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.
This is translated (via here) by Paul G. Mosca 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):
 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.↩
30 thoughts on “Sacrifices of children at Carthage – the sources”
Thanks for posting the words of the ancient writers that deal with Carthage
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.
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.
WordPress or not…a very complete and welcome bit of scholarly research.
You’re very kind – thank you!
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
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?
@Ikkoki: I have found a translation by P. G. Mosca, so don’t worry about it.
Roger, you may be interested in these two articles on skeletal remains from Carthage:
Skeletal Remains from Punic Carthage Do Not Support Systematic Sacrifice of Infants, Schwartz et al., PLoS One: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0009177
Aging cremated infants: the problem of sacrifice at the Tophet of Carthage, Smith et al., Antiquity 2011: http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/085/ant0850859.htm
@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.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you very much for the kind words. It’s nice to know that material like this is useful! Thanks also for the tip on Lazarus.
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)
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 http://www.queendido.org/ABC.pdf
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.
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.
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!
Glad to help! We all need better data.
thanks Roger for collecting these references. It is intriguing that it remains possible,despite centuries of Christian preaching about how mindlessly debauched Israel’s pagan neighbors were, that the worst of their crimes might have originated in post-war propaganda.
It is my opinion that biblical authors have shown sufficient desire to get history right, that they are a sufficient corrective to scholars who would say the classical references to child-sacrifice at Carthage are just exaggerations. What follows is the full text of the Biblical Archaeological Review article from 1984 about the subject. I couldn’t find it on the internet, so I provide the full text instead of a link:
Child Sacrifice at Carthage—Religious Rite or Population Control?
Archaeological evidence provides basis for a new analysis
By Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff
Scroll down to sidebar:
Model of the Tophet
“Tophet” is a Biblical word. It is the name of a place that was on the south side of ancient Jerusalem in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, where the Israelites sacrificed their children by fire. It may even refer to the altar on which the sacrifices took place. The book of the prophet Jeremiah describes it:
“‘The people of Judah have done evil in my sight,’ saith the Lord … ‘They built the high place* of Tophet, which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in fire. Such a thing I never commanded, nor had in mind’” (Jeremiah 7:30–32).
The Biblical references associate the Tophet with idolatrous worship of Baal:
“They rejected the commandments of the Lord … and served Baal. They consigned their sons and daughters to the fire” (2 Kings 17:16–17; see also Jeremiah 32:35).
The Tophet is also mentioned in connection with the non-Israelite god Molech—or at least that is the assumption of most modern translators (2 Kings 23:10 and Jeremiah 32:35). (Later in this article we shall question that assumption.) The Jerusalem Tophet was dismantled by King Josiah in the seventh century B.C.:
“[King Josiah of Judah] defiled Tophet, which is in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom, so that no one might consign his son or daughter to the fire of Molech” (2 Kings 23:10).
Whether this was its first destruction and whether it was thereafter rebuilt, we cannot be sure.
These Biblical references have led modern scholars to call by the name Tophet the huge cemetery of sacrificed children at Phoenician Carthage, as well as similar precincts at other Phoenician sites in Sicily, Sardinia and Tunisia.
The Carthaginian Tophet is the largest of these Phoenician sites and indeed is the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered. Child sacrifice took place there almost continuously for a period of nearly 600 years.
Although the exact boundaries of the cemetery are unknown because modern villas have been constructed over part of the ancient site, we nevertheless estimate the size of the Carthaginian Tophet during the fourth and probably the third centuries B.C. to be, at the minimum, between 54,000 and 64,000 square feet. Using the density of urns in our excavated area as a standard, we estimate that as many as 20,000 urns may have been deposited there between 400 and 200 B.C. Clearly the deposits were not a casual or sporadic occurrence.
