Ancient Carthage


The Carthaginian civilization or Punic civilization is an ancient civilization located in the Mediterranean basin and at the origin of one of the greatest commercial, cultural and military powers of this region in antiquity.

Founded by Phoenicians on the shores of present-day Tunisia, and more precisely in the Gulf of Tunis, in 814 BC, according to the most commonly accepted tradition, Carthage gradually gained the upper hand over the Phoenician cities of the western Mediterranean, before spreading out in its turn and developing its own civilization. This civilization is however less well known than that of ancient Rome, due to the destruction of the city by the Roman army at the end of the third Punic war in 146 BC, an end that is recounted by Greco-Roman sources that were widely and durably relayed in historiography. Decried through the famous punica fides, a prejudice stemming from a long tradition of mistrust of the Phoenicians from Homer onwards, this civilization has also given rise to more favorable opinions:

“In their power they equaled the Greeks; in their wealth, the Persians.”

– Appian, Libyca, 2

Resulting from the fusion between the culture brought by the Phoenician colonists and the indigenous culture of the Libyans in Africa, the Carthaginian civilization has always kept its oriental aspect, so much so that it is not easy to distinguish between what belongs to the Punics and what belongs to the Phoenicians in the product of archaeological excavations, whose dynamism since the 1970”s has opened up vast fields of study in which the unity of this civilization appears in spite of the local particularities

In spite of the numerous archaeological excavations carried out, many unknowns about the non-material civilization remain because of the nature of the written sources: always secondary because all the Punic literature has disappeared, incomplete and often subjective because of the people who had to fight them, Greeks and Romans.

From the origins to the 5th century

North Africa which, at the beginning, is probably for the Phoenicians only a simple stage on the route of the metals from Spain, knows permanent Phoenician installations in a very early way, like Utique which is founded in 1101 BC according to Pliny the Elder. The 12th century B.C. would also have seen a settlement at Lixus in Morocco.

The date of the foundation of Carthage by Dido, a Tyrian princess, has always been the subject of debate, not only during antiquity but even today. Two ancient traditions have clashed: the most widespread placed it in 814 BC, following the writings of Timaeus of Tauromenion, of which only fragments reused by other authors remain. The other legend places the birth of Carthage around the time of the Trojan War, a tradition taken up by Appian.

As archaeological excavations have not provided any evidence of such an early date, some historians have suggested a much later foundation (around 670 BC), or even a double foundation, a trading post having preceded the birth of the city in the strict sense according to Pierre Cintas. The most recent historians rely on the analysis of the annals of Tyre, used as a source by Menander and Flavius Josephus, to accept a dating around the last quarter of the 9th century BC.

At the time of the first Phoenician settlements, North Africa was occupied by important Libyan populations, whose continuity with the Berbers of the Maghreb has been defended by Gabriel Camps. It was considered that there was a chronological hiatus too important and especially waves of successive invasions too numerous not to have marked the local populations in a durable way. The Egyptians mention the Libyans under the name of Lebou as early as the twelfth century B.C. as being the populations located immediately to the west of their territory.

The origin of the Libyan populations was related by a great number of legends and traditions, more or less fanciful, some of them mentioning a Medes origin, or even Persian, according to Procopius of Caesarea. Better informed, Sallustus evokes the origin of the Libyans in his War of Jugurtha also described their various tribes, the various names not necessarily involving an ethnic distinction and thus not calling into question the unity of the population of this region at the time of the arrival of the Phoenicians.

Expansion in the Mediterranean and Africa

It is very difficult to distinguish, from the archaeological excavations carried out in the whole Phoenician-Punic field, what belongs to the Phoenicians from what belongs to the Punic. Thus, the archaeologists do not signal a rupture as for certain ancient sites (Bithia and Nora in Sardinia). The foundation of Ibiza, traditionally dated to 675 BC, could therefore have been the work of both sides.

The Punic “empire”, whose formation and functioning are not imperial in the strict sense, is now considered as a sort of confederation of pre-existing colonies behind the most powerful of them at the time of the decline of the mother city, Tyre. Carthage would have been in charge of ensuring the collective security and the foreign policy, even commercial, of the community.

The Phoenicians of the West and then the Punics had early relations with other civilizations, especially the Etruscans, with whom commercial links were established. Archaeology testifies to these exchanges, in particular with the Pyrgi flakes from Caere and certain discoveries made in Carthaginian necropolises: vases of Etruscan production known as bucchero but also an Etruscan inscription on which a Carthaginian presents himself. The alliance with the Etruscans also aimed at hindering the expansion of the Phocaeans in the West, the operation leading to the Phocaean defeat of Alalia. From the decline of the Etruscans, the alliance becomes however inoperative.

The prosperity of Carthage, linked to maritime trade, led to a rivalry with the Greeks on Sicilian territory. This is why the island remained for a long time a zone of local confrontations, due to the will of the protagonists to establish trading posts or colonies on its coasts.

At the beginning of the 5th century BC, the conflict changed in nature: Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, tried to unify the island with the support of several Greek cities. The war, inevitable, bursts with Carthage, which perhaps obtains the assistance of the Persian Empire. Hamilcar of Giscon, commander of the Punic troops, was defeated at the battle of Himera in 480 BC.

By 410 BC, Carthage had recovered from this setback; its African settlement was more powerful, and the distant expeditions of Hannon and Himilcon reinforced its control of the seas. Hannibal of Giscon then gained a foothold in Sicily in 409 BC and won localized victories which did not, however, affect Syracuse. In 405 BC, the second expedition was more difficult, the head of the army having succumbed to an epidemic of plague during the siege of Agrigento. Himilcon, who succeeded Hannibal, managed to negotiate with Denys a cessation of hostilities which was more of a truce than a real peace. From 398 BC, Denys indeed attacked Motyé, which fell but was taken again thereafter. A new siege takes place in front of Syracuse and lasts until 396 BC, year when the plague obliges its lifting. The war continued for sixty years between the belligerents. In 340 BC, the Carthaginian army remained confined only to the southwest of the island.

In 315 BC, Agathocles of Syracuse seized Messina and, in 311 BC, invaded the last Carthaginian trading posts in Sicily. Hamilcar led the retaliation; in 310 BC, he controlled almost all of Sicily and laid siege to Syracuse. The expedition led by Agathocles on the African continent represented a victory since Carthage was forced to recall its army to defend its own territory; the war lasted three years and ended with Agathocles” flight.

According to the most commonly accepted view, Carthage turned to its hinterland following the defeat of Himera in 480 BC. However, this thesis is increasingly questioned by historians who believe that the African settlement had become more important in a late manner. The fifth century would have seen in this optics only an extension of the space necessary to the feeding of a growing population.

Antagonism with Rome and the end of Punic Carthage

The first relations with Rome were peaceful, as proven by the treaties concluded in 509 BC and then in 348 BC and 306 BC. – transmitted by the work of Polybius – then in 348 BC and 306 BC; they guarantee Carthage the exclusivity of trade from North Africa and the absence of plundering carried out against Rome”s allies in Italy. The increasingly short duration between these treaties has been considered significant of the growing tensions between the two powers.

The episodes called “Punic Wars” saw the antagonism spread over more than a century, from 264 to 146 BC, the outcome having seemed uncertain for a long time.

The first conflict took place from 264 to 241 BC, resulting in the loss of Sicily and the payment of a heavy tribute. This first defeat had serious social consequences with the episode of the Mercenary War, between 240 and 237 BC, the city being finally saved by Hamilcar Barca. Rome takes advantage of these internal difficulties to make the conditions of peace heavier.

