Ancient History & Civilisation

THE EMERGENCE OF A PUNIC MEDITERRANEAN

Although Carthage was not exercising any direct political control over the lands of the old Phoenician disapora in the central and western Mediterranean, this does not mean that its influence was not felt. The advent of what we call the ‘Punic’ era is notoriously difficult to define, but during the second half of the sixth century BC one witnesses the growing influence of recognizably Carthaginian cultural traits in other western Phoenician colonies.124

The most significant of these traits was the adoption of Punic, the Levantine dialect spoken in Carthage, and the replacement of cremation by burial as the favoured funerary practice.125 Furthermore, it is noticeable that the tophet became an increasingly prominent part of the religious life of those western Phoenician colonies where that tradition had previously been less strong.126 In regard to material culture, and specifically luxury goods, there was a clear change in taste away from imported eastern-Greek fineware pottery to ceramic ware from Athens (long favoured in Carthage).127 Politically, there was a growing sense of community, with elites enjoying some citizenship rights in other western Phoenician cities.128 In Carthage it appears that a minority of foreigners and freed slaves were also able to attain a status called ‘Sidonian rights’(’š şdn), which appears to have been a partial bestowal of some rights and privileges associated with Carthaginian citizenship. 129

However, the ‘Punicization’ of the old Phoenician western diaspora was never simply the imposition of ‘top-down’ cultural conformity. Indeed, in some areas it led to greater diversification as the influence of Phoenicia waned. Thus it is noticeable that the dinner service of bowls, plates, perfume jars, pots, and trefoil- and mushroom-shaped jugs which had been the standard grave goods for generations began to disappear, to be replaced with a far more diverse set of ceramic goods.130 Moreover, the same variegation is found in other art forms, such as the designs and motifs found on the steles produced in considerable numbers across the new Punic world.131

The emergence of what we might term a ‘Punic world’ was not a linear progression from the old Phoenician one, but a complex and multifarious series of hybridizations with other indigenous and colonial cultures throughout the western Mediterranean.132 This is particularly evident on the island of Sardinia, where the large number of oil lamps left as offerings at Punic sanctuaries (following an indigenous Sardinian custom) shows a complex interaction between Punic and local traditions.133 The fact that many of these shrines were built into previous Nuragic structures may also indicate the absorption of indigenous customs into Punic religious practice, or the introduction of Punic elements into traditional native rites.134

Initially in diverse locations such as Spain, Sardinia and Sicily, these distinct micro-cultures were ‘common mutually comprehensible’ worlds inhabited by both Phoenician/Punic settlers and native populations. Initiated through commercial exchange, these communalities were often built on misperceptions of each other’s cultures. However, out of mutual incomprehension a shared understanding was born that was very particular to its participant groups but which often excluded those, even of the same ethnicity, who lived outside the particular region.135 What we refer to as ‘Punic’ culture is an umbrella term for a whole series of diffuse cultural experiences that took place all over the western and central Mediterranean. It is only really later, in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, as Carthage imposed greater political and economic control over certain areas, such as Sardinia, that one begins to witness greater, but by no means total, cultural uniformity.

At Antas, for example, an isolated inland site in the south-west of Sardinia, a temple to the Punic god Sid was established. Sid was originally a Levantine god who had made the long journey west with Phoenician traders. Although only a minor member of the Carthaginian pantheon, by the fourth century BC he appears to have been widely recognized by the Punic population of Sardinia as the divine protector of the island.136 The temple was a typical Punic design, consisting of a large walled enclosure which contained a north-facing rectangular structure with an open air altar where incinerated offerings were made to the god.137 Although it was situated in a remote valley surrounded by steep wooded hills, the temple still attracted large numbers of people, including many of high social status, from as far away as Caralis.138 Its importance lay in the rocky outcrop on which it had been situated, which had been a sacred site to the Nuragic god Babi long before the Phoenicians had arrived on the island.139 Archaeologists excavating the site found a bronze statuette of a naked warrior figure, identified as Babi, holding up his right hand in benediction and brandishing a large spear in his left, dating to sometime around the ninth and eighth centuries BC. There are striking resemblances between this warrior figure and the iconography of Sid, who was also often presented with his right hand raised and a lance in his left.140 Moreover, a connection with Babi might also explain the presence of a large number of iron arrowheads and javelins among the votive offerings left for Sid, as these were artefacts that were strongly associated with the former.141 Antas, therefore, stands as a striking example of the cultural hybridization that took place on the island during the Punic period.

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