Carthage’s urns of little bones

When future archeologists, two millennia hence, dig out our civilization — our bombing ranges or nuclear sites, for example — what will they infer about us? Inevitably, their values will be so different from ours that we will seem alien to them. So they will try to refrain from judgment and focus merely on understanding.

We’re in the same situation when we dig out the past. When we dug out Carthage, for example.

We know that the Carthaginians, like their Phoenician ancestors and apparently all Canaanites, sacrificed their first-born sons at times of crisis, apparently to appease gods like Baal and Tanit (roughly Zeus and Juno), Melqart, Astarte, et cetera.

We countenance the story of Abraham and Isaac (Sarah’s first-born though not Abraham’s) in the Bible, allegedly “our” book, largely because Yahweh withdrew his request to sacrifice Isaac at the last moment. But we might just as well contemplate how 1) Abraham had not, up to that point, considered the demand all that  unusual, and 2) how most other situations at the time would indeed have ended with the sacrifice.

We know that the sacrifices were common in Carthage, too, because we found the “tophets”, or furnaces, where the infants were killed. They contain charred, calcified bones of both animals and human children. For a while, we comforted ourselves with theories that they might have burnt stillborn or dead infants, that these were really burial grounds disguised as human-sacrifice altars. But most scholars now believe that they really did, on occasion, kill their own sons, right up to the time of Hannibal.

I just finished Richard Miles’ “Carthage Must Be Destroyed,” a new history of Carthage and a last-minute addition to my bibliography (almost certainly the last, because I’m essentially done).

Admittedly, those of you just getting into ancient history (perhaps through The Hannibal Blog?) might prefer to start with Rome or Greece, but if you’re interested in Carthage, this is as good a history as any. Well-written, not pompous, aimed at normal readers not fellow academics.

Miles deals elegantly with issues like the child sacrifice. He also unifies the entire history of Carthage — from its Phoenician (Tyrian) beginnings to its end in the Roman genocide.

It’s a good book.

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40 thoughts on “Carthage’s urns of little bones

  1. I concur. Cartilage must be destroyed in order to increase sales of artificial joints.

    Yes, I’m just getting into ancient history via the Hannibal Blog. And true, I would have preferred to start with Grease, but if you say Carthage is good, too, I’ll watch it.

    Sacrificial immolation of little children? Not good. How about understanding and judging?

    • If you want to be chronological about learning ancient history, you should study:
      1) Sumo
      2) A syrup
      3) Babble
      3) Purr, shhh…
      4) Grease
      5) Cartilage
      6) Roaming

      Tell me if this is confusing, and I’ll help…

    • I’d guess:

      1. Sumerians
      2. Assyria
      3. Babylon
      4. Persia
      5. Greece
      6. Carthage
      7. Romans

      But what about the Funny Shins?

      Germane to your post, I think archaeologist excavating our civilization will wonder about the way we sacrificed our young people. We do it in wars and for greed rather than in furnaces or altars for gods.

    • The Funny Shins, being funny, ruined the Cartilage of the knees….

      Re sacrificing our young: What about just excavating our prisons and extrapolating to our incarceration rates? Makes the tophets look tame…

    • Why not refer to G*d by Her proper name?

      The article you are linking to refers to G#d as Yahweh from top to bottom. Did you ask Wikipedia to reconsider their naming conventions as well?

    • actually, the torah does go back and forth referring to G-d by both genders. like french there is grammatical gender in hebrew, so he may be a she if someone takes it literally.

      here is a more interesting link “99 names of G-d”

      muslims use 99 other names for G-d the 100th is YHWH.

      the real question is how did Miles’ book make it into the final bibliography… in what way did it inspire The Book by Andreas? hmm… another teaser?

    • Hmm, I almost replaced the word Yahweh. But then I thought: Would I be setting a South Park precedent? Ie, what if some day I dream up a post about Mohammed, and I scribble a drawing of him, and you tell me to take it out because “even the most liberal” Muslims would be horrified….