After this stage, the imperialism of Carthage turned towards the Iberian Peninsula and clashed with the allies of Rome, making the second conflict inevitable (219-201 BC) after the siege of Sagonte. During the Italian adventure, Hannibal Barca shows himself capable of dazzling victories but unable to exploit them to push his advantage and bring to its knees a Rome that is still wavering. After 205 BC, the war only took place on African soil, the year 202 BC marking the final victory of Scipio the African at Zama.

During the fifty years that followed, Carthage regularly repaid the heavy tribute, but at the same time it acquired costly equipment, such as the Punic ports in their last state of development. The city seems to have regained a certain prosperity at this time, corroborated by the construction of concerted edilitary programs such as that of the Punic quarter of Byrsa (linked to the suffrage of Hannibal Barca).

However, faced with the recovery of the city and the end of the payment of the tribute, Rome imposed on the Carthaginians to abandon the city and to withdraw into the hinterland and, thus, to give up their maritime identity. In this regard, Velleius Paterculus wrote that “Rome, already mistress of the world, did not feel safe as long as the name of Carthage remained”. The logical refusal which follows this intransigence involves the third and last conflict. This one, marked by the siege of Carthage, lasts three years. At its end, even if salt was not spread on the ground as historiography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century relates, the destruction of the city was total and a curse was placed on its site, which was declared sacer. Carthage no longer existed as a political entity, but for a long time aspects of its civilization remained, scattered throughout the Mediterranean: religious, artistic and linguistic elements, and even institutions in North Africa.

Location of the sites

The sites occupied by the Phoenicians and then the Punic, turned towards the sea to ensure the connection with the commercial routes, also had to guarantee the security of the inhabitants by protecting them from a hinterland which could be hostile to them. This security was naturally ensured on an island, as in Gades or Motye, but also, although to a lesser extent, on a peninsula or an area surrounded by hills making its defense easier in case of attack. From this point of view, the excellence of the site of Carthage explains why it was praised by several ancient authors, notably Strabo who compared the site to a “ship at anchor”. However, the protective quality of the natural site was not enough, which meant that it had to be reinforced by additional facilities, as in Motyé: the island was thus surrounded by a wall, a causeway allowing access to the mainland and facilitating supplies.

Carthage, the main city: general characteristics

According to legend, Carthage developed from the hill of Byrsa, a citadel and religious center, and then spread out to the coastal plain and the hills to the north, with the suburb of Megara (today”s La Marsa), which seems to have been built in a more anarchic manner than the rest of the city; it is perhaps the most recent suburb and would therefore not have had time to structure itself. With the exception of Megara, Carthage was laid out according to a fairly orderly plan, with straight streets, except on the hills where urbanization was nevertheless thought out. Overall, the plain was criss-crossed by streets, with the agora and the squares linking with the streets that radiated out towards the hills. The city was surrounded by thick walls of white stone blocks that made it bright and visible from afar. The excavations of the Magon district have allowed us to study the evolution of the defensive and urbanistic structures over a long period of time.

The city was thus designed according to a plan that suggests that the Greeks may not have been exclusively responsible for the rectilinear urban plans ordered on two axes, crossing perpendicularly in their center, common to most cities of the ancient world. The district cleared on the hill of Byrsa was built according to an orthogonal plan, revealing the organized aspect of urbanism. The streets, paved and straight but made of clay on the hills, intersected at right angles.

For pragmatic reasons, the relief is taken into account in the axes of the streets that change, with the addition of flights of stairs; wide steps were built where the relief of the land made them necessary. Its residential quarters were partly built with a kind of cement mixed with ceramic shards, this mixture being used for the floor of the rooms or the raising of the walls. The houses were provided with corridors and wooden staircases allowed to go up to the floors. The houses were supplied with water by underground cisterns collecting rainwater from a central courtyard through pipes. There was no sewage system but some kind of septic tanks.

Among the main elements of the city were the agora, the merchant and military ports, various stores and stalls, warehouses, craftsmen”s quarters on the outskirts (such as the potters” quarters), marketplaces, necropolises (several of which were located between the dwellings and the plain, and others higher up on the hills) as well as the temples. The whole was crowned by the central citadel on the hill of Byrsa, which also hosted the main temples, such as that of Eshmoun.

Carthage was a great cosmopolitan city of antiquity, where Phoenicians lived and where Greeks, Berbers from North Africa, Iberians from Spain and other peoples coming from the Carthaginian territories overseas via the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean or the roads of the oases, roads later taken over by the Romans, rubbed shoulders. Mixed marriages were not uncommon, contributing to the development of a particular civilization.

Possessions: zone of influence or empire?

At the time of its greatest territorial expansion, in 264 BC, Carthage”s area of influence consisted of most of the western Mediterranean through its trading posts in North Africa (including western Libya and at least part of the Mauretanian coast), Sicily, Sardinia, the Balearic Islands and Hispania, not to mention small islands such as Malta, the Aeolian Islands and the Pelagos Islands, but also by the control it exercised over ancient Phoenician settlements such as Lixus (near Tangier in Morocco), Mogador (present-day Essaouira on the Atlantic coast of Morocco), Gades (present-day Cadiz in Andalusia) and Utica. Among the great Punic cities are, in addition to the capital Carthage, Hadrumetus, Ruspina, Cartagena or Hippo.

Gades and Utica (in present-day Tunisia) were founded by the Phoenicians between the 12th and 10th centuries B.C. Carthage was founded on a peninsula surrounded by lagoons northeast of present-day Tunis. At the height of its glory, the city had 700,000 inhabitants according to Strabo, a Greek geographer of the second century BC.

Even if the type of links between Carthage and the various components of its possessions escapes us very largely, the metropolis undoubtedly taking care of diplomatic relations and trade, Sabatino Moscati was able to consider the “incapacity to create a solid and structured empire” as a cause of its final defeat.

Protecting the city: the walled city

The ancient authors evoked the walls of the Punic cities at length on the occasion of the report of the seats undergone by some of them. In addition to the citadels of the principal cities, there were also fortresses intended to control a given territory. The archaeological excavations largely confirmed the diffusion in all the Punic space of the model of the city with strengthened enclosure, at least in the current state of the research. The excavations of the Magon quarter of Carthage have highlighted the layout of the city wall, through which a gate was pierced, on the sea side.

The Punics reused in some cases earlier walls, as in Eryx in Sicily, and their own fortresses were sometimes used as a base for other fortified elements, as in Kélibia in the Cape Bon peninsula.

Public spaces and structures: roads and ports

The public space was organized around the agora: the center of the city, the square was bordered by the building of the Senate and also by buildings with religious functions. The agora of Carthage, even if its location is more or less known, has not been the subject of archaeological reconnaissance. The location of the sites used by the Punic people required the setting up of structures, ports and cothons. Even if the boats had to be sheltered only in coves or in privileged natural sites, like the stagnum of Motye, at the beginning of their history, it quickly appeared essential to create artificial structures called “cothon”. This type of artificial harbour can be found at Rachgoun, Motyé or Sulcis, or even at Mahdia, even if this last attribution is discussed.

