By Mike Markowitz for CoinWeek….
Ancient Coin Series
MOST OF WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT CARTHAGE was written by their enemies–first the Greeks, then the Romans. They are described as greedy, treacherous and brutal. Yet even Cicero, a Roman politician born 40 years after Carthage was wiped out, grudgingly admitted that “Carthage would never have held an empire for six hundred years had it not been governed with wisdom and statesmanship.”
None of its literature, and very little of its art, architecture or material culture survives.
But we have the coins.
Well, more precisely, we have coins for the last 250 years of Carthaginian history, an era of wars against Romans and Greeks. Carthage adopted coinage late in its long history.
Destroyed and rebuilt many times, the site of the North African city of Carthage lies in what is now the suburbs of modern Tunis. Founded in 814 BCE (according to legend) by the Phoenician princess Dido, for centuries it was an outpost or colony of the great commercial city of Tyre on the Lebanese coast. By 509 BCE it was independent enough to negotiate a commercial treaty with the new Roman republic.
Carthage struck its earliest coins in Sicily around 410 BCE to pay mercenaries fighting for control of the island against Syracuse and other Greek city-states. Many numismatists think the art of coinage on Sicily in this period reached a peak of excellence that would not be matched until the 19th century.
This “Siculo-Punic” coinage (“Punic” from the Latin name for Carthaginians, Poeni) closely follows the Greek weight standards, themes and style of silver coins of Syracuse, Gela, Akragas and other cities. One type paired the head of the nymph Arethusa (a symbol of Syracuse) with the horse and palm tree that symbolized Carthage. Another type copied the image of Herakles from the vast coinage of Alexander the Great, paired with a horse head and date palm tree reverse. Carthaginians identified the Greek hero Herakles with Melqart, the patron god of Tyre.
Sparse inscriptions are in spidery Phoenician script: QRT HDŠT (“New City” – what Carthage called itself), ‘SMMNT (“People of the Camp”), ŠYŠ (Punic place-name for Palermo), MHSBM (“The Paymasters”). Like closely-related Hebrew, Punic was a Semitic language written without vowels, so we must guess how words were pronounced.
In standard reference books and sale catalogs, coins of Carthage appear under “Zeugitana” — the province where the city stood. Numismatic references are organized by geographic region — for example, Athens under “Attica,” and Sparta under “Lakonia.” Zeugitana is roughly the northern third of modern Tunisia.
Gold and Electrum
About 350 BCE Carthage began striking gold “staters” of about 9.4 grams, bearing an image of a woman garlanded with wheat stalks in her hair.
To Carthaginians she was Tanit, goddess of fertility. Greeks and Romans saw her as Persephone or Kore and Proserpina respectively, a goddess of vegetation and the underworld. The reverse shows a standing horse. Carthaginian gold carries no inscriptions, only occasional pellets of unknown meaning.
People everywhere tend to be resistant to changes in their money, but Carthage was remarkably consistent. For over two centuries, the city maintained the Tanit/horse and palm tree/horse head combinations.
Punic merchant-explorers made daring voyages as far as West Africa to trade for gold. Over the course of decades, this gold supply was stretched to cover the cost of wars by alloying coins with more and more silver. Early “electrum” pieces, struck on the Phoenician shekel weight standard (about 7.5 grams,) were over 70% gold; a century later they were down to a pale 30%. Fractions included half, quarter, fifth and tenth shekels.
First Punic War
In 264 BCE, Rome’s expansion triggered a clash with the growing wealth and power of Carthage. Lasting 23 years, this war saw the destruction of vast armies and fleets in and around Sicily. To pay its armies and fleets, Carthage struck large denominations, such as a silver dekadrachm or five-shekel with Pegasus reverse (38 grams) and gold hexadrachms (three shekels, 24.75 gram) and tridrachms (1-1/2 shekel, 12 grams.) By the end of the war, Carthage’s treasury was so depleted it was reduced to coining debased silver (called “billon” by numismatists) and over-valued bronze.
Under the terms of the treaty that ended the First Punic War in 241, Carthage had to pay Rome 1000 talents of gold immediately, plus another 2000 talents over the next decade – 78,000 kilograms of bullion, or some 8.3 million gold staters!
The Mercenary Revolt
In 241 BCE, disgruntled mercenaries joined a revolt of native peoples of North Africa and Sardinia against harsh Punic rule:
“Among them were heavily armed Libyan infantry, Numidian and Mauretanian light cavalry, barbaric Celts, light-armed Iberians, armoured Greeks and Campanians, Ligurian and Balearic slingers. There were also Roman deserters, Lybo-Phoenicians, Half-Hellenes, half-breeds and outcasts from all the Punic and Greek cities in Sicily and North Africa.”
