Did the Carthaginians Actually Practice Child Sacrifice?

In my work in progress, The Death of Carthage, my protagonist, Gisco, is informed by Indibal, the priest of Tanit and Ba-al Hammon that he must surrender his five month old son, Hanno, to be sacrificed to the gods. Aghast, Gisco seeks to avoid the sacrifice by taking his wife and three children to Roman occupied territory. Of course, he knows the Romans won’t assist him unless they have something to gain, so he offers them information, thus becoming a traitor to Carthage.
He encounters Roman soldiers along the road to Tarraco and they take him and his family to the tent of Lucius, who is in charge of receiving intelligence reports and who speaks to Gisco in Greek.
“Now, who are you, and why are you traveling to Tarraco? Who are the woman and children and these other men?”
“My name is Gisco,” I said. “I’m a deserter from the Carthaginian army, and I was coming to Tarraco because it is firmly in Roman control. I bring my wife and three children and two freedmen.”
“The name Gisco sounds Carthaginian,” said Lucius, looking amazed. “You’re Carthaginian?”
“Yes,” I said.
“A Carthaginian deserter!” he exclaimed. “That never happens! The Spanish tribesmen are fickle, and we see deserters from time to time, but an actual Carthaginian? Never. How do we know you’re not a spy? You must realize that we Romans believe that there is no such thing as an honest Carthaginian.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I once heard a Roman say, ‘Lying is for Carthaginians.’ But the Carthaginian army would never send a Carthaginian as a spy. That would be too obvious. We have so many other nationalities in our employ that can blend in much more easily. I was highly placed in the Carthaginian army. I was lieutenant to Mago Barca, the brother of Hannibal, and my brother is Hasdrubal son of Gisco, the general who leads an army down in Gades. I can offer your Scipio a lot of information.”
Young Lucius looked shocked. “I’ve never heard anything so unbelievable!” he said. “And even if it were all true, you say these things so matter-of-factly. Are you not the least bit ashamed of being a traitor? What is your price for selling information to your enemies?”
“The safety of my wife and children. That is my only price,” I said. “Yes, I’m ashamed of being a traitor to my country. Do you think I would do this if I had a choice?”
“What do you mean, if you had a choice?” said Lucius. “Why do you have no choice?”
“Do you see the baby in my wife’s arms?” I said. “He was to be sacrificed as a burnt offering to our gods Tanit and Ba-al Hammon. This was my only way to prevent it. I trade my honor for his safety.”
Lucius stared at me open-mouthed for a long moment. “You mean it’s true what they say about Carthage? True about the sacrifice of infants?”
I nodded. I was on the verge of tears. No, I admit it. I began to weep. We sat for a long time in silence. Finally, Lucius poured a cup of wine and offered it to me. “Thank you,” I said. I took the cup and began to sip from it. Not Falernian, but not bad.
“Let me see the child,” said Lucius. He left the tent and bade Sansara to show him the baby. He returned to his desk.
“A beautiful child,” he said. “I have a son of my own back in Rome.” He shook his head. “I can’t understand you Carthaginians. How could you possibly. . . .”
“I couldn’t,” I said. “That’s why I’m here. A traitor with no country.”
This brings us to the question of whether or not the Carthaginians actually did sacrifice their own children. This has been a matter of controversy for many years. Various ancient Greek and Roman writers refer to the practice. They include Plutarch, Tertullian, Drosius, Deodarus Siculus and Philo. None of these writers could have been an eye witness to such a sacrifice as they all lived at least decades after the complete destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 B.C. They may, however, have been citing earlier sources that have been lost. It is interesting that neither Titus Livius (Livy) nor Polybius make any reference to the practice. Those who believe that the Carthaginians did not practice child sacrifice dismiss such references as Greek and Roman propaganda against a people who were their enemies. The Carthaginians themselves, whose civilization was annihilated by the Romans, left no written documents pertaining to child sacrifice, but all such material, if it existed may have been destroyed.
More difficult to dismiss is the archeological evidence. Carthage had a separate cemetery for remains of infants and young children. This is usually referred to as the Tophet-not a Carthaginian word but a reference to a biblical spot where human sacrifices were said to have taken place. The graves held cremated bones, carefully packed into urns, buried under tombstones giving thanks to the gods. Some urns also contain the remains of lambs and goats, obviously sacrificed at the same time. Dedications from the Children’s parents to the gods are inscribed on slabs of stone above their cremated remains, ending with the explanation that the god or gods had “heard my voice and blessed me.”
One archeologist who firmly believes that the Carthaginians did sacrifice their children is Dr. Josephine Quinn of Oxford University’s Faculty of Classics. She says:
“It’s become increasingly clear that the stories about Carthaginian child sacrifice are true. This is something the Romans and Greeks said the Carthaginians did and it was part of the popular history of Carthage in the 18th and 19th centuries. But in the 20th century, people increasingly took the view that this was racist propaganda on the part of the Greeks and Romans against their political enemy, and that Carthage should be saved from this terrible slander. What we are saying now is that the archeological, literary, and documentary evidence for child sacrifice is overwhelming and that instead of dismissing it out of hand, we should try to understand it.”
She goes on to say “People have tried to argue that these archeological sites are cemeteries for children who were stillborn or died young, but quite apart from the fact that a weak, sick, or dead child would be a pretty poor offering to a god, and that animal remains are found in the same sites treated in exactly the same way, it is hard to imagine how the death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer.”
It is this writer’s opinion that the preponderance of evidence indicates that the Carthaginians did, indeed, practice child sacrifice and that the use of such a scenario in a novel does not necessarily come under the concept of “novelist’s license.”

Comments

  1. Good blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing
    like yours these days. I honestly appreciate people like you!
    Take care!!

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