The discovery of a Tophet in Carthage came as no surprise. Indeed, Phoenicians in general and Carthaginians in particular were infamous for their child sacrifices. Phoenician child sacrifice is referred to often in ancient literature. For example, the Greek author Kleitarchos, of the third century B.C., was paraphrased by a later writer as saying:
“Out of reverence for Kronos [the Greek equivalent of Ba‘al Hammon*], the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, whenever they seek to obtain some great favor, vow one of their children, burning it as a sacrifice to the deity, if they are especially eager to gain success. 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.”†
Tertullian (c. 160–c. 225 A.D.), a Church Father who lived most of his life in Carthage, writes:
“In Africa infants used to be sacrificed to Saturn, and quite openly, down to the proconsulate of Tiberius, who took the priests themselves and on the very trees of their temple, under whose shadow their crimes had been committed, hung them alive like votive offerings on crosses; and the soldiers of my own country are witnesses to it, who served that proconsul in that very task. Yes, and to this day that holy crime persists in secret. … Saturn did not spare his own children; so, where other people’s were concerned, he naturally persisted in not sparing them; and their own parents offered them to him, were glad to respond, and fondled their children that they might not be sacrificed in tears. And between murder and sacrifice by parents—oh! the difference is great!”†
The Tophet at Carthage was discovered in December of 1921 when P. Gielly, a public official with an interest in antiquities, observed a local trafficker in antiquities down on his hands and knees, removing stelae by moonlight. Gielly reported the incident to Francois Icard, the chief of police of Tunis. Icard, with Gielly, then purchased the property, and the two of them began excavating the site with funds and archaeological expertise provided both by Louis Poinssot, the director of the Service des Antiquités, and by Raymond Lantier, an inspector with the Service. They were also assisted by Count Byron Khun de Prorok, who later purchased the property from Gielly and Icard.
In 1924 Count de Prorok teamed up with Abbé Chabot, a distinguished Semitics epigraphist, for further excavations. Count de Prorok, a dilettante archaeologist and raconteur, wrote of his experiences at the excavation:
“This is a dreadful period of human degeneracy that we are now unearthing in the famous Temple of Tanit [that is, the open-air precinct], but such is archaeology! In one spot we may be uncovering works of priceless art and traces of the advancement of civilization, and in another spot the contrasting decadence shown in the revelation of such a cult as found at Aphrodisium and at Carthage in Africa.†
In 1925, at the behest of Count de Prorok, a joint French-American expedition directed by Francis W. Kelsey of the University of Michigan continued the work. Kelsey was assisted by a young classicist named Donald B. Harden, whose pioneering study of the urns from this excavation established a pottery typology and chronology that still remain generally valid. In 1962, Harden published a superb archaeological and historical survey of the people who created the Tophet. It is called simply The Phoenicians. Revised first in 1971, The Phoenicians was again revised and expanded in 1980 for a Pelican Penguin paperback edition.
The excavations, postponed in 1926, were never continued after Kelsey’s death in 1927. Some years later, Louis Carton purchased the property adjacent to the previously excavated portion of the Tophet with the intention of exploring it. He died before he could begin excavating, but at the urging of Carton’s widow, G. G. Lapeyre of the White Fathers Mission dug there in 1934–1936. In the mid-1940s, Pierre Cintas, the modern doyen of Punic* archaeology, directed another round of excavations.
In all, thousands of burial urns and monuments have been excavated in the Tophet, but, sad to say, very few have been published as cultural assemblages in archaeological context. The problem has not been lack of digging but a failure to publish fully and systematically.
In recent years, the modern city of Tunis has been expanding at a rapid pace toward the ruins of ancient Carthage. In the mid- to late-1970s, UNESCO led an international effort to save the ancient city and to excavate where possible, before it was too late. With the cooperation of the Tunisian authorities, scholars from 12 different countries, including Tunisia itself, the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Italy and Canada, undertook various archaeological projects at the site.† Eastern European archaeologists were also involved. Polish archaeologists surveyed the buried walls of the circus using modern resistivity techniques that do not require digging. A Bulgarian team explored the Byzantine basilica of Damous el-Karita. The Americans fielded two teams—one from the University of Michigan and the other from the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. The Chicago team, led by the senior author of this article, undertook to reexamine and reexcavate the Tophet. We also excavated and surveyed aspects of the ancient commercial harbor. Although the contours of the harbor were roughly preserved for almost two millennia, this identification of the harbor was unconfirmed until our excavations.
As a result of our work in the Tophet, we have learned a great deal about child sacrifice as well as about this Tophet. Some long-held notions about child sacrifice by ancient authors and by modern scholars, which we once shared, will now have to be discarded.
The ancient Carthaginian Tophet today is in a lovely archaeological park in the modern suburb of Tunis called, once again, Carthage. Beneath the surface, in the trench we excavated, lay nine stratified levels of Tophet burials. These can be fit into the three larger general “strata” (actually “periods”), already established by the Kelsey team and designated Tanit I, II and III. (Tanit was the leading goddess of Carthage and is identified with the eastern Mediterranean goddess Astarte.) We now date Tanit I from about 750/725 to 600 B.C.; Tanit II from about 600 B.C. to the third century B.C.; and Tanit III from the third century B.C. to 146 B.C. Tanit I had four separate stratigraphic phases, as did Tanit II. Tanit III was so badly disturbed by the Romans that no distinction among its various levels of burial could be discerned.
