Ancient History & Civilisation

CARTHAGE: A CENTRAL-MEDITERRANEAN MELTING POT

Diodorus’ account of the relationship between the Carthaginians and the cult of Demeter and Core was in fact very partial. The goddesses had long been worshipped by the Punic population of Sicily as fertility and underworld deities, and it was most likely from this source that the cult had first come to Carthage.17 Core, in particular, became a ubiquitous presence on Carthaginian coinage.18 The two goddesses were two of the most popular motifs of the Punic world–especially on terracotta incense-burners, where they were depicted wearing concave headdresses in which perfumed pellets were placed.19 Indeed, within a very short period of time during the fourth century BC the cult would also proliferate across other Punic areas of the western Mediterranean, such as the rural shrine of Genna Maria in Sardinia, where the worship of Demeter was clearly amalgamated with that of indigenous deities.20 What is also clear is that, despite Diodorus/ Timaeus’ insistence to the contrary, this was no mere replication of the Greek cult, but one that had already been mediated through the extensive cultural and religious borrowings that had been taking place between the diverse communities that inhabited the island of Sicily, before being tailored to the diverse religious needs of its adherents across the Punic world.

Then there was the syncretistic figure of Heracles–Melqart, who became increasingly popular in Carthage during the third century BC. Of particular significance are a series of engraved bronze hatchet razors (a traditional part of the Punic funerary assemblage) dating to this period and found in the cemeteries that ringed the city. Although the images that were engraved on many of the blades of these hatchets show traditional Levantine representations of Melqart dressed in a long tunic and headdress, with a double-sided axe resting on his shoulder, new representations of the god had also begun to appear.21 Indeed, one particular example shows Heracles complete with a lionskin, a club and a hunting dog at his feet, in the classic iconography of the hero that had developed in the Greek cities of southern Italy.22 Yet, as the French scholar Serge Lancel has rightly observed, this was really only an ‘Italianate veneer’ on Punic Melqart. For on the reverse side of the blade was an image of Ioloas, Heracles’ nephew and companion, holding a branch from the kolokasion plant in one hand and a quail in the other.23 This was a Greek interpretation of the Phoenician/Punic rite of egersis. The story, preserved by the Greek writer Athenaeus, summarizing a story told by an earlier fourth-century Greek author, Eudoxius of Cnidus, told how ‘Tyrian’ Heracles lay dying and was soothed by his faithful companion with the leaves from the kolokasion plant, before being brought back to life by the smell of roasting quail meat.24 Another hatchet razor dating to the third century BC found in Carthage displays a possible Sardinian connection, with an engraving of Heracles naked under his lionskin leaning on his club on one side of the blade, while on the other side Sid, wearing a plumed headdress, spears a kneeling figure wearing a breastplate and a short tunic.25

Thus, rather than proving the existence of an unbridgeable divide between Greek and Punic populations in the West, Timaeus and the other Sicilian Greek historians used by Diodorus represented a shrill xenophobic reaction to the growing political, cultural and religious syntheses that governed not only their home island, but also the whole central Mediterranean. For Timaeus in particular, the attraction of this model of ethnic conflict between Greeks and barbarians was clearly the result of his long absence from Sicily and the continually shifting compromises and allegiances that made up the political landscape there.

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