Ancient History & Civilisation


The end of the Magonids’ political domination in Carthage did not conclude the Sicilian strategy of which they had been the main architects, for Carthage was now simply too embroiled in Sicilian affairs to withdraw. During the first half of the fourth century, Carthage’s relationship with western Sicily had profoundly changed–a transformation noted by the Greek historians who had begun to talk of Carthage’s zone of influence in western Sicily in terms of an eparchate, basically an imperial province.100 Although there is no evidence of the older Punic cities on the island being directly governed from Carthage, newer establishments show extremely close links with the North African metropolis.101 The Carthaginians were without doubt the driving force behind new settlements in Sicily such as Halaisa and Thermae Himerae.102

Carthage’s most significant foundation on Sicily was the port of Lilybaeum.103 Situated on the western Sicilian mainland, not far from the island where Motya had once stood, Lilybaeum had been constructed as a new home for Motya’s surviving citizens. However, analysis of the city’s material culture suggests that immigrants from Carthage significantly supplemented its population.104 Unlike the older Punic cities in Sicily, Lilybaeum had strong commercial links with Carthage. Strategically placed on Cape Boeo, the westernmost point of Sicily, the city soon became the major hub for commercial traffic between North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Greece.105


Perhaps the most striking aspect of Lilybaeum, apart from its strategic significance, was its defences, for it was built as a maximum-security port. Its solid walls were 5.8 metres high, and made from tufa reinforced by stone and mud brick. In front of these walls was a cavernous ditch over 28 metres wide. In addition, rectangular towers, fortified gates and posterns punctuated the walls, so that the defenders could rain missiles down on any attacker who made it over the ditch. There were also underground passages, galleries and communication trenches that went beneath the defences so that surprise sorties could be launched to attack enemy lines from the rear.106 In one particular tunnel, the walls were filled with the doodling of bored military personnel: a warrior, ships, weapons, a mountain with Punic symbols and letters and, of course, erotic scenes.107

The coinage which is thought to have been minted in Lilybaeum reflected the port’s position as a Carthaginian military base rather than a Sicilian Punic city. The tetradrachms bear the superscriptions of the Carthaginian military authorities: qrthds, mmhnt ands’mmhnt (‘the people of the camp’). Indeed, Lilybaeum appears to have been administered by a military governor rather than by suffetes or a city council.108 It was built to act as a heavily fortified commercial enclave, even if all the territory around it was in enemy hands.

One also finds the establishment of new Punic settlements in the Sicilian hinterland during this period, particularly on the sites of former Greek cities. At Selinus in the fourth century BC the old Greek acropolis was given a new urban system by Punic settlers who often used the old Greek city for building materials. The main street was widened, and the new structures were built on a different orientation from the former Greek ones. Diodorus mentions that Hannibal, the general who had taken the city, had let the survivors of the original city return there; however, it is noticeable that many of these new houses display the typical Carthaginian construction techniques and architectural plans which were also a feature of the houses at Lilybaeum.109

A marked transformation can also be detected in the religious life of the city. Many of the sacred shrines of the old Greek city, such as the sanctuary of the goddess Demeter Malaphorus, were once again in use, but it is clear that very different religious rites were being practised there. The most striking example of this was the sacred enclosure of Zeus Meilichios, an amalgam of the Greek king of the gods and a pre-Greek subterranean spirit of death and regeneration, an important fixture in the religious life of the old city.110All around the site, archaeologists have found strange double-headed steles portraying the Punic deities Baal Hammon and Tanit, whom the new settlers considered to be the parents of Zeus Meilichios.111 In the Greek temples and sanctuaries, typical aspects of Punic worship such as betyls (sacred stones) and open-air altars were introduced. In another temple, originally dedicated to the Greek underworld goddess Hecate, a new altar was built on which large numbers of small animals were sacrificed and incinerated according to Punic religious rite.112 Furthermore, Punic religious emblems such as the sign of Tanit and the sacred caduceus plant now adorned the streets of the city.113

