Carthaginians: Plato, Aristotle, Polybios and others on their character and communal organization (fourth century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Carthaginians: Plato, Aristotle, Polybios and others on their character and communal organization (fourth century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 24, 2024,

Ancient authors: Plato (fourth century BCE), Laws 637, 674a-b (link); Aristotle (fourth century BCE), Politics 1272b, 1324b (link); Polybios (mid-second century BCE), Histories 1.3, 5; 6.43, 51-52, 56 (link); Plutarch (early second century CE), Precepts of Civic Leadership 799c-d (link).

Comments: As the Greek historian Polybios mentions in a passage below, Greek authors had not given much attention to ethnographic explanations of the Carthaginians or Punic populations in northern Libya / Africa. Still, the Phoenicians, from whom the Carthaginians descended, did draw attention ever since Herodotos gave his sketch in the late fifth century (link).

Gathered below are the few discussions by Greek authors that do survive which tend to focus on how the Carthaginians organized their community and on their military character more so than on the details of their customs or way of life. Nonetheless, there are some overall characterizations, with certain authors (e.g. Aristotle) positively evaluating certain elements of Carthaginian society and others focussing on the supposed inferiority of this people in relation to the Romans (e.g. Polybios).

Works consulted: L.M. Rose, “Anonymous, On Carthage (744)” In Jacoby Online. Brill’s New Jacoby – Second Edition, Part III, edited by Ian Worthington. Brill: Leiden, 2021.



[Carthaginians among war-like peoples who drink too much]

(637) . . . Athenian: Oh foreigner of Lakedaimon [i.e. Megillos the Spartan in the dialogue], all such indulgences [such as the drinking at Dionysos’ festivals] are praiseworthy where there exists a strain of firm moral fiber, but where this is relaxed, they are quite stupid. . . [omitted sentences]. But, my dear men, our argument now is not concerned with the rest of humankind but with the goodness or badness of the law-givers themselves. So let us deal more fully with the subject of drunkenness in general for it is a practice of no slight importance, and it requires more than a poor legislator to understand it. I am now referring not to the drinking or non-drinking of wine generally, but to drunkenness pure and simple.

The question is should we deal with it as the Scythians and Persians do, as well as the Carthaginians, Celts, Iberians and Thracians. They are all war-like descent groups (genē). Or should we deal with it as you Spartans do? For you, as you say, abstain from it completely, whereas the Scythians and Thracians, both men and women, take their wine straight and let it pour down over their clothes. They also regard this practice of theirs as noble and splendid. The Persians indulge greatly in these and other luxurious habits which you reject, even if it is done in a more orderly fashion than the others. . . [omitted remainder many sections].

. . . Athenian: But, if you both agree, let’s first (673e) finish off our discussion on drinking.

Kleinias: What sort of finish do you mean?

Athenian: If a city will make use of the institution now mentioned in a lawful and orderly manner, regarding it in a serious light and practising it with a view to self-control, and if in a similar way and with a similar objective, aiming at the mastery of them, it allows indulgence in all other pleasures, then they must all be made use of in the manner described. But if, on the other hand, this institution is regarded in the light of play, and if anyone that likes is to be allowed to drink whenever he likes (674a) and with any companions he likes, and that in conjunction with all sorts of other institutions, then I would refuse to vote for allowing such a city or such an individual ever to indulge in drink, and I would go even beyond the practice of the Cretans and Lakedaimonians [Spartans].

I would go to the Carthaginian law, which stipulates that no soldier on a campaign should ever taste of this potion, but confine himself for the entire time to drinking water only. I would add this: that in the city also no female slave or male slave should ever taste wine, and that magistrates (674b) during their year of office, and pilots and judges while on duty, should taste no wine at all. Nor should any councillor, while attending any important council; nor should anyone whatever taste of it at all, except for reasons of bodily training or health, in the daytime. Nor should any man or woman do so at night when planning to procreate children. Many other occasions, also, might be mentioned when wine should not be drunk by men who are swayed by right reason and law. (674c)

So, according to this argument, there would be no need for any city to have a large number of vineyards. While all the other agricultural products and food supplied would be controlled, the production of wine especially would be kept to the smallest and most modest amounts. Let this, then, foreigners, if you agree, be the finish  we put on our discussion about wine.



