The Religion of Carthage was a direct continuation of the polytheistic Phoenician religion with significant local modifications. A significant debate exists regarding the practice of child sacrifice in the religion of Carthage.


Karthago Tophet

Stele from the Tophet of Salammbó showing a Tanit symbol

Phoenician Origins

Carthage derived the original core of its religion from Phoenicia. The Phoenician pantheon was presided over by the father of the gods, but a goddess was the principal figure in the Phoenician pantheon. The system of gods and goddesses in Phoenician religion also influenced many other cultures. There are too many similarities to be overlooked. In some instances the names of gods underwent very little change when they were borrowed. Even the legends maintained major similarities. Egyptian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian and others had their influences on the Phoenician faith system as well as borrowed from it.

The supreme divine couple was that of Tanit and Ba'al Hammon. The goddess Astarte seems to have been popular in early times. At the height of its cosmopolitan era Carthage seems to have hosted a large array of divinities from the neighbouring civilizations of Greece, Egypt and the Etruscan city-states.

Caste of priests and acolytes

Surviving Punic texts are detailed enough to give a portrait of a very well organized caste of temple priests and acolytes performing different types of functions, for a variety of prices. Priests were clean shaven, unlike most of the population. In the first centuries of the city ritual celebrations included rhythmic dancing, derived from Phoenician traditions.

Punic stelae

Cippi and stelae of limestone are characteristic monuments of Punic art and religion, and are found throughout the western Phoenician world in unbroken continuity, both historically and geographically. The majority was set up over urns containing the ashes of human sacrifices, which had been placed within open-air sanctuaries. Such sanctuaries constitute striking relics of the Western Mediterranean Phoenician or Punic civilisation.

One of the most important stelae was the "Marseilles Tariff" found in the port of Marseille and originally from the temple of Baal-Saphon in Carthage. The tariff regulated the payments to the priests for performing sacrifices,[1] and is close related to the normatives and provisions of the Leviticus.[2]

Child sacrifice

Carthage was described by its competitors as practicing child sacrifice. Plutarch (ca. 46–120 AD) mentions the practice, as do Tertullian, Orosius, Diodorus Siculus and Philo. However, Livy and Polybius do not. The Hebrew Bible also mentions what appears to be child sacrifice practiced at a place called the Tophet ("roasting place") by the Canaanites, related to the Carthaginians, although there is to date no evidence of human sacrifice among the Canaanites.

In former times they (the Carthaginians) 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.[3]

Some of these sources suggest that babies were roasted to death on a heated bronze statue. According to Diodorus Siculus, "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."[3]

The accuracy of such stories is disputed by some modern historians and archaeologists.[4][5] Nevertheless, several apparent "Tophets" have been identified, chiefly a large one in Carthage, dubbed the "Tophet of Salammbó", after the neighbourhood where it was unearthed in 1921.[6]

Sites within Carthage and other Phoenician centers revealed the remains of infants and children in large numbers; many historians interpret this as evidence for frequent and prominent child sacrifice to the god Ba'al Hammon.

Greek, Roman and Israelite writers refer to Phoenician child sacrifice. However, some historians have disputed this interpretation, suggesting instead that these were resting places for children miscarried or who died in infancy. The debate is ongoing among modern archeologists and historians. Skeptics suggest that the bodies of children found in Carthaginian and Phoenician cemeteries were merely the cremated remains of children that died naturally.[7] Sergio Ribichini has argued that the Tophet was "a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were "offered" to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead".[8]

According to Lawrence and Wolff there is a consensus among scholars is that Carthaginian children were sacrificed by their parents, who would make a vow to kill the next child if the gods would grant them a favor: for instance that their shipment of goods were to arrive safely in a foreign port.[9] They placed their children alive in the arms of a bronze statue of:

the lady Tanit ... . The hands of the statue extended over a brazier into which the child fell once the flames had caused the limbs to contract and its mouth to open ... . The child was alive and conscious when burned ... Philo specified that the sacrificed child was best-loved.[10]

Later commentators have compared the accounts of child sacrifice in the Old Testament with similar ones from Greek and Latin sources speaking of the offering of children by fire as sacrifices in the Punic city of Carthage, which was a Phoenician colony. Cleitarchus, Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch all mention burning of children as an offering to Cronus or Saturn, that is to Ba`al Hammon, the chief god of Carthage. Issues and practices relating to Moloch and child sacrifice may also have been overemphasized for effect. After the Romans finally defeated Carthage and totally destroyed the city, they engaged in post-war propaganda to make their arch enemies seem cruel and less civilized.

Motivations behind the sacrifices

Some authors, like Stager and Wolff,[9] believe that the real purpose behind children's sacrificies was birth control. The fact that the preferred victims were male, however, exposes the weakness of this theory. The most plausible motivation was, according to available evidence, to establish a way of "cementing the vertical and horizontal power relationship within the social structure".[11]

Evidence from archaeology

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Tunisise Carthage Tophet Salambo 02

Stelae in the Tophet of Salammbó covered by a vault built in the Roman period

Most archaeologists accept that some sacrifices did occur. Lawrence E. Stager, Professor of Archaeology of Israel and Director of the Semitic Museum at Harvard University, who directed the excavations of the Carthage Tophet in the 1970’s, takes the view based on ancient texts that infant sacrifice was practiced there. Stager is joined by Joseph Greene, Assistant Director of the Semitic Museum, a member of Stager’s team in the excavations of Carthage, and author of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s "Punic Project Excavations": Child Sacrifice in the Context of Carthaginian Religion: Excavations in the Tophet.