In 146 B.C. the Romans destroyed and leveled much of the city, fulfilling the oft-reiterated exhortation of Cato the Elder: “Carthage must be destroyed”—”delenda est Carthago.” The Romans put a stop to child sacrifice at Carthage, but it lingered on in other parts of North Africa. As a result of this destruction of Carthage, almost nothing from the Tanit III level was left in situ. The Romans uprooted hundreds of stelae from the uppermost Tanit III period and reused them in construction fills and in walls at the circular harbor and at other sites at Carthage. In the fourth century A.D. they sunk the foundation arches of warehouses into the earlier strata of the Tophet.
The Tophet burials at Carthage do not date as early as the traditional date for the founding of the city. According to the classical author Timaeus, Carthage was founded in 814 B.C. by a Phoenician princess known as Dido to the North Africans but called Elissa in Phoenician. Dido was the sister of Pygmalion (Pummayaton in Phoenician), king of Tyre. When Pygmalion murdered his brother-in-law, Dido’s husband, Dido fled from Phoenicia. First she and the nobles who fled with her landed in Cyprus. There they picked up the High Priest of Astarte. (Astarte is identified at Carthage with Tanit.) In Cyprus, they also kidnapped some temple virgins for the men. Thus augmented, the expedition left Cyprus and ultimately landed in Carthage—which means “new city” in Phoenician.
Dido bargained with the local ruler for some land on which to build a city. The deal they struck was that the Phoenicians would be allowed to settle on as much land as an oxhide could cover. Clever Dido cut an oxhide into the narrowest possible strips, placed the strips end to end, and surrounded the area that was soon to become a major Phoenician city. From a fledgling colony in the ninth or eighth century B.C., it would develop, in the fourth and third centuries B.C., into the center of Punic power in the Mediterranean.
The Phoenicians, of Canaanite ancestry, had earlier (around 1200 B.C.) acquired territory in what is now coastal Lebanon, Syria and Northern Israel. They were famous as merchant traders, sailors and craftsmen. From the Phoenicians, the Greeks borrowed the Semitic alphabet. In the tenth century B.C. Hiram of Tyre provided King Solomon with masons and architects to help build his Jerusalem Temple and ships and crews to service his Ophir and Tarshish expeditions (1 Kings 5:1ff.; 1 Kings 7:13–45; 1 Kings 10:11, 22).
How the Phoenicians actually got to Carthage is difficult to tell because the account of Timaeus is clearly a mixture of legend and history. Although all the details of his account may not be entirely accurate, 814 B.C. does seem a reasonable date for the founding of Carthage.
The earliest archaeological evidence for the occupation of Carthage goes back to about 750 B.C. The first settlement was probably on a hill called Byrsa—located about 1200 yards north of the Tophet. Byrsa has an interesting etymology. It is a Greek word which means “oxhide”—remember how Dido got title to Carthage. The Greeks who named the hill were probably making a pun on the Semitic word brt which means “fortress” or “citadel.” The earliest Phoenicians may have built a fortress or citadel, called brt, on this hill.
Later Phoenician occupation and then the leveling activities of the conquering Romans obliterated the earliest remains on the Byrsa.
The Tophet at Carthage, like other Phoenician Tophets, is located in a special open-air precinct (often called the Precinct of Tanit) enclosed by a thick wall which sets it apart from other areas of the city. Although the wall itself was robbed out in antiquity, we found the trench dug into bedrock, in which the foundation stones of the wall were laid; the trench is over six feet wide.
The Tophet was literally filled with burial urns and burial monuments. Our own excavation uncovered over 400 urns containing charred young human or animal bones and ashes. Each urn was placed in a pit which was sometimes lined with cobbles and capped with a flat stone. Sometimes there were two or three urns in one pit. Some of the urns contained offerings of amulets and beads once strung as necklaces.
Urns from the earliest levels (Tanit I) were frequently decorated with wide red-slipped* and burnished* bands at the waist and vertical line patterns at the shoulder. These Tanit I urns were sealed with unbaked red clay stoppers (probably the same clay used to make the urn) and capped with a bowl or lid. They rested on bedrock in a matrix of black clay.
