Episode 1.7 – Carthage & the Mediterranean

The Battle of Alalia
A Depiction of the Battle of Alalia

In the last episode, we took a look at Carthage’s early kings. We examined the stories of the first four kings of the city. We used the four kings as anchors with which to ground our discussion on Carthage’s early politics.

Apart from the politics, the one other thing that we observe during this time is the fact that the Carthaginians were out and about, trying to conquer the world around them. They tried subduing Africa, controlling Sicily and taking over Sardinia. These attempts at conquest take us from 580 BC down to about the 540s & 530s BC.

In today’s episode, while we won’t hear about any conquests, we will take an in-depth look at some of Carthage’s other interactions, as they unfolded from the 540s BC onwards. We will begin our story today, in the Northern Mediterranean Sea, then hop on over to Italy, return to Africa, and finally, end our discussion in Sicily.

But before we embark, I’d like to apologize if today’s episode sounds like it’s all over the place. One of the biggest problems with early Carthaginian history is that it has too many holes. There is literally zero information on Carthage from her founding till about 580 BC. From 580 BC onwards till 410 BC, the narrative history is so severely punctuated that developing a coherent narrative is extremely. In this episode, I’ve tried to take the discussion from the 540s onwards, till about 508 BC. Multiple events take place during this time, but since they all seem disconnected from each other, they may seem all over the place. They are, however, connected, in the sense that all of them are Carthaginian interactions with the wider Mediterranean world. And that is why all of these events merited being discussed in the same episode. So, if the episode feels a little contrived, I seek your forgiveness in advance. The lack information during this period also means that this episode will be shorter than usual. And for that, too, I seek your forgiveness. This is the best arrangement that I could think of.

With that little apology out of the way, let’s begin.

Sometime in the decade between 540 and 530 BC, a combined Etruscan-Punic fleet of one hundred and twenty warships faced off against a Greek fleet of only sixty ships from the Greco-Corsican colony of Alalia. The battle, called the Battle of Alalia, was fought just off of the North Eastern coast of Corsica. Despite the numerical advantage, the Etruscan-Punic fleet lost the battle, losing half their fleet. However, as Herodotus puts it, the Greek victory was a Cadmean victory. What that implies is that, in winning the fight, the Greeks lost the very thing they were trying to protect: their ships. The Etruscan-Punic fleet lost sixty of their boats, while the Greeks suffered the loss of a full forty. If another battle were to happen, we know who would win.

Consequently, the Greeks abandoned Alalia and the Etruscans took Corsica for themselves. The Northern Mediterranean pinch point was clear, with the only significant Greek settlement in this region being Massalia, on the southern coast of France. For several decades after the Battle of Alalia, all the Massalians could do was extend their trading activities along this coast. They weakened considerably, such that no Greek could pass through onto Tartessos. The Carthaginians now permanently blocked that path. As I mentioned back in Episode 1.2, Tartessian silver was Tyre’s mainstay, and with the Assyrian hegemony making demands upon her, she could not let others in on the secret.

Let’s take a step back to take a more in-depth look at this event. The political climate in Anatolia in the late seventh and early sixth centuries caused the Greeks here to migrate to other lands. Pentathlos’s settlement of Sicily is but one example of this. The Phocaean settlement of Massalia is another, as I mentioned back in Episode 1.4. Recall that in 600 BC, due to some political threat Greeks from the Anatolian city of Phocaea migrated and settled at Massalia. In 560 BC, the Phocaeans migrated from Anatolia again, settling, this time, opposite Massalia on the island of Corsica at a colony they called Alalia. Sometime later, Cyrus’ invasion of Anatolia drove the rest of the Phocaeans out, who moved en masse to join their brethren at Alalia. Together, Greeks from the colonies of Massalia and Alalia and Pentathlos’s remnant crew from the Lipari Islands formed a nexus of piracy that preyed on Punic and Etruscan shipping.

This piracy threatened the North-South trading route, which was Carthage’s mainstay. Her very existence depended upon it. The same was true for the Etruscans, as well. The constant threat of this piracy catalyzed an alliance between the Carthaginians and the Etruscans. The Battle of Alalia was the result of their joint effort.

Though the Greeks won the battle, they lost more than half their fleet. The Greeks fought the Carthaginians and Etruscans to protect their “right” (in air quotes) to prey on their shipping. Since now they lost more than half their fleet, this victory gave the Greeks nothing but the loss of this piracy.

The battle also sent a strong message to the Liparian pirates who operated along the coast of Italy. They were irrelevant by now anyway because by this time the Etruscans had cut a deal with the central Italian Greek colony of Sybaris, who now became responsible for getting goods up to Campania without the Etruscans having to ship their wares up the Italian coast themselves.

The Etruscans turned out to be Carthage’s doorway to Rome. But before we get to that, let’s take a small diversion to discuss who the Etruscans were. The Greeks and the Romans believed that the Etruscans were emigres from Anatolia. During the Greek Archaic age, they developed city-states in the same manner as the Phoenicians and the Greeks. They interacted with both cultures, both negatively, as the Battle of Alalia demonstrates, and positively, mostly through trade. The Etruscans were addicted to all things Greek. They imported Greek artifacts and even had Greek artisans relocate to their cities. And as the agreement with Sybaris shows, they were open to mutually beneficial commercial exchanges. Most of the Etruscan city-states were inland, with only a few cities on the coasts, which meant that their prowess on the sea was far inferior to that of the Phoenicians and the Greeks. It was only on account of Greek piracy that they were forced to ally themselves militarily with Carthage and provide warships for the effort.

Carthage’s road to Rome began with the Battle of Alalia. After the battle, the Etruscans grew a bit bolder. They thought that they could expel all the Greeks from the area North of the Straits of Messina. To do that, however, they first needed to subjugate the Greek colonies in the Campania region of Italy. In 524 BC, an Etruscan army attacked the Greek colony of Cumae but was defeated. This defeat weakened Etruscan hold on their Southern provinces. Before this time, the nascent city of Rome was under Etruscan control. The weakening of Etruria, however, allowed the Romans to overthrow their Etruscan overlords. The historical record places this Roman revolution either in 509 or 508 BC. Though the Etruscans would reconquer Rome, they were eventually kicked out for good in 504 BC, with Cumaean help.

The weakening of the Etruscans and the rising power of Rome were the two catalysts that made Carthage shift their calculus in Rome’s favour. The Carthaginians were merchants. They were ready to do business with anyone who would grant them access to their markets. When Rome became independent for the first time in 509 or 508 BC, Carthage lost no time putting in place a treaty with her. For their part, the Romans realized that an agreement with a superpower like Carthage would open up multiple doors for them.

The terms agreed to were as follows: (1) Romans or their allies were not to sail beyond the Fair Promontory, which most historians identify as the Cap Bon peninsula. (2) If they were brought there due to bad weather, they were to depart within five days and were only allowed to acquire repair materials for their damaged ships. (3) In Libya and Sardinia, they were to conduct no sale except in the presence of a Punic magistrate. (4) The Romans were to be treated like all the rest if they came to Sicily. (5) The Carthaginians were not to harm any of Rome’s Latin subjects. (6) In Latium, even if a city was not subject to Rome, the Carthaginians couldn’t conquer it, and if they did, it was to be handed over to Rome. (7) The Carthaginians were to build no fort anywhere in Latium. (8) If they entered Latium in arms, they were not to stay beyond the night.

This treaty is an indication that the Etruscan-Punic alliance, assuming that it was a long-term one, had weakened by this point. There were several other indicators of this. The Etruscans fought the 524 BC Battle of Cumae without any Punic help. They also conducted their attacks on the Lipari Islands in the 5th century alone. No Etruscan is present at any of Carthage’s battles either. Finally, in the archaeological record, by the year 500 BC, there is a sudden drop in the number of Etruscan imports at Carthage. You could attribute the weakness of this alliance to Carthaginian realpolitik. Carthaginians abandoning their allies isn’t anomalous. But, to be fair, with Rome’s rise, even the Etruscan city-state of Caere decided to throw in their lot with independent Rome. Some scholars also suggest that since there is considerable confusion over when the Roman revolution took place, this treaty could potentially be just another treaty in Carthage’s Etruscan portfolio.  That is, if in 509 or 508 Rome was actually under Etruscan control, then this is just another example of an Etruscan-Punic alliance.

Whatever the facts regarding Carthage’s alliance with Rome, the King of Caere did seek an agreement with the Carthaginians, or at the very least, with the Phoenicians. In 1964, in the Italian city of Pyrgi, while excavating Caere, an ancient harbour town, the Italian Etruscologist, Pallotino discovered three folded leaves of gold in an alleyway between two temples. The context in which he found them he dated to 500 BC. One of the sheets was in the Phoenician language, while the other two were in Etruscan. Though the writing on the Phoenician tablet wasn’t an exact translation of the inscriptions on the Etruscan ones, it was a good paraphrase. They were in the name of Thefarie Veliunas, the king of Caere, who was dedicating a shrine to the Phoenician goddess Astarte. For the Etruscans, this was their goddess Uni. For the later Romans, this was the goddess, Juno.

Even though this inscription was just dedicating a temple to Astarte, the fact that Thefarie Veliunas chose to do it in both Phoenician and Etruscan, and the possibility that Caere was also home to a Phoenician colony, gives this dedication far more significance than the words seem to convey. Whether this “alliance” (in air quotes) was with the Phoenicians in general or with the Carthaginians, in particular, is an open question. I am inclined to think that it was with the Carthaginians. As we will explore in future episodes, by 500 BC, Carthage was master of all the Phoenician colonies in the Mediterranean. To ally with the Phoenicians at this point in history, meant allying with the Carthaginians. But we may never know for sure. Whether this was meant to be a lasting alliance or whether it was meant to be a one-time thing can’t be identified either. What we do know, however, is that there were significant links between Etruria and Carthage, since evidence of Phoenician presence at Pyrgi is ample, while evidence of Etruscan goods at Carthage and other Phoenician colonies is also quite significant, at least before 500 BC. In fact, just north of Pyrgi was another settlement that the Romans later referred to as Punicum. Was this a reference back to older times when the Phoenicians had made Italy their home?

Since archaeologists date the Pyrgi tablets to the early fifth century, it is possible that Caere was concerned about the weakening of her ties with Carthage. It is likely that this “weakening of ties” prompted Thefarie to dedicate a shrine to Astarte, hoping to curry Carthage’s favour once more. To what end, we can only guess.

It was in Italy that the Greek Heracles and the Phoenician Melqart became the Latin Hercules. This hero-god that bound the Phoenicians and the Greeks in a symbiotic relationship, also linked them with, first, the Etruscans, then the Romans.

The legend that the literature conveys to us is that after crossing the Alps into Italy, Hercules made his way down to the river Tiber. Here he pitched camp at a settlement called Pallanthium. At the dawn of the classical age, Pallanthium would become Rome. But at the moment, in the period when myths were a reality, Pallanthium was just a backwater village in central Italy. A local ogre named Cacus stole Hercules’ cattle. To hide their tracks, he dragged them by their tails. He hid them in his cave, just outside the village. When Hercules awoke and found a part of his cattle missing, he searched in vain. He only found them when he heard his missing cattle bellow while passing by Cacus’ cave. Upon discovery, Hercules beat Cacus to death and retrieved his cattle. He then ritually purified himself in the Tiber, erected an altar to Zeus and sacrificed a calf to him in thanks. When the locals found out that Hercules had killed Cacus, they rejoiced, since Cacus had been terrorizing the settlement for years before Hercules arrived. The joint kings of Pallanthium, Evander, and Faunus invited Hercules to dine with them. Upon conversing with him and hearing his story, Evander realized that this man, Hercules, had been prophesied to come to Pallanthium and deliver them from Cacus. So, as a votive offering to Hercules himself, Evander erected an altar to him and sacrificed a calf upon it. Thus, Hercules, in addition to being a Greek and a Phoenician hero-god, became part of the Etruscan pantheon, too. After that, Hercules the god decreed that Pallanthium must now sacrifice a calf upon the altar every year according to Greek rites. For that purpose, he chose two distinguished Pallanthium families, the Potitii and the Pinarii, to whom he taught the rituals. At least this is how Dionysius of Halicarnassus connects Rome with Hercules.

In an earlier version of the story, the hero was a local shepherd of Greek origin named Recaranus. Cacus was not an ogre, but one of Evander’s slaves, who also happened to be a divine seer. Cacus used to steal cattle, but Recaranus unmasked him. In an even earlier version of the story, there is no hero. Evander, the king of Pallanthium, himself exposes Cacus as the cattle thief. The variations in the tellings of this legend suggest the influence of foreign cultures. The base legend was that of Evander unmasking Cacus, indicating that the source of the myth may be Etruscan. The next tale introduced the Greek figure Recaranus, suggesting a Greek influence. Dionysius’ telling, however, adds the cult of Heracles. The question is, was the cult of Melqart also involved?

The altar to Hercules at Pallanthium became the Ara Maxima, or “the great altar,” located in what later became known as the Forum Boarium, ancient Rome’s cattle market. Central Italy is home to many such temples situated in many famous places and on many vital trading routes. We can find these temples throughout ancient Etruscan territories, as well as a bit further south where the original Latin areas lay. The alleged arrival of Hercules and his alleged insistence upon the performance of Greek sacrificial rites explicitly suggests a robust Hellenistic influence, first, upon the Etruscans, and then, upon the Latins. The carriers of this influence were Greek merchants. The temple at the Forum Boarium, dated to the sixth century, itself also seems to confirm this view. The life-sized statue of Hercules here is in the archaic Greek style, and the temple is also home to some archaic Greek pottery.

The historian Richard Miles, however, has an alternative view. He claims that this statue of Hercules, despite its apparent Greek style, also exhibits certain stylistic similarities to the statuettes of Melqart found on the Cypriot Phoenician colony of Kition. Then, there are the religious parallels between the cult of Hercules at Rome and the worship of Melqart at Gades and other cities, for example, the banning of flies and dogs from the temple, the exclusion of women from its celebrations and the choice of the autumn equinox as the time for these holidays. There is also the question of “sacred” prostitution, symbolizing the union of Melqart with Astarte, which was a common source of income for Phoenician temples. At Pyrgi, Astarte was the principal goddess, and Miles suggests that some portions of the Pyrgi temple were reserved for this “sacred” prostitution. Can this somehow be linked to another shrine in the Forum Boarium, the one dedicated to the famous Roman prostitute, Acca Laurentia? The parallels between Phoenician and Roman religions are indeed substantial. Somehow, Phoenician influence found its way to Pallanthium. It is not hard to imagine Phoenician culture jumping from the Phoenician colonies on Italy on to the Etruscans, with the Etruscans, then, passing it along to the Romans.

The syncretism between Heracles and Melqart wasn’t just limited to Sicily and Italy. It also found a home in Africa. Heracles had wrestled and defeated the giant Antaeus on her shores. This part of the Heraclean myth possibly became the basis of two Greek settlements here, the first of which, Cyrene, we’ve already discussed briefly back in Episode 1.4.

Being close to Carthage, a conflict between her and Cyrene was all but inevitable. But the two sides managed to prevent it, nonetheless. The literature records that, to avert border disputes, the Carthaginians and the Cyrenaens decided that two men from each side would start running from their respective cities. The point where they would find each other would be declared their shared border. However, when the runners met, a dispute arose among them. The Cyreneans claimed that the Carthaginians had cheated since they had covered more distance than the Cyreneans. But the Carthaginians stood their ground. In return for demarcating the border at this spot, the Cyreneans demanded that the Carthaginian runners be buried alive at this place. To this, the Carthaginian runners agreed. Thus, the two Punic runners were buried alive at that spot. Carthage erected two altars in their memory, which also became a marker of the border between Carthage and Cyrene. Since the Carthaginian runners were brothers from a family named Philae, the spot became known as the Arae Philaenorum, which is Latin for “the Altars of the Philae.”

The myth of Antaeus was probably the basis of another attempt at settling Africa. A few years before Carthage signed the 509 treaty with Rome, an alleged son of Heracles, the instigator of this new settlement, was trying to make his mark.

The Spartan King Anaxandrias II was childless. The Ephors, the Spartan equivalent of Rome’s senators, tried to convince him to divorce his wife and marry someone else. This Anaxandrias refused to do. So the Ephors decided that they’d allow Anaxandrias to take a second wife. This Anaxandrias did. His second wife gave birth to a boy they named Cleomenes. Shortly after the birth of Cleomenes, however, his first wife also gave birth to a boy, whom they called Dorieus. Soon after that, his first wife gave birth to another boy, the famous Leonidas, the King of Sparta during the Persian invasion, the one who valiantly fell at Thermopylae, in 480 BC. Having three sons meant that they would hotly contest Anaxandrias’ succession.

And that was indeed the case. Though Cleomenes was the successor, according to Spartan law, Dorieus wanted the top job for himself. Some accounts mention that Cleomenes was not mentally suitable for the job. I speculate that these reports were the result of Dorieus’ propaganda against Cleomenes. Regardless, in whatever manner Dorieus tried to acquire the kingship for himself, he was unsuccessful. The literature does not describe how, but it reports that after Anaxandrias’ death, Cleomenes became the King of Sparta. Wanting to heal his wounded pride, Dorieus requested the Ephors to grant him some colonists so that he could found a settlement of his own and make his mark on his terms. The Ephors acquiesced to his request. The Spartans had a law that forbade their citizenry from ever leaving Sparta. The only exceptions to this rule were going to war or leaving to conduct diplomacy. If someone wanted an exception for any other reason, he had to apply to the Ephors. The fact that the Ephors exempted Dorieus means that they thought it best to let the upstart leave and cause no further trouble. Therefore, in 514 BC, Dorieus, along with a band of men, sailed to the coast of modern-day Libya and with some support from Cyrene founded a settlement in the valley of the river Cinyps.

This colony was right in Carthage’s backyard. In fact, it was on bona fide Carthaginian territory, since it was towards the west of the Arae Philaenorum.

