was an oligarchic republic, characterized by an intricate system of checks and balances, a complex administrative system, a civil society, and a fairly high degree of public accountability and participation. The most detailed information about the Carthaginian government after this point comes from the Greek philosopher Aristotle, whose fourth-century BC treatise, Politics, discusses Carthage as its only non-Greek example.
At the head of the Carthaginian state were two sufetes, or "judges", who held judicial and executive power. While sometimes referred to as "kings", by at least the late fifth century BC, the sufetes were non-hereditary officials elected annually from among the wealthiest and most influential families; it is unknown how elections took place or who was eligible to serve. Livy likens the sufetes to Roman consuls, in that they ruled through collegiality and handled various routine matters of state, such as convening and presiding over the Adirim (supreme council), submitting business to the popular assembly, and adjudicating trials. Modern scholarly consensus agrees with Livy's description of sufetes, though some have argued the sufetes held an executive office closer to that of modern presidents in parliamentary republics, in that they did not hold absolute power and exercised largely ceremonial function. This practice may have originated from plutocratic arrangements that limited the suffetes' power in earlier Phoenician cities; for example, by the sixth century BC, Tyre was a "republic headed by elective magistrates", with two suffetes chosen from among the most powerful noble families for short terms.
Unique among rulers in antiquity, the suffetes had no power over the military: From at least the sixth century BC, generals (rb mhnt or rab mahanet) became separate political officials, either appointed by the administration or elected by citizens. In contrast to Rome and Greece, military and political power were separate, and it was rare for an individual to simultaneously serve as general and suffete. Generals did not serve fixed terms but instead served for the duration of a war. However, a family that dominated the suffetes could install relatives or allies to the generalship, as occurred with the Barcid dynasty.
Most political powers rested in a "council of elders", variably called the "supreme council" or Adirim, which classical writers likened to the Roman Senate or Spartan Gerousia. The Adirim perhaps numbered thirty members and had a broad range of powers, such as administering the treasury and conducting foreign affairs. During the Second Punic War, it reportedly exercised some military power. Like the sufetes, council members were elected from the wealthiest elements of Carthaginian society. Important matters of state required the unanimous agreement of the sufetes and of council members.
According to Aristotle, Carthage's "highest constitutional authority" was a judicial tribunal known as the One Hundred and Four (𐤌𐤀𐤕 or miat). Although he compares this body to the ephors of Sparta, a council of elders that held considerable political power, its primary function was overseeing the actions of generals and other officials to ensure they served the best interests of the republic. The One Hundred and Four had the power to impose fines and even crucifixion as punishment. It also formed panels of special commissioners, called pentarchies, to deal with various political matters. Numerous junior officials and special commissioners had responsibilities over different aspects of government, such as public works, tax collection, and the administration of the state treasury.
Although oligarchs exercised firm control over Carthage, the government included some democratic elements, including trade unions, town meetings, and a popular assembly. Unlike in the Greek states of Sparta and Crete, if the suffetes and the supreme council could not come to an agreement, an assembly of the people had the deciding vote. It is unclear whether this assembly was an ad hoc or formal institution, but Aristotle claims that "the voice of the people was predominant in the deliberations" and that "the people themselves solved problems". He and Herodotus portray the Carthaginian government as more meritocratic than some Hellenistic counterparts, with "great men" like Hamilcar being elected to "royal office" based on "outstanding achievements" and "special merit". Aristotle also praises Carthage's political system for its "balanced" elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. His Athenian contemporary, Isocrates, elevates Carthage's political system as the best in antiquity, equaled only by that of Sparta.
It is noteworthy that Aristotle ascribes to Carthage a position among the Greek states, because the Greeks firmly believed that they alone had the ability to found 'poleis', whereas the barbarians used to live in tribal societies ('ethne'). It is therefore remarkable that Aristotle maintained that the Carthaginians were the only non-Greek people who had created a 'polis'. Like Crete and Sparta, Aristotle considers Carthage as an outstanding example of an ideal society.