[Carthaginian communal organization compared favourably to Cretan and Spartan ones]

(Politics 1272b) Carthage also appears to have a good communal organization, with many outstanding features as compared with those of other peoples, but most nearly resembling the Spartan one in some points. For these three communal organizations (politeiai) – I mean the Cretan, Spartan [both dealt with in the preceding discussion] and, thirdly, Carthagian – are in a way close to one another and are widely different from others. Many regulations at Carthage are good. One proof of a well-regulated communal organization is that the populace willingly remain faithful to the organizational system, and that neither civil strife nor a tyrant has arisen in any degree worth mentioning.

Points in which the Carthaginian communal organization resembles the Spartan are: the common meals (syssitia) among companions corresponding to the [Spartan] common dining halls (phiditia); the leadership roles of the hundred and four [of the Carthaginians] corresponding to the [Spartan] overseers (ephoroi), except for one point of superiority, namely that the overeers are drawn from any class, but the Carthaginians elect their leaders by merit; and, the kings and the council of elders correspond to the kings and elders at Sparta. It is another superior feature that the Carthaginian kings are not confined to the same family and that one of no particular distinction, and also that if any family distinguishes itself . . . [missing words]. . . the elders are to be chosen from these rather than by age. For as they are put in control of important matters, if they are men of no value they do great harm, and they have already injured the Spartan city.

Most of the points therefore in the Carthaginian system that would be criticized on the ground of their divergences happen to be common to all the communal organizations of which we have spoken. However, the features open to criticism as judged by the principle of an aristocracy are some of them departures in the direction of democracy and others in the direction of oligarchy. The reference of some matters and not of others to the popular assembly rests with the kings in consultation with the elders in case they agree unanimously. However, failing that, these matters also lie with the people. When the kings introduce business in the assembly, they do not merely let the people sit and listen to the decisions that have been taken by their rulers, but the people have the sovereign decision, and anybody who wishes may speak against the proposals introduced, a right that does not exist under the other communal organizations. The appointment by co-optation of the boards of five which control many important matters, and the election by these boards of the supreme leadership role of the hundred, and also their longer tenure of authority than that of any other officers (for they are in power after they have gone out of office and before they have actually entered upon it) are oligarchical features. The Carthaginians’ receiving no pay and not being chosen by lot and other similar regulations must be set down as aristocratic, and so must the fact that the members of the boards are the judges in all lawsuits, instead of different suits being tried by different courts as at Sparta. But the Carthaginian system diverges from aristocracy in the direction of oligarchy most noticeably with regard to a certain idea that is shared by most of humankind: they think that the rulers should be chosen not only for their merit but also for their wealth, as it is not possible for a poor man to govern well or to have leisure for his duties. So if election by wealth is oligarchical and election by merit aristocratic, this will be a third system exhibited in the organization of the communal organization of Carthage. Elections there are made with an eye to these two qualifications, and especially elections to the most important offices, those of the kings and of the generals. But it must be held that this divergence from aristocracy is an error on the part of a lawgiver, because one of the most important points to keep in view from the outset is that the best citizens may be able to have leisure and may not have to engage in any unseemly occupation, not only when in office but also when living in private life. And if it is necessary to look to the question of means for the sake of leisure, it is a bad thing that the greatest offices of the city, the kingship and the generalship should be for sale. For this law makes wealth more honoured than worth, and renders the whole city overly focussed on wealth. Furthermore, whatever the holders of supreme power consider honourable, the opinion of the other citizens also is certain to follow them, and a city in which virtue is not held in the highest honour cannot be securely governed by an aristocracy. It is likely that those who purchase office will learn by degrees to make a profit from it when they hold office for money spent. For it would be odd if a man of small means who was respectable would want to make a profit but an inferior person when he has spent money to get elected should not want to. Hence the persons who should be in office are those most capable of holding office. And even if the lawgiver neglected to secure comfortable means for respectable people, it would at all events be better that he should provide for their leisure while in office.

It might also be thought a bad thing for the same person to hold several offices, which is considered a distinction at Carthage. One man for one role is the best rule for efficiency, and the lawgiver should see that this may be secured, and not appoint the same man to play the flute and make shoes. Hence, except in a small city, it is better for the city if a larger number of men share in the offices and if the city is more democratic, because that is fairer for everyone, as we said. Furthermore, functions are performed better and more quickly when separately performed than performed by the same people. This is clear in military and naval matters, because in both of these departments command and subordination are distributed throughout almost the entire body of people.

