Ancient History & Civilisation


The Economy of War: Carthage and Syracuse


Although during the fifth century BC there was still no sign of what we might conventionally view as a Carthaginian imperial structure, with the old western Phoenician settlements apparently keeping their political autonomy, there is plenty of evidence that Carthage was becoming increasingly assertive and interventionist, particularly in pursuing its economic goals in the central Mediterranean.

On Sardinia and Ibiza, territorial occupation and agricultural exploitation by a new influx of Punic settlers from North Africa rapidly took place during the later decades of the fifth century.1 As well as the farmsteads built by these settlers to exploit the fertile plains, larger fortified settlements were also established to act as market centres and to control the countryside.2 Such colonial ventures would have served a number of key purposes. First, they allowed the relocation of surplus populations who were potential malcontents with few prospects in Carthage or its North African territory. Second, they helped to expand the agricultural base of Sardinia–a key exporter of food to Carthage–by increasing the amount of land under intensive cultivation. Finally, they helped secure Carthaginian influence in a territory that was strategically vital in terms of both trade and food production.

Although most of Carthage’s foodstuffs continued to come from North Africa, from the 430s onwards Sardinia became an increasingly vital source of food, its agricultural economy seeming to have become ever more keyed into the needs of Carthage. Large numbers of Sardinian ‘sack’- and ‘torpedo’-shaped amphorae used for the transportation of foodstuffs such as wine, olive oil, corn, salted meat and fish, and salt are found in Carthage during the fifth and fourth centuries BC.3 According to a treatise by Pseudo-Aristotle, the Carthaginians were even supposed to have ordered the destruction of fruit trees in Sardinia and forbade the planting of new ones, presumably because they did not fit into the wider economic plan for the island as Carthage’s main producer of cereals.4

The strengthening of the economic ties between Carthage and Sardinia brought great prosperity to the Punic cities on the island, as shown by the large number of opulent public and private buildings that were now built, and the fine imported objects and other luxury goods with which the wealthy elite were now buried.5 At the city of Tharros, the fifth century BC in particular brought about a dramatic change in the cityscape, with the construction of a new quarter consisting of private residences and temples, as well as the building of imposing new fortifications on its landward side.6 The source of this new wealth was not only agricultural produce and other raw materials, but also, increasingly, the manufacture of luxury goods such as decorated precious stones, amulets, jewellery, ceramic statuettes, perfume burners and masks, which were then exported throughout the Punic world.7 Indeed, the increase in manufacturing output at Tharros may have been connected to the construction of a new industrial quarter in the fifth century.8

There were also very close ties between local Punic elites and Carthage, including the apparent bestowal of a type of honorary citizenship of the city.9 Despite the increasing influence that Carthage wielded over the island, however, there is no evidence of a Carthaginian provincial administration ruling over Sardinia, and each city and its hinterland was governed by its own autonomous municipal authority.

Punic colonization had a far less beneficial impact on the island’s indigenous population. Throughout the fifth and fourth centuries BC, the Nuragi were pushed further and further into the mountainous central and northern areas of Sardinia, as new settlers took over their land and founded new fortified settlements not only as market areas, but also to control the countryside.10 Other sites pushed even further into Nuragic territory, and probably acted as commercial emporia for the exchange of goods.11 However, this trade was increasingly one-way, with Phoenician goods beginning to predominate over indigenous artefacts in many Nuragic sites. Other important aspects of this ancient culture were also steadily eroded. Large numbers of the ‘complex’ multi-towered nuraghi that had studded the plains and hills of the island were abandoned by their inhabitants, suggesting that the chieftains that had controlled the territory and population were no more.12

Punic colonization and economic consolidation on Sardinia also had a notable impact on the religious landscape of the island, and there is some evidence for an organized initiative to represent Carthage’s new relationship with the island through the establishment of new religious centres. The temple of Sid Babi at Antas, although on one level a symbol of the cultural and religious syncretism that had developed between colonial and indigenous communities on the island, was also a sophisticated attempt to inculcate a Punic god with the properties and authority of a Nuragic deity, which also played into the wider project of legitimating the Punic colonization of the island.

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