Before making any moves, however, the Carthaginians waited for an opportune moment. The settlers at Cinyps couldn’t contain themselves and picked fights with the local tribes, who just happened to be subjects or allies of Carthage. Thus, when the tribes sought Carthage’s help against them, Carthage didn’t hesitate to act. After three years, the Carthaginians kicked Dorieus and his colonists out of Africa.

When he returned to Sparta, he met a man who claimed that he had received an oracle stating that Dorieus should now try to colonize Sicily. Dorieus, being the son of a King of Sparta, was thus a descendant of Heracles. Heracles, the oracle claimed, had been in Sicily, and had left his descendants a piece of land there. This claim, as you may recall, was in accordance with the story of Heracles’ errant bull, and his subsequent defeat of Eryx, from Episode 1.4.

Herodotus records two different versions of what happened to Dorieus after this. The first is that while on his way to Sicily, he was killed in an attempt to intervene between two Greek colonies in Italy. After that, his men went to Sicily and founded the city of Heraclea, near the Elymian town of Eryx. The second is that he accompanied his men to Sicily, and founded Heraclea with them.

Richard Miles suggests that the Greek story of Eryx vs. Heracles may have been a Greek adaptation of a Phoenician myth, now lost. He bases his theory on the fact that the Elymians were the first ones to use the hill of Eryx as a religious centre. Subsequently, the Phoenicians acquired it, who used the site as a temple to Astarte and Melqart. So, the story of Eryx’s defeat by Hercules may have been the adaptation of a Phoenician myth that the Phoenicians must have used to explain how they acquired the hill from the Elymians. Thus, when Dorieus and his party arrived at Eryx, they might have tried to “reclaim” (in air quotes) Eryx as a Greek possession based on local myths about Melqart.

Be that as it may, he was too close to the Punic side of Sicily for comfort. Carthage, as always, looked for an opportunity before jumping the gun. Greeks from the city of Gela had a long-standing land dispute with the citizens of Eryx. When both next went to war, Dorieus and the Heracleans decided to give their Doric brethren a hand. The Carthaginians saw their chance and intervened, too. In the battle between the Carthaginians and the Heracleans that followed, Dorieus and his top brass were killed, while the rest either left Sicily or decided to settle at Gela. That was in 509 BC, around the same time as the when the treaty between Rome and Carthage was concluded.

With this last incident, we can now close out our narrative discussion of the 6th century. We will return to the 6th century a little while from now when we discuss Carthage’s empire.

In the next episode, we will enter the 5th century with a bang. One of the officers from Gela who fought in Dorieus’ army, would rise to power. With Gela under his command, he would seek to control all of Sicily. And that would pit him against the Carthaginians. In the next episode, we will examine one of the most detailed descriptions of any Carthaginian battle from this period, the political circumstances that caused the conflict and its ramifications upon Carthage. Join me next time as I delve into what become known in antiquity as “The Battle of Himera.”

If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please email me at ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com. You can visit the Historyteller blog at historytellerpodcast.com and can listen to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play. You can also find me on the usual social media websites. I am on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In and Google Plus. You can find these links on the right-hand side of the historytellerpodcast.com website. If you liked this episode, please leave me a five-star review on iTunes. If you loved it, please help spread the word about it on your social media.

Thank you so much for listening.

Episode 1.6 – The Early Kings


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In the last episode, we examined the three Carthaginian founding myths that the Greco-Roman literature describes. We looked at the legend of Elissa and examined her misfortunes and contrivances in detail. We saw how she escaped the clutches of her brother and, after a short stay in Cyprus, landed at Utica and founded the city of Carthage nearby. She extracted more land from Hiarbas than she bargained for, and on this land, she established her town. Hiarbas threatened war until she married him, and her advisors deceitfully coaxed her into accepting. In the end, though, she committed suicide, to escape her fate.

In this tale, we already see the remnants of a political system. Elissa is the Queen of Carthage. But though she is Queen, it is apparent that her advisors have some say, too. Also, Elissa’s self-sacrifice indicates that she may have held some sort of a priestly role. In today’s episode, we will elaborate further on this theme. Specifically, we will examine this topic by looking at the lives of four early kings of Carthage: Malchus, Mago, Hasdrubal, and Hamilcar. Typically, when you read about a king or an emperor, you are treated to pages upon pages of his exploits, and his justice and his courage and what have you. The problem with Carthaginian history, though, is that there is such little information, that a full discussion on the lives of any of these guys is going to be damn near impossible. So, in this episode, I will take a look at the few scattered references to these early kings of Carthage. I will dissect their stories and analyze each element as thoroughly as I can to provide as complete a look as possible on them. In the end, we’ll tie the stories of these kings together to develop as full a picture as possible of the early Carthaginian political system.

Ready to get dirty? So am I.

Let’s begin with the story of Malchus. Malchus is the first Carthaginian monarch that the literature mentions after Elissa. Just like in the last episode, I will first relate to you his complete story, and then we’ll delve into its analysis.

Sometime in the early sixth century, Malchus “achieved great exploits in Africa.” After his African adventures, he made war in Sicily, “subduing all of it.” With success in Sicily, he then arrived in Sardinia. Here, Malchus ran out of luck, and he lost the war against the Nuragic people. Learning of his defeat in Sardinia, the Carthaginian government tried Malchus in absentia and sentenced him to exile on the island. After receiving word that his Senate didn’t want him to return to Carthage, Malchus did what any general angry at his people would do. He sent a messenger back to Carthage who conveyed the message that if Malchus weren’t officially pardoned, he would return and lay siege to the city. After the Carthaginians obstinately refused, he did precisely that.

At the end of the Sicilian expedition, the Carthaginians had sent a tenth of their booty back to Tyre, as a votive offering to Melqart at his temple. A priest named Carthalon headed the convoy that carried the goods to Tyre. Carthalon was on his way back to Carthage when Malchus had laid siege to the city. Carthalon also happened to be Malchus’ son. So when Carthalon reached Carthage’s walls, he found his father in less than dignified circumstances. Malchus implored his son to stay with him and join the siege. Carthalon replied, however, that at the moment he was acting as the city’s priest. He said that he would go back to Carthage, discharge his priestly duties and would then return as a son to his father.

But something must have happened while he was in the city because when he came back, he still wore his purple priestly robes. Not only that, he was accompanied by the full pomp and ceremony that was owed to the member of the clergy. In other words, Carthalon didn’t return as his father’s son. Malchus was quite indignant at his son’s behavior, so he did what any father would do to punish his disobedient child. He nailed him to a cross in full priestly regalia and raised it for the Carthaginians to behold from behind the city’s walls. Fun. Malchus and his men then stormed Carthage and took it. After the battle, he assembled the leading men of the town and explained his actions to them. He pardoned everyone except the nobles who he deemed to be the most vociferous in their hostility towards him. A short while later, however, they reconvened their assembly to try him again. This time they condemned him to death.

Let’s go back and analyze each element of the story step by step.

Malchus achieved “great exploits” in Africa. What these “great exploits” were, the literature does not tell us. From other accounts, we know that Carthage was paying “rent” to the natives for the use of their land. Some historians suggest that Malchus’ “great exploits” is a reference to a successful attempt to evade this tribute. Carthage may have opted to stop paying the tribute. In response, the natives might have sought to force the Carthaginians to pay by waging war upon them. Malchus was then called in to fight them and defeating them was his great exploit. The Carthaginians weren’t entirely successful in evading the tribute, though.  Something must have happened after Malchus’ success because the literature mentions that the rent wasn’t completely thrown off until about the year 480 BC. We will get to this in a future episode.

Then Malchus “subdued all of Sicily.” Again, the literature is scant on details. Previously, I’ve mentioned that there is no archaeological evidence that the Phoenicians had taken over Sicily at any point. The primary evidence for Phoenician settlement on Sicily is in the West of the island. There is some evidence of direct contact with the Greeks in the East, but that, by no means implies that the entire island came under Carthaginian control.

If historians date the events associated with Malchus correctly (that is, to somewhere in the vicinity of 580 BC), then it’s possible that it was Malchus that fought Pentathlos upon his intervention in the war between Selinus and Segesta, an event I mentioned back in episode 1.3. Was Malchus involved in that conflict? It’s possible. As I said then, Carthage was afraid that losing Motya and Panormus, cities under her care, would amount to losing the profits from her trade with the Etruscans. Add to that the fact that after this war, Selinus patched up their differences with Segesta, and allied themselves with Carthage. It’s not hard to imagine Selinus patching up her differences with Segesta after Pentathlos’ defeat. But did her alliance with Carthage also materialize because of that? Also, archaeologically, we know that sometime before 575 BC, the Phoenicians built a strong defensive wall around Motya. They also added a causeway to connect Motya to mainland Sicily, most likely for the movement of troops. The four facts, the timing of Malchus’ Sicilian expedition, the strong reasons for Carthaginian intervention, Selinus’ alliance with Carthage and the militarization of Motya, make a solid, though speculative, case that it was Malchus who intervened against Pentathlos. But, as I had mentioned back in Episode 1.3, even with such strong indications, the possibility of Carthaginian intervention against Pentathlos is, at best, speculative.

After Sicily, Malchus lost a war in Sardinia. There is archaeological evidence for this. Remains of the Phoenician fort at Monte Sirai show that she sustained some damage at around this time. But the setback was temporary. This fort shows further signs of having being repaired and strengthened. And, as we’ll see a little later in this episode, the Carthaginians will eventually be victorious in subduing Sardinia.

After his defeat in Sardinia, the Carthaginian Senate exiled him. This exile does not make sense. If Malchus was successful in subduing two of his enemies, and failed with one, in what world is that cause for trial and conviction? On what charge? As the story of Carthage proceeds, we’ll see more of this. Every time Carthage lost a war, the Carthaginian government took harsh punitive measures against their losing generals. One may think that the chroniclers are just making this up. But this “trope” has been reported in so many different chronicles and at so many different times, that there may be some truth to it.

Malchus’ resentment at having been exiled is understandable. So is his desire to be pardoned and so is the siege. Carthalon’s actions, however, are a little difficult to explain. Some historians believe that the Carthaginian government had convinced him to act as their ambassador, hoping that, as a son, Carthalon would be able to persuade Malchus to lay down his arms. But if it was just a matter of laying down his arms, then all the Carthaginians needed to do was to pardon him and the siege would end. I further speculate that not only did they want Malchus to lay down his arms, but they also wanted him dead. Carthalon would convince him to lay down his arms and enter the city. Malchus would then be arrested and executed.

When Carthalon returned, he was probably unaware of his father’s anger. Because of this lack of awareness, he made the mistake of not joining his father in the siege. Further, he became an ambassador for the very council that condemned his father to exile. When Malchus crucified Carthalon, he did so with Carthalon’s priestly garb still on him and in full view of the city. He was sending the message that he didn’t care about filial ties or religion. He only wanted to be pardoned.

If this account is accurate, then it gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of the early Carthaginian government. The fact of Malchus’ trial in absentia points to the possibility that he was an “appointed king.” He had been appointed to fight in Africa by a council. His success there enabled him to acquire the generalship for Sicily and Sardinia. His son, being a priest of the cult of Melqart, represented the consolidation of power over Carthage into the hands of Malchus’ family. At least, this is how his enemies on the council perceived it. As a consequence, they were on the lookout for a chance to oust Malchus from power. His defeat in Sardinia gave them just that. Had Carthalon been at Carthage at the time, he might have been able to prevent this. But he was not. He had left Tyre to accompany the tribute, and his absence allowed his father’s enemies to act. They tried him in absentia and sentenced him to exile. So Malchus’ laid his siege.

Some historians consider the story of Malchus to be a myth. There are several reasons for this. Let’s examine each in turn. As we go along, I will also provide counter-points, because I do not think that this story is a myth.

The first is the context in which Justin, the summarizer of the historian Pompeius Trogus, relates this story, which is that of child sacrifice. The argument is that if Justin mentions Malchus’ story as part of his discussion on child sacrifice, then he must be sourcing a text on Carthaginian funerary practices. Since funerary texts can only talk about myths, Malchus’ story in Justin is a myth. One doesn’t need to be a logician to see the flaws in this argument. Just because the story may come from a “book of the dead” doesn’t mean that it is merely a myth. And just because the context is child sacrifice doesn’t imply he’s quoting a book on funerary practices. Also, Carthaginian child sacrifice included pyres and burning, not crosses and crucifixion. The Elissa story has more right to be an explanatory myth than this tale.

The second reason that some scholars consider Malchus’s story to be a myth is that it is reminiscent of the age-old conflict between secular power and religious authority. That is to say, between the palace and the temple. This schism is something that I’ve touched upon briefly in Episode 1.2, in the context of Hiram’s religious reforms at Tyre. These scholars see the conflict between Malchus and his son as a symbol representing this conflict. What they don’t mention, though, is why the chroniclers chose to represent the relationship between palace and temple through the motif of a father and his disobedient son. A priest discharging his religious duties before showing deference to royalty is not historically anomalous. And neither is a king killing his son.

The third reason that some scholars consider Malchus’s story to be a myth is that they understand Malchus’ name as being derived from the Semitic root, M-L-K. M-L-K has a variety of different meanings in Semitic languages, one of which is “king.” The reasoning is that if this guy’s name in the story is “king” then he must be an archetype of some sort that represents Carthaginian kingship in general, and therefore, not real. This line of reasoning, however, is based on a faulty premise. And that assumption is that his name is Malchus. In none of the extant manuscripts that relate this story is this guy’s name “Malchus.” He is variously referred to as Mazeus, Maceus or Maleus. In the 17th century, an editor of these texts, Vossius, thought that all three of these names were bastardized forms of the Semitic root, M-L-K. So, Vossius Latinized this Semitic root and renamed him to Malchus. Needless to say, since the actual name of this king isn’t Malchus, the theory that he is an archetype that represents Carthaginian kingship falls flat on its face. Though Malchus’ tale may be unreliable, it is not a myth. It is definitely a historical tale.


After Malchus’ death, a man named Mago took over the reins of leadership at Carthage. Justin relates that Mago reformed the Carthaginian army, and he also mentions that Mago “extended the Carthaginian domains.” And that’s all there is to know about Mago. At least, that’s all that Justin says anyway. But this small snippet does raise some interesting questions to ponder over. So let’s ponder over them now.

First, how did Mago come to power? Though the literature does not tell us, it is unlikely that he did so through a military coup. Malchus had just been executed for laying siege to Carthage and storming her. With these events having just passed, it is inconceivable that Mago would dare to acquire power in the same manner that got Malchus executed. So, he is likely to have acquired power through legal means. In other words, he somehow got the Carthaginian council to elect him.

Second, was Mago a Malchus supporter, or was he one of his enemies? It is possible that Mago belonged to the opposing camp. After all, would the Carthaginian council allow a Malchus supporter to take power after just having him executed? But in that case, why didn’t Malchus have Mago killed when he seized control of Carthage? The answer is that he may not have earned Malchus’ ire. Remember that Malchus’ only had the most vocal of his opponents executed. He forgave everyone else. Alternatively, Mago may have been entirely neutral, and it was his neutrality that lent him enough credibility with both camps to be able to take the reins himself.

Third, what are these military reforms that Mago instituted? Some historians suspect that this means that he introduced the use of mercenaries. On the surface, this makes some sense. Carthage didn’t have enough people to provide for a citizen levy. Who would man the workshops while the citizenry was away fighting? The empire abroad, which we will get to in future episodes, had to be defended, though, making the use of mercenaries necessary. But, if they didn’t use mercenaries before this, then Malchus fought his wars with a citizen army. If that’s the case, then where were these citizens when the council tried Malchus for the second time? Why didn’t they rally to his support? The fact that none of the soldiers rallied to Malchus’s support indicates that his army was a mercenary one, which was paid and disbanded after the success of his coup. So, whatever Mago did, he didn’t introduce the use of mercenaries.

Other historians suggest that while Carthage used mercenaries before this, Mago made use of them exclusively. In other words, he permanently disbanded any existent citizen regiments. At least one scholar has also suggested that Mago’s key reform was to bring the conduct of the armies and generals under tighter civilian control. Malchus’ successful coup certainly gave Mago reason to do this. What form this stricter control might have taken is anybody’s guess.

And finally, what does Justin mean when he says that Mago “extended the Carthaginian domains.” Again, he gives us no details. Did that mean a further expansion in Africa? Did that mean campaigns on any of the Mediterranean islands? Did that mean Spain? Without any reference to Mago, other sources like to point out that in addition to Africa, Sicily and Sardinia, the Carthaginians had also brought Spain and the kingdom of Tartessos under their control. Perhaps this is what Justin meant? We cannot be sure.

After Mago died, his son Hasdrubal came to power. Hasdrubal and his brother, Hamilcar, fought, unsuccessfully, in Libya to “shake off the tribute owed to the Libyans.” They, then, went to Sardinia. Here, Hasdrubal died of wounds he sustained in battle. His mantle passed on to Hamilcar, who successfully concluded the war. As before, let’s analyze each element of this story.

Hasdrubal and Hamilcar first fought in Africa. If Malchus had been successful previously, then the native Libyans had reimposed their tribute by the time Hasdrubal assumed the reigns of power. Consequently, the first order of business for Hasdrubal was to get rid of its yoke again. This time, however, the Carthaginians were unsuccessful.

Then, the brothers made it to Sardinia. Though Hasdrubal died trying, the brothers succeeded in their endeavors here. Their success does not mean that they subdued the whole island. Neither the Phoenicians nor the Carthaginians made it beyond the coasts. Most of the native Nuraghes escaped to the more mountainous interior of the island, where the Carthaginians couldn’t reach them.

After Hasdrubal’s death, Hamilcar was in charge. There is some confusion in the sources about who Hamilcar is. Justin claims that Hamilcar was Mago’s son. Herodotus, however, insists that Hamilcar was the son of someone named Hanno, while at the same time seems to know nothing of Mago or Hasdrubal. The historian Gilbert-Charles Picard surmises that Hanno may have been Hasdrubal’s brother and the chroniclers got Hanno and Hamilcar mixed up. Dexter Hoyos, however, suggests that Herodotus just made an error. Regardless, we cannot know for sure.