But if the communal organization is oligarchical, they best escape the dangers by being wealthy, as they constantly send out a portion of the common people to appointments in the cities. In this way, they heal the social sore and make the communal organization stable. However, this is the achievement of fortune, whereas freedom from civil strife should be secured by the lawgiver. But as it is, suppose some misfortune occurs and the multitude of the subject class revolts, there is no remedy provided by the laws to restore tranquillity. This then is the character of the Spartan, Cretan and Carthaginian communal organizations, which are rightly famous. . . [omitted extensive sections].

[Examples involving various non-Greek peoples, including Carthaginians]

(Politics 1324b) . . . Other people declare that the despotic and tyrannical form of communal organization alone achieves happiness. In some cities it is also the distinctive aim of the communal organization and the laws to enable them to exercise despotic rule over their neighbours. So even though with the majority of peoples most of the legal ordinances have been laid down virtually at random, nevertheless if there are places where the laws aim at one definite object, that object is in all cases power. For example, in Sparta and Crete both the system of education and the mass of the laws are framed in the main with a view to war.

Also, among all the peoples (ethnē) that are strong enough to expand at the expense of others, military strength has been held in honour, as with the Scythians, Persians, Thracians and Celts. Indeed among some peoples there are even certain laws stimulating military courage. For instance, we are told [i.e. in the ethnographic source being used] that at Carthage warriors receive the decoration of arm-bands of the same number as the campaigns on which they have served, and at one time there was also a law in Macedonia that a man who had never killed an enemy must wear his halter instead of a belt. Among Scythians at a certain festival a cup was carried around from which a man that had not killed an enemy was not allowed to drink. Among the Iberians, a warlike people (ethnos), they fix small spits in the earth around a man’s grave corresponding in number to the enemies he has killed. So with other peoples there are many other practices of a similar kind, some established by law and others by custom. . . [omitted following sections].



[Lack of Greek ethnographic knowledge about Carthagianians and Romans]

(1.3.7-10) . . . Now if we Greeks were well acquainted with the two governments which disputed the empire of the world, it would not perhaps have been necessary for me to deal at all with their previous history. Nor would it have been necessary to narrate what purpose guided them and on what sources of strength they relied when they entered into such a vast undertaking.  However, as neither the former power nor the earlier history of Rome and Carthage is familiar to most of us Greeks, I thought it necessary to prefix this book and the next to the actual history so that that no one – after becoming engrossed in the narrative proper – may find himself at a loss and ask by what counsel and trusting to what power and resources the Romans embarked on that enterprise which has made them lords over land and sea in our part of the world.  However, it may be clear to readers from these books and the preliminary sketch in them that the Romans had quite adequate grounds for conceiving the ambition of a world-empire and adequate means for achieving their purpose. . . [omitted section]. (1.5.1) I will adopt as the starting-point of this book the first occasion on which the Romans crossed the sea from Italy. This follows immediately on the close of Timaios’ History [i.e. Timaios of Tauromenion on Sicily – link] and took place in the 129th Olympiad [ca. 264‑261 BCE]. . . [omitted many sections].

[Carthaginians’ communal organization compared with others, with that of the Romans being superior]

(6.43) One may say that nearly all authors [compare Aristotle above] have handed down to us the reputation for excellence enjoyed by the communal organizations (politeumata) of Sparta, Crete, Mantinea, and Carthage. Some make mention also of those of Athens and Thebes. I leave these last two aside because I am myself convinced that the communal organizations of Athens and Thebes need not be dealt with at length . . . [omitted lengthy discussion of several communal organizations, on which see the post at this link].

(6.51) The communal organization of Carthage seems to me to have been originally well contrived with regards its most distinctive points. For there were kings, the house of elders was an aristocratic force, and the people were supreme in matters proper to them. The entire framework of the city greatly resembled that of Rome and Sparta [which had been outlined in the previous section]. However, at the time when they entered on the war with Hannibal, the Carthaginian communal organization had degenerated and that of Rome was better. For as every body or city or action has its natural periods first of growth, then of prime, and finally of decay, and as everything in them is at its best when they are in their prime, it was for this reason that the difference between the two communities (politeumata) manifested itself at this time. For the degree to which the power and prosperity of Carthage had been earlier than that of Rome, Carthage had already begun to decline to that degree; while Rome was exactly at her prime, at least with regard to its system of government. Consequently the multitude at Carthage had already acquired the chief voice in deliberations; while at Rome the senate still retained this. Hence, as in one case the masses deliberated and in the other the most eminent men, the Roman decisions on public affairs were superior, so that although they met with complete disaster, they were finally by the wisdom of their counsels victorious over the Carthaginians in the war.