      Then I might have to replace Baal and Zeus and Shiva, just in case somebody prefers a different name. And then, would anybody still know what I’m talking about? I mean, does anybody actually know who Adonai or Hashem would be?

    • of course anybody would know Adonai or Hashem… oh, you mean historically and non-jew anybodies 😉 – i believe the King James Bible refers to the old testament God as Jehovah, right?

      Jehovah being the YHWH anagram that is both recognized and neutral.

      i had never heard the name YHWH spoken aloud or even seen it used in a literary work.

      btw, i haven’t “told” you to do anything – just pointing out that i have never seen the proper name written out like this. as you say it won’t offend everyone, or was it can’t please everyone?

      AND, i click on your links, i’ll bet you didn’t click on the 99-names link, it is very cool.

      Ba’al? seriously… thats not a proper noun – doesn’t it just mean lord or master?

      scribbling a picture of Mohammed, Moses or Jesus, eh… don’t know what kind of reaction you might get.

      BUT as you probably know you will never find an image of YHWH anywhere among jews or muslims.

      please draw one and post it, and good luck with that. i’d start with an image of Allah, (also not a proper noun). Islam being the second largest bunch of monotheists. then move on to Elohim, only 1/4 of 1% of the world peeps to consider.

      so in a South Park frame of mind, why would an Atheist say “thank God” so much? 🙂

      tongue in cheek and pinch of salt and all etc. right back at ya!

    • Oh, I click on ALL links you guys give me here.

      Here’s another one for you.

      Tat tvam asi, Sanskrit for Thou art that, captures your thinking beautifully, I think. The “that” is the un-namable, not for any prohibition but for its fundamental futility.

  2. seriously though, beside recommending the miles book – what was in it that made it into your book?

    did i miss it? did you say?

    • Oh, I merely meant that it was now in my bibliography. I’ve used lots and lots of books, studies, papers, oral interviews and so forth as my sources, some just for deep historical background, and I give them all credit.

      The bit that I used from Miles’s book actually had nothing to do with the topic of this post. Miles has quite an interesting interpretation of Hannibal’s use of propaganda. Hannibal may have projected himself as a new embodiment of Hercules/Heracles/Melqart, the three versions (Roman, Greek, Punic) of essentially the same demigod.

      To judge by the coins, the demigod was a spitting image of me in my younger years. You know. Just saying.

  3. Interesting post. The conversation following also amused me. People’s worries over specific configurations of letters always seems odd to me. Anyone else amazed that in a post that illuminates some of the vilest acts committed to appease nonexistent beings, a discussion breaks out over trying to not to offend Yahweh or God by fully spelling their names?

    Andreas, as you seem to be aware, it is rare for a religious culture (i.e. almost all cultures) to not have performed blood sacrifices of some sort. I haven’t read it myself but I hear Nigel Davies’ book is an amazing survey of the evil practice. Turns out some willingly participated in the ritual to offer themselves up to help the rest of society.

    Also, Miles’ book has a great title – any inspiration for you there?

    • Do you think the title is that good?

      It happens to be the most famous statement about Carthage. Cato the Elder used to end every Senate speech by saying “Carthago delenda est,” Carthage must be destroyed. And then it was.

    • I do like the title. It draws attention in almost a cinematic way (think: “There Will Be Blood”). It tells the reader what’s going to happen but makes him want to read how it’s going to happen. Also, it isn’t completely contrived but historically relevant because of its Senate usage. For those reasons, I’d speculate that both the author and the publisher approved of it.

    • @ Dan nonexistent beings?

      HUH? the Gods are dead? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves?

      has it escaped you that at the time these people were committing their vile acts, they truly believed in the existence of their Gods. i still believe in a Deity.

      People’s worries over specific configurations of letters always seems odd to me it is a shame you find Muslims, Jews and Christians who also share certain respect for the configuration of the word Jesus “odd”. – that’s a whole lot of odd! i don’t get what is odd about it?

      i know someone who once posted that they did not wish to admit they were Atheist on their own blog for fear it would offend their readers. i wonder if it is comments like yours that keep people from sharing their religious views?

