Ancient History & Civilisation


The second problem facing the historian of Carthage is less tangible but equally pressing: where should the historian place the city within the wider context of the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly in relation to the acknowledged great ‘western’ civilizations of Greece and Rome? After all, Carthage may have been physically located in the western Mediterranean, but, even half a millennium after the first Phoenician settlers had established the city, its historic Levantine heritage still played a major role in its cultural, religious and linguistic traditions.

The relationship between the Carthaginians and their Phoenician heritage was particularly strong in the area of religious observance and worship. Right up until the destruction of their city, Carthaginian parents still named their offspring from the same narrow pool as their ancestors had done, based on the names of Phoenician gods (a nightmare for the historian, as we will find out). The most famous Carthaginian name of all, Hannibal, means ‘The Grace of Baal’, while another popular one, Bodaštart, translates into ‘In the Hands of Astarte’ (the Punic goddess of fertility). Names may also have been chosen for more precise meanings, such as the woman Abibaal (‘My Father is Baal’), whose mother, Arišut-Ba’al (‘Object of Desire of Baal’), may have been a temple prostitute or a priestess at the temple of the god.51

The importance of Phoenicia in the construction of Carthaginian religious identity is further confirmed by the finely engraved religious monument known as a stele erected by Abibaal as part of a dedication. It shows a priestess (perhaps the supplicant) making an offering of a cow’s head to the flames on an altar made up of a capital on top of a pillar base. The woman is dressed in a long robe, and holds an offering box in her left hand, while her right hand is in the traditional pose of supplication. Although this monument has been dated to the last decades of Carthage’s existence, it depicts a traditional sacred rite that can be traced right back to rituals that were performed in the Near East a thousand years earlier.52

For the Greeks and the Romans, the ambiguity surrounding the identity of Carthage meant that Carthaginians could be represented as the worst of both Western and Eastern worlds: uncultured barbarians and effeminate, lazy, dishonest and cruel orientals.53 This was a judgement that was enthusiastically taken up by many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century western Europeans, in a colonial age when the intermixing of races was frowned upon.54 However, while highlighting a strong continuity with Levantine traditions and practices, artefacts such as the stele of Abibaal provide only a very partial view of what was actually a far more complex cultural DNA. In particular, what little remains of Punic art and architecture attests to an extraordinary eclecticism and openness to new influences and ideas.

Around the beginning of the second century BC, a wealthy Punic citizen of Sabratha, a city several hundred kilometres to the east of Carthage in what is now Libya that had long been under Carthaginian political and cultural influence, commissioned a mausoleum for himself. 55 This strikingly original three-storey structure, standing at over 23 metres high, was built out of local sandstone blocks and was planned as a truncated triangle with concave facades.56 At ground level a stepped base led up to a first storey with columns decorated with Ionic capitals on its three corner points and decorative semi-columns in the centre of the facades. The principal facade consisted of a false door decorated with two lions facing each other, and above it a typically Egyptianate architrave with winged solar discs and a stylized frieze. On a second storey were a series of sculpted metopes whose reliefs showed mythological scenes: the dwarf-like Egyptian god Bes (long popular across the Punic world for his ability to ward off evil spirits) overcoming two lions, and the Greek hero Heracles fulfilling the first of his famous ten labours, the subjugation of the monstrous Nemean lion. In a further architectural extravagance, the metopes were flanked by three lions which in turn supported rectangular consoles on which stood 3-metretall kouroi (statues of young men). Finally, a pyramidal shaft crowned the structure’s apex.

To any Greek contemporary, the Sabratha mausoleum would have managed to look both familiar and alien at the same time. Many of the mausoleum’s artistic and architectural elements–including the capitals, columns, kouroi and metopes–hailed from the Greek artistic and architectural canon. Furthermore, the metopes were covered in brightly painted stucco in the same fashion as their Greek equivalents. These colours were used to particularly striking effect on the central panel. The naked flesh of Bes was deep pink. The brilliant white of his loincloth and teeth highlighted the red of his lugubrious lips and the cobalt blue of his beard. Colour also added greatly to the expressiveness of the lions, with their blue manes resting on deepyellow bodies. The turquoise of their lifeless eyes and the red of their lolling tongues set against the brilliant white of their teeth contrasted with the flaccidity of death.

The heavy use of Egyptian architectural styling and themes also points to the influence of the great new Greek city of Alexandria to the east, where an exciting fusion of native and Greek styles had taken place. And yet other clues suggest that the monument’s designer was certainly no Greek architect (the Punic world had in any case been integrating Greek and Egyptian styles into its art and architecture since at least the sixth century BC). The anatomic details on the stocky body of Bes, for example, are articulated on the metope by the use of surface decoration, a typically Punic technique. Another hallmark of Punic art, an obsessive attention to detail and symmetry, is also much in evidence on the Sabratha mausoleum. Thus the two triangles that make up the pointed beard of Bes correspond exactly to their counterparts that mark the lower border of the god’s white loincloth on the thighs. Even locks of hair are individually drawn out.

