Ancient History & Civilisation


The felicity of the Carthaginian Empire depended largely on the unusual stability of her constitution, which attracted the interest of Greek political thinkers such as Aristotle (Politics, ii, 1). The Phoenicians of the west probably did not model their new cities on the monarchical pattern of the mother country: to have set up new kings (melakim) would have smacked of disloyalty. Instead, at the head of the state we find two annually appointed judges or Suffetes (Shophetim; cf. the judges of early Israel) whom the Greeks and Romans probably misnamed βασιλε îς and reges. In original function these magistrates were judges rather than generals: the early aims of Carthage were commercial, not military. The real conduct of state affairs rested with a Council of (perhaps) Thirty, which included the Suffetes, and with a Senate of Three Hundred, of which the Thirty were a subcommittee. Matters carefully prepared by these bodies, or questions on which the higher powers could not agree, might be brought before a popular assembly of citizens; but where agreement was reached, the assembly would not usually be consulted. In the assembly, however, there was great freedom of speech, and it was the people who, with certain restrictions, elected the Suffetes, the members of both councils, and the generals. Common commercial and economic interests helped to preserve the balance of power between the governing class and the people. Stability was further increased by vesting judicial power, not in the people, but in a Council of One Hundred and Four, chosen from the larger Senate. This court of judges, which was first established to check the tyrannical tendencies of the house of Mago, supervised the administration of the magistrates. Yet as these judges were elected, not by the people, but by a group of magistrates whom Aristotle called Pentarchies or Boards of Five, the state gradually succumbed to the domination of a close and corrupt oligarchy of judges and pentarchs, until the day when Hannibal cleansed the administration.

The effective government was thus in the hands of an oligarchy of nobles. But it is uncertain how far they formed an aristocracy of birth or of wealth, how far they closed their ranks against other aspirants to office, and how far their interests were commercial or agricultural. The original settlers may have formed an aristocracy of birth, but being merchants and manufacturers they would gradually become an aristocracy of wealth. This in turn may have been somewhat exclusive: the leaders of the nation known to history came from surprisingly few families, and their names, repeated constantly in the same and different generations, form a very small proportion of the names known from Punic inscriptions. But it can scarcely be doubted that the ranks of the nobles were often increased from the aspiring nouveaux riches; indeed, the great house of Barca, which appeared in the mid-third century, seems to have been a new family.

Many of these nobles continued to derive their wealth from commerce and industry, but others, in answer to the needs of the growing population for food, gradually turned to agriculture and became landowners. Big estates were cultivated with cheap slave labour, and the success achieved by the landed gentry in scientific farming may be gauged by the fact that after the fall of Carthage the Roman Senate had Mago’s thirty-two books on agriculture translated into Latin for the benefit of Roman colonists. It has been suggested that from the fourth century the nobility became so immersed in their estates that they left the profits of commerce to others; and that politically their interests were represented by the Suffetes and the Senate of Three Hundred, those of the commercial aristocracy by the Hundred and Four and the pentarchs. Such a rigid cleavage, however, is not very probable, though at times a clash of interest may have occurred between the landowners and merchants. And it is not necessary to suppose that all who turned to agriculture automatically lost their interest in trade.4

To support her empire Carthage needed money, men and ships. The first she derived from tribute and customs dues, but our evidence is insufficient to allow a reliable estimate of the amount.5 Her army, originally formed of citizens, did not suffice for her great wars abroad, so that she began to conscript her subjects – Africans, Sardinians and Iberians – and to employ mercenaries. By the third century her citizens no longer served in her armies, except as officers, or in wars fought in Africa itself. This development had many obvious advantages for a people whose interests lay in commerce rather than in war, but it brought its peculiar dangers. Outstanding generals might aspire to military dictatorship, particularly when after the First Punic War armies of mercenaries became a permanent feature; but the oligarchical institutions of the city were devised to check the too-successful general, while crucifixion was the punishment for failure. Further, when the subject Africans found themselves serving no longer with citizens but merely with allies, mercenaries, or other subjects, they acquired a dangerous estimate of their own importance; the Numidians also realized their own value when Carthage made increasing use of their cavalry. The army was thus always a potential source of danger. Although often a motley crew with little or no national feeling, when disciplined and organized by a general of genius it developed into a first-class fighting machine.

The navy also was maintained from the tribute of the subjects, who were relieved of the duty of self-protection. The skill of the seamen and navigators of Carthage was well known and the maintenance of a large fleet offered a good excuse for exacting tribute. But it is unlikely that she normally found it necessary to keep her whole navy afloat in order to safeguard her commerce and to protect or threaten her subjects. Many vessels would be laid up in the great arsenals and dockyards at Carthage, and the crews called up only in time of need. The praise accorded to the Punic navy by patriotic Roman writers arose partly from sincere admiration, but partly from a desire to exaggerate the achievements of their own victorious fellow-countrymen.

The civilization of Carthage has left little mark on world history, and our knowledge of it derives mainly from biased Greek and Roman writers and from the results of recent archaeological investigation. But when every allowance has been made the resultant picture is not attractive. Carthage tapped the caravan routes of Egypt and Africa, her merchants sailed to Britain and Senegal, and she became one of the richest states of the world, but she was rather a carrier than a productive state; and curiously, she did not issue coins until early in the fourth century and at first only to pay her troops in Sicily rather than for commercial reasons. Her industry aimed at mass-production and cheapness rather than beauty. Her art was unoriginal and owed much to Egypt and Greece. Her nobles might acquire a taste for Greek art, but this was met by importing foreign artists and works of art or by the imitation of Greek models. Even the equipment of the tombs, which in early days were richly adorned, became increasingly cheaper. We hear of Carthaginian books and libraries, but there is no evidence to suggest that she was gifted with any real literary inspiration. The Punic language, however, which belongs to the North Semitic group and is akin to Hebrew, was more virile, as is shown by its persistence and by the numerous inscriptions which have come to light. Carthaginian religion and cult were cruel, gloomy and licentious. The Canaanitish deities, Ba’al Hammon, Tanit, Melkart, Eshmun and Astarte inspired in their worshippers a fanatical devotion, which did not shrink from self-immolation or human sacrifice. Contact with the civilized world may have mitigated the barbarity to an extent, but the fires of the sacrifice called Moloch continued to receive their tribute of infants from noble families at hours of crisis in the city’s history.6

Carthage thus gave the world little of value. Even the spirit of the great house of Barca came rather to destroy than to build. To the end the Carthaginian remained Oriental and was only superficially tinged with Greek culture; and he was not popular in the western world. ‘Bearded Orientals in loose robes, covered with gaudy trinkets, often with great rings of gold hanging from their nostrils, dripping with perfumes, cringing and salaaming, the Carthaginians inspired disgust as much by their personal appearance as by their sensual appetites, their treacherous cruelty, their blood-stained religion. To the end they remained hucksters, intent on personal gain, careless or incapable of winning the goodwill of their subjects.’7 They may have been thus conceived by some Greeks and Romans, but it is well to recall that a Carthaginian named Hasdrubal and renamed Cleitomachus became head of the Academy at Athens in 129, and to balance the picture with the words of Cicero: ‘Carthage would not have held an empire for six hundred years had it not been governed with wisdom and statecraft.’ (de rep., i, frg. 3.)

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