Part Four/North African Agricultural Civilization/Punic and Greco-Roman North Africa

George Peter Murdock
1897 — 1985

Professor of Anthropology, Yale University

Africa. Its Peoples and Their Culture History

New York. McGraw-Hill. 1959. 456 p.

Explore also the SemanticAfrica Peoples Vocabulary

Part Four
North African Agricultural Civilization
— 18 —
Punic and Greco-Roman North Africa

If the trans-Saharan caravan trade stimulated economic and political development among the Negroes on the southern fringe of the desert, it similarly brought progress and prosperity to the Berbers along its northern borders. The great Phoenician mercantile city of Tyre, which had extended its trading relationships to the western Mediterranean during the eleventh century B.C. and had begun to establish a series of colonies and trading posts in Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain, was induced to do likewise in North Africa in order to tap the flourishing trade with the Sudan. The most famous of her African colonies was Carthage, founded near the site of modern Tunis in 814 B.C., according to Punic tradition.
From relatively modest beginnings, Carthage gradually rose to power and prosperity, and in the sixth century B.C., when the mother city was conquered by the Perians, she assumed political hegemony over all the Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean. She extended her control of North Africa from Tripolitania in the east to the Atlantic coast of Morocco in the west, establishing trading posts at strategic points. She dominated most of this region, however, through allied or conquered and tributary Berber tribes, and her own area of intensive settlement was mainly confined to the northern part of modern Tunisia and an adjacent strip on the Algerian coast. Here the Carthaginians replaced Berber with their own Semitic language and attained a population, according to Strabo, of about 700,000, which must certainly have included a high proportion of Punicized Berbers.
A sea-borne merchant people like the parent Phoenicians, the Carthaginians ranged far beyond the Straits of Gibraltar to trade with the Britons and with the Berbers of western Morocco. Sometime before 400 B.C. Hanno, a Carthaginian admiral, embarked with a fleet of sixty vessels on a famous voyage of exploration down the Atlantic coast of Africa. He certainly reached the Gulf of Guinea and, from his report of gorillas, probably the shores of modern Gabon, but he did not circumnavigate the continent as some have claimed. The discovery, two centuries ago, of a cache of Carthaginian coins of the fourth century B.C. in the Azores—a third of the way across the Atlantic from Portugal—raises the question whether some stray Punic navigator may not even have discovered the New World.
In Sicily, Carthage contended for supremacy with Syracuse and other Greek colonies from the fifth to the third centuries B.C., with varying military success. When, however, she succeeded in expanding her territory in 275 to the Strait of Messina opposite continental Italy, she presented a serious threat to the rising power of Rome. This precipitated the three Punic Wars (265-146 B.C.), which terminated in her utter destruction.
The Carthaginian economy rested on intensive agriculture, with irrigation and the plow. Although the subject Berbers grew wheat and barley as their staple crops, supplemented by legumes, flax, and sesame, the Carthaginians themselves seem to have concentrated on arboriculture, growing orchards of almonds, figs, grapes, olives, pears, pomegranates, and walnuts. They made noteworthy advances in scientific agriculture, as even the hostile Romans recognized when they translated into Latin the thirty-two treatises of Mago on the subject. Animal husbandry yielded wool, hides, meat, milk, butter, and cheese. The Carthaginians kept cattle, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, poultry, and bees. They bred mules, and tamed wild African elephants for use in warfare as early as the third century B.C. They did little hunting or gathering, but fishing was economically important.
Above all else, however, the Carthaginians were a mercantile people. They built their power and wealth on the basis of the trans-Saharan trade with Negro Africa and extended it after the fall of Tyre by inheriting the latter’s monopoly of all commerce beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. They imported date and hides from the Sahara; ivory, ostrich feathers, gold, and slaves from the Sudan; grain and copper from Sardinia; silver from Spain; and quantities of tin from Britain to fill the widespread demand in the Mediterranean for its use in the manufncture of bronze. In exchange, they gave their own products—grain, wine, olive oil, beeswax, timber for naval construction, linen cloth, rugs, pottery, glassware, metal tools and weapons, and ornaments of precious stones. Carthage conducted this immense and far-flung trade mainly by barter, for she had no coinage of her own until the fourth century B.C. The state bent every effort to protect and expand its commercial monopolies with its fleet and its armies.
As might be expected in so mercantile a society, social stratification was highly developed. In addition to a plutocratic arisrocracy, there were differentiated classes of intelligentsia, petty bourgeoisie, artisans, proletarians, and slaves. Land was held in large estates, obtained by conquest, owned by the wealthy, and worked by slaves labor. Next to nothing is specifically reported concerning the domestic institutions of Carthage, but the sources contain some intimations that the great merchant families were in reality corporate patrilineages.
The urban population lived in cities and towns of considerable size. The city of Carthage itself was built on a T-shaped peninsula with two landlocked harbors, one for merchant ships and the other for naval vessels. Its defenses included strong city walls and a citadel. Narrow streets radiated out from a forum or central plaza. Houses were rectangular in shape, up to six stories in height, and constructed of sun-dried brick.
Carthage originally had a monarchical form of government modeled on that of Tyre. Around 450 B.C., however, there occurred a revolution in which the kingship was abolished and a republic established. At the head of the state stood two chief magistrates, or presidents, called shofet, elected annually for a term of one year. They exercised judicial functions, but their executive authority was limited to convening and presiding over the two houses of a bicameral legislature, in which all political power was vested. A senate of 300 exercised executive as well as legislative auhority. This body, or usually an executive committee composed of thirty of its more influential members, decided on matters of war and peace, sent and received embassies, levied troops, imposed taxes, and determined over-all military strategy. The senators were chosen exclusively from the aristocratic merchant families or lineages, inferentially as their formal representatives. The lower house was a popular assembly, which every free male Carthaginian was privileged to attend and where he could express his opinions with complete freedom. The assembly elected the president by popular vote and probably appointed a treasurer and finance minister. Its legislative and executive powers, however, were limited to issues brought before it at the instigation of the senate. This was done whenever the upper house failed to achieve essential unanimity or wished an expression of public opinion. The assembly also appointed military and naval commanders in time of war, investing them with powers for the duration of the emergency.
