Story of Carthage - Alfred J. Church

The Revenue and Trade of Carthage

The revenue of Carthage came from various sources which may be mentioned in order.

1. Tribute from subject or dependent countries. The Phoenician towns on the coast of Africa, both those which were older than Carthage and those which had been founded from it, paid tribute in money.

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


Leptis, for instance, in the rich district of the Lesser Syrtis, is said to have paid as much as a talent per diem. The tribes of the interior paid their tribute in kind, those who were settled and employed in cultivating the ground furnishing corn, the wandering tribes such articles as dates, wild-beast skins, gold, precious stones, etc. The foreign possessions of the empire also paid in kind. Part of the stores which they thus furnished was laid up in the provinces themselves for the use of the army, and part was sent to Carthage. The amount of these contributions is not stated anywhere; but it seems to have varied with the needs of the government, and sometimes to have amounted to as much as a half of the whole produce.

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


2. Customs duties are mentioned in the treaties between Carthage and Rome; and the regulations about them are precise. In the treaties with the Etrurians, of which we hear from Aristotle, we learn that it was provided what articles might and what might not be imported. Hannibal, when in power at Carthage after the end of the Second Punic War, introduced a great reform into the management of the customs, which we learn from this passage to have been levied on goods imported both by land and by sea; and is said, by putting a stop to dishonest practices, to have improved the revenue so much, that it was no longer necessary to tax individuals. That these duties were heavy, we may learn from the fact that smuggling went on between the Greek towns in the district round Cyrene and the towns dependent on Carthage.

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


3. Mines. Carthage possessed mines in Spain and Corsica. The richest of these were in the neighbourhood of New Carthage. In Polybius' time (204122 B.C.), when they were worked by the Romans, they produced about 2,000 per day. They are said to have been discovered by a certain Aletes, who was supposed to have done so much for his country by this discovery, that a temple was dedicated to him at New Carthage. We must not suppose, however, that all the mines (Diodorus says that all the mines known in his time were first worked by the Carthaginians) belonged to the State. Many of them were worked by individual citizens to their great profit. The powerful Barca family is said to have derived from their mines much of the wealth by which they were enabled to become so powerful, and Hannibal is specially mentioned as receiving a large income from mines. Probably the State was the owner of some, and received a royalty (or sum proportionate to the quantity of metal raised) from the others.

The Commerce of Carthage may be conveniently considered under its two great branches—the trade with Africa, and the trade with Europe.

1. The trade with Africa. This was carried on with the barbarous tribes of the inland country that could be reached by caravans, and of the sea-coast. Of both we hear something from Herodotus, the writer who furnishes us with most of our knowledge about these parts of the ancient world. His story about the dealings with the tribes of the sea-coast runs thus. "There is a certain country in Africa outside the columns of Hercules. When the Carthaginians come hither, they unlade their goods and set them in order by the side of the sea. This done, they embark on their ships again and make a smoke. And the people of the country, seeing the smoke, come down to the sea, and put gold beside the goods and depart to a distance. Then the Carthaginians come forth from their ships and look; and if it seem to them that the gold is of equal value with the goods, they take it and depart; but if it seem not equal, then they return to their ships and sit still. Then the barbarians come and add other gold to that which they put before, until they persuade the Carthaginians. And neither do any wrong to the other; for the one touch not the gold till it be made equal in value to the goods, and the others touch not the goods before the sellers have received the gold."

The Caravan routes are described in a very interesting passage. The starting-point is Thebes in Upper Egypt, where Herodotus probably got his information; and the route, in which the stations—always places where water can be found—are given with much detail, extend to the Straits of Gibraltar in the west, and Fezzan, and probably still more inland places, in the south.

The goods with which the Carthaginian merchants traded with the African tribes were doubtless such as those which civilized nations have always used in their dealings with savages. Cheap finery, gaudily coloured cloths, and arms of inferior quality, would probably be their staple. Salt, too, would be an important article. Many of the inland tribes can only get this necessary of life by importation, and the Carthaginians would doubtless find it worth their while to bring it, not necessarily from the sea, but from places on the route where, according to Herodotus, it could be found in large quantities.

The articles which they would receive in exchange for their goods are easily enumerated. In the first place comes, as we have seen, gold. Carthage seems to have had always at hand an abundant supply of the precious metal for use, whether as money or as plate. Next to gold would come slaves. Even then the negro race was the victim of the cruel system which has not yet quite been rooted out of the world, though no Christian nation, at least ostensibly, practises it. The ancients, indeed, had other slaves besides negroes. It was a horrible feature of the slavery of these times that, through the practice of selling, for private or public gain, prisoners of war and the inhabitants of captured towns, men and women of every race were reduced to bondage, and thus the slave might be as well born and as well-educated as his master. But these slaves were sure to be discontented, and very likely, therefore, to be dangerous, and the more gentle and docile negro soon came to be prized. Fashion, too, favoured the quaint appearance of the race, so curiously contrasted with the fair complexion and chiseled features of the Greek. Thus in Menander (342291 B.C.), as he is represented to us by Terence, we find a soldier saying to his lady-love, "Did you ever find my good will to you halt? When you said you wanted a handmaid from Ethiopia, did not I give up all my business, and find one for you?"

