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The Foundation of Carthage


Carthage. Map design Jona Lendering.
Carthage
The story of the foundation of Carthage is told by a Roman author named Justin, who made an excerpt of the history written by Pomponius Trogus. He tells how a princess named Elissa fled from her native city Tyre, and founded Carthage. At the end of the story, the Roman historian also offers an explanation for the Carthaginian human sacrifices. Later, the Roman poet Virgil connected this story with the Aeneas myth, and changed the name of the princess into Dido. The original story may contain several historical echoes, or at least some Carthaginian information.

The translation of section 18.4-6 of Justin's Epitome of Trogus' History was made by John Selby Watson.

The Tyrians [...] sent a portion of their youth into Africa, and founded Utica. Meanwhile their king died at Tyre, appointing his son Pygmalion and his daughter Elissa, a maiden of extraordinary beauty, his heirs. But the people gave the throne to Pygmalion, who was quite a boy. Elissa married Acerbas, her uncle, who was priest of Melqart, a dignity next to that of the king. Acerbas had great but concealed riches, having laid up his gold, for fear of the king, not in his house, but in the earth; a fact of which, though people had no certain knowledge of it, report was not silent.

Pygmalion, excited by the account, and forgetful of the laws of humanity, murdered his uncle, who was also his brother-in-law, without the least regard to natural affection. Elissa long entertained a hatred to her brother for his crime, but at last, dissembling her detestation, and assuming mild looks for the time, she secretly contrived a mode of flight, admitting into her confidence some of the leading men of the city, in whom she saw that there was a similar hatred of the king, and an equal desire to escape.

She then addressed her brother in such a way as to deceive him; pretending that "she had a desire to remove to his house, in order that the home of her husband might no longer revive in her, when she was desirous to forget him, the oppressive recollection of her sorrows, and that the sad remembrances of him might no more present themselves to her eyes."

To these words of his sister, Pygmalion was no unwilling listener, thinking that with her the gold of Acerbas would come to him. But Elissa put the attendants, who were sent by the king to assist in her removal, on board some vessels in the early part of the evening, and sailing out into the deep made them throw some loads of sand, put up in sacks, as if it was money, into the sea. Then, with tears and mournful ejaculations, she invoked Acerbas, entreating that "he would favorably receive his wealth which he had left behind him, and accept that as an offering to his shade, which he had found to be the cause of his death."

Next she addressed the attendants, and said that "death had long been desired by her, but as for them, cruel torments and a direful end awaited them, for having disappointed the tyrant's avarice of those treasures, in the hopes of obtaining which he had committed fratricide."

Having thus struck terror into them all, she took them with her as companions of her flight. Some bodies of senators, too, who were ready against that night, came to join her, and having offered a sacrifice to Melqart, whose priest Acerbas had been, proceeded to seek a settlement in exile.

[....] Pygmalion, having heard of his sister's flight, and preparing to pursue her with unfeeling hostility, was scarcely induced by the prayers of his mother and the menaces of the gods to remain quiet; the inspired augurs warning him that "he would not escape with impunity, if he interrupted the founding of a city that was to become the most prosperous in the world."

By this means some respite was given to the fugitives; and Elissa, arriving in a gulf of Africa, attached the inhabitants of the coast, who rejoiced at the arrival of foreigners, and the opportunity of bartering commodities with them, to her interest. Having then bargained for a piece of ground, as much as could be covered with an ox-hide, where she might refresh her companions, wearied with their long voyage, until she could conveniently resume her progress, she directed the hide to be cut into the thinnest possible strips, and thus acquired a greater portion of ground than she had apparently demanded; whence the place had afterwards the name of Byrsa.

The people of the neighborhood subsequently gathering about her, bringing, in hopes of gain, many articles to the strangers for sale, and gradually fixing their abodes there, some resemblance of a city arose from the concourse. Ambassadors from the people of Utica, too, brought them presents as relatives, and exhorted them "to build a city where they had chanced to obtain a settlement."

An inclination to detain the strangers was felt also by the Africans; and, accordingly, with the consent of all, Carthage was founded, an annual tribute being fixed for the ground which it was to occupy. At the commencement of digging the foundations an ox's head was found, which was an omen that the city would be wealthy, indeed, but laborious and always enslaved. It was therefore removed to another place, where the head of a horse was found, which, indicating that the people would be warlike and powerful, portended an auspicious site. In a short time, as the surrounding people came together at the report, the inhabitants became numerous, and the city itself extensive.

When the power of the Carthaginians, from success in their proceedings, had risen to some height, Hiarbas, king of the Mauretanians, desiring an interview with ten of the chief men of Carthage, demanded Elissa in marriage, denouncing war in case of a refusal. The deputies, fearing to report this message to the queen, acted towards her with Carthaginian artifice, saying that "the king asked for some person to teach him and his Africans a more civilized way of life, but who could be found that would leave his relations and go to barbarians and people that were living like wild beasts?"

Being then reproached by the queen, "in case they refused a hard life for the benefit of their country, to which, should circumstances require, their life itself was due," they disclosed the king's message, saying that "she herself, if she wished her city to be secure, must do what she required of others."

Being caught by this subtlety, she at last said (after calling for a long time with many tears and mournful lamentations on the name of her husband Acerbas), that "she would go whither the fate of her city called her."

Taking three months for the accomplishment of her resolution, and having raised a funeral pile at the extremity of the city, she sacrificed many victims, as if she would appease the shade of her husband, and make her offerings to him before her marriage; and then, taking a sword, she ascended the pile, and, looking towards the people, said, that "she would go to her husband as they had desired her," and put an end to her life with the sword.

As long as Carthage remained unconquered, she was worshipped as a goddess. This city was founded seventy-two years before Rome; but while the bravery of its inhabitants made it famous in war, it was internally disturbed with various troubles, arising from civil differences. Being afflicted, among other calamities, with a pestilence, they adopted a cruel religious ceremony, an execrable abomination, as a remedy for it; for they immolated human beings as victims, and brought children (whose age excites pity even in enemies) to the altars, entreating favor of the gods by shedding the blood of those for whose life the gods are generally wont to be entreated.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2004
Revision: 8 December 2007
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