Ancient History & Civilisation


The Elissa story shows that the Carthaginians and Greeks considered the city to have been founded in exceptional circumstances, which made it immediately stand out from the other Phoenician colonies in the West.16 There is, of course, a large element of hindsight in such a judgement, but archaeology confirms that the early settlement did develop extraordinarily quickly. Its Phoenician name, Qart-Hadasht or ‘New City’, certainly suggests that Carthage was set up as a colonial settlement and not just as a trading post.17Strategically, the site could not have been better chosen, for it stood on the nexus of the two most important trading routes in the region: the east–west route from the Levant to Spain and its north–south Tyrrhenian counterpart. As with Gades, it appears that some Tyrian colonies were established with the aim of providing a market and, possibly, a civic focus for other, smaller, Phoenician trading stations. This may well explain why Carthage grew so quickly.

The north–south route would be of particular importance for Carthage, as it linked the city not only with Sicily, Sardinia and Italy, but also with mainland Greece and the Aegean region. Indeed, a considerable amount of Greek pottery, both Euboean and Corinthian, has been found in the earliest habitation layers of Carthage.18 It is clear that Carthage had, during the eighth century BC, become a key coordinate on a Tyrrhenian trading circuit that included Sant’ Imbenia, Pithecusa and Etruria. The links with Pithecusa appear to have been particularly strong, and a number of ceramics from there have been found in early Carthaginian archaeological contexts. (The Carthaginians were also exporting goods and ceramics to Pithecusa.)19

During the eighth and seventh centuries, there is also good archaeological data for the importation of goods from central Italy into Carthage.20 Similar Greek-style pottery was actually made in Carthage itself, suggesting either that a community of Euboean potters was active in Carthage or that the Phoenician settlers had swiftly begun to copy such forms.21 It thus appears that from its earliest beginnings Carthage was a cosmopolitan trading centre which attracted settlers from a number of different ethnic constituencies (while still carefully preserving its institutional ‘Tyrian’ heritage). Furthermore, although trade with the Levant and Spain would remain an important aspect of Carthage’s economy throughout its history, the city was in no way reliant upon Levantine–Iberian metal routes, for much of its commercial activity was keyed into the thriving Tyrrhenian circuit.22


Palaeobotanical research has ascertained that the diet of the early settlers was made up of barley, wheat of several different varieties, oats, grains, lentils, pulses, olives, fruits and wine.23 There was, however, a complete absence of domesticated birds such as chickens in the early settlement, with wild goose and wild duck being important food sources. Domestic livestock was mainly made up of cattle, sheep and goats, with the bovids being used as a source of meat. Bone analysis shows that most of these animals were slaughtered at a relatively young age.24 Where this produce came from during the early phase of Carthage’s existence has been a particular focus for recent archaeological research, because, as the Elissa myth suggests, the size of its hinterland was clearly very limited in the first two centuries of the city’s existence. Analysis of amphorae in which foodstuffs were carried clearly shows that the early settlement had to import the majority of its sustenance from a wide variety of locations, including Spain, Italy, Sicily, Greece, the Aegean and the Levant.25

Although archaeologists have yet to locate any of the important public buildings or harbours from that early period, current evidence indicates that the littoral plain began to fill up with a densely packed network of dwellings made of sun-dried bricks laid out on streets with wells, gardens and squares, all situated on a fairly regular plan that ran parallel to the shoreline. By the early seventh century the settlement was surrounded by an impressive 3-metre-wide casement wall.26 So swift was the development that in the first hundred years of the city’s existence there is evidence of some demolition and redevelopment within its neighbourhoods, including the careful relocation of an early cemetery to make way for metalworking shops.27

Three further large cemeteries ringing the early city indicate that, within a century or so of its foundation, Carthage was home to around 30,000 people.28 The deceased had been generally buried with great care and attention to detail in underground tombs or cist graves–slablined graves, usually covered by a single larger slab–depending on their material circumstances.29 From the objects left with the dead–razor blades, perfumes and perfume flasks, make-up, little bowls, lamps, statuettes and altars–it is possible to reconstruct something of the rituals that were performed to ease entry into the afterlife. The dead body was first washed and anointed with oil before make-up was applied to the face. The corpse was then laid out, after which offerings of food and drinks were placed upon a special altar, followed by a banquet and a funeral procession involving the mourners.30Finally the dead person was interred with objects that it was thought would be needed in the afterlife: tools, weapons and seals, food, perfumes, herbs and imported pottery. Amulets and other apotropaic objects to protect the deceased from evil spirits were also included.