With the consolidation of power into the hands of Mago’s descendants, the Magnoid Dynasty had officially begun. There is a consensus among historians that from this period, in the middle of the 6th century, right down to the beginning of the 4th, the descendants of Mago held the reins of the Carthaginian government. And I think that this is as good a point as any, to begin a discussion on Carthaginian kingship and Carthage’s early politics.

To do so, let’s go back to Tyre for a minute. Kings ruled Tyre. And an advisory council, comprising of the patriarchs of leading merchant families in the city, supported the kings. Despite the existence of an advisory committee, ultimate authority resided with the king. By the time we get to Carthage, however, the situation has changed significantly. During Elissa’s reign, her council seems to have some sway over the queen. But by Malchus’s day, the council seems to have held ultimate authority. This power was considerable enough that the council could try a general in absentia and sentence him to exile. At some point between Hiram and Malchus, somehow, this advisory council went from merely providing advice, to sentencing a general to exile and death. That’s quite an upward shift in power.

What was Malchus’, Mago’s, Hasdrubal’s or Hamilcar’s actual role? Were they elected kings? Or were they merely elected generals? Justin refers to Malchus as a dux, Mago as an Imperator and Hasdrubal as a dictator. Herodotus calls Hamilcar as a basileus. Herodotus curiously adds that Hamilcar became a basileus “by virtue of his valor.” Diodorus claims that the Magonid kings became kings “by virtue of the laws,” implying that there was some legal procedure that allowed someone to climb to the top. Hasdrubal was said to have been elected to the dictatorship eleven times, again implying a legal procedure but also implying that the position, regardless of its constitution, was temporary. The use of the term “Imperator” which, if taken in its full Roman context, implies the same thing.

To summarize: At this early stage in Carthaginian history, the center of Carthaginian politics was the council. This council possessed extensive powers. The executive authority, the king, the Imperator, the dux, the diktator, the basileus; the Senate elected him for a short period, and his primary concern was the field of battle.

In this context, then, what does it mean for Mago and his descendants to have consolidated their hold on Carthaginian politics? A curious statement from Justin claims that Mago’s sons and their sons “together ran the affairs of Carthage.” This sentence seems to indicate that the Magonids were in complete control of the government, despite the division of authority between the legislative body and the executive. How was this possible? We know that there was no shortage of actual descendants. Mago had his sons, who in turn had their sons, who in turn had theirs. These are the direct descendants who acquired the top job. There may have been other relatives, relatives of their wives, husbands of their daughters and their kin and, off course, general supporters of their faction. The kings may have shared power among all these elements by parceling out generalships, judgeships, priesthoods, and other principal offices. They did this for decades upon decades while being able to placate the other factions. And this full hold on power allowed them to influence the legal procedures that allowed them to acquire the top job.

Some historians have suggested that the reason the Carthaginians chose their kings from the Magnoid family was that they perceived them to be possessors of supernatural qualities. There is some evidence to suggest that this may be the case. There are many battles in subsequent Carthaginian history in which the kings, instead of directing their troops, are seen to be leading ritual sacrifices to curry favor with the gods. Some even ritually sacrificed themselves. Even Elissa seems to serve this role when performing her sacrificial self-immolation. These incidents indicate a religious/priestly role for the kings. On its own, however, this doesn’t prove that the Magonid family itself was considered sacred. The rituals performed on the battlefield could have been part of the role itself as opposed to any indication of a supposed supernatural status of the family. Also, if this family was meant to be the go-to family from which to elect Carthage’s kings, then Malchus ought to have been from this family. The literature does not even hint at a filial relationship between Malchus and Mago. Moreover, if Malchus and Mago were relatives, would Mago have been elected as king so soon after Malchus’ execution? I highly doubt it.

One final question: During the Punic wars, the record for which is far less muddy than it is for this period, ultimate authority at Carthage lay in the hands of two men, referred to as the suffets. This role is similar to that of the Roman consuls. The question is: Were the kings of 6th and 5th century Carthage the same as the suffets of the later 3rd and 2nd centuries?

Though the answer to this question is by no means settled, I’m inclined to think that they are not the same. Though, we’ll delve into this issue in detail later, here’s my preliminary answer as to why the roles are not the same.

(1) The early kings were primarily military leaders established in authority via a legal procedure. The suffets, on the other hand, were mostly civilian leaders, also invested with power via legal process, but had no sway in the field of battle whatsoever.

(2) In the fourth century, there was a significant revolution in Carthaginian politics which brought about some noticeable changes. We’ll discuss this revolution in detail when we get to it. The only thing I can say at the moment, however, is that it does not seem appropriate to me to back-project post-revolutionary Carthaginian politics on to her pre-revolutionary days, just so that we can fill the gaps.

(3) The kings always appear one at a time, while the suffets are always two.

Malchus and the early Magonids were war leaders. Collectively, over a period of about sixty-six years, that is, between 580 and 514 BC, they fought wars in Africa, Sicily, and Sardinia. It is here that we see the beginning of a Carthaginian Empire. It won’t be long, however, before they feel the first big shock to their existence. Before we get there, though, we still need to see how Carthage interacted with the wider Mediterranean world.

In the next episode, in much the same way as we did for the Phoenicians, we will examine Carthage’s relationship with other folks around the Mediterranean. In particular, we will take a look at Carthage’s dealings with the Etruscan world and how that opened the door for her dealings with the city of Rome. We’ll also examine one curious episode in which an upstart from Sparta decides to take on the Carthaginians.

If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please email me at ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com. You can visit the Historyteller blog at historytellerpodcast.com and can listen to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play. You can also find me on the usual social media site. I am on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In and Google Plus. You can find these links on the right-hand side of the historytellerpodcast.com website. If you liked this episode, please leave me a five-star review on iTunes. If you loved it, please help spread the word about it on your social media.

Alright, folks, that’s it for now!

Episode 1.5 – The Founding of Carthage

Dido of Carthage
A Coin Depicting Dido on the Left and the City of Carthage on the Right

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In the previous episodes, I’ve summarized as briefly as I could the history of Tyre’s colonization of the Mediterranean, and the circumstances that led to that migration. We’ve seen how Tyre’s lust for wealth made her plant small trading stations all over the Mediterranean, and how the expansion of Assyrian hegemony in the Levant caused the Tyrians to turn their little trading posts into full-blown settlements. Carthage was just one such settlement.

In the last episode, I’ve, also as briefly as I could, summarized the Phoenicians’ interactions with the Greeks in the Mediterranean. Such interactions enriched the trade, culture, and religion of both sides. One dubious point of cultural enrichment, for the Greeks, at least, was the colorful depiction of the Phoenicians in their texts. In that same vein, I had also mentioned at the very end of the episode that when it came to the founding legend of the city of Carthage, the Greeks didn’t hesitate to concoct the wildest fabrications. In today’s episode, we’ll be discussing these very fabrications.

We will try to grapple with all of the literature that relates to us the founding of Carthage. Specifically, we’ll deal with the three myths which mention the legendary founders of the city. We’ll dissect the central myth and analyze it to death. We’ll also look at some of the archaeology that pertains specifically to Carthage to see what light it can shed upon her founding.

So without further ado, let’s jump right in.

Legend has it that sometime before the Mycenaeans destroyed Troy, perhaps by fifty years, Zoros and Karchedon, two men from Tyre, made landfall near Utica and founded the city of Carthage.

Three authors report this tradition: Philistus of Syracuse, whom we will meet when we begin our discussions on Carthage’s Dionysian Wars, Eudoxus of Cnidus and the famous second-century Greek historian, Appian of Alexandria. All three of them mention more or less the same thing: that Zoros (or Azoros, with an “A” in some versions of the tale) and Karchedon founded Carthage before the fall of Troy. Appian adds the tiny detail that the fall of Troy followed the founding of Carthage by fifty years.

This story, however, is almost certainly false. The name “Zoros” sounds suspiciously similar to the word “Sur,” which was the Phoenician name for the city of Tyre. The name “Karchedon” was also the Greek name for the city of Carthage. Greek “Karchedon,” Latin “Carthago” and English “Carthage” all derive from the Phoenician phrase, “Kart Hadasht,” which, in the original Phoenician, meant “New City” and was the name of the city in Phoenician. So how did the phrase that meant “New City” end up as the supposed name of the supposed founder of the city? Ancient chroniclers frequently make this error. If they don’t know the historical origins of a town, they assume that her name reflects the name of her founder in some manner. So they back-project the name of the city, on to a legendary founder, who did not exist.

The story is also false because it is archaeologically untenable. There are a variety of dates that the literature gives us for the fall of Troy. None, however, are any later than the beginning of the twelfth century BC.  According to Appian, Troy fell fifty years after Carthage’s founding, putting Carthage’s founding, at the very least, at the end of the thirteenth century BC. However, at the actual site of Carthage, there are no remains that can be dated earlier than the ninth century BC. I’ll have more to say about this in a few minutes. For now, all we need to know is that this story is nothing but hogwash.

The more famous tale regarding Carthage’s founders comes from their archenemies, the Romans. While it doesn’t describe the founding of the city per se, it does feature the legendary Carthaginian queen, Dido. Of course, I’m referring to the Augustan poet Virgil’s famous poem, the Aeneid. Here’s how the story goes:

The god Jupiter had foreseen the foundation of a great city in Italy. The eponymous founder of this city, Romulus, descended from the Trojan, Aeneas. When the Greeks were just about finished burning Troy down, Jupiter commanded Aeneas to leave Troy and find a new home elsewhere. As a result, he, his father, his son, and a few of the family’s friends boarded a fleet and left Troy.

The machinations of other gods caused Aeneas and his fleet to make landfall somewhere near Carthage. Having disembarked, Aeneas made his way to the nearby temple of Juno, just outside of Carthage’s boundaries. Here, he saw Dido for the first time. Aeneas explained his circumstances to her and Dido, moved by the plight of the Trojans, invited them into her city.

Later that night, the Carthaginians held a banquet in honor of their Trojan guests. At this feast, Aeneas recalled the tale of Troy’s destruction at the hands of the Greeks. He recalled how he and his companions escaped. He told them how they bounced around from one place to another in search of a new home, and how they ended up in Africa.

The goddess Venus, who also happened to be Aeneas’ mother, wished for her son to get married. She convinced another one of her sons, Cupid, to take the form of Aeneas’ young son, the child Ascanius, sit in Dido’s lap, and breathe into her a maddening love for Aeneas. Dido was the widow of the chief priest of Tyre, Hasdrubal. She had vowed never to marry again after his death. But despite this vow, Cupid succeeded in his mission. By the time the banquet ended, she was utterly smitten with romantic love for Aeneas and motherly love for Ascanius.

One beautiful day the couple went hunting. Venus and Juno, acting in concert, but for entirely different reasons, caused a storm to break out. Dido and Aeneas, wanting to avoid the rain, took refuge in a cave. Alone, in proximity to each other and with intense emotions in the air, the inevitable happened. Dido mistakenly understood this act of theirs to mean that they were now married.

Seeing this, the god Jupiter guessed that if this love story continued, the building of Rome was out of the question. So he dispatched a messenger, the god Hermes, to remind Aeneas of his duty. As a result, Aeneas packed up and left Carthage.

Dido felt betrayed, not unlike the woman who feels taken advantage of after a one night stand. Seething with anger, she asked her sister, Anna, to build a massive pyre. Into it, Dido threw all of Aeneas’ belongings that he’d left behind, including their alleged marital bed. She spared Aeneas’s sword, which she used to stab herself. Upon the throes of death, Dido cursed eternal enmity between the Carthaginians and the descendants of Aeneas. Then, reminiscent of the rituals of the old country, she flung herself into the fire. Witnessing the pyre from aboard their ships, the Trojans could only wonder what happened.

Aeneas landed in Italy, where he made war and fought enemies. Briefly, he found himself in the underworld where he met Dido one last time. He tried to excuse himself for his conduct, but Dido, not even deigning to look at him, walked right passed him until she reached a grove where she found her husband, Hasdrubal, waiting for her.

The End.

This story is the epitome of falsehood. Though it was Virgil who popularized this story, it was an earlier Roman poet, Naevius, who concocted the fabrication. The reason for the concoction is all too apparent. The Romans and the Carthaginians were bitter enemies. This enmity needed an explanation. To link Rome and Carthage together, Naevius thought it prudent to entangle the story of Aeneas, a forefather of Rome’s founder, with the story of Dido, the founder of Carthage. Who better to explain the complexity of international relations than a poet? And what better device to expound upon it with than a story of love and betrayal? But alas.

Putting aside stories of mistaken eponymity and betrayal as explanations of historical phenomena, let’s now contend with the final and most comprehensive legend of the founding of Carthage.

King Mattan I was on his deathbed. Realizing that he had not long to live and that Tyre would descend into chaos if he didn’t prevent it before he died, he called forth for his two children, Pygmalion and Elissa. Pygmalion was but a boy, and Elissa had recently married her maternal uncle, Hasdrubal, the chief priest of the cult of Melqart. Once Mattan’s attendants ushered the children into his presence, he decreed that after his death, they would govern Tyre together. He counseled them to rule wisely, listen to their advisers and priests, and above all, stay united. Then, Mattan died. History, or, if you prefer, legend, does not preserve for posterity what happened next. We only know that Pygmalion alone became king, depriving Elissa of her rightful share in the rule of Tyre.

Fate not content with depriving her of her right as Queen of Tyre, robbed Elissa of her husband, too. Hasdrubal possessed gold. And Pygmalion’s covetousness, not content with the usurpation of his sister’s share of the rule of Tyre, had eyed Hasdrubal’s wealth ever since he knew it existed. To acquire it, he had someone murder Hasdrubal, though the literature does not tell us how. But as fate would decree, Pygmalion was not always fortunate. Hasdrubal’s gold remained forever elusive.

Despite her misfortune, Elissa was mistress of her fate. Despite not knowing that Pygmalion was behind Hasdrubal’s murder, she suspected a thing or two. Elissa was perceptive and cunning. She knew that she wasn’t safe in Tyre, so she had to act quickly. Her mind began to concoct a master plan.

To make it seem as though she had reconciled with Pygmalion, she moved into his palace. Pygmalion was delighted. In his mind, she would bring along the gold she had inherited from her husband. But Elissa had other plans. She recruited the palace servants to help her make an offering to her dead husband’s soul. They boarded a ship aboard which they proceeded to throw bags full of something into the sea as the offering. Once they had done so, Elissa revealed to them that they had just thrown away all of the gold that Pygmalion had coveted. To add to their shock, she also told them that since they had just thrown all of Hasdrubal’s wealth into the sea, Pygmalion would consider them complicit with Elissa in her plan to get rid of the gold, and thus wouldn’t be too pleased with them. If they wanted to avoid his wrath, their only choice, Elissa said, was to join her in her contrivance.

Back on shore, Elissa convinced some nobles who weren’t happy with Pygmalion’s takeover, to escape Tyre with her. She made sacrifices to Melqart and also stole his holy items from the temple. Elissa, her nobles, and her palace servants then escaped Tyre aboard a fleet. Once embarked, she revealed, that Hasdrubal’s gold was, in fact, safe and sound, and aboard one of the ships of their fleet. The bags she had her servants throw overboard were, in fact, full of sand.

When Pygmalion found out about his sister’s doing, he was furious. He decided to send a fleet to capture Elissa and bring her back home. His mother, naturally fearful of what would happen to her daughter, begged and pleaded him to spare her. But her pleading fell on deaf ears. Pygmalion’s priests, however, came to Elissa’s rescue. His priests had received an oracle that foretold the foundation of a great city at Elissa’s hands, and whosoever was to thwart this plan of the gods was to be cut down and destroyed. It is only then that Pygmalion relented, probably quite resentful of the gods that allowed this to happen.

Elissa’s first landfall was at Cyprus. Here, they paid their respects at the temple of Astarte. The high priest here was also privy to the oracle that Pygmalion’s priests had received. Perhaps to provide religious legitimacy to this endeavor, he offered to accompany Elissa and her nobles on the condition that they make him the high priest of their new settlement and confine the office to him and his progeny in perpetuity. They also procured the release of eighty of the temple’s “sacred prostitutes.” The eighty young ladies were thus to be brides of the men searching for a new home so that once they found it, they could continue to multiply and be fruitful.

They sailed away with their recruits and made landfall at Utica, whose inhabitants welcomed them with open arms. Outside of Utica, a tribe of indigenous peoples known as the Mauxitani occupied the hinterland. Their chief was called Hiarbas. The Mauxitani were wont to accept this new contingent of Tyrians with open arms, too. They were already well acquainted with the Tyrians at Utica and anticipated the same commercial benefits that they had acquired from them.

An engraving depicting Dido's oxhide swindle
An Engraving of Queen Dido’s Oxhide Swindle

But Hiarbas’ expectations were soon to be dashed. In another display of her cunning, Elissa requested Hiarbas that she and her people be allowed to take only as much land as is “covered” by the hide of an ox. Bewildered, Hiarbas agreed. So Elissa cut up an ox-hide into thin strips and used it to encircle a substantially larger area than what Hiarbas thought he had decided to grant her. This duplicity must have made Hiarbas angry. But if he was, he swallowed his anger for the time being.

The boundary that Elissa carved out for herself included the famed hill of Byrsa, where another Hasdrubal would make his last stand against Scipio Aemilianus seven hundred years later. The original settlement was atop this hill. The colony Elissa founded here was a success. The city attracted the Mauxitani, who wanted to trade. Over time, they started to settle around the new settlement, and it began to expand. Upon the urging of the Uticans, the inhabitants of this new town decided to enhance it. In light of what we know from the preceding episodes, this presumably meant that they were going to convert this from a mere trading post to a fully-fledged town. And so they began to dig. In the course of their digging, they found the head of an ox, which was an omen that though the new city would be wealthy, others would have power over her. Consequently, they abandoned this site and began digging at another one. There they found the head of a horse, which was an omen that heralded not only material prosperity but also power. And so, at this spot, whose original location is now lost to time, the construction of the new city of Carthage began.