Punic officials were willing to pay, but as the mercenaries’ demands escalated, negotiations broke down in mutual mistrust. The ensuing “Truceless War” dragged on over three years of treachery, atrocities and massacres. Rebels crucified captured generals, and Punic elephants trampled prisoners.
The rebels also issued coins, some crudely overstruck on captured Punic silver, others in a strange copper-tin-arsenic alloy (which gave the coins a silvery appearance when new). One design paired the head of Herakles with a walking lion and the Greek inscription LYBION (“Lybia”), a generic name for all North Africa west of Egypt inhabited by the ancestors of modern Berbers.
Barcids in Spain
Having lost an empire in Sicily and Sardinia, Carthage rebuilt one in Spain. Hamilcar Barca (275-228 BCE), the commander who negotiated the end of the First Punic War and crushed the mercenary revolt, established his base at Cadiz. Over the course of a decade, he came to dominate the tribes of the southern half of the peninsula.
His portrait may appear on a rare silver tetradrachm struck some time after 237. Usually any male image on a Punic coin is cataloged as “Melqart,” but this beardless profile wears a diadem, the golden headband of Hellenistic royalty. This is also the only Punic coin depicting a warship. Since ancient galleys fought by ramming, the bow was the business end of a vessel. The ornately decorated prow of a warship on an ancient coin symbolizes maritime power or naval victory.
After Hamilcar was killed fighting Iberian tribes, his 25-year-old son Hannibal Barca (247-182 BCE) took command. Cataloguers and numismatists bitterly debate whether Hannibal’s laurel-crowned portrait (or possibly his brother-in-law’s, Hasdrubal the Fair) appears in the guise of Melqart on Punic coins with an elephant reverse struck in Spain.
Hannibal in Italy
People who know nothing else about Carthage know the name of Hannibal, a brilliant military leader and ferocious enemy of Rome. For 15 years he marched across Italy, smashing one Roman army after another, making and breaking alliances with cities and tribes.
In Bruttium (the toe of the Italian boot) Hannibal struck small electrum coins in the odd denomination of 3/8 shekel (about 3 grams). The design was based on the popular Roman silver quadrigatus, with Jupiter on the reverse, driving a chariot and about to hurl a thunderbolt, but with a double-faced image of Tanit replacing the Roman god Janus on the obverse.
At Capua, Hannibal struck more conventional Punic half and quarter shekels in silver.
Eventually, Roman armies defeated Carthage in Spain, and in 202 BCE invaded North Africa, forcing Carthage to surrender. Hannibal, pursued relentlessly by Rome, died in exile.
The End of Carthage
Under the treaty that ended the Second Punic War, Carthage was stripped of its colonies, forbidden to have a navy and forced to pay a huge indemnity. Short of precious metal, Carthage issued huge copper coins (100 grams or more) and low-grade billon pieces (less than 25% silver), which often had a distinctive, mysterious serrated edge (perhaps it made them harder to counterfeit).
Traumatized by war, elite Romans came to believe that only the total annihilation of Carthage could ensure Rome’s security. The third and final Punic war ended in a three-year siege, the destruction of the city and the enslavement or dispersal of the survivors.
Although rare Punic precious metal coins are beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest collectors, small bronze and minor silver pieces survive in thousands and are still affordable. Very fine bronzes can be found under US$50, and fine silver quarter shekels for about $100.
Surviving ancient sources depict Carthaginians as depraved monsters who sacrificed their own children to cruel gods. Their coins tell a different story – a diverse, multi-ethnic society of people who loved their horses and palm trees, and appreciated beauty. Although we cannot experience the “truth” of life in the ancient world, numismatics can help objects speak for themselves, if we learn how to listen.
Carradice, Ian and Susan La Niece. “The Libyan War and Coinage: a new hoard and the evidence of metal analysis”, Numismatic Chronicle 148 (1988)
Jenkins, G.K. Coins of Punic Sicily. Swiss Numismatic Review, 4 parts: 50 (1971) to 57 (1978)
Jenkins, G. K. and R. B. Lewis. Carthaginian Gold And Electrum Coins (Royal Numismatic Society Special Publication No. 2). London. 1963
Miles, Richard. Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization. New York. (2011)
Soren, David, Aicha Ben Khader and Hedi Slim. Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia. New York (1990)
Viola, Mauro. Corpus Nummorum Punicorum, Numismatica Varesi, Rome, (2010)
Visonà, Paolo. “Carthaginian Coinage in Perspective”, American Jounal of Numismatics 10 1-27. (1998)
Visonà, Paolo. “A New Wrinkle in the Mid-Carthaginian Silver Series”, Numismatic Chronicle, 166 15-23 (2006)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for best pre-WWII wargame. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.
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