The everyday nature of these offerings strongly suggests that the Carthaginians expected the afterlife to be similar to the life that they had lived on earth. Grave inscriptions support this theory, speaking of a soul that eats and drinks, and warning the living against opening the grave and disturbing the deceased.31 The Carthaginians appear to have believed that the soul split into two when a person died. The néphesh, the physical part of the soul, stayed in the tomb and had the same needs as a living person, whereas the spiritual embodiment of the dead person’s soul, the rouah, left to reside in the world of the dead.32

Wealthier individuals were often buried with a number of luxury items that tell us much about Carthage as a consumer and increasingly a producer of such goods. Although at first luxury goods were imported from the Levant, Egypt and other areas of the Near East, by the mid seventh century Carthage had become a major manufacturer itself through the establishment of an industrial area just outside the city walls, with potters’ kilns and workshops for purple-dye production and metalworking.33 The city now became a major manufacturer of terracotta figurines, masks, jewellery and delicately carved ivories, which were then exported throughout the western Phoenician colonies.34

However, the growing regional importance of Carthage cannot be measured by its industrial output alone. The city was now a major consumer of food and raw materials that the limited nature of its hinterland meant it could not produce for itself. This in turn would have had a major impact on the organization of other Phoenician colonies in the central Mediterranean. In Sardinia during the seventh century BC, for instance, Phoenician colonists built a series of new settlements, some of them clearly fortified, at Othoca (near Tharros), Bithia, Cuccurredus, Monte Sirai and Pani Loriga (built by Sulcis). These new foundations were very different from the older colonies, in that they lacked religious and public buildings, as well as significant populations. Their intended purpose appears to have been to secure access to the fertile plains and metal-ore-rich mountains of the interior. 35 The growth of these settlements coincided with the disappearance of Nuragic-manufactured amphorae, used for the transport of metal ore and foodstuffs, from Carthage’s archaeological record.36 This suggests that these new settlements were part of a deliberate Phoenician strategy to take control of the means of production on the island, in order to service the growing Carthaginian market.37


The intricate construction of some of the early tombs in Carthage and the richness of the burial goods–including gold medallions, pendant necklaces and earrings, delicately carved ivory mirror handles and combs, as well as large numbers of enamel-coated or faience amulets and scarabs, often depicting Egyptian deities and pharaohs used to ward off evil spirits–confirm that the opportunities the city presented had attracted members of the Phoenician mercantile class, and that this group of leading citizens quickly accrued even more wealth.38 Carthage therefore appears to have been established as a proper colonial foundation with a core group of the Phoenician mercantile elite, and it was this group that would control Carthage for most of its existence.

Later Greek claims that Carthage was a monarchy ruled by ‘kings’ until the sixth century BC appear to have been built on a misunderstanding of its oligarchic government.39 From its earliest beginnings the city was ruled by an aristocratic cabal referred to as theb’lm, the lords or princes, who controlled all the important judicial, governmental, religious and military organs of state.40 At the apex of this hierarchy was a family whose wealth and power set them above fellow members of the elite at that particular time. Greek writers would call them ‘kings’, and they seem to have held some kind of executive power over their fellow citizens, particularly in regard to the command of the Carthaginian military. From the last decades of the sixth century to the first decade of the fourth the supreme family was the Magonids. The Carthaginian ‘kings’, however, were apparently not confined to one particular family, which strongly suggests that, although they may have held monarchical powers, the ‘kings’ were not hereditary, and that their powers were allotted by a consultative council of elders.41 The Elissa story would have acted as a powerful tool for legitimizing the privileged status of a Carthaginian elite who were unlikely to have such exalted origins as hers. At the same time, the idea of a first female queen who died childless not only stood as a neat justification for the oligarchic system, but also denied any hereditary right to autocratic power.

The obvious pride that the Carthaginian elite took in their Tyrian heritage should not be mistaken for a slavish adherence to the mother city’s economic and political agenda. Carthage very quickly showed that it would plot its own course through the choppy waters of Mediterranean power politics by maintaining a strong trading relationship with Egypt at a time when the Phoenician cities had been forbidden from such activities by their Assyrian ‘ally’.

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