Hiarbas didn’t take too kindly to all of this. First, they duped him into extracting more land from him than he’d wanted to give up. And now, they were expanding? He’d had enough of this tomfoolery! He called for ten envoys from the city to visit him and hear his demands. To them, he declared that unless Elissa were to marry him, he’d make war upon Carthage.

When it came to cunning, these envoys were not to be outdone by their queen. They returned to her and claimed that the king was going to make war upon them unless they sent him a companion to live with him, who’d teach him and his people the ways of the Phoenicians, the ways of sophistication and civilization. Not realizing that her envoys had a set a trap for her, Elissa replied with a patriotic fervor that no one should hesitate even for a moment to take up the cause of their city and do whatever is necessary to ensure its survival. If that meant taking up residence with a barbarian king, then so be it. And then, her loyally duplicitous subjects made a clean breast of things and revealed to her that it was indeed her, Elissa, Queen of Carthage, that Hiarbas wanted.

Realizing that her envoys had trapped her using her own words, she agreed. She requested of Hiarbas three months in which to make the final expiatory sacrifices to her dead husband’s soul, to release herself from the vow she had taken, never to marry again. She had her sister Anna build a massive pyre in front of her palace and proceeded to engage in the ritual immolation of some of her subjects to appease her husband’s spirit. Upon completing this gruesome sacrifice, she declared now that she was ready to join her husband. She pulled out a sword, stabbed herself and leaped into the flames.

The End.

In antiquity, this was the tradition that held any sway among the chroniclers. Timaeus of Tauromenium, Cicero, Velleius Paterculus, Menander of Ephesus as quoted by Flavius Josephus, Pompeius Trogus as summarized by Justin and Philo of Byblos, all report this story.

These authors also provide dates for Carthage’s founding that are in remarkable agreement with each other. Timaeus gives us 814 BC, Menander 819 or 826 BC, Philo 820 BC. This correspondence is likely because the chroniclers appear to have based these dates on “official” Tyrian records. Tyre maintained annals that listed her kings, the lengths of their reigns and notable events during them. Authors in this tradition either claim to have used them directly or claim to know what was in them through other sources. Timaeus claims to have received his information from the Carthaginians, whereas Menander and Philo claim to have consulted the annals themselves.

Let’s now analyze what we’ve just heard. There are many points, about this story, which are worth elaborating. However, for this episode, I’m going to restrict myself to four: (1) the dating of the legend and its relation to archaeological data, (2) the names Elissa & Dido, (3) the various fantastical elements of the story and (4) the character of Elissa herself.

Let’s begin with the dating of the legend, and it’s relation to the actual archaeology of the city.

To be able to date a site relatively reliably, without the use of carbon dating, we need pottery whose dates of manufacture we know through other means. When we dig at a new location, we compare the newly found pottery to the old pottery and see which designs and materials match. Based on this comparison we come to a judgment about the timing and the location of the pottery’s manufacture. At Carthage, the earliest pottery found was some Greek pottery datable only as far back as 725 BC, which is a good ninety years later than the latest date mentioned in the literature, that of 814 BC recorded by Timaeus. Subsequently, archaeologists and historians became cautious regarding the dating mentioned in the literature.

The problem is mainly due to the ineptitude of the Greeks in this regard. I do not mean to suggest that the Greeks were stupid. Far from it. However, compared to more modern methods of dating, their methods were rather crude. One way of calculating dates of ancient events was to count generations instead of actual years because no one remembered how many years had elapsed by the time an author wrote about the said events. Also, the Greeks are notorious for misunderstanding other cultures. For example, though they knew of the Babylonians, whatever of their history they wrote is in striking discordance with actual epigraphic evidence. In Carthage’s case, they counted the number of Olympiads that had elapsed between the founding of Carthage and the founding of Rome. Both, the number of Olympiads, as well as the date of Rome’s founding, are profoundly circumspect.

Newer discoveries, however, have brought the traditional dating back into the realm of possibility. Analysis of the remains of some stone housing suggests that settlers could have occupied the site before 725 BC. Archaeologists have also found some cattle remains that they carbon-dated with 90% accuracy to some time between 835 and 800.  These cattle bones correspond very nicely with that part of the legend where the Carthaginians find the head of an ox and the head of a horse in the course of their digging.

However, this evidence is ambiguous at best. The problem is that archaeologists found these ninth-century bones in an eighth-century context. Dexter Hoyos suggests that the reason for this is that the bones may have been dislocated from atop the Byrsa hill to a location down below when the city underwent some changes a few centuries down the line. We know, for example, that the early tophet was moved to make way for industrial workshops. A tophet, by the way, is a Phoenician graveyard.

Another ambiguous piece of evidence comes from a sixth-century tomb. Here archaeologists found a gold pendant, presumably, owned by the occupant of the grave during his lifetime. The inscription on it is a votive oath to Pygmalion and Astarte. Phoenicians made their votive vows by first invoking their king, and then a deity. This way we know that the pendant is invoking King Pygmalion and the goddess Astarte. Pygmalion was the King of Tyre during the ninth century, which means that the pendant was manufactured in the ninth-century, too.

From this evidence, one can argue that Carthage is a ninth-century site. However, the fact that archaeologists found the pendant in a sixth-century context throws a monkey wrench into this line of reasoning. There is a discrepancy, between the two dates, that needs an explanation. How a scholar chooses to explain this difference reveals what side he or she is on. Those who agree with the ninth-century foundation date suggest that the pendant was an heirloom, passed down from the first settlers generation after generation until the last owner decided to bury himself with it. Those who disagree contend that the occupant of the tomb was a recent immigrant from Tyre. Whatever the case, we are unlikely to resolve this contention anytime soon.

The inscription also names the owner of the pendant: Yadomilk, son of Pidia. According to the commentator on Virgil’s Aeneid, Servius, the commander of Dido’s fleet was called Bitias. Pidia and Bitias are suspiciously similar. If there is a real connection between Pidia and Bitias, then this attests to the presence of a Tyrian military officer at Carthage. Some scholars have used this line of reasoning to suggest that no one, in fact, escaped from Tyre. Instead, Carthage was the brainchild of Pygmalion himself. However, the mere presence of a military officer does not prove imperial backing for the colonization of Carthage. It isn’t impossible that there were military men among the discontented nobles that accompanied Elissa on her voyage.

Let’s now turn to the issue of the two names of Carthage’s legendary foundress: Elissa and Dido. We’ll deal with Elissa first. In the Phoenician language, Elissa is cognate with Elishat. One possible meaning of this word is “a woman from Alashiya.” Alashiya was the Phoenician name for Cyprus. But if Elissa was from Tyre, then why call her “a woman from Alashiya?” Did this have something to do with her visit to Cyprus? Perhaps it was an honorary title given to her for freeing the eighty temple prostitutes and honoring them by wedding them to her nobles. Timaeus, however, claims that Elissa simply meant “goddess.” This claim is also plausible since the Phoenician word for “goddess” is “elit.” This claim also parallels the historian, Justin’s claim that the Carthaginians revered Elissa as a goddess. No other chronicler, however, makes such a claim, so this connection is tenuous at best.

She was also called Dido. How and why did Dido become attached to Elissa? Some of the Greek authors claim that it meant “wanderer” in a “Libyan” language, to signify her flight from Tyre. Servius, Virgil’s commentator, thought it meant “virile woman.” A Byzantine author, Eustathius, claimed that it meant “husband-murderer.” However, none of these etymologies corresponds to any of the legends. Moreover, there is no basis in any language for these derivations. The word Dido remains a complete mystery.

Moving on, let’s now turn to the third issue, that of the various legendary elements of the story. There are several, but I will only discuss two: (1) the freeing of the prostitutes and (2) Elissa encircling the Byrsa Hill using the hide of an ox.

Let’s begin with the “freeing of the prostitutes.” Elissa freeing the prostitutes and marrying them to her nobles is eerily similar to the Roman legend of the Rape of the Sabines. In this myth, the Romans kidnap women from the neighboring town of Sabine to make them their wives. Though it is possible that Elissa did free a few women from their “prostitutional” duties, the similarity to an early Roman legend suggests a Latin hand in the making of this story.

Next, we have the story of Elissa trying to encircle Byrsa using the hide of an ox. This story is almost certainly false, and it is so for two reasons.

First, this story is another example of back-projecting the name of a location onto a concocted tale. Byrsa does mean “ox-hide,” but only in Greek, not Phoenician. Think of the guy who concocted this tale. Upon hearing the name “Byrsa,” he must have thought to himself, “Great! The hill is called Byrsa! Byrsa is the hide of an ox. So the founding of Carthage must have something to do with the hide of an ox” and then proceeding to concoct this nonsense.

The second reason is the manner in which Elissa plays Hiarbas. On the surface, this story is confusing. Elissa explicitly said that she only wanted land that could be covered by the ox-hide. In front of everyone, however, she did something completely different, and no one, not even Hiarbas, even as much as lifted a finger. She was in clear violation of an agreement, and no one stopped her. The key to understanding this is knowing that the Greek word used to denote “covering,” tegere or terere, also denotes surrounding something or encircling it. Had Elissa and Hiarbas been speaking in Phoenician, this could not have happened. When Elissa began encircling the hill, Hiarbas could have stopped her and, very confidently, said, “This is not what we agreed to.” This part of the story only works if the characters are speaking in Greek, not Phoenician or any “Libyan” language.

Some scholars, though, have a different theory. In Phoenician, persa or parsa means a measured space. The argument is that since Elissa measures out an area in the story, her act of measuring gave the hill its name. Therefore, the legend of the ox-hide is true. But measuring a space doesn’t necessarily imply that it was measured in bad faith, as the tale suggests. Nor does it mean that it was measured using the hide of an ox. To construct a settlement, builders need measurements. There’s nothing wily about that. Also, the word Byrsa could have other possible etymologies. One possible meaning in the Phoenician language is “a well for sheep.” A third possibility, this time in Aramaic, is the word “birta” which means “fortress.” I find this to be a more probable possibility since atop this hill stood a fort; the same fort where Hasdrubal made his last stand against Scipio Aemilianus.

The fourth and final point worth pursuing is Elissa herself. Elissa’s main characteristic is her cunning. Right at the beginning of the story, she fooled her brother into thinking that she had reconciled with him. She then tricked her brother’s palace servants to save her husband’s gold. Lastly, while negotiating a land deal with Hiarbas, she managed to extract more land from him, than he was willing to concede. Her pivotal role in the story, however, is her self-sacrifice. By now, this theme should be familiar.  Her self-immolation has strong parallels to the ritual of the egersis that I mentioned back in episode 1.2. Elissa’s self-sacrifice hearkens back to a time when Phoenician royalty performed this very ceremony of self-immolation to avert disaster. This ritual transmuted itself into the egersis under Hiram I, where it wasn’t necessary to barbeque an actual human being. At Carthage, egersis would revert to its gruesome original form. We’ll discuss sacrificial immolation further as we progress through this series.

It is difficult to say whether or not Elissa existed, and whether or not any of the events in her story did occur. But rather than considering the actual chain of events, I look at this story through the lens of the overarching historical movements in the Middle East at that time. Recall that the ninth century was when Assyria was ascendant and Phoenician tribute was flowing into her coffers. It is possible that Pygmalion’s demand for gold was not the result of his greed, but rather a consequence of demands placed on him by the Assyrians. And as I discussed in episode 1.3, it is not beyond one’s imagination to see how Assyria’s needs may have caused internal conflicts at Tyre, though other factors may have also played a part.

If we are to believe the dating in the third legend, then Carthage was founded towards the end of the ninth century BC. After this, our sources become quiet, save for the odd note that the Carthaginians established Ibiza in 654 BC. Other than that factoid, no one reports, perhaps because no one knows, what the Carthaginians were up to for a good two hundred years. The literary record picks up again on the Carthaginians’ doings from the year 580 BC, or thereabouts. That is when Carthage’s real history begins.

In the next episode, we will look at events that occur in the half-century or so after 580 BC. In particular, we will take a look at the first kings of Carthage mentioned in the literature. We will use that as a board to dive into the nature of Carthage’s kingship and her political system in these early years.

Before we close, I’d like to mention a logistical point. Usually, I release the episodes on the first and the sixteenth of every month. Today is April 1st, so by this account, I should release the next episode by April 16th. However, that won’t happen. I will be on vacation for two weeks starting this week. So, you will see the next episode on May 1st, instead. A few episodes after that, I will take another break, since I need to make a work-related trip. I will let you know when that break is going to be close to the date.

If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please email me at ahsan.irfan@historytellerpodcast.com. You can visit the Historyteller blog at historytellerpodcast.com and can listen to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play. You can also find me on the usual social media site. I am on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Linked In and Google Plus. You can find these links on the right-hand side of the historytellerpodcast.com website. If you liked this episode, please leave me a five-star review on iTunes. If you loved it, please help spread the word about it on your social media.

Thank you so much for listening.

Episode 1.4 – Cooperation & Conflict

A Map of the Greek Colonies in the Mediterranean
A Map of the Greek Colonies in the Mediterranean

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By the middle of the eighth century BC, the Tyrians were all over the Mediterranean. Under Hiram I, they had begun developing an extensive trading network that connected various Mediterranean regions. They traded in precious metals like gold, silver, tin, and lead and also dealt in ivory, wine, olive oil, and, of course, the famous purple-dyed cloth. In the ninth century BC, the Assyrians started throwing their weight around, the result of which was to turn Tyre’s trading settlements into fully-fledged colonies. Assyria wanted Tyre’s cash. For Tyre to be able to supply it, she had to carefully guard her route to the Phoenicio-Iberian city of Gades, the source of all her wealth.

Soon, however, the Tyrians would realize that they weren’t alone. By the time the Tyrians were just about done occupying the Mediterranean in the eighth century, a new breed of colonizers was on the move. It was now time for the Greeks’ to share in the Mediterranean’s spoils.

When considering Greek history, it is easy to become blindsided by later developments. Our consciousness is permeated by events like the Persian Wars or the Peloponnesian Wars or the Wars of Alexander the Great. It is also easy to become lost in Greek cultural and intellectual developments. The thoughts of Socrates, the writings of Plato and Aristotle and the plays of Euripides take center stage whenever the subject of Greece comes up in any random conversation. What we often neglect, however, is the subject of the Greeks’ colonization of the Mediterranean. Not only that, what we also neglect is the utterly rich and sophisticated history of the Greeks’ interaction with the Phoenicians. And it is this interaction, ladies, and gentlemen, that will be the subject of today’s episode.

When the Mycenaean civilization collapsed at the end of the Bronze Age, Greece entered her Dark Ages. Over what we could envision as being a reasonably long time, the Greeks lost their system of writing, and hence, left no written records for the period in question. Thus, for this period, from the end of the Bronze age to about the eighth century BC, we have very little data on Greece. What is doubly frustrating, is that no one else seems to have recorded what the Greeks were up to either. Thus, it is not unreasonable to assume that the Greeks just cut themselves off from the rest of the world. Post-collapse Greece just became a void.

The population of Greece, too, dwindled. The archeology of the post-Mycenaean period reveals that, at least according to one estimate, the population of Greece reduced to a quarter of what it used to be in Mycenaean times. A smaller population meant that whenever the Greeks found their way back to the rest of the world, a few among them would benefit immensely. Specifically, trading with other cultures in Greece’s immediate vicinity would generate copious amounts of wealth, at least for a fortunate few. And, as we’ll just see shortly, this is precisely the story that the archaeology tells us.

The acquisition of this wealth would have caused a series of dominoes to begin to fall. First, with more financial resources in their hands, their population would have grown. Second, with more people, the Greeks would have become highly stratified. Specifically, a landed aristocracy would have emerged. Third, with more social stratification, the Greeks would have competed amongst themselves for resources, especially land. And, as the Greeks became more conscious of the outside world, the more the outside world would seem attractive to the less fortunate among them. This chain of events, thus, fathered the Greeks’ colonial ambitions.

In complete contrast to this, Tyre’s colonization program was purely trade-driven, at least initially. And while later developments drove refugees from Phoenicia to seek refuge in the colonies, thus polluting the original pure profit motive, even as late as the eighth and seventh centuries BC, Tyrian colonization was about access to wealth. Tyre’s program was systematically geared towards one goal: the acquisition of the Tartessos’ silver. And because the silver was necessary to appease the Assyrians, no man less than the King of Tyre himself, directed this campaign.

The Greek efforts, on the other hand, appear haphazard. No single entity drove the Greeks to colonize the Mediterranean. Nor were they motivated by a collective, unified consciousness like that of the Tyrians. Greece’s colonies were individualistic. Groups of Greeks, who for one reason or another could not or would not live with their brethren in Hellas proper, moved out. Each Greek had his or her reasons for doing so. The result of this lack of focus was that most Greek settlers brought along their wives, children, and all the wealth that they could move to wherever it is that they wanted to settle. Thus, when a Greek colony began, it began not as an anchorage or a trading center, as was the case with Tyre’s settlements, but as a small, but proper, polis. Someone not in the know may erroneously assume that the Greeks were involved in a systematic empire building effort. But, the Greek colonies were independent. They developed their institutions independently and bound themselves to their mother cities only by ties of sentiment and religion.

The Greeks began their colonization efforts in the Balkans and the Aegean coast of Anatolia. By the eighth century, the entire coast of Anatolia was in Greek hands. In the middle of the eighth century, the Greeks founded Naxos and Syracuse in Sicily and Cumae and Tarentum in southern Italy. Southern Italy became so densely populated by the Greeks that later the Romans used to call it Magna Graecia. Through Cumae, the Greeks acquired the iron ore that originated in Etruria and Campania, and also the smelted copper that came from Sant Imbenia on Sardinia. And despite Tyre’s efforts at policing shipping, they even made it to Spain. On her eastern coast, they founded a colony called Rhode, at the foot of the Pyrenees, which turned out to be quite prosperous.

