Episode 1.10 – The Punic Empire

Carthage's North African Territories
Carthage’s North African Territories

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Last time, we had taken a look at how after the Battle of Himera, Carthage went through what was probably a voluntary program of austerity which correlated directly with her acquisition of the Western Mediterranean metals trade. We had seen how Carthage began with the silver and tin trade in Iberia and Europe and extended her reach to acquire gold from West Africa. Today we’ll continue to look at how Carthage consolidated her hold on the metals trade by bringing North Africa under her control. We’ll use the discussion on North Africa to segway into a discussion about Carthage’s Empire.

Before we get to that, however, there is a logistical issue I want to get out of the way. A few episodes ago, I had mentioned that I was going to be away on a work trip, because of which I would have to delay the release of an episode. As it so happens, I will be off on this trip in a few days. So, instead of getting the next episode 15 days from now, you will see it 30 days from now. From that point onwards, until there is another reason for me to take a break, there shouldn’t be any more gaps.

So, with that little logistical issue out of the way, let’s begin.

The Phoenicians had been in Africa long before the Carthaginians began their colonization efforts. The Greeks referred to the original inhabitants of the northern coast of Africa as the Libyans. Today, we know them as the Berbers. Traditionally, they occupied the North African coast, stretching from modern-day Libya all the way to the Atlantic coast of Africa. They lived either as semi-nomadic communities or in small permanent settlements. The Greeks referred to the Western-most Libyans as the Mauri. These were the Moors of medieval times. They called those in modern Algeria the Nomades, which the Romans rendered into Latin as the word “Numidians.” They referred to everyone east of Algeria as just the ‘Libyans.’ The closest Libyan towns to Carthage were Tunis and Maxula, the city of which Hiarbas was supposedly king.

One of the reasons for Tyre’s success at colonizing other lands was the fact that wherever they went, the native populations were still living in the Stone Age, or very close to it. The same was the case with the Libyans. The Mediterranean sea lies to her north, the Sahara lies to her south, the Atlantic Ocean lies to her west, and the Libyan desert lies to her east, making North Africa, effectively an island, cut off from the rest of the world. The lack of mineral wealth meant that Libyans couldn’t advance materially. The harsh mountainous and sandy terrain made movement and communication extremely difficult, so no fully-fledged states appeared. And, though some semi-permanent settlements emerged, the majority of the natives were still pastoral nomads. Combine all these reasons with the fact that North Africa has nothing to offer any potential migrants, except the northern Tunisian hinterland. With no contact with anyone outside of their communities, the natives remained in the Stone Age, while the world moved on.

For our purposes, this meant that the natives were militarily weaker. Had they possessed military strength, the Phoenicians were in a tight spot. In case of hostility, they didn’t have enough men to defend their settlements. But, since there were no military threats, the colonies could be manned with the smallest possible number of men.

Before the Carthaginians came, circumstances were very straightforward. The Phoenicians set up trading posts, and the natives bartered with them. With Queen Elissa’s arrival, however, things changed. When she arrived, two different sets of behaviors defined the relationship between the Carthaginians and the native tribes right from the get-go. The first set of behaviours was a continuation of the trading that the Phoenicians had begun. The Libyans then settled Carthage, to further their commercial interests. Further interaction led to intermarriage between the two groups. Later chroniclers dubbed the progeny of these mixed marriages as “Libyphoenicians.” Diodorus even records that these Libyphoenicians had the right to intermarry with the Carthaginians. The second set of behaviors was the attempt by Carthage to overpower the Libyans, symbolized by Elissa’s deceitful acquisition of Hiarbas’ land. One attitude was friendly and enhanced mutual interests; the other, necessarily, antagonistic.

To bring North Africa under her control, Carthage took three sets of measures: the first, diplomatic, the second, colonial, and the third, military. However, we do not have any precise chronologies for these sets of activities, so, what follows is an aggregate look at Africa, from the points of view of, both, the literature and the archaeology.

Carthage directed her diplomatic energies towards the Tyrian colonies already present. Archeologically, the majority of Tyrian settlements in Africa began to make a “Punic” cultural shift in the fifth century. The Punic conquest of the Tyrian colonies, most likely, closely resembled that of Athens’ post-Plataea imperial activity. Colonies were promised protection in exchange for recognition of Carthaginian supremacy, payment of tribute and contribution to Carthage’s military endeavors. At least, that’s how it was supposed to look on paper. In all probability, however, the “promise of protection” part of the deal was merely window dressing and was, most likely, only used as an excuse to bring the colonies under Punic control forcibly.

Carthage aimed her colonization efforts at populating the North African coast to consolidate her hold on the shipping of the metals from the West. In most cases, the new colonies were nothing more than small trading posts, which the Greeks referred to as “Emporia” or “markets.” Conceptually, these were the same as the earlier trading posts that the Tyrians planted in centuries prior. They followed the same selection criteria that we discussed way back in Episode 1.2. They also served the same purposes: that of bartering with the coastal natives and that of temporary resting stops for shipment of the metals. As with the earlier Tyrian colonies, very few of these grew to “city size.” Those that did grow to “city size” didn’t do so because Carthage encouraged them. Instead, they expanded because either the surrounding native populations settled them or political refugees from mainland Phoenicia sought asylum there.

The Cape Bon Peninsula, which lies towards the South-East of the Cape Carthage Peninsula, shows signs of late seventh and early sixth-century activity. Since it was considered an integral part of the city of Carthage itself, the local population was forcibly moved out to make way for Carthaginian citizens’ country estates, which they occupied during the hot summer months.

The chief settlement on Cape Bon was the city today known as Kerkouane. Archaeology of the graves at this site reveals a habitation that began in the sixth century. Since this town housed the estates of the Punic elite, the structures here are built better than elsewhere in the Punic realm, with thicker walls and deeper foundations. Quarries on the western side of the Cape provided the stones for these structures. Pink cement, with white marble embedded in it, was used to make the floors, while purple colored stucco covered the walls. One notable feature, absent elsewhere, was the attention to hygiene. Houses featured baths and lavatories connected to a sewage system.

South of the Cape Bon Peninsula were the cities of Neapolis and Hadrumetum. The Greeks called Neapolis Neapolis, which simply means “New City” in Greek, because they didn’t know her original Phoenician name. She had a small trading station in the fifth century, but by the end of the fourth, she had become a formidable market town. A road ran from Neapolis to Carthage, cutting across the base of the Cape Bon peninsula. If for any reason, sailors couldn’t make landfall at Carthage, they could dock at Neapolis and send their goods to Carthage up this road.

South of Neapolis was Hadrumetum. She was the most significant Punic town east of Carthage. She was home to a shrine, a tophet (which is a Phoenician graveyard), and a harbor. The earliest we can date her to is the sixth century.

The eastern border of this African empire was at the Arae Philaenorum, whose story we discussed back in episode 1.7. The Carthaginian side of the Arae was called Tripolitania in Roman times, perhaps on account of the three principal settlements here: Lepcis Magna, Sabratha, and Oea. Archeologically, the oldest object found in this region, a Greek vase, is datable to the early fifth century and was discovered at Lepcis Magna.

It was, most likely, because of Dorieus’ foothold in the valley of the river Cinyps, just twelve miles east of Lepcis that Carthage began settling the region permanently. Before Cinyps, Lepcis was a small backwater town. Starting in the fifth century, however, Lepcis shows signs of significant infrastructure. She had a port and was home to administrative buildings, indicating that she may have been an administrative center for the entire region.

These settlements became incredibly wealthy on account of trading with the Garamantes tribe that inhabited the interior parts of Libya. Tripolitania lay at the end of the trading route that came out of the Niger region. Legend has one Carthaginian, named Mago, traveling across the Niger desert three times, without taking a drink each time he crossed it. It became a center for trade in precious stones like carbuncles, emeralds, and chalcedony. Sabratha became known for olive cultivation, while another prominent colony in the region, Zoucharis, became known for its salted fish and the famous Tyrian purple dye. This area also became a center of exchange between Carthaginian wine and a medicinal herb called silphium. The settlement of Charax became a black market for silphium traders since the Cyrenaican government wanted to monopolize the silphium trade.

Towards Carthage’s west also lay similar trading posts. Since this part of the North African coast was inhospitable, these settlements stayed small. The only ones that grew to a considerable size were Hippo Acra, known to the Latins as Hippo Diarrhytus, today known as Bizerta, and Hippo Regius, the home of St. Augustine at the end of Rome’s imperial days. Another settlement called Tingi was also quite substantial, which the Carthaginians conceived as a means of preventing the Greeks from crossing the Straits of Gibraltar. Other towns include Thapsus, Chullu, Saldae, Tipasa, Iol, and Gunugu.

Carthage directed her military efforts in the region towards all non-Phoenicians. From the literary record, we know that the first kings, Malchus and the early Magonids, fought wars in Africa for the sole purpose of making the Libyans relinquish any claims to a tribute owed to them. Though Malchus supposedly won his African conflict, the early Magonid defeats in Africa ensured that the tribute owed remained in place. Both Justin and Dio Chrysostom report, that the next time the Carthaginians went to war with the Libyans was after the defeat at Himera. The command was given to Hanno the Navigator who was successful in relieving Carthage of her tribute to the Libyans forever.

