Suffetes (Phoenician sptm, "judges"): highest official in a Phoenician city.

A suffete from Lepcis Magna
A suffete from Lepcis Magna

The Phoenician officials known as suffetes are well-known, but in another way than we might expect: the expression is used to describe the leaders of the Jewish people in the Biblical book of Judges (shophtim). People like Gideon, Samson and Samuel had a title that was well-known in the towns along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

Probably, the suffetes were originally representatives of the king or (in the Bible) God. Later, this informal title became a well-defined office. The Phoenician city of Tyre sent suffetes to its colonies in the west. There, they had certain religious duties, controled the colony's finances, and were president of several kinds of political assemblies. As their title indicates, they also served as judges. They are usually not mentioned as military leaders. Often, there were two of them, so that they would control each other.

After Tyre had been captured by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 585, the colonies were without supervision. Sometimes, they choose kings; sometimes, they became republics, led by the suffetes, who were now no longer representatives of the mother city, but of their own town. This happened, for example, in Carthage, which was ruled by a team of two elected suffetes who remained in office for a fixed period of one year.

The idea to divide executive leadership and make it last for only one year, was copied by several other nations and is known from Sardinia and Libya. The most remarkable emulation is in Rome, where the two consuls (originally known as iudices, 'judges') were also elected for one year. The matter is discussed here.


R. Yaron, "Semitic elements in Early Rome", in Alan Watson (ed.), Daube noster. Essays in Legal History for David Daube (1974 Edinburgh)

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 12 October 2020.