In the seventh century, they founded Gela, Selinus & Himera in Sicily, cities which will feature quite heavily in Carthaginian history. Himera was an aptly placed stop on the northern coast of the island, on the way either to Spain or central Italy from Carthage. Selinus, on the other hand, had no natural advantages of any kind, not even a harbor. But it prospered, because of its active trade with Carthage. It was also the first Sicilian city to use silver coinage, with the raw silver probably coming from either Spain or Etruria, mostly via Carthage.

Also in the seventh century, they founded Cyrene, not far from present-day Ben Ghazi, in Libya. Cyrene was the only colony that the Greeks were successful in planting in Africa. Before the foundation of Cyrene, there used to be a direct maritime trade link between Carthage and Egypt, which Cyrene now prevented. We know this because at around this time, Egyptian luxury goods disappear from Carthage’s archeology. The sudden disruption of trade between Egypt and Carthage also implies that when returning to Tyre, the Tyrians would have opted to avoid the coast of Libya and Egypt, and prefer to sail on the open sea.

At the very end of the seventh century, the Greeks settled Massalia, modern-day Marseilles. They also founded a colony in Catalonia that they called Empurias. For a short time, much to the chagrin of the Tyrians, Greeks from both these settlements controlled shipping in the north of the Western Mediterranean. Controlling shipping here allowed them to ship Cornwallian tin and Baltic amber, brought to them by the Gauls, into the Rhone river system and down to the Rhone delta. From here, they shipped ores of tin and amber all over the Mediterranean.

As I’ve alluded to earlier, the Tyrians, who were, by this time, masters of the Mediterranean, could not tolerate any disruption of their prized silver trade. Now, with Greeks rowing about in all corners of the Mediterranean, the Tyrians were none too pleased. Naturally, contact between the two sides would result in conflict. But it would be folly to think that strife was all there was. As a result of the Late Bronze Age Collapse, the Greeks had abandoned their former sophistication. They built no monuments, made no art, and wrote nothing down. Their encounters with the Phoenicians, however, became the impetus that catapulted the Greeks back into the limelight.

During the Greek Dark Ages, the Greeks from the island of Euboea became successful traders. Through inter-Hellenistic trade, they became masters of great wealth. As a result of their growth, they landed on the radar of the Phoenicians. When the Phoenicians grew cognizant of the Euboeans’ existence, they naturally wanted to trade with them. The first signs of such trading come from tenth-century graves on Euboea. Many of the goods in these tombs, which accompanied the dead into the afterlife, were of a Middle or Near Eastern origin. At this time, the Euboeans were not capable of the long distance trading that could allow them to acquire such goods on their own. The only other way that they could have bought these would have been through dealing with the itinerant Phoenician traders. These are the first glimpses of the Phoenicians expanding the international trade networks that had existed since before the twelfth century BC.


Euboea - Ruins of the Temple of Armetis
The Temple of Artemis, Euboea


Through contact with the Phoenicians, the Euboeans also developed long-distance maritime capabilities, which allowed them to plug themselves into the same trading networks that the Phoenicians were a part of. The trading station at Al-Mina, on the mouth of the river Orontes in northern Syria, exhibits signs of Euboeans and Phoenicians residing and trading together as early as the ninth century.

And not only was the Phoenicio-Euboean cooperation limited to just maritime trade. The Euboeans also acquired Phoenician financial customs like interest-bearing loans, insurance schemes, joint financing and deposit banking.

Nor was economics the only realm where the Greeks found themselves at the feet of their Tyrian mentors. I would not be exaggerating if I said that the Phoenicians breathed a second life into the long-dead language of the Greeks. What today is the Greek script is, in fact, an adaptation of the alphabet used by the Phoenicians. The Mycenaeans had used a distinctive Indo-European script, today referred to as Linear B. However, in the centuries that followed the twelfth-century collapse, the Greeks forgot their alphabet. It is not difficult to see why. Linear B was divided into two separate sets of characters. The first set of symbols signified syllabic phonemes, while the second group signified semantic values. Overall, there were roughly two hundred characters that one had to memorize to use it for writing. Use of such a sophisticated writing system could only be sustained through the existence of educational institutions, and even then, would just be limited to the elite. With the collapse of civilization at the end of the twelfth century, the infrastructure required to maintain the use of this system would have crumbled to dust.


The Linear B Script
The Linear B Script


By contrast, the Phoenician script had only one set of characters that just signified phonemes. It was the combination of these phonemes that signified meaning, as opposed to the ideograms in the Linear B script. There were only 22 characters in the Phoenician set, so if someone wanted to memorize the Phoenician alphabet, they could readily do so. That way, one had a ready arsenal of phonetic characters that one could inscribe almost at a moment’s notice should one need to. You didn’t need to refer to complicated tables to figure out how to write something.

The utility afforded by the Phoenician alphabet and their constant contact with the Greeks meant that the Greeks would adopt it. Over time, the Greeks evolved the Phoenician alphabet, and by the time they entered recorded history, they were using the Greek alphabet we see today. The earliest examples of the adoption of the Phoenician script by the Greeks come from Lefkandi, on the island of, you guessed it, Euboea. The writing is on pottery shards, which can be dated roughly to the second quarter of the eighth century BC. Furthermore, the Greeks even adopted the use of some Phoenician words. Examples include the word ‘Byblos’ to refer to papyrus reed, ‘deltas’ to refer to clay writing tablets and ‘gypsum’ to refer to plaster.

Art is another discipline where a Phoenician influence on the Greeks is readily apparent. Scholars of Greek and Phoenician art have commented on the “orientalizing” influence on Greek art. This influence is most apparent on Corinthian pottery, which archaeologists have found in various settlements around the Mediterranean, both Greek & Phoenician. Cypriot manufactured statuettes of the hero-god Heracles, with his characteristic lion skin clothing, also shows him holding a weapon in the right hand, with him posing as though he is about to strike someone. The lion-skin motif is Greek. However, the “about-to-strike” pose is characteristically Middle Eastern.

And not only was this influence limited to the realms of economics, language, and art. Greek religion, too, found itself assimilating fundamental elements of Tyre’s religion. On Sicily, temples to the hero-god, Heracles, bear a striking similarity to their Phoenician counterparts. A temple to Heracles, in the Greek city of Acragas, has a staircase that symbolizes the ascension of the spirit of the human Heracles into divinity. If this reminds you of Melqart, and how his soul arose into godhood at the ritual of egersis, then you are not alone. It would not be far-fetched to claim that in the collective consciousness of the Greeks and the Tyrians, Heracles and Melqart were the same.

Herodotus mentions that he had traveled to Tyre to visit the temple of Melqart. There the priests of the cult told him that the temple to Heracles on the island of the Greek island of Thasos had, in fact, started out as a Tyrian shrine to Melqart. To confirm this, Herodotus paid a visit to the temple at Thasos himself. Confirming what the priests had told him, Herodotus then mentions that the Thasians worshiped this deity in two entirely different ways, as though he had two distinct personalities: one that belonged to an immortal god and the other that belonged to a human savior that had passed away.

The Greeks began associating Heracles with Melqart in the seventh century when Greek colonization was in full swing and had been so for more than a century. Both gods were considered founders of cities themselves, which made them symbols of the colonization efforts of both sides. Since I’ve already shared the legend of Melqart in its entirety, it is only fair that I do the same for his alter-ego, Heracles, at least in as far as his role as being a symbol of Greek colonization is concerned.

You may already know that in Greek legend Heracles, the human son of Zeus, had to complete twelve arduous tasks referred to as the Twelve Labors of Heracles, to become divine. One of these labors, the tenth one, in fact, became the basis of many a founding legend of many a Greek colony. Heracles was to steal cattle from the monster, Geryon, who lived in the sea beyond Tartessos. After taking it, he was to return to Greece with it. On his way back, Heracles is said to have laid the foundations of many a Greek city.

As is with countless legends and myths, Heracles’ tenth labor also suffers from the fact that it has undergone many a retelling. Originally, the starting point of Heracles’ journey was the island of Erythria, home of the monster Geryon, whom Heracles was to kill and whose cattle he was to bring back to Greece. However, a few versions of the legend put the starting point of Heracles’ journey, not at Erythria, but at Gades, instead.




Greeks on the actual colony on this island also ascribe its founding to Heracles. Their legend is that Heracles was sailing upon a raft which ran aground on her shore. They claim that his raft was coming from the direction of Tyre. One cannot miss the float coming from Tyre as being a direct reference to the ritual of egersis.

Both these legends suggest a Tyrian hand in their making. And if not a direct Tyrian hand, then a Greek one, that was, at the very least, heavily influenced by the Tyrians.

The Greeks used this “Heraclean way,” as Richard Miles puts it, from Iberia back to Greece, as a legitimizing tool for their colonization. Whenever Greek settlers arrived at a potential site, they would claim that Heracles had been there in the mythical past and had done something heroic to grant his “descendants,” i.e., the Greek settlers, the right to settle there. Every founding legend involving Heracles followed the same template: Heracles would just happen to be passing by. The inhabitants of the area would be in some distress, and he would perform a heroic deed for them. In return for his favor, he would ask the inhabitants to turn over their land to his descendants, when they came to claim it for themselves.

Heracles also fathered bastard children with local women. For the Greeks, this symbolized their power over the local peoples. In this respect, Melqart symbolized something slightly different. As just mentioned, for the Greeks, Heracles was a legitimizer of colonial foundations. For the Phoenicians, however, though Melqart was a founder of settlements, he didn’t serve as a legitimizer per se. The Greeks needed a legitimizer since there was the sense that they were appropriating the lands that belonged to others. The Phoenicians, however, didn’t suffer from such a psychological complex. Recall that they didn’t evolve their colonies into permanents settlements until quite late in the game. They weren’t out on a land grabbing program like the Greeks were. Hence, they didn’t need any “legitimizing tools” as the Greeks did. Consequently, Melqart represented the positive relationships that the Phoenicians had with the locals.


Temple of Hercules, Tempio di Ercole, Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily, Italy. Image shot 2008. Exact date unknown.
The Temple of Heracles in Sicily


A prominent example of the use of the Heraclean legend as a legitimizing tool is the legend that places Heracles at Eryx, in Sicily. Even though Sicily is out of the way on the journey back from Spain to Greece, the Greeks managed to add Sicily to Heracles itinerary anyway. The Greek text Geryoneis by Stesichorus has Hercules in Sicily on account of a runaway bull that swam across the Straits of Messina, with Heracles in hot pursuit. A local king named Eryx found the beast and made him part of his herd. When Heracles demanded his bull back, Eryx challenged Heracles to a wrestling match, in which Heracles killed Eryx. Heracles then reclaimed his animal and gave authority over the land to the locals, as long as they’d hand it back to any of his descendants if they were to visit Sicily later. Of course, Heracles being Heracles, he stamped his name all over the island before leaving, which bolstered the claims of many a Greek that arrived later as a colonist.

Though the Greeks and the Phoenicians were everywhere, their primary interactions were in Sicily. It was here that the Greeks, Tyrians and the indigenous people of Sicily intermarried, worshiped, traded, and even fought.

Pre-Phoenician Sicily was home to three distinct ethnicities: the Sicans, the Sicels, after whom the Greeks named the island, and the Elymians. Thucydides claims that the Sicans came from Iberia, the Sicels from mainland Italy, while the Elymians were refugees from Troy. The Sicels were an aggressive bunch and after defeating the Sicans in war took over much of the island. The Phoenicians, because they were interested only in the profits from their trading, decided to be friendly with the locals, without taking any sides. The Greek colonists, however, were aggressive enough that the Phoenicians and the locals often found common cause against the Greeks and more often than not, ended up on the same side in any conflict involving the three groups.

Before the 6th century, there is no record of any violence between the Greeks and the Phoenicians. But with the Greeks now rowing about in all corners of the Mediterranean, the Tyrians could be forgiven for feeling just a tad alarmed. Tyrian insecurities regarding their trading routes combined with Doric Greek intransigence to produce unhealthy conflict. In 580 BC, Sicily became the battleground for the first war in a long series of engagements between them.

There was a community of Greek colonies on the islands around the southwestern coast of Anatolia. They had confederated themselves into something that we today call the Doric Hexapolis. Herodotus mentions that they came under threat of war from a “King of Asia.” We don’t know who this guy is, but some historians suggest that it might have been the King of Lydia, an ancient Anatolian kingdom. Given the threat, the Doric Greeks decided to abandon their colonies.

They decided to send a small band of settlers, under the command of Pentathlos, a man from the island of Cnidus, to look for a new land to settle. After a few unsuccessful attempts, they landed in Sicily. There, they found a spot on the western end of the island at roughly the same place where the future Carthaginian city of Lilybaeum would be. At the time, Selinus, a Greek colony, was at war with the Elymian city of Segesta. Both the Selinuntines and the colonists from the Doric Hexapolis were from the same sub-ethnic Greek stock, that of the Doric Greeks. Pentathlos and his men decided to give their Doric brethren a hand against the Elymians. But upon this interference, things began to go south for the Greeks. Pentathlos was killed, while the rest of the settlers were driven out of Sicily.

It seems odd that just when new men bolstered the Selinuntine forces, the balance tipped against them, instead of in their favor. Something must have happened that tipped that balance the other way. Some sources just describe the war as being between the Elymians and the Greeks. Diodorus, however, gives us the reason why the scales tipped in the Elymians’ favor; the Phoenicians on the island had intervened.

Diodorus does not give us the reasons for this intervention, but given what we know about Tyrian insecurities regarding their prized Tartessian silver, it’s not hard to imagine what might have propelled them to intervene. This new Greek colony was dangerously close to the Phoenician colony of Motya which was a key stop not only on the Spain-Levant silver route but also the North-South Carthage-Etruria trading route, which we will get to later in this episode. In the minds of the Phoenicians, if the Greeks had been lucky in subjugating the Elymians, there would have been no buffer between them and the Greeks, that would have kept the Greeks at bay. Pentathlos’ colony may have been ringing all sorts of alarm bells for them. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself, in the form of a conflict between Segesta and Selinus, the Phoenicians did not hesitate to take advantage of the situation. That is also probably why the Phoenicians then founded their third colony, that of Solus. It was to prevent any future conflicts by providing a buffer zone between them and the Greeks. After the conflict, Pentathlos’ defeated men settled on the Lipari Islands, just northeast of Sicily, from where they preyed upon Etruscan shipping.

The result of the cooperation and the conflict between the Greeks and Phoenicians caused in the Greeks an uneasy ambivalence regarding the Phoenicians. This uncertainty is readily apparent in Greek literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of a time when Greek and Phoenician colonization were reaching their zenith in the late eighth and early seventh centuries. Both poems draw clear distinctions between Phoenician products and the people who produced them. In general, the products are great, but the people are dishonest, greedy and sly. They seemed to delight in kidnapping children and selling them into slavery. Such accusations may reflect genuine racism, but they also may be reflective of a bias against traders in general. Though, in the interest of fairness, I should add that such views were not held universally and many a Greek writer was willing to provide more honest assessments of the Phoenicians. It was in this world, the one that alternated between cooperation and conflict and in which the Greeks viewed the Phoenicians with ambivalence, that Carthage was born, and came into her own. Carthaginian history, as we shall see, is defined not so much by her attempts to be herself, but by the lens with which the Greeks saw her.

Before this point, Carthage was merely a lynch-pin in the Tyrian silver system, though a critical lynch-pin at that. In the larger scheme of things, Carthage itself was on a lower order of importance than Tyre and Gades. To speak of Carthaginian power, at this point, would be inappropriate. But as a result of a chain of events that exemplify the butterfly effect; that is, how smaller-scale changes in complex systems can produce quite significant results; Carthage found herself thrust forward, almost by accident.

By the sixth century BC, silver became so abundant in the Middle East that its value began to decline. The initial reduction in value might have brought about an intensification of shipping to compensate for the decline. But eventually, everyone would have clued into its loss of value. Thus, silver would have becomes less appealing as a currency. At around the same time, the Tyrian colonies began to decline economically. The evidence for this decline comes from the archaeology of the third quarter of the sixth century BC, which betrays a significant loss in the material culture of many of Tyre’s colonies.

The loss in the value of silver alone would have sounded death knells for Tyre since up until that point it was the Tartessian silver that kept the Assyrian war beast satiated. But by the sixth century BC, Assyria was no longer a player on the Middle Eastern political scene. An older kid on the block, the Kingdom of Babylon, had now decided to take over the playground. A few years after Pentathlos’ arrival and subsequent defeat on Sicily, Nebuchadnezzar began his thirteen-year long siege of Tyre.

As a result of all three phenomena, the loss in the value of silver, the economic decline in the colonies and the siege of Tyre, not only did Tyre not colonize new lands after 560 BC, the year Nebuchadnezzar’s siege ended, they even abandoned most of their old ones. In 560 BC, the Tyrian ascendancy of the Mediterranean Sea came to an end. To quote Mike Duncan, she went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.

Paradoxically, the colonies that did survive the economic decline thrived. Since the decrease in the value of silver didn’t happen overnight, some settlements may have seen the writing on the wall and may have begun looking for other options. As luck would have it, the silver route was not the only thing going for the Phoenicians in the colonies.

All this while, I’ve been hankering on about Tyre’s Tertessian silver trade. What I’ve neglected to mention thus far, however, at least in any meaningful way, is that the Tyrians had not only mastered the silver trading circuit but, concurrently, they had also developed a second route. This latter trading circuit ran from Etruria, through Sardinia and Sicily, down to Carthage. Along this path flowed raw materials and manufacturing goods that connected Carthage with the Italian city-states of Etruria.

Evidence for trading along this circuit is plentiful in the archaeology. While all the other colonies exhibit no affluence whatsoever after 560 BC, the settlements in Sicily, Sardinia and the Cap Bon peninsula, didn’t show even as much as a dent in their lifestyles. The colonies on the Etruscan-Punic route had borne the brunt of the decline in the value of silver, and come out strong, primarily because they didn’t rely on it.