An obscure feature of the Carthaginian constitution was the pentarchies, or boards of five. We know that they were self-perpetuating, and they seem to have been recruited from members of the senate. Some authorities believe that they were identical with the executive committee of the latter. In any event, they were clearly controlled by the mercantile oligarchy, and considerable venality marked their appointment. They chose, commonly from their own ranks, the higher judiciary—a corps of 104—judges of senatorial rank, who allegedly had the authority to demand from all major officials an accounting of their behavior while in office and who became the dominant power in the state during the last half century before its downfall.
Aristotle, our fullest and most objective authority on the Carthaginian political system, stresses the nonhereditary character of all positions, the complete freedom of speech in the assembly, the frequency with which a single individual held several governmental posts at the same time, and the dual desiderata of merit and wealth for election to office, the latter being necessary because officials received no salaries but dangerous because tending to induce corruption. He also comments on the long duration of the system without either a revolution or the emergence of a dictator (it endured for about two centuries after he wrote). He weighs carefully the relative incidence of aristocratic, oligarchic, and democratic elements and finds the system a combination of all three, although curiously, according to modern standards, he considers election by voting rather than by lot to be a definitely undemocratic feature.
The constitution of Carthage has attracted the interest, and aroused the speculations, of political scientists ever since Aristotle’s time. They have commonly compared it, uncovincingly, with those of ancient Greece, early Rome, and later European democracies. The mystery of its marked divergence from all these systems and of its complete lack of parallels among Semitic peoples elsewhere disappears, however, in the light of the ethnograplucal researches of Montagne (1930). We can now understand it as an obvious borrowing from the political institutions of the Berbers.
The Carthaginian constitution had the Berber combination of a democratic popular assembly and an oligarchic council or senate, with essentially the same composition and functions. It had the same dual chief magistrates, chosen in the same way for terms of the same length and with the same distinctive lack of executive power, from which we may reasonably conclude, despite the absence of direct evidence, that one Carthaginian shofet ended as presiding officer in the senate and the other over the assembly. In both system , moreover, generals were chosen for the duration of a war—a factor which frequenrly gave Hannibal an advantage over the Roman generals, who were appointed for specific terms and were thus likely to be relieved of command at a critical point in a campaign. The only feature of the Carthaginian system for which no obvious Berber parallel exists is the pentarchies, and even these may conceivably bear some relation to the artificial groupings called “fifths” (khom) that are widely reported in the Berber literature.
When the author first encountered ethnographic descriptions of Berber forms of government, he immediately suspected a Carthaginian derivation. As he covered more of the literature, however, it became apparent that the similarities were clearest in the most remote Berber tribes, whose ancestors could never have had contact with Punic culture, and it gradually dawned upon him that the borrowing must have taken place in the opposite direction. It then became obvious what happened in the revolution of 450 B.C. Having overthrown their traditional monarchy, the Carthaginia ns had no political model to copy save that of the neighboring Berbers. The imitation of the latter must have been rendered even more inevitable by the presence in the Punic body politic of numerous Berbers in various stages of acculturation, many of them thoroughly habituated to the traditional institutions of their own people. It is one of the fascinations of anthropology that field work and comparative research conducted in the twentieth century can shed direct light on important historical events of the fifth century B.C.
Greco-Roman influence in North Africa began in the seventh century B.C., when Greeks, mainly from Crete, established a series of colonies on the coast of Cyrenaica. Like Carthage, these prospered greatly from the trans-Saharan caravan trade. The city of Cyrene, for example, had 100,000 inhabitants in A.D. 115, when its large population of Jews revolted. Enormous numbers were massacred, and the rest dispersed throughout the Maghreb or western Mediterranean coast of Africa, where many survive today.
Egypt, after its conquest by Alexander the Great and the installation of Ptolemy I as pharaoh in 323 B.C., embarked upon its Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies, so to speak, merely stepped into the shoes of the earlier native rulers and retained the traditional administrative organization almost intact, so that they became, in effect, just one more in the long series of Egyptian dynasties. However, they surrounded themselves with Greek officials and advisers, adopted Greek as the court language, encouraged Greek immigration, and promoted trade and culmral interchange with the Greek world. Under their rule Egypt thus acquired a strong Hellenic veneer.
After the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C., Rome organized the former possessions of the latter as the province of Africa with its capital at Utica, an ally in the last Punic War. The subsequent conquests of Cyrenaica in 96 B.C., of Egypt in 30 B.C., and of Morocco in A.D. 40, and their incorporation in the empire as additional provinces, gave Rome administrative control over the entire North African coast. She proceeded to develop these territories for her own economic advantage, extending irrigation by the construction of great hydraulic works, instituting ambitious systems of soil conservation, and building long aqueducts to bring water to the major cities settled by her colonists, retired veterans, and loyal Berber allies.
In consequence, North Africa became the granary of the empire, supplying approximately two-thirds of all the grain consumed in Rome itself. In part this was purchased, in part obtained through land taxes payable in kind. One lasting result of this development, as well as of Ptolemaic and later Byzantine and Arab enterprise, was the introduction into North Africa of a series of new cultivated plants unknown to earlier Pharaonic Egypt. The most important of these, which we shall designate collectively as the Greco-Roman complex, are listed below.