In the case of Carthage, the facilities – at least in their final state, as the question of the location of Carthage”s early harbors is still unresolved – are very elaborate and described in a famous text by Appian. The final phase of construction probably took place in the first half of the second century BC, with a merchant port doubled by a circular port with an islet (known as the Admiralty) allowing for the security of the war fleet, as well as a discretion limiting the risks of espionage. The excavation of these structures during the international campaign of Carthage confirmed some of the data in the texts, in particular the number of 220 ships that could be housed there now seems likely, with a few dozen units remaining. Wintering was ensured by dry docks installed on the islet and around the military port at the end of the period of Carthaginian domination. On the outskirts of the commercial port, there was also a zone of warehouses and even workshops for craftsmen.

Sacred Architecture

The place of the sacred space in the Carthaginian civilization is linked to the urban topography, even if archaeology has sometimes highlighted the absence of rules in the positioning of places assigned to this use. In fact, they have been found both in the urban centers or acropolises and in the outskirts, if not even in rural areas. The location of places of worship is dependent on the growth of the cities, which remains unknown for a large part, and their position in the city may have changed as a result.

Some are known from literary sources, such as the temple of Eshmoun, the largest sanctuary of Carthage, which was located, according to Appian, at the top of the acropolis, to which the hill Saint-Louis, renamed Byrsa, has been identified. However, the summit was completely erased in Roman times and all its remains were lost. The temple of Melkart in Gades was famous for a long time, until the Roman period.

The sanctuary of Astarte at Tas Silg, in Malta, succeeding an indigenous cult space, is also famous. Excavations in Carthage have also made it possible to identify more modest cult spaces, in the vicinity of the current Salammbô TGM station in Carthage, but also on the edge of the village of Sidi Bou Saïd. It would also seem that the international Unesco campaign has found the temple of Apollo on the edge of the space used by the agora, to which should be associated a number of steles discovered in the vicinity in the 19th century and attributed to the tophet.

The rural sanctuary of Thinissut (present-day Bir Bou Regba), although dated to the beginning of the Roman Empire, has all the characteristics of oriental sanctuaries, both by its set of juxtaposed courtyards and by its furnishings of terracotta statues, including the representation of Ba”al Hammon. The tophet is a structure found on many sites in the western Mediterranean and located away from the city, or even in an unhealthy place, in the case of Carthage. The area is presented as a space occupied little by little by deposits of urns and steles, and which is covered with earth in order to continue using it. The study of the structure has led since the beginning to a very virulent debate, which still persists, as the excavations have not been able to put an end to the polemics arising from certain classical sources. According to certain authors, one would have there a sanctuary and a cemetery.

Private Architecture

The excavations of Kerkouane and of the two Punic quarters of Carthage, those of Magon and Hannibal, have revealed quarters organized according to a checkerboard plan and with wide streets.

The organization of the Punic house is now well known. The entrance to the houses in the Byrsa quarter, called the Hannibal quarter, is very narrow, a long corridor leading to a courtyard with a sump, around which the building is arranged. At the front was a space dedicated, according to some interpretations, to commerce; a staircase led to the upper floor. Various sources, in particular Appian, state that the buildings had six floors, and archaeological evidence confirms the presence of several floors, but there is some doubt as to their number.

Some residences appear more sumptuous than others, in particular a peristyle villa in the Magon district. The same distinction can be observed in the constructions of Kerkouane with the beautiful example of the villa in the Rue de l”Apotropaion. The organization of the houses made M”hamed Hassine Fantar say that there was an oriental model, with an appropriation of Libyan substrates. The question of water in the Punic world is the responsibility of everyone, individual houses being provided with cisterns that help archaeologists today in the study of urban topography. Finally, numerous bathtubs have been found on the site of Kerkouane.

Funerary architecture

Funerary architecture was the first element to be studied at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in Carthage, where exhumations gave rise to real worldly ceremonies. The circular location of these necropolises made it possible to circumscribe the Punic city and to examine the variations of its perimeter.

Archaeologists have noticed a certain typology of tombs, generally dug in the rock and not built, either according to a type of tomb with a simple well with a coffin at the bottom or with a floor, or including a staircase leading to a well. The mode of burial predominates, except in certain periods, as the excavation of the Punic necropolis of Puig des Molins has shown.

The furniture and decoration of these burials are stereotyped: pottery, talismans, jewels, stones, use of red ochre (symbol of blood and therefore of life), painted ostrich eggs (symbol of rebirth) or miniature clay furniture. The coffin is often plastered. A wooden sarcophagus, in an exceptional state of preservation, was discovered at Kerkouane but this example remains unique to this day. Various tombs were decorated with painted decorations, such as those of the tombs of Djebel Mlezza at Cap Bon, which could be seen as symbolizing the Punic belief in an afterlife, the soul of the deceased making a kind of journey: according to François Decret, “for this people of sailors, the Celestial City was the last port to land in.

Punic architecture and mosaics

Few vestiges of Punic architecture have survived in elevation due to the application of the Delenda Carthago principle, but several characteristics can be drawn from archaeological research. Excavations in Carthage, in particular those of the seaside residential area known as the “Magon quarter”, and of Kerkouane, have highlighted the architectural contributions of ancient Egypt for the earliest periods and of ancient Greece for the more recent periods.

The use of the grooved cornice as well as reduced models of temple facades on stelae with solar discs and uraei testify to the Egyptian influence. Fragments of molded sandstone columns from El Haouaria decorated with stucco have also been found, as well as evidence of the use of the Ionic order, notably in the example of the Naiskos of Thuburbo Majus, and of the Doric order in the excavations of the Byrsa hill.

The excavations of Kerkouane, but also the southern flank of Byrsa, have also revealed the presence of mosaics called pavimenta punica, tesserae being agglomerated to a kind of red mortar. We also discovered figurative representations of the sign of Tanit, among others in the city of Cape Bon. These objects dated from the third century BC question the Greek origin of the classical mosaic, long considered a given by historians and archaeologists.

Serge Lancel in his synthesis has associated the two terms, as it is vain to want to study the Carthaginian civilization without understanding these two pillars of the Punic expansion in the western Mediterranean.


Carthage benefited from the Phoenician advances in shipbuilding and maritime trade. The Punic navy had from the beginning the aim of protecting and keeping secret the commercial routes, in particular by controlling the area of the Strait of Gibraltar.

In the service of trade, the navy pushed aside Greek competitors, in particular the Phocaeans. Carthage dominated the seas for a long time; it had the most advanced maritime technology and knowledge of the seas. Copied by the Romans to catch up in this field, its naval power was considerably reduced after the first Punic war.

The two navies of Carthage (merchant and war) had the same purpose, namely the preservation of trade.

The naval power of Carthage is probably explained by its mastery of navigation techniques. It relied on two types of ships: the triremes, a galley with three rows of oars, and the quinqueremes, a galley with four and then five rowers on a rowing bench. The ships were equipped with prows with horse head protrusion, as suggested by some iconographic representations. Excellent shipbuilders, the Punic people built a maritime empire thanks to their fleet, which some have compared to that of Athens. The discovery of the wrecks of Marsala, warships excavated by Honor Frost off the coast of Sicily, has clarified the current knowledge on the Punic shipbuilding of the third century BC, the ships of the time were built according to a very elaborate technique, identified with the implementation of “prefabricated”.

This technique confirms what the texts say, notably those of Appian. The ship, described as a chiourme, had a spur designed to hit enemy ships.

