Ancient History & Civilisation


New City: The Rise of Carthage


Great cities often attract great foundation myths, and Carthage was no exception. It was said that Mattan, king of Tyre, had dictated that on his death, in 831 BC, the kingdom was to be split between his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissa (Elisshat). However, the people of Tyre, perhaps concerned about the instability that such an equitable settlement might ferment, had protested, and Pygmalion had been crowned sole monarch. In a ruthless show of strength, the new king quickly moved to snuff out any potential opposition by ordering the assassination of his uncle Acherbas (Zakarbaal), high priest of the god Melqart and husband of Elissa. To secure her own safety Elissa pretended to bear her brother no ill will for his actions, but secretly planned to flee the city with some similarly disaffected Tyrian nobles.1

Elissa then successfully allayed the suspicions of Pygmalion by requesting that she be allowed to move into his palace, as her late husband’s residence brought back too many painful memories. Her brother was delighted, as he thought that she would bring Acherbas’ gold with her. In a wonderful psychological ruse, Elissa then took the attendants that Pygmalion had sent with her to collect her belongings on a ship out to sea, where she threw a number of sacks overboard which she claimed were full of her dead husband’s gold. She then persuaded these royal retainers to join her in flight, claiming that a painful death now awaited them at the hands of her brother, who would be enraged at the loss of this treasure. After being joined by her noble companions and offering prayers to Melqart, the party fled the city and travelled to Cyprus. There the exiles were joined by the high priest of the goddess Astarte, who, as a reward for his loyalty, demanded that the office would stay within his family for all time. Eighty girls who had been chosen to serve as sacred prostitutes at the temple of Astarte were also added to the group, so that the men should have wives and their new settlement a future population.

The expedition then set off for Africa, where they were welcomed and presented with gifts by the citizens of Utica, a Tyrian colony. Elissa and her fellow refugees were also initially well treated by the local Libyan people, for their king, Hiarbus, freely let them enter his territory. But, perhaps wary of ceding too much land to these newcomers, he offered to sell them only as much as could be covered by an ox hide. The resourceful newcomers cut the hide into very thin strips, and were therefore able to mark out a much larger area than Hiarbus had surely imagined.

According to one Graeco-Roman ancient tradition, the new settlement –Carthage–was an immediate success, and people from the surrounding area came both to trade and to settle there. Yet, as the city became ever more populous and wealthy, so the resentment felt by Hiarbus grew, until eventually the Libyan king threatened war unless Elissa agreed to marry him. The elders of Carthage, hesitant to report such unwelcome news, were coerced into telling the truth by the queen, who demanded that they should not shirk a hard life if it was beneficial to their new homeland. The elders, after making the queen aware of Hiarbus’ ultimatum, skilfully turned the tables on her by pointing out that if she shirked the hard life of marriage then the city would be destroyed. Trapped by her own rhetoric, Elissa had little choice but to comply with the wishes of her people. But first she ordered a massive pyre to be erected so that she could make sacrifices to appease the spirit of her first husband. Once the great fire was ablaze, however, the queen climbed atop of it and, turning to her people, announced that she would now go to her husband as they had desired. She then stabbed herself to death with a sword.

It is, of course, doubtful whether any of this baroque tale of love, loss and cunning correlates with the actual reality of Carthage’s foundation. The earliest roots of the story cannot be traced any further back than a Greek source of the third century BC, and the fullest rendition comes from Trogus Pompeius, a Romano-Gallic historian who wrote in the last decades of the first century BC.2 Moreover, the Elissa myth not only conforms to the stylistic diktats of Hellenistic literature, but also serves as a wonderfully dramatic vehicle for virtually every Greek and Roman prejudice about Carthage and its inhabitants. The ruses that Elissa uses to circumvent the obstacles that impede her progress intentionally jar with the virtues and characteristics that the Romans attributed to themselves for much of their history–particularly fides, or faithfulness.3 The Carthaginians in the legend are portrayed as treacherous and deceitful practitioners of doublespeak. Like their Phoenician cousins, they are overly controlled by women and liable to suffer from such dangerous feminine traits as hysteria and envy. They are also cruel and unhealthily obsessed with death, as well as sexually lascivious and with an overdeveloped love of wealth.