Cereal Grains

Asiatic millet
Panicum miliaceum This Middle Eastern grain occurs sporadically in North Africa.
Italian millet
Setaria italica).This Middle Eastern grain is infrequently reported in North Africa
Avena sativa). Though this grain originated in the Middle East during the Bronze Age, it still occurs only sporadically in North Africa.
Secale cereale). This grain also was cultivated in the Middle East in the Bronze Age but is grown only sporadically in North Africa.


French lentil
Vicia ervilia or Ervum ervilia). This Middle Eastern plant was introduced into orth Africa by the Arabs in the eighth century.

Root Crops

Daucus carota). This Middle Eastern plant was apparently first introduced to North Africa in the Greco-Roman period.
Tragopogon porrifolium). This Mediterranean plant appears to have been taken to Africa by the Romans.
Brassica rapa). This Middle Eastern plant was apparently introduced into North Africa during the Greco-Roman period.

Leaf and Stalk Vegetables

Ambriscus cerefolium or Scandix cerefolium). This Mediterranean plant appears to have been introduced into Africa in the first century.
Portulaca oleracea). This Mediterranean plant was introduced into Africa during the Greco-Roman period.
Spinacia oleracea). This Middle Eastern plant seems to have entered North Africa with the Arabs.

Tree Fruits and Nuts

Prunus anneniaca). Introduced into Africa from the Middle East about the time of Christ.
Ceratonia siliqua). Introduced from the Mediterranean or the Middle East about the beginning of the Christian era.
Prunus avium and P. cerasus). Introduced into Egypt from the Middle East during the Hellenistic period.
Citrus medica). A native of India, the citron was introduced into Egypt during the Hellenistic period.
English walnut
Juglans regia). Introduced into Egypt from the Middle East early in the Hellenistic period or perhaps even in late Pharaonic times.
Filbert, or hazelnut
Corylus avellana). Brought from the Middle East to Egypt at about the same time as the English walnut.
Zizyphus vulgaris or Z. jujuba). A native of China, the jujube was introduced into North Africa in the Greco-Roman period.
Citrus limon). An Indian cultigen introduced into Egypt during the Hellenistic period.
Citrus aurantifolia). Introduced from India with the lemon.
Mespilus germanica). Introduced from the Middle East during the Greco-Roman period.
Citrus aurantium). Entered North Africa with the Arabs.
Prunus persica, formerly Amygdalus persica). A very old Chinese cultigen, the peach was introduced into Egypt during the Hellenistic period.
Pyrus communis). This Middle Eastern plant reached Egypt early in the Hellenistic period and was grown in Punic Carthage.
Pistacia vera). Although the Egyptians obtained pistachio nuts by trade from Babylonia from a relatively early period, they apparently did not introduce the tree itself until the first century.
Prunus domestica). Probably introduced into Egypt from the Middle East during the Hellenistic period.
Cydonia oblonga). This Middle Eastern plant probably reached Egypt in the Hellenistic period.