Ivory must have been another article of Carthaginian trade, though we hear little about it. The Greeks used it extensively in art, making some of their most magnificent statues partly of it and partly of gold; and it seems to have been employed in early 121) ?> times at Rome for the chairs of state used by the higher magistrates. We do not precisely know where this ivory came from first. Virgil speaks of the substance as coming from India, and the elder Pliny says that the luxury of his times had exhausted all the sources of supply except those of the farthest East. We may be certain, however, that in the flourishing days of Carthage her traders dealt largely in this article, which indeed is found of the largest size and finest quality in Africa. The elephant is still found over the whole of that continent south of the Sahara, except where it has been driven away by the neighbourhood of man. The Carthaginians had domesticated it, a thing which has never since been done by any African race.

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


Precious stones seem to have been another article which the savages gave in exchange for the goods they coveted. The carbuncle, in particular, came in such abundance from Carthage into the markets of Europe that it was called the "Carthaginian Stone." Perhaps we may add dates to the list of articles obtained from the interior.

The European trade dealt, of course, partly with the things already mentioned, and partly with other articles for which the Carthaginian merchants acted as carriers, so to speak, from one part of the Mediterranean to another. Lipara, and the other volcanic islands near the southern extremity of Italy, produced resin; Agrigentum, and possibly other cities of Sicily, traded in sulphur brought down from the region of Etna; wine was produced in many of the Mediterranean countries. Wax and honey were the staple goods of Corsica. Corsican slaves, too, were highly valued. The iron of Elba, the fruit and the cattle of the Balearic islands, and, to go further, the tin and copper of Britain, and even amber from the Baltic, were articles of Carthaginian commerce. Trade was carried on not only with the dwellers on the coast, but with inland tribes. Thus goods were transported across Spain to the interior of Gaul, the jealousy of Massilia (Marseilles) not permitting the Carthaginians to have any trading stations on the southern coast of that country.

While we are writing of trade, we must not omit to mention a curious statement about what has been called the "leather money" of Carthage. The work from which it comes bears the name of Aeschines, a disciple of Socrates. It is certainly not of his time, but it is probably ancient. "The Carthaginians," says this author, whoever he may have been, "make use of the following kind of money: in a small piece of leather a substance is wrapped of the size of a piece of four drachmae (about 3s.); but what this substance is no one knows except the maker. After this it is sealed and issued for circulation; and he who possesses the most of this is regarded as having the most money, and as being the wealthiest man. But if any one among us had ever so much, he would be no richer than if he possessed a quantity of pebbles." This unknown substance was probably an alloy of metal, of which the ingredients were a State secret; and the seal was a State mark. We have, in fact, here a kind of clumsy bank-note.

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


Of Carthaginian art and literature there is little to be said. The genius of the Phoenicians did not lead them to distinguish themselves in either way. As for art, whatever grace is to be found in the scanty remains that are left to us of Carthaginian civilization, is clearly due to Greek influence. The coins, for instance, that are figured on pp. 115, 116, are evidently the work of Greek artists. About Carthaginian literature we cannot speak so positively. That there were libraries in the city when it was taken by the Romans, we know for certain, as we also know that the conquerors were not sufficiently aware of their value to keep them for themselves, but allowed them to be dispersed among the African princes. But whether these libraries contained a native Carthaginian literature, or were furnished with the production of Greek genius, we do not know. Of one Carthaginian work, indeed, we know something. We have its subject, the name of its author, and, it may also be said, its opening sentence. It was a book on agriculture, written by one Mago, and it began, it is said, with the remark that he who would make his farm prosper should sell his townhouse. So high a reputation had it obtained, that when Carthage was taken, the Roman Senate appointed a committee to look after its translation into Latin. It was afterwards translated into Greek. Roman writers made much use of it, and Cicero speaks of it as the standard work on its subject.

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


Of the domestic life of the Carthaginians we know almost nothing. Where there is great wealth there is sure to be great luxury. Of this we get, indeed, a few hints from the historians. We have seen, for instance, how, when one of the Carthaginian generals were pressed for arrears of pay by his mercenaries, he was able to give them security in the rich gold and silver drinking-cups which belonged to the Carthaginians on his staff. And Athenaeus, a great collector of gossip on all such matters, tells us that Dionysius sold a splendid robe to a Carthaginian millionaire for a hundred and twenty talents—the almost incredible sum of nearly thirty thousand pounds. And it seems to have been also true that in Carthage, as elsewhere, "where wealth accumulates men decay." Political and military talent she could always command, but she trusted more and more to her mercenaries, to those "silver spears" which are sure, sooner or later, to break in the day of need.