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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