In the middle period (Tanit II) the clay of the urn and stopper was usually yellow. The most common urn shape was “wasp-waisted.” The urns from Tanit III were mass produced—they were all of a smaller standardized form and were undecorated. The clay of the Tanit III urns was light buff or white.
Each burial monument was placed directly above the urn to mark the burial of the sacrifice, although not every urn had a marker.
As with the urns, the style of the burial monuments changed from period to period. Most frequent in the Tanit I levels were L-shaped monuments of sandstone called cippi (singular cippus). The sandstone for the cippi came from nearby Cap Bon.
In Tanit II the cippi were larger and bore elaborate carved motifs on the front. A frequent motif was a cult symbol representing a female deity—carved naturalistically in the shape of a human female figure, set within the sacred portal of a temple facade. Stucco* once covered these sandstone monuments but is, for the most part, unpreserved. From small preserved patches, however, we can tell that the stucco was once painted in bright colors.
Later in the Tanit II period, limestone stelae* rather than sandstone cippi were used as monuments. These Tanit II stelae often have a gable at the top. Carved on the front are inscriptions and symbols, for example, upraised hands symbolizing Tanit and a disk and crescent probably symbolizing Ba‘al Hammon. The inscriptions are written in Punic, which is a variant of Phoenician. In the Tanit III period, the limestone stelae become thinner and the gable is usually flanked by two wings or acroteria. These Tanit II stelae inscriptions include the first appearance of the actual name of the goddess Tanit. Ba‘al Hammon is attested as early as the seventh century B.C.
At Hazor in northern Israel, an amazing discovery paralleling these symbols on the Carthaginian stelae was made. At the center of a group of stelae (masseboth in Hebrew) in a small sanctuary, a 1¾-foot-high massebah was found carved with a relief of upraised hands and a disk and crescent. Although the Hazor sanctuary predates the Tophet by a thousand years, Yigael Yadin, excavator of Hazor, believes that the hands and the disk and crescent symbolize the same deities—Tanit and Ba‘al Hammon. Yadin concludes that “it is quite clear that the Punic culture preserved elements of the Phoenician culture, and the latter was definitely influenced by Canaanite elements, similar to the ones uncovered in Hazor.”
Several scholars have been skeptical about interpreting the Tophet remains as evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice. The famous archaeologist Claude Schaeffer* who excavated Ugarit, and more recently Hélène Benichou-Safar, who has restudied the various necropoleis of Carthage,† concluded that the children buried in the Tophet had not been the victims of ritual sacrifice but had died of natural causes. The distinguished Biblical scholar Moshe Weinfeld cites Schaeffer with approval, as he attempts to reduce child sacrifice to a “sporadic, non-institutionalized” phenomenon at Carthage and to eliminate it altogether from the Bible as just so much prophetic-poetic hyperbole, with no resemblance to the realities of “Molech worship.”†
Even if we dismiss the classical literary evidence for child sacrifice as ancient slanders spread by foreign antagonists who wanted to discredit the Carthaginians, the growing body of archaeological and epigraphic evidence, provided by the Carthaginians themselves, strongly suggests that the classical and Biblical writers knew what they were talking about.
This evidence includes inscriptions on the stelae. Some of these inscriptions mention a vow made to the deities by the offerants, something that is never inscribed on ordinary funerary stelae. And then there are the offerings themselves, buried beneath the monuments, with the charred remains of children or animals. In some periods, especially Tanit II, we find double or even triple children’s burials in the same urn, presumably offered from a single family. Usually a stillborn or newborn (neonate) is included with a two- to four-year-old child. It seems unlikely that disease or some other disaster would have affected only the two youngest children (that is, the stillborn/newborn and the two- to four-year-old) from the same family in such a regular fashion.
But probably the clearest evidence that this is no ordinary children’s cemetery (which in itself is extremely rare in the ancient world) is the presence of animal burials, mostly young sheep and goats (their bones always charred), which are found in their own individual urns, interspersed with burial urns containing human infants, throughout the precinct. Should we conclude that the Tophet was also a “pet cemetery,” with cremated lambs and kids?
In one seventh-century B.C. urn we found only the bones of a charred male lamb buried beneath an L-shaped sandstone monument placed above the urn. In addition, sheep are depicted on some stelae from the fourth to second centuries B.C.