The maritime journeys testify to the boldness of the Punic sailors and their mastery of the seas. It is possible that they discovered new lands: Hannon”s journey thus led the Punic sailors of Gades along the coasts of the African continent to the Gulf of Guinea with a fleet of Carthaginian ships. Himilcon”s journey would have led them to the Cassiterides Islands towards Great Britain, on the tin route.

The sailors of Necho would have succeeded in being the first to circumnavigate the African continent.


The question of the recruitment of the Carthaginian army, of mercenaries and of the place of citizens has been underlined by historiography since Antiquity: the defeat of Carthage would be linked to the recruitment of professional soldiers and to the lack of commitment of citizens, contrary to the Greek and then Roman model.

This argument omits the courage of the soldiers during the last fights, where the population is engaged, and does not take into account the organization of the military navy, which was made around citizens. The Punic army was composed of soldiers of various origins: mercenaries, citizens voluntarily engaged but also subjects of its territories or those of its allies. This army thus presented a strong cosmopolitan character; each part brought units as a participation in the common effort. Such a structure was not without danger when the State was no longer able to pay the salaries, as demonstrated by the Mercenary War after the first Punic War.

The Carthaginian command was in the hands of soldiers from the great families and appointed by the assembly of the people. However, the military hierarchy remains poorly known, even if it seems proven that the title of general corresponds to that of rab. The city was not very lenient towards defeated officers, and the texts give many examples of generals being crucified or executed.

The armies of Carthage differed little from other armies of the time. The changes in structures and maneuvers are due to Hannibal Barca, who wanted to modify an army based on phalanxes, at least for the best known period of its history, from the Sicilian and then Punic wars.

The units were various, organized in battalions according to their ethnic origin, and armed sometimes according to their own traditions. The light infantry included, in addition to citizens armed with lances and swords, specialized units: thus the slingers of the Balearic Islands, archers or Libyan lancers armed with javelins, daggers and leather shields, and also groups of Iberian infantrymen equipped with shields and a short sword called falcata. The sacred battalion described by Diodorus of Sicily had a specific armament. The heavy infantry was organized in phalanxes according to the Macedonian model, but it is not known if the sarissa, characteristic of this formation, was used in the Carthaginian army.

The other land units were mainly made up of cavalrymen, only Numidian at the beginning then from other origins, including Iberians and Gauls. This highly mobile element made the difference on the battlefields of the Second Punic War. The equipment also included war chariots, undoubtedly coming from a long Libyan tradition linked to the contacts of this people with the Egyptian armies, and especially the war elephants. This last unit, highlighted by the contemporaries of the Punic wars, is in fact limited in number and of a late use, probably after the war of Pyrrhus in Italy. Such use was more psychological than military. These elephants probably belonged to a local breed of African forest elephant, smaller than the Asian elephant. As for the mahouts, they are sometimes said to be of Indian origin.

Marine units have evolved over the course of history: the trireme, which appeared as early as the 6th century B.C., embarked 200 men in addition to the rowers. The quadrireme was invented in the Hellenistic period. As for the quinqueremes, carrying 300 men at the most, it was designed during the Punic wars. The logistics were provided by other ships, called gauloi.

Among the Macedonian contributions to the Carthaginian art of war, historians note the organization into phalanxes as well as the layout of the army in the field and the camps. However, changes are due to Hannibal Barca: the strategic importance of the cavalry, new maneuvers to envelop the opponent (battle of Cannes), even a strategy of ambush to overcome a numerical disadvantage as during the battle of Lake Trasimeno. The war elephants, little and late used but noticed by the adversaries, played above all a role of intimidation and disorganization of the enemy lines.

As far as sea warfare was concerned, the custom at the time was to ram ships. To counter the Carthaginian advance, the Romans developed the “raven” to facilitate boarding and regain the advantage. They were able to crush Carthage at the battle of Mylae.

The Carthaginians were also masters in poliorcetics, using siege towers, ballistas and catapults.


The political organization of Carthage was praised by many ancient authors who highlighted its “reputation for excellence”. Although few details are known about the government of the great city, we do have a valuable text by Aristotle that depicts it as a model of a “mixed” constitution, balanced and presenting the best characteristics of the various types of political regimes; this document has fueled a lively debate, with some historians, including Stéphane Gsell, considering it a late description. Scholars now favour the evolution of institutions over the course of history.

Despite the shortcomings of the information available on Carthage, the data is much more important than for the other Punic cities.

Even if Dido came from a royal family, no element in the legend mentions her as queen. Greek or Latin authors mention the presence of basileis or reges. The theory of the kingship of Carthage, bitterly defended and developed by Gilbert Charles-Picard following Karl Julius Beloch, is now refuted by most historians. A part of the historiography also supposed monarchic ambitions on the Hellenistic model to the Barcids in Spain, hypothesis also rejected by Maurice Sznycer.

However, the Phoenician-Punic world did not ignore monarchy: the Phoenician kings mentioned in Tyre were not, however, holders of absolute power.

The term suffet, a Latinization of the Phoenician word shofet (plural: shofetim) literally means “judge”.

More in conformity with the Eastern traditions and of Tyre, the government was to be comparable to that of Rome, with a Senate and two suffetes elected each year but called “kings” by the Romans and the Greeks because of their incapacity to find in their culture an adequate term to transmit the Punic reality.

It is thought that these suffetes exercised both judicial and executive power, but not military power, which was reserved for chiefs elected separately each year by the assembly of the people and recruited from the great families of the city. The case of Hannibal Barca can be underlined, being elected suffet after the defeat of Zama, in 196 BC according to Titus Livius. The power of the suffetes was probably a civil power of administration of the public thing.

The suffetes were assisted by a “Council of Elders”: the texts mention the “Elders of Carthage” just as in Lepcis Magna the “Great of Lepcis” is still mentioned in Roman times. This Council was assimilated to the Senate, the members being called gerontes or seniores in the various sources.

The Senate, probably composed by the members of the influential families, counted probably several hundreds of members. It had competence for all the affairs of the city: war, peace, diplomacy, etc. The generals gave account of their acts in front of this assembly, which had the last word. It is not known however if the suffetes were elected by these oligarchs or by the whole of the people.

Moreover, Aristotle is the only one to mention a restricted council, the “Hundred and Four” or the “Hundred”, and the “pentarchies”. These institutions are badly known, the first having received, on the basis of a text of Justin, a judicial role.

An assembly of the people is mentioned in Aristotle”s text and, according to Polybius, it had gained power during the third and second centuries B.C. This power was undoubtedly great; the same author speaks of widespread corruption in order to obtain magistracies and military commands. This power was undoubtedly great; the same author speaks about a widely diffused corruption for the obtaining of the magistratures and the military commands. Certain cases were brought before this assembly in case of disagreement between the institutions with oligarchic form, even if these assertions are not supported by any archaeological evidence.

It is assumed that only free men were admitted and some sources, including Diodorus of Sicily, report a meeting on the agora of the city.

These unknowns do not allow us to determine the degree of democracy in ancient Carthage. However, it seems certain that the main merchant families exercised most of the power.

Social organization

Carthaginian society was very stratified: the aristocracy of Tyrian origin held most of the economic, political and religious power; the rest of the population was divided between an unknown proportion of artisans and merchants and a heterogeneous proletariat composed of slaves but also of native and even Punic populations. The place of women is still subject to debate.

The Carthaginian aristocracy was characterized by its Phoenician-Tyrian origin, its fortune linked to its functions as shipowners and then as landowners, its role in the magistracies and a particular way of life in luxurious dwellings (at Cape Bon or in the district of Megara).

