Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Human Child Sacrifice?

Modern Interpretation of the Israelites Offering Live Children to the God Moloch

The Carthaginians, who were Rome’s primary rival in the third century BC, were written about extensively by classical historians and geographers. Carthaginian society was described as a mixture of the Phoenician culture, from whom most of the people were descended, and Numidian/North African cultures with an ample amount of influence from the Greeks and Romans. Livy, Diodorus, Strabo, and others wrote passages that detailed Carthaginian government, trade, and religion, with the sections on religion, perhaps being the most interesting.

According to the classical sources, the Carthaginians followed the Canaanite/Phoenician pantheon and strictly followed those rituals, which occasionally included the sacrifice of their own children. Some of the passages are quite graphic, but the question needs to be asked: Was it true? After all, the Carthaginians were the eternal enemies of the Romans so it would follow that many of the classical historians would paint them in a negative light.

The reality is that there was a long tradition of child sacrifice by the Carthaginians’ ancestors, the Canaanites, and Phoenicians. These pre-Carthaginian peoples often termed “Western Semitic” by scholars, performed live human sacrifices to their gods to gain favor for war, harvests, and long-distance sailing expeditions. An examination of the older sources from the Levant, combined with the classical sources and archeological evidence from Carthage affirms that not only did the Carthaginians practice child sacrifice, but they did so on a greater level than their ancestors.

The Canaanites and Phoenicians and Child Sacrifice

The Ruins of Ancient Carthage

The Carthaginians were descended from the Semitic Bronze Age people who inhabited the Levant (roughly equivalent to the modern day nation-states of Israel, Lebanon, and coastal Syria). Like most people of the ancient Near East, the Canaanites followed a polytheistic religion and were literate, but unfortunately, there is scant evidence in their texts relating to child sacrifice. However, the Israelites, who were closely related to Canaanites linguistically and culturally, mention the act of human sacrifice numerous times in the Old Testament. Although the act was strictly forbidden by Yahweh, the Israelites, influenced by their Canaanite neighbors, often performed the rituals, usually with disastrous results.

“For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the Lord: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by My name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into My heart.” [1]

The rituals performed by the Canaanites and Israelites were later followed by the Phoenicians. As the Phoenicians became an important people in the coastal areas of the Levant, so too did the practice of child sacrifice. The ritual was generally only performed in catastrophic times, but in the ancient world that could ebb and flow. [2]

Identifying child sacrifice connections between Carthage and Phoenicia has not been easy, though. Scholars know that the Canaanites and Israelites followed the practice and that the Phoenicians also later sacrificed children to their gods, but the archaeological evidence is quite scant. Part of the problem is due to the nature of archaeology in modern Lebanon, which makes it almost impossible to properly excavate many of the ancient Phoenician cities that were all located on the coast. [3] Other modern scholars have pointed out that the Phoenician homeland was also near the birthplace of the Abrahamic religions, so it is probable that stelae and other artifacts that depicted human sacrifice were destroyed by zealous followers of those religions. [4]

It is important to point out that the Phoenicians, as the Canaanites before them, were not a unified empire, but at best a loose confederacy of independent city-states. Phoenician religion was similar from city to city, but certain deities took precedence in different cities. For example, Moloch, or Melqart, the god often associated with child sacrifice in the Levant, was the primary god of the city of Tyre. [5] Moloch’s connection to Tyre and child sacrifice is important when one considers the practice in Carthage.

The Carthaginians and Child Sacrifice

Satelitte Map Showing Carthage’s Position in the Mediterranean

Understanding the precedent of child sacrifice by the Canaanites and Phoenicians is crucial in determining if the claim that the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice is true because Carthage was founded during the reign of King Ithobaal I of Tyre in the ninth century BC. [6] Although the Carthage was founded as a Phoenician colony, it developed independently of Tyre and as mentioned earlier, was influenced by its other neighbors. The Carthaginians did, though, follow the Phoenician religion, worshiping all of the major gods of the pantheon, but the three most important gods of the city were Baal, Tanit, and Reshep. [7]

According to the classical sources, the Carthaginians sacrificed their children to Cronus, which was the Greek equivalent of Baal. The first century BC Greek historian, Diodorus, wrote that the Carthaginians sacrificed hundreds of their own children to Cronus/Baal after suffering a major military defeat to Agathocles and the Greeks of Syracuse in 310 BC.

“They also alleged that Cronus had turned against them inasmuch as in former times they had been accustomed to sacrifice to this god the noblest of their sons, but more recently, secretly buying and nurturing children, they had sent these to the sacrifice; and when an investigation was made, some of those who had been sacrificed were discovered to have been substitutions. When they had given thought to these things and saw their enemy encamped before their walls, they were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed that they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers."

In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in number not less than three hundred. There was in their city a bronze image of Cronus, extending its hands, palms up and sloping toward the ground so that each of the children when placed thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire. [8]

The history of Canaanite and Phoenician child sacrifice along with Diodorus’ above account certainly point toward the Carthaginians sacrificing their own children to their gods, but archaeological evidence is the final piece of proof.

Archaeological Evidence of Child Sacrifice in Carthage

Stela from the Tophet of Carthage

The ancient Israelites referred to the place of child sacrifice as the “Tophet,” which is the term modern scholars now generally used for the known places of ancient Semitic child sacrifice. Archaeological work at Carthage has uncovered the largest Tophet known to exist. The vast area at one time contained more than 20,000 urns of infant and animal bones, all of which had been cremated. [9]

Some scholars have been skeptical that all of the urns represent sacrifice victims, but the context seems clear to most and other, similar Tophets have been uncovered in other Phoenician cities of the same period at Hadrumentum, Sicily, and Sardinia. [10] Therefore, the archaeological evidence at Carthage corroborates the classical references of child sacrifice and the earlier historical precedents established by the Carthaginians’ Semitic ancestors.

Conclusion

The ancient world is full of many seeming contradictions to modern sensibilities. Some of the most civilized people of the ancient world had no problems carrying out genocidal military campaigns, regularly practiced slavery, and perhaps most difficult for people today to understand, even performed child sacrifice rituals. The ancient Greek and Roman historians claimed that the Carthaginians performed these rituals regularly and by all accounts they were truthful. When one examines the Carthaginians’ ancestors’ religious practices in the Levant along with the archaeological evidence of the Carthage Tophet, then it is clear that Diodorus’ account of widespread child sacrifice in Carthage was factual.

References

  1. Jeremiah 7:30-31
  2. Moscati, Sabatino. The World of the Phoenicians. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), p. 40
  3. Clifford, Richard J. “Phoenician Religion.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 279 (1990) p. 58
  4. Rundin, John S. “Pozo Moro, Child Sacrifice, and the Greek Legendary Tradition.” Journal of Biblical Literature 123 (2004) p. 443
  5. Clifford, p. 56
  6. Markoe, Glenn E. Phoenicians. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), p. 40
  7. Clifford, p. 62
  8. Diodorus Siculus. The Library of History. Translated by C.H. Oldfather. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), Book XX, 14, 4-6
  9. Clifford, p. 58
  10. Rundin, p. 425