The Government of Carthage

42315972 - tunisia. ancient carthage. ancient ruins in district of punic byrsa

irrinn0215 / 123RF Stock Photo

The remains of the fortified hill Byrsa in Ancient Carthage

This will be the first article where I talk directly about Carthage but not specifically its history. Here I’ll be talking about its government. Now to be specific “Carthage” or “Carthaginian” can mean several things; the city, the total land, their allies within their territory or the citizens. Carthage as a state is mostly known through the writings of others, mainly the Romans and Greeks. The main problem with that is they were the main enemies of Carthage. Since it colors our perspective historians have had issues separating facts from what may be true. Below is the best summary I can find of Carthage’s overall structure and how it functioned. Remember that since this is a companion for the backstory of the Sicilian Wars I’m not going too deeply into the later developments. Read carefully and enjoy!

Carthage originated as a colony of the Phoenician city-states, founded in the north of modern Tunisia. Northern Africa (except for Egypt and their neighboring Greeks) was home to these colonies but Carthage was hardly the major player. After the Phoenicians began to decline in power and the cities rose as powers themselves, Carthage gradually grew to be the center of a very odd form of government. Cities would coalesce with their shared identity into a neo-Phoenician entity, separate from the past and pushing their culture into new areas, specifically the islands of the Western Mediterranean and Hispania, the combination of modern Portugal and Spain. However the difference here is that they evolved from priests and kings ruling the state to aristocrats and assemblies. A place where the citizen could rise up as the leader, which would have been impossible before.  

At first Carthage was ruled by elected kings whom the Senate chose and gave a specific time to reign for. The kings served in similar positions to other kings: they were in charge of wars, the government and had importance in the Carthaginian religion. As Carthage developed, their kings fell from power: wars were left to officers, 2 elected suffets (a position similar to a Roman consul) took over some of the civil administration and then eventually the kings were abolished. Carthage wasn’t exactly a conventional state. Its organization would resemble Sparta in their complexity. Aristotle wrote his book Politica about a wide range of politics regarding the types of governments, citizenry, real-life examples, framing constitutions and education. One of the governments he cited as a good model was Carthage and in doing so described the government, leaving valuable information. He describes Carthage as a mixed constitution between a monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. From here you can see this is going to be complicated.

Aristotle states they had elders to supervise the suffets who also formed committees and consisted of hundreds of chosen members from the higher classes. Its members were then selected to join the 104 Judges who oversaw the conduct of the military, generals and then later other offices. This will become more important later as we see how generals, while on their adventures away from Carthage, basically had free run of an area with limited oversight. The 104 were a particular body Aristotle assigned the most importance, comparing it to the Spartan ephors, a companion body that essentially ruled Sparta but nominally shared power with the Spartan kings. Carthage even had popular assemblies like Athens who would vote in deadlocks. Aristotle states that Carthage managed to avoid the evils of an oligarchy by constantly enriching their population through colonization. This was a small motivator for the Greeks but it could be used to alleviate overpopulation while providing new opportunities for people who were disadvantaged. Aristotle also states that Carthage had few if any revolts or tyrants to speak of in their history. When and how all these institutions were instituted remains a mystery so exact dates are a bit hard to come by except for the kings.

The control that Carthage actually had over its state varied. Through its accumulation of territory, different cities and peoples had different rights. Some cities got to their run their domestic policy and their most important allies were basically independent. The one thing they shared was that Carthage controlled foreign matters. Period. Actual citizenship was more difficult to obtain since the first concern of Carthage was always protecting their trade infrastructure (we’ll get to that later). The Libyans especially had few rights (Libyans here meaning the native inhabitants). Libyans could own their own land but it came with a tribute and army service. So they owned it by the whim of the citizens, which could always change.

Allies shared the defense budget, contributing soldiers and tribute for war. Just like Rome and her legions, Carthage had positions to govern territories farther away and stationed garrisons there. In return Carthage protected all these cities with their forts and navy. Many cities were required to destroy their defensive walls but some were allowed to keep them. Some had to supply their tribute and men for the military, all depending on their status with the ruling body. Carthage initially used tribute as a means of supporting their growing state but it was a leftover from the colonial days when they sent it to Phoenicia to then be sent to the Assyrians. This would later develop into a form of taxation.

The citizens of Carthage directly worked as merchants or in an industry as a producer meaning they couldn’t field a citizen army because the state depended on their abilities for commerce. This was the central problem. If their citizens all fought their trading networks would slow to a crawl, killing the state. This is why they would tend to use natives of their conquered domains or foreign mercenaries. They weren’t considered citizens and thus could be used more easily except that they are more interested in their homes, not the state. If they ever chose to rebel and break away it would only weaken Carthage further. This was a major weakness in their society that most other societies didn’t have and it would ultimately come back on them. Perhaps if they were given enough time to properly develop Hispania into a bastion a fresh recruits and farms they could have maintained a permanent army and open up the title of citizen but history is often full of helpful lessons after the fact.

One of the more interesting things about the Carthage led African state was that they had access to the Atlantic. There was no sailing to speak of; triremes were brittle out an ideal Mediterranean tide. They were best while sailing close to the shore and that is exactly what two Carthaginian explorers set out to do. Himilco and Hanno The Navigator were both exploring the Atlantic to setup new trading routes for the state but on opposite ends. Himilco explored the Atlantic side of modern Spain, Portugal, France and even England however his adventure has no record except for a small excerpt. Hanno’s tale was more detailed and it involved Hanno at the head of 60 ships with a mission to colonize and explore the Atlantic side of Africa. A modern analysis of the adventure concluded that he probably reached around Senegal however it has been debated that it could have been further to the south. Neither resulted in any significant Atlantic expansion of territory but it did provide them with new trade routes, which they then tried to hide as much as possible from any other power. If you think about this from the perspective of time, it would have been amazing to see Carthage expand in these directions along the Atlantic shorelines. Maybe they could have even escaped after being defeated in the Second Punic War and created new states to alter the course of history.

Carthage’s loose network of allies would be copied by the Romans in a way, incorporating new territories as allies instead of citizens, thereby placing them lower in the ruling castes. They shared policies similar to their Roman and Greek neighbors and I personally see their government as a number of ideas used to successfully create a union. It wasn’t a monarchy or democracy or an oligarchy. By combining multiple facets of popular and powerful governments together they effectively created a unique organization rarely seen in the ancient world.

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