[Comparing Carthaginians’ and Romans’ areas of superiority]

(6.52) But to move on to differences in detail, such as the conduct of war first of all, the Carthaginians naturally are superior at sea both in efficiency and equipment, because seaman­ship has long been their ancestral skill, and they occupy themselves with the sea more than any other people. However, regarding military activity on land, the Romans are much more efficient. Actually, the Romans devote their entire energy to this matter, whereas the Carthaginians entirely neglect their foot-soldiers, even though they do pay some slight attention to their horsemen. The reason of this is that the troops the Carthaginians employ are foreign and mercenary, whereas those of the Romans are natives of the soil and citizens. The results is that in this respect also we must pronounce the communal organization of Rome to be superior to that of Carthage. The Carthaginians continue to depend for the maintenance of their freedom on the courage of a mercenary force but the Romans on their own courage and on the aid of their allies. Consequently even if the Romans happen to be beaten at the outset, the Romans redeem defeat by final success, while it is the opposite with the Carthaginians. For the Romans, fighting as they are for their country and their children, never can abate their fury but continue to throw their whole hearts into the struggle until they get the better of their enemies. It follows that though the Romans are, as I said, much less skilled in naval matters, they are on the whole success­ful at sea owing to the bravery of their men because, although skill in seaman­ship is of no small importance in naval battles, it is chiefly the courage of the marines that turns the scale in favour of victory. Now not only do Italians in general naturally excel Phoenicians [i.e. the source of Carthaginians] and Libyans in bodily strength and personal courage, but by their institutions also they do much to foster a spirit of bravery in the young men. . . [omitted lengthy discussion of Roman burial customs as a sign of superiority].

[Customs of wealth and piety compared]

(6.56) Furthermore, the laws and customs relating to the acquisition of wealth are better in Rome than at Carthage. At Carthage nothing which results in profit is regarded as disgraceful. At Rome, nothing is guarded against more than accepting bribes and seeking gain from improper channels. For no less strong than their approval of money-making is their condemnation of unscrupulous gain from forbidden sources. A proof of this is that at Carthage candidates for office practise open bribery, whereas at Rome death is the penalty for it. Therefore as the rewards offered to merit are the opposite in the two cases, it is natural that the steps taken to gain them should also be dissimilar.

But the quality in which the Roman community (polieteuma) is most distinctly superior is in my opinion with regard to the gods. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean fear of lower spirits (deisidaimonia), which maintains the cohesion of Roman affairs. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. 10 It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, 11 but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. . . [omitted remainder of praise for Roman elites regarding rites for the gods].



[Inferiority of the Carthaginian civic body to the Athenians]

(Precepts of Civic Leadership 799d-) For example, the Athenian populace is easily moved to anger, easily turned to pity, more willing to suspect quickly than to be informed at leisure. This is because they are readier to help humble persons of no reputation, so they welcome and especially like humorous and amusing speeches. While the Athenians take most delight in those who praise them, they are least inclined to be angry with those who make fun of them. They are terrible even to their main civic leaders, then kindly even to their enemies.

Quite different is the character of the Carthaginian civic body (dēmos). It is bitter, bad-tempered, subservient to their leaders, harsh to their subjects, most abject when afraid, most savage when enraged, stubborn in adhering to its decisions, disagreeable and hard in its attitude towards playfulness and urbanity. Never would these people have adjourned the meeting amid laughter and the clapping of hands, even if a Kleon had asked them to postpone the meeting of the assembly on the ground that he had made sacrifice and had guests to entertain [as in Athens]. Nor would they have joined eagerly in hunting it down and then have given it back to him, which is what happened when a quail escaped from Alkibiades’ cloak while he was speaking [in Athens]. No, they would have put them both to death for their insolence and their flippancy, seeing that the Carthaginians banished Hanno on the charge of aspiring to be tyrant, because he used a lion on his campaigns to carry his luggage. . . [omitted remainder].


Source of translations: H.N. Fowler (d. 1955), W.R.M. Lamb (d. 1961), Paul Shorey (d. 1934), R.G. Bury (d. 1951), Plato in Twelve Volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1914-1961); H. Rackham (d. 1944), Aristotle: Politics, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1932); W.R. Paton (d. 1921), Polybius: The Histories, 6 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922-27); F.C. Babbitt (d. 1935), H.N. Fowler (d. 1955), W.C. Helmbold (d. 1969), Plutarch: Moralia, volumes 1-6, 10, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1927-1936), public domain, adapted by Harland.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *