Did the Carthaginians Really Practice Infant Sacrifice?

Recent publications survey the evidence at Phoenician tophets

“But with full knowledge and understanding [the Carthaginians] offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds.”

—Plutarch, Moralia II.171C

The excavated Tophet of Sulcis at Sant’Antioco in Sardinia. Photo: Josephine Quinn.

One of the most debated questions in the study of the ancient world is whether or not the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice—more specifically, the sacrifice of infants. Plutarch and other ancient Greek and Roman authors reported that the Carthaginians vowed their own children to the gods as sacrificial offerings. The discovery of extramural open-air enclosures—called tophets—containing urns of cremated infants and animals seemed to corroborate the practice. The idea that the Carthaginians ritually sacrificed their children had been accepted in scholarship until the 1970s, when a growing number of academics began to doubt the practice.

Now, studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Antiquity have responded to recently renewed criticisms—and have provided comprehensive evidence that the Carthaginians really did sacrifice their own children.

Who Were the Carthaginians?

Carthage—located in modern-day Tunisia—came to be the most powerful city of all the Phoenician colonies established in the Mediterranean between the ninth and sixth centuries. Carthage began to exert control over settlements in western Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and the Balearic Islands in the sixth century, developing a maritime empire with its strong naval force. In the mid-third century, Carthage and Rome engaged in a series of fierce battles—known as the Punic Wars—over control of the western Mediterranean. Roman statesman Cato the Elder reportedly ended each senate meeting by saying “Carthago delenda est”—Carthage must be destroyed. By the end of the Third Punic War in 146 B.C.E., Rome had indeed crushed Carthage.
 


 
The free eBook Life in the Ancient World guides you through craft centers in ancient Jerusalem, family structure across Israel and articles on ancient practices across the Mediterranean world.
 

 

Carthaginian Infant Sacrifice

At the Tophet of Carthage and elsewhere, grave markers bear Punic inscriptions that, according to the Xella et al. study, are of a votive—not funerary—nature. Photo: Josephine Quinn.

Archaeological excavations in North Africa, Sicily and Sardinia have uncovered tophets on the outskirts of at least nine Phoenician settlements—one of the largest at Carthage itself. Stone stelae, which marked the burial sites of some terracotta urns, bore inscriptions that spoke of offerings to the Punic gods Baal Hamon and Tanit. Do these tophets provide evidence of sacrificial offerings as described by numerous ancient authors?

Dissenting belief holds that the Phoenician tophets were merely cemeteries for children. A well-known study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers analyzed the teeth and skeletal remains from the Carthage Tophet and determined that the evidence reflected normal mortality rates of infants in antiquity. The urns contained, so the study concluded, the charred remains of infants who died of natural causes, such as infectious diseases.

Two papers recently published in Antiquity responded to the renewed debates and restated what the scholars believe to be overwhelming evidence for the Carthaginian practice of infant sacrifice. Teeth and skeletal analysis led by Patricia Smith and colleagues from the Hebrew University and Harvard University demonstrates that the evidence from the Carthage Tophet shows a preference for a specific age-range—under three months old—which, moreover, does not correlate with the expected pattern of mortality rates in antiquity. A second paper presented by an international team of researchers led by Paolo Xella of the National Research Council in Rome summarized the abundant textual, epigraphic and archaeological evidence for Carthaginian infant sacrifice.
 


 
Read more about the teeth and skeletal analysis of the Carthage Tophet remains led by BAR author Patricia Smith.
 

 
Oxford researcher Josephine Quinn, coauthor of the Xella et al. study, commented on the value of collaborative research in an email to Bible History Daily:

The publication of the Harvard-Hebrew University team’s excellent work alongside our own international collaboration highlights the importance of bringing all possible information to bear on historical questions, be it textual, material, linguistic, scientific or comparative. No one can become an expert in every field relevant to the study of the ancient world, but we can all learn enough about other disciplines to be able to talk to each other and work together on interpretations that make more than the sum of our individual specialisms.

As the recent papers in Antiquity demonstrate, cross-disciplinary research—from the scientific analysis of the human remains to the consideration of the broader historical context in which they reside—is critical to understanding Phoenician tophets and rituals.

Read the Oxford University press release.

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  1. JAllan says

    This controversy formed the setting for a classic novella by Isaac Asimov, “The Dead Past, ” first published in one of his story collections in the 1950s. The protagonist, a historian who believed the stories about infant sacrifice in Cartilage were false, was obsessed with trying to get approval to use the government-monopolized Chronoscope to prove it, while his wife was obsessed with repeatedly viewing the videos of their 6 year old daughter who died in a house fire 20 years ago. After he breaks the law by conspiring with a young physicist and a science writer to build a bootleg chronoscope, he realizes too late that he has NOT made the world better. The ethical issues he raised more than 60 years ago are now being played out in a different setting.

