Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources

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.[1]

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.

This is translated (via here) by Paul G. Mosca[2] as:

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.

Book 20, chapter 14 (via RogueClassicism and Lacus Curtius):

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):

[2] 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. [3] 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. [4] 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.

Philo Byblus

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.

  1. [1]Bill Thayer has helped greatly by digitising this article on The Image of Moloch, Journal of Biblical Literature 16 (1897), p.161-5.
  2. [2]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.

23 thoughts on “Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources

  1. To comment further,one of the points of my paper was that in today’s world many people accept and use the practice of abortion but to over-generalize like the ancient authors did and modern scholars do it would infer that all modern people in one nation accept and practice the option of abortion.

    We know that that over-generalizationis not true and it cannot be true of the ancient Carthaginians. The ancient writers did a great dis-service to the people of Carthage with their failure to be more specific and it has led many throughout the ages down the wrong path.

    I also do not think we can take the ancient writers at their word simply because the evidence doesn’t support it and the writers who commented upon the practice were very biased.

  2. Thank you for your kind notes. When I read the linked pages, my first question was about the sources.

    But I’m not sure what evidence there is which contradicts the literary record? I didn’t find any discussion of that in the links, but probably there is some in the scholarly literature somewhere?

    But … just thinking aloud … if the practice was infrequent in our period, as the texts suggest, then I wonder what archaeological evidence we could reasonable expect to exist, which would confirm the texts?

    If we were lucky, we might know of an inscription perhaps, commemorating a sacrifice. Yet … the very tale of not mourning for the victim rather suggests that these might not be encouraged. And I don’t know how large the corpus of punic inscriptions is?

    Likewise we might hope for a burial of a child showing fire damage, perhaps. But wouldn’t it depend on whether the ritual always involved fire, and how long the victim was left to burn?

    The absence of either piece of evidence would not demonstrate that the texts were wrong, of course; it would only demonstrate that we had as yet no archaeological evidence on the subject.

    So … I am not clear what evidence *against* can exist? But probably I am misunderstanding here.

    The literary record is evidence. It states clearly that this was a traditional practice, albeit one that had fallen into disuse.

    It is undoubtedly the case that authors are biased. The problem with that is that this definite fact cannot be used as a reason to disregard *one* thing that they say, selectively.

  3. I remember on reading about the siege of Syracuse by the Carthaginians when Dionysius was tyrant, that after he managed to inflict a loss to them, they appeased to Moloch by sacrificing children. Diodorus Siculus us our main source on the history of Great Greece and Sicily, so it should come from there, but I was reading a history book not a Diodorus

  4. I have found a reference in Diodorus Siculus book 13, chapter 86, to a plague that broke out when King Hannibal was beseiging Agrigentum, in which the king died. The suffete Himilco sacrificed a child to “Cronos” (i.e. to Moloch). I’ve added this to the list above.

    Ikkoki, any chance you could translate the Kleitarchos for us?

  5. @Kristina–the problem comes in with the use of the biblical word ‘tophet’ for a Carthaginian site. it is a prejudicialword tainting the minds of the researchers who ‘interpret’ the evidence discovered as well as the evidence itself.

    The word ‘tophet’ is used by God for 1 specific location in Israel ansd there is no indication it should be used outside of that restriction especially for other nations.

    The other problem with that article is that from what I have read Diodorus and Klietarchus were NOT eye-witnesses. The two eye-witnesses, Polybirus and Livy , the former actually being at Carthage during the last Punic war, made no mention of such activities taking place.

    One would think they would mention it since they were on site and would see the remains first hand.

    @ Pearse–Someone at AIG once siad, ‘evidence for an argument is also evidence against it’ and my article seems to prove that true. I used their evidence to show how weak it was and how much it realied upon personal opinion than actual fact.

    The ancient writers are purely hearsay and we cannot take their words at face value because we have nothing to verify their point of view. The existence of animal bones does NOT indicate child sacrifice and to say so is a giant leap no one can sustain.

  6. @Kristina,

    Thank you for the link to the article. It’s great that the material appears in an open-access journal.

    The argument in the article is interesting, but unsatisfactory in an important respect. The reason why the “tophet” was considered probably the interment of sacrifices was that both animal and young human remains were found there. But the article more or less ignores the animal remains, and accepts that these were sacrifices. I would have to read the article in more detail to determine whether I agreed with the authors that their conclusions were justified from their data, of course.

  7. Depending on how you build a large fire, it’s been demonstrated that you can pretty easily suck the oxygen out of areas close to the fire but not in it. This was why most people “burned at the stake” actually died quickly of asphyxiation, rather than of any kind of heat or fire damage.

  8. Roger,

    It’s posts like this that keep me coming back again and again to your site. This is a subject I have been curious about for years, and I know I one day would have spent hours looking into it.