A number of scholars have considered the tempting possibility that buried within an essentially Greek story are genuine Carthaginian memories of that much earlier age. It has been argued that in fact the Carthaginians themselves may have consciously played a part in the creation or promulgation of the Elissa myth, constructing and embellishing it rather like Thanksgiving in modern America.4 However, it seems extremely unlikely that they would have bought into a story that projected so many negative character topoi on to them. In fact it was the first half of the third century BC–and many have seen the hand of Timaeus of Tauromenium in it–when the elements that made up the Elissa myth appear to have crystallized into an accepted narrative.5

Some have pointed to a second-century-AD history of the Phoenicians whose Levantine author, Philo of Byblos, claimed to have studied the ancient annals of Tyre. Those annals apparently referred to the Tyrian king Mattan I leaving his throne to his 11-year-old son Pygmalion in 820, which in turn had led to the subsequent flight of, and foundation of Carthage by, his sister Elissa in 814 BC. Moreover, a gold pendant had been found in a tomb in Carthage inscribed with the names Pygmalion and Astarte, which led to the theory that the tomb’s incumbent, Yada’milk, must have been a military officer from the original Tyrian expedition, and that the presence of Pygmalion’s name on the pendant proved that it had probably been the king himself who had encouraged the dissidents to found Carthage.6

However, any such hopes for the partial historical veracity of the Elissa story were dashed by the discovery that the tomb of Yada’milk was not from the late ninth century BC, but from up to three centuries later.7 Indeed, the earliest occupation layers found by archaeologists in Carthage stretch back only as far as 760 BC, although new advances in our extremely limited knowledge of the first phases of the city may yet push that date further back.8 Moreover, significant doubts exist about Philo’s historical testimony, and most suspect that, rather than having gleaned his information from ancient Phoenician texts, he simply took the story from the same Hellenistic Greek authors as those Roman writers who mention Elissa.9

We may suspect, however, that, even if much was fabricated by later Greek writers, some elements of the myth were based on information or even misunderstandings gleaned from contacts with the city. Thus another version of the foundation of Carthage, told by the fourth-century-BC Sicilian Greek historian Philistus, named the leaders of the first settlement as the Tyrians Azoros and Carchedon, clear derivations of the Punic/Phoenician words sor (‘rock’) and Qart-Hadasht (‘Carthage’).10

A similar confusion might also explain the story about Elissa and the ox hide. The Byrsa, the hill which remained the centre point of Carthage throughout its history, was most likely named from an Akkadian word, birtu, which meant ‘fortress’. However, the Greek word for ox hide was bursa–hence, perhaps, the bovine association with the city’s foundation made by Greek writers.11

The central importance of Tyre in the construction of Carthaginian elite identity was more than a figment of the Greek imagination. Throughout the city’s history there are epigraphic references to bn Sr (‘sons of Tyre’) or h Sry (‘Tyrians’) which may have alluded to the Tyrian origins of these individuals, or be a sign that descent from the mother city denoted some kind of status.12 Tyrian heritage was perhaps an important signifier of status in a rapidly growing city where the population was not only drawn from all over the Phoenician world, but also had a significant Libyan element.13 Moreover, the traditional ties with Tyre continued to be articulated through the worship of Melqart, Astarte, Eshmoun and other deities, who were all well established there.14 Indeed, the debt that Carthage owed to its founder was explicitly acknowledged each year when a flotilla carrying members of the Carthaginian elite made the long journey eastward to Tyre, where they presented a tithe of a tenth of Carthage’s earnings to Melqart.15

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