A mention in a post at the Theology Archaeology blog drew my attention to the question of the sacrifice of children at Carthage.
I think that we all remember that the Carthaginians sacrificed their children to their god. It is, indeed, one of the things we think of, when the word “Carthaginian” is mentioned.
But apparently there is some revisionism around. This led me to wonder just what the ancient evidence is.
The following literary sources mention the custom. I have gathered the references from Google searches.
Cleitarchus = Clitarchus = Kleitarchos (ca. 310-300 BC)
This writer was one of the popular biographers of Alexander, and wrote ca. 310-300 BC. His words are found in the Scholia to Plato’s Republic, I, 337A (ed. Bekker, vol. 9, p.68):
Κλείταρχος δέ φησι τοὺς Φοίνικας, καὶ μάλιστα Καρχηδονίους, τὸν Κρόνον τιμῶντας, ἐπάν τινος μεγάλου κατατυχεῖν σπεύδωσιν, εὔχεσθαι καθ᾽ ἑνὸς τῶν παίδων, εἰ περιγένοιντο τῶν ἐπιθυμηθέντων, καθαγιεῖν αὐτὸν τῷ θεῷ. τοῦ δὲ Κρόνου χαλκοῦ παρ᾽ αὐτοῖς ἑστῶτος, τὰς χεῖρας ὑπτίας ἐκτετακότος ὑπὲρ κριβάνου χαλκοῦ, τοῦτον ἐκκαίειν τὸ παιδίον. τῆς δὲ φλογὸς τοῦ ἐκκαιομένου πρὸς τὸ σῶμα ἐμπιπτούσης, συνέλκεσθαί τε τὰ μέλη, καὶ τὸ στόμα σεσηρὸς φαίνεσθαι τοῖς γελῶσι παραπλησίως, ἕως ἂν συσπασθὲν εἰς τὸν κρίβανον παρολίσθῃ.
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.
The same material in briefer form is found in the Suda and in the lexicon of Photius under Σαρδάνιος [or Σαρδόνιος] γέλως (= ‘sardonic laughter’). The Suda Online entry (found by searching for ‘sardanios’) includes this:
And Clitarchus and others say that in Carthage, during great prayers, they place a boy in the hands of Cronus (a bronze statue is set up, with outstretched hands, and under it a baking oven) and then put fire under; the boy shrunk by the fire seems to laugh.
The description in Diodorus is apparently derived from this.
Diodorus Siculus (60-30 BC)
Book 13, chapter 86 (via Lacus Curtius):
1. Hannibal, being eager to launch assaults in an increasing number of places, ordered the soldiers to tear down the monuments and tombs and to build mounds extending to the walls. … 2. For it happened that the tomb of Theron, which was exceedingly large, was shaken by a stroke of lightning; consequently, when it was being torn down, certain soothsayers, presaging what might happen, forbade it, and at once a plague broke out in the army, and many died of it while not a few suffered tortures and grievous distress. 3. Among the dead was also Hannibal the general, and among the watch-guards who were sent out there were some who reported that in the night spirits of the dead were to be seen. Himilcar, on seeing how the throng was beset with superstitious fear, first of all put a stop to the destruction of the monuments, and then he supplicated the gods after the custom of his people by sacrificing a young boy to Cronus and a multitude of cattle to Poseidon by drowning them in the sea.
They [the Carthaginians] also alleged that Cronus 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.
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. 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 thereon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.
Quintus Curtius (mid 1st century)
Book 4, chapter 3:
Sacrum quoque, quod equidem dis minime cordi esse crediderim, multis saeculis intermissum repetendi auctores quidam erant, ut ingenuus puer Saturno immolaretur: quod sacrilegium verius quam sacrum Carthaginienses a conditoribus traditum usque ad excidium urbis suae fecisse dicuntur. Ac nisi seniores obstitissent, quorum consilio cuncta agebantur, humanitatem dira superstitio vicisset. (from Lacus Curtius)
Some also advocated the revival of a religious rite which had been discontinued for many generations and which I certainly would not have thought to be at all acceptable to the gods – namely the sacrifice of a free-born male child to Saturn. (Such sacrilege – to use a more appropriate word than sacrifice – the Carthaginians inherited from their founders, and they are said to have continued the practice right down to the time of their city’s destruction.) Had it not been vetoed by the elders, whose judgement carried weight in all matters, cruel superstition would have triumphed over civilized behaviour. (Yardley translation, 2004)
Plutarch (ca. 110 AD)
De superstitione, chapter 13 (via Lacus Curtius):
Would it not then have been better for those Gauls and Scythians to have had absolutely no conception, no vision, no tradition, regarding the gods, than to believe in the existence of gods who take delight in the blood of human sacrifice and hold this to be the most perfect offering and holy rite?
Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians to have taken Critias or Diagoras to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Cronos? These were not in the manner that Empedocles describes in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures:
“Changed in form is the son beloved of his father so pious,
“Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!”
No, but with full knowledge and understanding they themselves 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; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums took the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.
