The city-state of ancient Carthage was a Phoenician colony located in what is now Tunisia. It operated from around 800 B.C. until 146 B.C., when it was destroyed by the Romans. According to historical telling and physical evidence, children – both male and female, mostly a few weeks old – were sacrificed by Carthaginians at locations known as tophets. The practice was also carried out by their neighbors at other Phoenician colonies in Sicily, Sardinia and Malta. 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 concerned had 'heard my voice and blessed me'.
But the modern humanities often need something to write about so it's become a cottage industry to debunk history and replace it with something new, like that da Vinci was gay or Shakespeare was a woman, Richard III was beloved by all, etc. and so revisionists suddenly began insisting that the 'tophets' – ancient infant burial grounds – were simply child cemeteries. Tophet means “place of burning” and the 20,000 burial urns excavated by archaeologists were dismissed as massive efficiency.
They were filled with superstitious dread, for they believed they had neglected the honors of the gods that had been established by their fathers. In their zeal to make amends for their omission, they selected 200 of the noblest children and sacrificed them publicly; and others who were under suspicion sacrificed themselves voluntarily, in a number not less than 300. (Diodorus 20.14.1-7 ff). Link: The Ancient Standard
That consensus became so popular that decades later it is time to debunk the debunkers. A new paper says there is 'overwhelming' evidence that ancient Carthage really did carry out the practice - parents ritually sacrificed young children as an offering to the gods, just like the Greeks and Romans said they did.
They even go so far as to say the practice of child sacrifice could hold the key to why the civilization was founded in the first place.
Co-author Dr. Josephine Quinn of Oxford University's Faculty of Classics, said, "It's becoming 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 archaeological, literary, and documentary evidence for child sacrifice is overwhelming and that instead of dismissing it out of hand, we should try to understand it. People have tried to argue that these archaeological 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's hard to imagine how the death of a child could count as the answer to a prayer.
"It's very difficult for us to recapture people's motivations for carrying out this practice or why parents would agree to it, but it's worth trying. Perhaps it was out of profound religious piety, or a sense that the good the sacrifice could bring the family or community as a whole outweighed the life of the child. We have to remember the high level of mortality among children – it would have been sensible for parents not to get too attached to a child that might well not make its first birthday."
Was the documentation Roman and Greek hate speech, as has been alleged? No, says Quinn, modern groups are applying their own politically correct bias: "We think of it as a slander because we view it in our own terms. But people looked at it differently 2,500 years ago. Indeed, contemporary Greek and Roman writers tended to describe the practice as more of an eccentricity or historical oddity – they're not actually very critical. We should not imagine that ancient people thought like us and were horrified by the same things."
The backlash against the notion of Carthaginian child sacrifice began in the second half of the 20th century and was led by scholars from Tunisia and Italy, the very countries in which tophets have been found. Carthage was far bigger than Athens and for many centuries much more important than Rome, but it is something of a forgotten city today.
"If we accept that child sacrifice happened on some scale, it begins to explain why the colony was founded in the first place," says Quinn. "Perhaps the reason the people who established Carthage and its neighbors left their original home of Phoenicia – modern-day Lebanon – was because others there disapproved of their unusual religious practice.
"Child abandonment was common in the ancient world, and human sacrifice is found in many historical societies, but child sacrifice is relatively uncommon. Perhaps the future Carthaginians were like the Pilgrim Fathers leaving from Plymouth – they were so fervent in their devotion to the gods that they weren't welcome at home any more. Dismissing the idea of child sacrifice stops us seeing the bigger picture."
Citation: Paolo Xella, Josephine Quinn, Valentina Melchiorri and Peter van Dommelen, 'Phoenician bones of contention', Antiquity Volume: 87 Number: 338 Pages: 1199–1207