It seems rather clear that the burned animals were intended as substitute sacrifices for children. This is confirmed by evidence from Phoenician Tophets at other sites. Punic inscriptions on monuments from Malta, Carthage, and Constantine refer to a mlk ’mr. As we shall see later, mlk refers to a live sacrifice of a child or animal. The second word, ’mr, means lamb and indicates that the sacrifice was an animal rather than a human.
Second- and third-century A.D. Latin inscriptions on stelae from Algeria are also revealing. There we find the Phoenician mlk ’mr phrase transcribed in Latin letters as molchomor. These are clearly animal substitution sacrifices, as the following recurring Latin phrases on the same stelae affirm: vita pro vita; sanguine pro sanguine; agnum pro vikario which means “Life for life, blood for blood, a lamb as a substitute.”
There can thus be little doubt that the burnt animal burials at Carthage are animal substitutes for child sacrifices and that this site is not simply a children’s cemetery, but is in fact a precinct of child sacrifice.
But why would the Phoenicians resort to such a barbaric practice as human sacrifice, especially of helpless infants? The Phoenicians were among the most highly civilized and cosmopolitan people in the Mediterranean.
Both the Hebrew Bible and Homer attest to their skills as craftsmen, sailors, and merchants. They built magnificent cities. One of them was, of course, Carthage which our own excavations helped to uncover.
One of the most surprising results of our analyses of the contents of the burial urns is that the demand for human infant sacrifice, as opposed to animal sacrifice, seems to increase rather than decrease with the passage of time.
Our physical anthropologist, Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz of the University of Pittsburgh, systematically examined the contents of 130 of the 400 burial urns we excavated.† Most of the urns fell into two chronological groups. The early group dates to the seventh century B.C.; the later group to the fourth century B.C. In the early sample nearly one out of every three urns contained the charred remains of an animal, usually a sheep or goat. In the later sample only one out of ten urns contained the remains of a burnt animal alone, also usually a sheep or goat. The lambs and kids, like the children, were very young when killed. When the sex of the animals could be determined, the lambs and kids were males. In the early days of the colony, animal substitution was a far more common response to the rigid demands of the sacrificial system than in the period of Carthage’s heyday.
As we have noted, the animal burials probably represent a substitution for a child sacrifice. One is immediately reminded of the paradigm in Genesis 22 of Abraham’s offering to sacrifice Isaac, with the ram in the thicket ultimately sacrificed in his stead. Some cultural anthropologists and historians of religion have seen a “line of development which led from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to the wafer and the wine of the Eucharist,” and in this development they find “a vindication of the moral doctrine of moral progress and enlightenment.”† According to this cultural evolutionary theory, the “barbaric” practice of human sacrifice was gradually replaced by the more “civilized” practice of animal substitution. Our evidence from Carthage is to the contrary, however. Precisely in the fourth and third centuries B.C., when Carthage had attained the height of urbanity, child sacrifice flourished as never before.
Perhaps in the early days, when Carthage was a fledgling city with few people, animal substitution was widely practiced as an acceptable response to the imperative for Tophet sacrifices. Later, when Carthage was flourishing along the shores of the Gulf of Tunis and the population of the metropolitan area probably exceeded a quarter of a million (Strabo† says 700,000), the demographic situation created little pressure for animal substitution. Indeed, it encouraged child sacrifice. Then, children, not animals, were by far the most common sacrificial victims in the Tophet rites.
Some ancient writers have suggested that during times of civic crisis, mass child sacrifice was practiced to appease the gods and ward off calamity. For example, in the late fourth century B.C., the king of Syracuse landed near Carthage at Cap Bon with a large invasionary force. A political crisis ensued, and in 308 B.C. there was an attempted coup at Carthage. The classical Greek historian Diodorus Siculus tells us that during this crisis as many as 500 children were sacrificed in Carthage:
“In their zeal to make amends for their omission to sacrifice the noblest children, they selected two hundred of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a 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 thereupon rolled down and fell into a sort of gaping pit filled with fire.”†
Our evidence indicates, however, that child sacrifice in times of civic crisis was the exception rather than the rule. We have found no evidence for mass burials. Throughout the nine levels of Tophet burials, dating from about 750 B.C. to 146 B.C., the typical burial pattern involved the careful placement of usually one, sometimes two, and rarely three urns in a single pit.
