Ancient History & Civilisation


Carthage’s commercial expansion during this period has traditionally been ascribed to its chronic lack of agricultural hinterland.75 However, new archaeological evidence from Carthage itself conclusively shows that, while maintaining and indeed strengthening their overseas trading networks during this period, the Carthaginians were gradually moving away from their previously heavy reliance on overseas imports of foodstuffs. Palaeobotanical analysis has revealed the extraordinarily varied diet that the citizens of Carthage enjoyed: wheat, barley and other cereals, numerous kinds of vegetables, pulses, lentils and fruits such as pomegranates, figs, grapes, olives, peaches, plums and melons, as well as almonds and pistachios. Fish and other seafood, sheep, goats, pigs, chicken, and even on occasion dogs were also eaten.76 From the second half of the sixth century onward most of this sustenance hailed from Carthage’s own North African territory.77


We do not know how this new land was acquired–whether by alliances struck with local Libyan leaders or by aggressive military action –but during the sixth century Carthage clearly began to expand its authority over the fertile Medjerda valley and the Cap Bon peninsula through the construction of a number of forts and settlements.78 A later Greek account of Cap Bon (now north-eastern Tunisia) provides a clear explanation of the allure of the region for a city with a burgeoning population:

All the lands . . . were set with gardens and orchards watered by numerous springs and canals. There were well-constructed country houses, built with lime along the route, announcing widespread wealth. The houses were filled with things that contribute to the enjoyment of life and had been stored up by the inhabitants thanks to a long peace. The land was cultivated with vines, olive trees and a whole host of fruit trees. On both sides there were herds of oxen and sheep grazing on the plain, and near the main pastures and the marshes there were studs of horses. To be brief, in these lands was the varied prosperity of the most distinguished landowners of Carthage who enjoyed using wealth for the pleasures of life.79

Over forty years ago, archaeologists had the good fortune to stumble upon one of the new Carthaginian foundations on Cap Bon. The wonder of Kerkouane is not its magnificent buildings or its exquisite material culture, but its survival. Whereas many of its counterparts lie inaccessible under Roman, Byzantine, Arab and now Tunisian settlements, Kerkouane, when it was destroyed by the Romans, was not even considered worth rebuilding. We do not even know what the Carthaginians called this small town, for ‘Kerkouane’ (a name bestowed by archaeologists) does not appear in the surviving historical accounts from the ancient world. Kerkouane nevertheless provides a rare window into small-town life in Punic North Africa.80

Life for most of the inhabitants of Punic North Africa would have been a gruelling struggle for subsistence, and it is this world that Kerkouane represents. Its water, though plentiful, is rather brackish, and the land around it too thin for extensive agriculture. What is more, although it lies on the water’s edge, Kerkouane has no natural harbour. Kerkouane is the town that history forgot, lying under the dunes for over two millennia, waiting to be rediscovered.

Although much of what remains of the town dates to the early third century BC (just before it was finally destroyed), Kerkouane still gives us a full picture of a small Punic town in North Africa.81 It is unlikely that its population was ever more than 1,200 people, who made their living as fishermen and craftsmen. The main industries of the settlement seem to have been salt-making, the manufacture of purple dye (many murex shells have been found on the site), and the production of garum.

Despite its modest size, the town was planned on a loose grid system, with buildings lining a series of wide streets interspersed with public squares. The most prominent public building in the city was the temple, and it must have been a fine sight. The handsome entrance was flanked with pilasters and contained a vestibule which led into a large courtyard, divided into two distinct spaces by an altar and a podium. The sacrificial altar was located in the front part, and behind was an area for ritual banquets. Although archaeologists do not know for sure which deities were worshipped at the temple, artefacts found at the site (including a votive arrowhead) hint at an emphasis on Melqart, his son Sid and Tanit–perhaps an indication of Kerkouane’s original status as a ‘colonial’ foundation on foreign land. Two male terracotta heads of an older bearded deity and a younger clean-shaven one, both wearing rounded-off conical hats, bear a striking resemblance to the iconography of Sid and Melqart at the temple of Antas in Sardinia.82

Undoubtedly the most impressive features of Kerkouane were some of the private residences that lined its generous avenues. The walls were built in the traditional Punic way, with rubble fill strengthened at regular intervals by large and upright rectangular stones. Most of these houses consisted of a series of rooms, including living and storage spaces, built around a central courtyard. The finest of them had inbuilt cupboards and chests, and some contained built-in bread ovens (similar to the tabourna ovens still found in Tunisia today). Many had an upper storey with rooms and a terrace.

