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.
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.
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.
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.
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