Origanum majorana). This Mediterranean plant probably reached Egypt during the Hellenistic period.
Menta piperita or Pyrus malus). This Mediterranean plant was possibly, though not probably, cultivated in Egypt as early as the Pharaonic period.
Rosmarinm officinalis). Highly dubious evidence suggests that this Mediterranean plant may have been cultivated in Egypt as early as the Pharaonic period.
Allium ascalonicum). This Middle Eastern plant was introduced into Africa early in the Christian era.

Oil and Dye Plants

Black mustard
Brassica nigra). Middle Eastern in origin.
Indigofera tinctoria). Of Indian origin.
Rubia tinctorum). This Mediterranean plant was probably introduced into frica during the Roman period.
Eruca sativa). This oil plant is of Middle Eastern or Mediterranean origin.
Curcuma tonga). This dye plant is ultimately of Southeast Asian origin.
White mustard
Sinapis alba). This oil plant is of Mediterranean origin.

Rome experienced relatively little difficulty in defending her conquests in Egypt. The change of rulers meant little to the people on the local level, especially since the old administration into nomes remained in force until A.D. 307. Military forces, being needed chiefly for border protection against Beja and Nubian incursions, were in time substantially reduced. The Garamantes, or Saharan Jegroes, gave more trouble. Rome found it necessary to occupy Fezzan in 19 B.C. and remained there until the fifth century. Punitive expeditions, such as one into Tibesti in A.D. 100, kept the remoter Tecla at bay. Much harder to cope with was the Berber spirit of independence, the more so since Rome controlled only the coastal fringe of Berber territory. The “barbarians” farther inland made repeated raids into the administered territory. In defense, the Romans erected walls along the border in places lacking natural protection, with watchtowers beyond them and supportive forts, camps, and military roads behind them, and induced ,·ererans and trustworthy natives to settle on the frontier by gi,·ing them free land in return for the obligation of military service in support of the regular occupying forces.
The trans-Saharan caravan trade continued to flourish, with a new element added in the importation of wild animals for public spectacles at Rome. Curiously enough, however, we have no record from Greco-Roman times of Europeans actually visiting the Sudan as traders, explorers, or tourists. Italian settlers brought Latin to Africa, where it became established as the official language. Punic, however, did not completely disappear until the fifth century, and even the early Christian bishops in Africa had to leam it for their missionary endeavors. Acculturation proceeded apace, especially in former Carthaginian territory, and the province of Africa even produced such eminent Romam as Apulcius, Augustine, and Tertullian.
We shall not describe the culture and social institutions of Greco-Roman North Africa, for they actually belong more properly to European history, and their effects, moreover, they were relatively transitory. Despite economic prosperity, unrest developed and steadily intensified. Through political confiscations land fell increasingly into the hands of the state, of officials, and of private absentee landlords. The peasants, forced progressively into the status of unfree serfs, sought refuge in Christianity and suffered martyrdom, then formed schismatic sects against the official church and suffered persecution. Harsh exaction resulting from the farming out of taxes provoked the Berbers to repeated revolts. In A.D. 429 the Vandals under Genseric, summoned to quell tribal rebellions, took advantage of the opportunity to seize for themselves all the Roman colonies from Morocco to Cyrenaica. They were in turn conquered by Byzantium in 533. In 639, shortly after the death of Mohammed, the Arabs of the Abbassid, or Baghdad, caliphate occupied Egypt, and by the end of the century had seized all the former Roman possessions in North Africa, initiating the conversion of the entire Christian population to Islam. This story, however, must be continued in Chapter 52

Selected Bibliography


Bienvenue dans mon monde d'exploration et de découverte ! Je suis Ingrid Allain, une voyageuse passionnée avec une curiosité insatiable pour la riche tapisserie de la culture africaine. Pour moi, l'Afrique n'est pas juste une destination ; c'est une fascination de toute une vie et une source d'inspiration. Des rythmes vibrants des cercles de tambours d'Afrique de l'Ouest à la perlerie complexe des artisans Maasaï, chaque coin de ce continent détient un trésor de traditions à découvrir. À travers mes écrits, je vise à partager la beauté, la diversité et la résilience des cultures africaines avec le monde. E-mail: [email protected] / Linkedin
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