      Obviously if someone (myself) is commenting about respect for a well know tradition they don’t consider their Deity dead yet, and they don’t consider their concern odd.

      in point of fact it is rare for a religious culture (i.e. almost all cultures) to not have performed blood sacrifices of some sort. “agreed” and on topic.

    • Not to pour gasoline on the embers, but with respect to the death of deities, I would make the following points:

      1. At some time in the past, people threw children into furnaces to appease Baal. They assumed that Baal was powerful enough to, if happy or angry, affect their lives.

      2. Today no one (or hardly anyone that we know of) worships Baal.

      3. If he exists/ed and no one is sacrificing to him, presumably he is very angry. Is that why we have had so much war and discord and famine? Did he cause the Louisiana oil spill to show his displeasure? Should we start worshipping him again?

      4. I submit that you can no more prove that the ills of the 20-21st centuries are not the result of failure to worship Baal than you can prove/disprove the existence of any other deity. In fact, the study of gods such as Baal indicates how changing human temperaments and knowledge and understand change the perception of deities. This is further shown by the increasing popularity of secular Christianity and Buddhism, etc. and the fact that a huge percentage of Catholics merrily ignore the dictates of the Vicar of Christ. I.e., people are making it up as they go along.

      5. All of this indicates that deities are more the whim of man, rather than man being a whim (or actual object of interest of) any given deity. If deities in fact have the characteristics we ascribe to them, unless you are a Norse god, they don’t die. We only kill them off because they cease to be useful.

    • Hi thomas,

      the quote is Nietzsche (of course) and i think it is your fifth point “What Nietzsche is concerned at in relating the above is that God is dead in the hearts of modern men – killed by rationalism and science” – people kill gods that cease to be useful.

      Nietzsche being the first thing that cam e to mind when dan declared all Deities dead.

      my point, which i probably made poorly, was that not all people have ceased to find a use for a Deity.

      i’m Jewish, but admittedly “pick and choose” and add metaphor to the literal to complete my world view.

      what i found “odd” was that a philosophical “middle of the road” take on the usage of proper noun for G-d would be compared to the Islamic extremist South Park incident.

      sorry i can’t tell from your post – but it looks like we agree, but you don’t actually say – do you still find a use for a Deity?

      “extremists of any kind BAD”, says eye 😉

    • @ dafna, I’m having trouble following you. I’m not sure if The Hannibal Blog is really the most relevant venue for this type of discussion but just to respond to you.

      I never said God was dead. Nietzsche did. You used the phrase. I did not. I probably shouldn’t have used the “nonexistent being” phrase – too emotionally charged for most people to have a rational discussion, ahem. But can we really not agree that “Baal and Tanit” are nonexistent beings?

      Also, of course it didn’t escape me “that at the time these people were committing their vile acts, they truly believed in the existence of their Gods.” That’s part of the problem I was pointing out. Not sure how that wasn’t clear.

      If you don’t get what is odd about stressing out over an “o” instead of a dash sandwiched between a “g” and a “d”, you probably won’t no matter what my explanation is.

      “i know someone who once posted that they did not wish to admit they were Atheist on their own blog for fear it would offend their readers. i wonder if it is comments like yours that keep people from sharing their religious views?”

      Huh? Why would my comments make people afraid to admit they were atheists? Never had that charge leveled at me before.

