Economy of the Punic Phoenician Empire
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Economy of the Punic Phoenician Empire
Trade, faith, slavery and war with the Greeks and the Romans

© Roy A Decker, e-mail: Oroblanco
Published by kind courtesy of Mr. Roy A. Decker. All comments regarding this particular assay should be addressed to Mr. Decker.

Trade is part of the story

The Carthaginian empire had a very diversified and complex economy. They relied heavily on trade, but this is only a

Like their Phoenician cousins, they produced the much prized purple dye so coveted by royalty, from the crushed shells of a saltwater snail species called Murex. Their trading ships called at every port of antiquity, and they traded overland with peoples of the interior of Africa, such as the Garamantes, Berbers, Numidians, Mauretanians and Ethiopians, and possibly with the mysterious Nok culture of central Africa. From the interior they obtained salt, which was highly prized in ancient times, the exchange rate being equal to gold. Roman soldiers (and probably Carthaginians too) were paid in part in salt, from which comes the old saying "worth your salt". Carthage had excellent relations with the warlike Gauls, Celts, and

coin from carthage
A bronze coin of Carthage 3rd century B.C. called a "zar"

Celtiberians, from whom they obtained amber, tin, silver, and furs. Their merchant vessels (often capable of transporting 100 tons or more, a size not reached by European ships until the fifteenth century A.D.) brought exotic goods from faraway lands such as spices like cinnamon, cassia (a Chinese type of cinnamon, much stronger) sesame seeds, frankincense, myrrh, ebony wood, ivory, and metals such as copper, lead, and gold. There is evidence that Carthaginian and Phoenician vessels

were sailing at least as far as Sumatra in southeast Asia, which may be the "mythical" land of Punt, and were credited with having circumnavigated Africa soon after the Phoenician expedition sent by the Egyptian pharoah Necho in the seventh century B.C.

The secret of how to make the purple dye was not the only trade that Carthaginians learned from their Tyrian motherland, they also learned how to make glass. The glassware produced by Carthage and Tyre, in a surprising variety of colors (even in swirls of rainbow colors), was highly prized through the ancient world. Their glass beads were traded for metals and other goods with more uncivilized cultures, and they are found in many ancient sites.

Carthaginian traders brought amber from northern Europe and other gems to trade in Mediterranean ports. One type even came to be called after them (Carchedon). From their own homeland of Zeugitana (which nearly matches the borders of modern Tunisia) they brought wine, grain, fruits and nuts to trade, and dried fish from the Atlantic, as well as the products traded by their competitors the Greeks, such as olive oil. They also were famous for the quality of their furniture, beds and bedding, their wood joinery being widely copied. They brought furs from the barbaric lands and sold cheap pottery to nearly every people they traded with. The big surprise product only recently discovered, was marijuana, which was found in the wrecks of several Carthaginian ships.

Punic Faith and Slavery

The Carthaginians are credited with inventing sale by auction, and they were famous for it. They even traded with people with whom they had no real contact, as described by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (about 430 B.C.)

"The Carthaginians also say they trade with a race of men who live in a part of Libya (Africa) beyond the Pillars of Hercules (Straits of Gibraltar). On reaching this country, they unload their goods, arrange them tidily along the beach, and then, returning to their boats, raise a smoke. Seeing the smoke, the natives come down to the beach, place on the ground a certain quantity of gold in exchange for the goods, and go off again to a distance. The Carthaginians then come ashore and take a look at the gold; if they think it represents a fair price for their wares, they collect it and go away; if, on the other hand, it seems too little, they go back aboard and wait, and the natives come and add to the gold until they are satisfied. There is perfect honesty on both sides; the Carthaginians never touch the gold until it equals in value what they have offered for sale, and the natives never touch the goods until the gold has been taken away."

This description of "perfect honesty" on the part of Carthaginians may surprise some, since the enemies of Carthage (the Romans and Greeks) described them as cheats and liars; even today you can find in the dictionary "punic faith" as meaning dishonesty, yet there is little evidence that they were dishonest in trade. Common sense dictates that they could not have traded long if they were dishonest as a common practice.