Hanno, the king who voyaged to West Africa in the last episode, also went to war against the Numidians and the Moors, both of whom he defeated. A war against the Numidians makes sense. The Numidian princedoms had no fixed border with the Carthaginian territories, making border skirmishes inevitable. A land war against the Moors, however, does not make sense. The Moors lived in what is now Morocco and Mauritania, which is nowhere near any immediate Punic territory. Some historians suggest that this wasn’t a land war. Or, at least, no armies marched all the way to Morocco or Mauritania. Recall, that in the last episode I mentioned that Hanno had founded six colonies along the coasts of Morocco and Mauritania. It’s possible that as part of that naval expedition and the founding of those settlements, Hanno faced resistance from the local Moors. Thus, he fought the Moors to keep those trading stations safe. We’ll never know for sure since we have no direct evidence for this.

In addition to the control and consolidation of the metals trade, the acquisition of Africa also meant population growth. Since Tunisia was the only fertile region in North Africa, population growth meant that the Carthaginian demand for food quickly outstripped the available supply from the hinterland. Carthage needed additional sources of food. Sicily was fertile, but she was mostly under Greek control. The only other region she could look to was Sardinia.

The archeological record at Nora, Caralis, Tharros, Olbia, and Sulcis exhibits a distinct and substantial Carthaginian influence. Funerary stelae, masks, and figurines at the various tophets and grave sites are identical to those found at the Tophet of Salammbo. The names on these stelae also indicate a strong presence of Carthaginian settlers.

There is also proof of clashes with the local Nuragic peoples. These signs of war in Sardinian archeology come only from the coastal regions where the Phoenicians had their settlements, which implies that the Phoenicians were merely trying to protect themselves. According to the literature, they also sought Punic help, which they got in exchange for giving up their liberty. Practically, though, Punic control probably never extended beyond the fertile coastal regions, which was the Punic aim in the first place.

The literature implies, though never states it outright, that the Sardinian colonies paid tribute to Carthage. At the very least they were obliged to cough up grain when Punic armies required it. There are also numerous instances of food moving from Sardinia to Carthage in times of emergency. Over the course of the fifth century, particularly after the Battle of Himera, Punic colonization on Sardinia intensified. Archeologically, we see the appearance of fortified market towns; fortified, presumably, to protect them from the perceived threat of the Nuragic population. Alongside this intense colonization was a rise in, both, large-scale agricultural operations, and smaller individual farmsteads.

The acquisition of Sardinian agriculture was Carthage’s aim. At least one ancient source confirms this by saying that, after conquering Sardinia, the Carthaginians destroyed the local fruit trees and forbade them to be regrown. Instead, they urged the settlers to grow grains and cereals. In other words, it was Carthage’s aim all along to make Sardinia her breadbasket. The development of Sardinia as Carthage’s breadbasket also provided Carthage with yet another reason to pay so much attention to Sicily. If Carthage lost the Epikrateia, then they would lose Sardinia, too. Hence, losing Sicily meant losing access to her primary source of food.

In return for Sardinia’s cooperation, Carthage bestowed upon Sardinia an enormous amount of wealth. At least, this is what is apparent in the archeology. This expenditure of capital in Sardinia lends support to the idea that Carthage didn’t, all of a sudden, become impoverished after the Battle of Himera. She just chose to spend her wealth, at least part of it, on Sardinia instead. As a result, Sardinia was able to import luxury goods both from the Levant and the Greeks. Luxurious private and public buildings popped up everywhere. The historical sources claim that the Carthaginians also granted honorary citizenship to the Sardinians.

Sardinian religious expression exemplifies this relationship between Carthage and Sardinia. At this time, Carthage aggressively pushed for the construction of new spiritual centers and temples all throughout the Sardinian colonies. An excellent example of this is the temple at Antas, dedicated to both Melqart and Melqart’s “son” Sid. Sid was a Sardinian deity, probably Nuragic in origin, while Melqart represented the overarching Tyrian colonial project. The symbolism could not be more overt. Melqart was a father; Sid was his son. They were unequal. Sid was subordinate to Melqart. Therefore, the Sardinians were subject to the “Tyrian Colonial Project” of which Carthage was now the leader.

Despite conflicts, trade with the locals likely continued over the course of the fifth century. But by its end, trading with them declined sharply, and by the beginning of the next century, Nuragic goods no longer appear in the archeological record. Of course, the people just didn’t disappear. What happened, most likely, was what happened to the Libyans surrounding Carthage. They settled in the colonies and assimilated themselves with the settlers.

Thus far we’ve only considered the Punic imperial activity that relates to Carthage’s control of the metals trade of the Western Mediterranean. What we haven’t considered up until this point are Punic holdings other than the ones directly connected to this trade. While there are several such places, we shall only concern ourselves with the most crucial one of them, i.e., Sicily.

Despite the blow at Himera and the subsequent focus on the metals trade as opposed to the Tyrrhenian trading circuit, Sicily was still crucial. For one thing, it was part of the Tyrrhenian trading circuit. Carthage herself wasn’t importing any Etruscan goods, but that didn’t mean Sicily wasn’t. That also didn’t imply that Carthage couldn’t profit off of this trade. The Tyrrhenian circuit was still a cash cow and worth enough for Carthage to keep a foothold in Sicily. Sicily was also vital because it was the one crucial link between Carthage and Sardinia. If Carthage lost her place on Sicily, she would be cut off from her food supplies on Sardinia. Having one foot in Sicily’s door was, for Carthage, still a matter of life and death.

The French historian Serge Lancel also points out that any party on Sicily would, eventually, want to hold the entire island. There are several reasons for this. First: The whole island was fertile. Being in control of all this land meant having a considerable edge over the other players in the Mediterranean. Sicily’s fertility is also why Rome wanted to dominate her a few centuries later. Second: Sicily had too many players: The Sicani, the Sicels, the Elymi, the Doric Greeks, the Ionian Greeks, the Phoenicians. All had competing interests, which meant that the inhabitants of the island would always face the threat of war. For any one group to hold the entire island implied the end of this risk for them. Third: By bringing all of Sicily under one’s control, one could more tightly control the north Mediterranean sea. For Carthage, this meant more effective containment of the Phocaean threat. Though they had been dealt a hard blow, back in the 530s, they still maintained control of the Southern coast of Gaul and, as we’ve seen in our discussion on Iberia, were a general menace to the Carthaginians. All of these reasons explain why Carthage was so obsessed with Sicily and why she decided to intervene in Sicilian affairs so many times throughout her existence.

Picard suggests that before 550 BC all the Phoenician colonies had come under the Punic yoke, except Motya. As I’ve mentioned earlier, by that time the inhabitants of Motya had built extensive fortifications around the city. These fortifications included walls, towers, and other defense works. After 550, however, Carthage undertook significant endeavors at Motya. They built the causeway that connected Motya to the Sicilian mainland. They also enlarged the local temple. They also constructed two industrial zones for the manufacture of pottery, the famous purple dye and leather goods. It was also from Motya that the Carthaginians launched their campaign against Dorieus. The army that destroyed Heraclea Minoa also marched from Motya. According to some historians, in 509 BC, Carthage directed the Motyans to expand and reorganize their tophet. Lancel points out, however, that the stele discovered at this tophet from this period are purely Motyan and have no Punic influence. Whether or not this last point is valid, all other Punic endeavors at Motya indicate that Motya had come under the Punic yoke, probably, well before the close of the sixth century BC.

Carthage allowed her Sicilian dependencies to govern themselves. We don’t know if they paid any tribute, but we do know that the Carthaginians wanted them to supply troops whenever they decided to intervene in Sicilian affairs. At the very least, they were expected not to ally themselves with the enemies of Carthage.

After 509 BC, till the time the Romans took it over, Sicily was always in a stalemate. The Western edge remained under Punic control, while the Doric Greeks kept the South Eastern region under their hegemony.

The picture that emerges by considering the literature in light of the archaeology is not of a state militarily expanding her domains. It is a state trying to protect her commercial interests in various locations against perceived encroachments from local populations. Carthage took military action partly to protect her interests in the Tyrrhenian trade, partly to control the metals trade and partly to protect food supplies from Sardinia. And as the take-over of Gades indicates, even though they may have been independent at one point, the colonies willingly put themselves under Punic overlordship. They did so because they knew that if they were to survive, there ought to be someone to protect their trade. And while putting themselves under Punic protection meant some loss of control, they still managed their internal affairs. The long and short of it is that Carthage displayed no signs of a conventional empire.

But it’s necessary to ask the question: Why Carthage? All Phoenician colonies felt threatened by encroaching locals. Any of them could have taken on the role of protector. But it was only Carthage that took decisive military action. Indeed, it was just her that the others called upon for help. Why?

Though this theory is entirely speculative, some historians suggest that Carthage was meant for Phoenician leadership right from the get-go. Her name, after all, was “New City.” The Tyrians may have gauged very early on, that being in Asia was a severe health hazard. Empire upon empire threw its weight around, making demands upon Tyre; demands that, at a certain point, may become too much for Tyre to bear.

In the beginning, Carthage may have just been a Tyrian halfway house, with silver coming in from Gades being stored here until ships from Tyre picked it up and left manufactured goods in exchange. But by Malchus’ time she had become politically independent of Tyre. We know this because if Carthage were still subservient to Tyre, Tyre would have intervened when Malchus laid his siege upon Carthage.