Infant corpses are composed of a high percentage of cartilage which is destroyed during cremation. Only the hardened bones survive, such as the cranium and the long bones. Teeth are the most heat-resistant, and the stage of dental development provides the most important criterion for determining the approximate age of the victim. The sex of such young individuals cannot be determined from the osteological remains. The skeletal evidence that has been preserved, however, indicates that a conscious effort was made by parents and/or priests to collect from the pyre or altar the particular remains of one or sometimes two individuals and to deposit them in an urn. The absence of the mixing of bones on the pyres, which would have occurred in a mass sacrifice, further indicates that mass sacrifice, if it occurred at all, was rare.
Inscriptions from the Tophet demonstrate that the commonest reason for child sacrifice was the fulfillment of a vow. The Phoenician/Punic word for vow (ndr) frequently appears on inscribed stelae. Taking vows was an old and hallowed Near Eastern custom. As one scholar has described it, “When seeking a certain boon from the deity, the worshipper would promise that upon the granting of this boon he would ‘repay’ his vow by offering a sacrifice, erecting a stele, or some such appropriate act of thanksgiving.”†
The fulfillment of sacrificial vows is described in Psalms 66:13–15:
“I will come into thy house with burnt offerings;
I will pay thee my vows,
that which my lips uttered
and my mouth promised when I was in trouble.
I will offer to thee burnt offerings of fatlings,
with the smoke of the sacrifice of rams;
I will make an offering of bulls and goats. Selah.”
At the Carthaginian Tophet, there are numerous examples of votive inscriptions. This one is typical:
“To our lady, to Tanit, the face of Ba‘al
and to our lord, to Ba‘al Hammon
that which was vowed (by)
PN son of PN, son of PN
Because he [the deity] heard his [the dedicant’s] voice and blessed him.”
Tanit was the leading goddess of Carthage; her consort was Ba‘al Hammon, who was probably the Phoenician equivalent of the patriarch of the Canaanite pantheon, El. El appears frequently in the Hebrew Bible as a general term for God, including the Israelite deity. Carthaginian stelae bear witness to the benevolence of the deities and commemorate in a public way “the ritual act of the donor’s repayment of his vow.”†
Incidentally, a new inscription found at Sarepta on the coast of Phoenicia makes it clear that already in the seventh century B.C., Tanit was identified with Astarte, the Canaanite and Phoenician goddess of love and war.† As Astarte or Tanit, we find her carved into the facade of an early sandstone cippus uncovered by earlier excavators of the Carthaginian Tophet; she stands in the sacred portal, with tambourine in hand. She may also be depicted on other Tophet monuments by the more abstract and schematic “sign of Tanit.” Together, Tanit/Astarte and Ba‘al Hammon, the divine couple—mother and father—hear the vow and receive the offerings of the dedicants.
Another surprising conclusion of our research is that child sacrifice at Carthage was largely an upper-class custom, at least until the third century B.C. This conclusion is based principally on the work of our staff epigraphist Dr. Paul Mosca, of the University of British Columbia, who has studied the inscriptions on the stelae.
On several of the stelae is the Semitic word mlk, which we read mulk. Mulk is the technical word in Semitic for a live sacrifice in fulfillment of a Tophet vow, just as other Semitic words are used to indicate cereal offerings and other kinds of animal sacrifices. There are three kinds of mulk sacrifices, of which two are attested at Carthage.
The first type of mulk sacrifice is the *mulk ‘immor* (Arabic ‘immarun; Aramaic ‘immar). As we have already seen, this is probably a sacrifice of a lamb or kid as a substitute offering for a child.
The second type of mulk sacrifice is denominated mulk ba‘al. The third, not found at Carthage, is mulk ’adam.* The best interpretation of these terms is that mulk ba‘al refers to the sacrifice of a “ba‘al,” that is, the child of a wealthy mercantile or estate-owning family. ’Adam refers to an ordinary man or commoner. So the mulk ’adam indicates the infant sacrifice of an ordinary Phoenician commoner. These two terms, ba‘al and ’adam, may reflect a basic social stratification in Punic society between the upper classes (estate owners and merchants) and lower classes (peasants). And, indeed, the classical writers refer to the young sacrificial victims as “nobles.” It thus appears that the elite were quite involved in sacrificing their children in the Tophet rites at Carthage.†
Moreover, it seems that the dedicants were the parents of the child or children buried in the urns below the monuments. True, Diodorus mentions the “aberrant” practice of some Carthaginians, who bought the children of the poor or took slave children to offer to the gods as substitutes for their own, but Diodorus cites this as the exception, not the “normal” practice.