    Soon we may learn the truth about Carthage without inventing a chronoscope. But in the story it wasn’t really about Cartilage anyway.

  2. JAllan says

    I just noticed that one or more occurrences of “Carthage” were replaced by “Cartilage” by the auto-complete function. Even after several overrides when I DID catch it, the correct word still doesn’t come up. The program apparently cannot be convinced that any word or even proper name can possibly begin with C-A-R-T-H-, so it will not save the correction.

  3. Jim says

    Carthage spells out OK.

    Maybe its your browser doing the funny business.

  4. Jim says

    My first thought when not even finished reading was how this ties in with the infant killers and children roasters that the Israelites encountered when coming out of Egypt. I know the Philistines were related to or are the Phoenicians, like their Carthagian cousins, but what about the Canaanites? Have similar ‘votive’ urns been found in Israel? Is it likely that they can be found, if they existed? (I don’t automatically deny the existence of something if there is no physical evidence, just testimonies). Is there any biblical accounts or otherwise that describe the same urns in Canaan or found by archaeologists in Israel?

  5. JAllan says

    Carthage was settled by Phoenicians just as the United States was settled by British, and they probably developed a variant culture, but maintained the basic culture of their mother country. Canaanites were of the same stock, as were the pre-Egyptian ancestors of the Israelites, so the idea of human sacrifice was part of the overall culture. The prevalence of the practice may have varied at different times, and Carthage may have done a lot more of it when threatened by the Romans than their ancestors did. According to the Biblical writers, child sacrifice to the god Moloch became prevalent among neighboring countries late during the Divided Monarchy period, and at least one king of Judah practiced it (I believe it was Manasseh, who was naturally denounced as one of the “wicked kings.”

    It is worth noting that Abraham was “tested” by being asked to sacrifice Isaac (the Muslims say Ishmael, but why not both? considering his age and the incidents would have been 12 years apart, he may have forgotten the first time), which could be interpreted as Abraham having the FALSE BELIEF that Yahweh was like Baal or Moloch, then realizing that was not so at the last moment. And when the people were told of the reason for the tax on the firstborn male, they were told it was to “redeem” him, presumably because other nations would have required a sacrifice of the firstborn son, but Yahweh only wanted a money sacrifice as a token (and also because the firstborn sons of the Israelites, unlike those of the Egyptians, were spared in the Passover event).

  6. Helen says

    The Punic culture fm the original Tyre & Sidon on the coast to inland Canaan to Carthage is one extended culture much like the English culture which extends fm Britannia to North America to Australia and New Zealand. Religion can be a unifying garment that clothes the whole body. If Ba’al was worshiped w/human sacrifice by the Canaanites and Carthaginians, it merely verifies the witness of the Hebrew scriptures prior to the Exile.

    On a theological note, it might also be deduced that human sacrifice deeply offends God in ways other sins do not.

  7. Joe says

    @Helen, that kind of assumes there actually is a god, no? Oh … and it also assumes that His name is not Moloch or Ba’al. I wonder what people 2,000 years from now will make of the outlandish practices of Christianity, Islam and Judaism?

  8. Ric says

    Leviticus 27:1-8 tells me that children born alive of the House of Israel under one month were not redeemable at any price before the Lord God.

    It is supported by the command in Numbers 3:15 that only living children of the House of Levi one month or more were to be counted.

    Phoenicians sharing a similar habit even including another month after birth shouldn’t surprise anyone who actually reads scripture.

    As can be found so often in Biblical scholarship those who study the physical history don’t appear to know or care about the scriptures. While the scholarship who study the scriptures don’t appear to care about speaking up as in this case. Meanwhile, mere students must navigate the two worlds of Biblical scholarship. As these scholars continue to press upon the public that historians and scriptural scholars of the eras before archaeology became a true science know better.

  9. Marc says

    Cleitarchus (4th c. B.C. on Carthage child sacrifices): “There stands in their midst a bronze statue of Kronos, its hands extended over a bronze brazier, the flames of which engulf the child. When the flames fall upon the body, the limbs contract and the open mouth seems almost to be laughing until the contracted body slips quietly into the brazier. Thus it is that the ‘grin’ is known as ‘sardonic laughter,’ since they die laughing.”

  10. JimmieMeehan says

    Well if they did….the Romans certainly put an end to it.


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