Ancient History & Civilisation


Relations between Punic and Greek populations on Sicily developed along similar lines. By the early eighth century BC the Phoenicians had established colonies on the island, of which the most important were Panormus, Solus and Motya. At the island site of Motya, located in a sheltered bay just off the coast and attached to the mainland by a narrow promontory, the first buildings were warehouses and workshops, which were gradually joined by a number of dwellings and religious structures, of which the most substantial was a sanctuary now known as the Cappidazzu.142However, the Phoenicians on Sicily soon came under increasing pressure from a deluge of Greek colonists who arrived during the last decades of the century, attracted by the island’s position on key Mediterranean trade routes and its abundance of fertile coastal land.143

According to Thucydides, of the populations who already lived on the island, the Sicans had originally arrived in Sicily from Iberia in the distant past. The Elymians, another people living in western Sicily, were supposedly refugees from Troy. The Sicels had arrived from Italy, and after defeating the Sicans had taken over much of Sicily, restricting the latter to southern and western parts of the island.144 In contrast to the good relations that the Phoenicians had built up with the native Elymians and Sicels, the Greek colonial modus operandi often involved the violent expulsion of indigenous communities.145 This led to threatened Phoenician and Elymian cities forming alliances against Greek aggression and territorial incursions, and the colonial landscape of Sicily was thus framed from its outset by competition for precious resources, often leading to conflict. Despite such animosities, these different ethnic communities also developed strong commercial and cultural ties. A pattern of economic interdependence punctuated by periods of both inter- and intra-communal violence was quickly established on the island.146 None of the colonial or indigenous ethnic groups in Sicily ever attained a permanent upper hand over one another, which meant that the cultural syncretism and politico-economic synergy typified by this colonial ‘Middle Ground’ were sustained for far longer than in other colonial settings such as Italy.


Many of these interactions and collaborations were carried out against the backdrop of increasing competition between different communities for commercial markets and raw materials. Carthage’s main concern was to protect its lucrative Tyrrhenian commercial interests.147 The Greeks already controlled much of eastern Sicily and southern Italy (the latter being known in antiquity as Magna Graecia –‘Great Greece’). Now, in the sixth century, a new wave of Greek colonists would establish settlements right across the northern shores of the Mediterranean, at Massilia, Antipolis (Antibes) and Nicaea (Nice), as well as on the eastern coast of Corsica and on the Aeolian Islands.

On Sicily, the sixth century was a period of general prosperity. The collapse of the Levantine–Spain metal trade had little impact on the old Phoenician colonies in the south-west of the island, which had traditionally relied far more heavily on mercantile ties with their Greek neighbours and their strategic position on the sea lanes between Greece, Italy and North Africa. Signs of new-found wealth can still be seen in the archaeological record. At Motya, a new causeway was built to the mainland, and a dry dock (the cothon) was constructed for overhauling shipping. At the same time the Cappidazzu temple was monumentalized and the tophet was enlarged. The city during this period possessed two industrial zones equipped with kilns and wells for the large-scale manufacture of pottery, as well as a complex for the manufacture of purple dye and leather goods.148

Motya’s Greek and indigenous neighbours had also prospered. At Greek Selinus, the civic centre had been redeveloped by the construction of a series of magnificent temples built on a huge new dual level pyramidal terrace, while at Elymian Segesta a temple was commissioned so large that it has been estimated that it took over thirty years to complete.149

Yet wealth brought with it heightened tensions. The southern and eastern coastlines that had been the traditional preserve of Greek settlers began to reach saturation point in terms of settlements, with the inevitable consequence that eyes began to turn towards the less crowded north-western and western areas of the island (already under the sway of the Phoenicians and the Elymians). In 580, Greek colonists originally from Cnidus and Rhodes had attempted to establish a settlement on the mainland opposite Motya, and were driven away by a joint Phoenician and Elymian force.150 In such circumstances, it is no surprise that Motya and Selinus were now fortified with sturdy perimeter walls and watchtowers.151 Conflict between the two neighbours can be seen in objects such as the tombstone found at Selinus of Aristogeitos, son of Arcadion, who was killed near or under the walls of Motya at some point during the sixth century BC.152

Sicily was not the only place where Greek expansion created tensions. Concern over this new wave of Greek colonization in the central and western Mediterranean was probably a key factor in the formation of a Carthaginian alliance with the Etruscan kingdoms of central Italy, also key players in the lucrative Tyrrhenian trade routes. Carthage had already developed strong diplomatic ties in Etruria, for Phoenician merchants had long operated out of Etruscan ports; now these same privileges were extended to Carthaginian merchants.153 Indeed, the second port of the Etruscan kingdom of Caere, modern Santa Marinella, came to be known as Punicum, probably because of the number of Punic merchants there.154 In addition to the delicate bucchero nero drinking cups and other Etruscan fineware found in the tombs of wealthy Carthaginians, further evidence of commercial relations has been provided by a small ivory plaque discovered in a Carthaginian cemetery, on which was written, in Etruscan, ‘I am Punic from Carthage.’155

