Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Constitution and Religion of Carthage

We know something of the Constitution of Carthage, for Aristotle has given a chapter to the subject in his book bearing the title of "The Politics." This is itself a curious fact. The Greeks had but little esteem for any country besides their own—Egypt, from which they got most of their learning, perhaps excepted. And not only does he write at some length about it, but he praises it highly. He quotes and, on the whole, agrees with a general opinion that "in many respects it is superior to all others." And he gives very excellent reasons for this superiority. It is a sure proof, he thinks, "that a State is well ordered when the commons are steadily loyal to the constitution, when no civil conflict worth speaking of has arisen, and when no one has succeeded in making himself tyrant."

Aristotle speaks of Carthage having "kings," and this name as given to the chief magistrates of the city often occurs in history. But they were not kings in the common sense of the term. They did not resemble, for instance, the kings of the Eastern world, of Assyria, of Persia, or of Egypt. They are, indeed, expressly compared to the kings of Sparta; and these, we know, had but very limited power, and were little more than high priests and permanent commanders-in-chief. One important difference between the two constitutions was that, in Sparta, the dignity was hereditary in two families, while in Carthage it was elective. "They must belong," he says, "to one of certain distinguished families, but they succeed to the throne by election, not by seniority." But it does not appear that this election was annual. On the contrary, once chosen they were chosen for life. These two magistrates were called by the Romans "Suffetes," a corruption of the word Shophetim, or "Judges."

Next to the kings came the generals. The two offices might be held together, but they were often separate. A king did not command an army or a fleet unless he was specially appointed to the post. Sometimes a general would be made king while he was absent on service. Hanno, who commanded the great exploring and colonizing expedition before described, is said to have been a king.

Below these high officers of State came a legislative body which, to borrow a name made familiar both by ancient and by modern history, we may call the Senate. In this Senate there were two bodies, the smaller and more powerful being chosen out of the larger. Perhaps we may compare this Upper Council to the cabinet or ministry in the Constitutions of England and the United States of America. We are told that it was called into existence to meet the danger which sooner or later overtook most of the Republics of the ancient world. "When the House of Mago became dangerous to a free state, an hundred judges were chosen from the senators, who, upon the return of generals from the war, should demand an account of things transacted by them, that they being thereby kept in awe, should so bear themselves in their command in the war, as to have regard to the laws at home." The members of the Council seem to have been chosen by what are called Pentarchies, i.e., bodies of five, by the Greek writer. We do not know what these were, but we may guess that they were committees that had the charge of various important parts of government, as finances, trade, military matters, police, etc. Whether they were divisions of the Council or the Senate we cannot say. But one thing is certain, viz., that the Council was a remarkably unchanging body. It followed one line of policy, we may say for centuries, with extraordinary consistency, and this it could hardly have done except it had kept up the same character by renewing itself. It is clear that there were no regular changes of government, no passings of power such as we see in the United States from Republicans to Democrats, or in England from Liberals to Conservatives.

About the powers of the larger assembly or Senate we know nothing for certain. Probably it was legislative while the Council was executive. It was the Congress or Parliament, while the Council was the Ministry or Cabinet.

Finally, there was a general assembly of the people. About this, too, we know very little. We may guess that its power was limited to approving or rejecting measures that were brought before it, all such measures being first considered in the Senate. In the same way the people had the right of approving or disapproving of appointments to offices. Aristotle evidently thought that they were in much the same position as the people at Sparta; and of the people at Sparta we know that they had not much to do with the government of the country.

These were the actual "estates of the realm" in Carthage—the Kings or Suffetes, the Senate with its two chambers, so to speak, and the Popular Assembly. It remains to ask, "Was there a nobility?" Probably there was, and probably it was something like that which exists in England. There were, indeed, no inherited titles, but still the same families remained powerful in the State. Probably they remained powerful as long as they remained rich. There was no bar of birth that prevented any one from becoming a member of this nobility. Ability and wealth, perhaps either of these in a very marked degree, would pass any one into it.