The vocations of the dedicants are often recorded on the stelae. In the fourth-century B.C. examples, Mosca has found political and military titles, like shufet (a “judge”) and rab (“magistrate,” literally a “great one”; compare the title rabbi), as well as cultic personnel titles such as priest, high priest, and “awakener of the god(s).” In the third and second centuries he finds more ordinary vocations like doctors, teachers, scribes, weavers, embroiderers, goldsmiths, iron casters, craftsmen, master craftsmen, salt-workers, sailors, surveyors, weighers, perfumers and sellers of incense, among many others. Perhaps, as Mosca has observed, this reflects the “democratization of an originally restricted rite” at a late period.†
The dedicants are also proud of their genealogies. Long genealogical pedigrees usually indicate people from noble families and lineages. Those dedicants holding civic or cultic offices take their genealogies back at least as far as their great-grandfathers. In one case the dedicant traces his ancestry back 16 generations. His grandfather was a rab and his great-grandfather, a shufet. Craftsmen and men of commerce, however, trace their genealogies back only one generation.
Let us return for a moment to the mulk sacrifice. This word suggests that passages from Jeremiah and Kings, quoted at the beginning of this article, contain an incorrect translation. In Jeremiah 32:35 and 2 Kings 23:10, most translations tell us that at the Tophet in Jerusalem, the Israelites had been causing their children to pass through, or into, the “fire of Molech,” an old Semitic deity. The passage probably means rather that the Israelites had been burning their children as a mulk sacrifice. Remember that Semitic languages are written without vowels so that Molech and mulk are both written the same way—mlk. In fact, the Hebrew word for king (melech) is also written this way. Only from the context can you tell which of these words is meant.
From the inscriptions at Carthage, we begin to understand what a mulk sacrifice is—either a young child or a young animal substitute. Mulk seems like a far more appropriate translation of mlk in Jeremiah and 2 Kings than Molech, a god who is not otherwise referred to in connection with Israelite child sacrifice. (Indeed, it is the familiar Baal who is associated with child sacrifice in 2 Kings 17:16–17 and earlier in Jeremiah 32:35.)
Some Biblical scholars have suggested that child sacrifice was limited to first-born males and associate this restriction with the law of the first-born.†
“Thou shalt give me the first-born of thy sons. Thou shalt do the same for thy livestock, big and small. The first-born shall be left seven days with its mother, and then, on the eighth day, thou shalt hand it over to me” (Exodus 22:28–29).†
Our evidence at Carthage undermines this alleged link between the dedication of the first-born and child sacrifice. Although in the early period of our sample (seventh to sixth centuries B.C.), most of the sacrificed children were newborns (or stillborns—the skeletal evidence does not allow us to determine the exact age of such a young victim), in the later period (fourth century B.C.) most of the children were one to three years old. In this “late” sample, one out of three urns with human remains contained two or three children. In the cases of triple interments, the dental morphology indicates that two of the three children were twins (always the stillborn or newborn) and that the older child was two to four years old. The age difference between the newborn and the two- to four-year-old indicates that both were probably from the same family (buried in the same urn under the same monument), since this range is the natural birth interval that can be expected in families not practicing prenatal forms of birth control.
A possible “explanation” for the double interments is suggested in the passage from the Greek writer Kleitarchos already quoted, who tells us that the children were vowed by the parents in order to obtain a great favor from the gods. In fulfillment of a vow for a favor granted, the parent would pledge an unborn child. But if this child was either born dead or died before the time of sacrifice (the premature-newborn individual), this created a problem. To fulfill the vow, the parent was obliged to offer the youngest living offspring (the two- to four-year-old) as an acceptable sacrifice for the favor granted by the gods. During the fourth century B.C. and later, premature and newborn sacrifices may have been of marginal worth. To remove the ambiguity and to insure the efficacy of the sacrifice, parents were willing to offer older offspring.
If this is true, it is clear that child sacrifice was neither limited to the firstborn, nor was the firstborn a special offering.
Thus far we have understood child sacrifice at Carthage from the religious point of view. Certainly the offerants were motivated by religious concerns and the sacrifice was performed in a religious setting.
But from a sociological point of view, child sacrifice may well have served other less obvious functions. The rite of child sacrifice had long-term practical benefits for various strata within urban Carthage. Ritual infanticide, like more “informal,” “secular” forms of infanticide, was probably used as a mechanism for regulating population growth.