Within this aristocracy were recruited the priests, who formed a very organized class and populated the numerous temples, centers of an active intellectual life and which notably allowed for centuries the maintenance of the Phoenician language and culture in the face of Romanization.

The priesthood could also be exercised by women. Their clothing is known in particular thanks to the Stele of the Priest with Child; the figure identified as the celebrant wears a linen robe and a particular headdress which crowns a shaved head.

The popular classes are not well known, but it is assumed that they were made up of free men and slaves who could be attached to a person or to the state. In addition, the Carthaginian cities contained a number of foreigners from all over the Mediterranean basin.

In spite of strong personalities and tragic destinies such as those of Dido (Elishat in Phoenician), Sophonisbe and the wife of Hasdrubal the Boetharch, women in Carthage appear little in the available sources. Although marked by a patriarchal character, Carthaginian society grants a relative independence to women: the study of the stelae of the tophet of Carthage has brought to light sacrifices made by women in their own name. Moreover, it seems that many professional activities were open to them.

This independence was however tempered by a certain instrumentalization of women in the service of their family, at the time of the choice of their husband or for political or even economic purposes: the story of Sophonisbe is particularly evocative of this subjection, married successively to the Numidian kings Syphax and Massinissa. The context of the marriage is little known and it is not known whether polygamy was practiced.

On the other hand, cases of mixed marriages appear in sources and are perhaps also found in excavations of multiple burials, with a Phoenician rite for one of the individuals buried and an African one for another. The case of Sophonisbe is again evocative: daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco, a Carthaginian general, she married Syphax, king of Numidia, on the orders of her father in order to seal an alliance between the Carthaginians and Numidians.

The indigenous populations are even more difficult to apprehend. The contact with the first navigators, even if it is conceivable through the silent trade of Herodotus with the asserted commercial purpose, was transformed into a relationship that can be conceived in terms of domination.

In the Carthaginian society, mixed marriages could be frequent; unions between nobles of the Phoenician aristocracy and Libyan princesses took place thus. However, these matrimonial alliances of a political nature did not alter the paradoxical nature of the Carthaginian state, which retained its Phoenician governmental character.

It is proven through various preserved texts that the Carthaginian hold was heavy, both at the time of the conquest and during the difficult times of the Punic wars, as witnessed by the revolts which followed one another. The native populations of the exterior have thus, in particular under the aegis of Massinissa, contributed to the fall of the city because of their successive encroachments during the second half of the second century BC.

Carthage was a commercial, maritime, land and agricultural empire. Thus, the link between all the regions, whether Punic or under Punic influence, was made by sea thanks to the Carthaginian navy.


The Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors, were excellent sailors and traders. The Latin historian Pliny the Elder wrote about them that “the Punics invented trade”.

Like Tyre, Carthage traded in metals, looking especially for raw materials that enabled it to establish its wealth and develop its trade network: silver, but also copper and tin from the trading posts in southern Hispania (kingdom of Tartessos). In this region, the mines were both easily exploitable and accessible. Tin was also found in the Cassiterides Islands (present-day Great Britain).

In a secondary manner, the Carthaginians imported and disseminated small manufactured objects: Greek and Etruscan ceramics but also, from the seventh century BC, elements of Egyptian craftsmanship such as amulets. Trade was also carried out by caravans but this type of exchange was much more random and dangerous. This land trade helps to explain certain settlements, particularly in Libya and in the south of present-day Tunisia.

The goal of the Phoenicians was to export metals in their raw state to the East; until the 6th century B.C., they enjoyed a monopoly of trade and navigation in the western Mediterranean thanks to which they had free access to metals, and to the human and agricultural resources of entire regions.

The Carthaginians excelled in glassmaking, jewelry, textile craftsmanship and dyeing, in particular the manufacture of purple, whose technique, derived from murex, was invented in Tyre. The latter exported products manufactured by their craftsmen or imported: ceramics, glass objects (a Phoenician specialty) or cloth dyed purple, ivory work, wood and metals (ivory, gold or silver plating on different materials). Because of their potentially perishable nature, it is sometimes difficult to identify some of these export products: fabrics, which were very famous, have left no archaeological traces apart from heaps of murex or weights used to stretch the hangings.

The voyages of exploration are explained by the search for minerals and new commercial outlets: tin from Great Britain and Hispania, gold and other raw materials from the Maghreb. Some of the products used for trade were manufactured by Carthaginian workshops.

Agriculture and fishing

At the dawn of the First Punic War, Carthage controlled a territory of approximately 73,000 km2 in North Africa – its hinterland, constituted by present-day Tunisia, represented a territory devoted to agriculture greater in surface area than that of Rome and its allies combined, and remains one of the leading agricultural areas in the Roman Empire – for a population of nearly four million inhabitants. Such a population required a regular supply and a hinterland capable of ensuring sufficient production in quantity and quality: a production of cereals intended for all social strata, but also a production of fruit or meat intended for a wealthier population.

This territory was largely amputated by the attacks of Massinissa in the last half-century of existence of the city, to be limited to a surface of less than 25 000 km2 in 146 BC.

The area occupied by Carthage in Africa was very fertile because it enjoyed ample rainfall for agricultural production. These assets were later exploited in the province of Roman Africa.

Carthage very quickly established a division of tasks between crops for speculative purposes, in the lands close to the capital, and cereal crops left to the Libyan populations, the latter being subject to a tribute in kind, the weight of which, particularly during the Punic wars, was able to influence the course of events by pushing them to revolt. The city developed its hinterland thanks to the cultivation of almonds, figs, olives, pomegranates – perceived as a Punic fruit by the Romans – and vines, in addition to wheat. These plants were already present in the wild in the region, but the Phoenicians brought plants that allowed them to export throughout the Mediterranean basin: traces of Punic agricultural products can be found as far as Greece.

Animal husbandry was practiced for a long time by the indigenous populations, in particular that of horses, oxen and mules.

The success of Carthage is also explained by its prowess in agronomy. The Carthaginians succeeded in developing some of the most efficient agricultural techniques of antiquity, which the Romans adopted through the translation into Latin of the Punic treatise Magon. Columella preserved fragments of the Punic work, including a process of wine making.

The planting of olive groves obeyed precise rules, in particular the spacing between the plants, rules that are still sometimes respected today. The agricultural equipment played an important role in the improvement of the production, as testified by the representations of ploughs, in particular on a sculpture found on the territory of the current Libya, which did not fail to cut with the traditional Libyan production.

Fishing was a widespread activity during the Punic period and, in addition to the production of salted fish and murex, it is established that it was the Phoenicians who spread the use of garum in the Mediterranean basin. This sauce made from fatty fish, used in cooking and for medicinal purposes, was produced on a large scale in facilities found at a number of sites. The production and marketing of garum continued well into Roman times.


Most of the elements preserved to this day are related to funerary use. Other sculptures exist, but of reduced size, such as the Lady of Galera or the lion protome of Sant”Antioco.

The cippes and stelae, sometimes in the form of betyls or “house of the god”, show a stylistic evolution. Carved in sandstone at the beginning, these elements were later conceived in limestone, sometimes flanked by acroteria and incised motifs with a marked Greek influence: animal, plant, human and especially symbol motifs. From the 5th and 4th centuries B.C. onwards, the so-called “sign of Tanit” motif spread and was found on many other supports. It was thought to be present only in the western Mediterranean, but current research shows its presence on sites in the Levant. Other motifs have been recognized, such as the bottle idol. There are local differences, particularly in Motye, where human representations are earlier and more widespread than in Carthage.