It was also a little after Malchus’ time that Carthage became economically independent. In 560 BC, Tyre signed a treaty with Nebuchadnezzar ending a thirteen-year-long siege. After this point, all of Tyre’s colonies show signs of economic decline in the archeology. All, except those on the North-South Etruscan-Punic route, indicating that these settlements, of which Carthage was one, no longer relied on Tyre for their survival.

Not only did Carthage become politically and economically independent, she also became the cultural hegemon. Before 560 BC, Tyre’s African, Spanish and Sicilian colonies do not indicate any direct Carthaginian influence. Beginning in 560, however, the archeological record at these settlements betrays a newer Punic culture, as opposed to the older Tyrian one.

Nebuchadnezzar’s siege triggered the launch of Carthage as the new hegemon of the colonies. With Tyre in decline, the Tyrians in the colonies knew who to turn to for help.

When we connect the two periods, the century before the Battle of Himera and the seventy-year interregnum after, the following story becomes apparent:

With Nebuchadnezzar’s siege, Carthage becomes independent. With her independence, she begins to throw her weight around the Mediterranean under Malchus and the early Magonids. At this point, her primary concern is protecting the route to Etruria. She is still also mildly interested in the metals trade, which is why she intervenes in Spain. Dorieus’ expulsion from Africa shows that Carthage is also concerned about the North African coast and the trading in Tripolitania. Dorieus’ defeat in Sicily shows Carthage’s concern for Sicily. Carthage also shows her interest in Sicily by intervening in Greek affairs at Himera. Her defeat here exposes to her the threat of the Doric Greeks to her Tyrrhenian trading. She then decides to bring the Western Mediterranean metals trade under her control as a countermeasure, which is why she sends Himilco and Hanno on their voyages into the Atlantic. The consolidation of this trade and other trading interests also cause her to embark on the conquest of Africa.

One final point before we close this episode. Talking about Empire binds us to discussions about the subjects of that empire. Generally, Carthage left her political dependents free to arrange their internal affairs as they sought fit. She only imposed on them in as far as it was necessary to maintain her dominance over them and for the exaction of tribute. Dependents were of different categories, however, and the way Carthage treated one set of her subjects depended upon their type.

The older Phoenician and the newer Punic colonies got better treatment than Carthage’s other subjects. While the exact arrangements are not known, some historians think that the treatment of these Libyphoenicians was determined via treaties. From the literature, we see that Carthage’s Phoenician dependents outside Africa were governed by local officials and presided over institutions similar to those at Carthage. Polybius, writing centuries later, mentions that the Libyphoenicians had the same laws as the Carthaginians, perhaps implying that both parties were subject to the same rules and had equal rights.

However, there were some differences. Carthage levied import and export duties on some Libyphoenician cities, and some even paid direct taxes. Libyphoenicians were also called upon to provide troops for Punic campaigns whereas the citizens of Carthage were mostly exempt from military duty. Though no source mentions this, it’s hard to imagine that Carthage’s fleets weren’t manned by them either. Warmington also surmises that even their foreign relations and economic policies were subject to Carthage’s whim. The treaties with Rome indicate this. The 509 BC treaty allowed the Romans to trade only in Sardinia and Africa and that, too, just in the presence of an official. By 348 BC, however, the city of Carthage alone was open to them.

While the Phoenicians could be fanatically patriotic at times, they were less animated by the kind of individualistic nationalism that became a hallmark of the Greeks. In general, achieving full freedom from an overlord was not worth the risk. Perhaps, this was a consequence of the realism ingrained into them by centuries of trading. Therefore, just as their ancestors in the Phoenician homeland acquiesced to the rule of others, the Libyphoenicians in Africa submitted to the state of Carthage. Doing so must have been a little more manageable since the Carthaginians were their blood brethren.

Carthage dealt with communities in Sicily, whether Phoenician or otherwise, with an even freer hand. All towns ran their affairs according to their own laws. Segesta, an Elymian city, was merely an ally, at least until the 5th century. Every colony minted their own coins, a privilege that Carthage didn’t afford its African dependents. Carthage granted her Sicilian dependents a freer hand, probably because Sicily was a more complicated place than Africa. As I’ve pointed out before, Sicily was home to many ethnicities. Relations between them were quite complicated. Many cities had trading relations with others. Some were political allies. Some were at war with each other.

And, as discussed before all cultures bled into each other to produce a uniquely Sicilian culture. It appears from the literature that the Elymians adopted many elements of Greek culture, despite being Punic allies. On the flip side, they took the Phoenician title “suffet” which they used to refer to their political leaders. The bleeding of the cultures was also apparent in the coins. Elymian coins were, for all intents and purposes, Greek coins, that sported Greek legends, and motifs. Coinage from the Phoenician colonies also employed Greeks motifs. However, it is recognizable as Phoenician because it also incorporates Phoenician mythology, in addition to using the Phoenician script on it.

That, in a nutshell, was the discussion on the empire that Carthage built.

Beginning with the next episode, we will take a break from the narrative and dedicate a few episodes to looking at the Carthaginians themselves. We will examine the city of Carthage herself and indulge in discussions on her society, politics, religion, and trade. And we’ll pepper these discussions with healthy doses of archaeology.

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!


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
  3. Hoyos, Dexter. The Carthaginians. Oxford: Routledge, 2010 (Buy from Amazon)

Episode 1.9 – Atlantic Adventures

A Depiction of Hanno the Navigator

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In the last episode, we had looked a crucial battle in the history of Carthage, that of Himera. We examined the long chain of causes that lead to the conflict and studied its aftermath. Towards the end of the episode, I had pointed out that the effect of the Battle of Himera was such that it prevented Carthage from intervening in Sicilian affairs for a good seventy years. That didn’t mean that Carthage wasn’t active anymore. As we’ll see in today’s episode, there was plenty for the Carthaginians to do. Particularly, we’ll examine Carthage’s consolidation of the metals trade and her venturing into the Atlantic for that very reason.

Ready? Let’s go.

For a good chunk of this time, she also cut herself off economically from the rest of the world. Beginning in about 450 BC, the archeology of the city shows a general decline in the material life of the city, particularly in the form of an absence of luxury grave goods. Goods from Greece, Etruria, and Egypt, that were apparent in the archaeological record before this time, no longer appear.

Earlier, at least, it was thought that Carthage’s economic decline was the result of the battle itself. Subsequent archeology, however, brought to light the flourishing post-Himeran Athenian-Punic trade that I alluded to in the last episode. The archeology from the early to mid-fifth century indicates that importation of Greek goods increased. In fact, 20% of the pottery found at Carthage from this period was from Ionia, while only 4% was from the Levant.

However, the resulting economic prosperity lasted only for about a generation. The economic decline becomes apparent in the archeology at about the middle of the century. The question is: Why? Was it self-imposed or were the causes external?

One theory posited is as follows: Athens arose as a significant naval power in the aftermath of the Persian defeat. It formed a confederation of allied coastal city-states and islands all over the Aegean. The purpose of this league was to exclude the Persians from the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. In 468 BC, the Phoenicians suffered a naval defeat at her hands. In 459 BC, Athens raided Phoenicia herself. For a while, even Cyprus came under Athenian control. For Carthage, this resulted in the loss of her Phoenician markets, which, the theory posits, meant that Carthage’s economy declined.

This theory, however, only accounts for the period before the economic austerity becomes apparent in the archaeological record. It does not account for Carthage’s economic decline after this time. Carthage’s loss of her Phoenician markets before her economic downturn began, coincides perfectly not only with the fall in Levantine imports, as would be expected, but also with the rise of Athenian imports. As I mentioned just a few minutes ago, 20% of all pottery at Carthage from this period comes from Athens, while only 4% comes from Phoenicia. These numbers mean that Carthage merely replaced her lost Phoenician markets, with new ones in Greece. What we don’t know, however, is why even the Athenian imports declined post 450 BC.

Another possible reason, according to Warmington, is the fact that Carthage didn’t begin minting coins until after 400 BC. The Greeks first began striking coins in 500 BC, while Motya & Panormus started creating coins by 450 BC. As a side note, this latter fact shows the degree to which Motya and Panormus were independent of Carthage even this late in Carthage’s evolution from a simple trading post into a colonial power. The rise of coinage and the subsequent decline of barter meant that Carthage, who had no coins, could no longer trade, except with those who were still willing to barter. This explanation, though plausible, is a bit odd. Would Carthage accept material austerity merely because they didn’t want to trade in coins? All they had to do was start minting, which they eventually did, anyway. Perhaps they began creating coins after 400 BC precisely because they felt the pinch in the generations before. Who knows?

There is, however, another explanation. Carthage’s supposed economic decline during the years 450 BC through to 410 BC correlate directly with actions that Carthage was taking elsewhere in the Mediterranean. On the surface, due to lack of details in the literature, her efforts seem to be a hodgepodge of unrelated actions. There is, however, a thread that connects them all. And I will try my best to present this thread in this episode.