Confirming Aristotle's claims, Polybius states that during the Punic Wars, the Carthaginian public held more sway over the government than the Romans did over theirs. However, he regards this development as a fatal flaw, since it led the Carthaginians to bicker and debate while the Romans, through the more oligarchic Senate, acted more quickly and decisively. This may have been due to the influence and populism of the Barcid faction, which, from the end of the First Punic War until the conclusion of the Second Punic War, dominated Carthage's government and military.
Carthage reportedly had a constitution of some form. Aristotle compares Carthage's constitution favorably to its well-regarded Spartan counterpart, describing it as sophisticated, functional, and fulfilling "all needs of moderation and justice". Eratosthenes (c. 276 BC – c. 194 BC), a Greek polymath and head of the Library of Alexandria, praises the Carthaginians as among the few barbarians to be refined and "admirably" governed. Some scholars suggest the Greeks generally held Carthage's institutions in high regard, regarding the Carthaginians as close to equal.
Carthage's republican system appears to have extended to the rest of its empire, though to what extent and in what form remains unknown. The term sufet was used for officials throughout Carthaginian colonies and territories; inscriptions from Punic era Sardinia are dated with four names: the sufetes of the island as well as those of Carthage. This suggests some degree of political coordination between local and colonial Carthaginians, perhaps through a regional hierarchy of sufetes.
Traders of Carthage were secretive in ways to keep trade routes from the Greeks. Most conflicts from Carthage lasted from 600 BC to 500 BC with Greece and its trade routes. Greek goods were no match to Carthage goods and their goal was to export to African harbors while keeping Greek goods out. The people of Carthage spoke Punic, which had its own alphabet and would later continue through trade routes and grow into Africa. Carthage was also highly influenced by Egyptian culture. Amulets and seals coming from the Egyptian religion were found about Carthage as well as the use of scarabs. These scarabs, in Egyptian culture, were for funerals and to expose them to the afterlife. Finding these and many pictures carved into clay, stone and other specimens was a big connection between Egypt's ties to Carthage.
Survival under the Roman rule
Aspects of Carthage's political system persisted well into the Roman period, albeit to varying degrees and often in Romanized form. Throughout the major settlements of Roman Sardinia, inscriptions mention sufetes, perhaps indicating that Punic descendants used the office or its name to resist both cultural and political assimilation with their Latin conquerors. As late as the mid-second century AD, two sufetes wielded power in Bithia, a Sardinian city in the Roman province of Sardinia and Corsica.
The Romans seemed to have actively tolerated, if not adopted, Carthaginian offices and institutions. Official state terminology of the late Roman Republic and subsequent Empire re-purposed the word sufet to refer to Roman-style local magistrates serving in Africa Proconsularis, which included Carthage and its core territories. Sufetes are attested to have governed over forty post-Carthaginian towns and cities, including Althiburos, Calama, Capsa, Cirta, Gadiaufala, Gales, Limisa, Mactar, and Thugga. Though many were former Carthaginian settlements, some had little to no Carthaginian influence; Volubilis, in modern-day Morocco, had been part of the Kingdom of Mauretania, which became a Roman client state after the fall of Carthage. The use of sufetes persisted well into the late-second century AD.
Sufetes were prevalent even in interior regions of Roman Africa where Carthage had never settled. This suggests that, unlike the Punic community of Roman Sardinia, Punic settlers and refugees endeared themselves to Roman authorities by adopting a readily intelligible government.[need quotation to verify] Three sufetes serving simultaneously appear in first-century AD records at Althiburos, Mactar, and Thugga, reflecting a choice to adopt Punic nomenclature for Romanized institutions without the actual, traditionally balanced magistracy, In those cases, a third, non-annual position of tribal or communal chieftain marked an inflection point in the assimilation of external African groups into the Roman political fold.
Sufes, the Latin approximation of the term sufet, appears in at least six works of Latin literature. Erroneous references to Carthaginian "kings" with the Latin term rex betray the translations of Roman authors from Greek sources, who equated the sufet with the more monarchical basileus (Greek: βασιλεύς).
Starting in the late second or early first century BC, after the destruction of Carthage, "autonomous" coinage with Punic inscriptions was minted in Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna had free city status, was governed by two sufetes, and had public officials with titles such as mhzm, ʽaddir ʽararim, and nēquim ēlīm.
Today, the empire that once ruled this area is little more than ruins in the city of Tunis.