According to these scholars, in the Tophet of Salammbó, Carthage, an estimated 20,000 urns were deposited between 400 BC and 200 BC, with the practice continuing until the early years of the Christian period. The urns contained the charred bones of newborns and in some cases the bones of fetuses and 2-year-olds. These double remains have been interpreted to mean that in the cases of stillborn babies, the parents would sacrifice their youngest child. There is a clear correlation between the frequency of sacrifice and the well-being of the city. In bad times (war, poor harvests) sacrifices became more frequent, indicating an increased assiduousness in seeking divine appeasement, or possibly a population controlling response to the reduction of available food in these bad times, or perhaps increased child mortality due to famine or disease.

The area covered by the Tophet was probably over an acre and a half by the fourth century B.C., with nine different levels of burials. Archaeologists have also discovered evidence of child sacrifice in Sardinia and Sicily.

Animal remains, mostly sheep and goats, found inside some of the Tophet urns strongly suggest that this was not a burial ground for children who died prematurely. The animals were sacrificed to the gods, presumably in place of children (one surviving inscription refers to the animal as "a substitute"). It is conjectured that the children unlucky enough not to have substitutes were also sacrificed and then buried in the Tophet.

The Tophet

"Tophet" is a term derived from the Bible, used to refer to a site near Jerusalem in which Canaanites and Israelites sacrificed children. It is now used as a general term for all such sacred sites. In Carthage, it was the location of the temple of the goddess Tanit and the necropolis.

The Bible does not specify that the Israelite victims were buried, only burned, although the "place of burning" was probably adjacent to the place of burial. Indeed, soil in the Tophet of Salammbó was found to be full of olive wood charcoal, probably from the sacrificial pyres. We have no idea how the Phoenicians themselves referred to the places of burning or burial or to the practice itself, since no large body of Phoenician writing has come down to us.

Evidence for and against the practice of child sacrifice

It has been argued by some modern scholars that evidence of Carthaginian child sacrifice is sketchy at best and that it is far more likely to have been a Roman blood libel against the Carthaginians to justify their conquest and destruction. M’Hamed Hassine Fantar, Director of Research at the Institute of National Cultural Heritage, Tunisia, argues that the Tophet of Salammbó, Carthage, was a cemetery for stillborns and infants who had died of natural causes, and whose bodies were then cremated. Sergio Ribichini has also argued that the Tophet was "a child necropolis designed to receive the remains of infants who had died prematurely of sickness or other natural causes, and who for this reason were "offered" to specific deities and buried in a place different from the one reserved for the ordinary dead". He adds that this was probably part of "an effort to ensure the benevolent protection of the same deities for the survivors." [12] The few Carthaginian texts which have survived make no mention of child sacrifice, though Carthaginian votive steles (several in Egyptian style) display a priest carrying a living-child, apparently to sacrifice.

Conversely, work at Motiya, an island off Sicily which was home to a large Phoenician colony, showed that the bones of children buried in the local Tophet belonged to male children under the age of five. There was no evidence of disease in these bones (which survived cremation).

See also

James B. Pritchard


  • Brown, Shelby, "Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context" (JSOT/ASOR Monograph Series, vol. 3; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), p. 149.
  • Fantar, M’Hamed Hassine. Archaeology Odyssey Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28–31
  • Lawrence E. Stager and Samuel R. Wolff, "Child Sacrifice at Carthage: Religious Rite or Population Control?" Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1984.
  • Joseph Greene, Punic Project Excavations: Child Sacrifice in the Context of Carthaginian Religion: Excavations in the Tophet, American Schools of Oriental Research.


  1. Perdue, Leo (2001). The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible. Wiley-Blackwell, p. 157. ISBN 0631210717
  2. Sparks, Kenton (2005). Ancient texts for the study of the Hebrew Bible: a guide to the background literature. Hendrickson Publishers, p. 175. ISBN 1565634071
  3. 3.0 3.1 Diodorus Siculus. Library XX, xiv
  4. Fantar, M’Hamed Hassine. Archaeology Odyssey Nov/Dec 2000, pp. 28-31
  5. Carthage tries to live down image as site of infanticide
  6. Briand-Ponsart, Claude and Crogiez, Sylvie (2002). L'Afrique du nord antique et médievale: mémoire, identité et imaginaire. Publication Univ Rouen Havre, p. 13. ISBN 2877753255. (fr)
  7. The Phoenicians Elsa Marston p56
  8. Sergio Ribichini, "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati, Sabatino (ed), The Phoenicians, 1988, p.141
  9. 9.0 9.1 Stager, Lawrence; Samuel. R. Wolff (1984). "Child sacrifice in Carthage: religious rite or population control?". Journal of Biblical Archeological Review January: 31–46. 
  10. Brown, Shelby (1991). Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context. Sheffield Academic Press. pp. 22–23. 
  11. Futrell, Alison (2001). Blood in the Arena: The Spectacle of Roman Power. University of Texas Press, pp. 176-177. ISBN 029272523X
  12. Sergio Ribichini, "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati, Sabatino (ed), The Pheonicians, 1988, p.141

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