    • you’ve missed my point (s). maybe i missed yours also? i thought you were declaring all Deities non-existent?

      we don’t need to agree on anything. there may be some people who still believe in Ba’ al and Tanit, so i have a different opinion – who am I to say these Deities don’t exist?

      besides Ba’ al is not a proper noun, it just means Lord. in modern hebrew it means husband 🙂

      i did not say your comment would put off Atheists.
      i was actually hoping a particular Atheist would come forward 🙂

      we don’t agree about the use of the proper noun YHWH. i know many who would be distressed by the writing and speaking of the proper noun YHWH – who am I to say they should not be distressed?

      did you know? “According to Islamic tradition, a Muslim may not be given any of the 99 names of God in the exact same form. ”

      personally, i see nothing odd about it. what i do find odd is how many people will make direct comments about religion, yet they don’t find it relevant to say what type of “theist” they are. it might give some context to their comments?
      it’s confusing (to me) when an Atheist writes “thank God” or “Happy Easter”, ah well, i’m easily confused!

      if you notice that of the four people commenting, i am the only one who says they believe in a Deity….

      BTW, on this blog, people usually don’t get too emotionally charged, so feel free to speak your mind.

    • Well if you’re that interested, I don’t find any convincing reason to believe in any deity. In my post’s context I wasn’t declaring all deities nonexistent; but I happen to personally believe that it is extremely unlikely that any deity (at least as imagined by man) exists. I don’t go prefacing every statement with “I am an atheist” because it usually isn’t germane to the particular point I’m making.

      You ask who are you to say any particular conception of God doesn’t exist. Well, if you’re a rational human being, you can voice your opinion about the evidence for that specific deity. If you’ve noticed that there is no evidence (and lots of counter evidence) to the claim that gods are walking around a mountain or that Zeus shoots lightning bolts rather than lightning being an “atmospheric discharge of electricity” you can certainly point that out.

      For the record, I wish people “Happy Easter.” Easter is a holiday that people celebrate, and just because I don’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead on that day doesn’t mean I don’t hope the people who celebrate the holiday enjoy their day. I don’t typically say, “Thank God,” but if I did it would just be a figure of speech. If I said it’s “raining cats and dogs” doesn’t mean I actually think clouds are dropping cute mammals to their bloody doom. Clear up the confusion?

  4. It never fails to amaze me how much dramatic tension (in the good sense) there is in the space between mythos and logos.

    Note to self as writer: Keep wading into any topic that features a deity. 😉

    • Andreas, do you know Adrian Wooldrige of The Economist? He is coming down here in a week or so to make a panel presentation at the Auckland Writers Festival. His topic is “Religion: What Is It Good For?”

    • Of course I know Adrian. He’s hilarious and witty and very British. You should go to the panel.

      He used to be “Lexington” (if that means something to you — it’s the name of our US column) and now he is “Schumpeter.”

      He co-writes a lot of books with John Micklethwait, our editor-in-chief, and their most recent one is “God is back.”

    • gives nearly the entire introduction to “God is back”, it seems enough to put one off religion.

      have you read it? is it only about extremists?

  5. so Andreas, Thomas, am i being thick – why do some/most people consider their “theism” too private to share?

    and where does the drama come from? the same source? i know of four readers who have openly shared their theism. none of them define themselves solely by it. kind of an, oh by the way…

    it seems only dramatic when people wish to impose their own views on others.

  6. @dafna: Adrian’s and John’s book “God is back”: I have not read, but I talked to John about it a bit.

    From what I gather, it’s a very “Economisty” take on the whole thing. Meaning: They cover the world (not just the US, as a lot of these other books, written for the bestseller list, do). And they are interested more in the power of religion in public life (as opposed to whether specific religious claims are/are not true).

    If you read it, do share your review with us here.

    • I’ve read Adrian’s and John’s other books and I think very highly of them. I plan on reading “God is back” but I’ve overloaded myself a bit with books on religion so I’ll have to get to it later. No doubt that they capably handle the subject and offer fresh insights from their “cosmocrat” perspective.

  7. @ Dan

    thanks for sharing. clears some up.

    you did not intend to say all Deity’s are non-existent, just those that we can imagine? (therefore if one exists it must not be one of those that are in current vogue, correct?)

    i am wondering if you thought my questions were directed at you only? they were not. my questions came from curiosity about peoples behavior on previous posts.

    the curiosity still remains, as i have your motivation, but not those of the people to whose behavior i observed.

    as far as opining on others beliefs, i think “faith” is defined as believing in something that can’t be proved or disproved?