The key to understanding Carthage’s activities from 450 to 410 is as follows: The defeat at Himera brought to light the uncomfortable fact that Carthage was no match for the Doric military engine. As such, the Tyrrhenian trading circuit was under threat. In fact, during this period, Carthage imported virtually no goods from Etruria. The economic counterbalance to this danger was a newfound focus on the metals trade in the Western Mediterranean. Recall that the value of silver had declined by the middle of the sixth century BC, such that the Tyrrhenian trading circuit had become Carthage’s principal source of wealth. With this trade now under attack, however, Carthage needed another source of revenue. It was the perfect reason to swing back to silver. Silver was low value, but Carthage could change that if she monopolized its trade. Also, Carthage could supplement silver with other metals, like tin, copper & gold.

So how did Carthage go about doing this?

Let’s begin the story in Iberia, the source of Tyre’s silver. Sometime before the Battle of Himera, the Gadians found themselves under attack from the neighboring Tartessians. They solicited the help of their brethren at Carthage. The literature records that not only did Carthage help the Gadians defend their city, Carthage used this as an excuse to wipe the entire Tartessian civilization out. And, as if to put a cherry atop the icing on the cake, once they finished the Tartessians, they turned on Gades herself, laying siege to her until the Gadians surrendered.

Archeologically, we have no way of knowing if the Carthaginians did turn on Gades since she now lies under the modern city of Cadiz. However, we can rebut the claim that Carthage destroyed Tartessos with certainty. While the archeology does show that the Tartessian culture was declining at this time, evidence for Phoenician or Carthaginian involvement is absent. In fact, the only proof of military encounters within the Tartessian Kingdom is that of a civil war. The only Punic evidence on Iberia is from brand new coastal settlements in what is today Portugal and from old Phoenician colonies that were expanded and renewed by the Carthaginians. Gades and Tyre’s other Iberian colonies may have become Carthaginian dependencies, but claims of a full-scale military invasion are not valid. This invalidity is also borne out by the fact that the 509 treaty with Rome, does not list Iberia as a protected territory.

If Carthage didn’t destroy the local civilization, then what did they do with them, if anything? For one thing, Carthage was able to acquire mercenaries from Iberia to help with their military campaigns. Time and time again we see the famous Iberian warriors popping up in Carthaginian history. Some treaties with the locals also allowed the Carthaginians to exploit the silver mines.

As far as the Phoenicians in Iberia were concerned, we know from the historical record that almost all of Tyre’s colonies on the eastern coast of the peninsula signed treaties with Carthage, which, though limited their sovereignty, also granted the right of self-government to them, much like that on Sicily. However, one finds very little Punic influence in the archeology, which implies that Carthage didn’t send many settlers here.

The Western coast of Iberia, however, is a different matter altogether. Here, we see the bona fide Carthaginian religious emblem, the ‘Sign of Tanit,’ everywhere. What’s surprising is that this sign is rarely found anywhere else on the Peninsula, indicating the strength of Punic colonization in Portugal. From here, Punic influence spread into Africa, particularly, the Oran region & Morocco.

Presence in Iberia also meant that the Carthaginians would meet the Phocaeans of Massalia again since they were using Southern Gaul as a base to expand into Spain. As a result, the literature makes some vague references to a struggle between the Carthaginians and the Phocaeans. First, Carthage destroyed a Greek colony close to the Phoenician settlement of Malacca. Then, both sides went to war for the control of the North Eastern Spanish coast. The conflict ended with the Battle of Artemisium, which Carthage won, blocking Greek entry into Spain for a long time.

Even though the 509 treaty with Rome does not list Iberia as a protected territory, a 348 BC treaty does. Why did this change? I speculate that by this time, in fact, well before it, Carthage had Iberia’s silver mines under her control. In Carthage’s mind, granting Rome trading access to this region meant that she would become covetous of the silver here, and would, thus, take actions to acquire it for herself. This Carthage did not want.

With Iberia under her belt, Carthage was also anxious to have a hand in the European tin trade. In antiquity, tin came from a mysterious place known as the Cassiterides Islands, variously identified as the Scilly Islands off of Cornwall, Cornwall herself and the British Isles in general. Often these were identified with another mysterious land called the Oestrymnides, home of the Oestrymnians. Legend had it that the Oestrymnians had escaped their homeland somewhere on the Western coast of the Iberian peninsula because of an invasion of ‘serpent folk.’ Subsequently, they made the region we know today as Brittany their new home. The literature records them as being either those who mined the tin and supplied Europe with it or those who acquired it from the mysterious Cassiterides and selling it to the Gauls, who passed it on to the Massalian Greeks. In the interregnum post-Himera, Carthage wanted to consolidate her hold on this trade. To that end, her government decided to send Himilco, a son of the defeated general Hamilcar, brother of the supposedly exiled Gisco, on a voyage up the coast of Iberia.

It’s a short account since not many details survive, and those that do are fragmentary or paraphrases. Our primary source for Himilco’s voyage is a Latin poet from the fourth century AD, Avienus. The only other reference that directly mentions Himilco’s voyage is Pliny the Elder, who wrote about it in his Natural History. From these accounts, we know that Himilco explored the coasts of Spain, Portugal, France, and even, England and Ireland. He came across shallow, calm seas. But his progress was hindered by some seaweed and “huge marine monsters.” He encountered the Oestrymnians who came out in their boats to greet him and his crew. After about four months, having just explored the coast of the British Isles, Himilco turned back and went home. If this account is accurate, then Himilco was the first ever known explorer to sail from the Mediterranean Sea and reach the northwestern shores of Europe.

Unfortunately, there is no way for us to verify this account. As I just mentioned a few minutes ago, there’s plenty of archaeological evidence for Punic presence in Portugal. But on its own, that doesn’t prove that this voyage happened. Also, there are no Phoenician or Punic remains in France, before the Hannibalic era, and none whatsoever in the British Isles. The reality of this voyage may forever remain a mystery.

From Spain, West Africa was a mere hop away. In antiquity, the West African coast had always been immensely attractive to many a civilization. First came the Phoenicians. Then, the Carthaginians. Then, the Numidians. Then, the Romans. And finally, the Arabs. West Africa was a commercially valuable region. It was a significant source of fish, which was pickled, salted or fermented. A pasty form of fermented fish, known as garum, was a favorite condiment all throughout the Mediterranean for more than a millennium. The region was also a source of the murex, which was used to produce the famous purple dye. Most pertinent to our purposes, West Africa, was also a source of precious metals. From Mauritania came copper and from Nigeria, tin.

But the commodity from the region that everyone coveted was gold. Herodotus describes a curious scene illustrating how the Phoenicians acquired this gold from the natives of the area. When they made landfall, they laid their goods on the shore and then returned to their ships. There they generated a smoke signal that alerted the locals, who then came out to inspect the goods. After examining the wares, they laid down as much gold as they thought they were worth. After this, the Phoenicians returned ashore. If they thought the cash enough, they took it and left. If not, they returned to their ships and waited. The locals then added to the gold already there, repeating the process until the Phoenicians were satisfied that the gold was enough. Herodotus mentions at the end of this account that neither party was dealt with unfairly and that neither side touched the other’s property until both were satisfied.

The island of Mogador, modern Essaouira, off of the coast of Morocco, was home to settlers from Gades. When the Gadians found themselves under attack from the neighboring Tartessians, sometime before the Battle of Himera, the settlers on Mogador abandoned the island en masse and returned to Gades to help their brethren out. After Gades came under Carthaginian control, Mogador stayed empty. Save a minor presence just beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the entire coast of West Africa was now devoid of any Phoenician presence. After the Battle of Himera, however, this region became an object of Carthage’s desire. The crises at Gades had created a vacuum in West Africa, and Carthage was more than eager to fill it. To that end, Carthage outfitted an expedition under Himilco’s brother, Hanno, at around the same time as Himilco’s voyage, to sail down the Atlantic coast of Africa. His government entrusted him with several objectives; he was to plant colonies, acquire new markets for their manufactures, and most importantly, acquire the most coveted West African gold.

As it so happens, the account of this voyage comes to us from a standalone manuscript, is longer and is far more interesting. I will read you an English translation of the Greek account, and as I go along, I will provide some commentary to explain the text.

Did Hanno discover gorillas or orangutans?

Here goes:

A report of the voyage of Hanno, king of the Carthaginians, to the parts of Africa beyond the Pillars of Hercules, which he dedicated in the temple of Baal; the following is the text:

1) The Carthaginians decreed that Hanno should sail beyond the Pillars of Hercules and found colonies of Libyphoenicians. He set sail with sixty-five oared ships, men and women to the number of 30,000, and food and other essentials.

Comment: At least one of these numbers is wrong. If 30,000 people occupy 65 ships, that’s about 460 people per ship. That’s too many bodies for a quinquereme, even if you account for the hundred or so oarsmen.

2) After passing the Pillars and sailing on for two days, we founded the first colony which we called Thymiaterion, near which is a large plain.

Comment: After passing the Straits of Gibraltar, the Pillars of Hercules in this text, modern Tangiers would be anybody’s first stop. The archaeology here suggests that Tangiers was a Phoenician colony. If this was indeed the first stop on Hanno’s voyage, then it’s not impossible that modern Tangiers is Carthaginian Thymiaterion.

3) Then sailing westwards, we arrived at the place called Soloeis, a cape covered with trees.

