Child sacrifice, while completely repugnant and bizarre to modern eyes, has happened at times in history. In this article, Joe Greenslade investigates the practice of child sacrifice among the ancient Carthaginians. Did they really sacrifice living children? Or did they undertake practices that were somewhat less sinister?

The painting  Allegory of Carthage  by Francesco di Stefano.

The painting Allegory of Carthage by Francesco di Stefano.

An overview

In the modern world the thought of people conducting human sacrifice is morbid, un-thought of, and despicable.  Before we explore if and why the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice, it is important that we take a moment to view the mind-set of the ancient Carthaginians. We must not judge them by modern standards; neither must we condemn them as child killing murderers until we have properly explored the evidence provided.

The peoples of the ancient worlds did not know science, not as we knew today.  They rationalized everything that happened with religion.  If there was an outbreak of disease, the gods were unhappy.  If a harvest failed, the gods were unhappy.  If a military campaign failed, it was because the commander had not offered the correct sacrifices before he left.  Everything was rationalized with religion.  In the Greek, Roman, and Carthaginian worlds the gods could be appeased by sacrifice.  The personal sacrifices were usually smaller animals, but the state sponsored sacrifices consisted of larger beasts, usually cows or bulls.  These sacrifices usually revolved around festivals, as the populace would eat the meat in the aftermath.

Although human sacrifice was frowned upon even in the ancient world, with Gelon of Syracuse and the Persians insisting the Carthaginians stop, there were still practitioners.  The Phoenicians were known to have carried out human sacrifice.  This helps us understand roots in Carthaginian sacrifice because it was the Phoenicians that originally set up the colony in North Africa that became Carthage, and in doing so it seems they took it upon themselves to continue the sacrificial practices of their forbears.


The literary evidence

The evidence for child sacrifice comes in the form of literary and archaeological evidence. This points to the Carthaginians using human sacrifice prior to the destruction of the Romans in 146 BC.  We have many ancient sources, mostly Roman, who chronicle the Carthaginians as child sacrificers.  For example Diodorus Siculus tells us of the process.  Diodorus insists that there was a statue with down facing arms that stood over a pit of fire. The young were placed in the arms of this statue and let go, where they rolled down the arms and into the pit.  This process was conducted to appease a Carthaginian deity, most likely Tanit or Baal Hammon.  Plutarch, a Greek biographer who was writing during the period of Roman dominance, wrote that street children would be bought and used for sacrifice.  Quintus Curtius tells us that this practice only died out when Carthage was destroyed, which potentially shows us that the Carthaginians always conducted this ritual.

The problem with these literary sources is that they were written some time after Carthage was destroyed.  They would have been writing with the knowledge that Carthage was an enemy of Rome, so could have been biased.  They were also not contemporary, so would have relied on earlier sources to complete the picture.  Finally, Livy and Polybius, two major sources, fail to mention even briefly that the Carthaginians carried out human sacrifice.  This is important in Polybius’ case because his work was focused on Rome’s conflict with Carthage.  In fact he was supposed to be at Scippio’s side when Carthage was destroyed in 146 BC.


The archaeological evidence

The archaeological evidence is more useful than the literary evidence.  We can put our hands on it, investigate it, see it.  The principles evidence comes from a site in Carthage known as the Tophet.  It was found and excavated in 1921 by P. Gielly and F. Icard.  The excavation revealed many burial urns that contained the ashes and bones of young infants along with some animal remains.  The jump was easy to make; the Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice.  This belief was further enhanced when certain steles at the graveyard were excavated.  One such stele was inscribed with amounts of coin paid by wealthy parents on behalf of their sons.  This could tie in with Plutarch’s works, as street children could have been sought out instead of the wealthy children.  Perhaps poorer families were chosen, families who could not afford the coin.  Another stele seems to show the parents taking pride in having their child sacrificed. It reads “It was to the Lady Tanit Face of Baal and to Baal Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed his son of his own flesh.  Bless him you!”