    • Yup, that’s faith, as opposed to knowledge.

      So you’re asking all of us to “show flag” with respect to our religion?

      Is that necessary? As a European transplant, I view that as akin to asking that people state their salaries or favorite erotic acts — ie, rather private.

      (Mind you, we can still have heated discussions about salaries, Eros and God in the abstract.)

    • Yes. Ideology separates rather than unites and when people wear their ideology on their sleeve they create separatisms that are as palpable as a racial divide.

      Anyway, I don’t believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, or any of the other things I was given on ‘faith’ as a child.

    • thanks for the reply andreas and thomas,

      no, yes, maybe? i think part of me is saddened by a pervasive view that “religious ideology” divides. or the view that no one can have a conversation about it without “becoming overly emotional”. thomas you used the phrase “gasoline on embers”, am i blind? i never saw a fire. (nor do i anticipate one)

      perhaps this is a case of “ought” vs “is” (did i get that expression right?)

      thomas, sorry i’m not familiar with the expression “wearing on the sleeve”. does it mean that someone who is less “european” 😉 and wants to put a statement in context by saying they believe in a Deity is defining themselves by this one thing? then no one will see past this one aspect of the person?

      when you say “ideology separates”, do you mean all ideology? because the Hannibal blog and its connected blogs seem to deal quite well with many different ideologies.

      maybe andreas is secretly deleting the crazy posts, he, he, he?

      privacy issues aside, if i am going to comment on religion, i’ll probably put it in context.

      “God in the abstract”, what an incredibly interesting phrase. what does it mean?

      it sounds like the beginning of a racist joke “my best friend is an Atheist”, but its true and he’s out of the closet and thats why i was surprised about people finding their “theism” to be a divisive or private force. i was also shocked at how much disrespect Atheists receive – he sited a survey that concluded that a Homosexual had a better chance of being elected President than an Atheist! (which sounds like the bad ending to a politically incorrect joke)

      night guys.

    • Re: Wearing on the sleeve. I used the term in connection with the question about whether/why people keep their religious/spiritual views to themselves. I’m not accusing you of this BTW. If you wear something on your sleeve it means that you make it obvious to everyone without being asked. The term “he wears his heart on his sleeve” refers to someone who shows their emotions very readily. My point with respect to religion/ideology is that too many people define themselves by their ideology and that cuts off dialogue. Basically, someone who it too interested in telling others what they believe isn’t very interested in hearing about what others believe/think.

  8. thomas your reply made me giggle.

    “Basically, someone who is too interested in telling others what they believe isn’t very interested in hearing about what others believe/think.”

    there are so many examples of this in blogs and life, for many reasons. but i get that people expect more “zeal” from someone talking about religion.

    unfortunately, i would be the last to know if i were “wearing my religion” on the sleeve since it is so hard to see ourselves through others eyes. my friend B did just call me “dramatic” in the sense that he thinks i’m animated. i’ve heard/learned a lot from comments like these, but that is the first time i was called dramatic. i do believe he’s correct.

  9. “God in the abstract”, what an incredibly interesting phrase. what does it mean?

    As a stand alone I could, and would, read: The object of faith.

  10. The religious madness of burning children is as much a discredit to what I consider to be the quintessential Spiritual nature of man, as is the political madness of taking a nation to war, a discredit, to the high ideal of the illustrated man of ancient Greece; the noble intellect in the service of the Polis.

    All good things can and seem to spoil in the human struggle for power, religious or political. Any Truth, what ever It may consist of, can, has been and will be twisted against other men in a human court.

    To spill blood or Life for an idea, religious or political, literally or metaphorically, is a sad reflection on our humanity.

    Carthage is likely to destroy itself.

  11. I stumbled on this interesting quote which might make a nice final benediction for this post:

    “Kill a man, and you are an assassin. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill everyone, and you are a god.” – Jean Rostand, biologist and philosopher (1894-1977)

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