The sarcophagi are very representative of the Phoenician-Punic crossbreeding: the anthropoid type originally present in Phoenicia evolved in the western Mediterranean. In addition to Africa, well-preserved examples have been found in Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula. In the 4th century BC, the type changed in Tunisia to appear above a statue of the deceased. The sarcophagi of Saint Monica, called the Priest and the Priestess and preserved in the National Museum of Carthage, are particularly interesting because of the treatment of the drapery and the attitude of the two characters: the priest has his right hand raised in a gesture of blessing, the priestess holds a dove; the left hands of the two characters carry an incense vase of known liturgical use, hence the name given to these works.

The production of terracottas, very varied, consisted of grotesque masks with marked features, probably of Levantine origin. The forms are diverse; wrinkles and deformed mouths are sometimes accompanied by geometric motifs. Masks with characteristic negroid features have also been found. Intended to be hung, these masks had an apotropaic function: they were supposed to drive out demons.

There were also protomes representing the upper part of men”s or women”s bodies. The style of this type of product is diverse, both Egyptian and Greek from the 6th century B.C., and a classification has been established.

The production of coroplasty or coroplathy was widespread in many Punic sites, from North Africa to the Balearic Islands, passing through Sicily and Sardinia. They are molded figures, holding objects (Punic stereotypes coexist with other Hellenistic stereotypes, even linked to local production. The technique was also used for pieces of variable size, for religious use, even after the fall of Carthage. Several examples were discovered in the excavations of the sanctuary of Thinissut at Cap Bon (small sculpture of Ba”al Hammon framed by two sphinxes but also beautiful large representations of Tanit “leontocephalus” and Demeter).

Daily life

The Punic were specialized and recognized craftsmen. The Greeks gave them the reputation of selling trinkets, glassware made by the craftsmen in exchange for valuable products such as raw materials from the regions they boarded with their ships. Thus, many Phoenician objects and trinkets of various inspirations (Greek, Egyptian, etc.) have been discovered on the sites they frequented. The necropolises that have been the object of archaeological excavations since the 19th century have delivered an important and varied material that denotes a developed craft industry: metal work with, in particular, examples of bronze razors most often decorated with engraved motifs, small masks made of glass paste with an apotropaic function that adorned necklaces, engraved ivories and bones, but also jewelry.

As for the pottery used in daily life, outside of a religious context, the excavations have yielded ceramics for food or culinary purposes, as well as oil lamps whose shapes demonstrate a stereotyped and rationalized production; examples of bottle vases have also been found.

If, from the 3rd century B.C., we see a number of imitations of Greek imports, there persists a typical production called “cake molds”.

Excavations in the necropolises of Carthage have brought to light models representing elements of daily life: a tabouna type bread oven, deposited in the National Museum of Carthage, but also small pieces of furniture that allow us to imagine the interior of dwellings.

Numerous amulets made of bone, glass paste and stone have been found in the burials, mainly of women and children, whose purpose was to protect the deceased by means of magical rites. They were imported (especially from Egypt) or made locally. Certain themes are recurrent, such as the Egyptian god Bes, but also Horus or the Udjat eye.

Sumptuous jewels of gold, silver and hard stones come from the necropolises. Linked to the structure of the Phoenician-Punic trade and stemming from a long oriental tradition, this production consists of very heavy and loaded necklaces, but also of rings, earrings or nose rings (also called nezem) significant of the appearance which must have been that of the Punic, an aspect widely mocked in the classical sources. Scarabs were also found as well as cases for amulets with an obvious protective function.

Small carved ivory tablets are also found, a material often replaced by bone, which is less expensive. The ancient oriental, or even Egyptian, influence is recurrent in these artifacts, which are frequent on various sites in both the eastern and western Mediterranean. A large number of objects of this nature date from the 8th-4th centuries B.C. and the presence in the same places of ivory in its raw state suggests local manufacture.

Numerous bronze or iron razors were discovered in necropolises after the 7th century BC. Such objects were linked to a symbolism of purification of the deceased. They had a religious function, even talismanic and may have been intended to be hung, at least for this type of material present in the Iberian world.

In addition, from the 5th century B.C. onwards, decoration began to appear. These drawings – sometimes depicted on both sides in the case of late examples – bear witness to a variety of influences, essentially Egyptian or Aegean. The production was able to reach autonomous developments in the various regions of the Carthaginian possessions, demonstrating real creative capacities.

According to a legend told by Pliny the Elder, glass was invented by the Phoenicians, who would have kept the secret of its manufacture during a long period. In fact, they probably developed the technique of glass blowing and especially commercialized their production on a large scale, which would have allowed the legend to be born.

Discoveries are quite frequent on archaeological sites, both in the West and in the Eastern Mediterranean. The most typical objects are small masks with a human figure and a varied facies, intended to be inserted into necklaces containing small glass beads; there were also small ointment or perfume jars. The most remarkable pieces are colored in the mass.

Carthaginian coins appeared late: the Punic economy was not monetary at the beginning because exchanges were carried out using ingots or even barter. The first ones date from 480 or 430 BC. The birth of Punic coinage is linked to the need to pay mercenaries hired by the Punic city in Sicily, the workshops of Motye and Palermo having been considered as the places where the first coins of this civilization were minted. In Carthage, the workshops did not begin their activity until the middle of the fourth century BC. The metal used was gold, electrum and silver at the end of the third century BC. The aloi and the quality of striking of this coinage decreases from the end of the Second Punic War, the archaeological excavations not allowing to consider this element as an argument of a supposed decadence.

The Carthaginian issues pass from a weighted system calibrated on the eginine drachma to the Phoenician shekel. According to Jacques Alexandropoulos, this metrological transition is linked to the loss of the Sicilian trading posts, justifying the passage from a Punic-Greek system with an international vocation to Phoenician-Punic coinage for internal use, also expressing a “nationalist” surge of Carthage. The typology of the Carthaginian coins supports the idea of Greek authorship of this coinage from a stylistic point of view. This is particularly true of the type known, according to Stéphane Gsell, Gilbert Kenneth Jenkins and Pierre Cintas, as the head of Arethusa, Ceres or Tanit. Whatever it is, this portrait seems to owe a lot to Evainète. Like the Greek cities and their colonies in Magna Graecia, Carthage asserts its identity. It announces itself as an African city through emblematic coinage: in addition to the controversial deity”s head, the horse (galloping in protome) and the palm tree are used alternately or jointly.

A greater diversity of the types approached in the Carthaginian coinage appears in the emissions of Sicily, Sardinia, of the Iberian peninsula and on the last three centuries of existence of the metropolis.

Numerous sigil rings have been found in Punic necropolises. They often present a bezel in the shape of an Egyptian scarab engraved in semi-hard stones (carnelian, agate, chalcedony, jasper, chrysoprase, onyx, etc.).

This craze is the result of a very long Eastern tradition. These stones treated in intaglio could be originally imported products. The engraved stones came from Phoenician workshops, and more frequently from Egyptian ones. They were invested with talismanic virtues similar to those attributed to them by Egyptian beliefs.

Nevertheless, there is a certain degeneration from the second half of the fourth century BC, with a less noble production (engravings on glass paste) which could be an indication of a typically Carthaginian production, while the appearance of the imports evolves and presents an engraving of more frequently Hellenistic style.