Comment: Cape Soloeis is the modern Ras Nouadhibou in Mauritania.

4) After we had dedicated a sanctuary there to Poseidon, we turned and sailed east for half a day, after which we arrived at a lagoon not far from the sea, covered with thick, high reeds. Elephants and many other animals were there feeding.

5) We skirted this lagoon for a day, and then left colonists at Carian Fort, Gutta, Acra, Melitta, and Arambys.

Comment: While scholars have suggested numerous locations for these five colonies, Tangiers, Lixus and Mogador are the only sites West of the Straits that display any sign of Phoenician settlement. If the number of colonies planted is right, then the number of people accompanying Hanno on this voyage is suspect. 30,000 people distributed over six colonies (the five just mentioned plus Thymiaterion) is 5,000 people per colony. This figure is ten times the maximum number of people a small trading station could accommodate, according to the literature. Five thousand colonists, among whom were women, too, means that the settlements would have to be substantial. But there is no archaeological evidence. If the planting of these colonies is a fact and there is no archaeological evidence for it, then the number of colonists traveling with Hanno is almost certainly wrong. A settlement of 5,000 people should leave behind traces of stone structures. The fact that they didn’t, implies that these weren’t colonies. Instead, they were small trading stations, just like the ones we spoke about in Episode 1.2.

6) From here we sailed to the Lixus, a great river which flows out of Libya. On its banks, the Lixites, who are nomads, pasture their flocks. We remained for some time with these people, with whom we became friends.

Comment: This bit is interesting. To understand what’s going on here, we need a short geography lesson. If you are going West, immediately after passing the Straits of Gibraltar, you are going to find Tangiers. The river Lixus and the colony of Lixus are also nearby. After sailing a few hundred miles along the coast of Morocco, you will arrive at Mogador. You won’t get to Cape Soloeis until a few hundred miles later. The bit I just read to you, however, seems to claim that the river Lixus is, in fact, south of Cape Soloeis, hundreds of miles away from its real location. It may merely be a mistake. Or, it may be something a little more than that, as we’ll discuss shortly.

What’s also interesting is that, though the account mentions the Lixites, it does not mention the colony of Lixus itself. The literary record claims that the Phoenician colony of Lixus was founded even before Gades, at the end of the twelfth century BC. Archaeologically, however, we know that Lixus didn’t exist until after the Phoenicians first abandoned Mogador, around 500 BC. Because this journey took place sometime after 480 BC, it is safe to assume that, if the Lixus mentioned in the text is the same as the real Lixus, there was already a Punic or Phoenician colony here at the time of this voyage. That there was a colony here is also shown by the fact that the text will mention in the subsequent lines that the Carthaginians took ‘interpreters’ with them for the rest of the voyage. Where would they get interpreters in such a short time, if there wasn’t already a colony here? Why the account doesn’t talk about the colony is anybody’s guess.

7) Beyond them lived barbarous Ethiopians in a country full of savage beasts, crossed by mountain ranges, in which they say the Lixus rises. Around these mountains live a people of a peculiar aspect, the Troglodytes; the Lixites claim they can run faster than horses.

8) Taking interpreters from the Lixites, we sailed south along a desert coast for two days and then east for one day. There we found in a gulf a small island with a circumference of 5 stadia (three-quarters of a mile); we called it Cerne and left colonists on it. From the distance that we had sailed, we calculated that it was situated opposite to Carthage, for the sailing time from Carthage to the Pillars of Hercules was the same as that from the Straits to Cerne.

Comment: There have been many candidates for Cerne island, but Picard suggests that Cerne Island is modern day Hern Island in the Gulf of Rio de Oro. One reason is the similarity of the name. Another is that it is as far from the Straits as Carthage is in the other direction, according to the criteria mentioned in the text. This region was famous throughout the Middle Ages as a source of gold. If the Carthaginians were looking for gold, Hern Island is the most likely candidate.

There are no Punic archeological remains on Hern, but independent corroboration of the visitation of Cerne Island comes from a work titled the ‘Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax.’ The author of the work mentions that in his time, that is around 338 BC, Cerne Island was still a center of Phoenician trade. He describes the Phoenicians as pitching tents whenever they arrived on the island, which makes the existence of Hanno’s colonists here doubtful.

9) From there, passing a large river, the Chretes, we came to a lagoon containing three islands larger than that of Cerne. Leaving them, we sailed for a day and reached the head of the lagoon which was dominated by very high mountains, inhabited by savages, who wore the skins of wild beasts and prevented us from landing by throwing stones at us.

Comment: The river Chretes is, probably, the river Senegal.

10) From there we entered another deep, wide river, full of hippopotami and crocodiles; we then returned to Cerne.

11) Later we again sailed south from Cerne for twelve days along the coast, all of which was inhabited by Ethiopians, who ran away from us. Even the Lixites with us could not understand their language.

12) On the twelfth day, we anchored under a high wooded mountain range, the trees on which were fragrant and of many different kinds.

Comment: This region probably corresponds to the coast of modern-day Guinea-Bissau.

13) We passed this mountain range in two days’ sail and arrived at an immense bay on either side of which was low-lying land. From here we saw at night fires flaring up on all sides at irregular intervals.

14) Taking on water, we sailed along the coast for five days until we reached a great gulf, which the interpreters said was called West Horn. In it was a large island and in this island a marine lake itself containing an island. Landing on it we saw nothing but forest and at night many fires being kindled; we heard the noise of pipes, cymbals, and drums, and the shouts of a great crowd. We were seized with fear, and the interpreters advised us to leave the island.

15) We sailed away quickly and coasted along a region with a fragrant smell of burning timber, from which streams of fire plunged into the sea. We could not approach the land because of the heat.

16) We, therefore, sailed quickly on in some fear, and in four days’ time we saw the land ablaze at night; in the middle of this area one fire towered above the others and appeared to touch the stars; this was the highest mountain which we saw and was called the Chariot of the Gods.

Comment: Some authors have identified the streams of fire as lava and the mountain known as the ‘Chariot of the Gods’ as the volcano, Mount Cameroon. Others have differed and said that the streams of fire were probably grass fires, and the Chariot of the Gods is Mount Kaulima.

17) Following rivers of fire for three days we came to a gulf called the Southern Horn. In this gulf was an island like the one last mentioned, with a lake in which was another island. This was full of savages; by far the greater number were women with hairy bodies, called by our interpreters ‘gorillas.’ We gave chase to the men but could not catch any for they climbed up steep rocks and pelted us with stones. However, we captured three women who bit and scratched their captors. We killed and flayed them and brought their skins back to Carthage. This was as far as we could sail owing to lack of provisions.

Comment: This region probably corresponds to modern-day Gabon. It is tempting to put two and two together and think that these hairy savages were modern orangutan or gorillas. In fact, the manuscript of this account does use the term “gorilla” for these creatures. Thomas Savage, the nineteenth-century scientist, who first documented actual gorillas, was aware of the text of Periplus of Hanno. It was he who used the term “gorillas” mentioned in the text to refer to these animals. However, things aren’t clear-cut. Pliny, in reference to this event, refers to the tribe of these savages, as the Gorgades. As it so happens, the Greek spelling of “Gorgades” is very similar to  the Greek spelling of “Gorilla.” So, our name for these hairy apes may, in fact, be a copyist’s error.

At this point, the account ends.

Both men wrote accounts of their voyages, both of which the classical literature referred to as the “Periplus.” After they returned from their trips both their accounts were placed in the temple of Baal Hammon at Carthage. This temple is, presumably, where the Carthaginians kept the annals of their city. Someone, whose identity is unknown, then copied the texts and translated them into Greek. The originals were, presumably, lost when the Romans destroyed the city. The Greek translation of the “Periplus of Himilco” now exists only as excerpts in other works. Only the Greek translation of the “Periplus of Hanno” remains fully intact, which we just read.

The historicity of either account is impossible to verify. But since both reports come to us from the Greeks and the Romans, who didn’t appropriate the accounts for themselves, it’s not unreasonable to assume that they possess an element or two of truth.

Some historians, however, claim that the whole idea of Carthaginians venturing into the Atlantic is bunk. They do so on the following grounds: (1) Many geographic details in these accounts are lacking and are often wrong. (2) There is no archeological evidence of these voyages and their corresponding trading or colonization activities. (3) Both stories have a “fantastical adventure” feel to them. (4) In reference to Hanno’s voyage, though the winds on the way to Cameroon may have been favorable, the winds on the way back can hardly have been.

I, however, find these grounds unconvincing. Though I can’t grant full credence to the written accounts, there are no grounds to reject them either. The four points just presented can easily be rebutted as follows:

(1) The missing or incorrect geographical details could be a smokescreen. The Phoenicians were, after all, extremely secretive about their trading routes. Warmington notes that the portion of Hanno’s story that talks about the Moroccan coast is less accurate than the part that speaks of the regions further south. He suggests that since it was possible for the Greeks to venture beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, the Carthaginians wanted to hide the details of the region immediately beyond them. However, they deemed it unlikely that the Greeks would venture too far south. That is why they were less careful with the particulars of the second part of the story than the details of the first.

Missing or incorrect details could also, however, be the result of corruption as the accounts were handed down the centuries. However, just because the reports became corrupted doesn’t mean that they are entirely wrong.

