All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page added in June 2012.
- Carthago (Carthage): Punic memories
(detail of the theatre at Thugga)
Queen Dido's curse on Aeneas and his descendants (the Romans) ended with the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War.
Carthage was rebuilt by the Romans in the Ist century BC and destroyed a second time by the Arabs in the VIIIth century AD. Today a few ruins of the ancient city can be seen in the modern elegant quarter of Tunis which was built in the XXth century. Ancient columns were placed here and there to embellish the avenues of the neighbourhood which stretches for several miles along the coast and where only the very rich can afford to live.
When the Romans destroyed Carthage they burnt all the facilities of its two harbours, but because eventually they had to rebuild them to house a large mercantile fleet, their location is still clearly identifiable. The military harbour was dug to form an artificial circular island around which the ships were moored. It was protected by high walls so that the merchants could not see what was going on from the nearby commercial harbour.
According to Roman historians the shipyards of the military harbour could house more than two hundred ships. The fleet was the main defence of Carthage and the most trusted one, because the army was mainly manned by mercenaries. The Carthaginians were of Phoenician origin and even centuries after the foundation of the city, power was entrusted with families of Phoenician origin. For this reason Carthage could not rely on the wholehearted support of towns which had accepted its hegemony, but resented the ethnic-based Carthaginian power system.
The commercial harbour was much larger than it appears today. It had a rectangular shape. A narrow passage gave access to the military harbour. When the Romans destroyed Carthage they established their first province on African soil and set the residence of the Roman proconsul at Utica, an allied town at the mouth of the Mejerda River. Over time however the harbour of Utica silted and Carthage became the main port from which grains were shipped to Ostia (you may wish to see the mosaic of the Carthaginian trading company at Ostia).
Archaeologists have found that the terraces upon which the Roman forum was built were supported in part by walls of very old houses and they have unearthed a small section of the Punic city. It appears that the buildings had several storeys; rooms and courtyards were rather small which indicates that the city was overcrowded. According to tradition, Queen Dido, the founder of Carthage, was allowed by the local king to build her city on the piece of land covered by an oxhide. Dido cut the hide into a continuous string and with that she surrounded the top of a hill overlooking the sea. Probably the account originated from the relatively limited extent of the Punic city.
In 1862 French writer Gustave Flaubert, the author of Madame Bovary, published Salammbo, a historical novel set at Carthage after the First Punic War. In Chapter XIII - Moloch he described the sacrifice of infants to end a drought: the babies were placed on the hands of a bronze statue of Baal from which the priests made them fall into the fire. Flaubert based this part of his novel on the accounts of some Roman sources and chiefly of Tertullian, a IInd century AD author from Carthage.
In 1921 the discovery of a large cemetery containing the charred bones of infants near the harbours of Carthage seemed to confirm the Carthaginian practice of sacrificing their first male child. The cemetery was called Tophet with reference to the biblical term which indicated the site where the Canaanites sacrificed children by burning them alive.
Today the Carthaginian practice of sacrificing children is questioned. It is not mentioned by Livy, nor by Virgil to whom the description of a sacrifice would have appealed as it did to Flaubert.
Tertullian, a Christian, wrote about the practice in a text in which he defended his fellow co-religionists from a similar charge, rather than in an essay on the history of Carthage. Some archaeologists take a middle-of-the-road stand by claiming that the Carthaginians might have sacrificed stillborn babies or those who died immediately after birth.
The image used as background for this page shows a reconstruction of the maritime walls of Carthage by the German Archaeological Institute in Rome.
Carthage - Roman period
Carthage in the Museums
Mosaics in the Museum of Bardo