One of the cities that benefitted from this new state of affairs was Carthage. If she had already begun taking advantage of this trading circuit to forestall the effects of the collapse in the value of silver, then it’s also not far-fetched to assume that, to safeguard her interests on Sicily, Carthage might have been the intervener in the conflict against Pentathlos. But this is merely a matter of speculation, so we’ll just leave it at that, for now.

Now that we have finally trudged our way through the history of Phoenician colonization in the Mediterranean, it is time for us to turn our attention entirely to the history of Carthage. As with all civilizations, it is only proper that we explore the various legends that explain her founding. And since we do not have Carthage’s own records of her finding, we will have to rely on the Greeks. Join me in the next episode where we will examine, first hand, the crafty Greek mind at work when he concocts a bunch of nonsense.

Episode 1.3 – The Colonies of Vassals


The Nora Stone - a 9th century Phoenician votive stele from Nora, Sardinia
The Nora Stone from Nora, Sardinia

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The Late Bronze Age collapse was the first domino to fall that allowed the Phoenician city of Tyre to rise to the top. The resulting circumstances permitted Hiram I to consolidate religious, political and economic power within himself and his dynasty. To seal the deal, he also propped up the Phoenician god Melqart and his consort, Astarte. The resulting milieu allowed the Tyrians to take their trading to new heights. With newer economic opportunities and the aegis of Melqart, the Tyrians began a program of colonization that lasted for centuries. The Tyrians rowed their boats to all corners of the Mediterranean. Within a few hundred years, they found themselves establishing trading posts, industrial centers, and even full-blown settlements in Cyprus, Rhodes, Crete, Malta, Sicily, Libya, the Balearic Islands and Spain. There was no place in the Mediterranean that the Phoenician trader didn’t get to see.

Today, we will take a closer look at the regions that the Tyrians chose to colonize. We will try to make sense of their geographical choices and attempt to see what these choices tell us. We will examine the archaeological timeline of this colonization and compare it to events in mainland Phoenician to help us understand what Tyre was really after. We will study some of the claims made by the ancient Greco-Roman authors, as well as explore the archaeology found at these settlements. And we will do this by taking a tour of the Mediterranean Sea. And we will begin our trip on the island of Cyprus.

Ready? Let’s go.

The first stop for a trader after venturing out of Tyre was Kition, a settlement on Cyprus. Kition is arguably the oldest Tyrian settlement anywhere in the Mediterranean, dating to the 10th century BC. It was one of many Tyrian colonies here. At first, Tyre’s various Cypriot colonies were just trading posts. Over time, the local copper mines induced the development of smelting workshops in these towns. But, eventually, Kition outshone all the others, emerging as the lone copper smelting center on the island. Due to her proximity to Tyre, domicile arrangements here appeared earlier than in other places.

The closest sites outside of Cyprus to exhibit any signs of a Phoenician presence are the islands of Rhodes and Crete. Perhaps these were just posts for trading with the Ionian Greeks that lived on the coast of Anatolia, for we do know from the literature that the Tyrians carried their trade to the Greeks as well. Maybe they were resting stops for sailors on their way to other parts of the Mediterranean, as we had seen in the last episode.

Further West of Cyprus, Rhodes & Crete was Sicily. Since Sicily is going to take center stage as we progress further into Carthage’s history, it warrants a more detailed treatment here, than is necessary for other regions. And since Sicily is essential for the history of the Mediterranean in general, the ancient authors, too, have spilled much ink on her. We will first consider what Thucydides has to say about Sicily and then examine his claims in the light of modern archaeology. There’s quite a bit of claiming and counter-claiming going on here, so I’m going to try and keep things as simple as possible.

Thucydides makes three specific claims about the Phoenicians on Sicily. First, he claims that the Phoenicians occupied Sicily before the Greeks. Second, Thucydides claims that the Phoenicians settled the entire coast of Sicily before the Greeks’ arrival. And third, he argues that when the Greeks founded Naxos in the eighth century BC, the Phoenicians moved to the western end of the island and confined themselves there. His third claim seems to be a natural result of his first two claims.

All three of Thucydides’ claims, however, are archaeologically untenable. At least at first glance. First, the earliest Phoenician remains on the island can only be reliably dated to the eighth century, which is the century in which the Greeks began occupying the island’s eastern edge. Thus, the first of Thucydides’ claims become suspect. Second, there is no direct evidence to suggest that the Phoenicians ever occupied the eastern edge of the island, let alone her entire coast. They seemed to have planted themselves directly in the West, thus, rendering Thucydides’ second claim suspect, too. In other words, archaeologically at least, the Greeks and the Phoenicians seem to have landed on Sicily at about the same time, and on opposite ends of the island. And if the archaeological evidence reflects reality, then the Phoenicians planting themselves directly in the West also means that they never had to move out of the East, thus also negating Thucydides’ third claim.

Based on this evidence, some historians have suggested that Thucydides just made his claims up. These historians claim that in Thucydides mind, if the Phoenicians came from the eastern direction, then they should have settled the east of Sicily first. But since in Thucydides’ time they had settled the West and couldn’t be found anywhere in the east, he needed to explain how it was that they got there. So he made up the story of how they had settled the east, spread over the entire island, and then shifted to the west upon the arrival of the Greeks.

But if Thucydides is wrong, and the Phoenicians did plant themselves directly on the Western edge of the island, then why should the Phoenicians have avoided the east in the first place? The answer may come from Diodorus. Diodorus observes that the Phoenicians had made their mark everywhere: Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta, Spain. However, they avoided Southern Italy. Diodorus suggests that this was on account of a “formidable war-like race of people.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t tell us who these people were. Southern Italy is a mere hair’s breadth away from eastern Sicily. If the Phoenicians wanted to avoid landing in southern Italy, then it stands to reason that they decided not to settle so close to it on Sicily, too. Hence, when they first arrived, they landed in the west, as opposed to the east.

Such things, however, are never quite so simple. One artifact does seem to vindicate Thucydides’ first claim, at least. Of all of the Phoenician archaeological artifacts available anywhere outside mainland Phoenicia, the absolute earliest actually comes from Sicily, found under the sea, off of the coast of Selinus, an ancient Greek settlement, now known as Selinunte. It is a statuette of a pagan deity in its characteristic Middle Eastern pose, that of holding a lightning bolt in one hand, as though about to strike someone with it. Earlier scholars dated it to the eleventh century BC. But more recent analysis only allows us to date the statuette to the tenth century. Either way, it’s still earlier than all the other evidence from the island itself. Consequently, this might vindicate Thucydides’ first claim that the Phoenicians were in Sicily before the Greeks, since the archaeological evidence for Greek habitation of Naxos doesn’t appear until the 8th century BC.

There is also another monkey wrench. Some experts on Greek and Phoenician pottery suggest that the earliest Greek pottery found in Eastern Sicily bears traces of Phoenician artistic styles. But not just any Phoenician styles; styles that can be dated roughly to the tenth and eleventh centuries BC. In other words, if the implications of this argument are valid, then, the Phoenicians were on the Eastern end of Sicily before the Greeks came. When the Greeks came, they settled alongside the Phoenicians. The Greeks, working close to the Phoenicians, adopted these Phoenician artistic styles. Hence, it is possible to vindicate, though barely, Thucydides’ second claim as well.

If the arguments extrapolated from the existence of the Selinuntine statuette and the Phoenician artistic styles adopted by the Greeks on Sicily are valid, then Thucydides’ claim that the Phoenicians moved to the Western edge of Sicily, and confined themselves there, also becomes correct.

Archaeologically, the first Phoenician settlements on Sicily were at Motya and Panormus. A third, named Solus, was added much later. Motya was an island in an almost landlocked lagoon on the western end of Sicily. The earliest evidence for the site comes from the 8th century. Initially, it may have just been a trading post, or perhaps an anchorage on the way to Sardinia and northern Italy. However, later the site was used for evaporating sea water using windmills to produce salt. Panormus, though, has been challenging to excavate, because most of it is under the modern city of Palermo. Solus, though identified in the literature as a Phoenician city, hasn’t yielded anything earlier than the Roman period.

Closest to Sicily was the island of Sardinia. When the Phoenicians arrived here, they found the local Nuragic people, to have already developed a significant material culture. More importantly, they were already mining the local copper mines. With the arrival of the Phoenicians, Sant Imbenia, a site in the north-west of the island, became a mixed Phoenicio-Nuragic settlement. Like Kition, it became a copper smelting center; with the Nuraghes mining the ore and the Phoenicians smelting it.

In copper, both the Phoenicians and the Nuraghes found common cause with another civilization, that of the Etruscans of central Italy, with whom they actively traded. Evidence of this trade comes not only from Sant Imbenia but also from the Etruscan iron smelting center, Pithecusa, where the archaeology shows a mixed, Etruscan, Greek and Phoenician habitation.

Sardinia also became host to a Phoenician fort, Monte Sirai, built atop the ruins of a native Sardinian fort. Its proximity to the site of Sulcis indicates that the purpose of the fort was the defense of Sulcis.

Phoenician sites on Sardinia can only be dated as far back as the 8th century. But one artifact, a stone stele found near Nora, makes it possible to push that date further back by about a hundred years. Nora is also the oldest Phoenician settlement on Sardinia. It was said to have been founded by Phoenician settlers from Spain, possibly as a vanguard to keep the shipping lanes to Spain open to the Phoenicians but closed to everyone else. The settlements at Tharros, Sulcis and a few other places followed shortly after the Phoenicians first settled Nora.

Towards the west of Sardinia were the Balearic Islands. The most famous colony here was Ebusus, now a renowned holiday destination, known as Ibiza. The traditional literature ascribes this colony’s founding to the Carthaginians, though the earliest excavated artifacts appear to be all Tyrian. The tradition also attributes a date of 654 BC to the site’s foundation which, archaeologically, is just about right. Ibiza produced multiple products: the purple dye, garum, which is a sauce made out of fermented fish, salt and wool.

Further west of the Balearic Islands was the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Phoenician trading stations dotted this coast: Akra, Lenke, Abdera, Malacca, Sexi. As a sailor moved further West and South along the coast, he would finally arrive at the Pillars of Hercules, which we know today as the Straits of Gibraltar. Once a sailor passed these, he would find himself at the ancient Phoenician city of Gades.

For the Tyrians, Gades held a particular significance. To understand its importance, we must return to the stone we left behind in Nora, Sardinia a few seconds ago. The Nora Stone, as it is conveniently called, has a note on it, written in the Phoenician language. By comparing the script of this Phoenician writing to other Phoenician inscriptions, scholars have dated this stone to the ninth century BC. In fact, this is the oldest Phoenician inscription that has been found anywhere outside Phoenicia proper. The Nora Stone is also the earliest piece of archaeological evidence ever discovered for the presence of Phoenicians on the island of Sardinia.

While everybody agrees on the style of the script used on it, there is no consensus on what the note means. There are two principal interpretations. One interpretation is that it is a declaration of a military victory. Milkaton, son of Shubna, a general of the Tyrian King ‘Pummay’ (assumed to be Pygmalion), fought and won a war against the inhabitants of “Tarshish.” In this interpretation, the word “Tarshish” could be referring to any city on Sardinia. The other interpretation suggests that it is a votive stele in which Milkaton, son of Shuba, an admiral, is giving thanks to the god Pummay for saving his fleet from a storm, while on his way to “Tarshish.”

One interpretation considers Pummay to be the Tyrian King, Pygmalion. The other finds Pummay to be a god. One places “Tarshish” on Sardinia. The other doesn’t specify any location for “Tarshish.” One is referring to a victory in war. The other is referring to a nearly failed maritime endeavor. Pygmalion was alive during the 9th century, so it is possible that the note is declaring a victory on his behalf. But the key element working in favor of the second interpretation is that there is not one inscription anywhere, let alone in Sardinia, that identifies “Tarshish” as a city on the island. In fact, this is the only epigraphic evidence that “Tarshish” even existed.

Tarshish, however, is mentioned, of all places, in the Bible. At one point, the Bible refers to Tarshish as a type of ship. The Bible recalls that Hiram and Solomon sent their “ships of Tarshish” to a place called Ophir to acquire gold. Sometimes, the Bible uses “Tarshish” to refer to certain kinds of merchandise. At other times, the Bible uses “Tarshish” to refer to a distant land. Again, the Bible recalls Hiram and Solomon sending fleets to “Tarshish.” From there, they would return after three years, bringing with them ivory, monkeys, peacocks, gold, silver, tin, iron and lead.

Two ancient places have names similar to “Tarshish.” One is Tarsus, a city in ancient Anatolia. Though Tarsus could provide some of the raw minerals that we know came from “Tarshish,” the city is landlocked. Besides, the journey from Tyre to Tarsus and back would take only a few months, not three years. Clearly, Tarsus cannot be the Biblical “Tarshish.” The other candidate is the ancient Iberian kingdom of Tartessos.

The Greeks had known Tartessos since Mycenaean times, and the classical Greek literature of later times echoes this ancient memory. The Tartessians were famous as resellers of tin acquired from the Oestrymnides Islands or the Cassiterides Islands. The reason the Bronze Age is called the Bronze Age is that people in the Bronze Age used things made of bronze. Bronze is a mixture of copper and tin. While copper was abundant throughout the Mediterranean, as evidenced by the copper smelting towns of Kition on Cyprus and Sant Imbenia on Sardinia, tin was not. Tin was rare. The ancient lore identified two sets of islands, the Oestrymnides, and the Cassiterides, as sources of tin. The Tartessians acquired it from them and sold it to others. Though, it must be said, that no one has yet discovered where the Oestrymnides or the Cassiterides are, and whether or not these two names actually refer to different locations.

Tartessos was also famous for its silver mines. And it was these mines that became the source of Tyre’s wealth. Diodorus claims that the Tartessians were unaware of the value of the silver ores found in their backyard. The Phoenicians made a fool out of them by offering them cheap golden or ivory trinkets in exchange for it. It is on account of this Tartessian silver that we find the city of Gades where it is.

The literature records that a Tyrian oracle commanded the Tyrians to find an appropriate site on Iberia to build a settlement. Their first two attempts at locating such a place were unsuccessful. On their third, a storm veered them off course. After the storm, they made landfall at an inlet. Here they made the appropriate sacrifices to confirm the site’s worthiness. And hence, Gades was born.

The Gades inlet lies at the mouth of the river Baetis, which today is known as the Guadalquivir. It is a natural harbor, at the end of a long narrow peninsula and surrounded on three sides by water. This arrangement makes it easily defendable by land and easily accessible by sea.

The earliest evidence for Gades goes only as far back as the 8th century. Archaeological evidence from the nearby site of Huelva, however, suggests that the Phoenicians had been in Iberia since the 9th century BC. Huelva was an industrial town with massive furnaces for smelting the silver sold to them by the Tartessians. Over time Gades became the central transport hub for the trade with Tartessos. The silver ore from Tartessos came down the river Baetis and landed at Gades. From there it was taken to Huelva to be smelted. The silver ingots would then be brought back to Gades, from where the Tyrians would transport it back to Tyre.

Gades became the administrative center for Tyrian affairs in Spain. We know from the literature that, unlike her sisters elsewhere, not only did Gades boast public buildings and not just did the Tyrians build a temple to Melqart here, but Tyre also blessed her with the presence of a governor. Usually, Tyrian colonies required no oversight because simple trading posts were low in the order of priority. But Gades was important, and it needed an overseer. The Gadians also sent one-tenth of the city’s public revenue back to Melqart’s temple in Tyre. The presence of a governor, public administration buildings and the temple to Melqart, along with the yearly tithe to Tyre meant the Tyrian King had his eyes on Gades. The acquisition of Tartessian silver was a royal affair.

Unfortunately, much of Gades now lies under modern Cadiz. With the few excavations that archaeologists have done so far, they have found very little of what the literature mentions about it.

So far, we’ve only explored the regions in the Mediterranean itself, plus Spain. We have neglected Tyre’s colonies in North Africa. The bulk of the discussion on Phoenician Africa will come when I discuss Carthage’s empire since most of the archaeological evidence for the African colonies suggests a Carthaginian hand in their founding. For now, we’ll consider only the principal colonies here, which, I must add, also strongly indicate a Carthaginian foundation, as opposed to a purely Tyrian one.

Directly opposite Gades, on the Atlantic coast of Africa, was the city of Lixus. It used to lie on an inlet which the river Lixus has since silted. It was situated on the slope of a hill, separated from the hinterland by a river and a valley. At the time, the site was a rich source of elephants. The Tyrians sent back the acquired ivory to Tyre, where it was carved and sold as a luxury item. Also on the menu at Lixus were gold and slaves. Lixus was home to another shrine of Melqart, which Pliny considered to be “of even greater antiquity than the one at Gades.”

About 600 miles further south of Lixus was the settlement of Mogador. She was the most distant Phoenician site ever found. Mogador was a trading post used for the production of the famous purple-dye. Here, there are signs of seasonal habitation, but no permanent settlement. Archaeologists have found Greek pottery here from the seventh and sixth centuries. Some historians surmise that Mogador may have been a gold bartering station, where natives of other African regions brought gold to trade for Carthaginian goods.

Beyond the Pillars of Hercules on their eastern side were the colonies of Siga, Utica, Carthage, Lepcis Magna, Sabratha and a few others, which we’ll get to explore when we take a tour of Carthage’s holdings in Africa.

If you plotted all of Tyre’s settlements on a map of the Mediterranean, you would observe that they appear to concentrate at three specific points.

(1) around the Pillars of Hercules
(2) in the Balearic Islands and
(3) in the middle of the Mediterranean at Sicily, Sardinia and around the Cap Bon Peninsula on the African mainland.

The placement of these sites suggests that the Tyrians were extremely protective of their Tartessian silver. The Straits of Gibraltar were blocked off by colonies of Gades and Lixus. The Balearic settlements could police any shipping approaching Spain from the east. Colonies on the Cap Bon were on a point closest to Sicily and so were able to block off the southern Mediterranean. And the northern Mediterranean pinch point was protected by the settlements in Sardinia.