Aristotle says that the offices of State were unpaid. This does not of necessity imply that these were not lucrative. They would bring patronage and opportunities of making money. He also says that the highest offices—and he names those of King and General—were put up for sale. Perhaps he means that they were obtained by bribery, though this is not the natural interpretation of his words. As he says afterwards that one of the abuses of the Carthaginian Constitution was that several offices were held by one man, we may suppose that though nominally unpaid, they could be, and often were, made a source of profit. Probably the decay of Carthage was due to the corruption and greed of money, which are sure to be developed sooner or later in a wealthy state. Rome, when the virtue and patriotism of its citizens decayed, fell into the hands of a despotic ruler; Carthage, following the same course of decay, fell under the domination of a few wealthy citizens.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


One of the points of the resemblance which Aristotle sees between Carthage and Sparta was the practice of having Common Meals. But Sparta was a comparatively small state. The actual number of citizens living at the capital, when we have deducted those who were under or above the military age, and who were therefore excused from the Common Meals, could not have much exceeded a thousand. Carthage, on the other hand, was one of the most populous cities of the ancient world. When it was taken by the Romans, long after it had begun to decay, it contained seven hundred thousand inhabitants. How many of these were citizens we cannot conjecture; but the number must have been too great to admit of a system of Common Meals. Probably these were limited to the ruling class. Aristotle speaks of them as being held by the "clubs" or "companies." What Livy says quite agrees with this. Hannibal, then in exile, sent an emissary to stir up the war-party at Carthage to action. His coming and the message which he brought, was, we read, "debated first in societies and banquets, and afterwards in the Senate." And we find it stated by another historian that the Carthaginians transacted their State affairs by night, and in the evening and at night-time held their meetings and societies. Perhaps we may say that modern politics furnish an illustration in the "Caucus," a meeting of influential persons by which the action of the party is determined.

Justice seems to have been administered, not by a general assembly of the people, as at Athens, but by special Courts. We know the name of one of these, "The Hundred and Four." Possibly this may have been the title of the whole judicial body, and that this was divided into various courts for the trial of different kinds of cases.

The Religion of Carthage was naturally in the main that of the great city from which it was founded. The supreme Deity was Baal Hammon, or Moloch. Dr. Davis—from whose excavations among the ruins of Carthage much has, of course, been learnt—tells us that he did not find a single votive tablet in which the name of this god did not appear. He was worshipped with the horrible human sacrifices of which we hear from time to time in Carthaginian history. These dreadful practices caused the Greeks to identify him with Chronos or Saturn, who, in their own mythology, was said to have devoured his own children.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


Next in honour to Moloch was Melcart, the tutelary deity of Carthage, as he was of its mother-city, Tyre. To the Greeks he was known as Hercules. His splendid temple at Tyre was one of the most famous in the world. Missions with gifts and offerings seem to have been regularly sent to it from Carthage. Neither there nor elsewhere does the god seem to have been represented in human form. Herodotus, who describes the Tyrian temple as an eye-witness, says nothing of any image, but describes, among the many rich offerings with which it was adorned, two pillars, one of pure gold, the other of emerald, shining with great brilliancy at night.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church


A sea-god, whom the Greeks naturally identified with their own Poseidon, and the Romans with Neptune, was worshipped at Carthage. He was the same probably as Dagon, the fish-god, whom we know to have been worshipped in the cities of the Philistines. Ashtaroth, the Greek form of whose name was Astarte, corresponded to Aphrodite or Venus. Her Carthaginian name was Tanit. Of another Carthaginian deity, known to the Greeks as Triton, we cannot recover the native name. As the Greek Triton was a god of the sea, possibly this was only another form of Dagon. We do not hear of any separate order of priests; but we find kings and generals offering sacrifice—sometimes, as in the case of Hasdrubal at Himera, while battle was actually going on.

[Illustration] from The Story of Carthage by Alfred J. Church