Ancient Carthage: People, Language & Culture

Instructor: Kathleen Halecki

Kathleen Halecki possesses a B.A. and M.A. in history, and a doctoral degree in interdisciplinary studies with a focus on early modern Scotland. She has been teaching for over a decade in subjects such as history, philosophy and anthropology.

This lesson will explore the ancient city of Carthage which was located in what today would be Tunisia, in Northern Africa. We will briefly explore the legendary founding, the people who inhabited the city, the roots of the language, and some interesting aspects of their culture.


When we think of 'great' ancient civilizations we tend to think of the Roman Empire, the Greek city-states, or the wonders of Egypt. There was another civilization that dominated the Mediterranean while Rome was still a small town. Carthage flourished from the fifth to the second-century BCE when it was at the height of its maritime power. Carthage dominated the seas and their empire extended to modern-day Spain and other Mediterranean islands.



The founding of Carthage is said to begin with a princess from Phoenicia whose husband was murdered by her brother in a rivalry over the throne. The Romans called her Dido, but her Phoenician name was Elissa. Upon landing on the shores, she bargained with the locals for as much land as could fit under an oxhide. Clever Dido cut the oxhide into thin strips to lay out the perimeter for the new city tricking everyone who thought she would only get a small portion of land. The name 'Carthage' comes from the Phoenician 'Qrt-hdst' or 'Kart-Hadasht,' which means 'New City.' Whether Dido actually existed or not is up for debate, but Carthage was founded by Phoenicians (possibly merchants) in the ninth century BCE and continued to grow over the proceeding centuries.


Although the founders of the city came from Tyre, a city in Phoenicia, today we would say they came from the area around Lebanon. While there would have been many Phoenicians living in the city, there was a very multicultural feel to Carthage since it came into contact with Greeks living on various Mediterranean islands, Africans, Etruscans from the Italian peninsula and Egyptians. Much like today where people crowd into New York City for opportunities, Carthage was a place people wanted to be part of and the population at one point reached between 300,000 to 400,000. We sometimes refer to this culture as 'Punic,' from the Latin term used to describe them.


Believe it or not, every word that you write has its basis in the alphabet that the Carthaginians would have used. Phoenician is a Semitic language which means that it most closely resembles the ancient Aramaic, or Hebrew language. The Punic alphabet used during this period consisted of twenty-two letters and was very easy to learn over the confusing cuneiform used in the Near Eastern civilizations or the elaborate hieroglyphics used by the Egyptians. Due to their contact with the Greeks and Romans after the ninth century BCE, their alphabet began to be used by these cultures. Over time, the alphabet was changed until it became the alphabet we use today.


Like so many other ancient civilizations, the people of Carthage had many different gods in their pantheon. Some of the gods they worshiped came from their homeland of Phoenicia such as their mother-goddess, Astarte, who was called Ishtar in the Near East. They also had a fertility goddess called Asherah who had a husband named El. Two of their most important gods were Melqart, 'King of the City' whom they associated with Hercules, and the god Baal-Hammon who was similar to the Greek god, Zeus. Baal-Hammon was also known as the 'Lord of the Furnaces' and his influence is found in the many individuals who had his name such as Hasdrubel 'he who has Baal's help,' and Hannibal, 'he who enjoys Baal's favor.' There has been much debate over the practice of child sacrifice in this culture. Scholars have found evidence to support the fact that it is possible that children were given over to Baal in times of stress in what was referred to as molk or offering. These children would have come from the wealthy families of Carthage.

The wealthy families of Carthage dominated the city as they were the chief priests known as rab kohanim. This position was hereditary and the priesthood was involved in state functions as well as influencing the economics of the city. Carthage was run as a city-state and controlled by the aristocrats. There was a Council of Elders and an assembly which also helped to govern.

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