This seems to suggest that these parents had a stele set up to commemorate the sacrifice.  The slightly unsettling aspect of this engraving is that it does not even include the child’s name - just the father and his ancestors.  The stele seems to be a testament to the father.  Another stele has an engraving depicting a priest carrying a baby, most likely to its doom.  These finds of the Tophet seem to fully allow us to believe that the Carthaginians ritualistically sacrificed children to appease their gods.  The literary evidence coupled with this archaeological evidence seems to offer no escape for the Carthaginians, who were of course condemned.  But there is quite a persuasive argument that could still yet exonerate the Carthaginians.


The problem

What could possibly cast doubt in the face of such evidence, both archaeological and literary, you ask?  It is tough to work out, and if you have by now then I salute you, it took me a while longer.  You see, there is an argument that suggests these children were already dead when they were offered up for sacrifice.

Bomilcar was perhaps offering up a child that had been stillborn, or had died of a disease.  It is still a form of offering, giving up his dead son’s body - an argument used by Schwartz in 2012.  He put forth the theory that the Tophet was an infant cemetery for those who died young, stillborn and even fetuses.  Schwartz argues that they were offered for sacrifice after death.  He tried to prove this by investigating the teeth of the deceased to ascertain an age of death; by doing this he could cross reference his finds with the high child/infant mortality rate to help prove they were already dead at the time of offering.

Schwartz’s argument is compelling, but it does not change the fact that the Carthaginians believed that the gods could be appeased by the burning of children, being alive or dead.  If this is the case, the ancient sources can be forgiven for thinking the offerings were still alive; indeed, they still could have been, Schwartz’s argument could be wrong.  Whether the children were alive or dead before they tumbled down the arms of the statue into a pit of fire, we’ll never know for certain. I’ll leave each of you to make up your own decision.

The ancient world was a brutal place, but we must not judge them too harshly.  Human sacrifice still has a place in modern society.  The Hindu practice of Sati, for example, where the wife of the deceased husband was placed on the pyre and burned alive along with the body of her husband, was practiced as recently as 2006.

Maybe modern times aren’t so different from ancient times after all.


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Anderson, J (2013). Daily Life through Trade: Buying and Selling in World History. California: ABC-CLIO. 35-37.

Brown, S (1991). Late Carthaginian child sacrifice. Sheffield: JSOT Press. 21-24

Church, A. Gilman, A (1998). The Story of Carthage. New York: Biblo & Tannen Publishers.

Hoyos, D (2010). The Carthaginians. New York: Routledge 94-104

Lancel, S (1997) Carthage: A History. New York: Wiley.

Langdon, S. (1904). The History and Significance of Carthaginian Sacrifice. Journal of Biblical Literature. 23 (1), 79-93.

Markoe, G (2000). Phoenicians. California: University of California Press. 94-95.

Miles, R (2010). Carthage must be destroyed. London: Penguin. 68-98.

Schwartz J.H., Houghton F.D., Bondioli L. & Macchiarelli R. (2011). Bones, teeth, and estimating age of perinates: Carthaginian infant sacrifice revisited. Available: Last accessed 26/01/2015.

Scullard, H (1955). Carthage. Greece & Rome, Second Series. 2 (3), 104-106.

Soren, D (1991). Carthage: uncovering the mysteries and splendours of ancient Tunisia. New York: Simon & Schuster. 120-130 (Indian Sati)

Amazing buildings have been destroyed due to mortars, terrorism, free will and the musings of politicians. It seems mad to us now, in an age when preservation is a priority, that buildings of historical significance have been torn down without any governmental say-so. In every part of the globe, our lands are littered with the remains of what's been left behind, or the spaces where things 'could have been'.

So what are we, as historical tourists, missing exactly in our archaeological passports? What should have been that is no longer here? Hollie Mantle explains…


Sophienkirche - Dresden

World War Two attacked few cities to the same extent it ravaged the German city of Dresden. While people were captured, fled or hid in basements, the city around them, and its beautiful baroque architecture, was being blitzed by a persistent rain of bombs.

