Ancient Carthaginians sacrificed their children: study

The 2,000 year old Phoenician ruins of Carthage near Tunis. (QMI Agency files)

The 2,000 year old Phoenician ruins of Carthage near Tunis. (QMI Agency files)

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, Last Updated: 12:28 PM ET

For years the claims of ancient Greeks and Romans that Carthaginians sacrificed their own children were dismissed as dark propaganda, but a new study claims to prove the ancient residents of modern day Tunisia did in fact kill their offspring as offerings to their gods.

The argument over the Carthaginians' sacrificial practices has raged since the start of the 20th century, when cemeteries excavated on the outskirts of Carthage were found filled with tiny bones.

Some experts claimed this proved gruesome ancient accounts to be true, while others claimed carvings of priests carrying small children simply showed the society's devotion to children who had died before birth or soon after being delivered and were given a respected and revered burial.

A new study published in the journal Antiquity insists the suggestion of propaganda is nothing more than 20th century squirmishness. Oxford lecturer in ancient history

Josephine Quinn tells The Guardian, "This (child sacrifice) is some thing dismissed as black propaganda because in modern times people just didn't want to believe it. But when you pull together all the evidence - archaeological, epigraphic and literary - it is overwhelming and, we believe, conclusive: they did kill their children, and on the evidence of the inscriptions, not just as an offering for future favours but fulfilling a promise that had already been made."

Quinn and a team of experts from from Italy and Holland also reject the suggestion that the bones of infants found in the cemeteries were those of still born children or infant deaths, citing references in inscriptions that claim a response from the gods.

Quinn explains, "The inscriptions are unequivocal: time and again we find the explanation that the gods 'heard my voice and blessed me'. It cannot be that so many children conveniently happened to die at just the right time to become an offering - and in any case a poorly or dead child would make a pretty feeble offering if you're alre ady worried about the gods rejecting it."

Ancient historians like the Roman Diodorus give graphic accounts of child sacrifice in the ancient society, describing a fiery pit the children were killed in and suggesting that wealthy people who bought poor children for the purpose of sacrifice feared they were being punished for not sacrificing their own offspring.

According to Quinn, our reluctance to accept the practice of child sacrifice is simply a case of modern people shying away from the brutal lifestyles of ancient societies.

She adds, "The feeling that some ultimate taboo is being broken is very strong. It was striking how often colleagues, when they asked what I was working on, reacted with horror and said, 'Oh no, that's simply not possible, you must have got it wrong'. We like to think that we're quite close to the ancient world, that they were really just like us - the truth is, I'm afraid, that they really weren't."


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