However, what really surprised the archaeologists who excavated Kerkouane was the sheer number of bathrooms, and their technical ingenuity. Unlike in Carthage, where the hip baths were free-standing, many of those in Kerkouane were built into the room, with the most elaborate having a stepped seat, arm rests and a basin, all of which were covered in water-resistant render. Some bathrooms were split between changing and washing facilities. Whereas in many Greek houses the bathroom was connected to the kitchen area, in Kerkouane many were situated off the entrance vestibule or passageway leading from the street into the house. Although there were pragmatic reasons for such a location, such as the availability of drainage and water, the choice also suggests that in the Punic world the washing of the body was seen as an important ritual act of purification that marked the transition from the public sphere outside the house to the private space of the family.83

The town also provides invaluable clues about the interaction between the Carthaginian and the indigenous Libyan peoples.84 Although the religious practices and architecture of the town show a strong Carthaginian blueprint, and the written language used was Punic, strong native Libyan elements are still evident. This is particularly marked in certain funerary practices. In the tomb of Zybac, a metal-smelter, the burial arrangements correlate with the Libyan name of its occupant, for Zybac was buried in the foetal position (as was Libyan custom). His tomb also showed traces of the red ochre used in native Libyan burial practices.

The inhabitants of this little town were also connected into the wider Mediterranean world. An Attic black-figure wine jug depicting the Homeric hero Odysseus escaping from the cave of the Cyclops Polyphemus has been found with an Ionian cup in a tomb dating to the sixth century BC. Greek architectural features such as Ionic capitals were also widely used, and a number of the more impressive private dwellings show significant Greek influence, such as peristyle courtyards and the use of ornate stucco plaster. Even outside the territory beyond its direct control, Carthaginian influence over wider areas of North Africa increased in the sixth century as new emporia were established along the coast through compacts with local indigenous leaders, while its commercial relations with the older Phoenician colonies such as Lixus continued.85

The fifth century saw further Carthaginian expansion into Africa, with the fertile regions of the Sahel (the area around the modern Tunisian towns of Sousse and Sfax) and Syrtis Major (modern north-west Libya) being added to the Carthaginian dominion.86 It was during this period that Carthage became as celebrated an agricultural producer as it was a mercantile power. Recent studies of the amphorae used to convey foodstuffs into the city clearly show that, even by the last decades of the sixth century BC, the vast majority of those foodstuffs originated from Carthage’s own hinterland.87 A land survey has also shown that in the fifth and fourth centuries new farms and agricultural centres began to appear on Carthage’s near hinterland, including on the peninsula itself.88 These included one particularly fine villa estate at Gammarth, in the north of the Carthage peninsula, which possessed a substantial olive-pressing operation.89

A name strongly associated with the Carthaginian agricultural revolution is Mago, an expert whose advice on trees, fruits and viticulture, as well as animal husbandry, was often cited by both Greek and Roman authors.90 Mago was particularly deferred to in regard to trees, fruits and viticulture, as well as being one of the first advocates of fertilizers and the need for regular pruning. Archaeologists working in the area of the commercial ports in Carthage found physical evidence of this expertise through the existence in a water channel (silted up sometime in the mid fourth century BC) of numerous seeds of fruits such as grapes, olives, peaches, plums and melons, as well as almonds, filberts and pistachios, a number of which require the use of complex horticultural techniques such as grafting.91 Wine was also produced in considerable quantities.92 Of particular fame was a sweet wine made from sun-dried grapes (rather like the passito which is still drunk in Italy today). Large numbers of Carthaginian transport amphorae have been found all over the western Mediterranean, and probably contained either wine or olive oil, also produced in large quantities in North Africa. The region was also famous for both figs and the pomegranate, the latter known by the Romans as the malum Punicum or ‘Punic apple’. The Carthaginians were also celebrated for certain technological advances in agriculture, such as the tribulum plostellum Punicum or Punic cart, a primitive but highly effective threshing machine.93

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