The Punic language served as a common linguistic and cultural foundation for the Phoenicians of the West, whose center was Punic Carthage. This language, used by the elites as well as by the populations of the regions under Punic influence – Numidians and other Berbers of the Maghreb (as in Tunisia and Algeria or Morocco) but also Iberians and other populations of the kingdom of Tartessos (in the south of Hispania) – was conveyed in depth in their territories. The official language of the Numidian kingdoms was Punic.

It endured, despite the preponderance of Latin, until the arrival of the Arabs in the 6th century. By this time, this declining language had become a local dialect, at least in some areas. As a corollary of the language, the Phoenician alphabet, ancestor of the Greek alphabet, spread throughout the Mediterranean basin until it became the vector of thought for the peoples of the Punic sphere. This writing without vowels was modified after the Roman settlement in North Africa, tending to include vowels. Its appearance differed over time and according to the region. In the fourth century, the Latin alphabet was used to transcribe the Punic language.

The language ends up becoming, with Berber, the substratum on which Tunisian Arabic and other modern Maghrebian dialects, influenced by Arabic, are established.

Literature and epigraphy

Carthaginian literature has not come down to us, but we know that there were many libraries in Carthage, which indicates a certain literary production or at least a diffusion of the literature of the time, especially that of Greek language. Philosophy was widespread in the Punic milieu, some names are known from what Diogenes Laërce or Jamblicus say; the most famous philosopher of Carthaginian origin is without question Clitomachus.

There was a literature of law, history, geography, even if all this has been lost. However, fragments of Magon”s important treatise on agronomy, which strongly influenced the Romans, have been preserved: the proof is that the translation into Latin was decided by the conquerors the day after the city was taken. Later Roman authors quoted extracts from it and were full of praise for it (Pliny the Elder). The account of Hannon”s journey, even if it is a text written in Greek, must be the translation of a Punic text probably displayed in a temple. However, the document was difficult to interpret and gave rise to much controversy.

Numerous stelae, however, provide a whole corpus of inscriptions, notably the stelae found in quantity in the tophets, including that of Carthage. These texts have been collected in the Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum. But they appear to be very stereotyped and contribute little to our knowledge of the city. In addition, they provide little information on onomastics, the known proper names being limited in number.

In addition, archaeologists have uncovered a small number of documents called “sacrificial tariffs” that were placed in the temples. The best known of these is the “tariff of Marseilles”, so named because it was found in the port of this city. Despite its location, it is, according to specialists, of Carthaginian origin. Also worth mentioning as a particular inscription is the case of the Pyrgi lamellae found in Caere, Italy, which offer insight into the relationship between Etruscans and Punic in the sixth century BC.

Finally, the coins also constitute an epigraphic source and make it possible to study the sometimes important variation of the calligraphy and the shape of the letters.

The mythology and religion of Carthage are largely inherited from those of the Phoenicians. In spite of a transcription in Latin or Greek in the ancient sources, they keep, throughout their history, their deeply West-Semitic character.


The initially Semitic pantheon evolved during encounters with local traditions. In various colonies, certain Carthaginian divinities acquired the character of poliads, such as Tinnit or Tanit in Carthage, Melkart in Gades (where a famous temple was built for him), Sid (Sardus Pater in Roman times) in Sardinia is dominated by Ba”al Hammon accompanied by his goddess Tanit (face of Ba”al).

If the ancient Phoenician gods are still venerated by the Carthaginians, such as Astarte, goddess of fertility and war, Eshmoun, god of medicine, and Melkart, Phoenician god of expansion and enrichment of the human experience, they are transformed: Thus Melkart takes on characters from the Greek hero Heracles while the Phoenician Ba”al Hammon becomes the Libyan Ammon symbolized by a ram borrowed from Egyptian mythology, and then adopts Jupiterian traits that he still had when Christianity arrived.

Sanctuaries and rites

The places of worship are specific constructions or fitted out spaces. Several urban temples have been found in different places; their location did not follow a precise rule. Those located by the sea benefited from their contact with foreigners (offerings, ex-votos, donations, etc.). Sanctuaries in caves have also been discovered.

Religion was a state affair in Carthage; even if the priests did not intervene directly in internal or external politics, they had a great influence on a deeply religious society, structured around a hierarchy of priests whose highest offices were held by members of the most powerful families of the city. The cults played an important economic role thanks to the offerings (such as meat and other foodstuffs) to the gods and to the priests. Sacrifice also had a significant weight: “tariffs” were defined for each type of sacrifice according to each demand; after the product of the sacrifice was shared between deity, priest and faithful, a stele was erected as a commemoration.

The cults and their practice left visible traces in the various Carthaginian colonies of the western Mediterranean, but also among the peoples in contact with this civilization, such as the Berbers of Numidia and Mauritania and the Iberians.

The question of child sacrifice mentioned by Diodorus of Sicily or Tertullian has given rise to the most diverse interpretations. However, the texts are not very explicit and essential texts, such as Livy, make no mention of it, whereas the Romans had no interest in hiding an argument which would have justified the fate reserved for Carthage. The debate is not settled, and as for the bones contained in the urns, science does not detect violent causes among the causes of death and therefore cannot affirm that their accumulation was anything other than a necropolis for children.

The cultural life of this civilization, which some have called thalassocracy because of its close and lasting relationship with the sea, results from a syncretism between the Phoenician culture of the Tyrian settlers and the various indigenous influences, Greek but also Egyptian.

Oriental persistence and African contributions

Phoenician art is a subtle mixture of Greek and Egyptian elements. If the Egyptian culture deeply influenced the Phoenicians from the IIIrd millennium BC, the Hellenic culture took over from the IVth century BC. The Phoenician culture emerges from the Egyptian collapse, following the invasion of the Sea Peoples in 1200 BC. Before its existence, it was confused in the Syrian-Lebanese area (country of Canaan). Moreover, some of the Punic peoples of the West called themselves Canaanites long after the absorption of the Carthaginian empire by the Romans. Indeed, due to the geographical position of Carthage and while the Phoenicians were present in the Mediterranean West, the Punic city crystallized and grouped this presence, transforming it into an empire, while promoting the development of colonization.

Carthaginian identity

Punic art, that of the Phoenicians of the West, shows Egyptian components such as the work of glass – with the small glass masks of the Punic tombs specific to the Phoenician mentality and which are used to repel evil spirits or demons away from the dead – and motifs such as the lotus which can be found on objects or on the decoration of buildings. Moreover, from the 4th century B.C. onwards, traces of Hellenic influence appear, superimposed on Egyptian influences and adding to the primitive Phoenician culture.

The Libyan-Punic mausoleum of Dougga occupies a special place because it symbolizes the architectural syncretism between Egyptian traditions and Greek or even Hellenistic contributions. There are other witnesses of this monumental funerary architecture like in Sabratha.

Sculpture evolved from a hieratic, almost symbolic style to a more figurative aesthetic that idealized perfection. The Ephebe of Motye, a 5th century BC marble discovered during land excavations in 1979, bears witness to this contact with the Greek world of Sicily. This statue has given rise to various theories: some have seen it as a representation of Melkart with a clear Greek influence, while other researchers consider the statue to be a Greek work transported to Motye as a result of military operations. Still others identify it as a commission to a Greek artist from Sicily in the fifth century BC, but according to Carthaginian canons, particularly in terms of dress; it has even been suggested that he was an charioteer or even a sponsor of games. The ambiguity of the canons of this work leads to “a loss of the usual reference points, a source of intellectual and aesthetic discomfort”. The sarcophagus known as “of the priestess” from the necropolis of the Rabs also shows these mixed influences.