Recent work in historical demography, where the sources are much more complete, indicates that infanticide has functioned even in comparatively modern times as a method of population control. French social historians such as Jean-Louis Flandrin and Jean-Claude Peyronnet have shown, for example, that infanticide was the principal means of birth control in France before the 18th century. Peyronnet found that the vast majority of abandoned children in his study of Limoges were legitimate. He also found that “the average age of the abandoned child tended to rise during years of high grain prices, suggesting that the tougher times grew, the older were the children of whom parents were willing to disembarrass themselves.”†
Among the social elite of Punic Carthage the institution of child sacrifice may have assisted in the consolidation and maintenance of family wealth. One hardly needed several children parceling up the patrimony into smaller and smaller pieces. Even where primogeniture was the rule, family claims of one sort or another might easily disperse the wealth too widely.
For the artisans and commoners of Carthage, ritual infanticide could provide a hedge against poverty.
For all these participants in this aspect of the cult, then, child sacrifice provided “special favors from the gods.”
From a comparative cultural perspective, child sacrifice, or ritual infanticide, is simply a special form of infanticide. The “non-institutionalized” form has appeared in Graeco-Roman society and in the Christian West with more regularity than we usually are comfortable in admitting. Unwanted or abandoned children have been subjected to exposure, drowning, starvation, strangulation, smothering, and poisoning, but the most common and lethal way of disposing of unwanted children has been simply neglect.†
Infanticide was often preferable to abortion because birth order and sex selection could be taken into account for economic reasons. Infanticide was also less dangerous to the physical well-being of the mother.† What effects it had on her psyche is another matter. This probably varied with the “cultural distance” that was established between mother and infant.
As early as 787 A.D. the first foundling home was established in Milan, followed by hospitals in Rome, Florence, and other cities. This was the church’s answer to a major social problem: infanticide and the abandonment of unwanted children. At the end of the 12th century, Pope Innocent III established the Hospital of the Santo Spirito in Rome “because so many women were throwing their children into the Tiber.”†
London, Paris and St. Petersburg had well-known children’s hospitals. By the mid-1830s, the St. Petersburg hospital had “25,000 children on its rolls and was admitting 5,000 newcomers annually. It was efficient and well-run; nevertheless, 30 to 40 percent of the children died during the first six weeks and hardly a third reached the age of six.”† In the London hospital, by mid-18th century, it was impossible to cope with the number of unwanted children. In the words of John Brownlow, “Instead of being a protection to the living, the institution became, as it were, a charnel-house for the dead.”†
To protect parental anonymity, Napoleon had turntables added to French foundling homes in 1811, “so that the mother or her agent could place the child on one side, ring a bell, and have a nurse take the child by turning the table, the mother remaining unseen and unquestioned.”† It was so effective that the hospitals were swamped with babies, and the turntables had to be removed.
Ritual infanticide at Carthage served some of the same ends as informal infanticide did from antiquity till now in other societies. For the Carthaginians, this religious institution was immensely important. Of course, it had the overt support of the state. We feel discomfort with the ostentation of the Carthaginian cult—its special precinct, the painted urns, the inscribed monuments. It is repulsive, but then so too is the way so many children in our tradition have perished in less obvious ways. Perhaps the Carthaginians would have gotten a better press in the West had they concealed their practices more subtly.
———Editor, H. S. (2002; 2002). BAR 10:01 (Jan/Feb 1984). Biblical Archaeology Society.
Thank you for this. Happy to find it even if I am almost a decade late.
Glad to help!
Roger, what do you think of apologists like Frank Turek who make the specific claim that the Canaanites watched their babies “sizzle to death” in the flames?…
Unfortunately, not only do none of the ancient historical sources on Canaanite child sacrifice express or imply that the kids were still alive when put in the fire, Plutarch’s comment about cutting the throat of the child makes it reasonable to assume that the fire was used solely for cremation, i.e., the child died before its body was put in the fire….
Hi Barry, what an interesting question. (Apologies for editing it down) This is an old post, and I have no idea off the top of my head, to be honest. One would have to look at the sources.
I was reminded of 2 Kings 3:37 where the Israelites besieged some kinglet:
“Then he took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.”
But it doesn’t specify when the child died.
Do you have a specific reference for the Turek claim, btw? Book, edition, date and page number? We should always be precise.