(2) Lack of archaeological evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that voyages didn’t happen. As we have already seen with Phoenician colonization, if the Carthaginians only established trading stations, the only remains left behind would have been organic and thus amenable to decay. Again, in reference to Hanno’s voyage, Punic influence in the archaeology is visible at Lixus and Mogador. Between them is a distance of 375 miles. It’s hard to imagine the Carthaginians establishing their presence at these two colonies and nowhere in between. So when Hanno’s account claims that they established six colonies beyond Lixus, we must accept it at face value, since there is nothing to contradict it, and the little evidence that is available, supports it.

(3) Fantastical elements in the series could either be part of the later corruption of the accounts or were part of the same smoke-screening efforts mentioned earlier. As Warmington again suggests, descriptions of savages, sounds of drums in the night and rivers of fire were stylistic motifs employed to scare the Greeks away from ever attempting such a voyage themselves. Indeed, many a philologist has shown the similarities between the story of Hanno’s travel and the story of Perseus and the Gorgon. That, however, doesn’t necessarily discount the authenticity of the journey itself.

(4) Though the winds back may have been unfavorable, these boats were oared and rowing back, though difficult was not impossible.

I will also add the following point: The most significant thing going for Hanno’s account is the remarkable correspondence of the various stops with the actual geography of the coast of Africa. Despite whatever other arguments may be brought forth against Hanno’s account, this highly accurate correspondence will still need an explanation. So, all in all, though the reliability of the voyages may be in doubt, they are indeed plausible and certainly have more going for them than not.

I will end today’s discussion at this point. The topic is long and fascinating, and I could have continued. But, then, I would have run out of material for the next episode, and that would have been bad. In the next episode, we will continue to explore how Carthage brought the metal trade under her control, and we’ll see how her hunger for these metals eventually ended up doing the same for all of North Africa. We’ll use the conquest of North Africa as a Segway into a discussion of the Carthaginian Empire as a whole.

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!


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)
  3. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)

Episode 1.8 – The Battle of Himera

A Depiction of the Battle of Himera

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In the last episode, we began looking at Carthage’s interactions with other civilizations active in the Mediterranean during the sixth century BC. We looked at her interactions with the Greeks, the Etruscans and the, as of yet nascent, Romans. The last episode was a patchwork of different events that took us from the 540s BC to the end of the sixth century.

I also commented in the last episode about the patchiness of the history of Carthage from about 580 BC until 410 BC. To add to this patchiness, even when the Greeks fight the Carthaginians virtually no details remain. We saw that last time in the case of the Battle of Alalia and the war against Dorieus and his colonists. No details are given for either battle. We are to content ourselves with their result. In today’s episode, however, we will discuss one event that does not fit this pattern. We will be examining the first battle in Punic history that the Greeks recorded in considerable detail.

So, without further ado, let’s join the party.

Before we get to today’s main event, we need to begin our discussion with a little digression into late sixth-century Sicilian politics, to set the context.

As Hellas (which is the Greek name for, well, Greece) transitioned from her Archaic age to the classical era, her cities saw themselves change from oligarchies to dictatorships to democracies. According to B. H. Warmington, a British classicist, these changes were the result of the Greeks’ interaction with other cultures, particularly, Egypt and Persia. These changes were also relatively peaceful. As Aristotle points out, the Greek cities did not suffer much violence because their political dissidents left the mother cities and found greener pastures elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Thus, this migration out of Mother Hellas released some of the political pressure and diffused it abroad.

Sicily, however, was still quite a backwater, at the end of the 6th century. Her inhabitants did not interact with cultures outside the ones found in Sicily and had no desire to leave the island to colonize places outside her, either. They did form colonies, but not beyond the shores of Sicily herself. For these reasons, at least according to Warmington, the Siceliot colonies remained oligarchic. However, this also meant that if any revolutions were to happen here, Sicily would become a political pressure cooker. Without an extensive colonial culture, the Siceliots didn’t have the mechanisms that allowed them to relieve any internal political pressures. In other words, despite the semblance of stability, Sicily was a ticking time bomb.

When Xerxes rumbled into Anatolia, Greek refugees came pouring into Sicily, bringing with them ideas that they had acquired from other civilizations. With new ideas came political trouble. One thing led to another and Sicily became a hotbed of revolution, with one faction vying for power over another. The resulting political instability brought opportunities for men who sought absolute power. The Greeks called them tyrants. These were men who came to power through violent or unconstitutional means, as opposed to the dictators on mainland Greece, who acquired authority through political or legal maneuvering. As a result of the rise of these tyrants, the beginning of the fifth century BC saw Sicily divided into three separate power blocs.

In 498, a man named Hippocrates became Gela’s first tyrant, and another man named Gelon served under him, helping him conquer many of Sicily’s Greek colonies. In 491 BC, Gelon himself became tyrant of Gela. Gelon was one of the officers that fought on behalf of Dorieus when the Carthaginians intervened in the conflict between Selinus and Segesta, a fact that I alluded to at the very end of the last episode.

As a result of that war, Gelon hated the Carthaginians. As soon as he enthroned himself at Gela, the sources tell us, he initiated a war to avenge the death of Dorieus. No details are given. Presumably, Gelon attacked the Punic cities on Sicily and the Carthaginians retaliated. The only thing the sources mention is that the Carthaginians destroyed the city of Heraclea Minoa. Gelon also made plans to “liberate the Gulf of Gabes,” which is the gulf just south of the Cap Bon peninsula on the coast of North Africa. What this liberation meant, the sources do not tell us. To help him in this war, Gelon sent embassies to various Greek cities but was spurned by all of them. His plan to “liberates the Gulf of Gabes,” thus, came to nothing. As much as he hated the Carthaginians, the denial of his requests for help did not endear him to the mainland Greeks either.


Gelon Entering Syracuse Triumphantly


Gelon had already inherited a sizable chunk of Sicily from Hippocrates. After the war with Carthage, Gelon expanded his territories to include much of Southern and Eastern Sicily. His eyes were set, however, on Syracuse. Syracuse was under the thumb of landed aristocrats, referred to in the sources as the Gamoroi. Curiously, they were also allied to Carthage. But the Gamoroi aristocracy was overthrown in a popular revolt, and Syracusans chose democracy in its place. As a result, in 485 BC, the Gamoroi invited Gelon to intervene. He was happy to oblige. However, instead of relieving the city and leaving her for the Syracusans to squabble over, Gelon took her for himself. Seeing that Syracuse could be his leading city, with her magnificent harbor and easy access to the mainland, he made Syracuse his capital. He also attacked Camarina, Sicilian Euboea, and Sicilian Megara successfully, and forced their populations to relocate to Syracuse. In 483 BC, perhaps, as a preventative measure, Gelon sought and acquired the alliance of Theron, the tyrant of the southern Sicilian city of Acragas, which he would need if he wanted the Carthaginians out of Sicily. Thus, by 483 BC, almost the entire south and east of Sicily was under the collective thumbs of Gelon and Theron and thus formed the first Sicilian power bloc.

In the northeastern corner of Sicily, was the city of Zancle. Across the straits, right on the tip of the toe of Italy was Rhegium. A man named Anaxilas became tyrant of Rhegium in 493.  Since then, he also had his eyes on Zancle. If Zancle was in his hands, he could control the straits, and, hence, any movements through it. When the Zanclians found themselves in a spot of trouble with the locals, Anaxilas saw his opportunity and seized the city. He then expelled her inhabitants and populated it with Messinians escaping Spartan oppression on mainland Greece. Being inhabited by Messinians now, Anaxilas creatively renamed Zancle to Messina. Sicilian Messina, thus, became a launching pad for Anaxilas’ take over of some of Sicily’s northern colonies.

Anaxilas watched with alarm as the Doric allies, Gelon and Theron, brought South Eastern Sicily under their control. To provide a counterweight to their alliance, he sought the alliance of Terrilos, the tyrant of the city of Himera. To seal the deal, Terrilos gave his daughter in marriage to Anaxilas. Thus, the northern coast of Sicily came under Terrilos’ and Anaxilas’ collective control, thus forming the second power bloc on Sicily.

For a variety of different reasons, the aristocracy at Himera did not like Terrilos. They invited Theron to depose him, which he did. But just like all political opportunists, instead of handing her over to Himera’s aristocrats, he took Himera for himself. Terrilos escaped to Rhegium, where he sought the aid of his son-in-law, Anaxilas.

Anaxilas, for his part, saw it fit to request the help of the third power bloc, that of Carthage. By now, the Phoenician colonies of Motya, Panormus & Solus were under Punic control. Collectively, the Greek sources refer to this set of settlements as the Epikrateia. In the summer of 483 BC, he sent a delegation to Carthage, requesting military aid to help him reinstate Terrilos as the despot at Himera in exchange for loyalty and overlordship. As a guarantee of his good behavior, he also sent his two sons, as guest-hostages, to seal the deal.

