What Is Carthage?
Carthage was a prosperous ancient city on the north coast of Africa (in modern Tunisia) that was founded by Phoenicians. A commercial empire, Carthage made its fortune through trade, and expanded its domain across northern Africa, the area that is now Spain, and into the Mediterranean where it came into contact and conflict with the Greeks and Romans.
The Legend of Carthage:
Dido and the other Pygmalion
The romantic legend of the founding of Carthage is that a merchant-prince or king of Tyre gave his daughter Elissa (usually called Dido in Vergil's Aeneid) in marriage to his brother, her uncle, a priest of Melqart named Sichaeus, along with the kingdom.
Elissa's brother, Pygmalion [note: there is another ancient Pygmalion], had thought the kingdom would be his, and when he discovered that he had been thwarted, secretly killed his brother-in-law/uncle. Sichaeus, as a ghost, came to his widow to tell her that her brother was dangerous and that she needed to take her followers and the royal wealth that Pygmalion had appropriated, and flee.
Although certainly the supernatural element raises questions, clearly Tyre did send out colonists. The next part of the legend plays on the characterization of Phoenicians as tricky.
After stopping at Cyprus, Elissa and her followers landed in north Africa where they asked the locals if they could stop to rest. When they were told that they could have the area that an ox hide would cover, Elissa had an ox hide cut into strips and lay them out end-to-end in a crescent circumscribing a sizeable area of land. Elissa had taken an area of the shoreline opposite Sicily that would allow the emigrants from the mercantile city of Tyre to continue to ply their expertise in trade. This ox-hide enclosed area was known as Carthage.
Eventually, the Phoenicians of Carthage branched out into other areas and started to develop an empire. They came into conflict first with the Greeks [see: Magna Graecia] and then with the Romans. Although it took three (Punic) wars with the Romans, the Carthaginians were eventually annihilated. According to another story, the Romans sprinkled the fertile land on which they lived with salt in 146 B.C. A century later, Julius Caesar proposed the establishment of a Roman Carthage on the same spot.
Points to Note
About the Carthage Founding Legend:
- The Greeks and Romans considered the Phoenicians to be treacherous. In the Odyssey, Rhys Carpenter (1958: "Phoenicians in the West") says Homer calls them polypaipaloi "of many tricks". The term Punic fides "Punic faith" means bad faith or betrayal.
- Cicero said of the Carthaginians that "Carthage would not have held an empire for six hundred years had it not been governed with wisdom and statecraft."
- Cadmus (Kadmos) of Tyre was a Phoenician of legend who brought the alphabet to the Greeks when he went in search of his sister Europa whom Zeus had carried off on a white bull. Cadmus founded Thebes.
- The salting of Carthage is a legend. R.T. Ridley in "To be Taken with a Pinch of Salt: The Destruction of Carthage," Classical Philology Vol 81, No. 2 1986 says the first reference he can find to the salting of Carthage comes from the twentieth century.
Evidence for Carthage:
The Romans actively set out to obliterate Carthage in 146 B.C., following the Third Punic War, and then they built a new Carthage on top of the ruins, a century later, which was itself destroyed. So there are few remains of Carthage in the original location. There are tombs and burial urns from a sanctuary to the fertility mother goddess Tanit, a stretch of the wall fortifying the city that is visible from the air, and the remains of two harbors.(1)
Date of the Founding of Carthage:
- According to Polybius (born c. 204 B.C.), the Greek historian Timaeus of Tauromenion (c. 357-260 B.C.), dated the founding of Carthage to 814 or 813 B.C.
- Other ancient authors who wrote about Punic Carthage were:
- Polybius and
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Antiq. Roman. 1.4), basing his opinion on Timaeus, said that Carthage was founded 38 years before the First Olympiad (776 B.C.).
- Velleius Paterculus (c. 19 B.C. to c. A.D. 30) said Carthage lasted 667 years.
- Recent carbon-14 dating confirms the late part of the ninth century B.C. as the date for the founding of Carthage.(2)
(1)Scullard: "Carthage," Greece & Rome Vol. 2, No. 3. (Oct., 1955), pp. 98-107.
(2)"The Topography of Punic Carthage," by D.B. Harden, Greece & Rome Vol. 9, No. 25, p.1.