The intransigence on the part of some natives to trade with Carthaginians in person may be related to their Tyrian cousins making slave raids. The Carthaginians certainly had slaves, as well, but apparently did not go on slaving expeditions, at least not after about 500 B.C., as testified in their first treaty with Rome, which mentions coastal raids.

horse-headed coin
Reverse of silver tetradrachm of Carthage, struck for use in paying mercenary soldiers in Sicily

Warfare in ancient times was a different affair from today, and was seen as an important source of booty and slaves. Captured enemy soldiers might be ransomed back to their homeland or even exchanged, the going rate being two "mina" (a mina was equal to 50 shekels, or about 0.944 pound) in silver per soldier - (which is the price Hannibal demanded for the captives taken at Cannae) but if their homeland refused to pay or could not, they might be sold into slavery. One of the earliest accounts of a naval battle records the fate of the sailors of Phocaia taken captive by Carthage and her Tyrrhenian (Etruscan) allies - the Tyrrhenians killed their share of prisoners by stoning, while Carthage sold their own share into slavery. Enemy people too could be taken as slaves and sold, especially in the case of the taking of a city that did not surrender right away.

At War with Greeks and Romans

The trading pattern of Carthage in her early history was oriented toward the eastern Mediterranean, where she found ready markets for the raw materials brought from Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The famous city of Tartessus (Tarshish of the Old Testament) located on the Atlantic coast of Iberia was a great competitor for Carthage, and in concert with her Celt allies Carthage destroyed the famous city and took over the lucrative trade in the Atlantic seaboard. When the homeland (Phoenicia proper) fell to invaders, Carthage took advantage of the situation and expanded her trade, as well as taking control of the now isolated sister colonies such as Utica, Agadir (Gades, modern Cadiz) and Tingis, even though many had been established longer, and in some cases re-established colonies where Tyrian colonies had failed, such as those planted on the Atlantic coast of Africa by Hanno (about 510 B.C.) Carthage may have been saved from conquest by her mother city of Tyre. When the Persian Great King, having conquered Tyre, decided to extend his conquest to include Carthage, he 'drafted' the Tyrian fleet to do the job. The people of Tyre refused to sail against their children. Later on, Carthage and Persia entered into an agreement, with Carthage sending a token tribute annually. By the time Xerxes invaded Greece, the two were allies, and Carthage launched a huge army against Syracuse, resulting in the disastrous defeat at Himera in 480 B.C. at the hands of the Syracusans.

The wars with the western Greeks hindered trade with the eastern Mediterranean ports, but Carthage found ready markets in the west, and kept a stranglehold on the Pillars of Hercules, with her warships having standing orders to sink any foreign vessel they found outside on sight. The port city of Massilia, (modern Marseilles, France) a colony of Greeks that contested with Carthage repeatedly, took advantage of the situation (the war with Syracuse tying down most of the Carthaginian fleet) and sent off Pytheas to discover the source of tin, a metal needed for the production of bronze. Pytheas managed to slip past the Carthaginians and found the source, the "tin islands" which are the British isles. After the accession of Alexander the Great, Carthage renewed trade with the eastern Mediterranean ports, and this influence can be seen in her artwork, pottery, and in their religious practices, adopting several Greek gods.

The wars with the Greeks finally ended with Carthage largely successful, and in control of most of western Sicily, all of Sardinia and Corsica as well as many smaller islands including Malta. Sicily was to be the cause of the first war with Rome, with whom Carthage had friendly relations up til that time, even allying with Rome against King Pyrrhus of Epirus. Polybius, a Greek historian of the second century B.C., stated that the Romans broke their treaty with Carthage and sent troops to Sicily in great part due to greed, the tantalizing idea of bringing the riches of Carthage to Rome was a tremendous enticement.

Carthage was fairly advanced in agriculture and was a net exporter of grains, and famous for her horses, which strongly resemble the Arabian horses of today. Mago wrote a 28 volume treatise on agriculture and soil conservation, which was so highly valued by the Romans that they ordered it translated into Latin for their own use after the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. They practiced irrigation and crop rotation, possibly learned from their contacts with Egypt and other near eastern countries. After the disastrous loss of the Second Punic war with Rome (202 B.C.), Hannibal was elected Shophet (or Suffete, a post very similar to the Judge-Kings of Israel), and pushed through a number of government reforms, and placed renewed emphasis on agriculture which was highly successful, allowing Carthage to pay her heavy war indemnity to Rome and recover her wealth, in spite of the loss of her empire. Legend has it that the Romans went so far as to salt the earth of Carthage after her utter destruction to prevent her rising again.

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