The basileus of Carthage at this time was Hamilcar, brother of the celebrated Hasdrubal, son of Mago. The embassy from Anaxilas must have been a welcome opportunity because he had more than one reason to fight on his behalf. Hamilcar was probably watching events unfold on Sicily very keenly. His earlier face-off with Gelon, in 491, gave him more than enough reason to keep his eyes there. He understood that with Gelon’s expansion of his borders, the inclusion of Syracuse into his empire and his alliance with Theron, the balance of power was rapidly shifting.  Hamilcar knew that he had to bring the old balance of power back. With Himera now in the hands of Gelon’s chief ally, an attack on the Epikrateia was more than just a possibility, since Himera was the closest Greek city to the Punic Epikrateia. If an attack would come, it would most likely come from Himera. The Epikrateia was a crucial stop on the way to Sardinia, Carthage’s breadbasket. It was also a significant trading station for goods coming in from the Etruscans, as we’ve discussed before. Losing the Epikrateia would be disastrous for Carthage. All he needed was a reason to intervene. With Anaxilas’ embassy in the summer of 483 BC, he got just that.

Anaxilas’ embassy also added a moral dimension to the geopolitical justifications for intervening on behalf of Anaxilas. Hamilcar was Terrilos’ “xenia.” The word “xenia” can loosely be translated as “guest-friend.” A “xenia” is not just a political ally. A political alliance is purely the result of a cost-benefit analysis, but a “xenia,” on the other hand, is a friend. To aid a “xenia” is a matter of honour. Not only was an intervention now necessary to protect Punic holdings in Sicily, but it was also Hamilcar’s moral obligation.

The sources do not tell us why, but Hamilcar took three years to come to Terrilos’ aid. There are a few theories that explain this gap, none of which are mutually exclusive. One argument is that he may have been constructing his fleet of 200 warships. Another theory is that he might have sent out intelligence-gathering missions and waited for them to return to Carthage before taking any action. I suspect that Hamilcar spent those three years assembling the mercenaries that were going to fight in the coming war. He had to send embassies all over the Mediterranean and receive their responses, which takes time.

Regardless, when the mercenaries were ready, the fun began. The sources tell us that Hamilcar gathered an enormous army: Two hundred warships, three thousand transports, three hundred thousand infantrymen raised from Africa, Spain, Sardinia, Corsica and Gaul and a five-thousand strong cavalry from Numidia. The two hundred warships are probably realistic. A five-thousand strong cavalry isn’t out of the realm of possibility either. However, the three thousand transport ships and the three hundred thousand infantrymen are most certainly an exaggeration. In my estimation, these numbers were cooked up later, as part of the propaganda that victors disperse after any war. Three hundred transports and thirty thousand men seem to be more reasonable numbers, given what happens during the battle.

On the way to Sicily, a storm caught Hamilcar’s fleet because of which he lost a few of his transports. As luck would have it, those carriers carried his cavalry, and their loss would have disastrous consequences. The fleet made landfall at Panormus where he commanded his men to repair his fleet and prepare for the march to Himera. After three days, they marched, with the fleet accompanying them along the coast.

Himera lay on the northern shores of Sicily, on the banks of the river Himera, after which her founders had named her. However, she wasn’t right on the coast. There was a gap of a mile or so between the coast and the city. The city was on the western side of the river, and a wall protected her north and west. Hamilcar beached his fleet at the mouth of the river, in the north, while his land army set up camp in the west. Between the two encampments, Hamilcar set up siege works, facing the wall of the city.

Theron, and his men had already stationed themselves inside. The sources do not mention why, but Hamilcar thought it prudent to take a small number of men and attack the unwalled south side of the city. Here, he met Theron and his men, whom he readily defeated. Cowed into temporary submission, Theron’s men returned to the safety of the city and watched as the Carthaginians ravaged the outskirts of Himera. Theron desperately sent a messenger to Syracuse requesting Gelon’s assistance. Gelon promptly arrived with somewhere between thirty and fifty thousand infantrymen and about two thousand horse. Upon arriving, he found unprotected Carthaginian foragers, whom he swiftly killed or enslaved.

The attack on the foragers made Hamilcar feel the loss of his cavalry. Had his cavalry been there, the foragers could have continued foraging unmolested. To restore the deficit in his ranks, he dispatched a messenger to his allies, the Selinuntines, requesting a supply of cavalry to join the war effort. However, Gelon’s men intercepted this messenger. Knowing what was in the note, Gelon had a contingent of his cavalrymen disguise themselves as Selinuntines, and sent them over to Hamilcar’s camp. Not suspecting a thing, Hamilcar let these men join him.

Then the fighting began in earnest. Right from the get-go, the battle was a disaster for the Carthaginians. They were slaughtered mercilessly by Gelon’s men, over the course of the day. At a certain point during the battle, however, Carthage’s Iberian contingents began to push back. For a little while, it looked as though the tide may be turning. But disaster still lurked. Theron had not yet joined the battle, but when he saw the Iberians putting up a fierce fight, he and his men entered the fighting and pushed them back. At this point, the imposter Selinuntine cavalry joined them, too. This combined push all but finished the job. Not only was the army defeated, but at some point during the battle, the imposter Selinuntines had even set fire to the Punic fleet. By the day’s end, the entire Punic army was either dead or enslaved, while only a small number of the Punic fleet remained. Gelon and Theron’s men supposedly collected an enormous amount of booty that the Carthaginians left behind.


Remains of Soldiers from Himera (courtesy of Archaeology.org)


The Carthaginians that survived boarded the few remaining ships and left. However, as if to put a cherry atop the icing on the cake, they were hit by another storm. One ship and a handful of men returned to Carthage to convey the bad news.

What happened to Hamilcar? Well, three accounts inform us of his fate, one from Polyanus, another from Diodorus and the last one from Herodotus.

Polyanus relates that, during the battle, Gelon and his priests, stepped out of their encampment. Some cattle accompanied them, ready to be given up to the gods as offerings. Seeing that Gelon was about to please his gods, Hamilcar, too, stepped out of his encampment to do the same. His priests lit up a fire, ready to receive its human sacrificial victims.  All of a sudden, Gelon and his priests took off their ceremonial garbs. Out came their bows and within moments, Hamilcar and his entourage were mowed down by a volley of arrows.

Diodorus relates, however, that it was the imposter Selinuntines, whom Hamilcar had retained as his bodyguards, that did him in. When he was getting ready to perform his sacrifices, they just pushed him into the fire, where he burned to death.

Lastly, Herodotus relates that Hamilcar was dismayed by the way the battle was going. So, to procure the gods’ favour, he jumped into the fire, offering himself as the sacrifice.

Not unreasonably, the Carthaginians thought that Gelon might try to press his advantage and attack Carthage directly. They prepared themselves by manning their walls. They also sent ambassadors to Syracuse. Curiously, they sought the intercession of Gelon’s wife, to whom they gifted a crown made of gold when Gelon agreed to negotiate.

Gelon gave the Carthaginians extremely light terms: Carthage was to pay a two-thousand-talents-of-silver war indemnity to Gelon, and they were to construct two shrines at the site of the battle that would house this treaty. Some sources even mention another curious condition, that Carthage was to cease the practice of human sacrifice. Though, I highly doubt that the Carthaginians stuck to their word on this.

Curiously enough, Gelon did not punish Selinus for allying with Carthage. Nor did Gelon make another attempt at pushing the Carthaginians out of Sicily, despite his hostility to them. Anaxilas made his peace with Gelon and Theron. Terrilos, however, was the ultimate loser and spent the rest of his days at Anaxilas’ court.

Quite curiously, in complete contrast to the way the Carthaginians usually dealt with their defeated generals, Hamilcar was celebrated as a hero. The Carthaginians built monuments to him throughout the Punic colonies and made annual sacrifices to his spirit. Perhaps his reputation had been spared because of Gelon’s light terms. Or maybe the idea of a selfless sacrifice on behalf of a friend appealed to the Carthaginians.

Some sources claim that as a result of Hamilcar’s defeat, the Carthaginians exiled his son, Gisco, to Selinus. To me, this does not make any sense. Why was Gisco banished and his father celebrated, when both of them had been present at the battle? Hamilcar had left three sons, the other two being Hanno & Himilco, both of whom were given naval commands a few years after Himera. Why was Gisco exiled, while his brothers were, not only not banished, but given these responsibilities? There are a few theories that try to explain this little problem. One argument is that Gisco might have attempted a coup and failed. He wasn’t put to death, as would typically be the case, because of his family’s influence, and was exiled to Selinus instead. Another theory is that Carthage exiled all three brothers. Himilco and Hanno were banished to the sea, while Carthage exiled Gisco to Selinus. A final opinion is that Gisco may have been exiled because he was present at the battle, while his brothers were not exiled because they were not present at the battle.

One problem with all of these theories is that Gisco’s son, Hannibal, not to be confused with the famous general of the Second Punic War, not only returned to Carthage but, became a basileus. How can Gisco’s son become a basileus when Gisco himself had been exiled? As for the theory that the Carthaginian Senate exiled Himilco and Hanno to the sea, the nature of their sea voyages reveals that their journeys were anything but exile. As we will discuss in the next episode, their adventures were the result of explicit commands by the Senate to explore and colonize new lands. To me, that doesn’t sound like exile. As for the theory that Gisco’s expulsion was on account of his presence at the battle, while his brothers were spared because they weren’t there, this is possible. But, then why celebrate and revere their father? What had Gisco done, that earned him exile, that Hamilcar hadn’t done, that spared his reputation?