    You have saved me hours of life. If more people were as generous, we would all be happier and less frustrated.

    Speaking of frustration, this browser extension might help you recover from crashes in future. I believe there is a version for Google Chrome, as well.

  9. Thank you so much for this page. I am currently writing my thesis evaluating Carthaginian sacrificial ritual and this was of great help to me so thank you for all your research.

    I am not sure if it would interest you but there are several biblical references which may also be beneficial to your source collection.

    Though some are not directly linked to carthage, but in reference to tanit and ba’al in general, they may be of interst to you.

    See Jeremiah (7:31-32) IIKings (17:17) IIKings (23:10)

  10. My research has so far indicated a huge number of flaws in the sacrificial argument.

    To sum up breifly: The literature on the topic is written largely by enemies of Carthage following the destruction of the city in the third Punic War.

    Moreover, a large number of late Christian source use ideas of Carthage and its barbarity to depict the horrors of paganism rather than with the intention of studying the civilisation. I think it is nessary to be highly critical of this evidence on teh premise that ancient historians lack modern standards of academia and have a tendancy to fabricate information to suit their tale. Read anything by Herodotus and you will get the picture.

    It is also important to address those who do not speak of these practises. Great scholars who also love a good scandle such as Livy, Herodotus, Thucydides and polybuis make no mention of this practise. One must ask themselves why this would be the case when many studied the region.

    The site’s Archaeological evidence is also highly interesting and the work of stager (1980), lancel (1991), schwartz (2010) are must read articles.

    If you would like to know more or a general sweep of academic trends on this topic I would highly reccomend this online PHD article by Garnard

  11. Biblical references are interesting; but of course there are all sorts of questions that arise at once, if we try to use evidence for customs in Phoenicia as evidence for customs in Carthage. The latter probably followed the customs of the former; but we cannot assume this.

    Thank you for your bibliography – much appreciated.

    May I draw your attention to a problem with the anti-sacrifice argument, which you summarise above? It consists of two points, both of which are of a *type* which I believe should make us deeply nervous of any argument which deploys them.

    1. “The ancient sources state clearly that infant sacrifice happened at Carthage. But they’re all scumbag Christian / pagan / racist / bigoted / biased so we can ignore them.”

    My response to any argument of that kind is deep suspicion. This seems very like an ad hominem argument. It’s essentially an excuse to ignore the data. And such arguments, when made in bad faith, in the last 100 years, on any subject on earth, invariably are followed by the next argument:

    2. “There are any number of ancient sources that don’t mention the practice. This proves it didn’t happen, because, of course, these sources are not scumbag Christian / pagan / racist / bigoted / biased, so we can rely on the fact that they don’t discuss the subject as evidence of absence.”

    This seems very like an argument from silence.

    Together, it amounts to this: “So, having created a silence in the sources, we proceed to argue from that silence to non-existence.”

    Now let us ignore the subject — whether or not the Carthaginians murdered their children for ritual purposes. Let us simply look at the kind of argument being made here.

    Can either of us think of any bad argument that is NOT put forward using both of these? I would treat the argument that there was no infant sacrifice as disproven on the spot, if this is the argument made against it. It’s atrocious stuff. This is the sort of thing that the revisionists come out with.

    Much more interesting, I agree, is the archaeology. This should give us some additional hard facts. Of course we must always read the reports, bearing in mind the general archaeological principle that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.

    In short: I recommend arguing from evidence, not against it. On any subject. To do the latter invariably raises questions as to why so strange an activity might be undertaken.

  12. This is not to reject all sources but to treat them contextually and critically. It is necessary to understand who writes them and why. In addition, from my research some of the translations are questionable. Latin phrases pertaining to passing through fire- rather than using stock phrases or words linked to sacrifice are unusual.

    Further more I agree that the Archaeological evidence is important but can not be understood as providing facts. Dental analysis to approx. the age of osteological evidnce is in fact highly unreliable. Some scholars believe that many prenatal bodies lay in teh Tophet ground but I have seen caluculations of between 4-40 percent. Furthermore many note a lack of children being buried in Carthaginain grave yards and speculate this mass of infant remains as a specific burial ground for the young alone.

    Rituals space and funerary rituals solely for children are a highly normal part of society. In Britain till recently sawn off collumbs were used rather than grave stones to mark a child’s grave.

    I would agree that an abscene of evidence is not evidence but does breed speculation. In order to further address this question, I think reading on the stele’s excavated from the site snd art theory as well as taking a general look at critical theory in reference to ancient sources.

    I thin kyour website is fabulous but I do not believe literature alone can be used to answer the question of teh Tophet’s purpose.

  13. Thanks for putting this collection of citations together! Really useful when trying to argue that child sacrifice in the ancient world was not what we’ve been led to believe!

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