Episode 1.10 – The Punic Empire

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

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes

Subscribe to the podcast on Google Play

Listen to the podcast on Stitcher

Listen to the podcast on Acast

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)