There was an article in the New York Times a number of years ago that reported on a place that scholars have called “the largest cemetery of sacrificed humans ever discovered.” It’s located near the North African coast, not far from the city of Tunis, the site of the ancient Phoenician city of Carthage. In its day, Carthage was one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in the world. The Carthaginians were a sea-faring people, and were able to dominate the Mediterranean with its superb navy that protected its very lucrative trade routes. But Carthage also engaged in widespread ritual infant sacrifice to their principal deity, Baal Hammon, which gave them a nefarious historical reputation. In the 1970s, however, a number of historians sought to rehabilitate Carthage. They argued that its bad reputation was the result of a racist propaganda war by Carthage’s bitterest enemy, the Roman Republic. It was the Republic who, after withstanding the invasion of Hannibal’s Carthaginian army in 218 B.C., ended up destroying the city of Carthage in 146 B.C. The Times article cites a historian who says: “Some scholars regard Carthaginian civilization as so advanced and sophisticated that widespread human sacrifice would have been unthinkable.” Such attempts at rehabilitation, however, fly in the face of the archeological evidence. Ritual child sacrifice was practiced in Carthage on an immense scale.
Historians now want to understand why the Carthaginians would sacrifice their infants to Baal. The Times article refers to something that historians describe as a “paradox” – that one of the greatest civilizations in history would engage in such a barbarous practice as infanticide. “There was a peculiar dualism in Carthage in which the thrust for commerce, prosperity and the good life were blended with a religion so intense that the richest Carthaginian could cheerfully consign a son or daughter to the flames of the sacrificial pit to redeem a pledge to the gods.” But some have come to understand that these things are not really opposed to each other, but are in fact mutually supportive. These scholars suggest that the widespread sacrifice of infants to idols, though perhaps unfortunate, protected the estates of the wealthy from the threat of having to be divided among a large number of heirs. And so it seems that one might seek to curry favor with the local deity while simultaneously protecting assets from dilution. It is also argued that child sacrifice served to control population growth, thus preserving valuable food and other resources from depletion. Thus, some contend, widespread child sacrifice to Baal was an important cultural component in Carthage’s rise to power and its enjoyment of immense wealth for centuries.
In his classic work, The Everlasting Man (1925), G.K. Chesterton gives a riveting account of the conflict between the Roman Republic and Carthage, contrasting the two ancient peoples by pointing to the gods they worshipped. While Carthage worshipped Baal, who gave them wealth and power in exchange for the blood of their children, the Romans in the age of the Republic worshipped the “hearth gods,” household deities who were guardians of the home and family. When Carthage sought to invade and destroy the Republic, in the end Rome was victorious. Rome defeated its loathsome enemy because, Chesterton argues, it had something of real value to fight for – the treasures of hearth and home rather than the expansion and maintenance of wealth and power.
In any case, I thought that was interesting. Wouldn’t you agree?