The aesthetic canons of the protomes indicate the same crossbreeding and the criteria behind the choices of the craftsmen remain difficult to grasp. The statuettes from Ibiza reveal a local influence, no doubt linked to the relative isolation of the island. As a metropolis located between the East and the West, Carthage played a role in facilitating economic and cultural exchanges, revealing a great porosity to external contributions.

Persistence after the fall

Punic civilization lasted well beyond the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, in the local institutions of Roman cities, in architecture and especially in religion and language. The presence of suffetes, municipal magistrates, is noted in the institutions of the Roman cities of North Africa until the second century. Sometimes, the suffetes were three in number, which is considered by some Semiticists as a Berber contribution.

The persistence in the architecture concerns especially the opus africanum and the mosaic. The opus africanum is a type of construction with chaining found in the excavations of Kerkouane as well as on many other Punic sites, and one of the examples of the Roman period is located at the Capitol of Dougga. As for the mosaic, the school of African mosaicists, particularly skilful and benefiting moreover from marbles of beautiful quality, has widely disseminated its models of bestiaries and mythological scenes in the Roman Empire.

In the religious field, the persistence of the cult of African Saturn and the Roman interpretation of the Punic Ba”al and its parable Caelestis, transposing the goddess Tanit, has been studied; the cult of Sardus Pater in Sardinia follows the same evolution. The rural sanctuaries were maintained, as in Thinissut and in Bou Kornine. The most important Neo-Punic sanctuary excavated up to now, and having delivered the most interesting testimonies of fusion of Libyan and Punic elements, is at El Hofra (Cirta). Elements of continuity have been discovered in the stelae known as “of the Ghorfa” as well as the vitality of African Saturn, infernal god and provider of the harvest, until the end of the first quarter of the 4th century.

The transmission of the “Punic books” from the libraries of the martyred city to the Numidian rulers has been the subject of bitter discussion, and their use by Sallustus in the elaboration of his War of Jugurtha has been mentioned. However, the trace of these works is very quickly lost in the sources; they are only mentioned as a memory from Augustine of Hippo.

It also seems that for a long time the Punic language was maintained, as shown by the so-called “Neo-Punic” texts and the diffusion of the language in the Numidian kingdoms, particularly in their coinage. Augustine even mentions it in one of his works:

“So ask our peasants what they are. They will answer you, in Punic language: “Chanani”, that is to say Cananoei (Canaanites) “

– Augustine of Hippo, Epistolae ad romanos inchoata expositio

According to Augustine of Hippo, the villagers (Latin: rustici) of North Africa, speaking the Phoenician language (“lingua punica”), identified themselves or their language as “Chanani. Augustine, in a discussion of the healing of the daughter of a Canaanite woman in the New Testament, argued that this name (Latin: Chanani) was the same as the word Chananaei (“Canaanites”). The correct Latin formulation among the manuscripts is debated and the context is ambiguous. Although this passage has been advanced to demonstrate that the name “Canaanite” was an endonym for the Phoenicians, it is possible that the rehetorical context of Augustine”s words means that they cannot be invoked as historical evidence.

This maintenance of a Semitic language may have facilitated the Arabization of the Maghreb according to Stéphane Gsell and M”hamed Hassine Fantar after him.


Since the late 2010s, genetic studies based on ancient DNA have shown that the Punic people of Sardinia, Ibiza and the southern Iberian Peninsula in particular were derived mainly from a genetic mixture between populations of North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

In 2019, a genetic study by Iñigo Olalde and colleagues shows that individuals in the south of the Iberian Peninsula between the third and seventh centuries possessed substantial North African ancestry and much greater than current populations in the same region. According to the authors, this important gene flow from North Africa could have occurred during the Roman or Punic period.

In 2020, according to a genetic study by Fernandes and colleagues, the individual found in a collective burial in Ibiza in a Punic hypogeum dated 361-178 BC has a different genetic profile from other individuals from the Balearic Islands dating from the same period because it has a significant North African ancestry.

Two studies published in 2021 in the journal Annals of Human Biology also show a strong genetic proximity to North African populations of several individuals, perhaps descendants of Punic war captives according to the authors, from the site of Quarto Cappello del Prete, located near Gabies in Italy and dating from Imperial Rome (1st – 3rd centuries), and those of the Punic site of Tharros (5th and 3rd centuries BC), located in Sardinia.

Rediscovery of civilization

The interest for the Phoenician-Punic world was born in the 17th century – with in particular the role of the Phoenicians apprehended in the Geographia sacra of Samuel Bochart – but it blossomed especially in the 18th – 19th centuries, under the angle of epigraphy and philology. It was in the 18th century that the stele of Nora was discovered and was the subject of numerous studies.

Turner”s painting Dido Building Carthage or the Rise of the Carthaginian Empire, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1817, is inspired by the Aeneid. It represents Carthage, founded by Dido. The history of the rise and fall of empires was a theme that preoccupied Turner throughout his life, and he painted ten major paintings on the theme of the Carthaginian Empire. He saw the rise and fall of once great empires as inevitable.


In the nineteenth century, in the context of contemporary colonization, vast excavations were carried out in the Maghreb countries, focusing mainly on the Roman and Byzantine periods, the remains of the earlier period being less impressive and not obeying the ideology underlying such research.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 20th century major discoveries were made, such as the Carthage tophet in 1921 and, before that date, the pioneering role of Joseph Whitaker in Motyé.

Independence of the discipline and contributions of archaeology

After the last period of colonial occupation, with the arrival of researchers (such as Gilbert Charles-Picard), the wave of independence starting in 1956 allowed the emergence of a school of research in Tunisia, represented in particular by M”hamed Hassine Fantar and Abdelmajid Ennabli. Excavations from Libya to Morocco, as well as in Spain (Balearic Islands and Andalusia) and in Italy with research in Sicily and especially the exhaustive study of Phoenician-Punic Sardinia, considerably broaden the problematic.

Current field of study

Since the end of the 1970s and the birth of the International Congress of Phoenician and Punic Studies, scholars from the various countries of the Punic space have been setting up a synergy in their lines of research, in particular the Italian researchers of the University La Sapienza of Rome (following Sabatino Moscati), and their Spanish and Tunisian colleagues.

Stéphane Gsell, in volume IV of his monumental Ancient History of North Africa, has very harsh words about the Carthaginian civilization:

“For its part, Carthage contributed very little to general civilization. Its luxury was hardly useful to art. We have said what its industry, which invented nothing, dragged itself into routine, and whose technique itself is either mediocre or bad.”

The progress of archaeology since the second half of the twentieth century has made it possible to qualify this statement, which remains that of a man marked by classicism, because the Carthaginian civilization does not fit into this scheme of a domination of the major arts and could hardly be understood by a scholar of the first third of the twentieth century, which has also worked to bring it out of oblivion.

The numerous exhibitions that have taken place since the 1980s, from that of the Palazzo Grassi in 1988, to name only the most significant, to that of the Institut du Monde Arabe in 2007-2008, demonstrate the public”s interest in a civilization that is open to others, “between the East and the West,” according to Serge Lancel, and in this sense very contemporary, despite its “ambiguous identity.

: document used as a source for the writing of this article.

External links


  1. Civilisation carthaginoise
  2. Ancient Carthage
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