At Monte Adranone, a fortified town founded by the Selinuntines in the sixth century BC, there are also clear signs of Punic resettlement. It had been destroyed at the same time as Selinus, in 409 BC, but during the fourth century BC its walls were reconstructed and two new temples were built, as well as an industrial complex. The more impressive of these temples was located on the original acropolis. It was built to a classic Punic tripartite plan, with a central sacrificial area open to the sky. Typically for the period, it showed an eclectic mixture of Punic and Greek architectural styles, including elegant Doric columns that held up the entrance portico, and a triangular frontage replete with Egyptian cornicing.114 In this period, much smaller settlements in the region also show Punic influence for the first time. At Monte Polizzo, which had previously been deserted, there are clear signs of a Punic reoccupation of the site, with a stele, altar and offerings all discovered in a reused temple.115

However, despite this evidence of Punic urban development in Sicily, many of these new settlements were mere shadows of the towns and cities that they replaced. Notwithstanding the exaggerations of Greek historians, who describe fourth-century-BC Sicily as replete with cities inhabited only by wild animals and vegetation, there can be little doubt that decades of violent upheaval had left their mark not only on the physical fabric of the cities, but also on their inhabitants.116 The archaeological data that have been gathered in Sicily suggest that some of the literary descriptions of deserted cities with dilapidated walls and desecrated temples may be more than mere dramatic fiction.117

The primary function of many of these sites appears to have been military defence rather than urban regeneration. The new settlement of Monte Adranone appears to have been little more than a large Carthaginian military garrison, with an extremely small civilian population. 118 At Monte Polizzo the archaeological evidence also strongly suggests that the later Punic occupation took the form simply of a watchtower or a military observation post.119 More fortresses appear to have been established in the area between the Belice and Platani rivers.120 Even Punic Selinus, with its shops and houses, still covered only a fraction of the old Greek city, although clearly more than just a military fort. Indeed, most of the city remained in ruins during this period. In fact the striking feature of many of these high-ground sites in central and western Sicily is the paucity of Punic artefacts aside from bronze coinage and imported torpedo-style amphorae–both signs that suggest a military rather than a civilian occupation.121

We know that, as in Sardinia, much of what we might view as Carthaginian ‘imperialist’ action in Sicily was connected with the acquiring of the resources that a great city like Carthage relied upon.122 However, quite what these resources were, and where they came from, is perhaps not as clear as one might assume. The direct benefit that Carthage appears to have derived from the agricultural hinterland of western Sicily was not extensive. A series of recent studies on amphorae imported to Carthage from the fifth and fourth centuries BC has shown that the quantity of imports from Punic Sicily was minute when compared with those from Sardinia.123 Similarly, Carthaginian exports to western Sicily were equally modest during the period.124 Of course, for the Carthaginians the economic value of western Sicily was its ports, through which a huge amount of Tyrrhenian and Aegean commercial traffic passed.125 The large quantity of fine pottery from Athens dating from the end of the fifth and the first half of the fourth centuries BC found in Carthage probably means that cargoes were being shipped directly between the two cities during this period.126 Later in the fourth century these luxury imports were gradually replaced by fineware from Greek Sicily and southern Italy, which relied on the continued occupation of the Sicilian ports.127 It is clear that by the fourth century BC these regions were the largest overseas exporters of wine (and perhaps other foodstuffs) into Carthage.128 Indeed, without Panormus and Lilybaeum, Carthage would have faced the risk of economic disaster. These ports were therefore worth protecting at almost any cost. Carthaginian interest in much of the hinterland of western Sicily was based not on the local agriculture, as it was on Sardinia, but on fortified settlements which created a defensive buffer for the main object of Carthaginian economic interest on the island: the ports of the west.

The other major factor in Carthage’s economic and political organization of western Sicily was its very large standing army that remained on the island for considerable periods of time. Owing to the lack of economic input from the territory that it was meant to be protecting, the Carthaginian army on Sicily had to be largely supplied with foodstuffs from Sardinia.129 One must assume that the profits made from the Tyrrhenian and Ionian trade could be offset against these expenses, and that the Punic cities in western Sicily may have been paying some form of taxation in coinage.130

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