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Child Sacrifice in Carthage September 27, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

Beach is getting dangerously topical. First, there was the discovery of Richard III’s bent body, next to Jesus’s wife and now an old obsession of his, Carthaginian child sacrifice is breezing through the newspapers. In fact, the right of the ancient Carthaginians to sacrifice their children has just, it seems, been outlawed by some Pittsburgh archaeologists, something that had been previously attempted by Italian archaeologists in 2007. Is there a chance that they are on to something?

The first thing to note here is that child sacrifice was extensively claimed for the Carthaginians by their Roman enemies. According to a famous passage in that Sicilian scrapbook paster Diodorus.

[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.

Now the Victorians used to  dwell on the most unpleasant things in the past with voyeuristic interest: anything for a frisson of Gothic horror. We ‘moderns’ spend a lot of time, instead, denying unpleasant traits in our ancestors be they genocide in the middle ages or, say, evidence of bodies being buried alive. To Beach’s mind, this is far worse than anything the Victorians got up to because it involves deciding on our ancestors’ behalf just what was moral or immoral. That many of those who spend their time playing down the ‘sensationalism’ of the past are the same who would describe themselves, in the smuggest terms, as ‘relativists’ make the whole thing several factors worse. And that ‘worse’ needs to be multiplied several times more where the theoretical basis of the debate is littered with terms such as ‘semiotic’ and with gnomic nods to Foucault: ‘knowledge is not for knowing, knowledge is for cutting’ etc etc etc etc.

So back to facts. Shelby Brown in her excellent and empirically-grounded Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context makes a water-tight case that child sacrifice was practised among the Carthaginians. The evidence is double checked because it appears not just in Latin and Greek sources, but also in the Old Testament. All this could perhaps be passed off as a series of misunderstandings (willful or otherwise). But crucially there are funeral stelae from Carthage itself that describe the fulfillment of vows and that are attached to the funerary remains of burnt Carthaginian children! Some urns with similar stelae include incinerated animal bones. It doesn’t get much more incriminating than this. What do our archaeologists want: video cameras giving us pov shot from Chronos’ forehead? Of course, there is a long debate waiting to be played out here on the frequency of child sacrifice and the number of children involved. And in fairness to the folks from Pittsburgh this is what they seem to be interested in rather than outright dismissal: there is the impression that their thesis has been exaggerated by the Fleet Street scribblers. But any attempt to deny that child sacrifice happened marks yet another depressing instance of our footling, well-meaning but depressingly incompetent colonisation of the past. More thoughts on child sacrifice past: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com