Carthaginian infanticide not just Roman propaganda
Recent research revealed that the Carthaginians really did kill their own infant children, a practice once dismissed as just ancient Greek and Roman propaganda.
Ancient Carthage was a Semitic civilisation centred on the Phoenician city-state of Carthage, located in North Africa on the Gulf of Tunis. Founded in 814 BC, Carthage established control over other Phoenician settlements throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and what is now Spain, which lasted until the end of the 3rd century BC. For much of its history, Carthage was in a constant state of struggle with the Greeks on Sicily and the Roman Republic, which led to a series of armed conflicts known as the Punic Wars. So when ancient Greeks and Romans made reports of ritual sacrifice of children, their claims were not taken seriously. But this has become one of the most bitterly debated questions in classical archaeology.
“This is something dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn’t want to believe it,” said Josephine Quinn, a lecturer in ancient history at Oxford. ““But when you pull together all the evidence – archaeological, epigraphic and literary – it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made.”
The argument about whether Carthaginians did or did not commit infanticide was brought into focus after the discovery of cemeteries known as tophets in the early 20th century on the outskirts of Carthage in modern Tunisia, and at other Carthaginian sites in Sicily and Sardinia. The graves held tiny cremated bones packed into urns and buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods.
Carthaginian tophet urns from the 3rd or 4th century BC containing burned bones.
While some have claimed that these are simply the remains of children who died before or soon after birth, Quinn and her colleagues, a group of Punic archaeologists and historians from Italy and the Netherlands, reject this theory due to the sheer number of child remains that were found.
"The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods 'heard my voice and blessed me'. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering – and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you're already worried about the gods rejecting it," said Quinn.
Another convincing piece of evidence was the finding of animal remains buried in the same way, sometimes in the same urns as the bones of the children. Quinn also draws attention to the fact that ancient writers, such as the Roman historian Diodorus, gave graphic accounts of Carthaginian child sacrifice.
However, Quinn admits that many of her academic colleagues were appalled by her conclusions and that this is because it is a conclusion that no one wants to believe is true, like some taboo is being broken. "We like to think that we're quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us – the truth is, I'm afraid, that they really weren't."