Why were they protecting this route so diligently? We can understand this by observing the timeline of this colonization and compare it to events back in Phoenicia. Archaeologically, the earliest that you could claim that the Tyrians were out and about is the tenth century. This date coincides perfectly with the rise of Hiram I. The Tyrians may have been out and about before Hiram. But it was Hiram that consolidated religious, political and economic power into himself and his Royal House. Hiram himself actively directed the Tyrian colonization program, as is evidenced by his frequent sponsorship of trading expeditions to Tarshish. Melqart’s presence at numerous colonies and the yearly tithes the colonists paid to the temple at Tyre are additional evidence of this. Economics fed religion. And religion at Tyre was political.

What is also clear from the archaeological record is that the early ventures weren’t meant to be permanent. Permanent colonies only began to appear in the century after Hiram. The permanence intensified in the hundred years after that. The question is: Why? Why now? What is absent before and in Hiram’s time that in the ninth and eighth centuries causes Tyrian colonization to intensify and become permanent? To answer that question, we must return to the Levant.

In the year 911 BC, Adad Nirari ascended the throne of Assyria. And just like Thutmose III of Egypt a few centuries before him, he began a program of conquest. He brought his tributary vassals under his direct control. He conquered Aramaean territories. He subdued some Neo-Hittite and Hurrian populations. He fought and defeated one after the other, Shamash-Mudammiq and Nabu-Shuma-ukin I, Kings of Babylon. Adad Nirari’s grandson Ashur Nasirpal II continued his grand father’s program of conquest. And before he even laid a finger on them, a number of the Phoenician city-states paid him a tribute.

Ashur Nasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser II, succeeded him. By all accounts, Shalmaneser was even more aggressive than any of his ancestors. He began his campaigns with an incursion into the border regions of today’s Turkey and Syria. As a result of this campaign, he, too, was paid tribute by “kings of the sea coast,” which presumably included the kings of the Phoenician city-states.

Shalmaneser continued his campaigns year after year. His primary objective was to subjugate the various Aramaean kingdoms. However, no matter how hard he tried, he could not dislodge them. Year after year, he campaigned against the Kingdom of Aram-Damascus and her allies, but he failed every single time. Arqa and Arwad, two Phoenician city-states, were among her allies. But it is curious to note which of the Phoenician cities was not allied to Aram: Byblos, Sidon, and, you guessed it, Tyre. Though no chronicle mentions it, I think that Tyre and her sisters had a prior arrangement with the Assyrians. Their previous tributes to both Ashur Nasirpal and Shalmaneser might have granted them a special “tributary vassal” status that kept the Assyrian juggernaut at bay.

Following Shalmaneser, Assyria became embroiled in struggles elsewhere on her borders. And Egypt, who had previously ruled the roost, was now embroiled in internal conflicts, too. The resulting power vacuum allowed the Phoenician cities to flourish. Aram-Damascus became powerful, and the Phoenicians took full advantage of the trade opportunities that arose thence. Damascus provided Tyre with her wines and the wool that the Tyrians used to make their purple-dyed garments.

When Adad Nirari III succeeded the Assyrian throne in the 8th century, he made sure that he would not leave Damascus’ power unchecked. With his military intervention, Damascus began to decline. As a result, the Kingdom of Israel reclaimed lands that she had lost to Damascus a little while earlier. The Phoenicians were already trading with Damascus. With Israel now rising again, they made her their partner once more.

The Assyrians did not annex the Phoenician cities outright. They knew that they were the geese that laid golden eggs. Kill them, and the tribute that filled Assyria’s coffers would stop flowing. The Assyrians were addicted to Phoenician cash. They needed to keep their war machine going. Iraq, Iran, Arabia, Egypt, Syria, Anatolia & Cyprus were already under their yoke. To protect and expand this already vast territory, they needed to keep their legions on the move. And to do that, it was necessary that tribute keeps flowing into the Assyrian coffers. This tribute also allowed the Assyrian kings to ensure the loyalty of their nobility. They did this through grants and tax exemptions. It even paid for the construction of grand monuments that secured the obeisance of the commoners.

Paradoxically, Assyrian overlordship also brought prosperity to the Phoenician cities. For them, Assyrian overlordship meant stability. And stability gave the Phoenicians greater access to markets in the greater Middle East.

Though tributary vassals, Tyre, and her sisters always played a double game. They rebelled every chance they got. The pattern repeated itself like clockwork. The Assyrians would become embroiled in problems elsewhere in their empire. The Phoenicians would sense weakness among the Assyrians and engage in active rebellion, mostly by providing support to one of Assyria’s enemies. The Assyrians would send in a contingent of troops to deal with the uprising, which they would quash. As a result, The Assyrians would tighten their grip on the rebel city.

When Tilgath Pileser III ascended the Assyrian throne late in the eighth century BC, Tyre would find herself strait-jacketed. Tyre had rebelled, but Tilgath Pileser reconquered her. To ensure further Tyrian cooperation after that, he assigned a governor to oversee Assyrian interests directly. This governor administered the Tyrian ports. He brought the Tyrian precious metals trade under his scrutiny. In addition to the annual tribute, he also levied a customs duty on all imports. He also imposed an embargo on the very lucrative export of luxury goods from Tyre to Egypt. Adding insult to injury, this governor even required that the King of Tyre open his mail in the governor’s presence!

To cough up the tribute initially, Tyre and her sisters had dug up mines in the mountains of northern Syria, which yielded to the Phoenicians copious amounts of silver. But Tilgath Pileser conquered Syria. And with that conquest, Tyre and her sisters lost their primary source of cash, the one that allowed them to feed the Assyrian war beast. With Assyrian over-lordship also came the closure of eastern markets that lay on the routes into Mesopotamia, further diminishing Tyre’s ability to cough up the required cash. But Tyre was still expected to pay her tribute and her customs duties as well as furnish Assyria’s need for luxury goods and construction materials. The Tyrians needed an alternative.

The Assyrian onslaught into the coastal regions of the middle east coincides perfectly with the appearance of proper stone architecture and domicile in many of the Tyrian colonies throughout the Mediterranean. The patterns of settlements that I discussed at the end of the last episode correlate very neatly with Tyrian history on the mainland. In the period after Tyre’s independence from Egypt, there is no evidence of Phoenician colonization, which coincides perfectly with the view that any settlements at this stage would be small anchorages, or, at best, temporary trading posts. With Hiram’s rise at Tyre, and his systematic program of economic, political and religious consolidation, the archaeological evidence begins to yield faint echoes of an effort at establishing more long-term trading networks. When the Assyrians start to throw their weight around, however, stone structures become evident in the archeology of the colonies. And when Tilgath Pileser III throttles the chokehold a little bit more, the use of stone at these settlements just balloons in comparison to the previous periods.

Making the settlements permanent might have been the result of refugees opting to leave Phoenicia and call the colonies their homes. There are faint echoes of this in the literature. King Luli of Tyre chose exile and escaped to Cyprus when faced with an Assyrian siege. One can even imagine domestic upheavals caused by the Assyrian hegemony, leading to further migration among the elites. After King Luli’s exile, the Assyrians chose the next King of Tyre and put him on the throne. One can imagine at least a few disgruntled nobles wanting to opt out of this quagmire and move to the colonies.

But there is a more pertinent reason. The silver route to Gades becomes manifest only when Assyria asserts her hegemony over Phoenicia. And because this trading circuit was crucial to Tyre’s existence, she could not tolerate anyone else sharing in the spoils. By placing permanent colonies at the critical pinch points along the route, Tyre not only opened the way to Gades to herself, but she also closed it for everyone else. She had to because if she didn’t, she was toast. There was no other way for her to ensure her survival.

But threats to her survival were never far behind. There seems to be a law governing the universe that whenever someone tries to control something, things happen that make the situation worse rather than better. And that is precisely what happened when the Greeks hit the colonization scene. The relationship between the Phoenicians and the Greeks is a difficult one. There are positives, with an active trade developing between the two sides and both sides adopting the elements of the other’s culture and religions. And there are negatives, with conflicts erupting between the two sides every so often.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Time’s almost up for this episode so we will have to make the Greeks, and their relationship with the Phoenicians, subjects of the next one.

Episode 1.2 – A Phoenix Reborn


Amrit, central shrine of the Temple of Melqart (Echmoun)
The Temple of Melqart, Amrit, Modern Syria

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Legend has it that two large rocks, known as the Ambrosial Stones, drifted about aimlessly in the Mediterranean Sea. Atop one of them was an olive tree. The tree burned with a fire that never went out. Nor did it consume the tree. Perched on one of its branches was an eagle. On another branch was a beautifully crafted bowl. A snake coiled around the tree’s trunk. And there, the eagle, the bowl, and the snake stayed in perfect harmony with no wind nor wave perturbing any of the rock’s inhabitants. No animal attacked the other, the flame never went out, and the bowl never fell. Some folks on the shore would watch this spectacle day in and day out.

One day, a man, whom these folks did not know, came to them. He showed them how to build a boat. In this new vessel, he took them out to the rocks. When they landed, the man commanded the people to slay the eagle and spread its blood all over the rocks. Suddenly, they stopped moving. It was here, on these two rocks, out in the middle of the ocean, that the city of Tyre was born.

Once upon another time, the man was walking his dog along Tyre’s shore. The dog found a murex shell with the mollusk still alive inside. He bit it and cracked the shell, and a purple fluid oozed out of it. And it was this liquid that made the Tyrians famous and which allegedly gave Phoenicia her name.

By giving the Tyrians the knowledge of shipbuilding, the foundation of their city and the purple dye that made them famous, the man became Malik Qart, the King of the City. He became Melqart, the patron god of Tyre.

For the Tyrians, Melqart was also the god of continual renewal and rebirth.

Every spring, the season of renewal, the King of Tyre would decree that foreigners leave his city. It was time for the ritual of egersis to begin, and the city needed to be purified. Every spring Melqart had to die and had to be reborn. Priests of the cult of Melqart set his effigy on fire, put it on a raft, and sent it adrift into the Mediterranean sea. While the effigy Melqart burnt and died, the smoke rising from his ashes ensured that the spirit Melqart arose into divinity.

As the smoke raised Melqart’s spirit to divinity, the King of Tyre received this Melqart’s soul into himself. He became a biological manifestation of Melqart on earth. And his Queen became the goddess Astarte. Together, the physical Melqart and Astarte re-enacted their marriage, to welcome the spring, to embrace the season of renewal and rebirth. This ritual, in the minds of the Tyrians, ensured that their city would be safe for the coming year.

Melqart was not always at the top. For years before the Tyrians made Melqart the symbol of their city, El was king and Asherat was his queen. El’s right-hand man, the guy who ran the show, was Baal. Nor was there just one founding myth. Another myth claimed that after being defeated by the Philistine king of the city of Ascalon, it was the Sidonians who founded Tyre a year before the sack of Troy.

These were the days when the palace and the temple were two separate power spheres. The temples did not rely on the royalty for their legitimacy. The temples earned their keep themselves. Priests commissioned barbers who’d cut a mendicant’s hair for a fee so that he could offer it up to the god of his choosing. The priests also had a “rate schedule” from which a mendicant could select an animal for a fee, which the priests would then sacrifice in the name of the appropriate deity. The priests also employed ladies who were willing to offer themselves up for the pleasure of others for a fee. Having a stream of self-generated revenue meant that the priesthood was free to do whatever it wanted, including challenging the power of the king.


But the Tyrian king, Hiram the First, decided to change all that. He wanted to curb the temple’s power. In fact, he desired to co-opt it and make it his own. Melqart and Astarte were somewhere on the lower rungs of the Middle Eastern pantheon. But Hiram decided to prop them up. He destroyed all the other temples and favored the one to Melqart and Astarte, by renovating and expanding it. He also gave more currency to the myth that made Melqart the founder of Tyre. Their elevation to being patrons of the Royal House of Tyre made Melqart & Astarte bona fide political gods. The King of Tyre was Melqart on earth and was now Tyre’s connection to the heavens. And to entrench his and his dynasty’s authority over Tyre, he invented the ritual of the egersis, though the substance of this ceremony wasn’t unprecedented.

The death by immolation and symbolic rebirth of a king was a hallmark of Middle Eastern pagan religion. In certain Middle Eastern quarters, kings were burnt to death to ensure the safety and survival of a city, especially when faced with inevitable destruction. Students of Near Eastern mythology may recall something else that symbolized the burning and rebirth of royalty; a mythological bird possessed of a purple or crimson-red hue. It was said to live a long life, sometimes up to fourteen hundred years. It died by burning itself to death and was then reborn out of the ashes that remained. It represented kings and royalty. It was called the Phoenix.


The Phoenix


The word “Phoenix” is a derivative of the Greek word “Phoinike.” The Greeks also used “Phoinike” to refer to the Phoenicians. No one knows what the word “Phoinike” means. Some scholars suggest that the word “Phoinike” refers to the color purple or crimson-red. Because the Phoenicians acquired fame through the use of the purple-dyed wool cloth, the Greeks used this to refer to them as “Phoinike.” And this is also why the Phoenix is called the Phoenix. Some have suggested that it was the other way around. The Phoenicians were called Phoinike. And the purple-dye acquired the name from them. And then the Phoenix obtained its name from the name of the purple dye.

But if the ancients already referred to the Phoenicians as the “Phoinike,” then why did they come to be called that in the first place? At this point, we return to royalty. Menander of Ephesus, as quoted by the famous Romano-Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, compiled a list of Tyrian kings. The first king he listed was called “Phoinix.” Perhaps the people got their name from their king. And maybe, it is also on account of this king that the color purple became associated with royalty. Phoinix was a king. He gave his name to his people, the Phoinike. The people produced a purple dye, also called Phoinike. Thus, purple became the color of royalty. That is also why the royal bird that immolates itself and is reborn from its ashes was called the Phoenix.

What is Phoenicia? And who are the Phoenicians?

Today, the term “Phoenician” applies to a set of city-states situated roughly in what today is Lebanon. The classical Greco-Roman authors, however, considered the entire Levantine coast, from modern Suez, up to the Gulf of Alexandretta, to be “Phoenicia.” The classical authors also referred to the inhabitants of this land as Sidonians, even though Sidon was just one city among many. In the language of the Phoenicians themselves, however, this region was referred to as Canaan.

We only know them to be Semites of some sort, but other than that, their origins are a mystery. Herodotus places their roots on the shores of the Red Sea, while some other accounts put them in the Persian Gulf.

Though bound loosely by similar religious and linguistic traditions, it is unlikely that the Phoenicians thought of themselves as Phoenicians. Even when under threat from outside, some city-states cooperated with each other, while others did not. Not only would there be a sense of “separateness” among city-states, what clouds the issue of their “national identity” further, is the likelihood that they did not consider themselves ethnically, culturally, religiously or linguistically separate from their neighbors. Hebrew and Phoenician are similar languages. As are Aramaean, Assyrian, Akkadian and all other Semitic languages. All shared in the common religion of the land, with the god, El, at the top and the goddess, Asherah, at his side. In short, while a certain core “Phoenicianness” might be identifiable, it is fraught with ambiguity.

But everyone agrees on one thing. The Phoenician was a Semitic sea trader if nothing else. Neither culture, nor religion, nor language, nor territory defined the Phoenician. What distinguished him from everyone else was his maritime trade.


King Hiram of Tyre
The King of Tyre, Hiram I


Hiram the First was the quintessential Phoenician. He combined the three themes of royalty, religion and maritime trade within himself. Hiram wasn’t facetious when he reformed Tyre’s religion. His reforms were part of a conscious plan. In Hiram’s day, the times were a-changing, and Hiram wanted to make sure that they changed the way he wanted them to.

Hiram ascended the throne of Tyre towards the beginning of the tenth century BC. Most of what we know about Hiram comes from the Old Testament. For those who’ve read the Old Testament, the story should be familiar. The Kingdom of Israel was ascendant at this time, too. And Hiram thought it in his best interests to ally himself with the Israelites, rather than challenge their rise.

Solomon, the King of Israel, wanted to build his Temple for the worship of the one true god, Yahweh. And to that end, he needed materials. He entered into an agreement with Hiram that called for the provision of cedar wood, quarried stones, copper and a host of other materials. It also called for artisans who would build the temple for Solomon. In exchange, Solomon supplied Hiram with 400,000 liters of wheat and 420,000 liters of olive oil annually. The agreement ran for 20 years and came to an end upon the completion of the Temple.

This partnership didn’t end there. There were joint ventures into what today are Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan. They traded in ivory, gold, silver and other precious metals. And those familiar with the Old Testament know that this partnership continued even after Hiram’s and Solomon’s deaths, exemplified by the marriage of the Tyrian King Ithobaal’s daughter Jezebel to the King of Israel, Ahab.

The long-term effect of this partnership was that Tyre had access to the trading routes coming out of Mesopotamia and Arabia, in addition to the seaways they had already mastered.

But things weren’t always this way.

Two centuries earlier, civilization, as it had then existed, came to a grinding halt. The Mycenaeans, the Hittites, the Mittani, and a host of other nations. All turned to ashes. Egypt barely survived. Egypt’s empire, begun in the fourteenth century BC by Thutmose III, frittered away. Barely a century later, the city-states of Phoenicia were out of her clutches.

Scholars are still debating what happened. Why, all of a sudden, did the entire Near East just devolve into anarchy? To even begin to answer this question is a daunting task. Like most things of this nature, this Late Bronze Age Collapse, was the result of a confluence of different causes: foreign invasions, local revolts, migrations induced by climate change and famine. Ultimately, we may never know why. Whatever the story, we aren’t worried about it now. What concerns us is that this Late Bronze Age collapse was the first domino to fall that lead to Tyre’s eventual ascendancy.

Egypt was a voracious consumer of cedar wood from the Levantine mountains. She needed wood to build ships, but had no trees of her own that could produce wood specifically for shipbuilding. Fifteenth-century Egyptian annals record that she had been procuring cedar wood from Phoenicia for centuries. Before Egypt’s imperial days and during them, the Phoenician city of Byblos was the beneficiary of Egypt’s graces. Woodcutters from Byblos ventured into the Levantine mountains, chopped down the trees, hauled them back to the port at Byblos, where the Egyptians loaded them onto their ships and sailed them back to the Nile Delta. The Egyptians rewarded their clients at Byblos with gold from Punt, today’s Horn of Africa and Sudan. This trade made the people of Byblos filthy rich.