My own two cent solution to this problem is this: Gisco was present at Himera. After the defeat, he assumed that there would be a backlash against him at Carthage. Not wanting to face any repercussions for the failure, he didn’t bother returning. Instead, he escaped to Selinus. With his brothers departing on their naval expeditions, Gisco may not have felt safe in returning even after the dust had settled. Thus, he stayed there and didn’t return until, in his mind, it was safe to do so. Once his brothers were back, though, their nephew, Hannibal, deemed it safe to return.

In the short-term, the most severe effect of the battle of Himera was Carthage’s loss of her fleet. Or at least, it could have been. The Punic Empire, which we’ll begin discussing in the next episode, was held together by this navy. No navy, no empire. Recall, however, that though the Carthaginians prepared to defend Carthage from a possible attack by Gelon, Gelon didn’t press his advantage, even though he could have. The most likely reason is that Gelon knew, or at least, he thought, that either Carthage was in possession of more ships, or could acquire a fleet within a short amount of time. If Carthage had lost all of her vessels, then to reproduce a new fleet would take at least two years. How was it, then, that Carthage could rapidly acquire a fleet? I suspect one of two things: Either Carthage’s allies would come to her aid. Or Carthage’s allies stored Carthage’s navy in their ports. In any case, Carthage could call upon these at a moment’s notice.

In the long run, too, Gelon didn’t attempt expelling the Carthaginians from Sicily, though he certainly had plenty of reasons to do so. There are no recorded battles between the Greeks and the Carthaginians between 480 and 410. If there were any conflicts, they probably amounted to nothing more than a few frontier skirmishes. Part of this may be because Gelon’s allies might not have had the confidence to pursue an anti-Punic policy. Thus far, Carthage, and the Phoenicians before them had won every conflict. The defeat at Himera, though monumental, was the only feather in the Greek cap. The string of earlier Punic victories, combined with the perception that Carthage could give the Greeks a run for their money at sea, meant that there was no appetite among the Greeks for another engagement, no matter how badly Gelon wanted it.

Despite Carthage’s naval wherewithal, one of the most prescient effects of the Battle of Himera was Carthage’s complete indifference to Sicilian affairs for the next three generations. In the 460s and 450s, Ducetius the Sicel was able to unite the indigenous tribes and gave the Greek cities of Acragas and Syracuse a run for their money. Eventually, though, he was brought down by their combined effort. Carthage could have intervened on Ducetius’ side, but she didn’t. A little while after that, Syracuse and Acragas themselves began to quarrel. Still, the Carthaginians did nothing to exploit this rift between the two former allies. Syracuse’s attacks against Etruria and Corsica also failed to awaken the Carthaginians. In the 430s, various Greek and Sicel cities wanted to overthrow Syracuse’s hegemony, to which end they sought Carthaginian aid. But still, Carthage did not budge.

There were military reasons for this isolation. Carthage may have been the queen of the sea. But the defeat at Himera demonstrated that Carthage’s mercenaries were no match for Greece’s heavily armed cavalry and their formidable infantry, the hoplites. Out of all the Greeks, it was the Spartans, i.e., the Greeks of Doric stock, the same as that of the Syracusans, that shone the most brightly. The Battle of Platea that the Greeks fought against the Persians, without which the ever-celebrated Battle of Salamis would have been in vain, had demonstrated this Doric strength. None of this would have been lost on the Carthaginians.

The most interesting effect of the war, however, was the development of the trope of the “Punic Menace.”

In 481 BC, Xerxes prepared to invade Greece. To stop Xerxes, the Greeks on the mainland needed to pool all their resources together. In the same year, they sent embassies all over the Mediterranean to seek allies. When they came to Gelon, he made no secret of his contempt for them. He spurned them just like they had done ten years earlier when he had sought their aid. He made them an offer he knew they would refuse. His message was that if they wanted his help, then they ought make him the supreme commander of the combined Greek forces. Needless to say, the mainlanders couldn’t stomach this.

His contempt for his mainland kin is also apparent from what he did during the Battle of Salamis. During the Battle, Gelon tasked one of his officers to load a boat with gold and take it to Salamis, where he was to witness the battle. If Xerxes won, then he was to offer the cash to him as a tribute. If Xerxes lost, he was to return to Syracuse.

The Greek encounters with the Persians at Salamis and Plataea ensconced in the Hellenistic psyche, perhaps for the first time, a sense of, well, Hellenism. The idea that the Greeks were a distinct nation, defined by their language, began to gain currency. Gelon missed out on this nation-defining moment by not participating in the war with the Persians. If he wanted himself to be taken seriously by the rest of Hellas, he was going to have to explain his absence at Salamis and Plataea. Thus, he began the “Punic Menace” propaganda.

He had monuments constructed at Delphi, the place where all Greeks went to seek premonition of how their wars were going to end, and at Olympia, the famous mountain that was the home of the Greek gods, to celebrate the victory at Himera. He commissioned poets to sing in his and Theron’s names. His family, the Deinomenid clan, continued this campaign even after his death. In all these efforts, Carthage is a monster; a barbarian city hell-bent on destroying Greece. Instead of now being a traitor to the cause, Gelon was hailed as a hero for protecting Western Hellas from Carthage, while the rest of Greece protected Eastern Hellas, which was under fire from the Achaemenid Persians. The result of all this was the recasting of these two civilizations as monsters in the Hellenistic imagination.

These efforts gave rise to the myth persistent in the sources that Carthage had allied herself with Persia. They were in league with each other for the sole purpose of destroying Greece. Since the Carthaginians were Phoenicians and the Phoenicians provided Xerxes with his navy, in the propagandists’ minds, the Carthaginians were officially in league with the Persians. This perception also gave rise to the myth that the Battle of Himera occurred on the same day as, in one account, the Battle of Thermopylae, where Leonidas fell, and in another account, the Battle of Salamis. Herodotus and Aristotle, sensing that this was a nasty, stinky pile of dung, claim that while the coincidence of the battles is true, this coincidence is exactly that: a coincidence. However, while there is no evidence for an official alliance between Persia and Carthage, it is possible that the Tyrian sailors involved in the war may have leaked Persian intelligence on to Carthage. The Tyrians, knowing that there would be naval battles, wanted to make sure that Greek naval defenses be divided. Alternatively, as alluded to earlier, Hamilcar’s three-year wait before he sent his forces to Himera could have been due to an intelligence-gathering mission. Perhaps he was trying to align his attack with the Persian one. Who knows? Maybe Hamilcar did send an embassy to Persia.

In the long run, however, the propaganda was a dismal failure. For a time, the image of Carthage as a city of barbarians was held up in Greek literature, and the myth of the Persian-Punic alliance became quite pervasive. However, as I just mentioned, Herodotus and Aristotle gave no credence to that myth. Aristotle, in fact, actually had much good to say about Carthage, praising them for their political stability. Plato, too, found Carthage to be quite appealing, praising them for their various laws controlling alcohol consumption and inebriated behavior. On Sicily, also, there was little change. Religious activity continued undisrupted. Politically, Greek and local cities still sought political alliances with Carthage against other cities. For about a generation, trade between Athens & Carthage was ample, too. Most significantly, the Athenians, at one point, even sought Carthaginian assistance against Syracuse.

That this was propaganda is evident from another angle, too. We know that, in general, early Carthaginian history is quite spotty and remains so until about 410 BC. We also know that the Greeks and Carthaginians had engaged in several battles before the Battle of Himera, but details are lacking for all of these engagements. How is it, then, that we have quite a detailed account of this one battle? Not only that, we have, not one, but three different reports of Hamilcar’s death, while the ends of other Carthaginian leaders are hardly ever mentioned. I think that the details of this battle, no matter how unreliable, would have been lost had it not been for Gelon’s propaganda.

And so I’ll end with an inescapable corollary of that thought: How much of this set of accounts actually true?

Carthage locked herself out of Sicily for the next seventy years. What she did during this interregnum will be the subject of the upcoming two episodes. We will examine Carthage’s consolidation of the Western Mediterranean metals trade. We will also take a look at the empire that Carthage had begun building way back in the sixth century, and how that dovetailed with her control of the metals trade in the fifth.

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!


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)
  3. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)
  4. Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
  5. Hoyos, Dexter. The Carthaginians. Oxford: Routledge, 2010 (Buy from Amazon)

Episode 1.7 – Carthage & the Mediterranean

The Battle of Alalia
A Depiction of the Battle of Alalia

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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.


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)
  3. Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)

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.

The Carthaginian Territories

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!


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)
  3. Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
  4. Hoyos, Dexter. The Carthaginians. Oxford: Routledge, 2010 (Buy from Amazon)

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.


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)
  3. Picard, Gilbert-Charles and Collette Picard. The Life and Death of Carthage. Translated by Dominique Collon. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1968 (Buy from Amazon, also here)
  4. Lancel, Serge. Carthage: A History. Translated by Antonia Nevill. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Limited, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
  5. Hoyos, Dexter. The Carthaginians. Oxford: Routledge, 2010 (Buy from Amazon)

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 centre 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.


  1. Warmington, B. H. Carthage. London: Roberta Hale & Company, 1969 (Buy from Amazon, also here & here)
  2. Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed. London: Penguin Books, 2010 (Buy from Amazon, Buy audiobook from Audible)