Whilst the destruction of baroque architecture was undoubtedly an utter tragedy, one building of unusual note was also left in disrepair by the war. The city’s gothic Sophienkirche, with twin neo-gothic spires, was the admiration of local people. Though the bombs blasted some of the church’s exterior, however, it was not the war which eventually saw to the church’s demise, but the fateful words of a contemporary politician, who said: ‘a socialist city does not need gothic churches’. And so, in the early 1960s, the Sophienkirche was demolished.

The area where the Sophienkirche existed is now a much more unsightly collection of 1990s-style buildings, and not worth a trip for travellers. In the middle of the city, though, the beautiful Frauenkirche cathedral was restored in 2005, and should feature high on any tourist’s ‘to-do’ list.   

Dresden's Sophienkirche.

Dresden's Sophienkirche.

Carthage – Tunisia

It surprises most to hear of the wide presence of Ancient Roman ruins in northern Africa, and that one of Ancient Rome's most famous sites in fact lies in Tunisia. The ancient city of Carthage was a hot bed of shipbuilding and imports of jewels, glassware, gold, and ivory. However, the city – which was only second to Rome in its splendor in the region – was destroyed around 146BC in the Third Punic War against Rome, after which point the Carthaginian Empire was defeated . After its demise, the city was rebuilt by the Romans, but was eventually destroyed for the second time several centuries later by the Muslim conquest.

Today Carthage lies in ruin in modern Tunisia, and is a great pull for tourists visiting the country. The outlines of homes, palaces and the harbor can still be seen, giving a glimpse of the grandeur of this historic Mediterranean empire. For those who want to avoid the capital, the coastal towns of Sousse, with its ‘Medina’, and Hammamet, are brimming with ancient ruins and museums that will give you a rounded overview of the country’s history.


The Library of Alexandria - Egypt

The loss of this great library, which stood in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, still represents the destruction of public knowledge for many historians. Why, how and when it was exactly lost is difficult to establish, but most books on the subject point fingers at Julius Caesar, Emperor Theodosius I or the Muslim Army of Amr ibn al ‘Aas as culprits, and suggest it was destroyed by fire.

In the last centuries of the period before Christ, the library was the greatest in the ancient world. It had reading rooms, lecture halls, gardens and shelves brimming with papyrus scrolls containing all the knowledge of ancient times. When it was destroyed, some scrolls were preserved and moved to other locations, but most suffered damage again in their second homes.

For visitors wanting to see the ruins now, that is not possible. There are none. Instead, the Biblioteca Alexandrina, a modern library built to commemorate the Library of Alexandria, stands in its place, though with less of the glory of its predecessor. 


The Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria

Shakespeare’s House - Stratford upon Avon

Tourists flock to an English town to see the site where the world’s most famous wordsmith was brought into the world.

After his childhood, however, Shakespeare moved to London, where he began his career as an actor and writer – though very few records can mark him down in one particular place at a given time.

As a wealthy, middle aged man, though, we do know this: Shakespeare bought a home in Stratford. New Place was purchased in 1597 for the great sum of £60, and was home to his wife Anne and his children, until he too eventually returned there in 1610, to commence his retirement. It was also the unfortunate stage for his death, six years later, in 1616.

So why do we not visit and revere this home, where the adult Shakespeare housed his family during the prime of his career?

When Anne Hathaway later died in 1623, the house was sold and passed into different hands, before becoming the property of Francis Gastrell. Angered by visitors pestering the outside of his home to see the site where Shakespeare lived, Gastrell tore the place down in 1759.

The piece of land where New Place once stood is protected by the Shakespeare Trust, but is unfortunately just that; a space. All we have now are artists’ drawings and our imaginations to attempt to conjure an image of “the forms of things unknown”.


Ancient Aleppo Markets - Syria

Due to the recent conflict, the cost of disruption and human lives in Syria far outweighs the damage to buildings. But the ancient Aleppo Markets, registered by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, have suffered tremendously during city wide fights, eventually becoming engulfed in flames that destroyed the majority of the ancient 'souk'. Somewhere in the region of 700-1,000 shops were destroyed, as water strikes meant that containing the fire was nigh on impossible. What was once a huge tourist attraction within this thriving city is now just a marker of the tragedy that has taken over and ripped the country apart.


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