But, prosperity always comes to an end. With the Late Bronze Age collapse previously established trade networks, too, collapsed. And with Egypt’s loss of control over its Phoenician territories, the cedar wood trade, also, trickled down to nothing.
In the period before the Late Bronze Age Collapse, trade was a royal affair. If a nation was short on something, there were no private merchants who sailed to other lands, procured the needed items and sold them in their own countries in the marketplace for a profit. Instead, trade missions were essentially diplomatic missions, conducted by royal officials representing the king. If the king wanted something, he sent his representative to other lands to procure it. This royal official struck deals with the royals of other nations. In return, he offered gold, silver, or other precious metals or stones. These missions were treated like embassies and expected full legal and commercial protection from the host countries.

Naturally, authorities kept this “trade” tightly controlled. At this point in history, there was no such thing as capitalism. With the Late Bronze Age Collapse, however, this state-controlled trading came to an end. With all of the major international players out of the picture, there were no imperial neighbors to appease with payments of tribute and no commercial rivals to share in the markets that were now open to them. It was time for the Tyrians to play ball.

Though the trading itself had mainly ceased, the Tyrians remembered the trade networks, which were just ripe for exploitation. Following Egypt’s loss of Phoenicia, private Tyrian merchants began plugging themselves into them. Initially, they were limited mainly to the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. But over the course of a century, the Tyrians expanded them to include Crete, Libya, the Cyclades, Rhodes, Cyprus, and Greece.

The Tyrians were the first people in history to invent the “family firm.” They did so specifically for personal enrichment through commercial exploitation. The Kings of Tyre saw an opportunity here. They could make a lot of money by lending to these “family firms,” and charging them interest. Sometimes, the kings even became sleeping partners in these ventures. They provided the initial investment and expected, in return, a cut of the profits. Patriarchs of these “family firms” even found themselves as advisor’s on the King’s council.

The Tyrians manufactured luxury goods such as carved ivory, with raw ivory coming from Africa. They procured various metals and built workshops for the production of bronze vessels, gold jewelry, etc. And they used these luxury goods as a currency to obtain gold, silver, and other precious metals from other nations. They traded in gems, olive oil, wine, and even pottery. But most of all, they sold the famous purple-dyed cloth.

The Phoenicians had been masters of the sea since before the time of their vassal-hood under Egypt. By that time they had already developed the curved hull ship which had allowed them to ship bigger and weightier loads at a faster pace than any other vessel had allowed before. Despite these advances in shipbuilding, seafaring was done exclusively by day, and ships would stop for the night because at night you couldn’t see where you were going. Not being able to sail at night also meant that you’d cruise along the coast and not on the open sea. So you knew where you were and where you were going.

But by Hiram’s time, the Tyrians were already using Stella Polaris, Pole Star in English, as a navigational aid. Coincidentally, the Greeks used the word Phoinike to refer to Stella Polaris as well. Using Stella Polaris for navigation not only allowed the Phoenicians to travel by night, but also allowed them to sail on the open sea. They also added keels to their ships for better maneuvering and coated their hulls with tar to make them waterproof. With a massive square sail and oarsmen to run their boats, they were now capable of achieving speeds of up to forty miles in a single twenty-four hour period.

As a result of their mercantilism, the Tyrians found themselves everywhere in the Mediterranean. And, as both the literature and the archeology are witnesses, wherever they went, they left their mark. According to the Greco-Roman literature, Lixus, on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar, was Tyre’s most ancient settlement. Its foundation date is unknown. Opposite Lixus, on the Spanish side of the Straits, was Gades, said to have been founded in 1110 BC. The founding of settlements at the Western-most edge of the Mediterranean sea makes it seem as though the Tyrians were marking the end point of their trading route before beginning to colonize its coastal stops. After Gades, came Utica in 1101 BC, founded at the mouth of the River Medjerda in modern Tunisia, supposedly founded by colonists from Gades. Subsequently, a number of the African colonies followed: Hippo, Hadrumetum, Sousse, Lepcis Magna. Soon, colonies appeared in Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Malta, Crete, and Cyprus. It’s unclear how many of these colonies were direct Tyrian settlements and how many were founded by other Tyrian colonies.

Before archeology became fashionable in the nineteenth century, historians accepted this textual tradition without question. The early nineteenth century was a time when the Phoenicians were considered the originators of everything. They “invented” the alphabet and also “outshone the Greeks” in their maritime prowess. A scholar even claimed that Homer learned his geography for “The Odyssey” from a Phoenician text on the instruction of navigation, as well as from a log belonging to a Phoenician sea captain.

But archeology soon burst that bubble. Excavations in the Aegean world revealed the Mycenaean civilization to be equally, if not more original and vital. Not content with the new data, some Phoenicio-philes suggested that Mycenaean culture had been spurred on by the Phoenicians, without any hard evidence whatsoever. However, when archaeologists could not date a single one of the Phoenician sites mentioned above back to the dates specified in the literature, expert-opinion soon took a 180-degree turn. Some even suggested that the Phoenicians didn’t even begin their efforts colonizing the Mediterranean until the seventh century, almost a hundred years after the Greeks started theirs.

Further archeology, however, has made things a lot clearer. With every new find, either the archaeological dates creep ever closer to the years mentioned in the literature, or further explanations emerge that otherwise reconciles them. While the dating provided in the historical record cannot be blindly accepted, it is not out of the realm of possibility either.

The earliest sailors were just traders who merely required safe anchorages on their way along their trading routes. Every single Phoenician site found is on some islet or peninsula. This placement indicates that the primary concern of the Phoenicians in the selection of an anchorage was the safety of their boats. On the shore, they only constructed huts and other structures of convenience. Being made of wood and leaves, the traces of these buildings would be wiped out just by the passage of time. Thus, the “early dates” mentioned in the historical record may not necessarily be referring to the actual founding dates of proper colonies but to the years when sailors first used particular sites as anchorages.

This explanation is consistent with how the literature describes this early mercantile activity. It represents the Tyrian ships as hotels, shops, and warehouses, implying that most of the living arrangements would be aboard their boats. During the day, sailors would conduct their business on the beaches. At night they would venture back to their ships. In this manner, they would stay at a spot for a long time, sometimes even up to a year. Other accounts provide descriptions of camps of wooden huts, with spaces of up to 500 men.

Though not historically attested, the next stage in the evolution from a small anchorage to a full colony would have been to convert the anchorage into a semi-permanent harbor. Older boats would have been stripped down to construct or repair docks or warehouses. There would also have been a wooden palisade to protect the proto-colony and its inhabitants from wild animals and hostile natives.

The early stages of a Phoenician site’s evolution just described, suggest that the purpose of Tyrian seafaring was not colonization per se. The development of fully fledged colonies was in response to other factors. With the presence of locals amenable to trade, a site would evolve from an anchorage to a trading station. The archeology indicates this evolution through the presence of stone structures, housing pottery from all around the region.

Proximity to a natural resource would ensure that the site evolved into an industrial town. Some settlements were dedicated exclusively to the production of the purple dye close to coasts with known populations of the dye-producing mollusk. Proximity to a precious metal mine would induce the development of smelting workshops. The settlers would either procure the ore from the locals or would mine it themselves. They would, then, smelt the ore at their workshops, before shipping the ingots back to the homeland.

Even though the use of stones in architecture would be pervasive at this stage in a site’s evolution, domicile arrangements would not yet be necessary. In fact, a town couldn’t support any families unless the surrounding hinterland provided ample amounts of food, either through the supply of wild game or by sustaining agricultural production. Housing wouldn’t appear until a site crossed a certain size threshold. Beyond this limit, structures like bazaars, temples, plazas, town halls and other harbors would manifest. Some colonies went all the way and added fortified walls and forts.

And all this development was spurred on by Hiram. The Tyrians in general and Hiram, in particular, were entrepreneurial people. When they saw an opportunity, they took it. It was their entrepreneurship that allowed them to take advantage of the new circumstances following the Late Bronze Age Collapse. It was their tenacity that allowed them to take their shipbuilding to depths that no one had ever seen. Their lust for wealth and genius in shipbuilding opened doors for them in places only known in legend. With older technologies, they were just able to expand their trading networks to the islands in the Aegean sea. With new powerboats at their disposal and the aid of the Stella Polaris, they extended them to regions no one in the Middle East had yet seen. They planted anchorages and trading posts all over the Mediterranean. It’s almost as if Tyre was reborn from the ashes of the world burnt down by the Late Bronze Age Collapse. Just like the Phoenix. Just like Melqart.

And, wherever they went, with them went Melqart. The Tyrian King was the King of Tyrians everywhere, not just in Tyre. For Melqart was not only the patron god of the city of Tyre but also the god of Tyre’s colonial project. The founding of a settlement could not happen without the aegis of Melqart. That is why he is Malik Qart, the King of the City.

In the next episode, we will take a look at the regions that the Tyrians colonized. We will also observe how Tyre’s relationship with those around her forced the Tyrians to turn their simple anchorages and trading posts into more permanent settlements, paving the way for the birth of her illustrious daughter, Carthage.

Episode 1.1 – The Death of Carthage

Cato the Elder

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Greetings Ladies & Gentlemen!

In this episode, I introduce the series on Carthage. Initially, I had thought I would put the transcripts for the episode on a Patreon account. However, after thinking about it for some time, I have decided against it. You’ll find the transcript of this episode below:

Choosing a starting point for the history of Carthage was not easy. Once you’re past Carthage’s founding legend, it is difficult to tease out from the historical record where the history of Phoenicians in the Mediterranean ends and where the history of Carthage begins, because, a lot of the times, the sources do not differentiate between the two. So my solution to the problem is to start the history with the Phoenician colonization of the Mediterranean.

But starting a narration of the story that I’m about to tell you, was a slightly more significant challenge. The problem is that the history of Phoenician colonization is an immensely dull topic. While it may make for a useful information-packed episode, it won’t hold your attention for long. And since I have a penchant for the dramatic, I wanted the series to start off with a bang. Instead of beginning at the beginning, I decided to start the story of Carthage from its very end.

At the end of the Hannibalic war, Rome imposed harsh restrictions on Carthage, such that even when Massinisa, the king of Numidia, would harass her to no end, Carthage couldn’t do a damn thing about it. Doing so would violate her treaty with Rome. During the Hannibalic war, Numidia was a Carthaginian ally. But Massinisa had a keen eye for the future. He knew that it was only a matter of time before Rome eclipsed the entire Mediterranean. And so, to get in her good books, Massinisa switched sides. On top of this, Massinisa also had Rome’s tacit approval for his harassment of Carthage. Thus, in 153 BC, when Carthage found herself in conflict with Massinisa for the umpteenth time, she appealed directly to Rome.

In response, Rome sent one of her illustrious sons, a survivor of the Hannibalic War, the aged Senator Marcus Porcius Cato. His job was to arbitrate the dispute between the two sides. But before he rendered a judgment, he insisted that both parties agree to bind themselves to his decision, whatever it was going to be. Massinisa decided to acquiesce, but Carthage was defiant.

Quite what Cato saw and felt during his visit to Carthage we do not know. But he did see something that evoked in him a sense of fear, perhaps, the same fear that he must have felt when Hannibal roamed the Italian countryside not half a century ago. Because after returning to Rome, Cato made it his mission to convince the Roman Senate that they must deal with Carthage decisively. He used Carthage’s defiance as a pretext to go to war.

To prove that Carthage had now revived her dying self, he once brought fresh figs to the Senate, hidden in his toga. In his speech, he threw them on the floor. To strike fear into the hearts of the Senators, he declared that the figs were from Carthage and were picked a mere three days ago. In Cato’s mind, the figs were a sign that Carthage was now strong enough to strike back.

Cato was so struck with the fear of Carthage that after 153 BC, he began ending his speeches in the Senate with one of the most famous lines in all of history:

“Ceterum censeo Carthiginem esse delendam.”

“For the rest, it is my opinion that Carthage should be destroyed.”

Whether on Cato’s insistence or not, Rome did find herself convinced. Over the course of the next few years, such events in Africa transpired that allowed Rome to bring destruction to her bitterest enemy.

Scipio Aemilianus in Color

At 146 BC, Scipio Aemilianus was called to Carthage to take the Roman army out of a tight spot. They had been besieging the city for a good two years but had made no headway, thus far. The walls were impenetrable. Aemilianus’ luck followed him to Carthage. He found that the walls protecting the outer harbor were weaker than the rest of the fortifications. It didn’t take long for his men to breach these and enter the port. Once in, they found themselves directly facing the inner harbor. Even though this port was like a fortress on its own, Scipio and his men didn’t find it difficult to breach either. Once in, access to the city itself was a cinch. They found the nearby marketplace empty, which they didn’t take long to secure.

Meanwhile, Hasdrubal, the man who had taken it upon himself to defend his city in her last days, was holed up in the citadel upon the hill of Byrsa, along with 900 deserters from the Roman side. The hill was probably more than a mile inland, which would have taken Scipio less than a day’s march to reach. However, it took him six days to get there. Ordinary Carthaginians took up arms and gave a stiff resistance to the oncoming Romans. They also took advantage of their multi-storied housing and shot arrows down on the Romans from the rooftops. Undaunted, the Romans merely entered these homes, climbed up the stairs and took the fight to the Carthaginians themselves. As you can probably imagine, some fighters fell from the roofs on to the soldiers below and were cut down by their weapons.

After the fighting, Scipio got his men to, first, set fire to the entire area and, then, knock down the walls of the houses there. Some Carthaginians had holed themselves up in the upper stories of their homes to escape the fighting. When the Romans knocked the walls down, the charred remains of these guys also fell to the ground. Some of these guys were alive, too, screaming with the pain from the burns and the fall. After breaking down all the walls that they could, they dug pits, into which they threw the bodies of both the living and the dead. Some bodies, the Romans just left amongst the rubble to rot. When the Romans began marching to the hill after this destruction, these bodies were trampled underneath the hooves of the Romans’ horses.

Entirely why Scipio did this is puzzling. The fighting in the streets was over, and he had no reason not to march to Byrsa and take Hasdrubal down. I suspect, though, that he did it to inspire fear in the hearts of Hasdrubal and the Roman deserters. From atop the hill of Byrsa, they had a vantage point, from where they could see everything that was going on below.

On the seventh day after breaching the city walls, Scipio finally made it to the citadel. When the conflict had begun, some 50,000 men, women, and children had holed themselves up inside the fort. By the time Scipio made it there, they were starving. So they surrendered to Scipio in exchange for their lives.

Inside the citadel was an enclosure, sacred to the Phoenician god Eshmoun, inside of which was the actual temple. Hasdrubal and his men had holed themselves up here. The Romans stormed the precinct, but Hasdrubal and the deserters managed to climb the roof of the temple. At the last minute, though, Hasdrubal’s courage collapsed. He descended into the enclosure and begged Scipio for mercy.

The 900 flabbergasted deserters were disgusted by what they saw. They had stayed with Hasdrubal this long because they knew that they were going to die anyway. If they went back to the Roman camp, they would be summarily executed. If they stayed with Hasdrubal, Scipio would kill them. They were expecting that whatever happened Hasdrubal would die fighting with them. Their expectations now dashed, they requested a time-out from Scipio to hurl insults at Hasdrubal. I can almost imagine Hasdrubal’s bloodied face looking at them sheepishly, probably ashamed at what he’d just done. But a man’s gotta hustle, and this was Hasdrubal’s way of doing it.

Hasdrubal’s wife, who had accompanied him all this time, was none too pleased about this either. She, along with her two sons, also descended into the enclosure. She thanked Scipio for granting them their lives, but she also hurled insults at her husband. Then, in one of the most dramatic scenes of mass suicide ever, the deserters set fire to the temple. Hasdrubal’s wife took a knife, stabbed her sons in their hearts, and flung their bodies into the fire, emulating the horrid sacrificial ritual of her ancestors. Finally, she lept into the fire herself. Hasdrubal’s wife, her sons and the 900 Roman deserters perish in the flames of the fire. The cowardly Hasdrubal spent the rest of his days in Rome under Roman supervision.

After Scipio secured Byrsa, he let his men plunder the city. They amassed gold, silver, and most importantly, slaves. Once the town was empty, he ordered the entire city of Carthage to be burnt and razed to the ground.

As Scipio stood watching Carthage burn, he whispered to himself, “The day shall come when sacred Troy shall fall and King Priam and all his warrior people with him.” Polybius, who was standing by him, asked him what he meant. With tears in his eyes, Scipio replied, “This is a glorious moment, Polybius. And yet, I am seized with fear and foreboding that someday the same fate will befall my own country.” Such was the last moment of one of the greatest empires of the ancient world.

The Punic Wars is a topic that has been done to death. Not a year goes by when yet another book, TV show or movie about the wars, in general, or Hannibal, in particular, comes out. It’s getting quite annoying, frankly. What everyone ignores, though, is the equally long and bloody history of Carthage’s relations with the Greek world. And while that does get some attention, virtually no one cares about Carthage herself.

The first series of my podcast will try to correct this imbalance. It will be the story of this city and the empire she built. I will trace the history of Carthage from before her inception, through her rise and expansion, through her relations with the Greco-Roman world, down to this very last moment. We will consult the ancient authors and examine what they have to say. We will also dig through the mass of archaeological details to shed light upon various aspects of her history. And where neither can help us, we will try to connect the dots ourselves.

This journey has been a long time coming, and I invite you to accompany me on it.

In the next few episodes, we will travel back several hundred years and examine the origins of the Carthaginians. We will look at Carthage’s motherland, Phoenicia. We will discuss Phoenicia’s trade and colonization throughout the Mediterranean. And, we will also look at the Phoenicians’ interactions with the Greek world. In the very next podcast, we will kick off our discussions on Phoenicia with the King of the Phoenician city of Tyre, Hiram I.