In a complex of twin temples at Pyrgi, a port also in Caere, archaeologists made a spectacular discovery of three inscribed, beaten gold sheets, two written in Etruscan and the third in Punic. These documents, commonly known as the Pyrgi Tablets, allude to the grant by the ruler of Caere of a specific space for the worship of the goddess Astarte in a temple dedicated to the Etruscan goddess Uni. This was probably about providing a place of worship for a resident group of Punic and/ or Cypriot Phoenician merchants.156

Although the alliance between Carthage and the Etruscans appears to have dealt predominantly with matters of trade, joint military action was also envisaged if their interests were threatened.157 As a city which relied so heavily on maritime trade, Carthage was famed in antiquity for its uncompromising attitude towards those who attacked its shipping. 158 Thus, when in 535 BC a group of Phocaeans–Greek refugees from Persian aggression in Asia Minor who had founded a colony at Alalia on Corsica–started attacking Carthaginian vessels, the response was as forceful as it was rapid. A joint Carthaginian and Etruscan armada made up of 200 ships attacked the Greek fleet off the southern coast of Corsica, in what would become known as the Battle of the Sardinian Sea. Although both sides sustained heavy losses, the Greeks were eventually driven off and forced to abandon their Corsican colony. Those who were captured were triumphantly transported to Etruria, where they were stoned to death.159 The Phocaeans had been brutally warned to keep out of the Tyrrhenian Sea.

In their efforts to secure commercial advantage in the central Mediterranean, the Carthaginians also signed a treaty with another emerging power in the region, the Latin city of Rome. For the Carthaginians this was probably just one of many such bilateral agreements with local rulers and states designed to guarantee the security of the Punic emporia that dotted the central and western Mediterranean region.160 However, for the Romans this was clearly an important acknowledgement of their growing influence in central Italy.161 Indeed, the accord with Carthage was considered to be significant enough to be inscribed on a bronze tablet.162

The terms of the agreement, signed in 509 BC, were remarkably detailed and wide-ranging. The Romans and their allies were forbidden from sailing past the ‘Beautiful Promontory’, the area to the north of Carthage now called Cap Bon. This effectively barred access to the fertile heartlands of Syrtis Major (the modern Tunisian Sahel) further east. If any crew were driven past that point by bad weather or enemy actions, their movements were strictly restricted:

It is forbidden to anyone carried beyond it by force to buy or carry away anything beyond what is required for the repair of his ship or for sacrifice, and he must depart within five days. Men coming to trade may conclude no business except in the presence of a herald or town clerk, and the price of whatever is sold in the presence of such shall be secured to the vendor by the state, if the sale takes place in Libya or Sardinia. If any Roman come to the Carthaginian province in Sicily, he shall enjoy equal rights with the others.

In exchange, the Carthaginians undertook not to harm Latium’s coastal cities of Lavinium, Ardea, Circeii and Terracina, or any other Latin city which was subject to Rome. (If they did capture any such city, they were to hand it over to the Romans.) They were also forbidden from building any forts in Latin territory, and if they entered such territory in arms they were not to pass the night there.163

Although Rome was still only a minor Italian power, the city was nevertheless considered to be strategically important enough for the Carthaginians to conclude this treaty with it. Situated 20 kilometres inland, on the banks of the river Tiber, the main transport artery into central Italy, Rome was already one of the major mercantile centres in northern Latium. The city had grown quickly, and had been one of the first in Latium to adopt urban planning, as well as substantial public buildings and well-built private residences. Although its early history was hidden in the mists of obscurity, later Roman historians generally agreed that the city had been initially ruled by a lineage of seven kings. They also claimed, through the use of Greek genealogical projections, that Romulus, the first of these kings, had come to the throne in 753 BC. Rome’s dalliance with kingship would eventually be poisoned by the high-handed, rapacious and brutal behaviour of its regal incumbents.

However, one of the results of the Romans’ growing dissatisfaction with their kings was the gradual creation of a political constitution that centred on a new, aristocratic, council called the Senate, which acted as both an advisory body and, increasingly, a counterbalance to the king’s autocratic power. By the last decade of the sixth century BC, the citizens of Rome had finally had enough of their monarchy, and in 509 Tarquinius Superbus, ‘the Proud’, was driven out of Rome. In his place a new Republic was established, with two executive officers called ‘consuls’ at its head, annually elected from Rome’s original aristocratic, patrician clans.164

Yet these accounts of grand strategic alliances can paint a very misleading picture of the central and western Mediterranean in the sixth century BC. This was no archaic version of the Cold War. Across the region, Greek, Punic, Phoenician, Etruscan and other indigenous peoples traded and interacted with one another with a freedom that stands in stark contrast to the power politics of the period. Indeed, it was often the deep and long-standing relationships that existed between supposedly bitter rivals that were the driving force in the creation of a surprisingly cohesive and interconnected world. In the lands of the West, nowhere was this better represented than in the curious relationship that developed between a belligerent Greek superhero and a Punic god.

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