Justinus (2nd century)
Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, book 18 (via here):
This city was founded seventy-two years before Rome; but while the bravery of its inhabitants made it famous in war, it was internally disturbed with various troubles, arising from civil differences. Being afflicted, among other calamities, with a pestilence, they adopted a cruel religious ceremony, an execrable abomination, as a remedy for it; for they immolated human beings as victims, and brought children (whose age excites pity even in enemies) to the altars, entreating favour of the gods by shedding the blood of those for whose life the gods are generally wont to be entreated.
VII. In consequence of the gods, therefore, being rendered adverse by such atrocities, after they had long fought unsuccessfully in Sicily, …
Tertullian (197 AD)
Apologeticum, chapter 9, 2-3(Thelwall translation):
 Children were openly sacrificed in Africa to Saturn as lately as the proconsulship of Tiberius, who exposed to public gaze the priests suspended on the sacred trees overshadowing their temple-so many crosses on which the punishment which justice craved overtook their crimes, as the soldiers of our country still can testify who did that very work for that proconsul.  And even now that sacred crime still continues to be done in secret. It is not only Christians, you see, who despise you; for all that you do there is neither any crime thoroughly and abidingly eradicated, nor does any of your gods reform his ways.  When Saturn did not spare his own children, he was not likely to spare the children of others; whom indeed the very parents themselves were in the habit of offering, gladly responding to the call which was made on them, and keeping the little ones pleased on the occasion, that they might not die in tears.
Phoenician History, as preserved in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica book 1 (via here):
And soon after he says:
‘It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Kronos then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called ledud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.’
Porphyry (3rd century)
Quoted in Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica, book 4, chapter 16 (via here). This chapter is a long series of testimonies to human sacrifice, from which only excerpts can be given here.
‘The Phoenicians, too, in the great calamities of war, or pestilence, or drought, used to dedicate one of their dearest friends and sacrifice him to Kronos: and of those who thus sacrificed the Phoenician history is full, which Sanchuniathon wrote in the Phoenician language, and Philo Byblius translated into Greek in eight books.
‘And Ister, in his Collection of Cretan Sacrifices, says that the Curetes in old times used to sacrifice boys to Kronos. But that the human sacrifices in almost all nations had been abolished, is stated by Pallas, who made an excellent collection concerning the mysteries of Mithras in the time of the Emperor Hadrian. Also at Laodicea in Syria a virgin used to be offered to Athena every year, but now a hind.
‘Moreover the Carthaginians in Libya used to perform this kind of sacrifice, which was stopped by Iphicrates. The Dumateni also, in Arabia, used every year to sacrifice a boy, and bury him under the altar, which they treated as an image.
Augustine (4-5th century)
The City of God, book 7, chapter 19 (via here):
Then he [Varro] says that boys were wont to be immolated to him [Saturn] by certain peoples, the Carthaginians for instance; and also that adults were immolated by some nations, for example the Gauls-because, of all seeds, the human race is the best. … He says that Saturn was called kronoj, which in the Greek tongue signifies a space of time because, without that, seed cannot be productive. These and many other things are said concerning Saturn, and they are all referred to seed.
Orosius (4-5th century)
Book 4, chapter 6 (via here):
We must also say something about her disasters and domestic misfortunes, just as Pompeius Trogus and Justin relate them. The Carthaginians have always had domestic and internal misfortunes. Because of this source of discord and its unhappy faculty of causing disturbance they have never yet enjoyed prosperity abroad, or peace at home. When they were suffering from plagues in addition to their other misfortunes, they resorted to homicides instead of to medicines; indeed they sacrificed human beings as victims and offered young children at their altars. In this way they aroused even the pity of the enemy.
Concerning this form of sacred rite—nay, rather of sacrilege—I am perplexed as to what I should discuss in preference to all else. For if some demons have dared to order rites of this character, requiring as they did that the death of men should be propitiated by human slaughter, it must be understood that these demons acted as partners and promoters of the plague and that they themselves killed those whom the plague had not seized; for it was customary to offer healthy and undefiled sacrificial victims. In doing this they not only failed to allay, but rather anticipated, the pestilences.
When the Carthaginians—the gods being alienated, as Pompeius Trogus and Justin admit, because of sacrifices of this kind, and, as we assert, because of their presumption and impiety toward an angered God—had long fought unsuccessfully in Sicily, …
Update (1st June): I have added a couple of further instances, and added a translation of Kleitarchos.
- Bill Thayer has helped greatly by digitising this article on The Image of Moloch, Journal of Biblical Literature 16 (1897), p.161-5.↩
- Paul G. Mosca, Child Sacrifice in Canaanite and Israelite Religion. PhD thesis, Harvard, 1975, p.22. Reference via Bennie H. Reynolds, “Molek: Dead or Alive? The meaning and derivation of mlk and ###”, in Human sacrifice in Jewish and Christian tradition, ed. K. Finsterbusch &c, Leiden: Brill, 2007, p.133-150, p.149 n.68.↩