More importantly, one finds that the usual conventions of time and place have been discarded: archaic kouroi jostle with classical and Hellenistic elements.57 Traditional Greek fable is also given a fresh twist, with Heracles dispatching the Nemean lion with a short sword rather than by strangulation. There is a freedom here that one simply does not find even in the more liberal artistic milieu created by Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire and the subsequent close contact of the Greeks with the venerable cultures of the East during the third and second centuries BC. Even more heretical to the Greek architectural eye would have been the stunted proportions of the columns on the first floor, which are reduced to being little more than a base for the storey above. One would never find this lack of proportion in a Greek building of that period, however provincial its setting.

However, this willingness to use styles that had long gone out of fashion in the Hellenic world, often in unfamiliar combinations, should be seen not as evidence of boorish gaucheness or a lack of artistic vision, but rather as further evidence of the creative independence that typified the Punic commonwealth. Yet the most surprising aspect of the Sabratha mausoleum was its success as a building. By rights this strange multi-tiered structure crammed with a hotchpotch of cultural references and artistic styles should have been an architectural disaster. However, the bold interplay between shadow and light created by the concave lines and the height of the structure combined with the elegant vertical flow of the colonnades and the kouroi mean that this monument stands as a graceful but unmistakably Punic view of the world.

Too often an overemphasis on the eclecticism of the influences found in Punic art, rather than consideration of the originality of their assemblage, has led to the false assumption that the Carthaginians’ engagement with more ‘inventive’ and ‘original’ cultures–in particular Greece–amounted to little more than passive consumption or shallow ventriloquism. The considerable evidence that exists for Punic populations speaking Greek, writing works on Greek literature, studying Greek philosophy, wearing Greek clothes, and venerating Greek deities has commonly been taken as confirmation of that view.58 By the same token, the clear debt that ancient Greek culture owed to the great civilizations of the Near East has often been met with derision and denial.59

In fact the Sabratha mausoleum stands as a stunning monument not to the derivative nature of late Punic culture, but to the extent to which the Punic world was part of a wider economically and culturally joined-up community that spanned much of south-western Europe and North Africa long before it was politically united under the imperial aegis of Rome. It was not a world founded on the overwhelming political or military supremacy of one particular power, but a much looser network made up of the diverse peoples–Punic, Greek, Etruscan and others–who lived along its shores. These different ethnic groups were initially linked together by maritime trade–the engine through which goods, people, techniques and ideas flowed across the ancient Mediterranean. Instead of stemming from the domination of one imperial power, the creative and economic dynamism that characterized the West during this period was often forged out of the bitter commercial and political rivalries that existed between near equals: the Punic and Greek populations who had both originally come westward in search of land and trade.

As the dominant commercial maritime power in the region throughout much of the first millennium BC, Carthage was one of the centrepieces of a pre-Roman western Mediterranean defined as much by its cultural, economic and political synergies as by the divisions and enmities which feature so prominently in the surviving textual accounts. A major aim of this book is to recover some of this long-forgotten world. For it is only when Carthage is once more placed within its proper trans-Mediterranean context that the historical significance of this once great North African metropolis can be retrieved from the dead weight of wanton destruction and gross misrepresentation that has for so long subsumed it.

A constant presence throughout this book is the great hero Heracles (or Hercules). It may seen strange, even perverse, that a Greek deity who would also become a major figure in the Roman celestial pantheon should play such a prominent role in a book about Carthage. However, Heracles, better than any other figure, stands as an emblem of the cultural diversity and interconnectivity that typified the ancient Mediterranean. Although, as the great wanderer and strongman of Hellenic myth, Heracles was closely associated with Greek colonial endeavour, he also epitomized the syncretism–the amalgamation of different religions, cultures and schools of thought–that was one of the main results of the contacts that Greek colonists made with other ethnic groups, particularly the Punic diaspora. From the sixth century BC onward, Heracles came to be increasingly associated with the Punic god Melqart in the minds of not only the Punic but also the Greek populations of the central and western Mediterranean. It was no coincidence that, when the great Carthaginian general Hannibal cast around for a celestial figurehead to unite the people of the West against the ever-increasing power of Rome, he should choose the figure of Heracles–Melqart. Indeed, during the Second Punic War, Heracles came to symbolize the spoils of victory for which Carthage and Rome fought so hard and so long: the right not only to dictate the economic and political future of the region, but also to claim ownership of its distinguished past.

Attempts to conjure up contemporary relevance with regard to the ancient world can often appear trite and laboured at best, and fatuous and false at worst. However, the history of Carthage does force us to reassess some of the comfortable historical certainties that underpin many of the modern West’s assumptions about its own cultural and intellectual heritage. The ‘classical world’ still revered as the fount of much of Western civilization was never an exclusively Graeco-Roman achievement, but was the result of a much more complex set of interactions between many different cultures and peoples.

Thus Carthage stands not only as an eloquent testament to the cultural diversity that once exemplified the ancient Mediterranean, but also as a stark reminder of just how ruthlessly that past has been selected for us.

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