Episode 1.6 – The Early Kings


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)

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