February 19, 2010

No infant sacrifice in Carthage (?)

It's not clear to me how Carthaginians disposed of sacrificial victims, so I'd say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

I don't think it's unlikely that the occurrence of child sacrifice may have been "inflated" by hostile observers, but Diodorus Siculus gives a very specific description of what took place there, which I think is unlikely to have been pure invention.
14 Therefore the Carthaginians, believing that the misfortune had come to them from the gods, betook themselves to every manner of supplication of the divine powers; and, because they believed that Heracles, who was worshipped in their mother city,29 was exceedingly angry with them, they sent a large sum of money and many of the most expensive offerings to Tyre. 2 Since they had come as colonists from that city, it had been their custom in the earlier p179period to send to the god a tenth of all that was paid into the public revenue; but later, when they had acquired great wealth and were receiving more considerable revenues, they sent very little indeed, holding the divinity of little account. But turning to repentance because of this misfortune, they bethought them of all the gods of Tyre. 3 They even sent from their temples in supplication the golden shrines with their images,30 believing that they would better appease the wrath of the god if the offerings were sent for the sake of winning forgiveness. 4 They also alleged that Cronus31 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 supposititious. 5 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 honours 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. 6 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 p181thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
Rogue Classicist also has reservations about the way the story is presented in the media.

PLoS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009177

Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants

Jeffrey H. Schwartz et al.


Two types of cemeteries occur at Punic Carthage and other Carthaginian settlements: one centrally situated housing the remains of older children through adults, and another at the periphery of the settlement (the “Tophet”) yielding small urns containing the cremated skeletal remains of very young animals and humans, sometimes comingled. Although the absence of the youngest humans at the primary cemeteries is unusual and worthy of discussion, debate has focused on the significance of Tophets, especially at Carthage, as burial grounds for the young. One interpretation, based on two supposed eye-witness reports of large-scale Carthaginian infant sacrifice [Kleitarchos (3rd c. BCE) and Diodorus Siculus (1st c. BCE)], a particular translation of inscriptions on some burial monuments, and the argument that if the animals had been sacrificed so too were the humans, is that Tophets represent burial grounds reserved for sacrificial victims. An alternative hypothesis acknowledges that while the Carthaginians may have occasionally sacrificed humans, as did their contemporaries, the extreme youth of Tophet individuals suggests these cemeteries were not only for the sacrificed, but also for the very young, however they died. Here we present the first rigorous analysis of the largest sample of cremated human skeletal remains (348 burial urns, N = 540 individuals) from the Carthaginian Tophet based on tooth formation, enamel histology, cranial and postcranial metrics, and the potential effects of heat-induced bone shrinkage. Most of the sample fell within the period prenatal to 5-to-6 postnatal months, with a significant presence of prenates. Rather than indicating sacrifice as the agent of death, this age distribution is consistent with modern-day data on perinatal mortality, which at Carthage would also have been exacerbated by numerous diseases common in other major cities, such as Rome and Pompeii. Our diverse approaches to analyzing the cremated human remains from Carthage strongly support the conclusion that Tophets were cemeteries for those who died shortly before or after birth, regardless of the cause.



J said...

There are numerous Tophets in Canaanite settlement, including the famous Tophet in Jerusalem in the Gay (Valley in Hebrew) of Ben Hinnon ("Gehennon"). There were ceremonial places to burn human (male children) and animal sacrifices dedicated to the god Moloch (King in Hebrew- Canaanite).
The prophets destroyed those sites.

Maybe both interpretations - sacrifice + natural death - are right.

Anonymous said...

I think we will never really know the true answer. Having a reputation is not proof. And the absence of proof proves nothing in itself except the ability of humans to speculate and denigrate (blacken!) the memories and reputations of those who cannot defend themselves. A common defence practice used against the victims of wrongful killing. Very cowardly.

Now the Romans. Frankly I would believe those people as far as I could kick their Latin behinds. They often denigrated peoples better than they. The Carthagenians would not kowtow to Roman might so they had to be destroyed.

There is a Tophet at Motya Island where the Phoenicians had a long presence. It is just a religious place, a place of burial of the stillborn, aborted foetuses and children without names as they did not survive long enough post birth. Christians have consecrated ground and their peculiar burial practices, places for the burial for stillborns and aborted foetuses separated from people with names, those who are baptized. Think of the baptizism process. It would look quite bizarre, and barbaric to the Romans. Imagine how the Roman observer would describe it to other Romans. I only have to read old anthropology books written by supposedly impartial and empathetic European or American observers of many indigenous peoples' customs and rites to see how the norms and mores of those observers cloud and bias the description of what has occurred.

That Roman, Siculus, saw but understood nothing, nor tried to understand past his petty Roman senses. Just arrogance and prejudice against foreigners. Nothing more.

Anonymous said...


Sir, Diodorus Siculus wasn`t Roman, at all. He was Greek from Agyrion.

Only Jerome, in his Chronicon under the year of Abraham 1968 (49 BC), writes, "Diodorus of Sicily, a writer of Greek history, became illustrious". His English translator, Charles Henry Oldfather, remarks on the "striking coincidence" that one of only two known Greek inscriptions from Agyrium (I.G. XIV, 588) is the tombstone of one "Diodorus, the son of Apollonius".


Thus, the Siceliote Greek Diodorus had hardly any reason at all to `denigrate` [sic] the reputation of the Carthaginians, who were known to be in amiable terms with the Siceliote Greeks.

As for Baptism, pouring of water on initiates in order to ritually purify them, was practised in the Eleusinian Mysteries (Occultism) since time immemorial in Ancient Greece, hence it would not look weird to Romans who were familiar with both the language as well as the customs of Greece.

I will also add that I am in full agreement with J, supra.

Anonymous said...

I think that the truth, as often it is , is in the meddle. a lot of ancient sources say that the habit existed, but that in the time the Carthaginians had abandoned it preferring to use some more incruent substitutes. However in the moments of deep crisis, the fear that the Gods abandoned them made to return to that ancient and cruel rite.