Episode 1.7 – Carthage & the Mediterranean

The Battle of Alalia
A Depiction of the Battle of Alalia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for listening.


  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)

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