The Magazine

Hannibal’s Home

What was lost when Carthage was destroyed.

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By RICHARD TADA
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In one area, Hoyos’s high regard for the Carthaginians causes him to brush aside some unpleasant facts. Greek and Roman authors charged that the Carthaginians engaged in child sacrifice, a practice seemingly confirmed by the excavation of the so-called tophet—a cemetery with urns containing the cremated remains of infants and animals. But his discussion of the topic reads like a brief for the defense: He plays up discrepancies among the written sources, and between them and the archaeological evidence, and concludes by expressing doubt that the sacrifices occurred. Yet even if the details don’t always mesh, the bulk of the evidence points insistently towards something sinister, and at this late date, there is not much point in being defensive about the Carthaginians’ dark side. Moreover, he passes up a delightful opportunity to needle the Romans, who were supposedly scandalized by Carthaginian practices but resorted to human sacrifice themselves in the panicked aftermath of Hannibal’s great victory at Cannae.

Carthage, a Semitic transplant, was able to develop a constitution worthy of a Greek polis, and the Carthaginian political system was praised by no less an authority than Aristotle, who wrote that Carthage possessed a sound mixed constitution combining monarchical, aristocratic, and democratic elements. The “monarchs” were the two chief magistrates called sufetes, elected for one-year terms. (The term demonstrates the affinity of Punic with Hebrew: Sufetes is the Latinized version of shophetim, the biblical term usually translated as “judges.”) The sufetes worked in coordination with the Carthaginian senate—the “aristocratic” element in Aristotle’s schema—and surviving Greek and Latin sources show the senate involved in foreign relations and deciding on war and peace.

Perhaps the most surprising element of the Carthaginian political system was the strength of the “democratic” element. Aristotle states that if the sufetes and senate could not reach agreement on an issue, it was decided by the popular assembly. Even some decisions jointly made by sufetes and senate went to the assembly, which had the power to reject them. The assembly also elected sufetes, generals, and lesser officials. It was surely powerful by the standards of the ancient world. Polybius thought it too much so: By the time of the Second Punic War, he writes, Carthaginian policy was determined by the mass of its citizens; Rome, by contrast, was led by its best men—namely the members of the senate. In Polybius’ view, Rome’s superior decision-making apparatus was ultimately responsible for its victory
over Hannibal. 

Hannibal and his family, the Barcids, learned how to work the Carthaginian system to their advantage. Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, was elected general by the assembly after the First Punic War, when Carthage’s mercenaries, angered by poor treatment and inadequate pay, launched a revolt that threatened the city itself. Hamilcar crushed the revolt in a brutal three-year war (240-237), and, exploiting his new prestige, he proceeded to conquer southern Spain for Carthage. After his death in 229 or 228, his son-in-law Hasdrubal became the ruler of the Spanish province, and his position was confirmed when the Carthaginian assembly approved his appointment as general. Upon Hasdrubal’s death in 221, Hannibal was elected general, in turn, indicating that supporters of the Barcid family dominated the Carthaginian assembly. But by electing Hannibal, the assembly had unknowingly voted for the ruin of their city.

Richard Tada is a writer in Seattle.