Propaganda War In The Roman World: The Demonizing of Hannibal and the Carthaginians

The Author At The Tophet During His 2006 Visit Carthage, the Queen of the Mediterranean, was founded by Phoenicians in 814 BCE, on the coast of what is now Tunisia. It grew to become a resplendent commercial metropolis, with multi-storied buildings, refulgent temples, libraries, marketplaces, and a glorious dual harbor, which was an architectural marvel for all to see. At its zenith it had a population that may have approached a million.

The Carthaginians were gifted sailors and talented merchants who came to dominate the ancient Mediterranean, in the process coming into conflict with the Greeks and later with the Romans. Athens was the maritime center of Greece, and a number of Greek colonies were established in Asia Minor, southern Italy, and Sicily, among others. Since the Carthaginians also had an interest in Sicily, a number of conflicts ensued between the navies and land forces of the two powers. As is typical in such confrontations, each side must have resented the other and described its adversaries in unflattering terms. The Greeks referred to the Carthaginians as greedy and faithless, and although the records and libraries of the latter were destroyed in 146 BCE, we can imagine that they applied reciprocal pejoratives to their Greek rivals.

When the bellicose Roman Republic made a grab for Sicily, invading Messana in 264 BCE and starting the first so-called “Punic” war, a new level of propaganda developed, escalating during the successive conflicts over the next 100 years. A good example can be found in Livy’s description of the character of Hannibal in Book XXI of his History of Rome. After grudgingly praising Hannibal’s fearlessness, endurance, and hardiness, he details what he calls “grievous shortcomings”: excessive cruelty, more than “Punic” perfidy, greed, and lack of respect for religion and the gods.

Such charges are not supported by the historical record, for Hannibal most certainly did not exhibit cruelty greater than that of the Romans, did honor his agreements, was not distinguished by obvious greediness, and abided by religious conventions prior to the start of his expedition against Rome (218 BCE), in the text of his treaty with Philip V of Macedonia (215 BCE, recorded in Polybius), and elsewhere. The allegations were part of Roman propaganda demonizing the Carthaginians, as were a number of invented incidents of brutality in Livy’s “history” (totally absent in the more sober account by Polybius).  

The most extreme and virulent form of anti-Carthaginian propaganda can be found in the works of the notoriously biased and unreliable Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian writing in Sicily during the first century BCE, and concerns the allegation that the Carthaginians sacrificed children on the altar to Moloch, a notion that has been widely disseminated and yet has no foundation in fact. Contrary to the popular myth that culminated in the fantasies of Gustave Flaubert in Salammbo, the Carthaginians did not engage in child sacrifice.

 There is a cemetery of children at Carthage, the tophet, but research by a number of scholars, such as M’hamed Hassine Fantar, Sabatini Moscati, Piero Bartolino, Michel Gras, Pierre Rouillard, Javier Teixidor, Salvatore Conte, and others, has revealed that the remains are of children of various ages with no evidence that they were sacrificed—certainly not first born babies immolated to Moloch!  Archaeological excavations have shown that the majority of the urns contain the bones and ashes of fetuses, in other words, stillborn children.

Infant mortality was high in ancient times. According to Piero Bartolini, the Head of the Department of Phoenician-Punic Archaeology of the University of Sassari, only three out of 10 children born survived past the first year, and only 1 in 10 reached adulthood. It would have been madness to add to the high infant mortality the sacrifice of first-born children. The tophet at Carthage was a cemetery for stillborn children and children who died in early infancy of natural or accidental causes, not for sacrificial victims.

The myth, originating with Diodorus Siculus, was picked up a century later by Plutarch and quoted by many afterwards. Nevertheless, Polybius, the more reliable chronicler of the rise of Rome and the wars with Carthage, does not mention child sacrifices at all, although he must have been extremely familiar with Carthaginian culture. He had no reason to cover up such practice had it existed, for he actually fought against Carthage and accompanied Scipio Aemiliano when Carthage was destroyed in 146 BCE. We also find no mention of the practice in the history of the wars written by Livy, who was a contemporary of Diodorus Siculus, although he, also, was not a friend of Carthage, and was responsible for a measure of anti-Carthaginian propaganda.  There is no doubt that, had there been any reliable evidence of such practice, Livy would referred to it in his patriotic pro-Roman accounts.

Interestingly enough, those who today continue to insist on the now discredited myth of child sacrifices at Carthage tend to be Biblical archeologists. Since the Bible attributes child sacrifices to the Canaanites (ancestors of the Phoenicians, and thus of the Carthaginians), these must have really happened, since their absence would cast doubt on the credibility of the Bible as history.  The possibility that such allegations could have been nothing more than propaganda invented to justify aggression against the Canaanite population tends to be discarded.

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